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Can an egoless one engage in a war? || Acharya Prashant, on Bhagavad Gita (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
18 min
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यस्य नाहङ् कृतो भावो बुद्धिर्यस्य न लिप्यते ।।

हत्वाऽपि स इमाँल्लोकान्न हन्ति न निबध्यते ।। 18.17 ।।

yasya nāhankṛito bhāvo buddhir yasya na lipyate

hatvā ‘pi sa imāl lokān na hanti na nibadhyate

He who is free from the notion of egoism, whose intelligence is not affected by good or evil, though he kills these people, he kills not, nor is bound by the action.

~ Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, Verse 17

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Questioner (Q): Please help me understand this. If one does not have the feeling of egoism, then how can he even perform the very act of killing or not killing? And if does act, for whom does he perform that action?

Acharya Prashant (AP): The question is based on an assumption. What does the question say? “If someone does not have egoism, how can he perform the act of killing or not killing?” Now, take killing and not killing together, and you have the universal set of all actions that can be performed by anybody ever, right? You have the set A, and then you add to it A complement, and what do you get? The universal set. Take any person ever, and you can categorize his actions in one of these two categories: he is either killing, or not killing. Right?

What is the questioner saying? "If one does not have the feeling of egoism, then how can he perform the very act of killing or not killing?" In other words, what he is saying is, if one does not have egoism, then how can he act at all? Because killing and not killing together is the universal set of all actions. So, the questioner is saying, "If one does not have egoism, how can he perform any action?" Right? That’s the question. The question is: If one does not have egoism, how can he perform any action? A or A complement—he can do nothing. That’s the assumption behind the question.

What’s the assumption? Without ego, you cannot act at all. You can neither go left nor right; you can neither eat nor not eat; you can neither live nor die. In other words, the only way to act is to act via the ego. In other words, only the ego acts. And if the ego feeling is not there, then no action is possible at all. That’s the assumption on which this question is based. Are we able to peel off the layers? Do you see the solution now? The question is uncovered? That’s how we live. That’s how we believe. Only the ego is, and hence only the ego acts.

Now, this is atheism in its staunchest form. “Only the ego is.” It is a complete denial of anything transcendental. “Only the ego is, nothing beyond the ego exists.” What else is Nāstika (atheism)? What else is gross materialism? Only the ego is. Only the ego is, and therefore, if the ego is not there, how will one go left or right? How will one kill or not kill? How will one read or not read? The ego is the only doer, according to the questioner. No sir.

All spirituality is about testing the limits of the ego, letting those limits and the testing of those limits consume away whatever they can, and then still survive to enjoy the beyond. Now, what is it that survives those limits? Not you, not you; but you, but you.

Yes, of course, as we currently live, the ego is the only doer. But that should not fool you into believing that how you currently live is the only way possible to live. You are right to the extent that given the contours of your current life, nothing can happen sans the ego. The ego is the mover and shaker, the sole doer. Yes, that’s true. But how does that imply that yours is the only way of life possible? Yes, that’s your chosen way of life currently, but how does that necessitate sticking to that one particular chosen way of life?

What makes you believe that the way of life you currently adhere to is the only option available to you, or to anybody else? What makes you so servile that you cannot even dream of other options, in other words, that you cannot even conceptualize freedom? Have you surrendered so abjectly to your bondages that you have lost even the concept of freedom? And you are saying, “But if the ego is not there, how will I act?” That’s not very different from a prisoner saying, “But if the jail is not there, where will I live?” Hello? There is an entire big wide world out there to live in! But what’s the prisoner saying? “If the jail is not there, where will I live?” Because the jail is the universe.

It’s a pretty sad state to be in. It’s a pretty sad state when a prisoner starts believing that the jail is the entire universe, and if the jail disappears, then there will be no ground beneath my feet. That’s how most worldly people live. They believe that their prison is their entire universe, so they start shuddering at even the mention of the prison disappearing or the gates opening up.

It is possible to not operate from your personal center; it is immensely possible. It is not only possible, it is a possibility that deserves to be materialized. That’s the sole purpose of life—to keep striving to come to a point where you don’t have to depend on your personal self for your existence.

Your personal self guarantees you some kind of continuous existence or the appearance of it, but it’s a very shallow and a sham appearance. It’s a very unworthy existence. There is another center to live by. You could call it another center, or you could simply call it freedom from your current centers—your choice, same thing. You come from the line of Buddha, you will say, “I just want to say freedom from my existing centers.” You come from Vedanta, you will say, “I want to live from a higher center”—it's wordplay.

One thing is certain: it is possible to transcend your existing, multiple, accidental, and unworthy centers. Those multiple, accidental, unworthy centers together constitute the ego. The ego is not one thing; it’s an amorphous accumulation of a thousand things, it’s a powder. A thousand things put together, given the collective name of the ego. The ego is not one thing. The day it becomes one thing, it is no more the ego. What we call as the ’aham-vritti’ (‘I'-tendency) is actually related to and dependent upon the entire universe, a million things. It’s not one thing at all.

It is possible not to live such a fractured and fragmented and helpless and accidental life. Kindly don’t be so certain that if there is no egoism, no action is possible, please. Such certainty will leave you with only frustration. How do I convince you that life beyond the personal is possible? You cannot be convinced of that. Given where you are currently, your convictions will carry the stamp of your current state of existence.

Can one’s convictions be separate from his center? If someone is operating from the center of ego, can he be convinced of egolessness? If one is operating from the center of personal certainty, can he be convinced that he is personally very misplaced? No. So, I cannot convince you that there is something beyond the ego, but I can draw your attention to your current state; that is possible. And it is upon that possibility that the entire spiritual process really rests. You cannot be convinced that it is possible to lead a better life if you change or improve or drop the ego, but it is very much possible to ask you, “Are you really alright as you are?”

I do not want to tempt you by selling the idea of some imaginary heaven to you. Even if I do manage to sell you some utopia, it would be again your personal utopia; otherwise, you will not buy it. And a personal utopia you buy into wouldn’t no way be able to shatter your personal self. In fact, it will be co-opted by your personal self, no? Drunkards too have their ideas of heaven, right? The idea of heaven that a drunkard has will not be able to stop the drunkard from drinking, or would it? In fact, the drunkard’s idea of heaven would be: one progresses to heaven after having drunk a lot.

So, heaven is indeed a transcendental place; yes, heaven is an alternate reality for the drunkard. But is that concept of alternate reality helping the drunkard get rid of his current personal egoistic reality? No. It is rather a product of his current reality, and therefore that alternate reality that he dreams of, envisions, or imagines is just going to reinforce his current reality.

So, the drunkard is quite unhappy with his current reality, let’s say, so he envisions a heaven. He says, “I want to go to heaven. That’s my concept of the ultimate place; that’s my concept of liberation. How will I go to heaven? By drinking.”

That’s how the ego’s concept of the transcendental Truth, or God, or Liberation are. Therefore, it is totally futile to sell the Truth to ego. It would be an egoistic Truth, it would be a co-opted and deeply contaminated Truth. It would be the drunkard’s heaven. A far better option is there. What’s that option? To sit with the drunkard with some love, some care, some honesty, and gently nudge him and ask, "Are you really happy with yourself?" He does not need an alternate universe. He needs to be shaken up to the ugliness of his current universe. He needs to admit that his current world is not worth living in.

That’s what all of us need—not great, handsome, bombastic ideas of the beyond, but an honest, sharp, and brutal look at our current circumstances, at our current centers. We don’t need to be tempted about liberation; we need to be shown our bondages. But that’s a bitter thing to do, is it not? You sell liberation to someone, he'll feel pleased; you expose somebody’s bondages, you put up a mirror to him, he'll be displeased. But that’s the only way.

You say, "Without the ego no action is possible." Alright. So, your actions are coming from the ego. Fine. Now, what’s the quality of those actions? What do you get from those actions? What’s your state of mind while performing those actions? Are you okay with all that? And if you are, then the story stops here. Then we’ll talk at a later time. Then we'll wait for the situations to get more opportune, more favorable towards spiritual initiation. If you honestly want to aver that you are alright as you are, then I have no business and no right pushing you in a needless direction.

You are asking, "Without the ego, if one does act, for whom does he perform that action?"

Again, it is coming from an assumption. What’s the assumption? The questioner is saying, "If without the ego a person indeed does act, for whom does he act? What’s the assumption?" There always has to be a purpose, a motivation, an end result in sight; some kind of desired output, some kind of mental target when you act. That’s the assumption. Therefore, he is asking, “If there is no ego, why would one act at all?”

Well sir, purposeless action is possible. It is possible to act vigorously and yet not let the result be too much for you. You'll not be able to imagine it; it is something to be lived. It’s not for the sake of armchair visualization. It is possible to give yourself completely to something, knowing fully well that there is nothing in that work, in that something, in that project or mission personally for you.

“What will you get from it?” I was once asked. I said, "Nothing personal.” Well, I indeed get a lot—but nothing personal.

“What will you get from it?”

Nothing personal. This entire business called 'life' is itself not to be taken personally. How does one take his actions personally? Personally, well, everything ends in the morgue, in the cremation ground.

If I say, "I'm working for personal ends," then I'm just preparing for my cremation, right? Because the entire personal self is hurtling towards that shabby ground—or maybe it’s an electric one, how does it matter? Ashes are ashes. It’s a beautiful way to live. That’s what all the scriptures keenly want to teach. It is possible to live, act, love, work, and die all quite impersonally. “Wait, what did he just say? It is possible to love impersonally?” That’s what someone called Krishna says. What is it to love impersonally? I understand there can be something called ‘impersonal work’ because we have anyway been sold the virtues of professionalism, and professionalism in some sense means impersonal work, right?

We say, "There is the personal world and there is the professional world, and this distinction itself, in some way, means the professional world is impersonal. But what is it to love impersonally?" Yeah, you love for a reason, right? And the reason is the pleasure of your personal self, right? If I love, my personal self is pleased.

It is possible not to love for this reason. Impersonal love is possible. It is possible not to love for your own little sake. And it is possible to die impersonally. But all those possibilities will open up for you only when you have a deep dissatisfaction with your personal way of living. Unless you are totally fed up with yourself—I'm never fed up of saying this—you will continue as you are.

That’s the thing that never ceases to amaze me. How is it that the most wretched people are most satisfied with themselves? Obviously, that’s what keeps them wretched. How is it possible? I mean, a fellow living the ugliest kind of life, the weakest kind of life, the most abominable life is continuing to live as he is. There’s no intention to change. In fact, he resists change. How is he so settled in his ways? It's a great wonder. That’s why it is said that no one can comprehend Maya. This is Maya — you're not alright, and you want to continue as you are. You want to run away from change. You want to run away from all forces, all possibilities that will compel you to change. And you devise arguments. You dream up some excuses. Your only objective is to continue in your wretched ways. It's great amazement!

In an ideal sense, the deeper you are in doldrums, the more you should be desperate to get out of them, right? But that’s an ideal. In an ideal sense, the deeper you are in the muck, the more desperately you should be crying out for help, right? But that’s an ideal. Quite the contrary is seen practically.

The fellow who is already liberated, the fellow who is already on the path to liberation, is keen to shed even the last vestiges of any residual bondages. He has already obtained liberation to a great extent. Some little bit of some vestigial bondages remain, and he is rigorously targeting the remains. He is saying, “No, no. I will not let even this remaining 5% continue.”

And then there is another person who is 95% in bondage—I know it’s a very crude and mathematical way of expressing it, but then probably that’s how the point can be driven home. This fellow is 95% drenched or deep in bondages, he is marinating in bondages, and he has no desire, let alone desperation. How?

Before the board examinations, we were given almost a month off. It was quite a long break. So, there were the pre-boards, the results were declared, and then the board exams were scheduled in March or some month, and there was a longish break, 20-30 days or something. “Now, prepare at home.” So, in-between a day was appointed when the students could come to the school and discuss their queries and doubts. Incidentally, I had topped the pre-boards, I had topped all the other comparative examinations that were there among the various branches of my school and all that.

So, in that period of self-study, when I got that opportunity to visit the school on that appointed day, I went to the school. I had my doubts, I needed clarification. And what do I find there? I find that all the toppers are there with their doubts. All the toppers are there. They are very keen to clear their doubts. They are anyway toppers. Even if they don’t come on that day to the teachers, probably they won’t lose much—probably they won’t lose anything. Probably they'll manage to clear those doubts by themselves. Who are missing from the scene? All the laggards and backbenchers. The ones who need the maximum support and guidance, they are the ones avoiding the teachers. This never ceases to puzzle me. How does it happen?

In fact, you can know the state of a person’s progress and desire to progress both—how far has he progressed and how much desire does he have to progress—by seeing whether he is missing from the scene or not. The ones who ask the most questions, the ones who are most eager to learn from the teacher, are also the ones who have already learned a lot. How do you know that a person does not know anything in spirituality? He'll be avoiding the teacher. And that’s exactly why he wants to avoid the teacher. His inner ego is extremely monstrous—it’s a demonic ego he has. That ego has now realized that the teacher is dangerous — "If you go close to the teacher, you’ll be burnt down." So, he totally avoids.

The ones who need the most to ask the questions, are the ones never found asking the questions—even if they have to repeat class tenth.

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