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Self-Observation quote by Swami Kripalu and Bhagavad Gita

The highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment.

-Swami Kripalu


The quote above was extracted from a lecture spoken by Swami Kripalu back in the 1980s, and is probably recognize by most Pranakriya and Kripalu yoga practitioners. I learned something about it recently that I would like to share with you.


When I study old yoga texts, I sometimes find passages that will remind me of something that Swami Kripalu has said. When this happens I usually have two thoughts, both of which I find hold very inspiring possibilities. The first is that Swami Kripalu may have actually read this text and what he read may have influenced his practice and appeared later in his writings or lectures. The other thought is that some teachings that were given to us by Swami Kripalu really did exist in ancient times and finding the original text validates their antiquity.


Recently I was reading the Bhagavad Gita and I found the verse below which made me think of Swami Kripalu’s quote about self-observation without judgment.


Better than the sacrifice of material possessions is the wisdom sacrifice, Arjuna;

All action without exception, Arjuna, is fully comprehended in wisdom.

Bhagavad Gita 4:33


At first glance there seems to be little connection between these verses, but a little exploration of the Bhagavad Gita will reveal their similarity. First, we must look at Krishna’s ‘Action Yoga.’ Then we need to look at how he uses a Vedic word, ‘Yajna.’


The foundation of the Bhagavad Gita is Action Yoga, Krishna’s creation which he contrasts with Sankhya Darshan, a popular philosophical system that had been around for a few hundred years when the Bhagavad Gita was written, and which was highly respected in the culture. Sankhya eventually became the foundation of most Yoga systems throughout the following history. Action Yoga translates back into Sanskrit as ‘Karma Yoga,’ but I rarely use that phrase because in our modern times, Karma Yoga has evolved to mean something very different than what Krishna intended.


Krishna’s Action Yoga is defined in chapter 2 of the text. Krishna says to perform those actions from the traditions that you believe will lead you back to your soul. But, since moving toward freedom may be painful and hard to understand, (Releasing the armor that protects us from our suffering may reveal the cause of our suffering and seeing the cause of our suffering may require us to grieve, for example.) we are supposed to ‘give the results to spirit.’


One begins by creating a Sattvic mind state. The Bhagavad Gita draws upon Sankhya’s three Gunas, saying that the mind is either; clear, restless or dull, and oscillates between these three states. These mind states are influenced by a great variety of factors that pull us closer to clarity (Sattva) or away from clarity into restlessness (Rajas) or dullness (Tamas). An example would be food. When we eat Sattvic food the mind is more likely to be clear. When we eat exciting, stimulating foods they may contribute to the mind becoming restless or dull. As the mind state changes our world view changes. With different world views, we naturally have different goals and interests. The clear or Sattvic mind state is the best for spiritual work, so we are encouraged to practice ‘Sattvic Sadhana,’ cultivating those activities that keep the mind clear and avoiding the ones that invite restlessness or dullness. Then we will have confidence in ourselves and the sensitivity needed to trust our process of moving towards spirit. We act from our mind state, since what we see (world view) seems true to us and we have faith in it.


Faith is in accordance with the nature of each, Arjuna. man is made of faith.

Whatever faith he has, thus he is.

Bhagavad Gita 17:3


Once we are steady in Sattva, we are to undertake those practices prescribed in the ancient texts that we have faith in. In Krishna’s time would have been the Upanishads.


He who acts under the impulse of desire, casting aside the injunctions of the scriptures, does not attain perfection, nor happiness, nor the highest goal.

Therefore, determining your standard by the scriptures, as to what is and what is not to be done,

knowing the scriptural injunction prescribed, you should perform (liberating) action here in this world.

Bhagavad Gita 16:23-24


Then, as we practice with the intention to move closer to our soul, we are to accept whatever comes as a result or ‘fruit’ as the blessings of the soul.


Fixed in yoga, perform actions, having abandoned attachment, Arjuna, and having become indifferent to success or failure. It is said that (this) evenness of mind is yoga.

Bhagavad Gita 2:48


If we can do the prescribed practices and not slow down when challenging results come, we will grow to trust spirit. In doing so, our Buddhi (witnessing self) will grow stronger.


He whose wisdom (buddhi) is established casts off, here in the world, both good and evil actions;

therefore, devote yourself to yoga! Yoga is skill in (this) action.

Bhagavad Gita 2:50


Krishna expresses great faith in this process, and states that no harm can come from it and even a little practice can be very helpful.


Those who are established in wisdom, the wise ones, who have abandoned the fruit born of action, and are freed from the bondage of rebirth, go to the place that is free from pain.

Bhagavad Gita 2:51


Here no effort is lost, nor is any loss of progress found. Even a little of this discipline protects one from great danger.

Bhagavad Gita 2:40


In describing his Action Yoga, Krishna draws upon an old image, Vedic Yajna. Yajna means ‘sacrificial offering.’ The ancient Vedic people would build a fire and make offering to the gods. The gods were believed to receive the offerings and bless the people.


Later on, the composers of the earlier Upanishads internalized this offering. Instead of butter and rice offered into a fire, they offered their attention (meditation) into their soul with the desire for liberation. Krishna continues this internalizing process in many places by referring to the process of his action Yoga as a Yajna or offering to the soul. In chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita, he presents a progression of offering from the most classical and external to the most internal.


Some yogins perform sacrifice to the gods; others offer sacrifice, by sacrifice itself, in the fire of Brahman.

Bhagavad Gita 4:25


Krishna is clear that he considers any actions that lead us closer to the Self as Yajna, including meditation, study of scriptures and techniques that induce Pratyahara.


Some offer as sacrifice their material possessions or their austerities and practice of yoga, while ascetics of severe vows offer study of the scriptures and knowledge as sacrifice.

Bhagavad Gita 4:28


Others offer senses like hearing in the fire of restraint; still others offer sound and other objects of the senses in the fire of the senses.

Bhagavad Gita 4:26


And in an early reference to the practice, pranayama is considered a valid Yajna.


Some offer inhalation into exhalation, and others exhalation into inhalation, restraining the path of inhalation and exhalation, intent on pranayama.

Bhagavad Gita 4:29


After presenting a long list of acceptable offerings, Krishna presents the most powerful of all, the wisdom sacrifice, Jnana Yajna.


Better than the sacrifice of material possessions is the wisdom sacrifice, Arjuna; all action without exception, Arjuna, is fully comprehended in wisdom.

Bhagavad Gita 4:33


Jnana Yagna involves seeing the truth and holding onto that truth even when it is very difficult. A simple example might be to eat what you know is good for you, even when you are very attracted to food that is not Sattvic or supportive of health. Krishna expresses a lot of faith in the transformational power of this practice.


Even if you were the most evil of all evildoers, you would cross over all wickedness by the boat of knowledge.

Bhagavad Gita 4:36


It is very easy to see what we need to do, and a very difficult thing to do it, and Krishna is praising that restraint. He presents our knowing as a fire that, if allowed, will burn away all that separates us from our Self.


As the kindled fire reduces firewood to ashes, Arjuna, so the fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes.

Bhagavad Gita 4:37


No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world; He who is himself perfected in yoga in time finds that knowledge in the Self.

Bhagavad Gita 4:38


Will and discipline fall short of giving us the wherewithal to do what leads us to truth, faith is required. If we have the faith to practice, the practice will lead us to Self-knowledge. Krishna says that knowledge will lead us to supreme truth.


He who possesses faith attains knowledge; devoted to that knowledge, restraining his senses, having attained knowledge, he quickly attains supreme peace.

Bhagavad Gita 4:39


In closing, let’s return now to Swami Kripalu’s quote. If we observe ourselves closely, we will see things about ourselves that are very scary to see. Not wanting to see them will lead us to judgement or defense, creating an emotional smoke screen that keeps us from taking responsibility. If we can see what our practice reveals without judging, that seeing of truth will transform us.

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