By Gaurav Rastogi
I’ve been reading the Bhagavad Gita for a couple of weeks now, and I’m feeling one with Arjuna already. When Chapter 1 ended, Arjuna was overwhelmed and panicked. Ditto for me.
SO MANY VERSIONS, SO LITTLE TIME
OK, so I cheated. I had promised that I would only read one version of the Bhagavad Gita and record my notes. Now, I’m adding internet searches on Amazon and Wiki, to my set of sources.
After I posted last, I received many comments and recommendations for Gita translations. The ones most recommended seem to be Eknath Eshwaran’s version, as well as Osho’s version. I’m panicked that people might compare!
PICKING UP THE THREAD FROM LAST TIME…
So when we left our panicked hero – Arjuna – had just laid out three lame excuses for why he would rather not fight. The chapter opens with a rebuke (from Krishna to Arjuna), and then quickly moves through a tightly scripted dialog between God (Krishna) and pitiful man (Arjuna). Then, Krishna answers the “Teen Bahane” with his three alternate reasons for why A should go out and do what he does best. Then, to my complete surprise, Krishna launches into a theory lesson on Samkhya-yoga – an ancient Indian branch of philosophy. Then, equally surprisingly, the chapter closes.
Wow! What a thrill ride! A little like the second movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – you know you have to come back to watch the ending later. Let me rewind and play back in slower motion.
As soon as the chapter starts, K rebukes A for being cowardly and faint-hearted. In my home state of California, the phrase “girlie-man” is often used to similar effect. Arjuna responds by murmuring a shorter version of his teen bahane. You know, “it’s better to beg than to kill one’s masters and noble elders etc.”. But, in the interest of carrying the dialog forward, he asks to be Krishna’s disciple and seeks his advice.
REBUTTAL TO TEEN BAHANE
Only at this point does the book start referring to Krishna as “Lord” (Sribhagavan).
Now there is a very clear status distance between the two parties in this dialog – Lord vs. pitiful-disciple-man.
This status distance allows the authors of the Bhagavad Gita to offer three alternate reasons that can be used independently to justify action to Arjuna without actually having to prove any of the reasons. Pick one, any one, and go forth to war. There’s a lot of elegance in the way this has been set up, and I will write about it later.
Reason #1: The soul exists forever – therefore – where’s the problem with changing the front-end?
This is one of the most-quoted parts of the Gita – the analogy to the human body to old clothes that can be discarded and new ones worn.
The soul assumes new bodies, just like the human body assumes new forms (childhood, youth and old age). The bodies are mortal, the soul eternal. Knowing that it is permanent, the notion of killing being sinful is absurd. Therefore, go forth and fight. QED.
Interestingly, the chapter goes on to describe the physical properties of the soul – “cannot be pierced, burned, wetted or dried”. Amazingly, the first law of thermodynamics is very similar to this logic. “In short, the law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another, such as when electrical energy is changed into heat energy.” See!
Reason #2: If human beings are born and die – then – death is certain – therefore – why complain?
If you don’t buy into the everlasting soul school of thought, you probably believe that human beings have a beginning and an end. Therefore, death is certain. Therefore, don’t despair and grieve at something that’s inevitable.
Reason #3: It’s your duty as a warrior a.k.a. “log kya kahenge” (what will people say?)
“As a warrior, dear Arjuna, there’s nothing better for you to do than to go to war.” It’s a hyperlink to heaven, so to speak. In any case, if you decide to withdraw from the war, people will tell tales of your cowardice. Shame! Shame!
“Treat pleasure and pain equally, and you will incur no sin!”
PLEASE PULL OUT YOUR BOOKS, TIME FOR A THEORY LESSON
At this point, the chapter steps away from the story, and does a very elegant walk through the philosophy of Samkhya-Yoga. The text is very tightly written, so the only useful way to read this is to translate each line directly. That would make for a boring blog entry, unfortunately. Let me just give you my highlights instead.
Highlight #1: the shopper’s dilemma: “In the resolute soul, the mind is one. Many-branched and unending are the thoughts of the irresolute soul”. I thought the second half of this verse describes a shopping experience at any superstore. I find the experience of shopping for an object as simple as a gate-lock excruciating because of the choices available. I spent 30 minutes last month in front of an aisle full of locks to spend $8.95.
Highlight #2: The “other” school of thought: I didn’t expect it, but there seems to be some under-current of debate going on between the Samkhya school and the “other” school. The “other” guys seem to be full of desires of pleasure, power, heaven, meritorious rebirths, etc. They do a lot of rituals with these desires in mind. Hmmm…wonder who these other guys are now?
Super Highlight #3: You have the right to do your duty, not to the results.
“Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani”
This is, arguably, the most famous verse in the entire text and is at the core of the philosophy. Basically means that the intrinsic motivation for a yogi should not come from either the fruits of one’s labor or from inertia.
Highlight #4: Samadhi! Now I grew up in India, where a Samadhi was simply the resting place of saints. I realize after reading in the Gita (and then searching Wikipedia), that the original meaning of the word was quite different. Apparently this is a technical term amongst the meditation experts which refers to a meditative state of consciousness where one gets an unprecedented sense of oneness.
Here, Arjuna asks how he could tell a resolute man from all the others. A long, detailed answer follows. The verse I think describes the answer most crisply is:
Highlight #5: The way of the tortoise: Quite different from the tortoise of Aesop’s fable, the tortoise in question here has the unique ability to retract its limbs. Just like this tortoise, a wise man retracts his senses from the objects of desire. He, who leaves the things of desire, and roams the earth without “mine” and without “I” attains peace.
Then, without notice, the chapter closes.
In my next entry I will talk about my observations about the writing style (mathematical precision) as well as the content. I’m itching to talk about a video clip that- in my opinion- articulates the yogi warrior piece brilliantly.