From a student
“The Gita Class” and the Heart of Study
[This talk was given during 15th Annual International Theosophy Conference held in August 2013 in New York. The theme title of the conference was “How to Awaken Compassion? - H. P. Blavatsky and the Eternal Secret Doctrine”.]
The students at the Wednesday afternoon Bhagavad-Gita Class at the United Lodge of Theosophists (ULT) in Los Angeles are links in a long chain. Started over 85 years ago, in this class there are no experts, authorities or leaders - only fellow students who consider the text together. How does this work? What is its value? Welcome to the Gita Class!
We meet every Wednesday, all year long. We start reading the Gita in October, and end (not that we ever “end”) in late May or early June, when we turn to other works to maintain the energy of the meeting cycle through the summer months. In the fall, we return again to the Gita with a brief overview of the Mahabharata, stressing that each character in the epic is a facet of the human heart; nothing is alien, all is a lesson and a progression in the soul’s journey. (And, sometimes … just to break the “narrative” of the personal perspective, and to brush away any cobwebs of expectation, we begin the annual consideration by starting with Chapter Eighteen instead of Chapter One.)
While there are no set rules, there are patterns, lines of work, and texts: we read aloud and then question and wonder together, using the rendition of the Gita by W. Q. Judge, and the accompanying Notes on the Gita. The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy, and The Theosophical Glossary also are available as supplementary material. Each session begins with reading and discussing the “Declaration” of ULT, followed by a statement from a student volunteer of the “Three Fundamental Principles” of theo-sophia.
The foundation provided by text-based classes frees us from personal bias and opinion, on any sort of attainment or lack of attainment. If there is a disagreement, the chair person can simply say, “Let’s go back to the text; let’s figure out what this book actually says.” And that’s the strength of studying together. “I know what I think, I’m tired of what I think; I want to hear what all of you, as fellow students, have encountered when you read the text.”
In one of his letters, William Q. Judge talks about the “mental groove” of the inner railroad track of the personal mind. He asks, “How do we get off our track and develop in ourselves the ability to understand the track that everyone else is running on?” We do that in a study class, as we hear the response, the tone, the thinking of fellow students. Any study class worth its salt will develop in us a depth of understanding of what our fellow students are, where they are coming from.
How do we learn by opening up our hearts to the skandhas of each of our fellow students as we go on our spiritual journey? How do we develop a class that fosters the togetherness of all of us and the ability of each of us to learn to listen and then to care? If we really hear our fellow students, then compassion and caring is automatic. The gift of being human is that we can suddenly understand the pain, the joy, and the path of our fellow humans. And when we look at what we call aberration in humanity, however we label it, in whatever culture, that’s when we cannot see the pain in the other and when we have gone away from the great gift of humanness in us all.
This radical nature of theo-sophia often attracts radical thinkers. And, it may happen that the children of these iconoclasts themselves need to rebel by turning to many paths and byways. If you have been raised in Theosophy, what does that mean? It means you are dragged to classes you don’t understand; it means you have to hear things over and over again; it means you see a lot of old people. And you do what every young person worth their salt has to do: you go out into the world and seek your fortune, just as in all the fairy tales in all the countries of the world. You have to go away. And when you go away, you find all sorts of extraordinary things. You find all sorts of teachings, all sorts of people, but if you are incredibly lucky, you never forget the tone you heard as a child. It can’t be described, but like all true tones, once it is heard it never is forgotten.
And when, having done everything and studied everything, when all external markers and duties have ended, you say, “Somewhere there still may be people who also heard that original tone, and are studying the way I remember.” And so you return. But – as Rip Van Winkle and others found out – while we are away, everything changes. However, while everyone you knew is gone, the magic old ladies you would give anything to talk to now that you are an old lady too are still there, the books are being studied, people are talking about the ideas, the meaning, what always lasts. The work at ULT, for many years, was maintained by volunteers and, for those of you who are familiar with volunteerism in the United States, those volunteers who maintained churches, school, nonprofits were women who were not - as the euphemism goes – employed outside the home. That has changed now. But for many, many years, the Bhagavad Gita class on Wednesday afternoon was seen, unconsciously perhaps but still seen, as the old ladies’ class. And as the old ladies’ class it was not seen as something that was really cutting edge, not seen as where the dynamic history of the Theosophical movement was going.
So, as the years went by and the old lady volunteers are no longer with us, if you were to join us in LA at one o’clock on Wednesday afternoons, what you would now find, to be blunt about it, are fellow-students who are able to “be there” when the rest of the world is at work: those who are unemployed, retired, ill, homeless, or simply truly devoted students with open minds and hearts who are able to step out of the jog trot of the daily into a new vision of possibilities – the Gita class.
Of course, all the years you were away from active class participation, you “studied”. (It was really “dabbling,” but how could you know?) You dabbled in the Gita, and you thought you “read” The Secret Doctrine. You even impressed yourself with all you knew! So you arrive in a class where there are other students who have been studying for a while, and you realize that you don’t know anything at all. How refreshing! You discover that when we study alone, we focus on what we like; on what’s congenial to our own personality. We don’t study anything we are not interested in, so we easily can miss huge chunks of different, unsettling ideas. Startled and humbled, you also experience a great relief as you realize that, while you have been studying what your personality liked, this great teaching actually is about what happens when your personal nature says, “I’m so tired. I just have to rest for a bit,” thus allowing the Real Mind and Heart – our Krishna nature – to be heard through the new silence.
And that’s just what happens in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna says “I can’t go on, I’m so depressed, I can’t fight, can’t do anything.” And, because he has had the foresight and the great inner intuition that he will need something different at some point, he has chosen as his charioteer Krishna, who we know is actually his own Inner Nature. In the dialogue that follows, all Arjuna does in the beginning is complain, just as all we do when we are forced to see something new. We mutter, “I don’t get it, it’s contradictory, why are they boring me like this.” And, if we are lucky enough to be in a class with students of diverse minds and experiences, we watch their personal responses as well as our own, and we see that that’s what the personality does, that’s what it’s supposed to do, until our Heart and Mind step in and soothingly say, “It’s all OK. Just rest, listen, and consider another perspective.”
So, if we persevere, keep on studying together, being jolted, reexamining, reconsidering, we find that there is a marvelous shift in the Gita, about halfway through, where Krishna very gently and very firmly has gotten the personality to be quiet, to calm down. (“Unto ye who findeth no faul ...”) And that’s where the real Gita begins.
Yet when we begin studying, still craving structure and comfort, we often focus on Chapter Two. When our parents die, we read “Thou grievest for those who may not be lamented,” and we are assured that everything comes to an end and we feel comforted, as we should. But if we focus only on what the personal nature gets from the Gita, we miss the whole point of the extraordinary transformation that takes place in the last third of the book. Here, as spirit and matter coalesce into the true Self, that unknowable, vast, unspeakable essence that is Reality manifests in the text. And, in our class experience, when we truly learn to listen to different views, understand different temperaments and karmic inheritances, we open up as a whole, not as individuals seeking outside ourselves, but as souls on parallel journeys of heart and mind.
When we look at human beings as seven-fold states of consciousness and matter, we are able to shift our consciousness from our basest to what we might call our highest at any moment. What causes us to do that? The mother who hears the child cry; the soldier who suddenly says I don’t want to harm my enemy; the physician who stops the flow of blood. However we do that, whatever brings us to that point opens up parts of ourselves that have been hidden from us.
As we learn to navigate through the texts, to correlate and consider, we recognize the extraordinary number of references to the Gita throughout, and we may understand what it might have meant to students in 1890 when the text became easily accessible. To minds used to Western monotheism and private, individual salvation, the Gita brought a connection between the two halves of the world - the Western mind and the Eastern mind - a great link, so that we would be what we truly are, one world. Now, of course, you can go into any bookstore or you can go online and find almost any text from every teaching. Yet the value of the Gita remains, for despite all the arguments, all the different languages, all the different approaches, we are still all on the same journey, and we are all One.
Look around. Look at all the different people, all the outside, look at yourself: constant change, constant illusion (not in the sense that it’s not real on the physical plane) but we are sevenfold beings. We are that unnamable, unknowable essence, we are that essence as it starts working and manifesting; we are the desire nature that keeps everything going on this plane; and we are both the astral plane and the physical plane. We have to be all this to function as spiritual and material beings in manifestation. That’s what the Gita really says: welcome to the Gita class.