Human crisis and Covid-19. How can Yoga Philosophy help.
By Alba Rodriguez Juan, M.A.
Current times are challenging for most of us. The widespread of Covid-19 around the globe has put humanity on trial. It has taken us to the present moment, here and now. This can be scary, especially for those who find hard to deal with uncertainty and are used to planning and doing. What to do when the world seems to break down apart and feelings of despair and sorrow arise?
Yoga literature works have shown numerous examples of human beings who find themselves in challenging situations and have offered transformative ways to surpass them. During the following lines, two texts in the Yoga tradition that offer light in this direction will be explored: the Bhagavad Gita (BG) and the Yoga Vasiṣṭha (YV). The aim is to obtain an understanding of their most important messages regarding a human crisis. Whether you consider yourself to be in a crisis right now or not, if some insight can be obtained about this crucial question in life, it will be worth it.
First, let’s briefly summarize some formal aspects of both texts. The BG emerged from post-Vedic India, around 4th century BCE, and the YV was composed later, between 1150 and 1250 CE. However, the most ancient parts of the YV are more ancient and therefore, these two texts might not be that much apart in history. The earliest trace of the Vasiṣṭhan philosophy is found in the sixth chapter, when Brahmā imparts to Vasiṣṭha that human effort can be used for self-betterment and that there is no such a thing as an external fate imposed by the gods. Very interesting point, isn’t it?
Both the BG and the YV have been recognized as leading texts in Hinduism. Nonetheless, whilst the BG is one of the most studied and translated texts in the history of world literature, the YV is not so broadly known. The BG is included in the sixth book of the Mahābhārata and, with 700 verses, documents only one tiny event in this epic tale. On the other hand, the complete YV contains over 29.000 verses and in full translation fills several volumes.
Regarding the format, the BG is written as a dialogue between their two main characters (Krisna and Arjuna). It is a dialogue that happens in the battlefield, just before the beginning of a war, narrated by Saṃjaya (the minister of the king) to the king, as an external observer of what is happening. The YV consists of a compilation of over 50 stories that the sage Vasiṣṭha tells to Rāma. It also takes the form of a dialogue between these two main characters.
Both narratives start with an individual in despair who wants to overcome his negative state and situation and takes the first step with a quest for help. Arjuna is a warrior who faces the torment of killing his relatives and friends or allowing himself to be killed in the battlefield. He is overwhelmed by his emotions, thoughts and feelings just before the battle starts, and supplicates Krishna for advice.
Similarly, Rāma is also a warrior afflicted by confusion. He laments that no pleasure is to be found in the world and is disgusted with the prospect of continuing with his worldly duties. This brings him to ask the sage Vasiṣṭha for guidance. Although the war context in the BG might depict a more dramatic situation, this is not the case. In fact, there is no agreement if the war actually happened, which leaves open the possibility that the battlefield is just a metaphor referring to inner conflicts and doubts.
Regardless if the war is external, internal or both, it has been suggested that the dialogue between Arjuna and Kṛṣna is not primarily about fighting in a battlefield, but rather about what a person needs to know when engaging in any kind of action. Arjuna’s crisis is a radical crisis about a human life which has lost its foundation. De Nicolas claims “it is a life in mind air, surrounded by the anguish of a space which has no solid hold on any ground; it is also an anguish of time because one feels threatened with the extinction of one’s own identity, of no longer being the one believed oneself to be”.
The starting point in both narratives is characterized by total chaos and negativity. It is a mixture of emotions, feelings, thoughts and sensations that leave one paralyzed and might end in a state of helplessness if not properly addressed. During the life of any human being, moments like this can occur.
A global pandemic such us the Covid-19 might increase the possibility, especially when it is unsuccessfully handle by those who seem to be “in charge”. The energies of fear and despair are easily contagious. The media usually makes things worse with constant news charged with negativity. This increases the widespread fear which feeds the negativity and so on. A scared population is much easier to control than a serene and reflective one.
You do not need to be a meditator or a yogi to realize that, but if you do are, can you bring to mind, for example, a time when fear or sadness came into the practice and seem unbearable? Wise teachers from different times and traditions have talked about how uncomfortable this situation can be but, at the same time, how much wisdom can arise by holding these energies without “getting trapped in them”.
It is not about becoming a stone that does not feel, it is about creating space within one’s heart and perspective within one’s mind. For perspective to be gained, reflection and philosophy are necessary. So the question that arises is: are we humans reflecting enough and properly about Covid-19?
When reflecting, other questions can easily arise and some can touch our most inner core. What is the purpose of life? Who am I? How can I get rid of suffering? Which is the way to follow? How should I behave? Which is the first step to get over this? Etc. I think the formulation of such kind of questions is an indication of our most ultimate need for developing inner potentialities and becoming fulfilled. In this sense, a crisis might be seen as the first step in a journey of self-discovery and should not be considered a problem or an obstacle. It is just part of the trip and an opportunity to grow and become transformed.
In a more macrocosmic level, chaos is also part of the existence. The ancient Vedic literature referred to it as āsat. After all, human beings are part of this universe and therefore, submitted and formed by the same principles that govern it. Taking this perspective into account, embracing crisis seems the only option for any person who sees himself in the skin of Arjuna or Rāma. But, how to proceed in this task to be successful? What can we learn about human crisis from the BG and the YV? Can this serve us during this Covid-19 times?
First aspect we encounter is attitude. One should be open and receptive, as this reduces bias from limiting stereotypes and prejudices. Similarly, any person who really wants to overcome a profound crisis needs to have this predisposition. Both Arjuna and Rāma did. It is also paramount to consider the actual circumstance of a particular individual. As Ortega y Gaset says, “I am myself and my circumstance”. Profound crisis can be triggered due to many different factors, and contextual ones might be very relevant in some cases, such as the present moment with Covid-19.
It is a fact that we cannot be separated from our context. We are in constant relationship with whatever is happening around us. Our global context now looks similar, however our most immediate context differs. I recently read a sentence that summarizes this in the following way: “We are not in the same boat, but we are in the same sea, some on a yacht, others on a boat, some on life jackets and others swimming with all their might”. Even if you are in a yacht now (and you probably are because you have internet access and are reading this, so I am assuming you are a very fortunate person) this will not save you from an inner storm. So you can keep on reading…..
What Arjuna and Rāma first do when they see themselves and their circumstances falling apart, is to ask for guidance. Both characters show certain awareness of their mental and emotional instability, they recognize how difficult to keep a balance mind is. Arjuna claims “The mind, indeed, is unstable, Krishna, turbulent, powerful and obstinate; I think it is as difficult to control as the wind” and similarly, Rāma says “The sieve can never be filled with water; or can the mind ever reach the state of fulfillment however many worldly objects one acquires. The mind flits in all direction all the time, but is unable to find happiness anywhere… Like the lion in a cage, the mind is even restless, having lost its freedom, not yet happy with its present state”.
It cannot be denied that a clear state of mind is necessary to approach difficult questions and make decisions (such as how to fight in a battle, how to rule a kingdom or how to live during a pandemic). Therefore, the first step to overcome any profound crisis seems to be the calming of the mind. And how to do that? Both Arjuna and Rāma ask for guidance to their teachers,
-Krishna and Vasiṣṭha- who have enough self-knowledge, experience and insight to instruct and guide others appropriately. But they only point the way: each person needs to walk the path and success relies on one’s sincere work and effort. There is no place for fate or mysterious predestinations. No matter how horrible a crisis might be, free-will always gives the possibility of choosing how to act.
Proper guidance also becomes important when analyzing the messages of these texts. This is especially important in the case of the BG because its messages have been interpreted very differently depending on the particular ethics and background of the reader. Sometimes, inadequate interpretations have even been used for social and political reasons. As an extreme case, the assassination of Gandhi was taken as the world’s betterment by the man who shot him, who carried a copy of the BG and thought to be doing his best by this atrocious act.
It cannot be denied that there are many political and economic interests behind the Covid-19. Unfortunately, for many, money and profit are more important than human lives. There are other viruses in other parts of the world that kill thousands of people every year and not such attention has ever been given to them; there have been many pandemics over the time of history and no such dramatic measures to deal with them have been taken. The fact that it can affect anyone, also the rich and white, might have something to do with it, don’t you think so?
Well, let’s proceed on the actual messages given by those who are considered the teachers “inside” the texts: Krishna and Vasiṣṭha. Both of them propose Yoga, in its different ways, as the solution given for the human crisis. In the BG, we find the following meanings of Yoga: discipline, equanimity of mind, action with detachment for the fruits, study of wisdom, state of self-realization, sacred, secret and imperishable knowledge, self-restraint, meditation and devotion.
Krishna explains chapter by chapter a variety of methods to pacify the mind, go beyond fluctuations and reconnect with the most inner part of oneself. De Nicolas calls this place “the ground” or “the field” a common place underlying existence that goes beyond individuality. Understood this way, overcoming human crisis goes far beyond solving “simple personal problems”, as we are talking about getting in touch with an infinite source that sustains life by itself. Krishna guides the confused warrior towards this source to recover his strength. He helps him to see what is happening from a broader perspective and encourages him to “get himself organized” before anything else. In current Covid-19 times, we do need some organization, don’t we?
Because Arjuna identifies himself with thoughts, emotions, context (in general, all his circumstances) at the moment just before the battle, he is confused and does not know how to act. Krishna judges the variety of disciplines that he presents as a solution (such as action, knowledge, meditation and devotion) are most effective insofar as they are grounded in a mental state of equanimity or detachment from the fruits of action (karmaphalāsaṅgaṃ), or lead to such a state. When a person just does what it has to be done, his dharma, without expecting anything in return, is said to be satisfied and not dependent. Purifying one’s mental patterns is necessary to get over a crisis because it brings the person to a state in which making an appropriate choice is more plausible.
The most powerful exercise to purify mental patterns is meditation. Chapter 6 of the BG is called the “Yoga of Meditation” and it emphasizes the role of meditative exercises to keep a balance mind. Later on, in chapter 9, Krisna provides Arjuna with a direct experience with the deepest part of oneself. In de Nicolas’ own words, we are “the simple and frightening being here: the support and renewal of all the past and the futures”. A “reconnection” with this basic ground is crucial to overcome a deep crisis and this “reconnection” requires of an experiential part.
Arjuna is not the same after what can be considered his first step in the way out of his crisis. He has learned that what he experienced is recoverable and can be entered into in every action. He no longer begs Krishna for definitive answers but asks about devotion and faith (Bhakti Yoga). A faith to life in itself is the vital force that drives him away from apathy and inertia.
In present Covid-19 situation, we should not underestimate the role of faith. The flow of life is there as it has always been. Whether we can feel it or not has more to do with our state of mind than with any external situation.
A key point to bear in mind is that pure consciousness (puruṣa in Yoga Philosophy) is different from nature (prakṛti). But very interestingly, all external elements and objects are regarded to ultimately exist for the enjoyment and liberation of consciousness, and therefore, necessary to overcome suffering.
A first realization that would indicate the beginning of a des-identification from what we are not, will be: “I am not emotions, thoughts, and feelings, I am not a body, I am not what I thought I was”. This realization is necessary to transcend mental and emotional disturbances and overcome any crisis, like Arjuna at the beginning of the story or any of you who might be feeling fear or despair during these uncertain times with the Covid-19 around.
Learning about prakrti and puruṣa is crucial in Arjuna’s recovery from crisis but not sufficient. He also needs to learn about ethics and morality to be able to continue with his tasks. After all, he is going to fight in the battle and continue with his duties as a warrior afterwards, so he needs some guidance about how to approach them.
Krishna does not encourage Arjuna to develop specific superior ethical values but defends to apply ethics in every action instead. Actions encompass everything we do in our daily basis, from “important” works (such as writing a thesis or raising a child) to the most usual routines (cooking or talking). Even thinking and remaining in silence are actions. Acting without violence (ahimsā), with detachment from the results of actions and with a social-oriented goal is the key.
Cultivating love, compassion, friendliness, equanimity and purity becomes paramount. This promotes harmony and it is the base of a grounded individual and a peaceful society. Therefore, we see how a successful recovery from a profound crisis requires going beyond selfish concerns and an active engagement in daily life.
Having explored the main messages of the BG regarding a human crisis, it is time to focus on the YV. This book is composed by six sections. The first one, called “On Dispassion”, describes Rāma’s crisis, his profound discontent with the world. Rāma experiences human suffering at a deep level and expresses his quest for overcoming his circumstance to Vasiṣṭha. In the second section, the sage explains him the nature of desire for liberation and the need of self-effort. The next two books explain creation and existence. The fifth book discusses meditation and finally, in the last book, Rāma completely overcomes his crisis and he even experiences total liberation from suffering. And which are the main reasons that make this possible?
The world in the YV is believed to depend upon our mental constructs, which are shaped by past influences (vāsānas). Our interactions with the external world and its elements are shaped and informed by these constructs. Yogic techniques are encouraged because they allow focusing inwards and understanding these interactions, which eventually leads to overcoming mental limitations and obtaining balance. The purification of consciousness is the key to liberation from suffering, and therefore, to overcome any kind of human crisis.
In Vasiṣṭha’s words: “the cause of enlightenment is due to the purity of the discipline’s consciousness”. Applying effort (pauruṣa) and creativity are regarded as essential in this arduous task, and the method proposed is a sevenfold Yoga that emphasizes meditation and includes: renunciation, deep thinking, non-attachment, world as a dream, non-dualism as in deep sleep, living liberation and freedom from the body.
Similarly to what Krishna does with Arjuna, Vasiṣṭha starts by encouraging Rāma to take the time to examine both himself and the external world as the first step to overcome his crisis. He uses stories as examples, such the story of Janaka, where the king experiences a breakthrough that is overcome after a period of meditation. As Arjuna, Rāma needs to acquire self-knowledge to get rid of his suffering. Vasiṣṭha claims that when one is grounded in self-knowledge, even the worst situations become blissful. In addition to this, Rāma also needs to comprehend how the world functions.
Most importantly, actions performed with detachment and social engagement are crucial in the teachings of the YV. Vasiṣṭha insists in the need of aligning consciousness and promoting positive ethical and moral values with the exigencies of daily action. The rulers in his stories show justice, generosity, zeal and enthusiasm when they perform their duties after purifying and re-ordering their minds.
Therefore, the total overcoming of their crisis happens when they are able to function within society with the new acquired principles and mental training. The same happens in the case of the main character Rāma, who moves from a state of chaos to a vision of oneness and freedom, while still performing his duties appropriately. We can realize that the hints about how to overcome a human crisis are very similar to the ones found in the BG: action and wisdom should go together and transcend personal concerns.
Some days ago, I read a message regarding the Covid-19 that said: “more than washing hands, what the world actually needs is washing heart, mind, consciousness and spirit”. To me, it is talking about this need to deeply transcend personal concerns and commit to something bigger, for the welfare of all.
In conclusion, the BG and the YV are jewels in Yoga Philosophy. The wisdom and insight found in these literature pieces goes far beyond replying the question of how to overcome what is commonly called a crisis. The incorporation of their teachings into daily lives makes them transformative for any human being who engages in such a beautiful and necessary task. Yoga offers a range of possibilities in this journey and free-will together with proper effort guarantees the success.
Wherever you are now during this Covid-19 time, remember that these three (free-will, effort and Yoga techniques) are always accessible to you. Thus, there is no time to complain or judge, you can always choose your attitude and act accordingly. Taking this view, a crisis might be the first step of a transformation, both personal and global. Are you committed with life enough to engage in this transformation?
Chapple, C. (1984). Introduction. In Venkatesananda S. (Eds.), The Concise Yoga Vasiṣṭha. New York, NY: SUNY Press.
Chapple, C. (2008). Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s spiritual path to freedom. New York, NY: SUNY Press.
Chapple, C. & Chakrabarti, A. (Eds.) (2015). Engaged Emancipation: Mind, Morals, and Make-Believe in the Mokṣopāya (Yogavasiṣṭha). New York, NY: SUNY Press.
De Nicolás, A. T. (2003). Avatara. New York, NY: Nicolas Hays, Ltd.
Debroy, B. (2005). The Bhagavad Gita. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.
Larson, J. (2001). Classical Sāṃkhya: An interpretation of its History and Meaning. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Mainkar T. (1977). The Vasiṣṭha Rāmāyana: A Study. Second edition. New Delhi, India: Meharchand Lachmandas.
Mascaró, J. (2006). The Bhagavad Gita. Mallorca, Spain: Editorial Moll.
Rodríguez, R. Paper: “The semantic richness of the term Yoga as used in the Gita and its relationship with the discourse and practice of Yoga today” (written for the Sanskrit course at LMU, 2017)
Sargeant, W. (2009). The Bhagavad Gītā: 25th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: SUNY Press.
Sharma, A. (2006). The Hindu Gita: Ancient and classical interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita. London, UK: Open Court Publishing.