If someone asks a devout Hindu what his most sacred religious text is, you more likely than not to get the answer: “The Bhagavad Gita”. This short Sanskrit text is purportedly a discourse given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when he was assailed by self-doubt at the moment of going into battle against his kith and kin. Though it is an exhortation to the warrior to carry out his duty and fight regardless of consequences, it is supposed to contain the kernel of the Indian philosophy of life, death, rebirth and the attainment of everlasting bliss.
The Bhagavad Gita –roughly meaning “the Lord’s discourse on the philosophy of the Brahman” – is largely an unread text. Most learned people know a few verses which are quoted time and again, and which are considered to be its heart. I was also guilty of this, until lately, when I got this bee in my bonnet about reading up on all of India’s ancient literature in the original. Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a dictionary, I set forth on this quest.
The Manusmriti was the text I first attacked, for the reasons I have explained in my blog (here on these pages). I decided that the Gita should be next, as a text which had formed part of my outlook on life. I was fed up of second-hand observations and wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
I know that many say that such a “deep” philosophy cannot be understood by untrained minds, and a guru is required on such a journey. I appreciate their argument, and plan to read a few of the famous commentaries. But in my opinion, reading the original is the mandatory first step.
The Bhagavad Gita is set within the Mahabharata , the world’s largest epic. The Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins disputing the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura, have decided to go to war. Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior asks his friend and charioteer Krishna to steer his chariot to the middle of the opposing armies, to survey the forces arrayed against him. But on seeing all his relatives ready for battle, Arjuna’s nerve fails him on the contemplation of the enormity of the task ahead – nothing short of the murder of near and dear! He throws down his weapon in disgust and says that he won’t fight. Better to die than rule over a kingdom obtained through bloodshed and fratricide!
This is when Krishna begins his long-winded discourse to take apart Arjuna’s seemingly noble arguments. And this is what the Bhagavad Gita such a controversial text: it argues for himsa as part of warrior’s noble duty, and rejects ahimsa as moral cowardice. This is in direct opposition to the Buddhist doctrine that was prevalent in India at that time, and it is why many scholars see it as a Brahminical attempt to strike at the root of Buddhism. But then, one has to take into account the fact that Gandhi, perhaps the greatest proponent of ahimsa that ever lived, took the Gita to heart!
We don’t hear the discourse first hand. Sanjaya, the minister of the blind king Dhritarashtra who is the ruler of Hastinapura, has been gifted with long range vision so that he can see the battle and report it to his sovereign. It is through him that we hear what transpires between Arjuna and Krishna.
The Gita is divided into eighteen short (by Indian standards!) chapters. They are:
- Arjuna Vishada Yoga (The Yoga of Arjuna’s Grief), where the warrior develops cold feet and throws down his weapons. This chapter also introduces the situation.
- Sankhya Yoga (The Yoga of Sankhya) which establishes the basic tenets of the discourse – the inevitability of birth and death in the universe, and the merit of action without attachment.
- Karma Yoga (The Yoga of Action), where the merits of attachment without action is further extolled. Here, all action is identified as coming from the Yajna (Vedic sacrifice), and Krishna makes the first statements indicating that he is more than what he purports to be.
- Jnana Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of Wisdom) in which the correct actions are mentioned, and the ways to obtain detachment from action; also total renunciation. Krishna reveals himself as the returning messiah.
- Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Renunciation), where the fruits of total renunciation are enumerated. This is the classic description of Indian asceticism as per the Upanishads.
- Adhyatma Yoga (The Yoga of Spirituality) where the methods of attaining Nirvana are elaborated.
- Jnana Yoga (The Yoga of Knowledge): Here, Krishna reveals himself as the supreme lord; as the Brahman itself.
- Akshara Brahma Yoga (The Yoga of the Indestructible Brahman), where Krishna explains the method to escape from the cycle of birth and death by knowing the Brahman (which is he himself).
- Raja Vidya Raja Guhya Yoga (The Yoga of the Royal Secret), in which the worship of Krishna, as the eternal truth, even in different forms, is explained as the only way to moksha (release).
- Vibhuti Yoga (The Yoga of Supreme Power), which is basically an extension of the previous two chapters. Krishna declares himself as encompassing everything within the space-time continuum.
- Vishwaroopa Darshana Yoga (The Yoga of the Vision of the Universal form). This, according to me, is the crux of the document. Krishna takes the form of all-consuming time, terrible in his fiery visage. This is the peg on which the previous chapters hang.
- Bhakti Yoga (The Yoga of Devotion), where Krishna extols devotion to him, even without enlightenment, as a possible path to release.
- Kshetra Kshterajna Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Field and Knower of the Field), where the relationship between the field (the body) and the knower of the field (the soul) is explained with respect to the attainment of release.
- Guna Thraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Separation of the Three Qualities). According to Indian concept, all things are comprised of three qualities: Sattva (purity), Rajas (passion) and Tamas (darkness) – corresponding to good, middling and bad. This chapter expounds on how to enhance purity.
- Purushottama Yoga (The Yoga of the Perfect One), which explains the concept of Krishna as Purushottama, the perfect one. Here the duality of Purusha and Prakruti are also explored.
- Devaasura Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division between Devas and Asuras). A curious chapter. After talking about going beyond all dualities in the previous chapters, here the divine is separated from the demoniacal.
- Shraddhathraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division of the Threefold Faith). Again, this is a departure from the previous chapters. Here the “correct” way of worshipping and sacrificing is expounded.
- Moksha Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Liberation through Renunciation), in which action and renunciation are merged, and there is a sort of summary of the previous chapters. However, what is important here is, action is clearly linked to the caste of the actor, something which was not evident in the previous chapters – and Krishna declares himself the ONLY god, rather like the God of the Abrahamic faiths.
(Note: The chapter names are from the Annie Besant/ Bhagvan Das translation. The Gita Press has slightly different chapter names. What I understand is that in the original Gita, chapters are not titled.)
(Please note that what follows is my interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita’s philosophy. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, neither am I an expert in Upanishadic thought, so my interpretation might not match those of the scholars and the ascetics. I am open to counterviews.)
We live in a universe of inevitability, where “life eats life”, as Joseph Campbell puts it neatly. In this world, it is impossible to live without acting: and it is inevitable that all actions will not be beneficial to all. So how to cope? One method is to run away to a secluded place, and meditate upon the absolute: and thus gain freedom from this phenomenal world of birth, death and rebirth. This is the way of the Indian rishis and the Buddha – pierce the veil of illusion (maya), reach the still centre of existence, where there is ‘Nirvana’ (“no wind”) and be at one with the eternal. In Buddhism, this is the knowledge of one’s nonexistence – the ‘anatman’ – while in Hinduism, it is the dissolution of the individual self with the Brahman, the universal self, or the SELF, which permeates all of creation. Take your pick.
This may, however, be a tad difficult for a person engaged in the world. I still remember an incident. On the erstwhile Joseph Campbell Foundation discussion fora, an American GI posed a problem. He was against the war in Iraq, but as a soldier, he was duty-bound to fight; and if he quit his job, his family would starve. How to tackle this situation without going mad? It is exactly this question that is being answered through Karma Yoga: act, but without attachment. As said by Krishna in what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Gita:
You have control only over your karma, and never on its fruits: You are not the cause of its fruits; let not you be attached to non-karma.
That is: just do it, what you have to – do not worry about the fruits (that is, the result, reward or consequence). Do your karma without attachment. While acting in the world, lead your mind on the path of renunciation. Act in the world, without being of it.
This is almost in sync with the Taoist concept of Wu Wei:
One of Taoism’s most important concepts is Wu Wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu Wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awareness, in which — without even trying — we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.
I also relate this concept to a story, again narrated by Joseph Campbell. It was during his series of interviews with Bill Moyers on the PBS Series, ‘The Power of Myth’:
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: …Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.
Like Octavio Paz said in In Light of India, Krishna does not give Arjuna a way to save the world: he gives him a way to save himself.
Of course, much of the Gita’s attraction lies on the character of Krishna – how he grows from Arjuna’s friend to the eternal Brahman, the be-all and end-all of all creation. As Krishna himself repeatedly says, he is EVERYTHING: the sacrifice, the sacrifice, the sacrificial fire, and the deity who consumes the sacrifice. Krishna’s stature grows slowly from chapter 3 onwards till chapter 11, when he shows his “Vishwa-roopa”, or the Universal Form: to see which, Arjuna cannot use his ordinary vision but must be bestowed with second sight.
As Sanjaya, witnessing this at second hand says: “It is bright as a thousand suns.” And here’s the awestruck Arjuna gushing about it:
My dear Lord Krsna, I see assembled together in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahma sitting on the lotus flower as well as Lord Siva and many sages and divine serpents.
O Lord of the universe, I see in Your universal body many, many forms-bellies, mouths, eyes-expanded without limit. There is no end, there is no beginning, and there is no middle to all this.
Your form, adorned with various crowns, clubs and discs, is difficult to see because of its glaring effulgence, which is fiery and immeasurable like the sun.
You are the supreme primal objective; You are the best in all the universes; You are inexhaustible, and You are the oldest; You are the maintainer of religion, the eternal Personality of Godhead.
You are the origin without beginning, middle or end. You have numberless arms, and the sun and moon are among Your great unlimited eyes. By Your own radiance You are heating this entire universe.
Although You are one, You are spread throughout the sky and the planets and all space between. O great one, as I behold this terrible form, I see that all the planetary systems are perplexed.
All the demigods are surrendering and entering into You. They are very much afraid, and with folded hands they are singing the Vedic hymns.
The different manifestations of Lord Siva, the Adityas, the Vasus, the Sadhyas, the Visvadevas, the two Asvins, the Maruts, the forefathers and the Gandharvas, the Yaksas, Asuras, and all perfected demigods are beholding You in wonder.
O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your many faces, eyes, arms, bellies and legs and Your terrible teeth, and as they are disturbed, so am I.
O all-pervading Visnu, I can no longer maintain my equilibrium. Seeing Your radiant colors fill the skies and beholding Your eyes and mouths, I am afraid.
O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered…
(Translations from Bhagavad Gita As It Is)
Translations can never capture the beauty of the original: in Sanskrit, the verses I quoted above simply roll of the tongue and one can almost imagine the majesty of a vision that cannot be described through words or colours. As Campbell says in ‘Creative Mythology’: “The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood.”
It is only by envisioning Krishna as the whole of space-time itself, can one understand how his teaching passed to Arjuna. From this moment onwards, he is no longer just the friend who is doing a favour by driving Arjuna’s chariot: he is the godhead that resides within the psyche. (I have explored this concept here.) And as such, he is not only discoursing to Arjuna – what we see is the process of enlightenment, the realisation of “thou art that”, taking place.
The Bhagavad Gita is a controversial document. It has been seen as an attempt by the Vedic religion to unseat Buddhism, which was gaining tremendous ground in India, and reinstate the caste system. Is this charge true? Looking at the Gita dispassionately, one has to say that the charge does have some merit.
Throughout the text, one can see references to “varna sankara” (the mixing of castes), and the undesirable outcomes arising out of it – in fact, Arjuna’s original worry about killing his kith and kin is that it will destroy the dynasty and give rise to caste-mixing! Also, time and again Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty as a Kshatriya.
All the imagery about sacrifices and oblations are Vedic in origin – and also the curious chapter 16, where Devas and Asuras are specifically mentioned, in contrast to the egalitarian teaching elsewhere, smacks of Vedic dualism. And the origin of Karma is specifically linked to the sacrifice and Prajapati, the first man of the Vedas.
Apart from all these, the following verses specifically advocate the promotion of caste.
9. 32 O Partha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of born of wombs of sin (papa-yonaya) -women, vaisyas as well as sudras -can approach the supreme destination.
(This concept of lesser and greater wombs, in relation to the birth-death-rebirth cycle, occur in many places.)
18.41 Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.
18. 42 Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness-these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.
18.43 Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.
18.44 Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labour and service to others.
18.47 It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions.
18.48 Every endeavour is covered by some sort of fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work which is born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault.
So it is clear – karma means carrying out one’s caste duties, and those ONLY.
Also, in this chapter, the Krishna who said earlier that “many people worship me in many different forms: ultimately they all come to me” changes tack and becomes as inflexible as the Levantine God.
18.66 Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto only Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.
So there is no doubt about the intention here – it is the promotion of the status quo. However, the sharp difference between the first part and the last gives credence to the conjecture that the Gita may have been bowdlerised. The high philosophy and the dazzling imagery of the first part cannot descend to this level of preaching logically.
The Bhagavad Gita and Me
The question, as a reader, is: what do I take away from this text? I am an atheist: and even though the Brahman as a concept is intriguing, I am not a fan of speculative metaphysics. But the concept of nishkama karma (action without attachment) has always appealed to me in my chosen professional field – that of engineering.
I interpret it like this. My job is to do as perfect a job of engineering as I can, to see that the product of my effort is the best I can make it. That is, the perfection of the job I do is its own reward – I should not be bothered about the end result, or the rewards I am going to obtain. I can tell you that I have tried to follow this path throughout my career and it has paid rich dividends.
Not exactly Karma Yoga as preached by Krishna, but near enough… for Kali Yuga!