Upon reading the Mahabharata, one notices that its middle is out of kilter with its beginning and ending: that amongst the grand and richly detailed narrative of two families lies a text that hardly fits the epic's theme or style. This text is the Bhagavad-Gita. It is no great surprise that a warrior (in this case, Arjun) should be struggling with the notion of death, truth, and duty as he goes to war: modern literature is well represented in its depictions of the misgivings of soldiers. But what is surprising is the vehemence with which war, death, and a soldier's duty are defended, and especially by Krishna, the chosen Lord of the peaceable Vaishnavites.
Elsewhere Krishna is mythologized as having playfully stolen butter as an infant and as carousing with the gopis in adolescence and adulthood — his greatest pleasures being playing the flute and inspiring erotic love and pleasure. In the Gita he takes on a very different role: stern and austere in Godhead, Krishna is an old man. Meeting Arjun in the forest one day, he says: "Shall I take my chakra and soak the Earth with the blood of Duryodhana, and of the radiant Karna?" Arjun answers, "It's not time and it's not your affair," to which Krishna replies, "Remember: you are mine and I am yours. And who strikes you, strikes me also. You come from me, and I from you, and there is no one who can understand the difference between us" (Buck, p. 63).
The Bhagavad-Gita comes to us as a section of the Mahabharata, the epic and romantic tale of two armies and the great battle of Kurukshetra. Here the Gita sits, but not entirely comfortably. In the first volume of A History of India, Romila Thapar explains that "the Epics had originally been secular . . . [and were] revised by the Brahmans with a view to using them as religious literature; thus many interpolations were made, the most famous being the addition of the Bhagavad Gita to the Mahabharata" (pp. 133-4). She mentions that the Mahabharata itself "may have been the description of a local feud," but in its final form becomes "no longer the story of war, but has acquired a number of episodes (some of which are unrelated to the main story) and a variety of interpolations, many of which are important in themselves . . ."; and that both epics were "concerned with events which took place between c. 1000 and 700 BC, but as the versions which survive date from the first half of the first millennium AD they too can hardly be regarded as authentic sources for the study of the period to which they pertain" (pp. 32, 31).
To that end, the historical placement of the Bhagavad-Gita requires further investigation into the history of India itself. Arjun's conundrum in the Bhagavad-Gita is paralleled in issues faced by one of the most famous Indian kings, Ashoka, who in "260 B.C. . . . campaigned against the Kalingans and utterly routed them. . . . The destruction caused by the war filled the king with remorse . . . [and] in an effort to seek expiation he found himself attracted to Buddhist thinking . . . [which] led him eventually to support the cause of non-violence and consequently to foreswear war as a means of conquest" (ibid., p. 72).
Partly as the result of Ashoka's conversion and partly because it removed caste barriers, Buddhism for a long time became the prevailing religion of India. This meant that the caste system, which had been the driver of social order, was somewhat diminished. The basis of power within Indian society had been dependent upon the strict maintenance of caste order: Brahmins advised and trained Kshatriyas both in government and matters of war. This relationship is extensively described in the Mahabharata where the Pandavas are trained in all aspects of weaponry by the Brahmin Kripa. But under the Buddhist system there was essentially very little use for either Brahmins or Kshatriyas in their designated roles.
The dogmatism employed by the voice of Krishna throughout the Bhagavad-Gita, and the primal importance and almost excessive justification placed on the need to maintain one's caste, can be viewed as a possible reaction to the Buddhist period — the end, as it were, of the status quo. In that sense the Gita becomes a warning to future generations in the gravest language of the dire consequences which will befall anyone who strays from their caste duties. Had Ashoka been a minor king, the extent of religious reaction may well have been very minor; however, he was a great king. His rule lasted over 30 years and his "pillars" are legendary. An image of the Pillar of Ashoka is still used by the Indian government as its seal. To denounce the great Ashoka was unthinkable, but to take another great battle from an already popular tale and infuse it with religious instruction was far more acceptable. The popularity of the Mahabharata also ensured that no one would remain unenlightened as to the importance of duty and caste in life.
Asoka's column at Sarnath
However, aside from social and political circumstances which may have led to the creation of the Gita, the philosophical messages contained within it deal with the eternal problems humankind faces in understanding, firstly, the nature of God and the eternal; and secondly, the reconciliation of man and God in the greater scheme of things — a scheme that exists as part of life and because of life. Reading the Gita is a different experience from reading the Rig Veda, considered the oldest of Hindu scriptures. The latter raises the questions of creation and doubt:
There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
. . .
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
When this creation has arisen — perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not. — Rig Veda 10.129.1, 6-7
The Bhagavad-Gita attempts to supply the answers to these questions as understood by Brahmins, yet on a more earthly plane. Faith becomes concrete, a necessity in order to reconcile oneself to the vicissitudes of life. It illustrates the struggle between body and soul, the struggle of coming to terms with one's mortality and impermanence within a greater permanence. Says Krishna to the despondent Arjun: "There was never a time when I, you, or these kings did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future" (Bhagavad-Gita 2.12).
By the time of the Mahabharata, God and man have become one, as Krishna says to Arjun: "You come from me, and I from you, and there is no one who can understand the difference between us." However, there is a clear difference between God and man: mortality, and matters such as the power over life and death which are traditionally left to the jurisdiction of the gods. The Gita offers to some extent a blueprint to immortality and most certainly grapples with the vastly difficult question of taking life: man moving into the domain of God.
The Gita finds man alone and afraid, overawed by the vastness of the universe, humbled by his own smallness in it, and unwilling to make the leap from man to God that the taking of life requires. Arjun suffers in the purgatory of trying to decide what is right or wrong. The Kauravas rendered great harm to the Pandavas, this he acknowledges. The kingdom he wishes for, that he considers rightfully his, is being withheld by a family willing to go to any lengths for power and wealth. But Arjun wishes to rise above it:
O Lord Krishna, what pleasure shall we find in killing the sons of Dhritarashtra? Upon killing these felons we shall incur sin only. . . .
Though they, blinded by greed, do not see evil in the destruction of the family, or sin in being treacherous to friends.
Why shouldn't we, who clearly see evil in the destruction of the family, think about turning away from this sin, O Krishna? — Bhagavad Gita 1.36, 38-9
Examined at great length is the concept of karma, and the concept that the pain of life encompasses making decisions which in the short term may be painful and traumatic but in the long term and the greater scheme of things may be more beneficial. What Krishna urges is greater self-knowledge so that whatever decisions must be made on the karmic plane may be made in understanding and knowledge, not driven by primal lust. The Kauravas lived according to the doctrine of matsyanyaya, political bullying and opportunism "where the big fish swallowed the little fish in a condition of anarchy" (Thapar, p. 46), a way of life driven by greed and conquest, with little or no regard for social justice or order. Arjun is living on a higher plane, hence enjoying a close, personal relationship with God, yet he is still a man and must live on the terms of men. He laments:
With the destruction of the family, the eternal family traditions are destroyed, and immorality prevails due to the destruction of family traditions.
And when immorality prevails, O Krishna, the women of the family become corrupted; when women are corrupted, social problems arise.
. . .
We have been told, O Krishna, that people whose family traditions are destroyed necessarily dwell in hell for a long time. — Bhagavad-Gita 1.40-1, 44
Krishna replies: "You will go to heaven if killed, or you will enjoy the earth if victorious. Therefore, get up with a determination to fight, O Arjuna" (2.37).
After a great period of agonizing, Arjun is reconciled yet hopeful: this is his karma, yet one day he shall be released from it; this suffering shall pass. But while he is still alive on earth, he must walk upright, strong, and, seeing right and wrong, fearlessly defend what he knows to be right. When in doubt he must recall Krishna's words, "you are mine and I am yours. And who strikes you, strikes me also. You come from me, and I from you, and there is no one who can understand the difference between us."
Krishna (painting by Jaromir Skrivanek)
Above all, the Bhagavad-Gita is an aspect of a living culture. I grew up with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Although not demonstrably religious, my parents shared with me that particular aspect of India, and loving stories, I became very fond of these two in particular. Although various parts caused me grief and others left me mystified, I progressed through them, first the comic book versions, then simple texts, until finally (not reading Sanskrit) the more complex Bengali versions. The Hindu texts are unashamedly popularized, their icons used throughout every aspect of Indian life, whether advertising or politics, religious worship or philosophical discourse, for good or evil. To that extent it is impossible to separate religion and politics, especially in Hinduism. So intertwined are the Hindu texts with sociopolitical matters, on the one hand, and transcendental mysticism on the other, that it becomes very difficult to have them stand apart, and this includes standing apart from each other.
The Bhagavad-Gita can certainly be read on its own, but if it is to be understood in the greater context, it must be read with the other Hindu texts and within Indian history. In her Introduction to Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty writes that "each myth celebrates the belief that the universe is boundlessly various, that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other" (p. 11). This would appear to be the natural approach of Hinduism, the complex, highly paradoxical understanding of the universe where the philosophies of existentialism and determinism work in tandem.
Relegated in India today largely to the retirement activities of the elderly, the Gita has somewhat lost its rightful place within Indian society. Its strategic placement within the Mahabharata was intended to convey a certain message. Krishna's teachings were not revealed to Arjun as an old man, and the textual message is not designed as an end-of-life reflection, but rather as a tool for being able to get through the difficulties of life when one is still young and vital — when actions can have the greatest impact. The wisdom of the Gita is that it understands man to be man — and as an imperfect being in that role. But it also understands that sometimes man requires the hand of God in order to rise above the here and now, in order to be able to see the greater map (I hesitate to call it a "plan"); man needs the hand of God to see beyond himself — our own lives being so brief and our knowledge so incomplete. That is the conciliatory aspect of the Gita: we as individuals must do what we must do, for we are human and prone to do things; and by the same token, all individuals must do what they must do (thus securing their own individual level on the karmic wheel). But we should strive to do these things, not in blind faith (Krishna answers and does not forsake Arjun) nor in a state of illusion, but in knowledge, and be secure in the understanding that when man desires knowledge, God answers.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)