The first person that I ever saw doing yoga was my childhood idol, my role model; the person I most wanted to be like when I grew up: Gomez Addams.
If you’re wondering which Gomez Addams I’m talking about I’m referring to the profoundly eccentric patriarch of the Addams Family, particularly as they were portrayed on the small screen in the mid-sixties rather than their more recent feature film incarnation (I’m not even counting the Broadway musical version). As far I know Gomez Addams was the first person – fictional or otherwise – to regularly do yoga on primetime TV.
What was it that I liked about Gomez Adams? For one thing, he’s relentlessly cheerful (at least in the sitcom). He is always centered in a way that allows him to be blissful – ananda – all the time. He’s fabulously wealthy but you get the sense that it really doesn’t matter: he’s not attached to his wealth and he’d be just as happy without it. And just as crazy. He’s a completely eccentric, unique individual without any pretense or self-consciousness about it; he’s not the least affected by society’s ideas of what’s normal and that’s what makes him so subversive. I like that. And I think yoga, when it’s undiluted by our consumer culture, is a radically subversive practice.
I’m sure there are people to whom you’re attracted and by whom you’re inspired because of their unique individual qualities, subversive or otherwise. Remarkably enough, the seminal text on the philosophy of yoga has something extremely important to say about the nature of being a unique individual. It’s Krishna’s first instruction to Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Bg 2.12)
In the Bhagavad-gita, the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna begins when Arjuna freaks out because he’s facing a lose/lose situation and doesn’t know how to deal with it. Krishna listens as Arjuna offers up reasons why he should disengage from the situation altogether and, once Arjuna gives up in despair and surrenders to him for guidance, Krishna changes the whole premise of the discussion. Arjuna’s arguments are based on the values of sva-dharma – terrestrial righteousness – and the perspective of affection for his friends and family whose material well-being he sees threatened by an immanent rush of cataclysmic violence. Krishna rejects Arjuna’s premise in favor of the values of moksha – liberation; celestial consciousness.
To support this shift in values Krishna asserts that a shift in perspective must also occur; one must see things from the point of view of eternal, spiritual reality rather than from one of temporary material illusion. So he begins with the first principle of eternal spiritual reality: that we, along with all sentient beings, are not the material bodies that we temporarily inhabit; we are eternal spiritual beings and, just as significantly, eternally individual beings.
Krishna elaborates on this point for a few more verses to make sure Arjuna – and we – get it: at no time do we come into being or go out of being. Our external identity may change as we move from one lifetime to another just as when our appearance (and perhaps our attitude) transforms when we change from one set of clothing to another. Nowhere down the line does Krishna contradict this statement about the eternal individuality of the jiva – the individual soul; rather, he confirms it as a category of being on the transcendental level. We persist as individuals at all times under all circumstances no matter what! Including at the point of liberation.
This may come as quite a surprise for those of us who assumed that individual identity is lost at the point of merging into the oneness of being. But the eternality of our unique individuality on a spiritual level is affirmed in Bhagavad-gita right off the bat.
And why is it the first instruction? Why would it be the first thing a teacher would tell a student at the beginning of any set of instructions? Because if we don’t understand the first thing we’re not going to understand anything that comes after it. So the key to understanding the Bhagavad-gita is right here in this first instruction: get this point right and then the rest of it will make sense. Miss it and everything that comes after will either be missed or misunderstood.
Yoga means relationship, which means that individuals are joined together through a connecting agency to form a union. And bhakti yoga – the union of jiva-tattva (all beings in the category of eternal individual souls) – with vishnu-tattva (the one Supreme Being) through the agency of bhakti – devotional service – is what Krishna recommends throughout the Bhagavad-gita. Hence the oneness of being that Krishna recommends is qualitative – the qualities of eternality, knowledge, and bliss in loving relationship between the part and the whole – rather than surrendering our individuality by merging into an absolute Oneness that has no relationship to anything (from the point of view of the One, there isn’t anything else to be in relationship with).
Although that merging is possible and situates one on the platform of eternity, beyond the suffering of repeated birth and death, there is, according to Krishna, an even higher level of yoga that we can aspire to:
“And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me — he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.” (Bhagavad-gita 6.47)