Editor’s Note: Scott Teitsworth is the author of Krishna in the Sky With Diamonds: The Bhagavad Gita as Psychedelic Guide (Park Street Press/Inner Traditions, 2012). The book reveals psychological insights from the ancient world that can release and amplify human potential, with or without the boost of psychedelics. The following story is adapted from the introduction to the book.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most important of the ancient writings of the human race. It forms part of the Mahabharata, probably the world’s longest epic, which gleans the cream of the wisdom of a large and disparate group of thinkers in what is today northern India. Of uncertain date, the earliest changeover from oral to written form is likely to have been roughly contemporary with the Buddha, around 500 BCE. Its author is anonymous, known only as Vyasa (Writer).
In the Gita, as it is affectionately called, there are just two main characters—the seeker Arjuna and his guru Krishna—plus a narrator, Sanjaya. Krishna is a human being, but in the reverential attitude of India a guru is also a living incarnation of the Absolute, the supreme principle, that which leaves nothing out. In Vedanta, the philosophical system of the Gita and its close cousins the Upanishads, everyone and all things are the Absolute in essence, and the seeker’s path, such as it is, is to come to know/realize this truth. It is a path that begins and ends right where you are.
Arjuna and Krishna are talking on the battlefield in the middle of a great war. Some people are bothered that the Gita unfolds in such a discordant environment, imagining that a scripture should be set in a garden of paradise. But life is filled with conflicts, great and small. The Gita’s message is that we are sure to face difficulties throughout our life, but we can learn to manage them well. It is not about how to avoid problems by making an escape or by holding on to a single predetermined viewpoint.
The setting of the battlefield also tells us that the way to peace is not through rearranging the outside world. The world, with its complex problems, will almost certainly not be fixed by us no matter how hard we try. But we are eminently capable of major improvements to ourselves, especially given some expert guidance. We need to find solid ground within ourselves, so that whether the winds blow fair or foul we will not be knocked over. Paradoxically, once we heal ourselves and become stabilized we can begin to have a beneficial impact on our surroundings, but if we confront the world’s ills from a discordant position, our efforts will be plagued with unintended and often tragic consequences.
The Bhagavad Gita presents a detailed scientific psychology lightly clothed in the type of religious-sounding narrative in favor at the time. Being a textbook on what is required to produce a truly liberated adult human being, it does not impose any rigid structure or set of rules to follow. Its goal is to teach people how to make their own decisions based on their deepest nature, because, while that nature is constant and dependable, circumstances are forever in flux. What is appropriate in one instance may be a deadly mistake in another. A truly awake human being will know how to act well without having to seek direction from any scripture or law library.
As in the era when the Gita was composed, the preceding Vedic age was a period of intense religious ferment and exploration. The writings that have been preserved from it, the Vedas, record the poetic fancies and psychological insights garnered by seekers of truth over a long period of time. The Bhagavad Gita and other contemporary writings were written to highlight the best ideas of the Vedas while discarding their excess baggage. They also added new insights, the most important being monotheism in the sense of recognizing the overarching unity of life.
The Vedas are replete with references to the ritual use of a substance called soma for religious inspiration. The soma ceremony, in which the potion was imbibed, was a frequent practice in ancient India, and it infuses the Vedic scriptures to a remarkable degree. The formula for its preparation is unknown, but it is thought to have included psychedelic mushrooms. Soma’s effects are quite similar, if not identical, to the psychedelics we know of today, particularly psilocybin and LSD.
Although the later philosophic critiques of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita tend to be rationally oriented, ecstasy remains as an important feature. Gita means “song,” and enlightenment lifts the heart like a song. A song differs from ordinary speech in the same way that ecstasy differs from ordinary life.
We don’t know why the formula for soma was lost over the passage of many years, but changing attitudes may have redirected the exploration of the mind to other, more ascetic practices. With the sacred soma ceremonies forgotten, what they had once accomplished began to be viewed solely as a mystical transmission from guru to disciple, brought about by a certain touch or ritual, or simply some secret knowledge. Today this is the firmly established orthodox position, but when the Gita was written there was no doubt that what brought about realization was the ingestion of soma. Mental preparation was important, even crucial, but only in rare cases was it enough to ignite realization. With the assistance of the soma medicine, however, any properly prepared disciple could have a mind-expanding experience.
Fasting, wandering in the desert, meditation, extreme exercise, near-death experiences, and many more techniques can produce profound mental and emotional states, and all have been practiced by humans since ancient times. However, there is every reason to believe that the events described in these passages are a psychedelic medicine trip. The resemblance is striking for anyone who has undertaken one. There is an archetypal opening-up process being described here that can tell us a great deal about how the mind responds spiritually to a variety of intense stimulations. While sometimes harrowing enough to be severely unpleasant, a carefully planned and guided soma trip is comparatively civilized and much less hazardous than most of the alternatives.
Modern orthodox sensibilities have overlaid a puritanical blanket of denial onto the innocence and sacredness of the ancient soma rituals. Only in the second half of the 20th century did those ceremonies come to be appreciated anew as having tremendous spiritual potential.
In keeping with the worldwide historical trend toward puritanism in religion, the drug element implied in it, which is limited to this single chapter, has been replaced with a belief in a purely inspirational experience such as can be achieved through yoga or meditation. While this is a healthy development in some respects, psychedelic medicines have the capacity to confer the equivalent of many years of strenuous practice or therapy in a much shorter period of time and without pushing the body to the edge of death, as occurs with fasting, dehydration, solitary confinement and similar techniques. In the modern era, the use of psychedelics has been aggressively suppressed, but they are beginning to find their rightful place in a sane but cautious pharmacopeia once again.
Psychedelics contribute to a long list of positive mental attitudes, aiding in internal adjustments that foster happiness and expanded intelligence, while promoting outwardly directed values such as tolerance, humility, loving kindness and compassion. In the Gita, the pupil Arjuna, guided by his guru Krishna, uses soma to help him make his theoretical training real. The first 10 chapters detail his lengthy course of mental preparation. Chapter XI deals with his psychedelic sojourn in which he converts the theories he has been taught into direct experience, and the remaining seven chapters show him how to integrate his experience into a viable way of life.
Chapter XI, titled “Vi´svaruˉpa Dar´sana Yoga” or “The Unitive Vision of the Absolute,” is one of the most eloquent descriptions of a complex psychedelic experience ever recorded.
Very few people who have taken psychedelic medicines in the last 50 years have undergone the extensive preparation that was once considered a prerequisite, as evidenced by Arjuna’s regimen. Even fewer have had the opportunity to be guided back into a dynamic life-expression by such a compassionate helpmate as Krishna. (For those interested in the complete psychology, the entire Gita is interpreted from a modern standpoint in my online commentary called Nitya Teachings.)
The Gita does not explicitly recommend any specific form of ritual behavior, but it provides intelligent guidelines for bringing each life to its full potential. The way taken will depend on individual choice and the so-called accidents of fate. Because of my own familiarity with psychedelic medicines, especially LSD, I feel qualified to describe their spiritual efficacy in broad outline. The Gita’s illuminating perspective on Arjuna’s visionary experience, whatever it might have been, could well serve as a blueprint for anyone in a position to safely attempt a comparable experiment.
The central claim of Vedantic philosophy, as presented in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is that each person is the Absolute in essence, and our challenge is to come to remember that truth in a world where objects and events constantly distract us from it, often even intentionally. This not only gives us unlimited hope, it empowers us to do our best. We are accorded the highest respect imaginable in advance. If everyone and everything is sacred, then there is no possibility of sacrilege. We have no need for divine intervention, because we are already miraculous. Life is a continuous “divine intervention,” so what more could be needed?
The marginalizing of psychedelic drugs by a paranoiac power elite is no accident. Like the Gita, psychedelics impart revolutionary insight in its truest sense. Author Barbara Kingsolver asks rhetorically, in her 2009 novel The Lacuna, “Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?” Nothing could be more central to our happiness than this type of conversion.
The special technique of the Gita is to unify all polarizations, inwardly and outwardly, in what is called yoga. If we stop feeding the differences, they will melt away. The way to achieve this is to become fully realized human beings. No external goal, and certainly no aggressive action, can bring it about. The temptation to engage in partisan battle can only be resisted with an inner calm founded on wisdom.
Scientists are constrained to limit themselves to a search based on facts, strictly from the outside looking in, but philosophers, and particularly yogis—dedicated seekers of truth—are free to employ an inside out approach also. The ideal is for both orientations to mutually reinforce and correct each other. Obviously, psychedelics instruct from the inside out. Afterward, balancing their influence requires tempering with some careful “outside in” analysis.
Whenever the mind goes beyond its accustomed boundaries, it undergoes an expansion that feels like liberation or realization, but no one has yet ascertained any end to human potential. Greater expansion is a perennial possibility.
In the aftermath of an intense psychedelic experience like Arjuna’s, there is a period of profound openness and vulnerability to suggestion. Arjuna is fortunate to be under the guidance of a wide-awake and compassionate guru who will carefully ease him back into the flow of everyday life. After the brief period of legal psychedelics in the mid-20th century came to an end, many who experimented with them were unsupervised and unprepared. They encountered all sorts of bizarre and negative influences during the critical recovery period, eventually including intentional sabotage by governmental agents provocateurs, and some serious damage occurred. Even a seemingly simple act like watching television can lodge twisted attitudes deep in the psyche, which continue to cause confusion for a long time afterward. The wake of a trip, like early childhood, is a time for great care in nurturing only the best aspects of life, because what is encountered goes much deeper than usual and is very hard to dislodge. The Gita’s attitude is clear: Only take these medicines in the right circumstances, with proper preparation, and under the guidance of a loving person you trust and who knows you well.
In a way, this part of the Gita makes more sense as an instruction manual for the guides, rather than for the ones taking the soma. The presentation is rather frightening for a prospective tripper, but it prepares the guide for some touchy situations that may well occur. And of course it has a great deal to offer those with no interest at all in psychedelic excursions.
Guru means whatever removes the darkness of our ignorance. It is indicative of respect and admiration toward an excellent teacher, which is the correct attitude to have toward a guru.
Nataraja Guru, whose 1961 translation is used here, visualized the 18 chapters of the Gita as forming an arch shape, with the first and last chapters resting on the solid ground of everyday life, which he called the horizontal plane, and the two middle chapters, IX and X, forming the keystone and dealing only with the most sublime or vertical aspects of the Absolute. In between are graded series linking the two poles of the horizontal and vertical, the everyday and the spiritual. Chapter XI is the first reentry of the seeker Arjuna after the transcendental, fully vertical portion, where his mind is lifted as high as it can go. This chapter is somewhat anomalous with the rest of the Gita, and it can more easily stand on its own than any of the others.
We might expect Arjuna’s mind-blowing vision of the nature of the Absolute to come at the high point of the arch of the Gita, in chapters IX or X. In fact, Arjuna’s experience takes place a little past the peak. The reason for this is that the two central chapters are focused almost exclusively on Krishna’s nature as the Absolute. In their purely vertical orientation, there is not yet enough of Arjuna present to have any kind of experience, no matter how sublime. Krishna’s glowing description of the Absolute in those two chapters did clarify his mind, though, and now he is properly prepared for a brief but vital merger with the fundamental ground of existence.
The Gita is one of the most commented-upon books of all time, and it would seem its subject matter should have long been exhausted. But that is by no means the case, and my interpretation is unique in many ways. In particular, chapter XI has not to my knowledge been interpreted in terms of a soma experience. Because of humanity’s pressing need to find noncoercive methods to ameliorate its violent and destructive tendencies, this aspect of the ancient knowledge has a special value. How to use powerful mind-altering agents wisely being more attractive to many people than wading through an entire discipline of understanding the universe, that is the main focus here. I am not dismayed, because the one undoubtedly leads to the other. Psychedelics are indeed “gateway drugs” in that they are very likely to lead to an indulgence in stronger stuff: open exploration of the mind and the meaning of life.
Scott Teitsworth is a lifelong student of Indian philosophy and modern science under the tutelage of Nitya Chaitanya Yati, himself a disciple of Nataraja Guru. Teitsworth and his wife have taught classes on the Bhagavad Gita and Indian philosophy since the 1970s. They live in Portland, Oregon. Find him online: http://scottteitsworth.tripod.com.