Highlights (Gita Talk #4): “What is God to You?” & “Dealing with Our Emotions”

Questions about God and about emotional repression have come up repeatedly in Gita Talk #4: Why Is The Gita So Upsetting At First?.

Here are a few highlights, so more people can benefit, and put in their two-cents worth:

What is God to You?

I can see how these texts can be off-putting to some, with the constant references to the Lord and God since Krishna is a main “character”, if you will, in the book. I myself am slightly uncomfortable with this. I was raised Catholic, and currently my beliefs are in limbo as I decide where I really stand. Because of my own uncertainty, I have quite strong reactions to the constant references and I’m not quite sure if I’m going to get more accustomed to that. How do other people feel about this?

Bob Weisenberg
I was raised ultra-traditional Catholic and then married into a Jewish family. So I’ve had lots of experience with various definitions of “God”. Rather than write a lot here, let me just refer you to this page in my eBook: “God” or “Reason” — Is There Really Any Difference? .  And you’ll get a little bit of Yoga history along the way.

I have also had quite a strong reaction to all the “Lord God” references. As a yoga teaching student I wonder if I really need to embrace this fundamentalist religiosity…or can I be true to my own sense of spirituality that is not concerned with God!

Bob Weisenberg
Hi, Mary. I wrote my entire eBook (no cost), Yoga Demystified, with almost no use of the word “God”.  If you feel comfortable with the term God to mean “The Infinite, Unfathomable, Wondrous Life-Force of the Universe”, i.e. the universe itself, then you will feel completely comfortable with Yoga Philosophy. Whenever you see a term for God in the Gita, just convert it instantly into definition above, and you’ll feel quite comfortable with it, I think.

Remarkably, the Gita encompasses and embraces everyone else’s idea of God, too.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Bob – I like this alternate definition of God. When I first read the Gita the teacher who was guiding me through was very careful to offer different alternatives to the word God. Really, that’s one of the earliest experiences I remember of falling in love with yoga – the fact that I was given a choice in how or even if I wanted to relate to The Infinite, was pretty incredible. Most of the spiritual practices I had encountered up to that point really didn’t provide those options.

Bob Weisenberg
I’m with you all the way, Meaghan. And it all starts with the Gita. It is startlingly universal in it’s outlook. And you cannot be universal without allowing for all concepts of God.

Mary, I also struggle with this. I am a yoga teacher in training and most of my life I’ve considered myself an atheist. Lately, instead of defining myself in terms of what I don’t believe, I define myself in terms of what I do believe. I am a naturalist. Naturalism proposes that the natural world is all there is and anything in it is natural. There is nothing beyond it and thus, nothing beyond it (for instance the supernatural) can affect it.

Note that this allows room for many definitions of God, but probably not all of them. It also allows that we don’t know everything about the natural world as well, leaving plenty of room for personal experience to shape our views. Interestingly, it is classified in philosophy as a non-dualist philosophy, in the same group as Tantric philosophy.

Tantrikas see the universe as an expression of the divine that is not separate from the divine, yet they allow we don’t see the whole picture in our current embodied forms. As a naturalist, I see the universe as divine and not separate from anything else that exists. Is there really any significant difference between these two?

Bob Weisenberg
Anything that espouses oneness with the universe is completely in synch with the Gita. That becomes wildly obvious later in the text. Not only that, but the Gita is unequivocally universalist in its outlook, even when the spiritual ideas are not so similar as your own:

However men try to reach me,
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel,
it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

(where the speaker is the The Infinite, Unfathomable, Wondrous Life-Force of the Universe.)

Callah raised a good point about using the word God and Lord and i had the same reaction when i first came to yoga, my teacher would talk about God this and God that and I remember one night thinking to myself if he mentions God again I’m walking out.

This made me think about my view of God and i found it was a very one dimensional Catholic viewpoint, so i stared to explore this and my relationship to the God spoken about in Yoga and it did take some time before i felt that this separation of Catholic God, Yoga God, whatever God you got is the thing that kept me stuck in my thinking about my own spirituality.

Krishna’s statements about no matter who you are, all come to me, and his explanation of who he is helped me understand that there is no difference in Gods all are one.


Dealing with Our Emotions: “Witness” Consciousness

I so can relate w/Michele, when you say “you have no cause to grieve for any being…” that just got to me, I had to read chapter two a few times and then I was ready to bag the whole book. I kept thinking how can I turn off my emotions so easily.

Bob Weisenberg
Dear freesoul. I’m so glad you hit us squarely with this issue: “Is the Gita telling us to turn off all our emotions, to live without passion?”, because I’m sure this is on the minds of many readers. It certainly was on mine the first time I read it.

I believe I can give you an answer that is crystal clear, profound, and readily usable in everyday life. But you be the judge.

The Gita does not, as whole, endorse emotional repression, even though it seems to be doing exactly that here. What the Gita asks us to do is be our human selves completely, feel deeply all our human emotions, but develop the ability to step outside ourselves and calmly witness those emotions in a completely non-judgmental way.

Even though the text right here seems to say otherwise, the situation itself supports this idea. Think about it. Krishna is urging Arjuna to fight a battle to the best of his abilities. Does Krishna think Arjuna can can fight his battle (just make that a metaphor for whatever challenges we face in life) without emotion and passion?

No, of course not. Even though the text isn’t clear on this, the situation is. Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight his battle with all this usual passion, but to be able, at the same time, to rise above it and objectively see that he is also a part of the infinite, unfathomable, wondrous universe, where these emotions hold no sway.

Tell me if this makes sense. And I hope other people will jump into this vital discussion as well. Your question really does go to the heart of the Gita.

Thanks for the great discussion, everyone.  I always reject 2.57 and sentiments like it. “who neither grieves or rejoices if good or bad things happen’.  It conjures up images of Stepford wives, mothers, friends….. fill in the blank.  For me, I prefer – grieve for a moment, rejoice for a moment, then accept it and move on.

Lucky for me “on this path no effort is wasted.. “(2.40). There is hope, yet.

Bob Weisenberg
Agree, Vanita. In the next chapter you’ll read the seemingly contradictory line:

All beings follow their nature.
What good can repression do? (3.33)

2.57 is actually part of a larger idea in Yoga philosophy called “Witness” Consciousness (what I describe above), which means simply the ability to step outside ourselves and watch our emotions non-judgmentally.

But that’s not described fully in 2.57. Obviously the whole idea of being a witness assumes there is something to witness, i.e. that we are still feeling all our human emotions. In 2.57 we have only the witness with no mention of the witnessed! That’s why I put an “E” for “Explain” next to this item in my list.

Does this make sense? Please ask follow-up questions.

i understand your feelings that this can be read as “just feel nothing” but i think Krishna is telling us to not let grief or joy overwhelm us to the point where we forget who we really are. Krishna’s dialogue is continually reminding Arjuna who he is, that he is not only Arjuna but part of the whole universe, this it what i think we can forget so easily when we get caught up in joy grief, pain pleasure etc.

John Morrison
Yes, when one watches their emotions without judging – this is freedom. We can have emotions but engage them with equanimity. We are no longer swept along like a stick in a raging torrent, completely at the mercy of our own discursive thoughts and emotions. Instead we are a boulder within the river, watching the emotions pass around us. The boulder is not emotionless – it is effected by emotions – but it is not at their mercy…

23 replies on “Highlights (Gita Talk #4): “What is God to You?” & “Dealing with Our Emotions””

The Gita is a mystical text. It is to be felt not logically examined. Your intuition guides you to what is relevant to you, indigenously. The text changes. It is both ancient and contemporary. It cannot be compared to any other religion, whose intent is to dominate. The Gita's substance is to liberate.
Your site is appreciated.

Hi, Raehella. I agree with you, if you happening to be practicing the Yoga of Devotion. In that case the whole Gita is like a wordless song that resonates directly in the Spirit, without any intermediary logic.

As I'm sure you're aware, the Gita embraces other types of Yoga too, including the Yoga of Understanding, which, by definition, is about logical examination. I think the Yoga of Selfless Giving and the Yoga of Disciplined Practice also require a certain amount of logical thinking.

That's one of the glories of the Gita. It recognizes different people approach the ultimate truth in different ways.

Thanks for writing. I hope you will come again.

Bob Weisenberg

I feel a sensitivity here with the word "God". I've learned that when that word is said , I replace it with "the universe" and there are no issues. This is the word that was used forever and now that our minds have become more aware of what God can be, some of use still have a sensitivity. We must respect how the Gita was written, as well as other sacred books. I was raised Catholic and now my roots are in living and loving with compassion and understanding that there is and always will be a greater power surrounding us that makes the universe spin, the sun rise and the moon go through its phases. We must also have the knowledge of the culture where the Gita was born. In order to digest, we must eat the food slowly. Om Shanti

Good advice, OmBhavani. At one point it was important to get away from the word "God" altogether, as if I needed clear my mind of all my past associations with the word. Once I did that for awhile and showed myself that the word was not at all necessary, then I found I started to feel quite comfortable with using the word again, if only because it gets cumbersome to alway be writing “The Infinite, Unfathomable, Wondrous Life-Force of the Universe” all the time. I started to say to myself–there really ought to be a word for that! And I realized I already had one.

(In the original Sanskrit, the word is Brahman, which means exactly what we want. There's no equivalent word in English, so many translators just don't translate it and use Brahman. Mitchell decided to use the closest word we have, God, and assume the context will create the proper understanding.)

Bob Weisenberg

I happen to really identify with the Gita's explanation of God! WAY more so than this current watered down version of westernized Christianity….remember, like all good things, even that originated in the east 😉

Over some years of coming into myself, brick-by-brick I have come to build within myself some resonance with the concept of God. Even so, in certain contexts my old aversions to the word can come up… So I feel that I can understand when people come upon that word in the Gita that it can create an obstacle. If didactic old meanings that others gave you, or even forced on you, come up when the G-word comed up, I totally get it because it can or has come up for me, too.

However, I have also dedicated substantial time to spiritual practice, and study and thought to the nature of things over the last several years. And what has changed is that I have experienced my own insight into the subject in a way that I feel totally at peace about the word in the context of the Bhagavad Gita. For me, this “god” is the ground of all being. It is everything. It is everywhere. This “god” is not a particular man or woman or celestial entity. And when I am courageous enough to realize that the world is so much more than I can ever know or control, this sense of connection with what is beyond the sphere of my individuality is a comfort. Or it is awe-inspiring.

I read above this statement that the Gita – "be human selves completely, feel deeply all our human emotions, but develop the ability to step outside ourselves and calmly witness those emotions in a completely non-judgmental way." For me this was a very important point because of course there IS a dichotomy there between the experience of human emotions and the distancing of oneself from those emotions. For me its not a problem in reading the text, one doesn't have to be on one side of the dichotomy or the other (feeling everything or feeling nothing). It's perfectly possible to experience emotions and reactions taking place, and at the same time to maintain a separate awareness, just as you do if you're watching a TV series with some absorption but still aware of yourself as separate from what's going on on the screen. I agree with Sevapuri that I have never seen the Gita as asking that one just feel nothing. The manifestation is there to manifest everything, just for the joy of all potentialities being expressed.

“Don’t think that trust or faith is belief,
it is not. Belief is in the head, disbelief is in the head, trust is in the heart. It has nothing to do with belief or disbelief. Believing or not believing is not a concern at all; you simply love” OSHO

I like that quote, Sarah. It never made any sense to me to construct elaborate mandatory beliefs about things we can never know for sure, like the exact nature of God, for example. That's why I had trouble with Catholicism, even as a kid.

I admire religions that say–You know what's right, you know what love is, you know what will make the world a better place. Just go out and do that. What matters is what you do, not what you believe.

Bob Weisenberg

I think there is a lot of misunderstanding here about the ideas of God and emotions in the Gita, and yoga practice in general. God in Gita can be explained thru bhakti yoga. Indian religion is devotional, and it must be put in that context. On a higher level, ALL gods are Brahman, or the ultimate reality. The goal is to tap into that Source, not your little tiny screwed up world,and mind. Emotions are understood as vritti, which means they are constantly rising and falling. I like the discussion about about the Witness.

There is a huge vast tradition with this belief system, and a lot to learn from it, but you need to tap into that as well.

Mitchell's choice not to use Brahman is somewhat regrettable, but many translations use Lord/God, as well. In the HIndu context, this is never a problem.

Namaste Tat Tvam Asi (You Are THAT).

Hi, Amy.

I know I'm going to get myself into trouble trying to debate a scholar like yourself, but I have read enough versions of the Gita and related commentary to give it a try. What the hell? That's what we're here for!

It would be very helpful if you could explain the misunderstandings you see here about God. I know my description here is consistent with some other scholars and I'm certainly familiar with the rigorous devotional perspective of "The Bhagavad Gita–As It Is" by Prabhupada. Is that the perspective on God you are referring to by the "devotional" context? If so, I'll go on, but first I'll wait to hear from you to make sure I've got the right idea.

For now I'll just say that I'm more drawn to the commentators who emphasize the "multiple path" nature of the Gita, like Graham Schweig (no slouch when it comes to devotion, but also emphasizes jnana (knowledge), karma (selfless action) and meditation), Ekanath Easwaran, Mitchell himself, David Frawley (in "Yoga–The Greater Tradition"), and of course Ram Dass (who's recent book called "Paths to God-Living the Bhagavad Gita" emphasizes the variety of paths to God, of which devotion is only one.)

I agree all gods are Brahman (for new readers–the actual word used in the Sanskrit for what Mitchell calls "God" or "Lord"), which is what I was trying to say above when I wrote "Remarkably, the Gita encompasses and embraces everyone else’s idea of God, too." So I think we're in synch about that. ( I made the same point you do about the decision not to use the word Brahman in another comment that didn't make the highlights.)

Thanks so much for bringing your knowledge and wisdom to our discussion here. We all look forward to learning from you.

Bob Weisenberg

Hi, Amy. I love your response. It is chock-full of wisdom.

Yes, let's definitely revisit Bhakti Yoga when we get to that part of the text. For many this is what Yoga is all about.

For newcomers, Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of Devotion, which emphasizes chanting, mantra, kirtan and all manner of other direct celebratory and emotional connections to God. This is in direct contrast to Jnana Yoga, the Yoga of Understanding (Bhakti's would probably say "excessive noodling") which is what I and a few others prefer.

Later in our reading, the Gita talks about these two and a couple of other types of Yoga in some depth. It's great stuff. You'll love it.

Bob Weisenberg

I appreciate Amy Champ's recognition of yogis being warriors. Although we've already dealt with the concept of war as a metaphor in the Gita, we also have to recognize that our samsaric existence is predicated on us being acquisitive and at times even confrontational! But this is different than aggression–which is motivated by pure ego and in the sole interest of self/tribe/nation.

Repression is the denial of these compulsions which is just another way of being "deluded by gunas," in the parlance of the Gita. Recognition of our desirous nature (the starting point of AA's 12 Steps and Buddhism) isn't something to be denied. When people tell me that they disagree with Buddha's Archimedean Point, I can only chuckle: they've just illustrated the point.

One thing I appreciate about the Gita which is harder to grok within Buddhism is an attitude of "openness." Because there is so much emphasis on moral instruction/preparation as a precursor to bliss within Buddhism, it can seem like a real downer, primarily because many can't get beyond the preparatory steps. Some schools of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan, have found clever ways to refocus emphasis on the blissful and ecstatic without dumping the necessary preparation. Many will recognize this blissful "tantric root" as operative in many forms of Buddhism, Yoga and even some esoteric practices within Christianity, Kabbalah, Sufism and Taoism. I think it correlates to Bob's "infinitely wondrous" concept of the divine in the Gita. Naturally, I'm not addressing the great differences between any of these traditions and practices–I recognize that they are there.

As yogis (I'm including yoginis within this term) most of us have come to realize the openness and wondrousness in our own practice and the positive effects it has. I think it is more helpful to lead people to an understanding of "God," Brahman (or–for the scientifically-minded–"wondrous chance") by simply emphasizing practice and seeing for themselves rather than didactically telling them how it is. In other words, use the poet's dictum: "show, don't tell."

Bob, I think for both of us and probably many here it is an ongoing source of frustration–we all see through our own lenses of practice and predilections when there is actually more agreement than we may initially recognize. I think the Gita is a wonderful tool to explore such "spiritual agreements" as you've already stated in a wonderful and different way!

Comments are closed.