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georgfTraditionally, the five yamas are considered key limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, which are universally applicable. They are deemed foundational and indispensable by virtually all yogic schools.

Not so in contemporary Yoga. Several prominent Yoga teachers are on record as having dismissed the moral disciplines as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Is this a valid perspective? Or are those teachers out for lunch?

My own opinion is that they are not only out for lunch but also are irresponsible. Here is my reason: As I have explained in my book Yoga Morality (2007), which the review media have all but ignored with the notable exception of the Vancouver Sun, our modern civilization is in a moral quagmire that is the equivalent of an economic depression (not merely recession!).

In other words, we are in dire trouble. Our situation is similar to an ocean liner with a broken engine and without a working rudder. Anything goes. We are morally adrift. People pretty much make up their own convenient morality if they have—and often even if they have not—jettisoned the moralism of their theistic religion. They are holding up flash lights to guide the traffic on a stormy sea, with dark thunder clouds overhead and billowing waves beneath.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you noticed that Yoga people, who should know better, behave as if they had no moral compass? What has been your own response to the situation? Are you confused? Please share your thoughts and feelings.

I have seen people flee into religious or secular fundamentalism just to have tentative (if dubious) guidelines. I have seen others avoid moral issues like the plague. Is this compatible with authentic Yoga? I think not. As Yoga practitioners, I suggest, we must face the question of our moral stance in the world. Should we endorse harming in deed, speech, and thought personally and culturally? Lying? Theft? Greed? Sexual exploitation (usually of women and children)? Of course not. But how can we act responsibly? How can we be true to our calling as Yoga practitioners?

How can we behave with moral integrity, and why should we?

This question was foremost in Prince Arjuna’s mind when he found himself on the battlefield. His story is well known from the Bhagavad-Gītā. His royal cousins had deprived him and his four brothers of the kingdom of Hastināpura, which they had inherited from their father Pāndu. The five princes had met all the conditions imposed on them by their hundred “evil” cousins. The time had come to claim back their patrimony, even though this meant war.

Standing in his war chariot and surveying the ranks of the enemy, Arjuna dropped his bow and sat down, disheartened. The opposite lines included many family members, teachers, and respected royal sages, and Arjuna lost his taste for fighting what was lawfully his share of the kingdom.

But Krishna, the enlightened or “divine” teacher, urged him on to do the deed of a warrior. Arjuna had been trained to fight, and he was a superb archer. He was confused and feeling conflicted. On the one hand, he was taught to uphold the moral virtue of nonharming, but the situation demanded his martial intervention. The royal cousins, who had dark hearts and clouded minds, should not be allowed to rule. But could right be gained by might? Could a war truly settle matters?

There is a question about whether the war depicted in the Mahābhārata epic and its Bhagavad-Gītā episode ever happened or whether it is pure allegory. But this question is not really important here. Whether the warring forces were all decimated or not and whether the five royal sons of King Pāndu came to rule or not, the situation is primarily a moral crisis, and it is important that we should understand this and also how we should understand this today.

We know that Arjuna and his armies ended up engaging the enemy and that the five princes won this dreadful, devastating war and ended up ruling the kingdom benignly and justly. But how did Arjuna negotiate the felt dilemma between nonharming and the harm that naturally attends war? Why did Krishna, an incarnation of the Divine, support the war and encourage Arjuna to fight?

As an enlightened teacher, Krishna saw the future as clearly as the present. He knew that Arjuna would win and that the fighting armies would be obliterated to a man. From the perplexing perspective of enlightenment, the unfolding drama of the war never happened. The transcendental Self, the inmost essence of every being, cannot be slain. It was neither born, nor will it therefore die. The transcendental Self is immutable.

This is where Krishna’s gospel of Karma-Yoga—the Yoga of self-transcending action—comes in: Simply do the appropriate deed without looking for reward (the “fruit”) and without having the ego-personality (ahamkāra) involved. Should we then all act like robots? Not at all. Krishna advised Arjuna to be mindful and not merely go on automatic. Going on automatic means that the unconscious will govern our actions, and this is disastrous. But what could be more disastrous than war, an all-out war at that? Would the victor really be the winner?

I’ve explained that Krishna taught Karma-Yoga as the self-transcending way for busy people like Prince Arjuna. We were left with the question: What is appropriate action? I will try to answer it here.

The qualifying adjective “appropriate” is my English paraphrase of the Sanskrit term kārya, which means literally “to be done.” This term is frequently found in association of niyata, which is normally rendered as “allotted” or “necessary,” implying that everyone has obligatory work to do depending on his or her place or role in society. Arjuna had to fight because he was a warrior. Even given India’s hierarchical society, this is only conditionally true. In the Bhagavad-Gītā (18.63), Krishna said to his disciple: “Reflecting on this completely, then do as you wish.”

This is a resounding affirmation of personal free will, which Krishna made despite his earlier (18.61) insistence that he, Krishna as the Divine is “whirling all [these] beings by [His] creative-power (māyā), [as if they were] mounted on a machine.” This statement suggests that beings are involuntarily made to act in certain ways. This is also suggested by some of Krishna’s other remarks. How does this tally with the idea of free will?

Everything in the cosmos (prakriti) happens of its own accord, because everything is driven by karma. Subjectively, however, we appear to be able to choose between one thing and another. This “illusion” is important, because it allows us to grow morally and spiritually. In other words, for us as unenlightened beings, free will is very real. For Krishna, as the Divine (or, as an enlightened being), past and future are eternally present and everything has already happened—a mind-boggling and inexplicable paradox. Thus, Krishna knew in advance that the brave warriors of the Bharata war, with few exceptions, would be slain and that the Pāndavas would be victorious. He therefore had no qualms about recommending to Arjuna that he should fight.

A baker is trained to be a good baker, but he is free to refuse to get up early in the morning to bake. If a baker were to decide to behave like a tailor instead, he would not violate any inviolable law. He would, however, undermine his livelihood. Also, in Hindu India’s traditionalist society, he would break certain caste rules. If taxi drivers wanted to be lawyers, lawyers wanted to be physicians, and physicians wanted to be religious leaders, it is easy to see how a highly stratified society as Hindu India would end up in a state of confusion. But, according to Krishna, everyone is free to choose.

There is such a thing as one’s inner nature (svabhāva), which makes some people excellent sportsmen, others fine merchants, and yet others brilliant intellectuals. We ought to inspect ourselves carefully before we choose one professional path over another. This applies not only to our professional life but to all life situations, as they unfold in front of us. If we are wise, we will choose appropriately.

Hence Krishna (18.47) states: “Better is [one’s] own-law imperfectly [carried out] than another’s law well-performed.” The editors of the Bhagavad-Gītā deemed this utterance important enough to repeat it verbatim at 3.35.

Krishna’s teaching, then, champions neither mere fatalism nor pure free will. Everything depends on one’s viewpoint, which, in turn, depends on one’s state of being and consciousness.

We encounter a similar paradoxical situation when contemplating quantum theory: An electron can present itself either as a particle or as a wave depending on one’s experimental apparatus (that is, the condition of the observer). This finding makes no sense in rational terms, but it is an undeniable experiential fact, which has been verified in thousands of experiments.


This article is republished with the permission of Brenda Feuerstein. Learn more about Georg and Brenda Feuerstein’s teachings here.