Interview: Yogesvara Dasa (Joshua M. Greene)
Published on June 19th, 2011 | by Harmonist staff9
It is rare to come across a devotee who is not only a kind and dedicated practitioner, but also highly educated and originally thoughtful in his understanding of spirituality. Yogesvara dasa (Joshua M. Greene) is one such devotee. An early student of Srila Prabhupada’s, Yogesvara lived in various ashrams for eleven years and has since worked for the United Nations, directed and produced documentaries, and written two books, one of which is the internationally acclaimed biography of George Harrison, Here Comes the Sun. I was, however, more intrigued by his other book, The Gita Wisdom, an introductory edition of the Bhagavad-gita with a refreshing and reasonable approach. When the chance arose to sit down with Yogesvara before his weekly class at Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City, I grabbed my recorder, curious to hear more of his thoughts on the ancient classic.
Gurunistha dasa: When did you encounter the Bhagavad-gita for the first time, and what was your first impression of it?
Yogesvara dasa: The very first time I encountered the Bhagavad-gita was probably in high school, which would put it around 1966. You were still in your last lifetime then, and it was in a class of Social Studies when we were learning about world cultures. Like a lot of other people, I think my first reaction was “Huh? What?” So that’s not really an encounter, it’s more like a passing reference. I think in the sense that you’re asking, it would have been in September of 1969, when I was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and I met Umapati, who was one of Srila Prabhupada’s first disciples. He spoke French, and he was there to start a temple in Paris. He gave Bhagavad-gita classes in French at the American Center for Students and Artists, which was this kind of beatnik hangout in the Latin Quarter where I used to go after school. That was probably my first encounter, in the sense that you are using that word.
Gd: What about the first impression of the Gita—how did you react to it? Did it make sense to you immediately at the time?
Yd: Well, what you need to bear in mind is that in the 1960’s, perceptions were not quite what they are today. When you ask what my first impression was, I think you have to take it in a larger social context. This was a time of stretching new muscles, a time of young people coming out of the post-war years, growing up not knowing quite what they wanted in life but knowing what they didn’t want in life. What they didn’t want was the world of their parents, nor the world of American military exploitation of third-world nations, and so there was a turn toward the philosophies and practices of peaceful cultures. Buddhism began to make its in-roads back then, with Thich Nhat Hanh and others. There was still a fascination to some extent with the writings of the transcendentalists. It was mostly the hallucinatory aspect of LSD and the spectacle of the 1960’s that guided decisions. So the thing about the Gita that impressed me was the spectacle, the philosophical spectacle. There was this mystery about it, something very ancient, especially in the way that at least Umapati was presenting it—as an eternal wisdom. And there was something very appealing about connecting with that greater mystery, that eternal wisdom, coming down through this text that had been around so long.
Gd: Eventually you began teaching the Gita in your University. You’re a university professor, right? Did you turn those lectures into a book?
Yd: I couldn’t find a simple introduction to the Bhagavad-gita for undergraduates, so it started as a series of handouts. I attempted to migrate the language of the Gita into a more contemporary vocabulary. Then my friend Ramdas at Mandala Publishing saw it and said, “Gee, this would make a good book.” So it was his idea really to transform it into a book.
Gd: The reason behind it (at least originally) was that you didn’t feel like there was a good introductory book?
Yd: The idea was, I remembered my own experiences, going back to your original question about my first encounter with the Gita. I remember thinking, “Gee I really wish I understood what the word self is all about.” When you unpack it, lectures or classes are usually on a particular verse. Taking it as an overall work for example, I found here with people at Jivamukti Yoga Center that it was very helpful to spend four weeks on the Mahabharata. We were screening Peter Brooks’ stage adaptation of the Mahabharata (which is more about Peter Brooks than the Mahabharata), but it was helpful for people to get the context of the Bhagavad-gita in this larger work. Then it was reasonable, or let’s say more understandable, for them as to why a wisdom text that exalts non-violence would end in war.
By understanding the context of the Mahabharata you can see that the Pandavas exhausted every possible alternative. By that I mean the threat of sanctions, compromise, negotiation, mediation, everything. They sent Krishna as a messenger and they said, “Just give us one village each, and keep the kingdom.” You know, they tried everything, but Dhuryodhana was so envious and so proud that war was inevitable. And so understanding that is important, because there are some anomalies in the Bhagavad-gita.
Another anomaly is that some things are treated one way in some verses and another way in other verses. Look at desire, for example. Desire, kama, in some verses is pointed out as the all devouring enemy of humanity, while on the other hand here is Krishna encouraging Arjuna to desire more to fight, to raise his desire up to a point where he would fight when he didn’t want to. The Gita also sometimes presents work in contrasting ways, some favorable, and some unfavorable. And yet the miracle of the Bhagavad-gita is that it provides a context and a justification for staying in the world and working. That never happened before. Culture in India prior to the Bhagavad-gita was such that if you wanted to be a spiritual person you would leave the culture; you would leave society; you would go off in to the woods. Here is Krishna saying, “No, the real sannyasi is one who lights the fire and performs the work. Here is your field of battle.” So it was important to have some kind of introduction that would give people an access point to the text.
Gd: That was actually one of my questions. I was going to ask how you deal with the apparent contradiction of Krishna talking about ahimsa, but then basically saying to kill for God.
Yd: Yes, that is one of the most challenging parts of all, because then you have to ask the question, “Is there such a thing as a holy war?” And of course part of the answer is that we are not soldiers in the military sense. Arjuna was a soldier—his dharma was quite specific. Not everyone is being asked to take up arms and physically attack as their dharma. That may be required for a particular class or for the functioning of society, and that is something that has changed for me over the years. I see no contradiction anymore, as I once did, between being a spiritual person and being prepared.
In the world that we live in now in 2011, and in the kind of yoga culture that we are seeing growing in America, there’s a certain sphere of philosophy that says, “No violence under any circumstances.” You can trace that back to Gandhi and elsewhere, certainly Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation court system, which is predicated on non-violence under any circumstances. I don’t think I can agree with that. Some of it may be my background in Gaudiya Vaishnavism, some of it is that my course of study has been what people would call Hindusim, and the parallel track has been Holocaust history. If we have learned anything from examining the Holocaust period, it’s that those that do nothing stand with the perpetrators, not with the victims. And so I think the definition of ahimsa has changed over the years. In more recent times, by which I mean globalization, the world has really become interconnected, and what we do here affects people halfway around the world. Ahimsa no longer means “non-violence.” Ahimsa is more accurately translated today as non-aggressive participation. That is a critical difference—a critical, critical difference—and it started with the Gita.
Gd: In your edition, you can see it is clearly devotional. Do you emphasize bhakti? You’re basically saying the ultimate goal is bhakti.
Yd: Well Krishna says that, at the end of the 6th chapter, “Of all of yogis, he who abides in me with full faith, worshipping me in devotion, is most intimately united with me and considered best of all.”1 So anyways, it’s his statement.
Gd: But at the same time there is this very tangible tension between jnana and bhakti it seems. Doesn’t it seem like that?
Yd: No, that is a construct of the academics. There is no tension between bhakti and jnana and karma yoga. There is no tension there at all.
Gd: So you would say it is clearly a devotional scripture?
Yd: Not only that, the Bhagavad-gita reconciles bhakti with jnana, karma, raja and kriya yoga. There are probably more than 15 different yogas referenced in the Bhagavad-gita, and they all have a place. The notion that they are sort of boxed in concrete, like “this is jnana-yoga here, and this is karma-yoga here, and here is bhakti over here, and they are all separate realms” is due to the Western habit of needing to categorize things in order to feel good about having understood them. You know, we’ll label subatomic particles and think that we understand the workings of nature. It’s just not true, but that is our way in the West, to label. “These 6 chapters here, these 6 chapters here,” and so on. If you look at the organic flow of the Gita, what you see is the perfection of jnana: bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyate: those who truly have jnana, vasudevah sarvam iti, they understand Vasudeva.2 And the same is true for karma-yoga and others in that these all have a harmonious part in the world of devotion. Devotion without jnana can become sentimental, and in the extreme, fanatical. Jnana without devotion can be dry and speculative. They need each other.
Gd: But doesn’t it seem that they are separate? That you can’t practice jnana and get Vraja bhakti?
Yd: Well there is that quote from Rupa Goswami, “jnana-karmadi anavrtam,”3 I think that’s the verse. It says that ultimate bhakti is devoid of jnana and karma, which means materially motivated knowledge and action. If your purpose in acquiring knowledge is to vault yourself up as a person of wisdom, or if your purpose in working is to reinforce your sense of proprietorship and power and influence, it is egotistical. That subtle state of mind—the intent, the motivation—is what sullies the jnana; it’s not the jnana. Knowledge is neutral. It’s what you make of it. Even in law, intent determines whether something is punishable or rewarded. If you’re a doctor, the same knife that may be causing harm in the hands of a murderer becomes the source of health and cure and good work. So, the knife is neutral, the knowledge is neutral, the action is neutral. What is your intent?
Gd: I am a little unclear on that still, because there is sambandha-jnana that is in relation to the Absolute, Bhagavan. And then there is jnana that is the Brahman side. So if your intention is to find truth but you still go on the Brahman side, wouldn’t you get different results from that? Maybe I am misunderstanding you but it seems like you’re saying that the jnana automatically takes you toward Bhagavan?
Yd: No, no, no. Jnana devoid of the grace of a guru is just jnana. Knowledge of any kind without that touch of grace will just operate in its own sphere. It doesn’t necessarily lead you to a higher realm. The point I think we were discussing was—is bhakti somehow a separate category from jnana and karma? And I don’t see it that way. In fact they are required and they are necessary. Prabhupada has translated bhakti as not devotion, but as devotional service, meaning there is an active component, a karmic component if you will. There’s a doing that is involved: “You love me, what have you done for me lately?” So there has to be an act of volition for bhakti to have any kind of demonstration of reality. It’s not a passive thing, at least not in Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
Gd: I was wondering which editions of the Gita you find most helpful to you for your own study and research? And why do you study other editions?
Yd: Well I have maybe 25 different editions at home. And I guess the most honest answer I can give you is that each edition of the Gita has offered me something. There are environmental editions of the Gita, there are multi-faith editions of the Gita. Catherine Ludvick did a Christian interpretation of the Bhagavad-gita. There are editions of the Gita for business people, ‘700 verses for highly successful CEOs,’ there are editions of the Gita that emphasize the contemplative practices of spiritual life. Not all of the editions do a good job of pointing to Krishna as the ultimate goal—sometimes they will kind of separate out the person Krishna and just work on certain philosophical points. However, there is an anti-Semitic Gita that I wouldn’t recommend, and that is a French edition that goes back to the 18th century. The first French translation by Burnouf was an attempt to show that the Aryan people were really God’s chosen people, and opposed to the Aryans were the Jews. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare writes that the devil interprets scripture to his purpose. You can justify anything with the Bhagavad-gita! There is that killer, Charles Manson, from the 60’s, who sent some of his acolytes out to murder some nursing students. When he was finally caught they asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, ”Because I’ve been reading the Bhagavad-gita, and it says even killing one does not kill because the soul is eternal.” You can justify anything through scripture.
Gd: So you would say that none of the editions really stuck out for you?
Yd: Well I could be politically correct here and tell you that Tripurari Maharaja’s Bhagavad-gita lit up my life, and I wouldn’t be making that up, it’s quite true. I think he did a miraculous job with his edition. It goes deeper into an analysis of the verses than most other editions I have ever read. So all joking aside, it is an extraordinary book that he has done. I do recommend Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita to people, but I always have to issue some disclaimers, always. The first thing I say is, “Bear in mind please that my teacher was born in the 19th Century, and in the writing there are some cultural anomalies that have crept in. So when you come across the passages that make you want to hurl the book across the room, don’t do that. Just note down the page, bring it to class, and we will talk about it.”
Gd: That’s nice. I was really appreciating how you deal with those in your edition. I forget exactly the parts, but it is really nice the way you make it sensible for modern educated people.
Yd: That’s our job. I truly believe that the spiritual imperative today is to find a contemporary vernacular for millennia teachings. Each sphere of human activity, whether it is environment or government or finance or biology or physics or whatever it may be, has a particular vernacular, a vocabulary, and I truly think that for the transcendent quality of creation to make sense to people it must be articulated in a language they appreciate, moving away from some of the anomalies. Like translating karma as sinful activity, for example. That is so historically and politically charged, you know? There are other ways to describe things.
Gd: I guess this is connected to what you just said, but what are the hardest aspects or areas of the Gita for you to explain to modern educated people, to your students?
Yd: That is a really good question. One is where Krishna says, “I am sex,” which is probably the most overlooked verse in the entire Bhagavad-gita. He says, “I am sex that is not opposed to dharma.” And yet here is another one of those anachronisms. On the one hand he says, “Kama is what binds you to this world… I am kama.” So where do you go with that? That is one. Not because it confuses me, but because you walk a thin line when you try to talk about the sexual energy in spiritual life. It is a very emotionally charged issue, and for that reason that part of the Gita is a little difficult.
Gd: It must become harder if the students know something about the Vraja lila, how Krishna runs off with the milk maidens and so on…
Yd: Yes, I don’t hide that in classes. I don’t mind at all describing Krishna as intentionally attempting to seduce us, draw out hearts by showing himself as playful and loving, so I think it is a mistake to not talk about Krishna the person. But there are things that are extraordinarily difficult, and that is one. Another is where Krishna describes, “There is no truth superior to me.” I mean, describing that is akin to…and expecting people who have grown up in other faith cultures to accept it is like a Christian trying to sidestep Jesus’ teaching that no one comes to the father but through Him. How do you do that? We’ll just put that aside, for the sake of ecumenism? I don’t think so. So that’s challenging sometimes. I do lose a few people each year when I start talking about how the Bhagavad-gita is ultimately about abandoning ourselves to Krishna the person, you know? And then the hand goes up and it’s…”Dude, I just came here for a stretch…or something”, and they are out the door, “It’s like a little too religious for me.”
Gd: That’s what I was wondering. You teach at a yoga studio and a lot of yoga studios don’t have that kind of devotional… it is a different approach.
Yd: There are like three to four hundred people who come through these doors here at Jivamukti everyday. From the first day these people have walked into a yoga studio, whether it was here or some other yoga studio, what they’ve heard is that when you practice yoga, you reach a point where your ego drops away and you merge into the totality of everything. That is what they’ve heard. They may not understand what is meant by that, but that is what they’ve heard and you don’t want to fight that. First of all, because most of the people I know in yoga schools, they are not hard line philosophy on anything. That is what they’ve heard so that is what they accept. So usually the way I deal with that is by saying, “That’s nice but it’s not the whole picture.” There is another whole half to the picture, which forms a very complimentary image of what the spiritual universe is all about. And that other half is “Yes you are one with everything, you’re by nature Brahman, but you don’t have to do anything to earn that, you’ve got that. That is already who you are, that is not going to change.” What you have to work on is this…it’s the broken heart that we are all walking around with, and what is that broken heart? That broken heart is that I’ve wanted love all my life, I’ve tried to give love. And every time, my heart has been broken. So why should I give my heart to Krishna? And why do we want that love? We want that love because this Brahman that we keep talking about becoming one with is personal. You’re a person; you’re an individual, not just within this body, but eternally. Who is it that wants to merge with the Brahman? Who is saying, “That is what I want?” Who is the I there? So that’s the beauty of the other half of the picture, that in oneness there is diversity. The oneness with the divine is oneness of interest, of love, of purpose, of nature, of quality, but we are separate individuals in order for love to take place. There needs to be two for love to happen. So that’s cool, they use that. So it’s not “Grrr, mayavadi!” It is more complimentary.
Gd: That’s nice. So if I am understanding you right, you are saying that just like the Gita says, there is no need to convert anybody? You just give the whole picture and see what people want to take and leave them with that?
Yd: Yes, that is a fairly accurate way of describing it. People come to class for different reasons. We have some people who have been coming for 5 years to these classes. And they will never go to a temple, some of them. You know they will never live as full time devotees in a temple environment, (and it doesn’t really matter). You know some of them have become so dedicated to chanting and to study and to integrating the Bhagavad-gita into their life. They are doing wonderful things, which is why earlier I was asking you—how do you define a devotee? I think there is a maturation that has occurred over the years, where it is no longer we and they. It’s more we, together, in here.
I like to describe the shift now as this: the first generation of Vaishnavas of the West insisted on owning the table—it’s our table and we are inviting you to sit at it, but it’s our table. Maybe we appreciate now that it is an honor to be invited to have a chair at the table, and to be part of a dialogue.
Gd: I asked you what the hardest things or hardest aspects to explain were, and so what are the topics or aspects that resonate the most with your students? What do you get the most reciprocation from?
Yd: Well, they like the jokes. I promise them a new joke every class. I don’t know whether I make good on that promise, but the jokes are really bad and they love that. If not every class, then every other class I tell them, “This is Bhagavad-gita. Two things: one, the story is deeper than it seems, and two, you can do more than you know.” That is all of Bhagavad-gita for me. Whatever it is, do not judge the circumstances and events of your life on the surface. There’s so much more going on there, the story is so much deeper than it seems. And what you can do is far greater than what you think yourself capable of doing.
Gd: So a sense of self-empowerment seems to be the biggest theme that they get out of it?
Yd: I’m not sure I ever use the phrase self-empowerment. I think what they appreciate is that we go inside the experiences of our lives. You know, people talk about what is important to them. Philosophy only gets you so far. Really what people connect with is if they are with someone they like and if you create an environment that is safe for people to speak openly about the things that are important to them. That’s when the magic happens. It’s not us sitting up here pontificating. The less I talk, the better it is.
Gd: Last question: I want to hear what your favorite section of the Gita is. What is your favorite verse? It probably changes in time, but what is it right now?
Yd: Oh I think you said the right thing. Bhagavad-gita is…our appreciation of the Gita changes as we grow. If you go to a museum and you look at Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie or Picasso’s Guernica, and I remember going to museums in my teens and loving the surrealists and the abstracts, it was like, “That’s cool.” It was like a trip. But I hadn’t lived, so through what lens was my appreciation being filtered? Now I look at those paintings with greater retrospect and a little more knowledge of the history there, and I can understand the suffering that went on, the significance of the work at the particular time in history, what that represented, why it was so important. So the appreciation is so much deeper, and the same is true with Bhagavad-gita. I remember learning verses when I was 20 years old—2.14 matra-sparsas tu kaunteya sitosna-sukha-duhkha-dah agamapayino ‘nityas tams titiksasva bharata. You learn the verse, you feel good just about learning the verse, you know? Then the disappearance of pleasure and pain…what do you know about pleasure and pain? When I was 20, pleasure meant sex and food, and that was it, you know? It’s so much deeper. What Krishna is referring to is so sophisticated and nuanced. So you’re right, my favorite verse…I don’t know, my favorite verse today in the Bhagavad-gita, I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t know if I have a favorite verse. Bhagavad-gita for me is this miraculous text that sometimes if I don’t know where I’m going I’ll just open it up and wherever my eyes land ends up usually having something to help me out. It’s so profound and so beautiful, I’m hard pressed to give you a favorite verse. I’m not sure I can do that.
Gd: What about just a section?
Yd: The middle! (laughter) No, I would say the end of the eighteenth chapter. And this is why. Things get really wild by the end of the eighteenth chapter. Here’s Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita totally traumatized—he is in a catatonic state of inaction. He’s had a meltdown. Here is Krishna, the ideal therapist, kind of talking him down. In therapy if you’re dealing with someone who is in the thralls of hysterics, the first thing is to just calm them down, and you do that by what physiologists call…it’s basically defusing or unplugging the hysteria by talking about mundane things, basic things. You know… “You’re alright, when is the last time you saw…” Not ignoring the hysteria, but turning the attention elsewhere.
So here is Krishna in the beginning saying to Arjuna, “Who are we again? Are we the body?” It’s almost just kind of elementary, the ABC’s of chapter two. Very, very ABC, and “You know if you fight this thing you go to heaven, you get all kinds of cool stuff.” So it’s this very elementary almost talking down, to the point where he can get into deeper subjects. Then it takes Krishna until the fourth chapter to refer to himself for the first time, where he says, “By meditating on me.” Now little by little he is leading him back, so by the time you get to maybe the eighth or ninth chapter, Arjuna is sufficiently calmed down, so that Krishna can say, “Ok, now I want to give you some really deep knowledge, I’m going to really give you some great stuff.” And they go deeper and deeper and deeper, until you’ve got the eleventh chapter.
The eleventh chapter is where the academics will tell you that Arjuna has his turn around. Arjuna has his turn around chapters before! He was already prepared to change his mind. The eleventh chapter is not the turning point for Arjuna—if anything the eleventh chapter is a reinforcement of Arjuna’s love for Krishna by his saying, “This is not the way I want to see you.” It is almost like Radharani, as depicted in Srimad-Bhagavatam, on the battlefield of Kuruksetra saying, “I can’t bear to see you in this dress. I love you as you are naturally, back home, can you come home?” And Arjuna is saying, “Please come back to me as I know you,” with this wistful yearning that is really quite beautiful. And then this total flip at the beginning of the twelfth chapter.
But by the time they get to the eighteenth chapter, the momentum is building, the battle is going to happen now, and they are totally oblivious to everything else going on. Could you imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers like, “What’s going on here? They are talking, talking, talking, these two—they are just completely oblivious to everything at this point.” And Krishna is saying, “Now look, I want you to eat right, don’t sleep too much, don’t sleep too little, keep regulated…” So they are talking about diet in the eighteenth chapter, and he says, “Now if you are going to give in charity…” and it’s like “What does charity have to do with anything!? They are about to fight this incredible battle!” And so Arjuna says, “Okay I think I get this, I’m ready, I’m ready now, I’ve got my focus again.” And Krishna says, “Really? Do you really? Have you got it?” It’s almost a humorous little phrase there at the end of the eighteenth chapter—“I’ve been talking to you for 3 hours, have you heard me?“ And it is wonderful. And of course Sanjaya, the Greek chorus, comes in saying, “Oh, my god! What I’ve just seen, I’m in ecstasy!” Then he says it four times, “I’m in ecstasy, I’m in ecstasy, I’m in ecstasy!” So the eighteenth chapter is this hugely energized moment.
Do you know who Knute Rockne was? He was the guy who brought Notre Dame to become league champions. He was the coach, and he used to give these rally talks to the football players. So you’ve got Krishna giving Arjuna a Knute Rockne-type talk, and that momentum is building. So in that chapter you’re ready to fall off your chair, it’s so exciting. So maybe that section for that reason.
Gd: Thank you so much. This has been very nice.