This is the opening theme of the Bhagavad Gita, the celebrated "Song of the Lord" that has inarguably been the most renowned and read text on the Indian continent for the past several millennia. It is a book on Dharma, Karma, Artha Kama, Moksha, Atman, Brahman - all key components of Indian philosophies. It asks the important questions: "What is our duty in general? In times of crises? On a personal as well as on a collective level? And where do we find the support to face all the grueling difficulties looming ahead?"
The Mahabharata, after the Ramayana, is the foremost epic of India and stretches over 100,000 verses. It is known as the Great War, the war of Dharma, of righteousness, but it is also known as the book of internal conflicts, trials and difficulties that people may go through in their journey to become more complete beings. The main story of this great epic is one of conflict between paternal cousins. On one side are the hundred sons of Dhrtarashtra, known as the Kauravas and on the other are the five sons of Pandu known as Pandavas. From early on the Kauravas, lead by their brother Duryodhana, feel great resentment towards the Pandavas. They do everything they can to undermine their princely powers and relieve them of their righteous claims to the kingdom. The five Pandavas, all being embodiments of noble virtues, show great tolerance towards the Kauravas. They forgive them again and again but eventually are tricked in a game of dice and lose their kingdom. After which they are sentenced to dwell in the forest for twelve years without any belongings and thereafter must further live one year in the midst of society incognito. Having endured this, they return to the kingdom and request their small share of it. Duryodhana refuses and war becomes the only option left for the Pandavas to claim what is rightfully theirs.
This brings us to the Bhagavad Gita - which is part of the Mahabharata. The story takes place right before the crucial battle where hundreds and thousands of soldiers are gathered on each side. Arjuna is one of the commanders in chief. His charioteer is Krishna, but Krishna is no average fellow: he is Divinity personified - one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Initially, Arjuna is ignorant of this. He has simply chosen Krishna as his advisor in war due to his great wisdom and skill.
Before the battle, Arjuna asks Krishna to journey with him out into the field so that he can survey the great army he is about to face. As he stands there watching all his relatives - cousins, grandfathers, great teachers and noble elders - Arjuna is overcome with a deep sadness, fear and horror. He therefore bows down with despair in his chariot and cries out to his friend Krishna that he will not engage in this horrible war. The dialogue that ensues between Krishna and Arjuna - one of some 700 verses - is what constitutes the Bhagavad Gita - the Song of the Lord.
The Bhagavad Gita is a love song from lover to beloved. It is the nectar of wisdom for a world lost in sorrow and confusion as to its true identity. It is also a book on how to live up to one's duties, face the consequences of life without attracting further suffering and, not least, come to realize one's innermost identity - that which constant, never changes and is the source of all that is. The text spans over eighteen chapters which cover various aspects of Yoga and how the individual soul may come to transcend all the dualities experienced through the realm of the senses and attain a higher consciousness wherein the individual becomes one with the source of existence. The Bhagavad Gita is also a synthesis of all the Upanishads, embodying its essential teachings. First and foremost, however, it is a text that speaks to the human heart, awakening the soul. It is timeless in nature because it seeks to bring the hearer of this divine song back to their very own self.
There are many types of Yoga depicted in the Bhagavad Gita, but it is essentially divided into 3 sections consisting of 6 chapters each. These are: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga. They are all equally important but are best understood when they work together, utilizing the dormant capabilities of the body, heart and mind and eventually transcending the separate identity of the individual - awakening him/her to a true experience of Yoga.
In the opening chapter, Arjuna lays down his bow and refuses to fight. In the following chapter, Lord Krishna first tries to appeal to his sense of manliness but when that proves futile, instructs him on the notion of the Self and what constitutes the inner essence of being. The need for war is of course questionable, but on this field of Dharma, Krishna argues that a righteous battle is necessary in order to punish the wicked and support the righteous so that a greater peace may reign. Only in the realm of the senses are the acts of warfare destructive to the environment. In that realm, suffering and death are the fate of all men. However, their innermost soul can never be destroyed. Kirshna therefore urges Arjuna to stop worrying about external appearances. He further argues that:
"That which is ultimately real has no non-existence and that which is not real can never ever come into existence." (BG 2.16)
A confused mind, unaware of its true identity is caught up in dualities. Bound by the unceasing patterns of nature, this mind is unaware of its true center. The essence of Self cannot be grasped or articulated but is the sole support of man that brings him into contact with Truth rather than mere relative existence. To bring about a greater clarification of the inner self, one must minimize the obstructing patterns created by the mind and the ego. In order to do this, action is needed to cleanse these patterns away. Unless some work is engaged in, the inherent patterns of the mind will remain fixed. However, a one pointed determination in action is also necessary. The key to Karma Yoga is in cultivating the right attitude of mind whilst engaging in activity. In this way, the ignorant pattern may be removed and greater clarity of self may emerge. The goal of Karma Yoga may thus be summarized:
"To work alone is your right, but never to claim its result. Let therefore not the result of actions be your motive, no to be attached to inaction. Established in Yoga, O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), perform actions, giving up attachment, and unconcerned whether you achieve success or failure: This equanimity is called Yoga." (BG 2.47-2.48)
Any work done under the sway of one's desire will lead to further bondage of Karmas, but work done through wisdom may eventually loosen the bonds of Karma and bring about greater integration of Yoga. Another definition of Yoga is given: "Yoga is skill in the midst of activity." (BG 2.50). The state of Yoga can never be lost but initial effort and skill are required to re-awaken the experience of it from within.
In the practice of Karma Yoga, it is suggested that a minimization of one's own personal desires and needs are to be practiced so that the mind may be more clearly separated from fluctuating needs. Restraint is similarly suggested to decrease the impact of the senses/sense-objects because attachment to them may create desires. These unsatisfied desires may lead to anger, anger to delusion, and then confusion of memory - eventually resulting in the destruction of intelligence and one's receptivity to Self. A controlled person soon realizes that there is no end to attachment and thus learns to practice restraint so that the wandering senses may be stilled. This will eventually lead to freedom from the duality of likes/dislikes and will produce a greater stability of mind which is more fit to receive the essence of Self from within.
One would think that Knowledge of Self would be sufficient to break the cycle of Karma but all activities taking place in Nature operate under the laws of the 3 Gunas which are separate to the identity of the Self. The embodied self, infused within nature, identifies with the fluctuations of the mind but fails to see that it is separate from it all together. As long as an incarnate being is tied to the life breath of the body, it will associate with various patterns of mind. These patterns need to be understood and seen through for the Inherent Observer, the Self, to be realized. Patterns of the mind run deep and a cessation from activities of Nature cannot be gained by merely ceasing to act. This is not the idea of renunciation. Everybody is forced to act - if not simply to maintain the body - and the subtle patterns of the gunas continue to play themselves out. To engage in activity is therefore superior to non-activity. The wise learn to see the distinction between the activities of the gunas and the purity of the Self within. A person, deluded by association with the senses, will think "I" am the doer, but in truth it is Nature that acts. The Self within is merely the observer of it all. Lord Krishna says:
"What is action? What is inaction? Even the wise are deluded in this matter. I shall explain to you that action by which you shall be free from all inauspiciousness. There is something to be known about prescribed action and about prohibited action as well as inaction; the way of action is indeed mysterious. He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men. He is truly intelligent and a performer of all actions. He whose all undertakings are free from the hankerings after desire, whose actions have been burnt by the fire of knowledge, him the wise call a sage. Renouncing the attachment for action and its result, ever contented and without a fixed abode, he does not do anything although engaging inactivity." (BG 4.16-4.20)
To become free of desire is therefore the first step to remain centered in the body/mind and to not accumulate any further patterns of Karma. If one can learn to remain content with what life/chance brings and work only for the sake of doing good work (rather than being caught up in the fruit of the action), the mind may transcend its opposites. Then, whether success or failure results, it will no longer identify with the external patterns but will release itself even in the midst of action. Every act is then not done for the sake of Ego, but rather offered up to the highest sense of being from within. This being that is always separate from whatever action is taking place but which is equally the receiver of all action.
Krishna thus urges Arjuna to offer up all his activities to this higher being within. That which is not obscured by the manipulating forces of Nature but which lives in harmony with it. When every action becomes a sacrifice to this inner being that is the same within all, one's Karmas are purified and the separate identity will eventually diminish as the created Ego loses its substratum of power. When no longer identified with raga and dvesha, attachment and aversion - which are the root of all ignorance, the Self will be able to shine through.
The primary teachings of Krishna are therefore to learn to see through the strong attachments which divert the mind and to perform actions through the body, mind, intellect and senses for the purification of the Self within. Then the highest peace and satisfaction - which are beyond the fleeting sensations of the insatiable senses - may come about. Every action performed may be an act of meditation where one learns to observe the Self through the self. When the pull of the external senses loses its impact, a balanced mind may arise that remains constant in heat/cold, happiness/misery, honor/dishonor. Yoga therefore involves balance and is not attained by one who is either given to extremes or by one who simply does nothing at all. Moderation is key because when the mind, well poised, remains fixed in the Self alone, free from the craving of all external sensual enjoyments, then the state of Yoga is said to be revealed. (BG 6.18)
The turbulent senses and the wild fluctuations of the mind are by no means easy to control. A person may be continually pulled between the opposite extremes. In the midst of such a battle, this inner equilibrium may seem like a distant horizon, but the steady advice of Lord Krishna is to develop it with practice and dispassion (BG 6.35). For a person who learns to practice under prescribed means, the realization of Yoga may eventually dawn: that there is a source of being situated from within that is never in need of anything; it just is. However, as long as one identifies itself with the senses, it will continue to get pulled hither and thither, according to circumstances, and lose itself in a world of fluctuations rather than dwelling in a source that is steady, constant and luminous at all times.
This inner state of Being Lord Krishna identifies to be himself. He is the seed of all creation, the great Brahman that issues forth the Universe in the beginning of time and then absorbs it at the end of a time cycle. Whatever is created is always different to Him, but yet he is an immanent part of the totality of creation. The way of Knowledge and Realization is thus to come to realize that the source of one's innermost Being does not belong to the Ego or to a fabricated mind, those are part of Prakriti and are constituted of the 3 gunas. The true Self is separate and merely the conscious observer in the midst. A totally different experience of being is therefore to be cultivated. This state is apart from the usual association of the senses and fabrications of the mind. The inner source of Being lives as if veiled by the operating forces of nature. Unless the conscious mind is able to pierce this divine illusion, the influence from the overpowering senses will continue to rule one's being. A whole different approach is therefore needed: Lord Krishna points to the path of Bhakti Yoga - union through Love - wherein the seeker comes to experience his/her innermost self from learning to love more fully: to love not for the sake of sensual stimuli, but rather for the unconditional love stored up from within - the source of one's own Being, that which just is.
To reach this state and unleash the unconditional state of love in the core of one's being, the mind needs a focus to draw it closer to this goal. The mind, not being aware of its true support, keeps searching in the world of impermanence for something stable and consistent. As such, its focus needs to be turned to something that does not change. This focus which Krishna gives is devotion, ideally to the highest conceivable notion of divinity and if that is not capable of being conceived, then whatever associations one may have of it that may approximate that source:
"Even those devoted to other gods, who worship them endowed with faith, worship Me alone, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), although in an unauthorized way." (BG 9.23)
Since Lord Krishna is the ruler of all gods and the enjoyer of all sacrifices, all paths may eventually lead to Him if walked with sincerity and selflessness. The further teachings of Krishna are to instill in Arjuna the surety that He, i.e., Krishna, is the receiver of all actions within Arjuna and not the "less real" identity of his Ego which he, Arjuna, has created for himself. One's attitude towards action will naturally change profoundly if one comes to feel less associated with the "me" that is the constituent of Nature that lives and breathes and replaces that with association with the God lives within. That inner being does not have any preferences of its own, but is merely the receiver of all that is:
"He who with devotion offers Me a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that devout offering of the pure minded I accept. Whatever you do, eat, sacrifice or give, whatever austerity you perform, that O son of Kunti (Arjuna), offer to Me. Thus you will be rid of the bonds of action resulting in good and evil; being free and with your mind endowed with the Yoga of renunciation; you will attain Me." (BG 9.26 - 9.28)
The quest for Arjuna in the midst of this battle becomes less about following his conceptual ideas of right and wrong but rather to act for the sake of merely doing one's utmost as an act of sacrifice to that highest being within. As one works towards this, one will eventually feel closer to losing the sense of individual identity and becoming instead an instrument for glory rather than just a vehicle for Karmas. The highest Yoga of understanding is therefore not that which comes from refined intellect and/or restrained senses, but rather the windfall that comes from the realization of ones true support:
"To these who are ever devoted to Me and worship Me with love, I give that Yoga of understanding by which they come unto Me. Just to bless them, I, residing in their intellect, destroy the darkness born of ignorance by the resplendent light of knowledge." (BG 10.10 - 10.11)
When a jubilant Arjuna finally realizes Krishna's divinity, he is overcome with intense love and desires to know in detail of all the further powers and glories of Krishna's imperishable being. What follows is the famous "Vision of the Universal Form" wherein Arjuna sees all beings in God and everything eventually being absorbed into him. In this great vision he also sees the death of all the other warriors, how their destinies unfold, and how he, Arjuna, is but an instrument in this process. He is further overcome with great fear from the intensity of what he beholds and asks Krishna to reveal himself in his friendly form since his perception can no longer comprehend the impact of what is before him.
The remaining chapters of the Gita are teachings in how to consolidate this devotion to the highest being from within and how to learn to embody it more fully in the intellect and in all further actions of body and mind. Krishna instructs Arjuna deeper in the path of true Knowledge and teaches him he discrimination between Nature and Soul (Prakrti and Purusha), the separation of the 3 gunas and how to eventually find the way back home to the Supreme Person that is beyond all form and appearances but yet is the support of all that exists.
The highest teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is therefore a path of renunciation, but never for the mere abolishing of activities. Full attention is to be given, rather, to whatever duties and responsibilities one is engaged in. The outcome of all activity, however, should not belong to the ego but to the unfolding of the soul within. It can be thus summarized:
"From whom proceeds the activity of all beings, and by whom all this is pervaded - worshipping Him through his own duty, a man attains perfection. Better is one's own duty, although defective, than the duty of another well performed. Doing the duty ordained by one's own nature, on incurs no misery (sin). One should not, O son of Kunti, relinquish the duty to which one is born although it may be full of flaws; for all undertakings are covered by defect, as fire by smoke." (BG )
The battle of the Bhagavad Gita has, for many readers, come to symbolize the internal struggle of opposing forces within. The text is universal in nature and does not discriminate between diversity of beliefs, but rather wants to instill in the reader a greater responsibility towards one's own duty for the sake of awakening one's true inner potential. For Arjuna it is to engage in the act of war ahead whilst mentally and physically resigning all outcomes to the lord of lords from within.
Even if Arjuna, out of delusion, refused to fight and tried to escape the cruel acts expected of him, time would eventually catch up with him and he would be forced to execute the duties born of his nature:
"In the heart of all beings, O Arjuna, resides the Lord, whirling all of them by His Maya as if they were mounted on a machine." (BG 18.61)
The most reasonable action, according to these teachings, is thus a path of surrender. Not for the sake of losing oneself, but rather to become oneself more fully. Krishna's final instruction to Arjuna about this inner resplendent being is hence to:
"Take refuge in Him alone with all your heart, O descendent of Bharata (Arjuna), by His Grace you shall attain supreme peace and the eternal abode." (BG 18.62)
All the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita do indeed address how to refine one's nature, to become more restrained and to realize the fullness of one's potential and the infinite nature of one's support. Trials and difficulties are not there to break man, but rather to lift him out of his mediocre ways and to eventually bring about a whole new way of seeing. When that finally happens, all acts and responsibilities fall away and all that remains is the fullness of this resplendent being that stands in no need of activity in itself, but yet through the activities of Nature may reveal itself through the individual.
When Arjuna thus finally claims that "his delusion is destroyed, he has gained his memory through this inner grace" (BG 18.73), he stands firmly, can act freely and is free from the suppressing fluctuating patterns of mind born from delusion over one's true nature.
R. Alexander Medin