Living in Kali Yuga — Part 3: Karma Yoga

“We must play our part on the stage of life, but without identifying with those parts.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

I was recently called a fascist for sharing the above quotation. It was pretty puzzling to me at first, but on consideration, I can understand why the person misunderstood my intent. They had asked for insight from others as to how one could live a spiritual life with anger. This issue cuts close to the bone for me, so I shared the quotation as an indication of my own strategy.

If you are interested in Yoga, you probably immediately recognized Sri Ramana Maharshi’s words as a formulation of the essence of Karma-Yoga. Karma-Yoga, the Yoga of action, is a method of using daily life as part of one’s practice by renouncing purely worldly opinions of your duties and fulfilling your dharma without expectation of reward; rather, doing your duty willingly and with an attitude of renunciation is willingly allowing God to act through you.

The hostile confusion of the individual mentioned above comes from a misunderstanding of the idea of duty — of playing our parts. It is, so to say, a confusion of planes. Svadharma, one’s own law, is the law one must discover and fulfill for oneself. This is a spiritual responsibility, so svadharma must not be confused with purely social or political duty. If we think in purely political terms, we could read Ramana Maharshi’s statement as saying that we have to do what the government tells us without asking too many questions. But that’s not the context in which the Maharshi was speaking. While he rarely made any explicitly political statements, Ramana Maharshi was in favor of Indian independence and gave his blessing to those working toward that end. Clearly, his notion of the parts we play — and the yogic notion more broadly — was not limited to those accepted by worldly powers.

“Man, eager to improve his machines, forgets to improve himself,” wrote Paul Brunton in his The Secret Path. Machines take many forms. Socio-political thinkers as diverse as Ernst Jünger, Herbert Marcuse, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and E. F. Schumacher have all spilled ink demonstrating how mechanical international capitalism is; our social, political, and economic systems are themselves machines. Machines are meant to be useful, and so require maintenance, repair, even replacement, in order to continue or improve their usefulness. But, as Brunton points out, if we focus entirely on our creations — at whatever scale — we may fail to look at ourselves, the source and support of those creations. Spirituality is the pivot point; Yoga is turning inward.

Astrologically, we can see part of the difficulty. Mars’s only natural enemy is Mercury. That is to say, Mercury is the only planet which naturally has an inimical influence upon Mars in an astrological reading; other planets may harm Mars circumstantially, but Mercury will do so any time he interacts with Mars. (This is not two-way; Mars has a neutral influence on Mercury.) Mercury — himself ruling the element of earth — is presided over by Lord Vishnu, representing the fact that all things, at all scales, are manifestations of God and specifically our ability to realize this fact. Mars rules the fire element and is presided over by Lord Karttikeya; Karttikeya’s rulership represents the will necessary to cut out what stands in the way of our growth. That is, Mars is associated with the process of purification.

There’s an apparent contradiction between these two functions which is where the problem lies. Mercury points toward a nondual experience of life in the universe, while Mars seems to be quite dualistic and moralistic. Through the faculty of Mars we have the courage and the discipline to slash and burn what doesn’t serve us. But if there are things which we can say are “impure” and a resulting effort toward “purity”, doesn’t that imply either the inherent dualism of the world or that this very moral quest is flawed and should be abandoned to achieve a nondual perspective?

You can see why Mercury would throw Mars off his game. Mars displays anger as he destroys obstacles — which can sometimes take the form of other living beings. If we are living primarily from the perspective of Mercury, we will try instead to talk our way out of all potential conflicts because if everyone is God there’s no point in fighting. You can very often tell a person who’s Mars is under heavy Mercury influence (either conjunction or a direct aspect) when the person lacks the courage of their convictions. Such a person may make strong points or take strident positions, but will have trouble standing up to those who actively threaten them or who and what they really value. Though it may look like it from the outside, this isn’t really cowardice so much as it is a genuine desire to avoid conflict; they will try to bring people together, and if that is not possible they will wearily retreat.

But as implied, the conflict between nondual experience and righteousness is only apparent; it becomes a problem for us, individually and as societies, when we fail to enact each one in its proper place and time. True purity doesn’t see “impure” things as inherently impure, only situationally so. A need to protect one’s people can manifest as bravery in a healthy instance or as bigotry and xenophobia in an unhealthy one. The question is one of deeper motive. Is the individual fully under the sway of the kleshas and of resultant social conditioning, or are they responding more freely to the facts around them? Here is part of the trouble which faced Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita and from which Krishna (himself an avatar of Lord Vishnu) had to extricate him. Krishna’s lesson? A proper understanding of nonduality! We may feel anger in the face of real or perceived wrong-doing, or we may wish to avoid fighting altogether because we do not wish to harm our human family, but when it comes down to it we need to see through our merely personal preferences to determine what is really needful in the situation and, once we see it at all clearly, to commit to do our duty. This doesn’t mean that we will never make mistakes, but it does make it easier for us to see the way forward and to change our minds if we find we’ve been going in the wrong direction. Arjuna himself was conflicted between his desire to avoid doing harm to his cousins and the knowledge that they had done, and continued to do, grievous wrong. The lesson of Bhagavad Gita is that what Krishna taught Arjuna, we also can learn. We should neither hunger for the fight nor to run from it if it should become necessary. As Mahatma Gandhi so bluntly put it, “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

But we also have to pay attention. Mars rules the ego — the sum of our character and self-identification, conscious and unconscious — while Mercury can grant self-knowledge. Here’s another area of potential conflict with these planets. It is thus easy to fall into various traps of believing that we are “doing the right thing” when just below the surface we are motivated not by nondual awareness or compassion but by mortal terror or existential dread. The flip side of Mercury’s overthinking is unreflective commitment to duties imposed upon us by our anxieties and those who would exacerbate them to achieve their own ends.

The two problems here explored are over-identification with our role in the world (Mars) and “spiritual bypassing” of our responsibilities (Mercury).

Let us accept and use wisely all the facts which modern science has found out. Let us live in enjoyment of all the comforts and conveniences its progress can bestow. Let us renounce nothing but the unwise and destructive use we have often put it to, the unbalanced attention we have given it.

But let us also link this external social activity with a deeper life, the life of tranquil thought and inner peace, and thus learn to preserve an unruffled stillness of spirit even amid varied vicissitudes of existence.

[…]

Then we shall attack the world’s problems of poverty, war, disease and ignorance with a new zest, and with better success, yet we shall not forget to render our daily homage to that peace-bestowing and soul-ennobling divinity who dwells in the hearts of men.

Paul Brunton, The Secret Path

Though we may learn from others, nobody can tell us where to find this particular balance in our own lives. Many will try, demanding that we follow them — in whichever direction. But svadharma can neither be dictated from without nor arbitrarily chosen according to convenience. When God seems to agree with our own prejudices or the prejudices of those who would demand something of us it is necessary to ask whose voice we’re really hearing.

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