The Bhagavad-Gita . . . a Symposium

With Sarah Hunt, I. M. Oderberg, and Ingrid Van Mater

S.H. — If one approaches the Bhagavad-Gita solely on the basis of intellectual curiosity, he will not achieve a very deep understanding of this ancient classic. It has been said that there is a hidden side of the Gita, that the words we perceive with our senses are only an outer covering for the inner meaning which we must discern with a different set of eyes. It may seem that a consideration of universal truths on a spiritual basis is a long jump to the practical problems of our times, to the matters of living that we all have to engage in. And it is, if we look upon the worlds of the spirit as something static and apart; but I think the moving message of these truths is that the world of the spirit is not separate, but is a dynamic force pervading all our actions, every portion of our lives, much as that great wind of the spirit that blows through all our lives, freshening, cleansing, ordering — if we will but let it.

I.M.O. I believe that the Bhagavad-Gita, which means the divine song, is very much older than our Western scholars claim when they say it was written down about 500 B.C. It opens with what appears to be a battle about to ensue, and which probably did occur in India in prehistoric times. The Gita itself seems to me to manifest a rather peculiar union of the mind with the heart — using heart in the sense of the spiritual center of our being. As a scripture, it represents a small episode of India's great epic, the Mahabharata.

The poem, in reality, is about another kind of battle, one that is joined whenever the human part of a man becomes aware of the existence within him of a higher self. Because then he must make choices. He has to choose between certain trends in his nature, such as the demands of his personal self with its egotistical desires and preferences, and the call to the spiritual life which ultimately is universal in its tone. So the Gita, outwardly such an old book, is ever young, raising the problems of daily life such as those that confront us today.

Here Krishna is the divine charioteer of Arjuna, who stands for man, the aspirant. But Krishna is more than the voice of our higher self. As the being, whose death in 3102 B.C. is said to have ushered in the kali yuga or dark age, he is an avatara or incarnation of the spirit of our universe, and we later perceive that our higher self and the divine Krishna are fundamentally one.

Its eighteen chapters may be divided into three groups of six: the first representing aspiration, when we yearn towards a wider approach embracing the spiritual side of life. The second depicts inspiration, for in this group of six chapters Arjuna asks to meet the reality within the appearance of Krishna, and as a consequence perceives the resplendent cosmic spirit, is illumined thereby, and recognizes his incapacity to bear this unveiling for very long. The concluding six chapters may be called realization, for we are shown that what has been learned and revealed must now be put into practice. For whatever knowledge or talents a man may have, he can be accounted a sage only if he "be devoted to the well-being of all creatures."

This brings us to the main keynote of the Gita, renunciation. We are encouraged to act for the sake of the action, not for the results, which we should leave to karma, the law of cause and effect. This divine disinterest or equal-mindedness or, if we like, detachment, applies not only to our thoughts and acts, but also to our motives. To think, to do, and to say what must be, for their own inherent sake, and not for self-benefit.

Krishna, in his quality of an avatara, renounces much to incarnate from age to age when unrighteousness prevails amongst us, and we can do no less than renounce our selfishness for the sake of the larger good of our fellow man. For renunciation lies not only in disregarding the fruits of action, but also in being truly selfless so that we act for others without seeking the satisfaction of being recognized as benefactors. Even devotion itself we must put on the altar and disclaim the expectancy of the results of our devotion. Only from such a pure offering can a knowledge of divine life arise. The Gita tells us that if we follow this path we shall succeed in loosing our psychological knots, and thus transmute the dense covering of our nature into a transparent vessel for the light within us to shine forth. In a sense we are reborn into a new life, for our quest for self-knowledge and moral integrity will have brought us to truly humanized values, which will inspire all that we say or do.

Four main paths to the realization of the divine are depicted in the Gita. One, intuition or direct experience of reality, of the real universe within the appearances; second, devotion, sometimes called faith — not blind faith, rather dedicated trust; thirdly, knowledge, intellectual reasoning about life and the universe; and fourthly, action or disinterested effort, in the sense that we are detached from the results. If we are eventually to meet our higher self, we will need the kingly union of all four of these; but, as Krishna says, all paths that are focused on him, the Supreme, reach the same goal, however diverse the roadways may appear.

I.V.M. — I find myself asking why it is that such an ancient book as the Bhagavad-Gita has become so popular today. I think it only proves the strength of the noble teachings that are involved in it, and that these universal principles endure even though they are expressed in different ways in the various philosophic scriptures of the world. What it all comes down to is that it is an intensely practical book, and in many ways one of the most beautiful. It helps us to understand how we can live in society and still make spiritual values the real motivation of our lives. Because what the Gita enjoins is the importance of the inner life; that this is what motivates us, and what motivates all life in the universe.

In the current religious and social revolution that is taking place, there is a growing feeling that it is the individual who is important. There is less stress on outer formality and more stress on the individual. Each of us must find his way, each of us his own path in life. So many are asking questions: what is this business of living all about? How can we come to terms with ourselves and add richness and meaning to our daily lives?

At times, while we are carrying on our general activities, we get nudgings of something deeper, prompting a feeling within us that there is something grander that we all belong to. And truly we do have a larger duty to the whole of mankind. This stems from the fact that we are all linked together by the oneness of the divine spark in each of us. I feel that all great human beings have had this intuition.

We must remember that there are many different editions of the Gita, and we are at the mercy of the translators. Some understand Oriental philosophy better than others, while there are those who read their own thinking into their translations, and a few stress the path of personal happiness. The upshot is that some English versions are superior to others. I personally like Radhakrishnan's translation because he is an excellent scholar who draws upon other thinkers, Eastern and Western, to show the universality of these concepts. In fact, he throws a new light on the Christian Bible, by referring to verses that support the thoughts in the Gita.

The rendition we have chosen to follow, as the most beautiful in catching the spirit of the truths we are talking about, is that of William Q. Judge. It was issued around 1890, in response to the need to bridge the gap between Eastern philosophy and the Western mind. In his introductory comments, Judge writes:

A mighty spirit moves through the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita. It has the seductive influence of beauty; yet, like strength, it fills one as with the sound of armies assembling or the roar of great waters. Appealing alike to the warrior and the philosopher, it shows to the one the righteousness of lawful action, and to the other the calmness which results to him who has reached inaction through action.

First, I would like to mention, because it has atmosphere, that at the end of each chapter there is a colophon, a kind of refrain. And this refrain is telling us that truth in its wholeness is not just a religion, it is a science and also a philosophy. It is not enough just to have faith, although truly having faith does accomplish a great deal. But we should apply all our faculties; we must question and search, and accept only that which we can really make our own. This is how the colophon reads:

Thus in the Upanishads, called the holy Bhagavad-Gita, in the science of the Supreme Spirit, in the book of devotion, in the colloquy between the Holy Krishna and Arjuna, stands the First Chapter, by name — THE DESPONDENCY OF ARJUNA.

We could spend the whole afternoon on just what this despondency means, for Arjuna is ourselves. We feel with him in his agonies in trying to follow the spiritual path, the doubts he encounters, and the struggles he has with the various parts of himself. He is on the battlefield, having chosen Krishna as his charioteer. But when he sees friends and relatives lined up against him, he refuses to fight. But Krishna says: "You must fight." This is Arjuna's dilemma as we open the first chapter. And throughout the seventeen remaining chapters Krishna is showing him various aspects of his human duty. By giving I-Am some of the great principles on which all life is built, he explains what the motive for action should be, the qualities behind action, the difference between wisdom and ignorance. Finally Arjuna triumphs, sees that Krishna is his own higher Self, and dispels his doubts.

S.H. — Putting the despondency of Arjuna into modern terminology, we find that he is a man with a problem; yet I believe all thinking people discover that every individual has problems. So far it seems fairly apparent that those who come together to solve the problems of our civilization have arrived at only partial solutions. It could be that this is due to the fact that they have only partial knowledge. I believe that if one would look upon the Gita as a methodology of problem solving, just as we today have techniques and methodology for this purpose, we would find implied in it not only the solutions to problems, but that the method of arriving at them is as modern as anything we can produce now. Arjuna was despondent because he was unable to see himself in the light of his relationship to the universe, and this is what he learns. What more practical thing could any of us learn in our time than to know our true relationship to each other, for this would solve much of the world's trouble.

I.M.O. — I know it sounds very callous that Arjuna is told to attack all these people who are his relatives. The question we have to ask ourselves is exactly what does all that mean, because later on in the book it is evident that Krishna is a compassionate being, for he tells Arjuna in the fourth chapter that he incarnates among men from age to age in times of great trouble, violence and selfishness, to show them the spiritual path again. So if he is compassionate, how then can he urge Arjuna to do battle with those whom he regards as his relatives, friends and preceptors? It is significant that the Sanskrit words for many of these characters are actually words for qualities in ourselves. Therefore when Krishna urges Arjuna to fight those 'friends' with whom he is so familiar, he is alluding to habits, the things he has loved, hated, preferred, desired and perhaps learned from.

I.V.M. It is significant that the very first word in the MM is dharmakshetra, the 'field of duty,' which might mean that our human soul is the battleground, and that the experiences of life are part of the inner contest we are waging. The arrows are flying even while Arjuna tries to make up his mind. W. Q. Judge suggests that Arjuna had in his inmost self already made the decision. It is the mind and personal self of this incarnation that has to understand and try to remember what the reincarnating ego had accomplished in previous lives; that it is his duty to fight for truth, and to conquer the elements in his nature that were and are holding him back.

There is an often overlooked parallel in the Bible. Remember in Matthew, the verses, "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. . . . He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." And then, "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." This is what the Gita is talking about; that it is only when we forget the personality and can rise above the senses and the material things in life, that the greater, the real Self can come through.

I.M.O. I think what Arjuna was really despondent about was that he hadn't fully realized that to approach the divine within himself meant that he had to turn his back on the lower, down-pulling elements. He thought it would be an easy thing, instead of which he finds he has to make the supreme decision of self-mastery.

I.V.M. — We know there is this grander duty or dharma that we are all participants in; that everything in the universe is operating according to certain basic laws, and we are all part of the universe. But we also have our own individual duty; and the word given to this is self-duty — svadharma. This idea of doing your own thing in your own way appeals to the younger people today. Many things enter into this business of searching for reality. We are just what we have made ourselves to be up to this point, and so much depends on what we are aware of. What we are ready for we will see, and what we are not ready for we will not see. The lower side of us has a hard time understanding what spirit is: we try to find it in something that is manifest, that we can perceive.

I.M.O. — Frorn the symbolism of the Gita it looks as if the blind Dhritarashtra has assumed the overlordship of the body. Although he is called a king, in reality our higher part should control our whole nature; and because he has usurped it, he is brought into this struggle between Arjuna and the lower self. He is blind because the material approach is always blind as to what are the causes that affect all individuals. His son is a sort of deputy, Duryodhana, the passional self, very excitable and trying to take over. That brings us to an important point in the Gita about the three qualities of life: tamas or inertia, rajas or passion (in the sense of energy, good or bad), and sattva, the truth or purity quality. These three operate throughout the whole of life and no one is above them.

I.V.M. — Motive is the important thing, isn't it? That is the basic thought that runs through the Gita — that we will come back again and again to life, and will suffer and have all kinds of problems until we can raise our motives and be nonattached, so that we can act without looking for results. And this is very hard, because the personal man in us always wants to come forward and be connected with what we accomplish and get credit for it. We're deceiving ourselves that it is an impersonal act when really it has become something personal.

When I first heard of the idea of nonattachment, I imagined we should be aloof from the world of men, and try to separate ourselves from the ordinary experiences of life. This isn't what is meant at all. There is a passage in the Gita stating that when we have allowed the real Self to have its influence in our lives, we are as free from sin as the lotus leaf is untouched by water. That is a beautiful analogy because the leaf rests right on the water, yet is untouched by it. In the same way we are very much a part of the world and we are here to experience what life has to bring us, but our higher Self is undisturbed by the turmoil of our personalities. It is only by meeting difficulties from the higher perspective, that we will gradually reach the point where we are not so influenced by things that happen and can be "equal-minded" in joy and sorrow, as it says in the Gita. It is these "pairs of opposites" that cause us to vacillate so much.

I.M.O. — Perhaps this disinterest that Krishna makes so much of under various terms, like detachment, means that the real Self is not swayed by these pairs of opposites, "pleasure and pain," or whatever, and we have to try to find the center of equilibrium within, and then we will be masters of our soul.

I.V.M. — I feel that the value of a book like the Gita is that it is a very personal book. Each one who reads it will get something that is right for him. One delightful analogy, which actually came from the Mahabharata, from which the Gita is taken, points up the folly of anyone's accepting the teachings in blind faith, for we cannot know the true nature of things if we just listen without really reflecting and questioning, any more than the spoon can have any idea of the taste of the soup. This is where the reason must come in, but more than that, the intuition and the power of discrimination. When Arjuna was so despondent, Krishna urged him to "seek this wisdom by doing service, by strong search, by questions and by humility." That pretty well sums it up, I think.

S.H. — The Gita to me is a book of great discipline — the discipline of knowing our own natures and using all our faculties in a balanced fashion. I think Krishna has pointed that out rather completely throughout the book. Also that there is a portion of ourselves, the portion that is Krishna, that is unattached, never disturbed by any event or circumstance that may come to pass.

Our perception of the Bhagavad-Gita grows in depth as we dwell on it. But I do believe that from one angle it is what we may call stern, because it shows plainly that the road to enlightenment is not an easy one. Krishna says that among us thousands of mortals, perhaps one person strives for perfection, and among "those so striving perhaps a single one knows me as I am." But lest that seem to make the whole endeavor remote from the daily experience, Krishna also says that even a little of this knowledge saves a man from great danger. So it is that in the smallest, most routine duties of our lives we may use these divine truths, for there is nothing that is not bettered by "skill in the performance of action."

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


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