9. A Quick Overview of the Gita
In a matter of probably an hour and a half Lord Krishna swung the extreme negative position that Arjuna took impulsively at the very start of the war, to an extremely concordant position, whereby he agreed to carry on the war. This historical dialogue between God and Man is what constitutes the Gita. The dialogue had two purposes; one obvious, and the other, hidden. The obvious purpose was to convince Arjuna on the need to fight and not to retreat on the plea of (misplaced) compassion. For this purpose Krishna uses five arguments as if he is arguing for a defense. The other purpose was to leave for the entire humanity the legacy of a divine sermon on how to live so that one is not born again to live. The teaching that came out thus from the divine mouth may be classified into five guidelines for spiritual living. Though the five arguments and the five teachings are symbiotically combined by the Lord and are spread throughout the dialogue the careful reader-seeker can isolate them as distinct threads that run through the Gita.
The very first argument that Krishna puts forward is the philosophical argument. What Arjuna is grieving about is only the personalities that are arrayed in the battle. But they are after all, ephemeral. They are not permanent, in the absolute sense. What is permanent is only the Atman, the essential spiritual entity of the individual soul. The Atman is ever-existing. You cannot harm it in any way. What dies is only the physical body. The soul within goes from body to body and undergoes different life-experiences. The Atman, which is the spiritual substance of the soul, does not go through any of these experiences, because it is an impersonal Absolute. This argument which is difficult to be comprehended in its entirety is the undercurrent of everything in the Gita. It is in fact the springboard from which every other argument or concept gets its substance.
The second argument that Krishna uses is the ‘duty’ argument, Arjuna is a born warrior and it is his duty (‘swadharma’) as a kshatriya, the warrior-class, not to retreat from a just war, but fight to the finish. The third argument combines this with the attitude of performance of this duty. Duty has to be performed for duty’s sake, not for the purpose of getting a reward or result. An attachment to the reward or the result accruing from the performance of the duty will sow the seeds of further action and duty and this never-ending chain will move into the next life also. Therefore duty has to be performed in a detached way. So Krishna tells Arjuna that fight he must, but without attachment, malice, envy or hatred. This is the well-known karma-yoga argument of the Gita.
At this point Krishna takes the discussion to a different plane and says that not only one should do one’s duty without attachment to the fruits thereof, but one should do it without claiming the agency of action. The thought that ‘I am the doer of this action’ is the thin end of the wedge that brings into play one’s ego and all its subsidiary members of the great gang of man’s internal enemies. Nothing in the world takes place without the Will of the Lord, and so if we think that we are the ones who are doing the action, we are only going down the spiritual ladder. This concept of the Lord being the Agent-Provocateur of every action brings with it the standard path of Devotion (Bhakti) to the Lord as the most popular path towards God. But in the Hindu metaphysics and philosophy the concept - ‘It is all God’s Will’ - of the Lord being the power behind for everything raises a question that is very peculiarly Hindu in origin.
Hinduism spares no pains to declare from its loftiest summits, the vedas and upanishads, that God, in addition to being transcendent, is also immanent. That The Lord transcends every conception of space and time and causation is an acceptable theory to every religion. But not every religion goes to the extent of declaring that each animate and inanimate entity is also spiritual in essence. In other words, stripped of our external coverings like the body, mind and intellect, we are, each one of us, sparks of the divine, with that divine element residing, as it were, in our core of cores, our soul of souls. The Lord resides as our Consciousness in our heart of hearts. What we see, hear, smell, touch or taste is all what this Consciousness does. At this point arises the natural dilemma. If God is immanent in us and is the basic motivator and proprietor of all our thoughts and actions, then should He not be held responsible for all the ignoble thoughts and actions for which I am being held responsible as if I am the one who did them? To answer this dilemma Krishna puts forth his fifth argument to Arjuna. And by this argument He brings in the villain of the piece. It is prakriti, He says, that is responsible. What is Prakriti? [See also 11.6 ESSAY ON PRAKRITI]The word prakRta, in Sanskrit, means, that which is currently ongoing, that which is the natural thing. Each individual brings along with him tendencies that have been accumulated from his past lives. Every thought and action that anybody does leaves an imprint of a memory (in the mind of the doer) and through that a familiarity, which in due time becomes a habit or tendency to think and do in the same way. These are the so-called vAsanAs that we bring from our previous lives. These vAsanAs shape our inborn character. This character is our prakRti. This is what makes us act and react in a particular way that becomes our own habitual style of action and response to events. So prakRti is the doer, says the Lord, and not the Lord Himself.
So Krishna says, elaborating His fifth argument, ‘Arjuna, don’t think that you can run away to the forest as a renouncer and forget this war. Your prakRti will not allow you to do it. You better go with your prakRti and act accordingly’.
These are the arguments which Krishna uses to convince Arjuna to go back to his normal role in the war. But in the process of all this dialogue the Lord covers a large ground of Hindu philosophy and thus leaves a legacy of a great teaching for the entire humanity. This becomes relevant in a modern context. And this is what makes the Gita a scripture even for our daily living. Krishna’s teaching may be classified under five headings.
The first is on yoga-sAdhanA, that is, the discipline of the senses. Krishna gives it the very first priority in the spiritual ascent for any person. In fact it is not a project which can be finished in a certain time schedule. It has to be a life-long effort. The very effort matters. The senses always crave for sense-objects. That is their nature. But man, using his discretionary intellect, has to harness his will-power to control and monitor them into the right channels. And, in this, Krishna says one may seek the help of the indwelling Lord. The Lord will not only help Man but shower His grace on him for him to have the strength for the spiritual climb. To propitiate the Lord one does not have to do fanciful worship or ostentatious rituals. These will only fan the fire of one’s ego further. To remember the Lord at all times and be continuously aware of His omnipresence is what constitutes the deepest devotion to God. This path of devotion to the One Supreme Almighty who is also indwelling in every being is the second major teaching of the gita to humanity. The concept of the one supreme, even though there are many manifestations of Him, in the form of avatars and forms, is fundamental to the path of devotion.
But being devoted to God is not everything. One has to do one’s duties, professional or personal, domestic or social, filial or moral, religious or secular, --- all duties that devolve on one, in such a way that no residual attachment or vAsanA sticks in the mind. For these residual vAsanAs are the obstacles in the upward spiritual path by which one reaches God. So the discharge of one’s duties without any attachment is the obligation of every one. This is the great karma yoga of the gita. It is the contribution of the gita to world knowledge and culture. Krishna elaborately details how it could be practised. He says : Dedicate all your actions to Me. By thus dedicating all our actions to God we can experience an internal alchemy that takes place in ours own mind. For dedication to God means, doing only those actions that are acceptable to God and never doing those actions which are unacceptable to Him. Dedication is voluntary acceptance of ‘suffering’ for the sake of the God of dedication. The methodology of dedication is technically called yajna, by Krishna. Any action done selflessly without expectation of reward and with a sense of detachment, is called yajna. Do every one of your actions, as a yajna, says the Lord.The elaboration of this methodology of detachment is given in five pages from Page 9.1 onwards.
Thus the three teachings are: yoga sAdhanA, bhakti and karma yoga. Now come two deeper things. One is Surrender. Surrender even your will to God in the sense that thereafter you are nothing but an instrument in the hands of God. It is self-effacement, no doubt, but that is exactly what is meant by a total devotion to the Absolute.
The other teaching is in fact the final goal of Man. It may be called the Equanimous View of everything. (Go to 9.6 for a marking of 24 shlokas of the Gita explaining different facets of this concept of Equanimity). The One Supreme, being the grandest in conception, being all-pervading, is called brahman by the scriptures. Our perception has to widen in its subtlety to perceive this Absolute brahman in every being, indeed in every creation of God, animate or inanimate. This impartial perception comes to One who has transcended all the dualities of the world like good and bad, happiness and misery, friend and foe, like and dislike, and heat and cold.. By yoga sAdhanA, bhakti and karma yoga one reaches the stage where one is ready for the other two: namely, to surrender even one’s will to God and to be able to treat every experience the same equanimous way.