On guilt

Does a sthithapragya – the ideal man of the Gita – feel guilt? This is not a question that has been addressed in the chapters of the Gita that I have studied so far, but upon reflection, my personal opinion seems to be – no.

Hindu philosophy specifies a number of ‘negative feelings’; negative feelings are defined as those feelings that interfere in a man’s performance of his ‘swadharma’. In the 3rd chapter, Krishna tells Arjuna that there is no greater way to becoming a karmayogi than for each person to do their self-duty, to be true to their nature. Arjuna asks Krishna what prevents a man from being true to himself. And Krishna enumerates two ‘negative feelings’ which stand in the way – kaama (desire) and krodha (anger). Krishna says these two feelings lead to a muddling of the intellect, which leads to destruction of equanimity, and eventually to misfortune.

In the course of the Gita, Krishna expands this list to six: kama, krodha, loba, moha, madha and matsarya – desire, anger, greed, intoxication, pride and jealousy. Guilt is an omission here.

An example of guilt leading to delusion and the omission of one’s duties is as follows. Assume that a doctor has to perform an important surgery. For various reasons, the doctor is tired and fatigued by lack of sleep, but against his better judgment, decides to go ahead with the surgery. This surgery turns out to be disastrous, and the patient dies, as a direct result of the doctor’s fatigue. Following this incident, the doctor can never perform any surgery of moderate complexity again, because his failure preys on his mind – he is consumed by an immoblizing, crippling guilt.

Is this an acceptable feeling for a disciplined karmayogi? I think it is not.

Even before reading the Gita, my standard for the description of ‘karmayoga’ was a passage from Kalhil Gibran’s the Prophet, in the chapter on “Giving”. The Prophet compares different attitudes that people have towards giving – for example, some people give because they expect something in return; some people give because they seek favour with God; some people give reluctantly because they are forced to it. And then the Prophet says there is a category of giver who gives like ‘yonder myrtle tree gives its fragrance into the air’ – not cognizant of whether it is doing good or doing bad, expecting nothing either materially or spiritually, but giving because that is its nature. I was deeply moved by this passage and I think in many ways, a sthithapragya should aspire to the same ‘non-conscious’ doing-good that the Prophet’s myrtle tree does, doing one’s self-duty with the faith that God has populated this world such that everyone’s duty plays a part in His creation, whether one is cognizant of it or not. Would the myrtle tree feel anger or greed or jealousy? No. Would the myrtle tree feel guilt? No.

Guilt is an enemy of the ‘living in the present’ which is the state of a jnani. By dwelling on the past, one cannot transcend the future. Krishna clearly addresses the negative feeling on ‘dwelling on the past’ because someone has caused a hurt to you. Strangely, Krishna does not (in the 5 chapters that I have studied) address the negative feeling of ‘dwelling in the past’ because you have caused a hurt to someone else.

Speaking for myself, I find guilt to be a greater immobilizer than anger or desire, though the latter two are also often the cause for misjudgment. But upon reflection, I am able to distinguish three kinds of anger. One is ‘righteous rage’ – for example when you hear about a terrorist attack; the second is ‘anger born out of unfulfilled desire’, which is the Gita’s “krodha”. Both these I am able to deal with fairly dispassionately. The anger that messes around with my head is the anger that is tinged with guilt, the anger born out of an undesirable situation which I feel I could have avoided if I had done something different. This consumes me, makes me obsess over it, leading me into the heart of Krishna’s ‘delusion’.

I want to reach that precious state where I am delivered from anger, desire, greed, intoxication, pride and jealousy; but first, I would like to be delivered from guilt.


One thought on “On guilt

  1. Guilt is the effect of these six “feelings” as you have put. Just like happiness or sorrow, guilt is a state of being rather than a feeling. I think guilt comes when we either do what is not right or we do what is not right. At every stage in our life, we almost know instinctively, what is the right action and often, it is directly opposite to what we want to get/do. So, we spend a lot of time in coming to this “decision” that we already decided we want. And then we wonder why we don’t get that satisfaction or happiness that we thought that act would provide and we are left with guilt. But, guilt too is a state of being. We don’t need to get something to stop feeling guilty. We can decide to be non-guilty any time. Of course, we cannot fake it. It can come only from a true understanding that there is nothing so unique about our mistake to feel guilty about it. In my mind, a “stitha pragnya” is one who is not conditioned by his circumstances to be in a particular state of being. Rather he/she chooses their own state of mind with their own consciousness. But, such a person can still have all the “feelings” of a human being – only thing is that he is the master of them not the reverse. Just my thought – may not match that of Krishna’s though I feel he also says something similar… each one to his own interpretation…

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