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Karen: Dearest James! First, I’m so excited that you will be back in Princeton in May. Second, I’m really enjoying the Bhagavad Gita DVDs. I have some questions:
1. You say that sin is when your conscience kicks in and you feel guilty about doing something. What if you do something and you feel guilty because you’ve been raised to feel guilty about it because it a culturally or religiously determined norm? If you break this cultural or religious norm, are you not following dharma (for example, sex before marriage)?
James: There are God’s laws and men’s laws, Karen. Sometimes men’s laws coincide with God’s laws and sometimes they don’t. You need to use your discrimination.
Basically, if you are going to get the kind of pure and abiding mind necessary for liberation you are going to have to go back to zero. You should reject everything you have learned and then take back those conditionings that are in harmony with the truth of your nature. Some of what we have been given is beautiful, some not so good. Some is insidiously ugly masquerading as good. It is incumbent on an inquirer to make a fearless moral inventory.
Let’s look at the “no sex before marriage” idea. In the first place, we need to start by questioning the idea of marriage itself. What does marriage mean? Does the state or the church make this determination? The state has one idea, the church another. Do your parents decide for you? In India neither the church nor the state determines the nature of marriage. Your parents decide, according to their values, which in general are the values of the society, which is fixated on the idea of male children. If a woman does not produce a male child after one or two attempts, men feel free to abandon the woman. Does the individual decide what it is? If the individual decides, what values inform the decision? There are marriages, for example, where there is no sex. Is that a marriage? The state says no. If your husband or wife does not consummate the marriage, it is considered null and void. For me, neither the society, the state, my parents, religion or anything else defines marriage. For me you are married when you love someone and they love you in the same way with the same understanding. This may involve sex or not. This may involve legal marriage or a church wedding or nothing more that a look of understanding between two people. Then what is sex? Is it just the in-and-out? Is there love? What kind of love? Etc., etc.
The long and the short of it is that you have to think for yourself and determine what is right according to your best knowledge at the time. In society you will find that worldly people, God bless them, will often say that they are the way they are because of the way they are raised. There is always a presupposition that their conditioning is the last word in who they are. I once asked a woman why she kept a dirty, messy house, and without a trace of irony she said, “Because my mother kept house like that.”
Guilt can come from several sources: violation of a universal value, a social or religious value or a personal value. You should never violate a universal value; however, there are exceptions. For example, non-injury is life’s number-one value. Yet a surgeon often has to inflict injury on another to save life. There are tons of stupid, small social values that you should break as a matter of principle.
Our problem as inquirers is subtle body agitation. We need a quiet, peaceful mind if we are going to assimilate the import of the teachings. But not all agitation is bad. For example, if you are a smoker you will feel peaceful when you smoke, but when you try to quit, not smoking will cause a lot of agitation. So is this good or bad agitation? If you value your health, it is good agitation. If you value short-term peace, it is bad agitation. You have examine your values and make the determination.
In our case, our primary value is freedom. So we have to look at everything from that point of view. If some dumb habit we have picked up from the family or society is disturbing us, then we need to get rid of it.
Vedanta is not religion. It is not for sheep. You have to think for yourself and experiment with your life to find out what is best for you. If you cannot do that, then it is good to let society or religion tell you what to do. Vedanta takes courage. Society tries its best to beat all the initiative and individuality out of you that it can. It does not want you thinking for yourself. It wants you doing what you are suppposed to do. The shoulds and the supposed-tos all need to be ruthlessly examined.
Karen: 2. I’m not clear on where maya came from. Did awareness create it?
James: Maya is just the non-appreciation of awareness as everything that is. It is not a thing that is created. It is a power in awareness that does not affect awareness in any way. It has no beginning, because it exists by the grace of awareness, but it ends when knowledge removes it. Awareness is not a doer, a creator. Creation happens when awareness illumines ignorance. Ignorance is not stupid or unintelligent. It is totally conscious. It projects this intelligently-designed universe. We don’t have to worry about maya. We have to worry about avidya. Avidya is your personal ignorance of who you are. That is removed with self-knowledge. Maya remains. But maya does not condition you when your avidya is removed – because you are awareness. Maya does condition the individual, the subtle body, Karen, but that is not a problem for you when you know you are awareness. That part of you will always be conditioned by something.
Karen: Thank you for putting up with my questions. I was thinking about you yesterday and just wanted to send you an email saying that I love you, but then these questions came up and I thought I could do both!
~ Love you lots, Karen
James: You are most welcome, Karen.
~ Much love, James