Here's a new video I made for you entitled "Star Myths of the World: The Bhagavad Gita."
The Bhagavad Gita is specific section of an ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, which -- on a literal level -- appears to be primarily concerned with a massive battle between two different branches of the same family, in much the same way that the Iliad of ancient Greece appears (on a literal level) to be primarily concerned with a massive battle between the Achaeans (or Danaans) and the Trojans of the windswept city of Ilium.
The Mahabharata is overflowing with human and divine characters and with adventures, battles, love scenes, and stories within stories. It consists of over 100,000 couplets of poetry, and because a "couplet" by definition is two lines of poetry, that means it has over 200,000 individual lines. For comparison, the Iliad has almost 15,700 lines and the Odyssey has just over 12,000 lines.
The Mahabharata is most particularly well known because it contains an extremely significant and beloved and revealing section known as the Bhagavad Gita -- "the Song of the Lord."
The Bhagavad Gita takes place in the overall epic of the Mahabharata as two great armies are drawn up for battle upon the sacred plain of Kurukshetra, and between these two armies (the Pandava, descended from Pandu, and the Kaurava, descended from Kuru), the great bowman Arjuna and his divine charioteer, who is none other than the Lord Krishna himself, ride out to have a discourse on the meaning of life, dharma, karma, incarnation, reincarnation, consciousness and enlightenment.
Arjuna is one of the leaders of the Pandava, but he is suddenly having second thoughts about the battle, because he knows that many of his close kin including cousins, uncles, and teachers are on the other side, and he expresses the belief that it would be better for him to throw aside his bow and arrows and allow himself to be killed, rather than participate in such a war.
Krishna responds by telling Arjuna that the right thing to do is for Arjuna to do his duty, engage in the struggle, act according to what is right, and to renounce attachment to the results.
Lord Krishna gives this message to Arjuna in many different forms throughout the eighteen sections of the Bhagavad Gita.
Here are some representative passages from Krishna, telling this to Arjuna (from the translation available online here; another version can be found here):
Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure. The equanimity of mind is called Karma-yoga. Work done with selfish motives is inferior by far to the selfless service or Karma-yoga. Therefore be a Karma-yogi, O Arjuna. Those who seek to enjoy the fruits of their work are verily unhappy (because one has no control over the results) (2.48 - 2.49).
Therefore, always perform your duty efficiently and without attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme (3.19).
The ancient seekers of liberation also performed their duties with this understanding. Therefore, you should do your duty as the ancients did. Even the wise are confused about what is action and what is inaction. Therefore, I shall clearly explain what is action, knowing that one shall be liberated from the evil (of birth and death). The true nature of action is very difficult to understand. Therefore, one should know the nature of attached action, the nature of detached action, and also the nature of forbidden action. Attached action is selfish work that produces Karmic bondage, detached action is unselfish work or Seva that leads to nirvana, and forbidden action is harmful to society. The one who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is a wise person. Such a person is a yogi and has accomplished everything (4.15 - 4.18).
Now, I believe that these words take on even greater meaning for us when we realize that this famous sacred text is not in fact about an ancient warrior who is preparing to engage in a bloody battle, but that it is actually about each and every human soul, figuratively contemplating the awful descent into incarnation, and the struggle of human life.
The battlefield being described in the Mahabharata is not a physical battlefield but represents the interplay, the give-and-take, the struggle between the physical world and the unseen spirit world, which exists in every aspect of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, and exists within each of us as well.
When we come into this physical world and take on this physical form, it is a struggle to even remember the invisible spirit aspect within ourselves and in the physical world around us, even though it is there, present, all the time -- inside each one of us and in fact inside and shining-through every aspect and every molecule of this physical universe. But there appear to be forces arrayed all around us and even within us that seek to drag our spirit down to the level of the physical, and even to deny the very existence of the spiritual, to reduce everything to the material (for an interesting "blast-from-the-past" blog post related to this topic, see "The ideology of materialism," published here almost exactly three years ago in June of 2012).
Arjuna is understandably reluctant to plunge into this state of affairs, this incarnation. But Krishna tells him that it is his duty to do so -- and he counsels Arjuna that when he gets to the struggle, one of the most important principles is to avoid attachment to the outcome.
When Krishna tells Arjuna that he must strive to do right, without attachment, he is now talking not just about "right action" but also about what we commonly refer to as the "state of mind" while taking that action (but, do note that he is also talking about right action: action that does not harm others).
In other words, Krishna is not just talking about our actions in the external world but also about our inner state while performing those actions.
And in order to have that detachment, we must be able to detach from the aspects of our incarnate state which, until we learn what Krishna is trying to convey to us, normally carry us off in all kinds of unproductive directions -- our passions, our emotions, our senses, our desires . . . and even what we call our mind.
As discussed in this previous post entitled "Self, senses, and the mind," we must understand that our True Self is not actually the same thing as the mind -- even though we generally tend to think of ourselves and our mind as one and the same. While the mind is an incredibly important part of who we are, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures describe its proper role as more of a wonderful tool, but only a tool and not properly our master or even our Self.
In the metaphor from the Katha Upanishad cited in that preceding post, the mind is described as the reins of the chariot -- not the actual charioteer.
In order to truly follow the advice that Krishna keeps repeating to Arjuna, we must be able to use mind like the reins of the chariot. This metaphor helps us to see that he is not telling us that we must "turn off our mind" or act as if we have "no mind" (although there is a famous expression from Buddhism called "no mind" or "mu shin," I believe the state this phrase is pointing towards is actually the same thing that Krishna is pointing us towards in the Gita as well). What I believe that it is saying in these passages from the Mahabharata and the Katha Upanishad is that our True Self is actually above and behind the mind, able to stand apart from it and not be carried away when the mind is trying to be helpful but is actually not being helpful at all.
And where and what is this True Self to be found?
The words of the Gita, the song of Lord Krishna, tell us quite plainly.
When Krishna tells Arjuna to do right but without attachment to the results, he also tells him to connect instead to the Lord, to attain the Supreme.
He then proceeds to describe himself as the infinite, the supreme, the unbounded, the unlimited . . . and he allows Arjuna to briefly see Krishna in his infinite universal form (in part 11):
with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons. Wearing garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides. If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being (11.10 - 11.12).
Elsewhere, Krishna tells Arjuna, "my manifestations are endless" (10.19). If so, then Krishna is beyond definition, beyond being bounded, beyond being described as "it is this, it is not that."
And this relates directly to the concept of not attaching to the mind -- which is a definer, an analyzer, a discriminator between "this and not that," and a creator of "verbal virtual reality," in the felicitous phrase of Dr. Darrah Westrup in the video discussed in the preceding post on Self, senses and mind.
Krishna is telling Arjuna to connect with the Higher Self who is beyond all of the mind's chatter.
The Lord Krishna is that divine charioteer.
And, because he is the infinite and the unbounded, this Higher Self with which we connect, this Atma, is Krishna. Krishna tells Arjuna outright:
O Arjuna, I am the Atma abiding in the heart of all beings. I am also the beginning, the middle, and the end of all beings (10.20).Those who see me in everything and everything in me, are not separated from me and I am not separated from them. The non-dualists, who adore me as abiding in all beings, abide in me irrespective of their mode of living (6.30 - 6.31).
And so we see that when Krishna is sending Arjuna into the struggle, he tells Arjuna (the incarnating soul) to do what is right, but not to become attached to that which will drag him down -- and to connect instead to the infinite.
The infinite that is above and behind even our mind -- as essential a tool as mind truly is.
To connect with this infinite, which is already "abiding in the heart of all beings," we do not have to "go anywhere."
But, we do have to learn how, and practice. As discussed in the previous post entitled "The Djed Column every day: Yoga," there remains in the culture of India a broad and deep living tradition which flows unbroken back to remote antiquity and the ancient wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads and other sutras, in the practice of Yoga -- involving meditation, breath control, chanting, right living, right eating, the asanas or postures . . . all of them intended as a path to our True Self.
The good news which Krishna imparts to Arjuna is that this connection to the infinite is already very close to each one of us -- "I am easily attainable, O Arjuna," Lord Krishna says, "by that ever-steadfast yogi who always thinks of me and whose mind does not go elsewhere" (8.14).
Interestingly enough, much of the Mahabharata and the Baghavad Gita can be convincingly shown to connect directly to the very same system of celestial allegory that forms the foundation of virtually all of the world's myths, scriptures, and sacred stories (including the stories in the Old and New Testaments of what we refer to today as the Bible).
In fact, I believe that the Baghavad Gita is an extremely clear and lucid example of the idea that these ancient Star Myths used their system of celestial metaphor in order to convey profound spiritual truths about the nature of our cosmos and our human condition within this dual physical-spiritual incarnate existence.
When they are taken literally (as if describing historical events and persons), the myths necessarily become externalized to a greater or lesser degree: they become stories about other people, living in other times, in other places, remote from our experience.
But when their true celestial and esoteric nature is understood, they take on a new and (I believe) intensely personal aspect.
They are not about ancient kings, warriors, or divine figures (see the wonderfully helpful quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn discussed in previous posts here, here and here). They are about each and every one of us.
They are for you, they are all about you, and they were given to help you -- in this metaphorical battlefield of Kurukshetra.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).