The way of the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (usually translated as the “Song of God”) is an episode in the great Sanskrit poem, the Mahabharata. It is composed in the form of a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. Composed sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, it is commonly known as the Gita.
On the brink of the climactic battle between warring branches of the same family, Arjuna the archer is suddenly overwhelmed with misgivings about the justice of killing so many people, some of whom are his friends, teachers and relatives, and expresses his qualms to Krishna, his charioteer:
A: Seeing these my own people arrayed for battle, my limbs collapse and my mouth is parched, my body shakes and my hair stands on end; Gandiva [Arjuna’s bow] slips from my hand, and all my skin seems to be burning. I am not able to stand and my mind seems to be whirling; also I see evil omens. Nor do I see any good in slaying my own people in battle; O Krishna, I desire not victory, nor kingdom, nor pleasures.
Arjuna’s lament goes on for a while, with increasing sophistication:
A: Although these, with a consciousness clouded with greed, see no guilt in the destruction of the family, no crime in hostility to friends, why should not we have the wisdom to draw back from such a sin?
And the grand finale:
A: It is more for my welfare that the sons of Dhritarashtra [the enemy branch of the family] armed should slay me unarmed and unresisting. I will not fight!
Casting down his divine bow and the inexhaustible quiver given to him by the gods for this very occasion, he implores Krishna’s advice, which ensues:
K: Thou grievest for those that should not be grieved for yet speakest words of wisdom. The enlightened man does not mourn either for the living or for the dead. It is not true that at any time I was not, nor thou, nor these kings of men; nor is it true that any of us shall ever cease to be hereafter. As the soul passes physically through childhood and youth and age, so it passes on to the changing of the body. The self-composed man does not allow himself to be disturbed and blinded by this.
That leads up to these magnificent lines about the soul:
K: Weapons cannot cleave it, nor the fire burn, nor do the waters drench it, nor the wind dry. It is uncleavable, it is incombustible, it can neither be drenched nor dried. Eternally stable, immobile, all-pervading, it is for ever and for ever. It is unmanifest, it is unthinkable, it is immutable; therefore knowing it as such, thou shouldst not grieve.
Sadly, Krishna isn’t interested in turning Arjuna into another champion of pacifism. Instead he paints a vivid picture of the disgrace that would befall him should he refuse to fight:
K: Men will recount thy perpetual disgrace, and to one in noble station dishonour is worse than death. The mighty men will think thee fled from the battle through fear, and thou, that wast highly esteemed by them, will allow a smirch to fall on thy honour. Many unseemly words will be spoken by thy enemies, slandering thy strength; what is worse grief than that? Slain thou shalt win Heaven, victorious thou shalt enjoy the earth; therefore arise, resolved upon battle. Make grief and happiness, loss and gain, victory and defeat equal to thy soul and then turn to battle; so thou shalt not incur sin.
Easier said than done! On top of it, Arjuna is told not to act for any benefit nor to be attached to inaction:
K: Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment to inactivity.
Huh? To be able to make himself understood, Krishna must now lay out the meaning of yoga. (Note: The Gita was written before Vivekananda brought yoga to the West, where it was promptly transformed into an exercise cult.) While action without motive calls for a state of consciousness that is hard to come by, once attained, whatever is done, is done perfectly:
K: Yoga is skill in works.
There is only one Power at work in the world. It has no limits other than those which it has imposed on itself. It can become Arjuna’s strength if he allows it to replace his weakness. This is the secret of yoga. What’s more, whenever humanity is passing through a particularly critical phase, this Power takes on a bodily form:
K: Many are my lives that are past, and thine also, O Arjuna; all of them I know, but thou knowest not. Though I am the unborn, though I am imperishable in my self-existence, though I am the Lord of all existences, yet I come into birth by my self-Maya [my power of self-creation]. Whensoever there is the fading of the Dharma [divine order] and the uprising of unrighteousness, then I loose myself forth into birth. For the deliverance of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, for the enthroning of the Right, I am born from age to age.
What is required of Arjuna is to let the Power embodied in Krishna act in himself:
K: Giving up thy works to Me, with thy consciousness free from desire and egoism, fight delivered from the fever of thy soul.
Arjuna remains unconvinced. Gradually Krishna reveals who He truly is and what the world truly is. Yet Arjuna wants more than words; he want to see: “If Thou thinkest that it can be seen by me, O Lord, O Master of Yoga, then show me Thy imperishable Self.” Krishna obliges, sort of:
K: What thou hast to see, this thy human eye cannot grasp; but there is a divine eye, and that eye I now give to thee. Behold Me in My divine Yoga.
Then follows one of the high points of classical Indian (Sanskrit) literature. Arjuna gets to see
Sanjaya [the narrator]: the infinite Godhead whose faces are everywhere and in whom are all the wonders of existence, who multiplies unendingly all the many marvellous revelations of His being, a world-wide Divinity seeing with innumerable eyes, speaking from innumerable mouths, armed for battle with numberless divine uplifted weapons, glorious with divine ornaments of beauty, robed in heavenly raiment of deity, lovely with garlands of divine flowers, fragrant with divine perfumes. Such is the light of this body of God as if a thousand suns had risen at once in heaven. The whole world multitudinously divided and yet unified is visible in the body of the God of Gods, magnificent and beautiful and terrible, the Lord of souls who has manifested in the glory and greatness of his spirit this wild and monstrous and orderly and wonderful and sweet and terrible world. Overcome with marvel and joy and fear Arjuna bows down and adores with words of awe and with clasped hands the tremendous vision.
A: I see Thy infinite forms on every side, but I see not Thy end nor Thy middle nor Thy beginning, O Lord of the universe, O Form universal…. Thou art a luminous mass of energy on all sides of me, an encompassing blaze, a sun-bright fire-bright Immeasurable. Thou art the supreme Immutable whom we have to know, Thou art the high foundation and abode of the universe, Thou art the imperishable guardian of the eternal laws, Thou art the sempiternal soul of existence.
Then the vision grows darker:
A: As I look upon Thy mouths terrible with many tusks of destruction, Thy faces like the fires of Death and Time, I lose sense of the directions and find no peace. Turn Thy heart to grace, O God of gods! The sons of Dhritarashtra, all with the multitude of kings and heroes, Bhishma and Drona and Kama [leaders of the opposing army] along with the foremost warriors on our side too, are hastening into Thy tusked and terrible jaws and some are seen with crushed and bleeding heads caught between Thy teeth of power. As is the speed of many rushing waters racing towards the ocean, so all these heroes of the world of men are entering into Thy many mouths of flame. As a swarm of moths with ever-increasing speed fall to their destruction into a fire that some one has kindled, so now the nations with ever-increasing speed are entering into Thy jaws of doom…. Declare to me who Thou art that wearest this form of fierceness. Salutation to Thee, O Thou great Godhead, turn Thy heart to grace.
To which Krishna replies:
K: I am the Time-Spirit, destroyer of the world, arisen huge-statured for the destruction of the nations. Even without thee all these warriors shall be not, who are ranked in the opposing armies. Therefore arise, get thee glory, conquer thy enemies and enjoy an opulent kingdom. By me and none other already even are they slain, do thou become the occasion only.
Here is a God who takes full responsibility for all that happens in the world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let this sink in: The enemy has already been slain! Arjuna will only be the means or occasion. We are like puppets on strings, yet we are also, or can become, the puppeteer, depending on whether we attribute the power acting in us to our egos (Option 1) or experience it as the Power of our true Self, which is none other than Krishna’s (Option 2).
K: Vain is this thy resolve, that in thy egoism thou thinkest, saying “I will not fight”; thy nature shall appoint thee to thy work. What from delusion thou desirest not to do, O Son of Kunti, helplessly thou shalt do bound by thy own work born of thy swabhava [thy warrior nature].
Option 1: Arjuna will fight because shame of being judged a coward, a disgraced knight-in-arms, will make him fight.
Option 2: Arjuna will fight because it is the right thing to do and what the sole Power at work in the world makes him do.
Either way he will fight. Either the turmoil of his emotions will drive him like a cork on a choppy sea, in despair, seeing no way out, or he will have the experience of being an instrument in the hands of the Almighty, for ever safe and at peace. The path from Option 1 to Option 2 is the path of yoga as it was conceived by the Gita.
But for those who follow this path, will it change the nature of their action? It certainly will, for “Yoga is skill in works.” As they learn to act in the right state of mind, conscious of and trusting the Power that is acting through them, their action will increase in both power and scope.
The English translations used here, compiled from Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo, were first published in 1938 in The Message of the Gita by Anilbaran Roy. While Sri Aurobindo approved this book for publication, he made it clear that “the translations in the Essays are more explanatory than textually precise or cast in a literary style,” and that he did not want them “to go out as my translation of the Gita.”
It comes as no surprise that over the two millennia of its existence the Gita has been appropriated by a variety of philosophical schools, religious sects, and political factions, changing its meaning again and again over the centuries. To some it is about engaging in the world, to others about disengaging. To some it lays out the Path of Devotion (bhakti yoga), to others the Path of Works (karma yoga). To the most obtuse, it’s an admonition to do one’s duty (whatever that means). Medieval Hindu theologians produced upward of 200 commentaries on it. Charles Wilkins, who made the first translation of the Gita into English, remarked that “small as the work may appear, it has more comments than the Revelations.”
The British (Protestants) knew that any self-respecting religion had to have One Book; so they asked some educated, Anglophone Calcutta Brahmins, What is your One Book? or indeed, What is your Bible? And the answer was, the Gita. While the Gita-as-bible was eagerly picked up, first by more and more Indians and then by Europeans and Americans, it was as the philosopher’s Gita rather than as the martial Gita, let alone as the Gita of the spiritual seeker or devotee, who (as Sri Aurobindo puts it) “finds in the description of Krishna stealing the robes of the Gopis [female cowherds] one of the deepest parables of God’s ways with the soul” or “a perfect rendering in divine act of his heart’s mystic experiences,” in contrast to “the prurient & the Puritan (two faces of one temperament)” who finds in it “only a lustful story. Men bring what they have in themselves and see it reflected in the Scripture.” When Friedrich Schlegel translated a third of the Gita into German, he left out the battlefield, Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about work and duty, his teachings about bhakti, and his terrifying manifestation as destroyer of the world.
Meanwhile, back in India, the Nationalists, embarrassed by the Krishna of the Gopis, went back to the Krishna of the martial Gita. This Gita became the most popular book among imprisoned Indian freedom fighters (Sri Aurobindo included). Gandhi, the Hindu apostle of non-violence, argued instead that by urging Arjuna to fight, Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty (again, whatever that means). “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action. Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. While Gandhi failed to see the occasional need for violent action, as well as to acknowledge the often violent consequences of non-violent action, his assassin ignored the spiritual prerequisite for violent action, which is the capacity for desireless action.
[Based in part on Wendy Doniger’s review of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography by Richard H. Davis, in The New York Review of Books of 2014/12/04.]