The Bhagavad Gita is probably the work of Indian literature with which Westerners are most familiar. Gandhi referred to it as his eternal mother. Despite its message urging war, he found in it support for his practice of non-violence.
The Gita is essentially a dialog between Vishnu, in his avatara as Krishna, and a warrior named Arjuna. Their conversation takes place on the battlefield, just as two armies are about to go to war. The combatants are the kauravas and the pandavas. They are fighting over the right to rule a Northern Indian Kingdom. The kauravas and the pandavas are members of the same clan, and it is precisely because the enemy numbers include his uncles, cousins and teachers; that Arjuna aggrieved.
When the battle is about to commence, Arjuna and Krishna, who serves as his driver, steer their chariot between the two armies and suddenly all the action is suspended. It is as if time has stopped, like a moment of eternity placed in the midst of time. Arjuna surveys the scene and begins to get melancholic and philosophical. When he sees his family members across the enemy lines, he drops his bow, having lost his will to fight.
Arjuna tells Lord Krishna that he cannot go to war. He has no desire to fight members of his clan whom he reveres. Arjuna concludes that such a battle can only lead to chaos. The term he actually uses is “adharma”. He sees no value in gaining wealth or earthly pleasure if this entails destroying his own family.
Fear of ruining the family remains a tremendous influence in individual behavior in India today. In South India, bottles of bear actually carry a warning label that frankly tells the purchaser: “Drinking liquor will ruin the family”.
Rather surprisingly, Krishna’s first response to Arjuna’s claims is to try to shame him. He taunts Arjuna and questions his masculinity, and commands him to get up and fight. Krishna tells Arjuna that fighting is his dharma. As kshatryia there is no greater honor or glory than to do battle.
When Arjuna still refuses to fight, Krishna tries another tactic. He tells Arjuna to think what people would say. According to Krishna: “People would tell of your undying shame. And for a man of honor, shame is worst than death.”
Arjuna does not respond to these appeals. He becomes much too thoughtful and philosophical to be bullied or shamed. Arjuna’s conflict is deep and genuine. His inner conflict is a familiar one. It is the dissonance that one feels when competing values clash. The most poignant dilemmas are not those between good and evil, which are relatively easy to solve. The problems in life arise when we must choose between the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods.
For Arjuna, the values he must negotiate are these: to refuse to fight and hence disobey his dharma as a warrior; or to go to war thereby inviting the negative consequences of karma, including family ruins, social chaos and continuous rebirth.
Arjuna wisely asks Krishna to be his guru. When such a moment of confusion arises one knows that a great opportunity of breakthrough has occurred. The student is prepared for insight.
Krishna’s first lesson recalls the teaching of the Upanishads. Indeed, Krishna essentially paraphrases a famous Upanishadic passage. Krishna’s point is simply the logical conclusion of a philosophy based on the immortality of the soul. Life and death are ultimately meaningless.
Arjuna pressures further. He is concerned with another matter now: the problem of karma. Perhaps it is true that one cannot kill the soul, but killing the body still is action and all action generates karma. How does one avoid the negative karmic consequences. Arjuna’s was schooled in the idea that karma of any sort cannot bring one to ultimate salvation.
Krishna now responds with another lesson. Krishna says: “It is not possible not to act. But it is possible to act without creating karma. One does this by performing all action without hatred or desire. Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action. Avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction. Perform actions forming discipline, relinquishing attachment. Be impartial to failure and success. These equanimity is called discipline or yoga.”
Krishna maintains that the true effects of karma conform to the will and the heart, not the action itself. Thus, an equanimous disposition frees one from bondage to karma. Krishna says: “Action imprisons the world unless it is done as a sacrifice. Free from attachment, Arjuna, perform action as a sacrifice”.
When Arjuna asks how one may learn to perform karmaless action, Krishna tells him that it takes discipline and proceeds to discuss over the span of many chapters the entire panorama of Hindu practices. Krishna discusses the value of asceticism, renunciation, study of the sacred Vedas, the sacrifices of the Brahmins, fasting, prayer, meditation. One can get a comprehensive view of the entire Hindu world just by reading the Gita.
The discussion continues. Arjuna makes objections and Krishna responds. At one point Arjuna becomes terribly confused and frustrated, and he plied to Krishna: “You can fuse my understanding with a maze of words. Speak one truth so I may achieve what is good”. Like all of us, Arjuna longs for clarity and simplicity. He just wants to know what to do. Simplicity, however, is not forthcoming. Krishna continues to spend many words as rich and as complex as Hinduism itself.
I think that this richness and this lack of clarity is one of the reason for the Gita’s vast appeal. Every Hindu finds something of value here. They find some wisdom that pertains to his or her place in life. The Brahmins find their sacrifices on it. The sannyasis see the renunciation and asceticism value. The warriors have their dharma affirmed. All ways of genuine spirituality are embraced and accepted.
As the dialog proceeds, Krishna’s lessons begin to focus more and more on himself. Now the teaching becomes increasingly characteristic of the path of devotion. Krishna encourages Arjuna to focus his mind, will and heart on God, and to let all else go.
“Men who worship me, thinking solely of me, always disciplined; win the reward I secure. The leaf, the fruit, the flower or the flower that he offers with devotion, I take from the man and respond to his devotion. Whatever you do, whatever you take, whatever you offer, whatever penances you perform, do it offering it to me. You will be freed from the bonds of action, from the fruit of fortune and misfortune. Armed with discipline, you will join me.”
For Bhakti practice what is done is not as important as how it is done. All that matters is that one does all things with faith and devotion to the god. It doesn’t even matter whether or not one is devoted to the god Krishna by name. One can worship other gods as long as they do so with fidelity.
The tradition has come a long way from Vedic times, when the priest insisted that the mantras of sacrifice had to be pronounced at just the right pitch.
As the teaching started to center more and more on the path of devotion, Arjuna feels his doubt melts away. In a climatic moment he asks Krishna to grant him the ability to see him in his full glory as god. Krishna gives Arjuna a divine eye with which to gaze on the gods form. The passages that describe this great vision are fascinating and memorable. The narrator tells us: “The light of a thousand suns would arise in the sky at once. That would be like the light of that great spirit. Arjuna saw all the universe in its many ways and parts, standing as one in the body of the gods of gods. Fulfilled with amazement, his hair bruising on his flesh, Arjuna bows his head to the god and joins his hands in homage.”
The Director of the Manhattan Project said that when he saw the atomic bomb detonated in the desert of New Mexico he immediately recalled the first two lines of this passage, comparing the light of Krishna to a thousand suns rising at once in the sky.
Arjuna’s response to this awesome vision is characteristic of such experiences as recorded in the history of religions. Ruddolf Otto called such events “experiences of the holy”. Otto said the experience of the holy is marked by a highly ambivalent reaction, just as we observe in Arjuna.
Arjuna is both terrified and fascinated with the sight. What Arjuna sees accents the absolute utterness of divinity. “I see no beginning, or middle or end to you. Only boundless stream in your endless arms. The moon and the sun in your eyes, your mouths of consuming flames. You alone fill the space between heaven and earth. Seeing the many mouths, eyes and your great form, the world trembles, and so do I.”
Now Krishna speaks: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, setting in motion, to annihilate the worlds. Even without you, all these warriors raide in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory. Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship. They already are killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side.”
After this vision Arjuna arises and goes to battle, claiming that his doubts have been dispelled.
We should try to get clear what precisely resolves his misgivings. Has he been persuaded by Krishna’s arguments or by the vision of Krishna and his manifest form? Is he convinced by seeing that Krishna embraces all things in life and death? What about Arjuna’s first uncertainty about fighting against his own clan? I’m not the first to thing that much in the Gita is left unsettled despite the fact that Arjuna himself seems to have gained clarity.
The battle commences and Arjuna and his brothers, the pandavas, ultimately win. Significantly, the Gita itself ends before we know the battle’s outcome. The question of who wins and who looses is not the issue in the Gita. Nor does the Gita really solved the problem of war. The two sides are not identified as good or as bad. There is no clear favorites here. War is, by almost any standard, tragic, according to the Gita. And yet, the context of war is significant in the Gita because the battlefield is really a metaphor for the soul itself, the mind and its struggle.
Ordinary Hindus restling with the issues of dharma is a much more present reality than the subjects of the Vedas or even the Upanishads. As a metaphor for the self and its eternal struggles, perhaps the Gita is a reminder that often there are no clear avenues of choice. Our decisions must be made in ambiguity and uncertainty.