I sought Swami Abhay Chaitanya one evening to learn about yoga--not the poses, but yoga as explained in the Bhagavad Gita. Not the physical aspect of it, but the divine. In particular, I wanted him to explain something I was grappling with: yoga as non-attachment. How could I be detached as the Gita advised me to when my world was full of attachments--to my children, husband, parents, siblings, and friends? And why detach myself anyway? It wasn't as if I was going to renounce the world and go off into the forest.
Swami-ji smiled when I brought up these questions. "The Bhagavad Gita is perfect for you," he exclaimed.
I nodded. I had been drawn to the Bhagavad Gita because it seemed more accessible than the Vedas and Upanishads which simply proclaimed, "Tat tvam asi," or "That thou art," without really explaining anything. Unlike these esoteric Hindu texts, the Gita was rooted in reality. Its hero, Arjuna, was full of frailties and his conflicts were human. Just as Arjuna found himself in a battlefield faced with cousins, relatives, teachers and friends, all of whom had suddenly become his enemies, my life too was fraught with relationships and battles although not in such a grand scale.
In fact, it was after one such tangled, complicated relationship issue that I decided to explore detachment. After one too many outbursts from my seven-year-old, spirited negotiations with my spouse, disapproving silences from relatives, and judgements that claimed to be non-judgmental from friends, detachment seemed like a mighty good idea.
The Gita is both specific and poetic about detachment. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, "Therefore without attachment, do thou always perform action which should be done; for by performing action without attachment man reaches the Supreme."
The Gita then urges us to be like a lotus-leaf, which shrugs off the water that falls on it and remains unaffected--padma patrami vambhasa. Fair enough. But how?
But just as I was basking in the altruistic nature of my love, Swami-ji surprised me by saying that only those without attachment can truly love others, because attachment is born of ignorance, selfishness and passion. Ignorance? Perhaps. Passion? Okay. But selfishness? Whoa!
Was it true? Were my attachments to my spouse, children and friends selfish? Did I want something from them? What was certainly true was that my attachments prevented me from experiencing the universal love, the universal oneness that is the goal of Hindu spiritual practice. Because I loved my children, I viewed other children as competition; because I loved my spouse, I saw his colleagues as rivals; and because I loved my friends, I was affected by the emotional baggage that we shared.
The Gita is realistic enough to view detachment as a discipline that needs to be practiced; not something that comes naturally. It exhorts you to practice detachment again and again. Patanjali's yoga sutras, which are commentaries on the nature of yoga, say that practicing detachment may cause "you to tumble down like a baby who is just learning to walk, but you will have to rise up again with a smile and a cheerful heart."
In my own life, I found that there were certain things that helped me detach myself from the vagaries of the world.
1. Finding your center is a Hindu cliché, but nevertheless a true one. On those days that I felt centered either by practising yoga or meditation early in the morning, I found myself able to shrug off the little disappointments like a lotus leaf shrugged off water. I found that I was able to sail through the irritations and struggles of daily life with more equanimity.
2. Surrendering to God is another Hindu goal, one that I have difficulty with. While I am too egotistical to view everything as the action of God (I like to take some credit for my achievements), I found that going part way--adopting a C'est La Vie attitude towards the mishaps of life--helped me detach. When bad things happen, Hindu saints advise you to view them as the will of God. "Everything happens for the best," is a common adage. I didn't subscribe to this view--some of the bad things that happened to dear friends of mine downright stank. But disciplining myself into believing that there was a lesson in everything, even those things that were painful, helped me detach myself from the endless cycle of castigation and anger that accompanied those bad things happening to good people.
3. The Gita says that he who has no attachment can really love others. Unattached love is pure love or divine Prema, which is another way of propounding a non-judgmental approach. I found that when I gently disengaged from the selfish preoccupation over "my kids, my life, my space and my time," I was able to embrace others with more openness. I was able to see them as they were.
It was tough and I couldn't do this all the time. But when I forced myself to stop obsessing over my kid's test scores and athletic abilities, I was able to see her friend Hannah not as the girl who handily beat my Ranjini in math, but as a shy little girl with an angelic smile and a complicated soul.
4. Finally, the Gita says that attachment to God, or Atman, is a potent antidote to annihilate all worldly attachments. Again, I found it difficult to become one of those Hindus who kept chanting the name of the Lord and attributing all actions and reactions to God. But I found that prayer in times of stress did help me detach, if only for five minutes.
And five minutes, as the Gita says encouragingly, is a start. Detachment takes discipline and it will probably take me a lifetime to attain that level of yoga. But if it's the only thing standing between me and a less stressful life, I am more than willing to try.