What’s in the Bhagavad Gita?
Most Westerners will not have heard of the Bhagavad Gita or even read anything from it, or about it. If I then say, “It’s a Hindu text,” that then leads a proportion of Westerners to go, “Never heard of it.. I’m a Christian.. I don’t have time for this.” Brilliant! How? Such reactions will prove my point that silos of knowledge and exploration abound in the new world. If I then say, “The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of India’s most famous epic poems.” – well ‘everybody’ is gonna look away. Yuh know, “Poetry, I hate it!” is likely to come out. You bet, I’m dithering so that people can move on! As I said umpteen times before, I’m not interested in hit counts or whether people actually read what I write. This is my space. I write for me! If a small minority of persons benefit, that’s fine. If nobody benefits, that’s also fine!
So – what follows is my notes on what the Gita represents. The main part of it is about a conversation between Arjuna and Lord Krishna. This does not mean I’ve changed from being an atheist – FFS!
Much of the following is extracted from Wikipedia and the Sir Edwin Arnold translation. Gita was originally written in Sanskrit. The language does not translate easily into English, and it was wrapped in a particular cultural context that is now mostly lost.
This is not a complete list:
- Arjuna, one of the five Pandavas
- Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and guru who was actually an incarnation of Vishnu
- Sanjaya, counselor of the Kuru king Dhritarashtra (secondary narrator)
- Dhritarashtra, Kuru king (Sanjaya’s audience) and father of the Kauravas
Exiled from the kingdom of Kurukshetra for 13 years, Arjuna and his brothers have been put out of their heritage by another faction of ‘family’. He doesn’t bear hate against those family members. In fact he still loves them.
Gita records Arjuna’s struggle and dilemmas in reclaiming the kingdom.
Arjuna has the lead responsibility to lead in a battle against those he most loves. How this has arisen is not so important and can be read up. The point is, that it has come to war. There is the prospect of death and bloodshed. If Arjuna moves forward he will have to slay some of those he loves, in order to take back his heritage for those on his side.
At the start of the ‘righteous war’ Arjuna hesitates. Arjuna is on the side of the Pandava. On the other side are relatives among the Kauravas. He is in a moral dilemma and despairs about the violence and death the war will cause. He seeks the guidance or opinion of Krishna (the avatar of Lord Vishnu).
Krishna: How hath this weakness taken thee? Whence springs The inglorious trouble, shameful to the brave, barring the path of virtue? Nay, Arjun! Forbid thyself to feebleness! It mars Thy warrior name! Cast off the coward-fit! Wake! Be thyself! Arise, Scourge of thy Foes!
Arjuna: How can I, in the battle, shoot with shafts On Bhishma, or on Drona- O thou Chief!— Both worshipful, both honourable men? Better to live on beggar’s bread With those we love alive, Than taste their blood in rich feasts spread, And guiltily survive! Ah! were it worse-who knows?—to be Victor or vanquished here, when those confront us angrily. Whose death leaves living drear? In pity lost, by doubtings tossed. My thoughts-distracted-turn To Thee, the Guide I reverence most. That I may counsel learn: I know not what would heal the grief Burned into soul and sense, If I were earth’s unchallenged chief— A god—and these gone thence!
At this point, Westerners will see evil in Krishna – no doubt. After all how can a Lord (Vishnu) advise Arjuna to slay his most beloved people for the sake of taking back a kingdom? I expect to hear shouts of ‘terrorism justified’. Nobody in the West relishes a justification for war or worse yet the slaying of loved ones. And thus the simple minded depart without understanding of the depths of the moral dilemma and how it panned out.
Arjuna’s confusion was in the domain of the psychological. How could he slay his beloved relatives in such a war? Was the heritage worth it? Did kingdom matter more than family?
What if the people he was to do battle with were not his family, would that make it easier? The answer is an obvious ‘yes’. He would have had no close affection for them if not his relatives. But the nature of family is not just a psychological thing. In the backdrop is lot of ‘biology’ i.e. the same blood lines perhaps. And her there is a cross over between competing values. The blood-line has value that is not simply psychological – it is mainly biological (the genetic tree).
Those who would want to dig deeper should study the following chapters in Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation.
- The Distress of Arjuna
- The Book of Doctrines
- Virtue in Work
- The Religion of Knowledge
- Religion of Renouncing Works
- Religion by Self-Restraint
- Religion by Discernment
- Religion by Service of the Supreme
- Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery
- Religion by the Heavenly Perfections
- The Manifesting of the One and Manifold
- Religion of Faith
- Religion by Separation of Matter and Spirit
- Religion by Separation from the Qualities
- Religion by Attaining the Supreme
- The Separateness of the Divine and Undivine
- Religion by the Threefold Faith
- Religion by Deliverance and Renunciation
is a complex concept for Westerners. In the tightest incomplete nutshell the concept, is about doing the right thing because one has determined that it is right – without craving for its fruits, without worrying about the results, loss or gain. What is right for one, is wrong for another – to state the obvious.
If you had an idea that I was going to explain it, you are certainly in the wrong place and good you have wasted your time, you lazy so and so! The West will translate it into words such as ‘duty’, and ‘doing what is right’ etc. Did I say it was a tight nutshell? Lemme check. Yes I did! Depth is not something often found among the West and its new bandwagon of millennials.
: According to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the object of the Gita is to show the way to attain self-realization, and this “can be achieved by selfless action, by desireless action; by renouncing fruits of action; by dedicating all activities to God, i.e., by surrendering oneself to Him body and soul.” Gandhi called the Gita “The Gospel of Selfless Action“. This is like ‘totally’ at the other end of Western values and thinking. How? Everybody in the West is obsessed with actions and consequences. It’s the way decision-making is done. Logic is bent by consideration of consequences.
This is not a full list or concepts. I’m afraid those who dare to learn more will need to do some study.
The common arguments are along the following lines:
- Gita is about war. Life’s decisions are not normally about war, so living the principles of Gita from thousands of years ago is misguided and delusional. Errrh…. (obviously) the same would not apply to any part of the Bible which happens to be thousands of years old too. The way you work that is to say “The Bible was not about war!” See? No hands – I can do that too!
- Any fool can find a framework to justify whatever they want. Like I so don’t know that – right? Yes – I know that’s what terrorists do. Chrysst! It’s what Christians did too when they went to the ‘New World’ from Europe. Ahhh.. but that was different – was it?
Here we go…
Stupid: So you’re saying that people should make decisions without consideration of consequences.
CW: You fool! This is from a philosophical text. It’s not a prescription for everybody’s life. What they are saying is that over occupation with consequences may bend reasoning and logic.
Stupid: You seem to be obsessed with logic.
CW: I am pretty much occupied by logic, so yes. Logic is a function of mathematics that rules this universe.
Stupid: God rules the universe!
CW: I’m not taking the bait to be distracted on that point.
Stupid: So you’re saying that whatever you think is right, must be right?
CW: No. I may well be wrong. History – or rather the unfolding of history into that non-existent place called the future – may well prove any of us wrong. I’m no exception.
Stupid: So you’re saying that even if foreseeable consequences may turn out to be wrong, you will still persist.
CW: Of course – so long as the consequences are not illegal. Foreseeable consequences are not written in the future. They exist as a probability in the present, only.
Stupid: I don’t get it.
CW: I can only make a decision in the present – is what Arjuna was faced with. The consequences of death to his relatives and friends by his own hands, were foreseeable. But he had to make a very tough decision based on a foundation of principles.
Stupid: Killing people is wrong, and justifying doing that is more wrong.
CW: Tell that to all the people who have waged wars in history. Are wars legal? In today’s world there are laws that provide for when a nation can go to war.
Stupid: So – you could argue that genocide is justifiable?
CW: I wouldn’t. Obviously genocide as defined in international law is totally wrong. However, what if there was an alien invasion of earth and the whole of the human race was at risk of being wiped out by them – would it make sense to say, “We can’t just kill them all off, cuz that would be genocide”?
Stupid: Oh come off it – you’re picking an extreme exception.
CW: Of course. I agree that genocide as defined is wrong. What I’m saying is that rules are there to maintain a certain sort of order and morality. I have no problem with that. What I’m also saying is that to be constrained by rules totally is nonsense. Arjuna’s hesitation was in a situation that most people would never face. The study of Gita is to bring out how one can be unshackled from rules when there is something fundamentally different happening.
Stupid: Right – so..
CW: No. Your time is up.
Stupid: No. I have more things to ask.
CW: I decide. Not you. Thank you for not being insulting on this occasion. Off you pop.
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