Fearfulness: Life Lessons From the Bhagavad-Gita

Fear can be paralysing and prevent you from living your life to the fullest. The Bhagavad Gita has solutions on how to deal with this emotion

What are you afraid of? We all have so many fears, large and small. There are so many things that scare us, worry us, or make us anxious. Apart from the obvious causes, there are also things like the fear of failing. Even in the face of success, we sometimes feel fearful. If we get the job we are going after, we maybe worried we won’t like it, or we won’t live up to other peoples’ expectations. Then, there is the fear of different kinds of loss, and ultimately the fear of death.

In this world, if we think something is desirable and we want it, we may pray to get it, or try to get into the positive thinking groove and focus on our attempt to acquire it. But the whole time we are desiring something—planning for it and doing what we think we need to get it—there is this gnawing feeling, this anxiety, and fearfulness that maybe we won’t get it.

Then, as soon as we get what we want, we are always in anxiety that something is going to happen to it. It’s going to get damaged, or we are going to lose something or someone. When we finally do lose the things and people we have grown attached to, and that we thought we desperately needed, we experience another type of fear and anxiety;connected to the loss itself. As unpleasant as this fear is,it is part of material existence. The truth is that we can never be at peace because of the constant presence of this fear.

We can understand from all yogic scriptures and great saintly teachers that all fear is ultimately rooted in the fear of death. The fear of death is so overwhelming that as soon as we are put in the proximity of a dead body, or in a situation where we might suddenly lose our life, we experience a dramatic change in consciousness.

One of the spiritual masters in our lineage,from a couple of hundred years ago, wrote a beautiful song which has this line, “kamala-dala-jala, jivana-talamala”. It means that this life is tottering just like a drop of water on a lotus leaf. If you have ever seen a large lotus leaf with a drop of water on it, the water collects together in a round drop which rolls about on the leaf. Because it is not fixed or stable, at any second it can simply roll off the leaf and be gone. This represents our life in this body. It is so precarious and at any moment it can be lost.

Why do we fear death?

Why are we so afraid of it? The reality is that death is the great disrupter. At death, everything is thrown into chaos. When someone has a critical illness,where they are slowly wasting away, even when people have had one or two months of preparation, when that spouse or friend finally dies, it is utterly devastating. We have a desire for permanence. We cling vainly to the hope that all the circumstances of our life will be permanent. But death demonstrates that all relationships and all possessions are impermanent. This world is impermanent by nature.

According to the great sages, the pain that we experience from the death of a loved one, or any fearful situation, is meant to be a learning experience for us, so that we will seek a solution to our suffering. One of the biggest freak-outs associated with death is fear of the unknown. What is going to happen to me? What will the experience of death be like?

The foundation of our desire for permanence can be found in our own spiritual nature. We, the living beings, are eternal. If you look at animals, or even the lowest of forms of life like bacteria, they all struggle against death. Death goes against everything fundamental to our eternal spiritual nature.

The material conception of life is that we are our bodies, and fear is inseparable from this material conception of life. As long as we cling to this misconception, fear will exist. The hearts of the great saintly persons, the great yogis,are filled with pain from observing the suffering of,not just humanity, but of all forms of life. They see the suffering, fear, and lack of fulfillment associated with material existence, and they understand it is both unfortunate and unnecessary.

This “I am my body” misconception is born of ignorance, and ignorance causes pain. We cannot separate them. According to the degree that we are covered by and acting in ignorance, we will experience pain—the greater the ignorance, the greater the pain. Knowledge,however, means freedom from pain. Knowledge results in spiritual blissfulness. If we look at a person who is not living in ignorance, we will find that such a person is enlightened and peaceful.

One who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is called a sage of steady mind. Bhagavad-Gita 2.56

The Vedas divide the miseries of this world in three categories

The first is Adhidaivika. The suffering we experience from natural calamities and things that are beyond our control. Then you have Adhibhautika– miseries that are caused by other living beings, whether it’s our partner, children, or parents, or even a so-called ‘enemy.’ These living entities also include, for example,mosquitoes that bite us and infect us with disease, or ingesting something with bacteria that causes us to have diarrhea and fever. Finally, there is Adhyātmika–the miseries that are due to our own body or mind, such as if we fall down and break an arm, or if our mind is disturbed with worries and fears.

But when a person is equal in both happiness and distress, and is free from attachments, fear, and anger, they are called a sage of steady mind. Their mind is in a very calm and stable condition. The only reason that we can exist in that state is due to spiritual knowledge. Spiritual knowledge destroys the darkness of ignorance. When everything is dark and you turn on the light, instantly the darkness is dissipated. In the same way, knowledge instantly evaporates the darkness of ignorance. The process for cultivating spiritual knowledge is to hear from spiritual authorities – the great spiritual teachers. Hearing also means reading the instructions found in the yoga scriptures. By accepting such instruction, we make it part of our personal practice. This spiritual path requires focus and dedication. If we are able to practice under the guidance of a proper spiritual teacher, we begin to taste a form of sweetness and happiness that continuously increases and grows. It is very transformative for our life. This knowledge is an awakening, and we see things from a completely different perspective.

In the final chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna is speaking to Arjuna: Oh son of Prtha, that understanding by which one knows what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, what is binding and what is liberating, this is in the mode of goodness. Bhagavad-Gita 18.30

Krishna explains that there are different types of knowledge. Knowledge in the mode of goodness is completely enlightening. However, the so-called knowledge that people generally cultivate in this world, more often just academic knowledge,is considered in the mode of ignorance,if it contributes to their increased material entanglement.

Spiritual knowledge teaches us what is to be done and what is not to be done. In the beginning, refraining from what should not be done may be a little difficult. But, as we begin to tread ever so carefully down the spiritual path, there is an internal transformation. There are spiritual insights, an awakening, and the development of a wonderful and joyful spiritual flavor to life.

The Bible states: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body.” Matthew 10:28

The soul can actually never be killed, but the light of your spiritual life can be extinguished, by becoming completely covered by ignorance. In this case, it is like the death of the soul.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, it says: In this (spiritual) endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous types of fear. Bhagavad-Gita 2.40

We exist with all kinds of fears that are often buried deep inside us, only surfacing from time to time. Because we live in this continual state of fear, we are not always aware of our actual situation.

Acharya Das
Acharya Das has taught yoga wisdom to appreciative audiences all around the world for over 40 years. He has an uncommonly deep understanding of yoga philosophy and practice and conveys that message in a clear and simple way. Acharya Das is a student of Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda and Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad in the Brahma Gaudiya yogic lineage.


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