Equality & Forgiveness in the Bhagavad Gita

“If, thinking you human, I ever
touched you or patted your back
or called you “dear fellow” or “friend”
through negligence or affection,

or greeted you with disrespect,
thoughtlessly, when we were playing
or resting, alone or in public,
I beg you to forgive me”
BG 11.41-42

Stephen Mitchell Translation


In this section of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is apologizing to Krishna for all the times he may have intentionally or unintentionally treated him carelessly or poorly.  The beauty of it is not so much the apology, many of us have made similar apologies. But Arjuna is apologizing because he has suddenly seen that Krishna – his best friend, warrior wing-man, and divine being – is actually in every human being, animal being, or other type of being.  Or rather, every being is actually Krishna, the one he loves above all else, even himself.

We have all experienced, personally or via a movie, the sinking feeling of mistaken identity. Criticizing the food at a party to a guest, to learn that guest is the caterer.  Jostling back the person behind you on the elevator who just jostled you, to turn around and see your boss’s boss.  Ignoring or excluding a new addition to your yoga studio, to realize it’s your teacher’s best friend.

This is what has happened to Arjuna, but he has realized all those careless, mindless actions were done to the divine, he is aghast to think how many times he has jostled, criticized or given the cold shoulder to Krishna, mistaking him for a random human unworthy of more careful consideration.

How many times have we done this? Whether or not we believe that person or other being to be divine, whether or not we cherish them above all others, or love them more than we love ourselves, someone does.  They are incredibly special and unique, no matter how we see them. And this makes this passage a repetition of the Bhagavad Gita’s call to treat all equally, and one of forgiveness as well:

“The same to both friend and foe”

This is a theme woven throughout the Bhagavad Gita, repeated again and again.  In this section, Arjuna is experiencing it personally.  Can we take Arjuna’s lesson as our own?

Can you imagine walking down the street, and seeing the next 5 people as the divine in disguise?  Can you do the same with the first 5 plant and animal beings when you go to the park this summer? Can you allow this to shift your perspective, if even for 5 minutes, while in a crowded plane, subway, car, bus, train, or hiking group?  Can you imagine how it would feel to have some random person see you this way? Can that inspire your own practice?

Can you treat all beings as if they were divine?


Recently I listened to a Michael Stone podcast where he softly defined “mindfulness” as “forgiveness”.  It is an artful discussion which I won’t repeat here, but encourage you to listen to for yourself.

Podcast: Centre of Gravity Episode: Lotus Sutra 20 ~ Forgiveness as the Heart of Practice

What I will suggest is that you take his advice for the practice of mindfulness as forgiveness. And then to go one step further.  As yogis we tend to be too quick to forgive, and it winds up more of a pushing away, and a negating of hurt, then actually fully experiencing and acknowledging the hurt, in order to truly forgive.  So as “dark” and unpleasant as it may seem, as much as a part of you may say “I have no one to forgive” “I hold no grudges”, etc.  Take a moment, and reflect on the people who have truly hurt you in your life, intentionally or unintentionally. Make a list. Sit with each name and each experience, notice what arises.  Spend time seeing if you have truly forgiven the hurt, or if you just pushed away the hurt.  It may result in you re-experiencing the hurt again. This time, use tools of the breath and witnessing without judging, or trying to explain or change or make better, and just be with whatever it is.  When you can stay there long enough, part of you will let go, and release. From there will either arise a teaching, or just the true start of letting go that can allow for forgiveness.

The Yoga – Nature Connection

Besides the physical asana practice, one of the uses of yoga most employed and discussed by modern yogis is improving our relationships. Whether it’s contemplating and working towards living into the yamas, practicing maitri karuna (compassion, PYS I.33), being present, breathing, understanding how karma plays into our choices and actions, observing the play of raga/dvesa (attraction/repulsion) and our reactions, or other practices, yogis take yoga into their daily lives and relationships.

So often this is limited to our human relationships, but as creatures of nature, and as descendants of a practice that was largely performed in nature, it is a continually relevant to ask ourselves: “What is my relationship with nature?”

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

“Mature in yoga, impartial
Everywhere that he looks
He sees himself in all beings
And all beings in himself …
When he sees all beings as equal
In suffering or in joy
Because they are like himself,
That man has grown perfect in yoga”
(Stephen Mitchell’s translation)

If this is the type of relationship we were to cultivate with nature – with trees, rocks, blades of grass, birds, cows, caterpillars and pigeons – how could we go about it?

1) Give it time

Spend some time – minutes, hours, days, and longer – getting to know a tree, the pigeon who likes to hang around outside your window, the clouds passing over a particular patch in the sky (sometimes we have can have flings with nature as well). Observe the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and moods. Observe how your own senses relate to it. Observe. All good relationships take time.

2) Yoga tools

Choose one of the yoga tools you know, and cultivate a perspective of the flavor it takes on when applied not just to human beings, but to all beings. What qualities does ahimsa take on or discard when applied to a tree? Satya when applied to water? Aparigraha to cows? Raga/dvesa? Karma? Intention? Breath? Choose one, and practice.

3) Vidya (seeing clearly)

Intrinsic to our perception of the world, beings, and nature around us, is the function they serve in our life. There is a dominating perspective cultivated and woven into the texture of our culture. We see an apple, and think of its name, the crispness of it, how it grows on trees, the last one we ate, etc. It is rare to see an apple without naming it, understanding its function, or relating it to how it serves us. Could we, instead, be with another being, and go beyond the name, the purpose, to the very essence of the being. See clearly right down to the very essence past all its “appleness”, until we get to the point where we and the apple are the same? It won’t work to approach the apple and immediately think “We’re the same.” You must pass through the experience of “appleness” first.

4) Meditate

So often when we spend time walking in nature, we’re thinking about where we’re going (point A to point B type stuff), we’re trying to clear our heads or work out some problem, or we’re daydreaming. Use walking meditation as a way to cultivate a true presence with nature.

“When you feel blissful and peaceful, then you have peaceful coexistence with all of nature, not only with this planet, but also with the sun, moon, planets and galaxies, with all of existence. The whole house of nature becomes your own home. Such a man or a woman is the incarnation of heaven moving on this earth. He or she is the image of Mother Nature.” Shri Brahmananada Sarasvati – The Universal Search for Peace

“i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes…” e.e. cummings – from Xaipe

The Holy Moments

Ever since watching Waking Life, the concept of the “Holy Moment” and the divisions we make in our lives as to what qualifies, or not, has threaded through my studies. As a Jivamukti teacher, the idea of everyone as a “Holy Being” is very close to my heart.  Recently, it all came together in the Bhagavad Gita, as I was rereading my Stephen Mitchell translation.

Krishna says:

The man who sees me in everything
And everything within me
Will not be lost to me, nor
Will I ever be lost to him
BG 6.29

This is not actually referring to seeing Krishna running around everywhere (although some people marvelously do), but that you cultivate the ability to see everything as holy – every person, every moment, every being, every place.

There is a similar sentiment in yoga sutras where Patanjali asks us to cultivate vidya – the shift in perception to seeing things as they actually are, which is what lies beyond all the “stuff” of life (prakriti), to that spark within (purusa).

When you shift your perception in such a way, you are never not in a holy place. The division between your yoga studio, the room you’re in now, the bathroom, the elevator, or the subway car is seen as false – as avidya – and falls away.

Next time you come to your yoga mat, try it out. Let every placement of the hands be holy, every breath, every pose, every transition, every movement of the props- holy.

 When he sees that the myriad
Beings emanate from the One
And have their source in the One
That man gains absolute freedom.
BG 13.30

This is the practice of coming into relationship with all beings: human, plant, animal, water, etc, and moving past the layer of form,  the layer of personality, the layer of personal history, to the place where its all holy, all the spark within.

Lately I’ve been trying this when out in the world. I will look at one specific person, and notice how in just that moment of noticing, a thousand layers of “stuff” has come up – labels, judgments, predictions, etc. Once I notice, I let it all go, and since he or she is a stranger, and I have no entrenched attachments to that stuff, it’s easier to let go.  Then, softening enough to actively see his or her spark, that person becomes beautiful and amazing. I am actually amazed and fascinated by how that spark has manifested.  I fall a little bit more in love the whole world.

Then you move into a space where you are a spark, a holy being, in the presence of another holy being. Then you interact in whatever roles, games, or structures have been set up and are needed for that situation. Yet, at the same time, you are just two sparks.  Then you see how all the other times you are just running through those roles, identifying as those roles. When really you are a holy being playing. The more you see others as holy beings, the more connected you are to yourself as one.

Then yoga practice, daily life, every moment is an opportunity to practice in a very unique way – not just to see everything as your teacher, but to see beyond ideas of teachers – and to see the holy moments and beings everywhere, every time.

When you’re on your mat, practice not as all your stuff, but as a holy being. As a spark relishing the play of a body in motion in asana.

“When the direction of our attention is fixed on divinity, we  will arrive there eventually, but inevitably.” Sharon Gannon