Reams have been written on this enigmatic work, one of Hinduism’s core sacred texts and perhaps the greatest contribution to world literature on human spirituality. Often though the Gita ( more properly, the Bhagavad Gita, to distinguish it from other similarly named works such as the Vyadha Gita, Rama Gita, Devi Gita, Ganesha Gita etc, although of these the Bhagavad Gita remains the most popular and widely read) is misunderstood or mis-represented as a manual for war, pacifist renunciation or both.
The 18 Chapters of this text in 700 verses can be many things – indeed it does delve into the complex religion, mythology, philosophy, ethics and worldview of the late Vedic period of ancient India where it is contextually situated. The Gita occurs as a conversation between Sri Krishna, the hero and spiritual master who is secretly the central character of the great Hindu epic Mahabharata, and Arjuna, who is outwardly the protagonist, at what is set as the start of the war sequence.
What the lay reader is likely to miss, in all of this, is that ultimately, the Gita is a synthesis text that systematically lays out the practice of Yoga in the context of everyday life. In its master synthesis, the Gita distils out the essence of the ancient Vedic teachings in the Upanishads, and presents them as the core of the practice of Yoga. In itself, the type of Yoga that Sri Krishna teaches, is a revolutionary yet natural progression of some of the key ideas of the ancient Vedic world.
The ancient Vedic religion revolved around Yajna, where sacrifice is prescribed as the means to please the Gods and thus support the maintenance of Rita or cosmic order. Although the Yajna grew into elaborate fire-based rituals over time, essentially it suggested to the adherents of the old Aryan religion, the dictum of the Upanishads: ‘tAgEnaikE amritatvam AnaSuh’, ‘immortality is obtained only through sacrifice or renunciation of desire’.
In the course of most of the Yajnas prescribed, the participants are encouraged to practice austerity and give up things dear to them. The ancient Sages had recommended this sort of periodic practice of austerity as a way to achieve the state of non-covetousness naturally and gradually.
The philosophy of Yoga grew out of a generalization of this principle inherent in the Yajna, that since the Brahman or the ultimate ground of being is with us always and everywhere, living in moderation, guided by and in communion with the inner presence, is the way to peace in the here and now. The renunciation that is required of the performer of the Yajna ritual, must become the natural state of the Yogi, and indeed all activities of the Yogi become sanctified, Yajna-like, when controlled and performed in unison with the fire of the inner being.
The beauty of the Gita is that here Sri Krishna fundamentally recasts and hence enunciates and elevates the practice of Yoga to the sublime. The Gita is not a manual of war, which in the end is just an act of indiscriminate killing – but a manual for the righteous warrior engaged in a just war, to consecrate his actions by acting in union with the divine in performing an action that is in resonance with his own Guna or nature.
Arjuna the protagonist is a Kshatriya, whose nature is war-like, and he is locked in a battle to reclaim the land from the adharma perpetrated by Duryodhana and his men, who resorted to unethical means to usurp power and humiliated women and the sages.
Nor is the Gita just a manual that discusses Yoga purely as an internal process. While no authentic Yoga will disengage from the inner element, the main type taught and encouraged in the Gita is that of Yoga by active service.
When Arjuna asks as to which among renunciation or action is superior, Sri Krishna unambiguously replies that ‘action performed in the sense of Yoga is indeed superior’, while questioning whether there can be any true renunciation at all, since even the sages have to care for their bodies.
This is where the revolutionary part begins – Sri Krishna, it turns out, does not ask Arjuna to internalize Yoga – rather he is asking him to internalize renunciation and act in the spirit of Yoga, the opposite of what many today read in the Gita. The Yoga of action that Sri Krishna teaches, consists of renouncing the agency in action, renouncing the expectation for reward and instead acting with the equanimity of inner stillness and seeking perfection in action, defining Yoga itself in the process:
‘samatvam yOga uchyatE’ – equanimity is Yoga and ‘yOgah karmasu kaushalam’ and that Yoga is skill in action
The brilliance of it all is that the Gita itself offers a way of extrapolating its teachings to all others who are not of the warrior-type:
‘chAturvarnyam mayA srishtam guNa karma-vibhAghaSa’ – the four orders among men were created as me as per their nature and actions
Indeed the same recommendations of the Gita can be applied to the Yoga of action by persons of all other varNas, with their swabhAvas determined not by birth, but by the innate nature of their being and actions.
This indeed is the secret of the Gita, which flowers forth in the awe-inspiring moment when Sri Krishna takes the fierce form of the world-being and declares to Arjuna, ‘ I am the great time that has already conquered all these perpetrators of adharma’ and exhorting him to ‘go fulfil his nature and destiny, by becoming a perfect instrument’
‘nimittamAtram bhava savya sAchin’ – become an instrument, O Savya-sachin (Arjuna)
Ultimately, this Yoga of action itself leads to the Yoga of wisdom and Yoga of love, when the performer may come to the painful end of egoistic action, realizing how limited the ordinary being is, and for a seeker at that stage, declares the Gita in the concluding Chapter,
‘sarva dharmAn parityajya mAm ekam sharaNam vraja’ – giving up all dharmas, take refuge in Me alone
As a Hindu-Buddhist personally I cannot but marvel how closely the Yoga philosophy of the Gita corresponds to the Buddhist approach of the middle-path, for the middle-path is not a call to inaction or pacifism, but rather of vigorous action, guided by the inner being. Although the idea of Avatarhood and surrender to a being higher than oneself is not at ease with how Buddhism is commonly understood, the concept of ‘saraNagati’ or taking refuge in the triple jewels is indeed at the core and heart of Buddhism!
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