Dr. Mehrdad Haghi delivered a sermon, “Riding Along with Krishna,” on August 14, 2016, at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Canoga Park, CA. You can read his sermon in its entirety below, following the description of the service.


August 14, 2016


Dr. Mehrdad Haghi, guest speaker; Traci Davis, Lay Worship Leader


Dr. Mehrdad Haghi

The Bhagavad Gita is widely considered to be the heart of Hinduism, and Mahatma Gandhi considered it his spiritual reference book. What can the Gita teach UUs about facing fear, living a worthy life, and finding purpose in what can sometimes feel like a cruel and meaningless world?

A former member who served Emerson as Worship Trustee and Choir Director, Mehrdad Haghi now lives in Orange County and is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Safety Officer for the College of Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.  He still considers Emerson to be his spiritual home.



Riding Along With Krishna

© Mehrdad Haghi 2016

Arjuna, greatest of archers and prince of the Pandavas, looked on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and despaired. Life had brought him to a choice between two terrible paths, each one intolerable. He could wage war against his own family and teacher, or he could forsake honor and duty and abandon his homeland to injustice. So he stopped in the middle of field and sat down in his chariot not knowing what to do, there to be advised by his charioteer.

Arjuna’s story is something we can all relate to. Not the first part: I bet we have no more than three or four warrior princes at Emerson. But nearly all of us will at some point in our lives come to a hard place, usually because some aspect of our life has gone horribly wrong. It could be the death of loved one, a health problem, or maybe financial troubles. But we find ourselves sitting on the floor of our chariot, asking some pretty fundamental questions. Not just “How on earth do I get through this,” but maybe “What’s the point of even trying to get through this?” This is where Arjuna’s story can help.

His story is told in the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in all of literature. In the Mahabharata you will find a prince who builds a castle out of butter and lacquer for his relatives, then tries to burn them down in it. You’ll find a princess who is won as the prize of an archery contest, and then gets married to five princes simultaneously. In short, you’ll find all the wild adventure, intrigue, heroes and gods of the Iliad and Odyssey or the Thousand and One Nights. If you haven’t read either of those, think “Game of Thrones” set to Sanskrit poetry. But among the stories of the Mahabharata, you’ll also find a little philosophical pearl called the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of The Lord”. It’s a record of the conversation that day between Arjuna and his charioteer, who just happened to be the Lord Krishna. Now for those of you whose Hindu theology is a bit rusty, Krishna is not some minor godling from a backwater of the pantheon. No, Krishna is a full incarnation of Vishnu, the second person of the Hindu trinity. In the Gita, Arjuna is being counseled by God with a capital G.

So if Netflix made the miniseries “American Gita,” its pilot might go something like this: A.J. is all steamed up because his rotten uncle and cousins from Oklahoma have taken over his ranch and won’t give it back. He can’t grab an AR- 15 because in 2016 the United States regained its sanity and outlawed private ownership of assault weapons. (It’s a TV show: you have to suspend disbelief.) So he’s got his celestial bow Gandiva in the pickup, and he’s getting ready to self-defense the no-good claim jumpers clear to kingdom-come, or at least back to Tulsa. But he’s worried because he doesn’t really want to fight his family, and then there’s the karmic backlash to consider. Fortunately, Jesus is riding with him, operating the GPS and giving A.J. some life coaching.

Anyway that’s where the Bhagavad Gita begins, with Krishna advising Arjuna. So what does Krishna tell him? What’s the message of the Gita? Hindu scholars have been debating that for millennia. Mahatma Gandhi found it worthwhile to study the Gita his whole life. And Yale University has a 15 week semester-long course dedicated exclusively to trying to understand the Gita[1]. But Yale students can be a little slow, so I think we can do this in 15 minutes. Arjuna’s problem is that if he does what he thinks he should do, he will be fighting and killing members of his own family, and he believes that this will increase his karmic burden. Now I don’t know if you believe in the Law of Karma, which says that we incur karmic debt for the actions in this life, which we then have to work off in a future incarnation. I personally don’t believe in it, although I absolutely do believe in the Law of Karma’s younger, secular sibling, the Law of What Goes Around Comes Around. But even for those of us who don’t believe in reincarnation there’s a deep truth there, which is that the more we act for purely self-focused reasons, the more narrowly we limit our perspective and the scope of our lives, and that paucity, more often than not, increases suffering. In any event Arjuna’s dilemma goes beyond a single difficult decision. He really needs a way to approach whatever the world throws at him so as to live a good and worthy life, and Krishna’s advice to him is wide-reaching.

Krishna tells Arjuna of three practices that lead to Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of suffering: Karma Yoga, or the practice of selfless service, Bhakti Yoga, or the practice of loving devotion, and Jnana Yoga, or the practice of knowledge and insight. They are considered separate paths, and we’ll discuss them separately, but as you’ll soon see they are all intimately connected: there are two components to Karma Yoga, and it turns out that Bhakti Yoga facilitates the first, and Jnana Yoga facilitates the second.

The first component of Karma Yoga, or selfless service, is acting not out of our own desires, but out of dedication to something greater than ourselves. For the theists among us, a natural choice for that “something greater” is God, and Krishna says as much. The non-theists among us have a little work to do to figure out what that greater thing is. It could be an abstract concept like justice, or liberty. It could be a group of people like your family, or your country, or all life on Earth. Whatever that greater thing is it has to meet two basic criteria. It has to be something you feel a deep personal devotion to, and it has to be something great and enduring. Those two requirements can sometimes be in mild conflict with each other. It’s very easy to feel devoted to your family, but your family isn’t much greater or more enduring than you are. All life on Earth is much closer to eternity, but it can also be harder to have a personal connection with. Which is probably one major reason so many religions have deities that take on human form: to make the eternal accessible.

Of course selfless service is not an alien notion for us: a commitment to service is a component of most world religions in general, and a central pillar of Unitarian Universalism in particular. In part it comes from a recognition that even wonderful things, when done only for one’s self, are ultimately not totally satisfying. At the end of it, you’re left with a bit of a sense of “Is that all?” King Solomon had the definitive word on this feeling in the Book of Ecclesiastes. To paraphrase, he said: “I gained more wisdom than anyone; I became fantastically rich and powerful; I built buildings and monuments and gardens; I sampled the best food and wine; I had wives and concubines. I did everything that people view as valuable and pleasurable, and in the end, it all rings hollow and futile.” There is within us a yearning to be part of something more than ourselves. If you tend to view semi-mystical statements like that with suspicion and scorn, consider this peculiar truth about human nature: for the great majority of us, one of the most effective and reliable ways to feel better is to help someone else. That simple fact, that most of us derive joy from helping others, has been something of a touchstone for me during this last summer. When I get depressed because the morning news is full of fresh acts of intolerance and cruelty, it’s good to remember that somewhere through the collective spirit of humankind there runs a vein of something golden and beautiful.


The second component of Karma Yoga is to let go of all expectations for the results of our service. This one is a familiar part of Eastern religions: Taoists and Buddhists will feel very much at home with doing good work for the sake of doing good work, without becoming attached to the results. I personally struggled with this concept for a long time. I used to think: “How can you care about what you’re working towards, and then not care about how it turns out? Are they advocating apathy?” But it isn’t apathy; it’s more a matter of perspective and acceptance in the spirit of the Serenity Prayer[2]. Of course you should try to change the things you can change, but trying to control things you can’t control is a recipe for unnecessary heartache. Let’s say you decide to swim the English Channel[3]. You wouldn’t just show up on Shakespeare Beach in Dover one day and say, “What the heck, I think I’ll swim to France today. If I make it, great, if I don’t, oh well, whatever.” No: you’d train, you’d look at the weather predictions, you’d hire an experienced pilot to escort you. But having done all of that, you’d still have to go into the water knowing that the outcome depended on the wind, the waves, the currents, and the jellyfish, none of which are under your control.


The second practice Krishna talks about is Bhakti Yoga, or loving devotion. The key notion here is that whatever actions we take in service our something greater should be motivated not by duty, not by obligation, not by the need to keep up appearances, but by gratitude and love. Bhakti Yoga seeks to nurture that love by keeping it fresh and current in our lives and thoughts through ritual, worship, acts of devotion, and meditation. You can find Bhakti Yoga in many world religions. When a Muslim prays five times a day to Allah, that’s not quite Bhakti Yoga: there is remembrance and worship, but the motivation is a complex mixture of love, awe, fear, and duty. When a Sufi prays five times a day to Allah with the overriding motivation of dissolution in loving communion with God, that’s Bhakti Yoga. There are also many examples of Bhakti Yoga in the Bible. In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul says[4]:


Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.


And you can read about Paul’s missionary journey to Macedonia in the Book of Acts. One day, for example, Paul and Silas are walking around in Philippi, and as usual they get arrested, beaten to a pulp and thrown into the dungeon. And how do they respond? They’re up at midnight, singing songs of praise to the Lord so joyously and loudly that they cause an earthquake![5] That’s Bhakti Yoga with an exclamation mark and with special effects thrown in for good measure.


As I mentioned before, Bhakti Yoga is its own independent path to enlightenment, but it’s also a big help if your main thing is Karma Yoga and you’re trying to commit yourself to selfless service. That’s because we human beings, as any biological being must, have a powerful instinct for self preservation. Acting against our own interests for any extended period of time feels unnatural and makes us grouchy. The major exception is if you really love something. If I were to walk up to you on the street and tell you to burn your arm, you’d probably have a few choice things to say to me about where I could go and what I could do to myself when I got there. But a parent will run into a burning building without a second thought to save their child. When you really love someone or something, somehow the borders of your instinct for self preservation grow to include them. Love expands us. And in that expansion, there is a hint of Jnana Yoga as well.


The third practice that Krishna speaks of, Jnana Yoga, is both the hardest to explain and also considered the most difficult to follow. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna explains it as understanding the difference between the field of activity and the knower of that field. The field of activity is the physical manifestation, the transient body we live in. The knower of the field is the atman, or soul, which in truth is inseparable from the supreme, all-pervading and eternal consciousness which is Krishna Himself. In understanding the difference between the two, one’s sense of separation from the great All dissolves. People often speak of this as an extinction of the self, but really it’s an infinite expansion of the self.


This is, of course, a hopeless oversimplification of a complex doctrine. But even from everyday considerations it’s clear that the boundaries most people visualize for themselves are much too narrow. It’s worth taking a moment to really think about this. What do you consider to be the boundaries of your self? Is your self your physical body? Is it your thoughts and feelings? Your soul? Let’s start with the collection of chemicals bound in your current body. The atoms in your body were created inside stars and have been a part of countless other objects and creatures before they became part of you. And your skin, respiratory tract and digestive tract are porous. With every single breath you exchange hundreds of quintillions of atoms with the environment[6]. Just from having breathed the air in the sanctuary for the last hour, the body you had when you walked in has been inseparably intermingled with that of every other person here. Radioisotope studies on tissue replacement indicate that outside of a few long lasting items like tooth enamel, cerebral neurons, and the lenses in your eyes, almost every other atom in your body today wasn’t part of you ten years ago[7]. So the separation between your physical body and the world is entirely illusory.


Or maybe your self is not your physical body, but the collection of your thoughts and how you influence the world. But if that’s true, how do you find the edge of a thought? Have you had a friend, a mentor, a teacher, or the cashier in the grocery store say something to you that changed your life? Have you read a book that influenced how you think? If what really defines your self is your thoughts, then your self is spread across the world like a sparkling, ephemeral cloth, touching everyone you ever made an impact on, and everyone they made an impact on, and everyone they made an impact on.


For the discussion of the self as soul you should read the Bhagavad Gita directly. Krishna talks about the soul at length, and he does it using a vocabulary and set of concepts that require serious study to understand. But just based on what we’ve talked about today, if someone were to say “Your skin doesn’t delimit you in space;” if someone were to say “The dates of your birth and death don’t delimit you in time;” if someone were to say “The lines of causation that resulted in you stretch back to the beginning of time, and what you do with your life will echo until time’s end;” if someone were to say “You are a full and integral participant in the evolution of the glorious universe around you,” well you might be inclined to view those statements not as strange and esoteric, but as straightforward declarations of fact.


So there in a nutshell is the basic message of the Bhagavad Gita as adapted for Unitarian Universalists. Find something greater than yourself: something towards which you feel great personal commitment and devotion. Keep that devotion alive and vibrant with daily reminders and expressions of love. Give to it of your time, your energy, your self, openly, unstintingly, joyously. And know deep down that you are not a passing bubble of foam on an uncaring cosmic sea: you are an intrinsic and inseparable part of something vast, beautiful and eternal.


Of course none of this will stop bad things from happening to you. And none of it will stop you from getting hurt when bad things do happen. It’s just that of all that is less important when you walk in the constant awareness that your purpose and your being transcend the mere sum of your daily circumstances.

I can tell you that reading the Bhagavad Gita has been very helpful to me personally in dealing with the latest stage of my daughters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that it was 16 years ago that Sarah was hiding under the Emerson coffee table so she could eat her cookies in peace. I remember rocking them to sleep when they were babies as if it were yesterday, and if I close my eyes, I can almost feel their tiny bodies cuddled up against me, their absence a tingle on my arms and an ache in my chest. I remember looking at those sweet little faces and fervently wishing for them every good thing in life: loyal friends, teachers who would see and bring out the best in them, satisfying work, partners who would be kind and true, strawberry lemonade on sun-splashed beaches and hot chocolate next to the fireplace in winter, health, happiness, love. And now they are 19 and 21 and moving in the world far beyond the tiny sphere over which I have any influence. They are swimming the English Channel, and that means their lives will be long or short, their journeys will be calm or turbulent, they will suffer little or they will suffer greatly. That’s their birthright as finite human beings in an all too imperfect world, and that is a hard pill to swallow. But the Gita reminds me to look again with different eyes and see two strong young women: warm-hearted, thoughtful, committed champions of the Earth determined to leave this planet in better shape than they found it. To worry about them too much would be to commit an error of perspective and miss the main point, which is that, apparently, Lord Krishna has been spending some time riding along with my girls, helping to navigate the Honda Fit.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Mahatma Ghandi

[1] RLST 183/SAST 366, The Bhagavad Gita, Hugh Flick

[2] One common version of the Serenity Prayer is: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are many other versions. The prayer originated with American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

[3] If you actually are thinking of doing this, you’ll want to visit www.channelswimmingassociation.com

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV version)

[5] Acts 16:20 – 26

[6] To estimate the number of atoms exchanged between your body and the environment with every breath you can start with the volume of air displaced by your lungs. Most of what goes in also comes back out, but your body absorbs some atoms and expels other atoms, making the chemical composition of the exhaled breath different from the inhaled breath. From that change in the proportions of the gasses, you can calculate the volume of the exchanged gas, and from there it’s a straightforward matter to find the number of atoms exchanged. The result will vary depending on size of the person, the temperature, the elevation, whether the person is at rest or exercising, etc. But a ball-park estimate puts the number of oxygen atoms exchanged per breath at something on the order of 5 x 1020, or 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. And that doesn’t count CO2 or water vapor.

[7] See for example “Measuring atomic bomb-derived 14C levels in human remains to determine Year of Birth and/or Year of Death,” by Gregory W. L. Hodgins, the final report in August 2009 of a study funded by the US Department of Justice, Document 227839, Award number 2005-IJ-CX-K013, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/227839.pdf, or the older work by Oak Ridge Lab atomic scientist Paul C. Aebersold in 1950s.