The Tortoise Shell, the Umbrella, and Hindu Meditation

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna (Barbara Miller’s translation, pt. 2 stanzas 55-58):

When he [the yogi] gives up desires in his mind,

is content with the self within himself,

then he is said to be a man

whose insight is sure, Arjuna.


When suffering does not disturb his mind,

when his craving for pleasures has vanished,

when attraction, fear, and anger are gone,

he is called a sage whose thought is sure.


When he shows no preference

in fortune or misfortune

and neither exults nor hates,

his insight is sure.


When, like a tortoise retracting

its limbs, he withdraws his senses

completely from sensuous objects,

his insight is sure.

Here’s another way to think about this move of the Hindu meditator: there is the big and serene “Blue Sky” Self (what Hindus call the Atman) and there is the “cloud-worried” little self (the grasping and avoidant self). But what if you identify with the Atman as your “true self” and retreat into the Atman as the tortoise retreats beneath his shell? Then the passing storm clouds of Prakriti (the seen, or everything else moving about in the ever transitory world) can come and go, as clouds in the otherwise blue sky come and go, and you can retain your equanimity because that stuff going on “out there” is not you—not the thing that you identify with via desires and aversions. You identify yourself, beneath the dome of your big sky mind, with the indestructable and eternal Atman.

The below video illustrates rather nicely, I think, the tortoise-shell move of the Hindu meditator, but the shell of protection is not the tortoise-shell, but the raincoat and umbrella. If you retreat beneath the metaphorical tortoise-shell, the raincoat, the umbrella—that is, the dome of your skull, your skull dome, under which resides your true and eternal Big Self—you can have a free soul. The clouds of Maya, of Prakriti—of the ever changing appearances—will touch you not, and you’ll discover who you really are (the serene and unchanging essence and consciousness behind all things, the Atman).

And you can dance inside.

At least that’s the theory.

Here are some of the lyrics for the above song:

So it’s vain to remain and chatter

and to wait for a clearer sky.

Helter skelter, I must fly for shelter

till the clouds roll by.

This disassociative move is not just characteristic of Hindus, of course, but of Christian mystics, gnostics, Platonists, Stoics, and Buddhists. In a world of grotesque suffering and constant change, it’s a human move that has been tried in any number of guises—even in musicals.

The Buddha said that the world is burning. It’s also raining. Find something bigger and seemingly more stable to love, a port in the storm, and stop caring what the world is up to?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to The Tortoise Shell, the Umbrella, and Hindu Meditation

  1. Pingback: Atheist universes without end: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s ironically titled new book, “The Grand Design” « Prometheus Unbound

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