Here’s a verse from the Bhagavad Gita:
Yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya glaanir bhavati bhaarata;
Abhyutthaanam adharmasya tadaatmaanam srijaamyaham.
Whenever a decrease in dharma exists, Arjuna, and there is a uprising of non-dharma, then I manifest myself 4:7
In the Hindu religion, this is the verse that explains the notion of the avatar; the way that Lord Vishnu at different times came to earth and appeared as Rama, or Krishna etc. Various gurus and “holy people” also make this claim, that they are the avatar of the modern age. All of that aside, this verse is an important one in the Gita and an important one for those of us on the path of Inner Yoga.
“When there is a decrease in dharma…”
Dharma is such a beautiful and profound word. Often the Sanskrit word dharma is translated as “righteousness” for this verse. From this Hindu point of view, it places Krishna squarely there as the embodiment of morality and the spokesperson for Hindu ideology. Like he came to set everyone straight and tell everyone what is right and wrong. There are many stories about Krishna killing demons and toppling evil kings in his time. And, of course, he also delivered the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita – a whole treasure trove of dharma teachings for the ages. He appeared, he brought with him a huge dose of dharma, and then he departed again.
This is the same idea behind a messiah like Christ. He came, he gave his teachings, was crucified, resurrected, ascended to heaven and now he’s gone and we are only to follow his example, his teachings, his dogma, until he comes back. You may notice how close the words dharma and dogma are. For many Hindus or Buddhists, when they say dharma, they mean dogma.
There are Hindus who watch the news and chaos in the world and, like a Jehovah’s Witness, predict the end of the world and the coming of the next avatar who will come to “set things straight” on earth. It’s not hard to imagine in 2018. With the mass shootings, political buffoonery, opioid crisis, global warming, etc, it seems we might be due for some kind of a divine intervention. I think we are.
I think it’s you.
In the religious Hindu tradition, this verse is about Vishnu coming back to usher in the next epoch, the next avatar is even named and described in the Indian scriptures. But we’re not Hindus. In the Mystical tradition, we can look at this verse differently. If we look at our lives, we don’t need to worry about the news. We can see this whole dynamic happening on a day to day basis. Once we’re tuned into Krishna, once we’re tuned into the Grace he represents, then we can directly experience this verse. If we wait for Krishna to appear as a blue mystical character, we will wait for a long time. But if we use our practices like meditation and deep inquiry to get subtle, we can know Krishna as the gurutattva – the principle of awakening and deep, radical, inner transformation. It’s the power of Grace. As the Kirtan master Krishna Das often says:
“Grace is the principle that wakes us up. It is the principle that removes obstacles that we don’t even know exist.”
So if we see Krishna as that, and as that power of mercy and divine help, if we can see Krishna as our own innate power, the God withing us, if we can see Krishna as that direct experience of the Sacred that comes through our mundane moments, that power of awakening that we cultivate with our spiritual practices and our commitment to a spiritual path, then this verse looks different. Krishna is not just some figure that appeared in India thousands of years ago. Krishna is an ever-present option.
If you examine your experience, you will see how dharma, or rather your connection to dharma – or the clarity about dharma comes and goes. We go through periods of being lost or being confused or deluded or triggered and then something arises to pull us out. Because you have cultivated some kind of relationship with this power, this power is here for you. It will only let you wander so far off before it pulls you back in. A friend’s counsel, the guidance from a healer or spiritual teacher, a section from a book, a workshop or retreat, a sunset… Something “appears” and we have a different option. We have an option to grow and love and turn toward what we know is really true.
Krishna was, after all, a cow-herder. His names Gopalla and Govinda connote one who protects and loves the cows. He delights them. It’s not that WE are cows, or any kind of herd animal. Mystics don’t travel in herds or take shelter in flocks. But there are parts of us that are like that. There parts of us like sheep, parts that are kind of dumb and unconsciously group oriented and easily influenceable, and there is a Krishna part in us too.
Krishna arises when adharma arises. Adharma is the opposite of dharma. One way to look at this in our experience is what I call going into a trance. I think of a zombie movie where the zombies have risen from the dead and are lurching around looking for brains to eat. We get triggered by something and snap into a kind of unconscious trance, going deeply into habitual behavior. We don’t choose to do self destructive things, we don’t choose to be depressed or engage in bad relationships or undermine our self in other ways. The zombies aren’t going for brains because they like brains or they have decided to try a brain diet to see how it effects their vitality. They are just following their zombie compulsions, lurching toward what they’ve always known. This is how we are when we’re spiritually asleep.
The truth is, before awakening, we actually choose very little. We have so much conditioning, so many fears, so much desire. And we do live in herds that have their own influence on us if we’re not conscious. These forces are sufficient to propel us through long unhappy lives.
So Grace is, as Krishna Das says, the power that wakes us up. It isn’t waking us up from sleep, it is waking us up from the trance. When you’re invested in Grace, in sadhana, in awakened living, you WILL get woken up. Grace will see to it.
Sometimes Grace takes the form of some sweet reminder: a song comes on the radio a friend gives you a word of encouragement. This kind of Grace can wake you up from a little funk. Sometimes Graces takes the form of an initiation or teaching or blessing from a teacher. Grace takes the form of the retreats I offer. These forms of Grace change the course of lives and wake us of from deeper, longer term trances.
And then there is Fierce Grace. This is term coined by Ram Dass referring to the massive brain aneurism he suffered some years ago that left him partially paralyzed. Fierce Grace is the Grace that wakes us up from deep stuff. It wakes us in a way that the sweeter forms may not be able to. Grace is fearless and Grace has the entire universe at it’s disposal. It will use whatever it takes; death, tragedy, failure, pain. Of course, these factors are present in any life. For some people, they just take them down, make them harder, drive them deeper into unconsciousness. For you, as Mystics-in-training, these forces become waking forces. The winds of Fierce Grace begin to blow and they make you stronger, they make you softer, wiser.
The point is, the next time the news, or your personal struggles, or some other factor has you feeling lost and lurching for your habitual ways, call on Krishna, call on the power of Grace. In our individual lives, and in the wider communities we live and practice in, this is the time.
I’ll leave you with this little couplet from Mirabai:
If you invite him, Krishna will come.
He will ruin everything.
Especially our sleep.