Mahabharata Episode 39: The Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita - Featured Image - Picture of a whip representing Krishna's weapon in the war

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

In this post, we will cover the fundamental aspects of the Bhagavad Gita. Please note that a complete list of all possible interpretations of this text is beyond the scope of this blog. There is plenty of material out there for the interested reader.

We will concern ourselves here only with the main points that Krishna makes.

A list of topics that we will cover:

Arjuna gets Disheartened

As the war is about to begin, Arjuna says to Krishna, ‘O Madhava, take me to the centre of the battlefield so that I may station myself between these two great armies, and look into the faces of those people I am destined to fight.’

Krishna does so, and points out the great Kaurava heroes that have turned out in their resplendent chariots. Arjuna suddenly finds that his limbs have become heavy. His mouth runs dry. The Gandiva threatens to slip from his grasp.

‘My mind seems to wander, Krishna,’ he says. ‘My skin burns. I am unable to stand any longer. I do not desire victory, O Madhusudana. I do not desire sovereignty or pleasures.

‘Even if we are to win the entire earth for ourselves, of what use would it be if we are to stamp on the heads of our kinsmen? Even if we regard these men as our foes, I have no doubt that sin will overtake us if we kill them.

‘Alas, how has greed overcome us this way, that in the hope of winning the world, we are prepared to slay our own family members and pave our own paths toward hellfire?’

Saying so, Arjuna casts aside his bow and arrows to sit down in his chariot, his mind troubled with grief.

This sets the stage for perhaps the most popular dialogue in Hinduism where Krishna advises Arjuna on life and how to derive meaning within it.

The gist of this conversation has later come to be collected in its own book-form and given the name, The Bhagavad Gita.

Slaying of Preceptors

Arjuna asks Krishna about the sin of killing one’s own preceptor, which is considered as bad as raising a weapon on one’s parents. How is it that in this particular case Arjuna is being encouraged to perform this heinous act?

Krishna replies, ‘You are mourning those that do not deserve to be mourned, Arjuna. You speak in the tones of a wise man, but the truly wise grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. Death is not the end of life; neither is birth its beginning.

‘The preceptors and kings who stand in front of you today, along with me and you, all belong to the same Brahman that sits atop this earthly plane, watching. The wise understand this.

‘The feelings carried to your mind by your senses are temporary, O Partha. They have a beginning and an end. Do, therefore, endure them. The soul, the imperishable part of everyone who stands here, cannot be slain.

‘Only the bodies go through the cycles of birth and death; the soul will stay indestructible. Those who think of slayers and the slain do not yet know anything, my friend. You do not have the power to destroy that which cannot be; nor to create something that has never been.

‘So arise, Partha! Embrace the duties that your order has placed upon you. Do not shirk the calling of the true Kshatriya, which is to fight in a fair battle. If you win this war, you will have the earth at your feet.

‘If you lose, you will win all the merit due you in heaven. But if you withdraw now, all the kings of Earth will proclaim that you did so out of fear. And the infamy that will seek you is worse than death!’

Pleasure and Pain

Krishna now exhorts Arjuna to rise above dualisms like pain and pleasure, heat and cold, right and wrong, rewards and punishments. Instead, he says, focus on what you perceive as your duty.

‘There is only one state of the mind,’ says Krishna, ‘that of firm devotion to duty. There are many who, in their blind love for speech, promise this or that consequence for this or that action.

‘They do this in the hope of controlling your choices, of influencing the path by which you wish to travel. Do not listen to them, my friend.

‘Perform an action not because you will be rewarded for doing so or punished for not doing so, but because it is part of your duty.

‘Your concern is with the work itself, O Partha, not with its result. Let not the fruit of the work be your motive, nor must you let it drag you away into the depths of inaction. Devotion to your work means that you have detached yourself from the success or failure that will follow from your action.’

Note: This above paragraph is often considered the primary teaching of the Bhagavad Gita: to perform an act while being detached from the consequences of it. This is very similar to teachings of the Stoic philosophers.

On Anticipation

‘He who works,’ says Krishna, ‘for the sole purpose of acquiring the fruits of his actions is forever miserable, because the fruit he receives will never possess the same taste in reality that it did in his imagination.

‘He who allows fear of the outcome to freeze him into inaction lives in a perpetual state of paralysis and fear. Such a man is equal unto one who is dead. Neither of those states becomes you, Arjuna.

‘When you commit with devotion to your work and your work alone, your mind will come to know true happiness, and freed from the distractions of dwelling on the future, it will be immovably fixed on contemplation and quiet reflection. That will in turn enhance your devotion to the task.’

Note: The point about anticipation of pleasure (or pain) being more intense than the experience of it is a perceptive one. We know from our modern studies of biochemical agents like dopamine and serotonin that this is true.

Inaction and Action

A logical question that may arise at this point in a reader – and it occurs to Arjuna as well – is: if I must renounce attachment from everything, why should I not renounce action in all forms and do the bare minimum to stay alive? Taking the idea further, why should I not renounce life itself?

Krishna answers this by claiming that action is the prime moving force of the universe.

‘Man is born to work, O Prince,’ he says. ‘If you do not breathe, you will not live. If you do not eat, your body will starve. If you do not drink, it will shrivel.

‘Even in nature, action abounds. The river does not question how and why it must flow; it flows where Mother Earth directs it. The sun rises and sets every day without fail; he does not ask why he must do so.

‘Flowers bloom into fruits; animals give birth and rear their young; a lion must kill an antelope in order to feed itself. They do not ask why, nor do they refrain from their actions because they see no purpose in them.

‘In the same way, attach yourself to work, Partha. Devote yourself to it. Do it the best way you can.

‘Today, arrayed in front of you are great warriors that you must fight. Yours is not to question what would happen and whether it is for the good. There is no good.

‘Fight to the best of your ability. Fulfill your duties as brother, householder, man, Kshatriya, citizen of the lost city of Indraprastha.’

Yoga and Sankhya

Yoga prescribes abandonment of action in favour of remote and detached observation. Sankhya tells us to act and immerse ourselves in worldly ways. Arjuna asks Krishna which of the two is more desirable.

Krishna replies, ‘Think of the lotus leaf, Arjuna, which stays half-immersed in water and is yet untouched by it. A true yogi is like that; though his sensory organs absorb information from the world, and though he hears, sees, touches, smells, eats, moves, sleeps, breathes, blinks, excretes and talks, he does so without being affected by the stimuli overtly.

‘He has trained his mind to merely absorb and observe, and in that sense, he is doing everything and nothing at the same time.’

‘Similarly, a person who performs his conscious acts with full devotion and yet remains unaffected by the results of his actions attains the highest form of tranquility.

‘He commits his actions with full knowledge of the wide spectrum of consequences it might birth. He knows that the wheel of time will select one of them without consulting him.

‘He therefore does not prefer any one of them, nor does he consider some of them to be more desirable than others.

‘The first is steeped in action while being outwardly inactive. The second is steeped in inaction while being outwardly active. Therefore, every person has to combine the tenets of both yoga and sankhya in order to achieve peace of mind.’

Note: The most important paragraph of this section is the last one. Every person is a combination of yoga and sankhya – of detachment and attachment, of action and inaction. Krishna makes the point that neither of these is inherently good or bad.

What is Renunciation?

Arjuna now asks, ‘If attachment and detachment are equally good, Krishna, then what is the meaning of renunciation?’

‘The learned and wise define renunciation as abandonment of those works that are performed with the sole expectation of reward,’ replies Krishna.

‘The reason for abandonment of a certain act is also important. If one renounces something only out of fear of bodily and psychological harm the action brings, then it is no more than a decision of passion.

‘If the abandonment is out of delusion or ignorance – because the man cannot judge the requirement of the action – then it is a choice made under the cloak of darkness.

‘Since human beings cannot ever abstain from action completely, Partha, the only effective definition of a ‘man who has renounced’ is he who performs actions required of him with absolute detachment to the results that come about.’

Note: Krishna here makes a point that renunciation doesn’t have to be of worldly things. You can be in the midst of all the wealth and luxury in the world and be at peace. On the other hand, you can give away everything you have and be constantly anxious.

Renunciation, in short, is the art of letting go of those two things: fear of failure and expectation of success.

On Brahman

The other angle Krishna explores in the Bhagavad Gita is the idea of Brahman. This ‘Brahman’, we have to note, is different from ‘Brahma’ who is the creator of the three worlds.

Brahman, in a sense, is everything. He is considered the being out of Time, who watches the past, present and the future unfold in front of his eyes at the same time. So for him, everything has happened. Causes and consequences are merely constructs.

Krishna claims that he is Brahman. Every once in a while, when chaos begins to rule over order, he manifests himself into the world of time and guides the universe such that balance is restored between darkness and light.

Brahman too is not constrained by attachment. He takes birth at this point because he has taken birth at this point. Everything has already happened. There is no because – the word itself implies a past and a future. The word implies causality.

This introduces a couple of concepts: one is that Krishna is an all-seeing, all-knowing entity. He is the path to salvation. He is the one to worship.

And two: the causality that we – human beings – experience is an illusion created by our imprisonment in Time. Step out of Time, become one with Brahman, and you will see the past and future meld into an eternal present. With this, the Bhagavad Gita ends. Arjuna, convinced by Krishna’s discourse, takes up the Gandiva again and prepares to fight.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!