When I first came across this concept, in the Bhagavad Gita, about 20 years ago, I was immediately fascinated by it. Not being subjected to birth, old age, disease and death got my attention. It’s safe to say that no one is looking forward to these aspects of life.

We do our very best to avoid old age, disease and death, but to no avail. We don’t want to look or get old and the proof of this is in the hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries in trying to preserve our youth and vigor. We’ll do just about anything to keep on looking young — stretch, pull, nip, tuck — whatever it takes. It’s an attempt to have eternal youth.

Disease and death are no-brainers. No one wants to die and as Steve Jobs said it so wonderfully: “Even people who want to go to heaven, don’t want to die to get there.” We experience so much pain in this life when we lose something of value. Losing even little things such as a pair of jeans or a phone can cause pain and disturbance to our lives. What to speak of losing a loved one which can leave us despairing for years. Death is that moment that rips us away from everything that we hold dear, all at once! It’s quite difficult to imagine how painful that must be.

If we consider the process of birth with some thoughtfulness, I’m pretty sure we’d want to avoid that too. Getting your whole body and head squeezed out over hours and hours seems like nothing less than torture. It’s no wonder that we come out of the womb and into the world screaming at the top of our lungs.

Chapter two of the The Bhagavad Gita explains:

For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.

Krishna dedicates the entire first section of chapter two to explaining this concept to Arjuna and to all the readers. The basic point that Krishna wants to drive home is that we have been identifying ourselves with something that we’re not. That we’ve been identifying with something temporary and material as opposed to something spiritual and eternal. It’s a classic case of mistaken identity.

Yes, it’s a very difficult paradigm to digest, even if you were raised with a belief in the soul. Basically, it’s telling us that when we’re looking into a mirror, we’re not seeing the real person. We’re only seeing the exterior covering. The real person is sitting within the body. The body is often times described as a vehicle and the soul as the driver. A vehicle can’t function without the driver. The soul is seated in a vehicle made not of metal, but of flesh and bones. The eyes are like the headlights and the arms and legs like the wheels which allow for motion. And like most vehicles, ours also comes with an exhaust pipe. Personally, I live in an Asian-Indian 1972 model. What’s your make and model?

It’s explained within the Upanishads that the soul is one ten-thousandth the size of a tip of hair. The Bhagavad Gita describes the soul as, “invisible and inconceivable…unbreakable, insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried.” The Upanishads also explain that the soul resides in the region of the heart.

I sometimes get asked “if someone gets a heart transplant, are they also getting a new soul?” The answer is no. The soul is in the region of the heart but doesn’t move if the heart is removed.

The soul is the spiritual spark that creates consciousness. It can also be said that it is consciousness. Without the soul, the body is just a lifeless lump of matter that starts decaying and loses all attractiveness. We have to admit that no matter how close we were to someone, once the soul leaves the body, we’d prefer not to hang around the body for too long.

Recognition of our spiritual identity doesn’t translate into indifference towards one’s own or others’ bodies. The body is a very important vehicle. It can’t be neglected as it serves as the vehicle for the soul and it takes the soul to its next destination. That destination can either be another material body or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Of course, liberating the soul from being entangled in the body is no easy task. It takes a regulated and committed spiritual endeavor of meditation and certain lifestyle changes to achieve that goal. For those who have come to the realization that the material body isn’t their permanent home and that they need to transcend this cycle of birth and death, will aspire for such a commitment. When I had this realization, I started taking small steps towards reuniting the soul with God. I know I have a long way to go, perhaps even several life times, but in my opinion, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

The Bhagavad Gita: You Are Not Your Mind

Have you ever wondered about why your mind works the way it does, and how it comes up with all of its scattered, random and half-organized thoughts? Where are all of these thoughts coming from, and what’s the reason they are there? Many of our thoughts originate from experiences we’ve had in the past, but the mind will also come up with dreamlike scenarios about events that have yet to take place in our lives.

We will find ourselves in a scenario for a future event, and we will be fully imagining the experience of what it would be like to live in that scenario. Some of these situations can be pleasant, while others are very nightmarish.

We’ve all had experiences where we can be eating, sleeping, walking down the street, studying, working, listening to music or even engaging in a conversation with someone else, and the mind will begin to drift away to somewhere else. We didn’t consciously decide to let the mind wander, but it did. It just left us standing there talking to someone while it decided to go away for a while. This happens all the time!

This happens for prolonged durations during the dreaming state. Our dreams often seem so vivid and detailed, but they weren’t our conscious creations. The mind conjures them up and gets very creative. This brings me to that statement Morpheus makes to Neo in “The Matrix”:

Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

No one willingly chooses to have a nightmare where one is chased by an animal, attacked by a murderer or falls off of a cliff. We can wake up in a sweat with our heart beating a million miles an hour. It becomes obvious that we weren’t in control of our thoughts at that time, and that we are rarely ever in control of our thoughts at any time.

The Bhagavad Gita describes the tendency of the mind as follows: “For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy.”

By referring to the mind as a friend or an enemy, the Gita treats the mind as if it were something different from us. Many times it can sure feel as if someone else, or even a whole group of people, is carrying on elaborate dialogues up there that have little to do with our present reality.

Many Hindu texts create a distinction between the physical body, the mind and intelligence. The mind is often compared to an impulsive child who isn’t capable of making proper decisions, and the intelligence is likened to a parent that helps the mind choose the appropriate and healthy course of action.

A mind that isn’t given proper attention and is allowed to run wild can cause havoc in our lives. The uncontrolled mind is the sole source of fear, stress and anger in our lives. We’ve all had the experience of recalling instances where others might have physically, financially or emotionally hurt us. Even though we tell ourselves that “it’s over and that there’s no need to continue to remember such instances,” we find that the mind forcibly brings these thoughts back to the forefront of our consciousness.

The Gita explains that we can either become liberated with the help of our mind or completely degrade our consciousness. Believe it or not, the choice is ours. It may be possible to avoid unpleasant situations, uncomfortable places or unfriendly people, but the mind isn’t something we can escape.

The mind lives within us and controls our thoughts, emotions and actions. We go to sleep with it every night and we wake up with it every morning. If we’re going to spend that much time with someone, doesn’t it make sense to develop a friendship with that individual? The question arises: How do you develop a friendship with someone that you can’t see or touch or really even talk to?

First of all, we have to acknowledge that we have a mind and not that we are the mind. Second, we need to be able to admit that we have very little control over the mind’s activities. Thirdly, we need to know that we’re never going to have complete control over the mind.

Of course, we’re not talking about controlling the mind in some forceful, unnatural way. What we want to accomplish is a harmonious relationship between the mind, intelligence and the soul, so that these different components of our being can be on the same page more often. This will lead to a happier and more peaceful existence. This, of course, requires training and practice. Nothing worth achieving ever comes easy.

During the mantra meditation session that I lead at Columbia, I encourage participants to incorporate a regulated practice of meditation into their daily lives. After all, we make time to clothe and feed the body, so why not take time to feed and nourish the mind? Even a short regiment of 10-15 minutes a day will gradually reduce the hurricane-like winds in the mind and grant the mind greater levels of focus and steadiness, which is something we can all use a bit more of.

Meet Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, Columbia University’s First Hindu Chaplain

Gadadhara Pandit Dasa (also known as Pandit) has been a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition since September of 1999. After spending six months in different monasteries in India, Pandit moved to a temple/monastery in the East Village of Manhattan, where he currently resides.

Pandit currently serves as the first-ever Hindu chaplain of Columbia University and New York University. His activities at Columbia include facilitating weekly vegetarian cooking classes, discussions on the classic Eastern work Bhagavad-Gita, and sessions on the art and practice of mantra meditation. His motivation is to help the students and faculty to find a balance in their material pursuits and spiritual aspirations.

Pandit was featured in the NPR piece “Long Days and Short Nights of a Hindu Monk,” and he has also appeared in a PBS documentary on the Bhagavad Gita, as well as The New York Times. He also is a participant in the interfaith community and dialogue of New York City. For more from Pandit, check out his website at nycpandit.com

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