Vanity thought #1589. More than one way to skin a cat

Some idioms are just animal cruelty. Who came up with this idea – skinning cats? I looked up the origin of the phrase and it’s inconclusive. Early versions were talking about killing cats by choking them with cream, which is like drowning an Irishman in a vat of Guinness. There’s one record of a man skinning a cat alive and it was used as an evidence during deliberation of a bill on cruelty to animals, rather fittingly, but it’s hard to see how it could have been a source for such a widespread use.

By “cat” I mean the mind, or course, and I want to continue yesterday’s discussion. I was thinking of the nature of the mind as one big universal element rather than a single unit personally issued to everyone. To us it looks like our mind is ours but I argued that it’s because of our false claim to property. Without staking this claim there’s no basis of talking about “my” mind or “his” mind, it’s just mind, it’s everywhere, and living entities simply take advantage of its presence.

It would be difficult to find a confirmation to this in śāstra, though. The first verse that comes to mind, spoken by Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavad Gītā, implies quite the opposite, and that’s what I intend to discuss today.

Kṛṣṇa was describing yoga to Arjuna, how one should sit in one place and meditate. Arjuna said that this system appears to be impractical, chiefly because of the mind, which is very difficult to control. In response Kṛṣṇa said that it’s difficult but possible through practice and detachment (BG 6.35).

This particular conversation could have happened to any one of us, it’s a common question and to us it implies battling with our own mind. How else can we understand it? Our mind gives us the problems, Kṛṣṇa was also talking about an individual yogi controlling HIS mind, and the solution to it is individual efforts. It’s hard to see how the mind could be a one universal element. Should I give it up? Nope.

Yesterday I said that context is important here, meaning that if the situation was different Kṛṣṇa might have given a different answer. That doesn’t mean I question the validity of Kṛṣṇa’s advice, not at all. In fact, I don’t think there’s any other way to conquer one’s mind, we have to follow Kṛṣṇa’s instruction, follow a suitable practice and cultivate detachment.

What I mean to say is that this is what we have to do, not necessarily how things are from Kṛṣṇa’s own perspective. My point was that to a liberated soul the mind might appear very different than to us. We see it as a personal property but they don’t. We have to bring “our” mind under control but they are passed that point, we have one set of instructions and they have another. The nature of the mind itself, however, does not depend on our advancement, we just see it differently from different platforms.

In the 11th Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam there’s a chapter dedicated to the philosophy of Sāṅkhya and how it can be used to dispel the bewilderment of the mind. The context here is somewhat different from Arjuna’s, even if it’s basically the same Gītā, same knowledge, only delivered to Uddhava. There Kṛṣṇa doesn’t talk about using yoga to manually control the mind but describes the nature of the material world itself. Once you figure it out the confusion born of false dualities disappears. Part of that confusion is seeking things as “mine”, it should disappear, too, and from Kṛṣṇa’s description it appears that we, indeed, have one big mind for the entire universe.

First He described how material elements came into being. False ego was the first one to appear from mahat-tattva when no living entities were even present. The modes of nature were there, too, and when they acted on this false ego various other things started to manifest. Mind was born out of false ego in the mode of goodness. The universe itself didn’t exist at that point yet, though Kṛṣṇa did mention that along with the mind appeared eleven controlling demigods. The purport gives the list but our local personalities holding these posts couldn’t be the ones Kṛṣṇa was talking in that verse – as I said the universe itself hadn’t been formed yet and it was before appearance of Lord Brahmā.

Later in the chapter Kṛṣṇa talked about annihilation and how material elements gradually merge one into another in a reverse progression. Body merges into food, food into grains, grains into Earth, Earth into fragrance (a sense object, not a perfume, of course). Fragrance merges into water and so on. By the time it gets to the mind there’s nothing of the universe left to speak of, certainly not individual bodies.

There’s a story of Mahārāja Pṛthu’s return to the spiritual world which illustrates both the approaches, the one given to Arjuna and the one given to Uddhava. First, Mahārāja Pṛṭhu retired from public life and went into a forest. He practiced austerities and cultivated detachment, then he practiced yoga, just as Kṛṣṇa told Arjuna. He conquered his mind and engaged in meditation. The result was that “by regularly discharging devotional service, Pṛthu Mahārāja became transcendental in mind and could therefore constantly think of the lotus feet of the Lord. Because of this, he became completely detached and attained perfect knowledge by which he could transcend all doubt. Thus he was freed from the clutches of false ego and the material conception of life.” – SB 4.23.11

This is the part of the process as described to Arjuna. The actual process of leaving this world is described later and it looks mechanical – sit in a proper posture, block your anus with your ankles, raise life air upward etc. Then comes the relevant part – gradually merging material elements one into another, mind, senses, and the false ego among them, and then merging them into mahat-tattva, and next Pṛthu was free to leave his body. That’s the part told to Uddhava.

How does a person follow the same procedure as it happens during universal annihilation I do not know. Did he merge his own mind and senses, sort of returned them to storage, or did he simply stop seeing them as his own? Did these material elements, which comprised his body, change their actual status or was it only a change of perspective? The way the story is told Mahārāja Pṛthu merged his bodily fluids with the totality of water and his body with the totality of earth. It looks as if nothing was left but when his wife found him there was a body still lying there, she burned it and entered the fire herself, so I’d go with changing perspective rather than actually merging body into the ground.

Next time let’s look at another example of how it might happen, maybe it will become clearer.


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