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Chapter 2: Introduction
The Upanishads are among the world’s rarest jewels of wisdom. While other cultures have produced wisdom books, no other culture in the world has given us anything like the Upanishads, those books of highest wisdom to which the authors refused to add their names. The rishis who gave us these treasure chests said that they did not write them, they just came through them, they were mere channels for them and are not their authors, not their sources, they are not born of their brains. They said the Upanishads are apaurusheya – come from a world far beyond that of men. That refusal to give their names to their works too is part of the wisdom of their authors, for how can Krishna’s flute claim it produced Krishna’s music? It was just a channel for his music, an empty reed through which his breath flowed out as divine music the like of which the earth has never heard, to hear which ancient sages rich in asceticism took birth as cowherd women of Vrindavan.
And the Bhagavad Gita is the soul of the Upanishads, their most precious essence. There are a group of Sanskrit verses called Gita dhyana shlokas, meditation verses on the Gita, traditionally chanted before any study of the scripture. I remember chanting them before each of the hundreds of classes I had in the gurukula when I studied the Gita under my gurus, experiencing as I chanted them a deep serenity of the mind that is a requirement for understanding Krishna’s teachings. One of these verses says:
sarvopanishado gavo dogdhaa gopaalanandanah;
paartho vatsah sudheer bhokthaa dugdham gitaamrtam mahat.
“The Upanishads are cows and the son of the cowherd, Krishna, is the milkman. Arjuna is the calf and men of purified intellect are those who get to drink the milk. And the supreme nectar called the Gita is the milk.”
The Gita is also the confluence of all the innumerable streams of the rich Indian thought. Over millennia India developed countless paths to the Supreme, for awakening and experiencing our essential nature, for what is called self-realization or God-realization. We developed ways of living that led to growing within us the qualities required to walk this path: qualities like inner purity, fearlessness, readiness to surrender to the higher, straightforwardness, self-mastery, mastery over the senses, detachment, love for solitude and so on. We developed scores of paths to climb the mount of self-realization. And the Bhagavad Gita is a confluence of all these paths and all those ways of living. As innumerable rivers flow into the ocean to lose their separate identities in it, so do all streams of Indian thought and ways of spiritual living flow into the Gita and become one with it.
Some Great Minds on the Gita
Speaking of the Gita, Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame who was in awe of the scripture said, "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”
Mahatma Gandhi said that when doubts haunted him, when disappointments stared him in the face, and when he saw not one ray of hope in the horizon, he turned to Bhagavad Gita and always found a verse to comfort him and he began to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.
"I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita,” said Emerson. “It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us… The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought.”
Gita as Krishna's Heart
There is a Sanskrit line in which Krishna tells Arjuna that the Gita is his heart – geeta me hrdayam paartha. The Gita, as Krishna says, is truly his heart, that is what he lived all his life. In some cultures we have philosophers who do not feel any need to live what they teach – Rousseau for instance. It is difficult to imagine anyone who has done more good to children, such were his ideas on education that became the power behind modern naturalism in education. What education today is to a large extent what he made it. And yet he left his own children uncared for on the streets.
But in the east the belief has always been that a philosopher should live what he teaches. So the rishis of ours lived what they taught – whether it is Gautama, Kanada, Patanjali, Vyasa, Yajnavalkya, Agastya, Lopamudra, Sulabha or whoever. Krishna too lived exactly what he taught. He never taught anything that he himself did not live, nor did he ever live anything that he did not teach. His teachings and his life – he and his teachings – were the same. So to understand the Gita perhaps the best way is to study Krishna’s life.
Krishna’s lived one of the most active lives known to us. He was at the center of all the political activities that happened in his days. Rulers in his days had become deeply corrupt, there was an evil conglomerate consisting of such rulers as Jarasandha, Kamsa, Duryodhana, Paundraka Vasudeva, Kashiraja, Shalva, Shishupala and Kala Yavana who believed in power for the sake of power with no commitment to the people. Krishna wanted to create a climate in which rulers will rule for the good of the people inspired by the ancient wisdom that a ruler should be like a pregnant woman who ignores herself and her interests and lives for the good of the baby in her womb. He wanted kings to ignore their personal interests and live for the good of the people in the spirit of sacrifice. In fact, from Krishna’s standpoint the purpose of the Mahabharata war was to dethrone Duryodhana who believed in the philosophy of power for the sake of power and have in his place Yudhishthira who believed that a king should live to serve the people – something like the servant leadership model we speak about today.
Krishna sang and danced throughout his life in spite of constant threats to his life and other difficulties that surrounded him all his life. He is always a complete master of himself, living life fully, with the spirit of festivity, with his wives and friends. We cannot imagine Krishna without a smile on his lips. Both the Mahabharata and the Harivamsha, which is considered an appendix to the Mahabharata or its nineteenth chapter, show us Krishna offering elaborate, festive parties to his people. Even when his friend Arjuna is overwhelmed by the Mahabharata war situation as he stands between the two armies and watches those who have come to do the battle risking their lives, the smile on Krishna’s face never fades. The first words of his teachings in the Gita are Gita wants us to live us in the same spirit – in the spirit of festivity and celebration.
The Bhagavad Gita is Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna, as we all know. But it has been a wisdom guide to all humanity for the last more than five thousand years [according to Indian understanding, the Mahabharata War took place in 3102 BCE and the Gita was, of course, born on the first day of the war.] and is going to remain so for a long, long time to come. In that sense, the teachings of the Gita are actually given to us. Arjuna is only a nimitta, a medium, through which the teachings are given to us. The Gita is thus Krishna teaching us how to live our life meaningfully, joyously.
Though born in a battlefield, the Gita is not about the art of war. Throughout the Gita Arjuna asks Krishna questions – questions about all kind of things. He asks a large number of questions, but not one of them about the art of war. His questions are all about the art of living.
And as a book teaching us the art of living, it is a complete book. While there is no harm in reading other books – I love reading, am a voracious reader who read for several hours every day – the Gita is a complete book on the art of living. There is nothing that it does not teach us, including what food to eat, how to respond to situations, how to understand people, how to understand ourselves, how to master our mind with all its passions and so on.
These are exactly the kind of questions my students ask me in the different business schools where I teach. Right now I am teaching a course in Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow and the questions Arjuna asks Krishna are no different from the questions my students there ask me. Yesterday, for instance, a student asked me how he can live consciously throughout the day rather than a few moments now and then.
Challenges in Understanding the Gita
I remember my youngest sister asking me many years ago why the Gita is difficult to understand, unlike some other religious books that are comparatively so easy. One of the many reasons why is Gita’s simplicity. The Gita tells the truth without beating about the bush, tells us straight forward how to reach the ultimate goal of our life, without ever indulging in pep talk. It does not treat us as children incapable of understanding higher truths. And it talks about reaching our goals now – while we are alive, not after our death. It tells us do this and this will happen. In that sense there is no place for belief in the Gita. There is nothing in the entire teachings of the Gita that you cannot experience here and now, provided you do the right kind of things with the right frame of mind.
So that is one challenge in understanding the Gita. Another is that it was produced by a culture that was philosophically highly advanced, far more advanced than we are, a culture for which enquiries into the meaning of life and the nature of the world were far more central than they are to us, a culture in which advanced philosophical terms were part of the common man’s everyday speech.
Speaking of Indian Philosophy, E. W. F. Tomlin has this to say on the subtleties of Indian Thought in his book on the history of eastern philosophy: “The philosophical terms [in Indian thought] in their vocabulary exceed in number those of any other form of intellectual belief. No language of ancient or modern times contains more philosophical terms than Sanskrit. Indian thought arrives at subtleties of distinction so varied and acute that the uninitiated and unprepared reader may well receive the impression that Indian philosophers enjoy the use of half a dozen intellects instead of one. We are accustomed to the idea of scientists constructing artificial brains to effect calculations which neither a single individual nor a team of individuals devoting a lifetime to the task could hope to achieve. The elaborate system of certain Indian philosophers sometimes appears to be the product of such socially-constructed intellects.”
Yet another challenge in understanding the Gita is that in spite the culture that produced the Gita being philosophically highly advanced, it does not believe in philosophy! Yes, there a huge number of books written on Indian philosophy, but India has not really ever believed in philosophy. it might come to some as a surprise that there is actually no Indian word for philosophy. The word used in place of philosophy is darshana – and darshana is very different from philosophy. Darshana means perception, seeing, vision, from the Sanskrit root drsh or darsh, meaning to see. Philosophy is the product of thinking, of analytical and synthetic thought processes, whereas seeing is not.
A world renowned modern master once pointed out the difference between philosophy and darshana beautifully. Philosophy is, he said, like a man who is asleep, with his eyes closed and a bed sheet drawn over his head, the windows of his room closed, trying to understand and tell others what the morning is like – though he has never seen it. Whereas darshana is, said the master, waking up from sleep, throwing away the bed sheet, getting up and going to the windows and looking out – and seeing the glory of the morning with your own eyes, seeing the sun coming up in the east, hearing the morning sounds, smelling the morning air, watching the plants and trees dancing in the freshness of the new day, hearing the sounds of birds and animals, seeing people moving about, breathing in the fresh morning air and feeling the daybreak rush of energy and life in your veins. In the first case, in the case of philosophy, you are bound to be wrong because there is no way of understanding what the morning is without personally seeing it and in the second case you will always be right because you have seen it, experienced it, lived it as part of it, felt it in your veins.
The Gita is not interested in explaining to you intellectually what truth is, what your true nature is, what the nature of the world is, but helping you to experience it directly. The discussions of the Gita are not for helping you understand reality cerebrally but so that you experience it. It is like the finger pointing at the moon – say, someone pointing out the moon to you by saying that it is what you see between the two large eastern branches of a tree. The moon has nothing to do with the branches of any tree, a minute later the position of the moon would have changed, and even if the tree were not there, the moon would have been where it is. But the pointing out helps you see it. And the pointing out has just one purpose, just one meaning – so that you see it.
All darshana begins with a master’s experience and ends when the disciple sees what he has seen. Gita is Krishna’s attempt to help Arjuna see what he has seen, know what he has known, experience what he has experienced, live what he is living, and through Arjuna, help us do these. The Gita is not a book to be cerebrally understood, it is not something to be neatly arranged within our brain and then debated and discussed with others. So that is another challenge.
Speaking of the truth that the Gita points at, the Upanishads say yato vacho nivartante, apraapya manasa saha – it is something from which words return, having not reached, along with the mind. This truth that is the subject matter of the Gita is beyond words and even beyond the mind. It is not a bunch of concepts that can be expressed in words or understood by the mind. All words have to cease before we reach there. We have to go beyond the mind to reach there. Where the mind is, there is no way we can understand this truth. The mind is like an opaque glass which does not let the light of the truth in, it blocks it. When the mind becomes thin, translucent, almost completely transparent, then we get glimpses of the Gita’s truth. And then like the Upanishad rishi we cry out:
hiranmayena paatrena satyasya apihitam mukham
tat tvam pooshann-apavrnu satya-dharmaaya drshtave. Isha Up. 15
“The face of the Truth is hidden by a disk of pure gold.
O Pooshan, Lord of the Sun,
do you remove that so that I have the vision of Truth and Dharma.”
And so long as the mind is thick, filled with thoughts and ideas and concepts and images and memories and plans, there is no way we can know it.
It is this truth that the mind cannot comprehend and the senses cannot reach that we Gita is speaking about. And that forms another challenge.
Yet another challenge is that the Gita is a poem and poetry is suggestive and invariably means more than what it says. It is not like a thesis where each word means exactly one and only one thing.
Krishna, the teacher of the Gita, is a rebel who gives original meanings to the words he uses – meanings born of his own understanding of spirituality and meanings he revives from traditions that had more or less disappeared by his time. Krishna uses terms like sannyasa, yoga and akarma in senses that were totally different from the sense in which they were understood in his days. He also rejects many of the spiritual practices that were very common in his days, like Vedic rituals for pleasing the gods, extreme forms of asceticism and so on. For instance, he says traigunya-vishayaa vedaah, nistraigunyo bhava arjuna – the Vedas deal with [the world of] the three gunas; go beyond the three gunas, Arjuna. He also uses terms like nishkama karma and akarma in highly technical senses, with meanings very different from the senses in which they were understood in his days.
The fact that a large number of us today are ‘Macaulay’s children’ whose minds have been trained to look down upon things of Indian origin, our awe of things that come from the west, that we tend to think and speak in a language that has no roots in the Indian psyche and so on also pose challenges before us.
The Gita and Patrata
Krishna and Arjuna had been together much of their life – they were friends, cousins and brothers-in-law and yet Krishna never taught Arjuna the Gita until the situation in the battlefield arose. That is because the wisdom of the Gita is not for us until we are ready for it. All people at all times are not eligible for its teachings – its teachings can be dangerous for those who are not ready for it and in the hands of such people, it can be dangerous for others too.
Learning the Gita also requires a certain maturity that comes from living the life of the world – a life based on the belief that the fulfillment of what Abraham Maslow calls physical and physiological needs, safety and security needs, acceptance and belongingness needs and esteem needs can give us contentment, can make our lives fulfilled. From a slightly higher standpoint, we may include even self-actualization needs in this group.
While everyone at all levels can learn valuable lessons from the Gita, it is only after realizing that the life of the world of actions do not give us what we are ultimately seeking that we become qualified for the teachings of the Gita that take us to the higher dimensions of life. After the realization through personal experience that what we are searching for is the uncreated and that the uncreated cannot be the result of actions.
Also, it is only when we become ready to do prapatti, surrender, to the guru, as Arjuna does in the battlefield when he tells Krishna in the second chapter of the Gita shishyaste'ham shaadhi maam twaam prapannam – I am your disciple. Protect me, for I seek refuge in you – that we become ready for the highest teachings of the Gita.
Krishna's Spiritual Revolution
The Gita teaches the path to lasting good, the ultimate good. And the path to achieve that, as traditionally understood is the path of nivritti, withdrawal from all other activities, from the outer journey, and devoting all your energies and time exclusively to the inner journey by living a life of renunciation, sannyasa. Perhaps the most revolutionary teaching of Krishna in the Gita is that we need not do anything special for travelling on that path, that we need not do anything other than what we are doing now, that what we are doing at this moment itself can take us to that goal, the ultimate universal goal, the goal that every human being is seeking nisshreyasa, a word that means freedom from all bondages, including the bondage to the ego, to our life scripts, to time itself.
Krishna says that whatever we are doing at the moment, whether it is fighting a war as Arjuna is doing, or administering a kingdom or farming or tending cattle, or service to others could all equally become the path of that journey, just as meditation and prayer are.
As Krishna teaches it, the supervising, planning and organizing that an executive does, his actions of decision making, controlling, representing, consulting and administering, can all become spiritual paths leading him to the ultimate good, nisshreyasa. Marketing his products can become the spiritual path to a marketing executive, selling vegetables from a pushcart his spiritual path to a street vendor, tending cows his spirituality to a cowherd, cooking a meal for a cook, driving car for a driver, mowing the lawn for a gardener, chopping wood for a woodcutter, dancing for a dancer, painting for a painter, weaving cloth for a weaver, weaving baskets for a basket maker all can lead to the ultimate when done with the right mindset and understanding.
India speaks of the butcher Dharmavyadha using butchering as his spiritual path, the prostitute Bindumati transforming her work into her spiritual path – and Krishna would approve of all these. And Krishna does not hesitate to declare that openly: sve sve karmany abhiratah samsiddhim labhate narah – each man achieves the highest by engaging in his own karma. [BG 18.45]
For Krishna what you do is not the important thing, but how you do it. After all he is teaching Arjuna in the Gita how to transform the battles in the warfield themselves into his spiritual path – slaughtering enemies can become his spiritual path for a soldier, for a kshatriya, if that cannot be avoided, if there is no other means left.
Krishna calls this karma yoga, the miracle of transforming your karma into your yoga, whatever your karma is. Until his days, pravritti, actions in the world, and nivritti, withdrawal from the world, were two different paths. Krishna beautifully blended the two to form the path of karma yoga. He combined pravritti and nivritti and called it by the ancient name of sannyasa, giving the new meaning of nivritti in pravritti to sannyasa – withdrawal while actively engaged in action, detachment while working with full commitment. He taught Arjuna that running away from karma is not sannyasa, but doing karma with a different mindset is. Krishna teaches that you do not have to do anything different, but only do the same things differently.
At the same time, Krishna does not forget that there are other paths to reach that goal too – after all the spiritual search has been man’s greatest adventure and over millennia humanity has developed innumerable paths to reach that goal. So Krishna gives us many paths to reach that goal – for no path is for all people. Each man’s journey has to begin from where he is now and for that reason there are innumerable paths leading to nisshreyasa and the Gita is a compendium of all these paths.
Final Words Before We Begin
One last thing before we begin the discussion of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is not a book that tells you what to do and what not to do. It is not a book of prescriptions or proscriptions. It is a book about awakening, about seeing the truth face to face, and about living rooted in that awakening. It is a book that leads you to enlightenment, in the light of which you will be able to decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do, how to live and how not to live.
So if you are seeking readymade solutions for your problems in the Gita you might be disappointed. It will give you light in which you can see things as they are, and you will know what to do with each problem facing you. It will also show you many paths to walk on, and will tell you where each path will take you, and ask you to choose for yourself as Krishna does at the end of the Gita by telling Arjuna:
iti te jnaanam aakhyaatam guhyaad guhyataram mayaa
vimrshyaitad asheshena yathechchhasi tathaa kuru
“Thus, have I revealed to you knowledge that is more hidden than the deepest secret. Think over it deeply and then do as you wish.”
The Gita is a book of freedom, not of bindings. It does not put you in shackles by saying do this and don’t do this, but removes all your shackles. It does not clip your wings, but shows you the sky and asks you to flutter your wings and soar.
Krishna believes that rather than fitting into the society as it is, with all its maladies and shallowness, we should change it. On his way to India, Pythagoras discovered in Egypt that people live as though in sleep. The Gita wants us to wake up ourselves and then help others wake up.
Apart from leading individuals to the highest goal of life, the Gita can also help us create an enlightened society in which life will be meaningful rather than meaningless, people will have something genuine to live for rather than feel life and work have no meaning. With the help of the Gita, life can become a song of joy, a dance of celebration. It can create a society in which people will not be running madly all the time to reach where they know not, but will have time for their souls to catch up with them.
Gurudev Tagore sang:
Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee
into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!
The Gita can make not only our country but the entire world awaken into that heaven of freedom.
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