The Bhagavad-Gita or "song celestial" is a story in the sixth of eighteen books of the Mahabharata, one of ancient India's greatest epics. Like the parables Jesus used to teach his followers, it has an outer and an inner meaning. Outwardly we see Arjuna and Krishna arrayed for a battle over land and family rights. Its setting is the field of the Kurus, or Kurukshetra, with two opposing armies, the Pandavas and the Kurus. Many people have difficulty with this martial setting, and with Krishna urging Arjuna to fight. But all around us we see conflict, while within ourselves we struggle with decisions and battle between differing desires. War exemplifies physically this constant struggle of dualities in life to reach harmony through conflict and resolution. Gandhi answered criticisms that the Gita validated war by saying: "Just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically and see if you find killing or even hurting others compatible with its teachings."
On inward lines the Bhagavad-Gita concerns the internal war each human being must eventually wage for self-mastery. The Delphic oracle proclaimed "Know thyself!" To know our selves is not easy, for we are composite beings, made up of body, soul, and spirit, as the apostle Paul wrote. The spirit portion of us is our higher self or atma. Self-mastery is achieved when the personal, selfish portion of each of us is directed by our higher self. In this manner we would be directed by a force of selflessness towards all.
As the Gita opens, Arjuna the warrior sits in his chariot conversing with his charioteer, Krishna.
The Katha Upanishad throws light on the inner meaning of this imagery:
Know the Self (atma) as the master sitting within the chariot which is the body (sarira), know again the understanding (buddhi) as the charioteer and the mind (manas) as the reins.
The senses, they say, are the horses; the objects of sense, what they range over. . . .
He who is ever of unrestrained mind, devoid of true understanding, his sense-desires then become uncontrollable like the wild horses of a charioteer.
But he who is ever of controlled mind, and has true understanding, his sense-desires then are controllable like the good horses of a charioteer. . . .
The desires are superior to the senses, the mind is superior to the desires, the intuition (understanding) is superior to the mind, the great Self is superior to the intuition. — I.3.3-6, 10
Going further, the wheels of the chariot symbolize right effort; the destination is perfection; and the whole experience urges us to become an aspirant after truth by living life in the higher portions of ourselves.
How can we go about achieving self-mastery? The second chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita speaks directly to this point:
A man is said to be confirmed in spiritual knowledge when he forsaketh every desire which entereth into his heart, and of himself is happy and content in the Self through the Self. His mind is undisturbed in adversity; he is happy and contented in prosperity, and he is a stranger to anxiety, fear, and anger. Such a man is called a Muni [wise man]. When in every condition he receives each event, whether favorable or unfavorable, with an equal mind which neither likes nor dislikes, his wisdom is established, and, having met good or evil, neither rejoiceth at the one nor is cast down by the other. He is confirmed in spiritual knowledge, when, like the tortoise, he can draw in all his senses and restrain them from their wonted purposes. The hungry man loseth sight of every other object but the gratification of his appetite, and when he is become acquainted with the Supreme, he loseth all taste for objects of whatever kind. The tumultuous senses and organs hurry away by force the heart even of the wise man who striveth after perfection. Let a man, restraining all these, remain in devotion at rest in me, his true self; for he who hath his senses and organs in control possesses spiritual knowledge. — 2:55-61
We generate karma, and eventually we reap those same causes as the effects ripple back to their origin. Thus, the causes of our unhappiness lie in our own mistaken ideas and acts, not in external conditions. To overcome these causes, we need a better grasp of who we are and what our purpose is in life. The Gita can help teach us who we are and lead us through the maze of life. Ultimately, with much thought, reflection, and effort, we can realize those truths which, if lived, will make our futures ever brighter, though they may not immediately transform our present circumstances.
In his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, Radhakrishnan simplifies this thought into two parts, commenting that Plato "meant that human perfection was a sort of marriage between high thought and just action. This, according to the Gita, must be, for ever, the aim of man" (p. 383, italics added). If our thoughts are universal, centered on true and pure things, it is easier to do just actions. We can sift our thoughts and acts by testing them against the touchstone of our inner self. Eventually we will find ourselves evaluating each thought before acting upon it: if it does not meet the criteria for a just act, it is forsaken for a higher thought and subsequent action.
William Q. Judge said, "Motive is all." We are not looking for a result, performing a just act so that a just result will occur. Such attachment is the opposite of the equal-mindedness the Gita advises us to attain. Moreover, we can never have complete control over the outcomes of our actions. They are the product of our present decisions plus the totality of karma, and this past accumulation of the actions of ourselves and others often determines the actual results in ways that are beyond our immediate control. But as we strive to choose correctly, right thought and right action will begin to become a habit, and we will build up the right momentum for future effects to manifest as just outcomes. As James Long remarked:
Where there is one-pointed devotion to the highest law of one's being, there is protection — the protection that comes from striving to the best of one's ability to live the inner life of the soul instead of the outer one. . . .
. . . He who performs all acts with the Divine in view will not be concerned with their outcome, because the truest devotion or yoga is skill in action or the living of your daily karma. . . .
There is an ancient maxim that runs: "In proportion to our aspiration will be our difficulties." By the very intensity of our desire to do right and to progress we literally "call upon the gods" — by calling upon our own inner god to cast down upon our shoulders burdens stronger than might otherwise be given us. For in direct proportion to the depth of our sincerity are we challenged to take a good straight look at ourselves. — "Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita," Sunrise, April and May 1959, pp. 206, 243
We cannot expect to gain self-mastery overnight, especially if "in proportion to our aspiration will be our difficulties"! Final victory is not to the swift, but to those who steadfastly refuse to be defeated. What if foes do return again and again, in this or that form? The very fact that we recognize them as such is a sign of progress. The more subtle they are, the more dangerous because harder to detect. They would not take that finer form, however, unless we had already conquered them on the more material plane; and that in itself is a victory. There can be no real failure as long as we never give up.
This epic battle between the great duality — the forces of light and dark in every human heart — speaks to each of us. The rub is that it is all individual: individual study; individual reflection; individual thought; individual action; individual meeting of karma; individual struggle; individual triumph; individual self-mastery. And there are no formulas we can rely on to get us there as easy as 1-2-3. Individual will and right motive are all we have. Ultimately we must develop spiritual self-reliance by looking to ourselves and not to others.
In self-mastery as in war, choice and action are inevitable. To accomplish our goal reconciliation and concessions must be made. This had another name in ancient writings, often masked heavily by exoteric ritual: sacrifice. Sacrifice means "to make sacred." An animal being sacrificed to a god symbolized our lower self being sacrificed to our higher self. We do not need the degenerate practices of ritual blood-letting or fire sacrifice of an animal to remind us of the task that lies before us: the arduous sacrifice of our own lower passions to the greater good of all humanity and all beings.
We can make these sacrifices or sacred offerings in small ways each day. These small choices tend eventually to become routine, and finally are inculcated into our being as character, for we become our choices. Along this line the question arises, should we indulge our passions to the point of satiation and thus eliminate the passion for them; or should we strive to control them, using every ounce of our will, and thus eliminate them from our desires? The Gita answers: "Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them. These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal" (Easwaran translation, p. 68).
Conflict, self-mastery, and sacrifice are indissolubly bound to our daily life. Not only is the Bhagavad-Gita an exotic story with intriguing descriptions, part of a larger epic venerated by millions of people throughout the world; it is the story of our own inner competing forces and their successful resolution by following our true inner light of divinity. James Long aptly remarked:
let us close by remembering that the Gita's first word is Dharmakshetra — which tells us at the outset that this discourse between Krishna and Arjuna is taking place not on a physical battlefield but truly on the "plain of Dharma or Duty." In other words, on the plain of the soul where each one of us, as Arjuna, must search out and follow the karmic duty that is his and no one else's. — Sunrise, May 1961, p. 252
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press)