Hinduism is a major world religion with very ancient roots stemming from the ancient Religion of the Sun. Descriptions of being in the present moment (often described as being mindful) are recorded in a number of its ancient texts, with references to it dating at least as far back as the Vedic era when the oldest Upanishads were first written down – thought to be from around 800 BC onwards.
An analogy for being in the moment is given in the Katha Upanishad. It uses an analogy of a person riding a chariot,1 directing his driver who holds the reins of five horses. The chariot, the one riding the chariot, the driver, and horses, are all symbolic. They’re used to teach the reader about how to be “mindful,” and the consequences that derive from either being mindful or not.
‘Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot, the intellect (buddhi) the charioteer, and the mind the reins.’
‘The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads. When he (the Highest Self) is in union with the body, the senses, and the mind, then wise people call him the Enjoyer.’
‘He who has no understanding and whose mind (the reins) is never firmly held, his senses (horses) are unmanageable, like vicious horses of a charioteer.’
‘But he who has understanding and whose mind is always firmly held, his senses are under control, like good horses of a charioteer.’
‘He who has no understanding, who is unmindful and always impure, never reaches that place, but enters into the round of births.’
‘But he who has understanding, who is mindful and always pure, reaches indeed that place, from whence he is not born again.’
‘But he who has understanding for his charioteer, and who holds the reins of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Vishnu.’
‘Beyond the senses there are the objects, beyond the objects there is the mind, beyond the mind there is the intellect, the Great Self is beyond the intellect.’
~ The Katha Upanishad, translated by Max Müller 2
The following passage from The Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic, describes how clear perception arises from having one’s behaviour, mind and senses under control, allowing one to know and behold one’s higher self:
“From the destruction of all sinful deeds, knowledge arises in men. Upon the appearance of Knowledge, one beholds one’s Soul in one’s understanding even as one sees one’s own reflection in a polished mirror. One obtains misery in consequence of one’s senses being unrestrained. One obtains happiness in consequence of one’s senses being restrained. Therefore, one should restrain one’s mind by self-effort from objects apprehended by the senses.”
~ The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva: Mokshadharma Parva: Section CCIV (Translation by K.M. Ganguli) 3
A clear controlled mind is compared to a calm clear pool of water reflecting clear images in this passage. One can see their own reflection in it – until the water gets stirred. Thus it explains when the mind and senses are agitated, understanding is lost and ignorance and delusion results:
“As when quantity of water is clear, images reflected in it can be seen by the eye, after the same manner, if the senses be unperturbed, the Soul is capable of being viewed by the understanding. If, however, the quantity of water gets stirred, the person standing by it can no longer see those images. Similarly, if the senses become perturbed, the Soul can no longer be seen by the understanding. Ignorance begets Delusion. Delusion affects the mind. When the mind becomes vitiated, the five senses which have the mind for their refuge become vitiated also. Surcharged with Ignorance, and sunk in the mire of worldly objects, one cannot enjoy the sweets of contentment or tranquillity.”
~ The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva: Mokshadharma Parva: Section CCIV (Translation by K.M. Ganguli) 4
From The Bhagavad Gita
Some of the most well-known descriptions of being the present moment in Hindu scripture are found in the Bhagavad Gita, a section of Mahabharata where the divine prince Krishna advises the warrior prince Arjuna before a great battle, portrayed as a holy war between forces of good and evil. Krishna, supporting the side of good, drives Arjuna’s chariot onto the battlefield, and their discussion occurs as they are poised between the two armies before the onset of war.
Some see the Bhagavad Gita as an expanded version of the chariot analogy found in the Katha Upanishad, in which Krishna can be understood to represent the enlightened intellect under the influence of the spirit, guiding Arjuna’s chariot, and Arjuna himself, towards salvation, amidst the struggle between the forces of light and darkness that exist in the world and within oneself.
In this passage from the second chapter, Krishna explains how desire destroys discernment and creates delusion, leading one astray. But through maintaining a self-controlled inner state free from attachment, one can attain inner peace which leads to right discrimination:
“When a man dwells on the objects of sense, he creates an attraction for them; attraction develops into desire, and desire breeds anger.
Anger induces delusion; delusion, loss of memory; through loss of memory, reason is shattered; and loss of reason leads to destruction.
But the self-controlled soul, who moves amongst sense objects, free from either attachment or repulsion, he wins eternal Peace.
Having attained Peace, he becomes free from misery; for when the mind gains peace, right discrimination follows.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Shri Purohit Swami, Chapter 2, verse 62-65 5
The following passage explains the importance of keeping one’s mind (or attention) undivided, and detached from “the call of the senses” and the selfish desires of the ego, living instead fully in the Self (the Being/consciousness within). By doing this, it says one awakes to the light in the night of all creatures—being in the light of consciousness, when all else remain in the sleep of the subconscious. This subconscious state is the “night of ignorance” that the “world calls day”, because most are in that state during daily life.
“The disunited mind is far from wise; how can it meditate; how be at peace? When you know no peace, how can you know joy? When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgement as storms drive a boat of its chartered course at sea.
Use all your power to free the senses from attraction and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self. Such as Sage awakes to light in the night of all creatures. That which the world calls day is the night of ignorance to the wise.
As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage. But this is not so with the desirer of desires.
They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of “I”, “me” and “mine” to be united with the Lord. This is the Supreme State. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaran, Chapter 2, verses 66-72 6
Krishna also explains actions should be done from this state of “equanimity” or “evenness of mind” so that one can act rightly, without attachment or desire for reward. He describes being and acting from this state as a form of Yoga (spiritual practice) that leads to inner freedom:
“But thou hast only the right to work, but none to the fruit thereof. Let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamored of inaction.
Perform all thy actions with mind concentrated on the Divine, renouncing attachment and looking upon success and failure with an equal eye. Spirituality implies equanimity.
Physical action is far inferior to [action done with] an intellect concentrated on the Divine. Have recourse then to Pure Intelligence. It is only the petty-minded who work for reward.
When a man attains to Pure Reason, he renounces in this world the results of good and evil alike. Cling thou to Right Action. Spirituality is the real art of living.
The sages guided by Pure Intellect renounce the fruit of action; and, freed from the chains of rebirth, they reach the highest bliss.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Shri Purohit Swami, Chapter 2, verse 47-51 7
Being steadfast in Yoga… perform actions, abandoning attachment… This evenness of mind (in regard to success and failure) is known as Yoga.
Work (with desire) is verily far inferior to that performed with the mind undisturbed by thoughts of results… seek refuge in this evenness of mind…
Endued with this evenness of mind, one frees oneself in this life, alike from vice and virtue. Devote thyself, therefore, to this Yoga. Yoga is the very dexterity of work.
~ The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Chapter 2, verse 47-50 8
The spiritual context to the Kurukshetra War Arjuna is to fight in, as related in the Mahabharata, is that the great God Vishnu has manifested on earth as Krishna to uphold dharma (divine law) and turn back the tide of evil on earth. This culminates in a great holy war between the Pandava brothers aligned with dharma (Arjuna being one), who Krishna advises, and the opposing forces of the Kauravas, who have plotted to murder them and their mother, and used trickery and deceit to take over their lands, which they refuse to return. The war results after all attempts by the Pandava brothers at peaceful resolution have been rebuffed. A number of kingdoms and warriors join the war, choosing to support either side. Those on the evil side outnumber the good.
Before the battle, Arjuna despairs, not wishing attack his enemies, many of whom are relatives, friends, kinsmen, and his former teachers. Seeing Arjuna overcome by emotion, Krishna councils him on how to act from a clear state of serene detachment, or “equanimity”, so he can carry out his duty and uphold dharma without being swayed by passion, anger, desire, or the sensory impulses of “attraction and aversion”.
The following verses describe how by being in this state, a person can learn to bear and face adversity and remain steadfast in their duty in challenging circumstances, whether they bring pleasure or pain:
“Those external relations which bring cold and heat, pain and happiness, they come and go; they are not permanent. Endure them bravely, O Prince!
The hero whose soul is unmoved by circumstance, who accepts pleasure and pain with equanimity, only he is fit for immortality.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, Translated by Shri Purohit Swami, Chapter 2, verses 14-15 9
In this verse, “dharma” refers not just to the divine law, but one’s personal responsibility to abide by and uphold it.
“Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil. The warrior confronted with such a war should be pleased, Arjuna, as it comes as an open gate to heaven. But if you do not participate in this battle against evil, you will incur sin, violating your dharma and your honor.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaran, Chapter 2, verses 31-33 10
This verse explains the state of inner freedom attained by those who are not “shaken by adversity” and remain “steady in wisdom” whether faced with good or evil.
“When a man completely casts away… all the desires of the mind, satisfied in the Self alone by the Self, then is he said to be one of steady wisdom.
He whose mind is not shaken by adversity, who does not hanker after happiness, who has become free from affection, fear, and wrath, is indeed the Muni [sage] of steady wisdom.
He who is everywhere unattached, not pleased at receiving good, nor vexed at evil, his wisdom is fixed.
When also, like the tortoise its limbs, he can completely withdraw the senses from their objects, then his wisdom becomes steady.
Objects fall away from the abstinent man, leaving the longing behind. But his longing also ceases, who sees the Supreme.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Chapter 2, verse 55-59 11
Krishna describes the inner state of “absolute freedom” gained by one who steadfastly finds “rest” in the joy of their own higher Self or Brahman – the inner Being/consciousness that is the spiritual within – without being diverted by either pleasant or unpleasant situations or lower bodily impulses like “lust and anger” that arise in life. In this way, one is said to gain inner light, happiness and freedom independent of circumstances:
“Resting in Brahman, with intellect steady, and without delusion, the knower of Brahman neither rejoiceth on receiving what is pleasant, nor grieveth on receiving what is unpleasant.
With the heart unattached to external objects, he realises the joy that is in the Self. With the heart devoted to the meditation of Brahman, he attains un-decaying happiness.
Since enjoyments that are contact-born are parents of misery alone, and with beginning and end, O son of Kunti, a wise man does not seek pleasure in them.
He who can withstand in this world, before the liberation from the body, the impulse arising from lust and anger, he is steadfast (in Yoga), he is a happy man.
Whose happiness is within, whose relaxation is within, whose light is within, that Yogi alone, becoming Brahman, gains absolute freedom.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Swarupananda, Chapter 5, verse 20-24 12
Jenny Resnick, Jordan Resnick, Justin Norris, and Vida Norris contributed research to this article.
This chariot analogy is known as Ratha Kalpana, and is said to have appeared in later textual references too, See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratha_Kalpana
F. Max Müller (Translator) From The Upunishads, Part II, F. , 1879. Available at sacred-texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15012.htm
Kisari Mohan Ganguli (translator), The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Book 12: Santi Parva: Mokshadharma Parva: Section CCIV, (published between 1883 and 1896), available at sacred-texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/
Shri Purohit Swami (translator) The Bhagavad Gita (first published 1935) p. 7 of online edition available at www.holybooks.com: http://holybooks.lichtenbergpress.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Bhagavad-Gita-Translation-by-Shri-Purohit-Swami.pdf
Swami Swarupananda (translator) The Bhagavad Gita (first published 1909) from chapter 2 of online edition available at sacred-texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbg/index.htm