“It is not possible for an ordinary man to leave home and go to a secluded place in the mountains or jungles to practice yoga in this age of Kali.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 6.33 Purport)
The famous Bhagavad-gita was spoken to an extraordinary person. Though that person was in need of help, though he was bewildered moments prior to a great conflict, though he was dependent on the words to come from his teacher – by all other accounts that person, Arjuna, was amazing. He was to lead his side against a formidable foe. He was an elevated soul, a good friend to the Supreme Personality of Godhead Shri Krishna. Being extraordinary, Arjuna’s opinion on the system of meditational yoga, practiced correctly, is instructive.
What is this meditational yoga? How is it practiced? What is its goal? The goal is easy to decipher. We simply have to look at the beginning of the Bhagavad-gita. Arjuna is in distress. He’s not sure what to do next. He’s not afraid of losing. On the contrary, he’s pretty sure his side has a good chance of winning. He’s not afraid of doing the wrong thing; he understands that his side is with piety. They are the rightful heirs to the throne in Hastinapura. He and his four brothers were tortured many times by the rival party. That side, led by Duryodhana, tried to kill Arjuna and his brothers in different ways. But Arjuna’s side, known as the Pandavas, escaped alive each time.
Arjuna is afraid of what will happen when his side wins. In the party of the Kauravas are respected personalities as well. One of them is Arjuna’s teacher. Arjuna thinks that victory won’t make him happy. He’s contemplating giving up, casting aside his bow and arrow and taking up residence in the forest. There he will live like an ascetic. He won’t be part of a ghastly war, and therefore he’ll be free of the sin incurred from killing his fellow man. At least this was his logic supporting his desire.
It was to this person, in this situation, that the Bhagavad-gita was spoken. Yoga is an integral part of that discussion. Though Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, when He presents a discourse He follows the system of etiquette adhered to by great teachers since the beginning of time. He explains all possible options and He cites authority each time. He does not simply demand faith from everyone else. He gives the best explanation possible for the time and circumstance.
dhārayann acalaṁ sthiraḥ
samprekṣya nāsikāgraṁ svaṁ
manaḥ saṁyamya mac-citto
yukta āsīta mat-paraḥ
“One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.13-14)
Within that explanation is found the proper procedures for executing meditational yoga. This yoga is for linking the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. There is no other purpose. Exercise is an afterthought. Arjuna was already fit. Pacifying the mind wasn’t the main concern, either. The mind is a product of the material body, after all. Yoga is for transcending the material, for becoming immersed completely in the spiritual.
The option of genuine meditational yoga carries strict requirements. The yogi should find a secluded place. They should sit erect on a mat made of deerskin. They should shut the eyes, but not completely. They should focus their vision on the tip of the nose. They should have no traces of sex life. And these conditions taken together should be permanent. They should not be for five minutes a day. Krishna does not make any mention of going on a yoga retreat.
yo ‘yaṁ yogas tvayā proktaḥ
etasyāhaṁ na paśyāmi
cañcalatvāt sthitiṁ sthirām
“Arjuna said: O Madhusudana, the system of yoga which you have summarized appears impractical and unendurable to me, for the mind is restless and unsteady.” (Bg. 6.33)
Listening to everything carefully, Arjuna does not accept this path. He thinks that it is impossible to conduct. This is not the path that Krishna wanted him to accept, either. So Arjuna’s decision was the intelligent one. He correctly noted that the system was impractical for the time. As mentioned previously, Arjuna was not an ordinary man. There are no fighters like him around today. It takes great concentration and skill to do the things Arjuna could do. This means that his mind was already controlled. Though he showed mental frailty at the beginning of the Bharata War, he was actually extremely mentally tough.
Meditational yoga was impractical for such an elevated person living in a much purer time, some five thousand years ago. The natural deduction is that the system is even more impractical in the modern age. The culmination of all yogas is bhakti anyway. Mental speculation, fruitive work with the results renounced, and meditation with sitting postures and breathing exercises are all meant to end in pure love and devotion to the Supreme Lord.
The other paths are viable options since it is difficult to surrender to a higher personality in the beginning. From the time of birth man is focused on svartha, or self-interest. The interest in the afterlife is known as paramartha, and it is also a kind of self-interest; one that merely arrives at a later time. The different yogas allow for spiritual advancement while the focus remains on self-interest. Bhakti-yoga is true selflessness, and it is the only system that merges svartha and paramartha into one.
Leaving home is not required for practicing bhakti-yoga. Neither is remaining in seclusion. Arjuna practiced bhakti through fighting heroically in a war. The gopis of Vrindavana were in bhakti through association with God personally. Yashoda and Nanda practiced bhakti through parental affection. Meditation is always an option, but it is not the only means. Especially at present, when times are turbulent and it is difficult to find any peace, the recommended pathway is the sankirtana-yajna, which is practiced in association with others who have a mentality similar to Arjuna’s. Chant the holy names with faith, love and devotion and become a perfect yogi: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
In fighting ability Arjuna extraordinary,
Recipient of Gita thus not a man ordinary.
To him meditational yoga described,
But not path by Krishna prescribed.
Difficult for even Arjuna to do,
Then the same for modern age too.
Better on path of devotion to set,
Same results and more to get.