Reading the Bhagavad Gita today

The Bhagavad Gita begins at a moment of extreme crisis. At the outset of this poetic dialogue of 700 numbered … Continued

The Bhagavad Gita begins at a moment of extreme crisis. At the outset of this poetic dialogue of 700 numbered stanzas of Sanskrit verse composed in India during the Axial Age, the heroic warrior Arjuna is about to undertake a war against his cousins for control of the kingdom of Bharata in northern India. The two sets of cousins have been raised together, and as Arjuna rides in his chariot onto the battlefield, he realizes with horror that he must slay his own friends, teachers and relatives.

Out of compassion for his enemy and despair over his own helplessness, Arjuna addresses his charioteer, who happens to be the god Krishna, in the guise of a mortal:

“I am unstrung: my limbs collapse

beneath me, and my mouth is dry;

there is a trembling in my body,

and my hair rises, bristling .”

Arjuna, with “his mind overcome with grief,” collapses into his chariot, and the Gita unfolds as a discussion of Arjuna’s moral dilemma, with Krishna explaining that Arjuna must overcome his revulsion and attend to his duties as a warrior.

The Gita, a section of the enormous Sanskrit epic poem, the Mahabharata, is one of the great classics of world literature, one that deeply affected the thought and actions of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Christopher Isherwood, among many others. It may seem initially strange that such prominent individuals in the civil disobedience movements of their times should have been directly influenced by the Gita, but there is much in the poem besides Krishna’s argument that Arjuna should engage in battle.

Krishna’s reasons are deeply set in Hindu doctrine and practice: as a member of the warrior class, Arjuna has a duty to wage war, and it would be shameful for him to turn away from his responsibility. Besides, though the body may die, the soul cannot, so what appears to be murder is actually something other. Finally, Krishna argues that the opposing warriors, seen sub specie aeternitatis, are already dead; killing them is of no great matter.

The contemporary secular reader is unlikely to find Krishna’s reasoning as persuasive as Arjuna’s argument for compassion. But Arjuna himself is persuaded, and the Gita ends with him poised to commence battle.

Even in the 19th century, Henry Thoreau, one of the earliest Western adopters of the Gita, dismissed the divine position out of hand: “Krishna’s argument, it must be allowed, is defective. No sufficient reason is given why Arjuna should fight. Arjuna may be convinced, but the reader is not.” And, as the contemporary scholar of Hinduism, Wendy Doniger recently admitted, if Buddha had been Arjuna’s charioteer, the advice given would have been quite different, and quite possibly more palatable to the modern reader.

Whether Eastern or Western, the reader today no longer lives in an archaic, heroic culture, where warfare was preferable to intermittent states of peace, and where the class system conferred on men their responsibilities and inescapable obligations. Arjuna may have had to engage in battle, but not Thoreau: “we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.”

Given the difficulties of persuading a contemporary, secular reader of the validity of Krishna’s argument, one might expect that the Gita would not have found much of an audience in the modern West, but the surprising fact is that it has, and that its most sympathetic readers have been just those who have argued that the Gita does not sanction war and violence.

Despite his unwillingness to be persuaded by Krishna’s argument, Thoreau found in the Gita “a moral grandeur and sublimity akin to Western scriptures,” Gandhi argued that the forthcoming battle is merely an allegory of the human soul: no actual warriors were slain or injured in the making of this poem. And Isherwood, espousing pacifism even as he worked on a translation of the Gita with his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, argued that in the absence of a system in which one’s identity, with its attendant duties and responsibilities, came from one’s class, Krishna’s argument could be seen as directed to the ethical responsibilities of each particular individual.

These three great thinkers were attracted to the Gita, despite its call to war. In fact, a great part of its value for the contemporary reader lies in Krishna’s emphasis on the importance of action in order to sustain the order of the world.

Among the lessons that the Bhagavad Gita still has to teach each of us is that of living one’s life by acting deliberately, since action is always preferable to inaction; to act by those principles that are inherent in one’s own nature, since, as Krishna tells Arjuna, it is “Better to do one’s duty/ ineptly than another’s well.” Thoreau almost seems to be translating Krishna’s speech into the idiom of a plainspoken Yankee when he write: “A man’s own calling with all its faults ought not to be forsaken. Every undertaking is involved with its faults as the fire with the smoke.”

Moreover, one must act without concern for what Krishna refers to as the fruits of one’s actions, that is to say, without fear of loss or desire for future gain. Krishna’s advice is miles away from “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell’s easily misunderstood mantra, which seems to call upon no sense of duty or responsibility to one’s own nature: if something no longer seems blissful to you, you may turn from it to follow something else.

Krishna would not have you follow, but lead, as he tells Arjuna, praising the qualities of leadership and the standards of excellence that the best leader sets. To lead in this way, acting out of responsibility to one’s own nature, and not out of fear or desire, is inherently risky. We have only to consider the actions of such men as Thoreau, Gandhi and Isherwood, frequently attended in our time by the contempt of their fellows, by jailings, beatings and even assassination.

Such action is heroic in the way that many of us would now understand the term. It demands a measure of devotion, which as Gandhi reminds us, ” is not mere lip service; it is a wrestling with death.” And so, though our cultural situation is very different from the context for which the Bhagavad Gita was written, we can still draw on it in the 21st century as a resource for living our lives in a meaningful way.

Martin is co-author of “The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation.”

Written by
  • 3vandrum

    Mahabharata war is probably a metaphor. Mahatma Gandhi said over and over again that, this war represented the inner war between good and evil that goes on inside a man. The Kurushetra of the Gita, according to Gandhi, was not a real battlefield located somewhere on this earth, nor was the Mahabharata an actual war. It is not that Krishna incites Arjuna to fight a real Mahabharata, Mahabharata only symbolizes the inner conflict and war of man, and so it is just a parable. Many other scholars agree with him including Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan one of the foremost authorities on Indian philosophies.
    Many scholars have come to the view that the Bhagavad Gita was inserted into the Mahabharata tradition at a later date than the rest of the sections. Mahabharata was probably written in 400 BCE by some imaginary poets including Ved Vyasa and Gita was added later on. John Brockington proposed that it was authored in the first century C.E. Unlike the rest of the Mahabharata’s epic account of the Battle of Kurukshetra, the Bhagavad Gita seizes upon this fratricidal war as an allegory about internal spiritual conflict. Whether the Mahabharata happened historically is debatable, may be it is partly historical and mostly mythology.

  • Hildy J

    Like other sacred and non-sacred classical works, the Bhagavad Gita has much to recommend it. One can, indeed, “draw on it in the 21st century as a resource for living our lives in a meaningful way.” But to best draw from this resource, or other sacred resources, one must look beyond their sacred nature and into their human nature. Naming the character Krishna has no more meaning than naming him Yahweh or Zeus. The Gita or the Bible or the Iliad all speak of choices that are good or bad, moral or immoral, noble or ignoble, empowering or debasing, etc. Their arguments for and against these choices stand or fall whether or not the referenced gods exist. It is those arguments, viewed through our 21st century perspective and our individual experiences, that are the key to their value.

  • ericcallenking

    But the caste system in India is very real and has caused untold mischief over the millenia, the metaphor that hindus like to use is that the higher state is like the lotus blossom, immaculate and pure white, though its roots are in the muck of the world. the problem is that this works both ways, religious types can too often ignore the real problems of the world that their religion, as a system of ethics, should address due to focusing on the immaculate lotus blossom of the higher state. the caste system is wrong the wonders of the higher state don’t justify grinding others down in the mud. As to Krishna, he told Arjuna, and thus everyone in India for millenia, that the upper castes were in the right and that battle was just, is it surprising that that is just the message the elites of the time would have wanted to be broadcast. Criticism aside I am sure there is much of value in the epic, in fact you could look at Arjuna as an early version of Hamlet arguing with his conscious, with his higher self, as to the correct course of action as all men who are not unthinking must.

  • ericcallenking

    It is also a story reinforcing the values of the society at the time and the positions of the elites, don’t forget the brass tacks.

  • shantdey

    Our own world view influences the way in which we interpret the scriptures and their sublime teachings. A lot of emphasis has been laid on the “violence” vs. “non violence” aspect of Gita, which, strange as it may sound to a Western mind, is non essential as far as Gita goes. The interpretations of various scholars are like the blind men in Sri Ramakrishna’s parable who mistake the different body parts of the elephant as the whole elephant. Those who question the advocacy of violence in Gita, let me ask a humble question. Was the world wrong in waging war against Hitler? Would a pacifist approach have helped there? Sometimes wars are inevitable to prevent greater evil. A world order without war is not possible because of the inherent nature of men – rajas (those who have read Gita can probably understand this. In Gita Sri Krishna gives the same answer to Arjuna when he responds to the query of the latter as to why people indulge in sinful actions (like war) – its the desire and its associate anger, stemming from the quality of nature called rajas, the desire for power. One can also understand how desire gives rise to anger if one goes through the 2nd chapter – 2.61 and 2.62.
    However the essence of Gita is something very different, least appreciated by Western scholars – it is renunciation. At first its a conflict between action and renunciation of action, where Sri Krishna clearly favors action over inaction as inaction for a separate class of men altogether, who have gone beyond the three gunas or who have conquered nature. Arjuna is not one of them. Later it becomes the renunciation of desire and fruits of action, and still later, in the end, complete surrender from a pure duaalistic viewpoint and knowing one’s Self from Advaitic standpoint. The 18th chapter – Yoga of renunciation says it all.
    Arjuna’s so called compassion stems from fear as was rightly pointed out by such great minds as Swami Vivekananda. The fear could only be dispelled by a great teacher.

  • shantdey

    There is once again a lot of misunderstanding about caste system and its original purpose. The caste system is inherent not only in India but everywhere else in the world – you have today’s Brahmins – the scholars, intellectuals and academics, the Kshatriyas – police, army and government administration, the Vaishyas – traders and industrialists and Shudras – the ordinary folks who serve in various institutions and organizations. That was the same system which was prevalent in ancient times. In India of course it has degraded over the years and have become a tool of entitlements and privileges, pretty much like all other systems which have been in vogue. Even for that matter democracy becomes an inadequate system and we know how the discrimination works today even in some of the so called developed countries on the basis of wealth and social status. For understanding caste system, its origin, purpose etc. you will have to be familiar with India’s history, culture and different scriptures, in depth. As per Mahabharata originally there was only one caste, the Brahmins who were the pursuers of the purest form of ideals – controlling of senses, God consciousness etc, based on the quality of nature called Sattva. Later because of the prevalence of the other gunas – rajas and tamas, which mingled with sattva, men of different natures and dispositions developed and hence they could no longer remain Brahmins – the pure ones. Thus Kshatriyas etc. came into being. Gita says the same thing – that the four castes were created based on the divisions of Guna (inherent nature) and Karma (disposition or duty). People who were engaged in protecting others (duty) and had rajas (nature) became Kshatriyas. Later the priestly class perpetuated the entitlements and privileges accorded to the pure Brahmins while falling from the core ideals of purity and chastity. Then the entire system began to degrade and became a display of power and privileges and oppression, like elsewhere.