Night and Day: Karma and Prema in Bhagavad-gita 2.69
Published on March 29th, 2010 | by Harmonist staff5
In chapter two of the Bhagavad-gita, verse sixty-nine, Sri Krishna says to Arjuna:
ya nisa sarva-bhutanam, tasyam jagarti samyami
yasyam jagrati bhutani sa nisa pasyato muneh
“That which is night for all sentient beings is like day for one whose senses are controlled. That which is the time of awakening for a sentient being is like the night for the introspective sage who sees.”
This verse appears in the last section of chapter two wherein Krishna is answering the questions Arjuna posed in verse 54 as to the nature of the sthita-prajna, the wise sage who is fixed in wisdom. Arjuna wanted to know, “How does such a person sit, and how does he or she walk and talk?” Krishna delineates the symptoms by which one of such steady wisdom can be known beginning in verse 55, and he then speaks this somewhat cryptic verse, appropriately abstruse for the Gita’s Upanisadic format.
The standard meaning of the text centers on the distinction between how the sthita-prajna perceives the world of sense objects and how an ordinary person, who is ignorant to anything other than the world of sense objects, perceives them. We see examples of those in ignorance all around us every day; the advertising industry makes billions of dollars off of that ignorance. Their attachments lie in what they can perceive through the medium of their five senses and so they are constantly pulled in five different directions more or less every minute of every day. With no vacation from such urges it’s no wonder then that they feel splayed out and frantic much of the time. A sad situation, and yet this endless chasing of the ephemeral happiness found in trying to suck the meager juice out of sense objects is daytime for them—the period when they are fully active and awake, attending to all the things that for a lack of knowledge of anything better give their lives meaning: their house, car, boat, clothes, wife, husband, children, et cetera.
By contrast, the sthita-prajna is samyami, sense-controlled, which of course implies that he or she is no longer attached to either the objects of the senses themselves or the idea that happiness can be derived from them. Detachment from the objects of the senses further implies that one must be attached to something else, something superior, since we find later in the Gita (3.5) that a living being cannot remain inactive even for a moment, and further, in 2.59 we find that one who has found a superior taste loses the taste for sense objects and so stands firm in wisdom. It is not that the sage’s mind and senses are inert—to the contrary, they are fully active—they are just turned in a different direction: inward, toward the land of the soul.
Thus the sphere of sensual activity that constitutes the feverish daytime pursuit of the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants is like the darkest night to one who has no interest in it. And conversely, the life of the sage is like dark night for those interested in sense pleasures, because the sage’s lifestyle, owing to its being rooted in detachment, appears highly unpalatable to them. Their very life-breath is wrapped up in acquiring, protecting, or recovering from losing sense objects and therefore they cannot conceive of anyone being happy without doing the same thing. It is simply outside the scope of their experience, and the idea that one would consciously renounce sense pleasure seems like the darkness of night to them. Sensing that there is a psychological death involved in detachment is too challenging and so the idea of such is relegated to the dark closet of the mind.
We know what ordinary people are attached to (sense objects); we also know that the wise sage is unattached to them; we have heard also that a living being cannot remain unattached, so what, then, is the sthita-prajna attached to? Again we will come to an answer by way of contrast. Ordinary person or sage, the mind works the same way in that the mind goes spontaneously to whatever one is attached to. Ordinary people’s minds go spontaneously to what they cherish most in their hearts and the sage does the same. In the context of bhakti, when the mind runs spontaneously to the object of one’s worship that is called asakti (attachment) and is the final stage of sadhana-bhakti, or bhakti in practice. What to speak of the sense enjoyer, unlike the stage of nistha, wherein the devotee consciously brings his or her mind back from sense objects to focus again on the perfect object of love, in asakti one’s mind naturally drifts away from sense objects toward that perfect object of love—Sri Krishna. And if the concerted effort to withdraw the mind from sense objects is like the dead of night to one identified with sense objects, how much more so is this the case when preoccupation with sense indulgence is compared with the devotee who is attached to, and thus identified with, the perfect object of love?
To illustrate this kind of spontaneous attachment there is an old Bengali story about two devotees, one older, one young, out for a walk. Off in the distance they spot a vulture circling in the sky. Suddenly the older devotee begins to dance and shout “Haribol! Haribol!” This behavior perplexes the younger devotee, who asks the older one, “Why is it that upon seeing the vulture, which is preoccupied only with eating dead things, you began to dance and chant ‘Haribol?’ Are you somehow deriving joy from the death of others? This makes no sense to me.” The older devotee replies, “No, it’s not like that. You see, when I saw the vulture my mind went to the burning ghats where the cows are cremated. From the hides of those cows we make heads for the khol (drum), which we then play in kirtana, dancing and singing ‘Haribol.’” From this we can see that detachment from sense pleasure ultimately culminates in the mind going naturally from the darkness of sensual pursuit to the full daylight of the soul.
While asakti is indeed a high stage in the culture of bhakti, the verse under discussion has deeper secrets to share with us if we look in the right places. One such place is the Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila, chapter two. There Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami gives a synopsis of Sriman Mahaprabhu’s Antya-lila in which he describes in brief the extreme emotional states Mahaprabhu underwent in the final twelve years of his manifest lila. On the shore of the ocean in Jagannatha Puri, Mahaprabhu spent those years in the tiny room called the Gambhira where, accompanied by Svarupa Damodara and Raya Ramananda, he would taste Vraja-rasa, in particular the mood of Sri Radha when Uddhava was sent to console the Vrajavasis in Krishna’s long absence. After describing Mahaprabhu’s external symptoms—like his teeth chattering and nearly falling out; his limbs stretching out until only the skin remained in the joints; his limbs contracting within his torso like those of a turtle; perspiring blood; or rubbing his face the stone walls of the Gambhira until it bled. Kaviraja says in verse fifty:
bahye visa-jvala-haya, bhitare anandamaya,
A wonderful characteristic of Krishna prema is that outwardly it looks like the vilest poison, yet inwardly it is of the nature of the highest bliss.
This being the case, we can easily see how those not acquainted with the nature of such love would find such symptoms highly undesirable. Hearing a description of Mahaprabhu’s symptoms one might respond, “This is your goal—to become like that? No, thanks!” Thus the day of Vraja prema would appear like night to the uninformed, and of course if one at the stage of asakti finds the idea of sensual pursuit to be like night then how much more so is this the case for one absorbed in the Vraja lila?
By going to the Vraja lila itself, we can further plumb the depths of this verse. The kind of love possessed by those in dasya, sakhya, and vatsalya rasas for Krishna is called sambandha-rupa, roughly translated as “having the form of a relationship.” Krishna-lila ostensibly goes on within the social structure of varnasrama-dharma, with a clearly defined set of rules as to what to do and what not to do, as well as the types of relationships people may have. To be a servant, parent, or friend is fully sanctioned by the society and raises no eyebrows. The devotees with these types of love can interact with Krishna openly with no fear of negative consequences. Not so for the gopis, whose love is characterized as kama-rupa, or “being of the form of intense desire.” They relate to Krishna as his paramours, leaving husbands of their own to be with him. In Vedic society this type of behavior is not sanctioned and would bring shame and social ruin upon the girl and her family; therefore such behavior cannot go on in the open. The intensity of their desire to serve Krishna affords them a level of intimacy with him that no one else experiences, but it comes with a price: what is day for the rest of the Vrajavasis is the dark night of separation for the gopis. The intensity of their love serves to illustrate that they, the simple village girls of Vraja, are the greatest of sages—the ultimate examples of the sthita-prajna mentioned in the Gita.