I used to study and teach the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali at the New York IYI. Then, about 30 years ago, a new President came to the IYI. She let me know that the Sutras were her most beloved yogic text and that she wished to lead our weekly study group. The gentleman that I am (plus not really having any choice), I gallantly backed away, and looked for another scripture to focus on. That’s when I turned to the other essential sacred text that is central to Sri Swami Satchidanandaji’s Integral Yoga teachings—the Bhagavad Gita. For the past three decades it has been my wonderful companion, guide, and support on the spiritual path.
I recently started working on a translation and commentary of the Bhagavad Gita. This has been a great blessing in my life. Even if my work is never published as a book, this project has truly boosted my spirits and inspired my soul. The editor of the IYTA Newsletter, Arjuna, has asked me to include one sloka from my work in each issue. Here is verse 22 from the second chapter—the Yoga of Wisdom.
“Just as you throw out worn out clothes and eagerly put on new ones,
so the Self discards worn out bodies and puts on others that are new.”
A few years back, someone gave me a Christmas gift of a really high quality towel. I was looking forward to using a towel that was better than any I ever had before. However, I didn’t feel quite right throwing out my old towel; the frugal voice in me said that I should keep using it until it was worn down enough that my conscience approved dumping it in the garbage. It took a while, but finally that great day arrived when I got rid of that really threadbare towel and luxuriated in my new, thick, and wonderful one! When it’s time to throw out my worn out, dilapidated, karmically outdated body, I hope I remember the feeling of finally being free of my old towel.
Sri Krishna is clear about what our priority should be: before it is time to leave the body, we should realize that we are not the body. That is the core of our sadhana. But we are not milk cartons with an expiration date stamped on us. None us know when we will be “outdated.” Children die every day; many people are cut down in the prime of their lives. When Krishna uses the term “worn out” (jirnani), He is not referring to a person’s age or biological condition. A particular body is worn out when it is no longer a suitable form for the next set of experiences that the soul requires.
The conventional understanding is that consciousness is produced in the brain. Since the brain is dependent on the body, when the body goes, the brain and consciousness follow. To anyone committed to this biological model of consciousness (as many scientists are), any statement about existence after death makes no sense. If we’re biological thinking machines, then when the body dies, it’s over— death is the ultimate disaster awaiting us all. Therefore, most of us would rather not think about it; we repress the fear of death so that we can keep functioning without getting overwhelmed by an existential anxiety.
In this verse, Krishna presents a different perspective on death, one that feels a lot less threatening than the biological model. Since the body is only a garment, and one that is bound to deteriorate, why worry about throwing it out, especially since we are going to get to put on “the latest fashion.” Our new clothes will be better suited for the next phase of our evolutionary pilgrimage. Just as I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a suit and tie to bed or my pajamas to work, I want to wear the right “clothes” for my next assignment. I can do my best to keep them clean and in good shape, but I should keep in mind that I am the one wearing the clothes, I am not the clothes themselves.
This doctrine of reincarnation that Krishna is so clearly and simply expressing here is not a minor revision of the conventional “scientific” notions of reality. It is a radical, fundamental shift. It is hard to prove, though, since most of us don’t remember the countless times we have been “born” and have “died.” Swami Venkatesananda: “Reincarnation is a fact only in relation to the physical body. The Self is unborn and undying! The soul is really not reborn (in fact it was never born at all), but when it assumes a new body, we say it is born. The souls incarnating on other planets might assume or obtain physical bodies adapted to the conditions there.”
Swami Asokananda, E-RYT 500, a monk since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, intelligence and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda since the age of nineteen. While he enjoys sharing the practical wisdom of the yogic philosophy (especially the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), he also loves his practice of Hatha Yoga, and is one of our primary instructors for Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Training. He presently serves as president at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City. Before this position, he served as the President of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville® and Integral Yoga® International.
(by Swami Asokananda, from the February, 2010 IYTA Newsletter)
IYTA members purchase your copy of the Bhagavad Gita from Integral Yoga Distribution and received 43% off.