– Krishna revealing the Bhagavad Gita to His famous devotee Arjuna (Although I have never heard of any scriptural evidence for this, Arjuna is usually depicted with a sweet 1980’s style mustache in most paintings of him).
“All those who take refuge in Me, whatever their birth, race, sex, or caste, will attain the Supreme Goal.” – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita
Every now and then, I discover a book that radically changes the way I perceive the world. For me, the Bhagavad Gita was one of those books. I remember randomly taking it off the shelf at Borders in 2009, and as I grazed its mysterious pages, my heart leapt with wordless recognitions of its greatness and profound depth. I have read the Gita many times since then during difficult moments in my life, and it has infallibly been a potent source of inspiration and spiritual insight.
The Gita is many things: an archetypal expression of the human condition, a guide to Self-Realization, a quintessential text on yoga philosophy – some have even called it “the Bible of India.” It has been a source of inspiration for countless thousands of spiritual seekers and eminent minds, including Gandhi, Emerson, Thorough, and Paramahansa Yoganada, just to name a few.
Including and superseding all these descriptions, the Gita is a powerful poetic expression of the Krishna’s Awakened Mind, the spiritual Muse of the text penned by Vyasa, a sage in his own right. Any authentic scripture is, at its deepest core, an expression of a spiritual state of mind that the words point to, but do not contain. To understand the essence of a scripture is therefore to experience that state of mind yourself, not merely to memorize the words. In the West, nearly the entire Christian world has unfortunately overemphasized intellectual knowledge of scripture, as if the unfathomable Christ-Mind of the Spiritual Master Jesus could be understood by merely memorizing passages.
An illiterate person who actually perceives his/her Union with God in meditation has incomparably more knowledge of Jesus’ spiritual teachings than a minister who has merely gone to seminary and memorized Jesus’ literal words. The purpose of scripture is only fulfilled in our own God-Realization, a perspective from which all scriptures are like dust compared to gold, or like cow dung compared to a delicious meal. The Gita confirms this thought by saying, “Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman who sees the Lord everywhere.”
Nevertheless, scripture can be a wonderful source of guidance and inspiration when its natural limitations are recognized. In this next series of posts, I’ll be commenting on some key concepts from the Gita, hopefully demonstrating their applicability in the lives of modern people. I do not pretend to come even remotely close to doing justice to the Gita’s profundity. Because this is a blog, and because so much has been written on the Gita in the past, this post includes a purposely simplistic explanation of the Gita. I encourage interested readers to supplement with their own research. As with all commentary, there is no genuine substitute for actually reading the original text yourself, and drawing your own conclusions.
Background of the Gita
The Bhagavad Gita, or “The Song of God,” is a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his cousin Krishna, an incarnation of God, a fully awakened yogi, and a prince of the family. The dialogue takes place in the context of one of India’s greatest epics, the Mahabharata, and was probably composed around 2,500 – 2,000 years ago, but tells of times long before that. The Mahabarata is an epic narrative ascribed to the sage Vyasa that culminates in the famous Kurukshetra War between the Kurus and the Pandavas, relatives feuding over the throne. Children grow up hearing about this famous conflict in the same way children in America and Europe learn the mythologically influenced tales of the ancient Israelites.
Arjuna is a warrior for the Pandavas, the rightful heirs to the throne, and symbols of the forces Self-Realization. He is about to engage in a battle against evil members of his own family who have oppressed the Panadavas and their people for decades. Arjuna feels utterly depressed by his fate, especially by the fact he is about to fight members of his own family. In desperation, he calls upon Krishna to give him guidance. As he beholds the depressing spectacle of the battlefield about to be drenched in blood, he is overcome with sorrow. Confused by the seemingly tragic fate that God has thrust upon him, he famously and dramatically refuses to fight in the battle. Like Arjuna, many of us have faced similar spiritual despair in our lives when the suffering of the world seems almost too great to fathom, and when our cosmic significance seems so absurdly small and meaningless.
Krishna then transports Arjuna to the center of the battlefield, stops time, and expounds to him one of the great scriptures of the ages. Among other topics, Krishna teaches him the core meaning of yoga, the nature of the God, the nature of reincarnation, the three aspects of human nature, devotion, selfless service, and meditation. The image of Krishna teaching Arjuna about Himself is a classic metaphor for the Higher Self communing with the spiritually inclined ego, and I believe the wisdom revealed in their dialogue is highly needed by our spiritually confused generation.
Fight in the Battle!
– I consider the life of Mahatma Ghandi to be an embodiment of the Gita’s philosophy of Karma Yoga, or Union with God through selfless service. At times he read the Gita on a daily basis, and continually extolled it throughout his life.
“Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil…. Death means the attainment of heaven. Victory means the enjoyment of the Earth. Therefore, rise up, Arjuna, resolved to fight! Having made yourself alike in pain and pleasure, profit and loss, victory and defeat, engage in this great battle and you will be freed from sin.”
Krishna famously advises Arjuna to fight in the battle, which is his “dharma,” or divine duty. In my view, the battle in the Gita is not about warfare, and is not an avocation of violence (Yogananda’s commentary brilliantly argues for this). Rather, it is a symbolic and archetypal demonstration of the battle between good and evil, between the forces of Self-Realization and delusion that co-exist within us all. By challenging Arjuna to fight in the battle, Krishna is telling us all to fight in the cause of goodness against the “Kurus,” or forces of delusion in the world.
Like Arjuna, who was called by God to be a warrior, we all have an outward purpose, or a “dharma,” to fulfill. For you, it may be working in the non-profit sector. It may be activism. It may be becoming a successful businessperson who uses money to fund righteous causes. It may be raising a family. The basic idea is that we all have some work that God wants us to fulfill in the world, some material purpose that practically benefits other people. To try to escape our dharma like Arjuna in the beginning of the Gita is not only cowardice, but the very antithesis of the spiritual life.
To ultimately realize God as our own Self is the essence of the Gita, and this message connects it with the great mystical traditions of the world. Yet part of the uniqueness of the Gita’s relevance for this time is its emphasis on Karma Yoga, on practical action and selfless service, in addition to meditation. According to the Gita, anyone who sets their heart on God-Realization can realize Him through selfless service, and receives the same goal as the total renunciate who exclusively engages in meditation. True renunciation has nothing to do with monk or layman, educated or non-educated, meditation or non-meditation, but is a matter of the heart. This message was utterly revolutionary at the time of the Gita’s inception, when the majority of the lay public assumed that only monks and Brahmins could become enlightened, and is particularly relevant today. Today, we need our spiritual seekers to work in the world, for our world is threatened in ways it never has been before.
In today’s world, it does not take long to think of evil realities that require us to fight for goodness. Climate change threatens to destroy life as we know it. Billions of people are living in unacceptable poverty all around the world. So called “civilized” nations, including the USA, stand ready to destroy each other with nuclear weapons in a split second. Outrageous economic inequality threatens our nation with internal dissolution. The archetypal “Kurus,” or forces of delusion, are everywhere to be seen in our very midst. We cannot claim to be spiritual and ignore these realities. We all have a necessary and valuable part in play in God’s dream-drama, some good work to do on the Earth that helps mitigate the suffering of others.
The Inner Battle
The Gita does not stop at the hackneyed platitude to “do good” and have a positive attitude. According to Krishna, the inner battle of overcoming your own delusion through yoga is the most important battle, for it alone leads to the consummate Bliss of Self-Realization. Like Muhammad, who taught that the Greater Jihad (or struggle) is training the ego to commune with Allah, Krishna similarly taught that the highest goal of life is humanity’s spiritual liberation. Arjuna’s call to fight is ultimately a call to rise above the dualities of the world and realize its Eternal Basis through continual Yoga or Union with God.
Although we all have a lesser material purpose, the highest purpose of our life is God-Realization, for only this can truly satisfy us. If you are “a good person” who falsely identifies with your mind and body, your happiness is still based on the ignorance of identifying with an ego that, in reality, is an illusion. If we have no spiritual practice and try to help the world from a standpoint of delusion, we will eventually get depleted, like a cell phone disconnected from its charger. There is a vast gulf between doing good as a limited ego, and doing good as the realized expression of being One with Spirit.
The Gita clearly advises that we must balance outward work, or doing good, with actual meditation techniques. Meditation, it claims, is the fastest and most powerful way to God-Realization. Paradoxically, those who balance an active life of selfless service with meditation eventually realize that this very world is Krishna’s remarkable manifestation. In reality, “God alone is the Do-er,” as the Gita proclaims. To realize this – to actually see that you are Eternal Consciousness or Brahman, as the Gita calls It – is the highest goal of human life. Everything we do – even our material purpose – is a means to that end. That this goal can be attained through engaging that very material purpose as Karma Yoga (or an act of Divine Union) is one of the Gita’s most revolutionary messages to mankind, a message which Mahatma Gandhi took to heart and embodied fully.
Living with an Eternal Perspective
“You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist….The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible. No power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but That which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle!”
Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, thus acknowledging the suffering of the world and the struggle that is inherent in the human condition itself. He tells him, however, not to grieve. Is it not utterly refreshing to think that we all have the capacity to live in this very world with its sorrows, and truly be happy, beyond all grief? This may sound far fetched, but unending happiness in God is the state of mind attained by all the Great Masters, including Krishna. All the Masters, through meditation and various spiritual practices, realized that grief is based upon the illusory idea that the ego has a separate reality. To grieve for “the world” unnecessarily is based on the false idea that the world in any way affects your God-Nature.
To deny the suffering of others and do nothing to help is a denial of life as it is, and an act of spiritual cowardice. Yet to see “suffering people” is only part of the equation – the relative perspective. From another perspective, there are no “people” at all – “no birth, no death, no suffering, and no attainment” as the Buddhist Heart Sutra proclaims. God alone exists, and the part of God that has not awakened to this truth suffers and causes suffering.
This realization does not imply that we stop working for the world’s benefit, only that we do so from a place of Self-Knowledge as opposed to ignorance. As Jesus, Krishna, and the Buddha demonstrated out of their unlimited compassion, the true hallmark of a spiritual master on Earth is their life of selfless service to humankind. May all these Great Masters forgive this spiritual dunce for blabbering so glibly about the Sacred, which no tongue has ever spoken of, which no eye has ever seen, which even the entire infinite universe has not even come close to expressing, and which can only be realized through sincere sadhana (spiritual practice)!
Krishna promises all sincere seekers that despite this world’s suffering, despite the intensity of the battle, we all have the capacity discover a spiritual Peace that is unaffected by anything that happens externally. We all have the capacity to live life with an Eternal Perspective. It is like the difference between playing a video game and mistakenly thinking you are the video game character, and playing the same game and realizing that you are the Player – and Creator – of the game. While we all must fight in the battle for goodness and face our personal problems, we can do so from the standpoint of spiritual knowledge, from the realization that we are One with Eternal Bliss Itself! This balance between outward work and inner realization was what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples that although he lives “in the world,” he is not “of the world.”
If you truly understood what Jesus and Krishna are talking about, you would be disgusted by my literary attempt to describe it with words, and would probably never read my blog again – for you would have transcended the need for any scriptures or commentaries whatsoever. Had not the Personal God clearly showed me to write about these subjects publicly, I would never speak of such sacred experiences so casually on a blog like this. Yet I pray and hope that this shameless blabbering inspires someone to practice meditation and see for themselves if the great yogis, meditation masters, and mystics of the ages were merely “blowing hot air.”
This post barely scratches the surface, and I look forward in my next posts to exploring various angles of the spiritual path that the Gita so brilliantly illuminates. May you attain non-attainment, and realize fully through spiritual practice that That which reads this sentence is non other than the Beloved! With love and deep appreciation for anyone who took the time to read this,
- Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- Many Paths, One Goal
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- Spiritual Priorities
- Working from the State of Rest
- Some Thoughts on Zen Practice
- Power Rangers, Pizza, Portland Culture, The Illusion of Nationalism, and the Oneness of Reality