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I have no desire for victory, Krishna, or for the kingdom or pleasures. What good is the kingdom, Krishna, or pleasures, or life itself? Those for whose sake we desire kingdoms, enjoyments and pleasures, they stand here before me staking their wealth and life in the war – teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons and brothers-in-law and other kinsmen. I do not want to kill them, Krishna, even if they kill me – no, not even for all the three worlds, what to speak of this land. BG 1.31-35
Before we enter the verses, let us spend a minute or two with a major difference between the Vedic way of living and subsequent Indian way of living, to both of which spirituality was central.
Speaking of the greatness of the Vedas, Dr Radha Kumud Mukherjee, one of the greatest modern Indian Vedic scholars and author of several books based on the Vedas, says: “The Vedas and especially the primordial work known as the Rig Veda, represents not merely the dawn of culture, but also its zenith. Indian thought is seen at its highest in the Rig Veda… On the one hand it is the first book of India and also of mankind. At the same time it shows the highest point of human wisdom…
“The Vedas accept life in its fullness. The malaise caused by the loss of balance between the primary biological instincts [the body] and man’s active and contemplative faculties [the mind] is completely absent in them. There is no clash between the flesh and the spirit.”
The highest ideal for the Vedic Indians was the rishi and for that reason ancient Indian culture is frequently called arsha samskriti, culture with its foundation on the rishi vision and way of life. The rishis accepted life in its fullness and. as Dr Mukherjee points out, found no contradiction between the flesh and the spirit. For them all our actions were essentially spiritual – which included the sexual life too. Sex became non-spiritual only when it sank to a life of the senses and we were reduced to slaves to our senses – only when we were driven about blindly by our instincts and impulses, making us lose our contact with the soul, only when we lived our lives unconsciously rather than consciously. The Upanishads, for instance, speak of the sexual act between man and woman as a sacred yajna, another sacrificial ritual.
However, with the decline of the Vedic culture, our ancestors found this way of life too difficult – conscious living, in which you live every moment wakefully, is tough indeed, however great the rewards are. So over time a new way of life evolved into being: the ashrama system. Life past early childhood was divided into four ashramas or stages of life. The first was called brahmacharya, the stage in which we devoted all our energy to acquiring knowledge, the word brahma standing here for the Vedas or all knowledge worth acquiring in general. This began with the initiation given by the guru between the ages five and eight, after which the young boy or girl lived in the kula of the guru, as a member of his extended family.
This period usually lasted for about twelve years and then the next period, the family life, called garhasthya, began. In the period of brahmacharya, sex was forbidden and for that reason the word brahmacharya itself came to be known as celibacy, though the word does not mean it. During garhasthya social relationships, social commitments, sexual relations, production of wealth, service to others, religious rituals, all became central.
At the end of garhasthya, the third stage known as vanaprastha, life in the seclusion of the forest away from the society began, though here too the husband and the wife still lived together. Typically vanaprastha started when your children had children of their own – apatyasya apatyam. And vanaprastha eventually led to sannyasa, the final stage of your life.
Thus the rishi way of life which did not divide life into separate ashrams was subdivided into four stages for the convenience of people with the decline of the Vedic culture But even in this period there was a provision for entering the sannyasa way of life whenever one was ready for it because it was considered the highest way. Yad ahareve virajet, tad ahar eva pravrajet, brahmacharyat va grihat va vanat va, said the ancient wisdom of India: Become a wanderer [on the spiritual path, a sannyasi] the very day you develop vairagya – from brahmcharya, or garhasthya or from vanaprastha.
The deciding factor was vairagya – absence of raga or longing for security, possessions, relationships, sex, name, fame, power over others and so on. With vairagya came readiness to surrender to Existence, to float with life, to let the current of life carry you where it willed, to become a cloud in the sky freely going where the wind takes you. You became a bird of the skies, a lily of the field.
And this is way of life Arjuna chooses for himself as he stands and watches the armies of his own people on both sides standing armed to the teeth, ready to die or to slaughter one another in the terrible war. Arjuna here is choosing the highest way of life when he says life is meaningless, kingdom is meaningless, wealth is meaningless, pleasures are meaningless. [Soon he would use the word bhaikshya, the way of living on alms, on the charity of other people, for what he prefers to winning this terrible war.]
Unfortunately the very words in which he expresses his choice tells us he is not yet ready that way of life.
A sannyasi is one for whom the world is his home and all people are his own people, even the animals and plants and birds and beasts are his own people.
The Bhagavata Mahatmya has one of the most beautiful verses in all of Sanskrit literature as its first shloka. The shloka speaks of Shuka, who is so young that his upanayana has not yet taken place, leaving his father Sage Vyasa and going away as a pravrajaka, a wandering monk. Sage Vyasa calls back, agony in his voice because his child is so young and still leaving him and going away. As Vyasa calls out in pain “Oh Son,” it is not however Shuka who responds to him, but the trees around because Shuka has become one with the trees, one with the birds and the beasts, one with the moving wind, one with all existence,
In his incredibly beautiful poem Say I’m You, the great Sufi sage Jalaluddin Rumi says:
I am dust particles in sunlight.
I am the round sun...
I am morning mist, and the breathing of evening.
I am wind in the top of a grove and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman, and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought, and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute,
a spark of a stone, a flickering in metal...
This is what Shuka had become and that is what a sannyasi means in the ultimate sense. Rumi is a sannyasi, Shuka is a sannyasi.
But by extension, we can call sannyasis even those who are living lives leading to that vision, whose entire energies are devoted to awakening into that state. The word ashrama means complete shrama, total effort. Sannyasa ashrama is the lifestyle in which every drop of your energy, every minute of your time is spent towards awakening into that vision in which we are one with all, one with everything.
Arjuna is not at all ready to live such a life. He just does not want to kill in battle his own people. He would like to run away from the harsh responsibility, the very unpleasant reality facing him at the moment.
Sannyasa is only for the bravest of people, not for everyone. To let go of all securities and surrender to the winds of life needs boundless courage. It is certainly not for people who want to run away from responsibilities because they are not pleasant.
India speaks of what are known as prasooti vairagya. Prasooti vairagya is the vairagya, dispassion, a woman experiences towards sexual life in the moments she is giving birth to a baby – the intolerable pain of giving birth kills all desire for sex in her. But that is only a very temporary state, a passing thing. Soon the needs and longings natural to being a woman will take her over again, her body and mind will make demands on her again. And she will be driven to what she rejects now.
So is Arjuna’s vairagya. It is just a passing thing. Very ephemeral, with no true substance to it.
Krishna has known Arjuna all his life. Apart from being same age cousins and brothers-in-law, they are best friends and have been so practically all their lives. Krishna knows Arjuna is not yet ready for sannyasa.
Spirituality is the flowering of the highest possibilities in man – something that happens, says in the Indian spiritual tradition, only with the grace of God: ishwara-anugrahaad eva pumsaam advaita-vaasanaa. Being blessed with spirituality is the greatest blessing man can have – not being blessed with wealth, not being blessed with power or position, not being blessed with fame or pleasures, not being blessed with anything else for that matter. When we wake up from the dream we call samsara, the life of illusion where we are dominated by the ego and made to run helter-skelter to fulfill its constant endless demands, we do not just awaken from this vicious dream that has held us prisoner for endless ages, says Indian wisdom, but also make our mothers blessed, the families into which we are born blessed, the very earth itself blessed. The very desire to wake up from the illusion of samsara is the highest blessing God can give us.
Swami Vivekananda once approached his master Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna, deeply in distress because of the poor economic conditions of his family. His family that was once well to do had by then been reduced to extreme poverty and was finding even two meals day difficult. Vivekananda, young Naren then, was a very sensitive young man and found unable to focus on his sadhanas because of his family’s suffering. In this agony one day he approached Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna and the master told him to go and ask the Mother for wealth, the Mother would give him anything he asked for, after all the Mother was all-giving and he was her child.
Young Naren went to the temple of Mother Bhavatarini to ask her for wealth but once he stood before the mother, he was bathed in such bliss he forgot everything. He stood there repeating the Mother’s name endlessly and felt wave after wave of love for him emanating from her and washing over him. After remaining in that samadhi-like state for a long time, Naren pulled himself out of that state in order to ask her for wealth, as he had originally intended, but what he asked for was spiritual knowledge and unceasing devotion to her.
When Naren comes out and answering Bhagavan Ramakrishna’s question tells him what happened, the master sends him back to the Mother a second time and then a third time, instructing him to make sure he asked for wealth. But precisely the same thing happens again both the times and Naren came out of the temple rather shamefacedly. But of course this is precisely what the master wanted and he hugged his disciple happily and congratulating him for his devotion assured him that his family would always have enough for their food and clothing, he should not worry about them.
There is a story about a man who prayed to Goddess Lakshmi for wealth. Day after day for years he prayed to Mother Lakshmi asking her for wealth and finally, disappointed, stopped all the prayers and became a monk, making fast spiritual progress by practicing sadhana with the same commitment with which he had prayed for wealth for years. One day as he sat bathed in the bliss of meditation, the goddess appeared before him with a beautiful smile on her face, her eyes aglow with love and the whole place radiant with her brilliance. She offered him all the wealth he wanted and more. He told her he did not want wealth anymore and asked her why she did not bless him wealth when he prayed for it. Smiling, the goddess asked him what would have been batter – her giving him wealth at that time, or not giving him wealth and making what he has now become possible. In deep reverence, the man bent and touched the mother’s feet with his head.
Krishna is not just the greatest statesman of the day but the greatest guru, spiritual master India has known. And a spiritual master never misses an opportunity to awaken his disciple, to help him grow spiritually. The greatest blessing Krishna can shower on Arjuna is leading him to spiritual awakening, giving him spiritual knowledge, making him realize his true nature, his swaroopa, as the atman that is never born, never dies, about which he says in the Gita: It is never born nor does It ever die; after having become, It does not ever cease to be again. Unborn, eternal, changeless and primeval, It is not killed when the body is killed. [BG 2.20]
That is what Krishna does to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita at the highest level: seizing . He senses an opportunity to awaken his friend Arjuna from his illusions and makes the best use of it.
In the Mahabharata there is a story about Krishna taking Arjuna through a world where darkness is so thick that, in the words of the epic, if you stretch your hand out you will feel you are pushing it through wet clay. Here Krishna is taking Arjuna through a world in which light is so bright it is as though a thousand suns have simultaneously risen up in the sky – divi soorya-sahasrasya bhaved yugapad utthitaa.
At the highest level, Gita is spiritual scripture. It is guidance given by God to man, his friend, to wake up from the drugged dream in which he has been from the beginning of time. As we shall see as we proceed, Arjuna asks scores of questions in the Bhagavad Gita and not a single one of them is about anything other than spirituality.
As Krishna teaches Arjuna here, he has simultaneously two purposes. He wants Arjuna to wake up from the illusion of the ego, from maya, from ignorance and realize his true nature. He also wants Arjuna to successfully fight the war for the sake of dharma and win it. He wants Arjuna to master his emotions, to overcome the emotional hijack he is suffering from, to regain his mental focus, to become sama, calm and centered, to retain his mental balance, to attain again performance excellence, and fight the war without feverishness – yuddhyasva vigatajvarah – so he can win the victory for goodness in the world, particularly among leaders of men, for which Krishna himself has been waging wars all his life.
What Krishna does for achieving these dual purposes of his is instructing Arjuna in the Vedic way of spiritual life where everything you do becomes spirituality, where you do not have to do any special spiritual acts but do whatever you have always been doing with a changed attitude, whereby everything you do – yad yad karma karomi tattad akhilam – becomes your spiritual sadhana. Krishna calls this by several names, the most common of which is karma yoga, where your karma itself becomes your yoga, your ordinary actions themselves become your yoga, your meditation, your spiritual path.
And Krishna tells Arjuna he is not teaching him anything new, this is what he has taught leaders of men from the beginning of time, this is the arsha way, the way of the rishis, what he taught the great rajarshis of the past beginning with the first rajarshi Vivaswan and then his son Manu and then his son Ikshwaku.
I taught this eternal Yoga to Vivasvan, he taught it to Manu and Manu taught it to Ikshvaku. This knowledge, thus handed down from one generation to the next was known to all royal sages. Over a long time this yoga was lost to the world. It is the same ancient wisdom, Arjuna, this yoga that is a supreme secret, that I taught you today, because you are my devotee and my friend. BG 4.1-3
For that reason, as we shall see, throughout the Gita, at every stage, we are both invited to practice spirituality as well as are shown ways to achieve performance excellence, to excel in whatever we choose to do.
The Bhagavad Gita is simultaneously the highest book of spirituality and best book of performance excellence in existence.
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