In Vedika Global’s Bhagavad Gita classes, Acharya Shunya is unpacking each verse of this sacred text with depth and care. All of the verses have profound meanings, and depending on what in our lives we are contemplating on as students, some really hit like an earthquake - either by shaking up and calling into question longstanding notions about ourselves and the world, or by offering an answer to some nagging question that has been lurking around in the back of our minds without ever being definitively settled. These kinds of consciousness-expanding questions or soul-quenching answers tend to reverberate in the mind for days, if not weeks or more, after we hear them.
I had the experience of this after Acharya Shunya’s explanation of one of a few terms in a recent Bhagavad Gita class, part of the Vedic Spiritual Studies Program. As I mulled over the meaning and practical implications of this one word in different life situations after the class, I felt some deeply encrusted spiritual ignorances crumbling away and whole new possibilities full of light and freedom open up in the way I think, speak and behave. The terms were all descriptions of the atman, our deepest spiritual self that is untouched and unaltered by the world of experiences around us. One description of atman that hit me hard was that the atman is ‘akarta’ - meaning, it is not the actor.
Throughout the Vedic Spiritual Studies program we learn a lot about ‘the actor’ - a shorthand title for our ego-based identity that often reacts to the world out of deep-rooted impulses. This ‘actor self’ is full of attachments to people, things and ideas in life and these desires often cloud our judgement in myriad ways.
Often I would tell myself, and have often heard encouragement in new-age spiritual circles, to - “Let your soul decide. Let your soul speak for you. Let your soul do the work.” These kinds of statements always seemed enlightened enough. They seemed to say, “Set aside your own ego. Don’t blindly follow others. Don’t get boxed in by default patterns. Go deeper and connect to a place of authenticity and higher guidance before choosing/speaking/acting.” Sometimes when I had to face a difficult conversation, or make a tricky decision, or offer compassion to a friend who was going through a hard time, I would mentally use these kinds of phrases to settle my nerves, or try and get some clarity, or connect more deeply than on just a superficial level. I was interpreting the ‘constant witness of the soul’ as an all-knowing presence that could steer me in the right direction if only my ego could get out of the way. But something never quite sat right whenever I tried to get my soul to act in place of my ego or mind.
When Acharya Shunya explained the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita about the akarta nature of the soul, something clicked and I realized I had been trying to force the soul to ‘do’ something, but action was not part of its nature. To be a guide, or to weigh in on what I should and shouldn’t do, or to form the words I should use, the soul would have to act. To act it would have to desire one outcome over another, have preferences, have a will. But if the soul is eternally blissful, unlimited, pure consciousness, without birth or death, regardless of what happens in the course of my life experiences, it will remain the same. I wanted this eternal witness to my thoughts and life story to gift me pearls of wisdom from its perch of perfect equanimity.
Actually, the role of the soul as a non-actor has much more radical implications for our sense of identity than the soul acting as simply a wise confidante and advisor. The definition of the soul as a non-actor (akarta) revealed to me how motionless, how purely aware the Soul is, how it need not and can not be called upon to interfere in the changing world of daily life. Meditating on this stillness, this pure observer Self as my deepest nature, released any lingering feelings of worry, stress, or anxiety. On the most fundamental level, I am beyond the need to act, whatever choice I make will not affect the fact that the Soul exists. This contemplation also put into a brand new perspective the role of the ego and intellect in the process of remembering the Self. Rather than waiting for the Soul to pierce through the clouds of life’s confusions and declare all the answers, it is only the ego and intellect’s responsibility to become refined, clarified and purified so that they maximally reflect the light of the Soul’s consciousness. These rarified mental apparatuses, which are defining parts of the ‘actor self’, will then be able to guide our thoughts, speech and actions so that we act according to intrinsic noble principles, for the good of all. Vedanta and Ayurveda offer many methods through which we can cultivate sattva (the universal quality of clarity) through balanced foods and lifestyle, sustained practices of sense control, thought training, study of Self-knowledge, spiritual practices, etc.
This is actually quite a comforting and empowering idea. Knowing that my soul is silent but never going anywhere, and that if I keep fine-tuning the active parts of my mind and ego through time-tested practices, my thoughts, speech and actions will automatically become illuminated with wisdom. I now have more awe for the Soul’s presence and determined resolve to train my mind and ego knowing that the Soul is not at all the actor.
If this is the life-changing revelation coming from Acharya Shunya’s teaching of a single word of the Bhagavad Gita, I am eager to stay attuned to see what the rest of the sacred text holds!
This blog entry first appeared on the Vedika Global Blog. Please visit there for more reflections from students on Vedanta and Ayurveda.