Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita -- James A. Long, Chairman
[From Sunrise, November 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Theosophical University Press.]
Chairman -- Two weeks ago we had our first discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita, and touched lightly on its relation to the Mahabharata, the great epic of India. We were introduced to Krishna, the divine charioteer and to Arjuna, who is really ourselves, and we recognized that the despondency so clearly portrayed in the first chapter is pretty universally experienced, as each one has time and again to face the battle with himself.
It is of course not our intention to make an exhaustive study of every verse in every chapter, but rather to try to distill the essential message of the Gita and to see wherein its philosophic values can be applied to our day-to-day existence.
This evening I thought we might start with chapter 2 and let the discussion flow as it will. But before we begin with the reading I should like to stress again the point made briefly last time that in all these ancient scriptures, whether of Eastern or Western origin, we must take into account at least two currents of thought: the temporal or material setting, which pertains to the particular climate of thought of the people at the time; and the basic spiritual principles that are deathless, and therefore applicable to any people at any period in history. If we can keep this distinction in mind, it should be simple to recognize what is mere imagery and metaphor, and what are those permanent values which belong to all ages and to all people.
You remember that the first chapter closes with Sanjaya, the charioteer of Dhritarashtra and witness and recorder of events, stating that Arjuna having spoken, put away his bow and arrows and sat down in the chariot, "overwhelmed with despondency." The second chapter opens with Krishna urging Arjuna to throw off this "dejection in matters of difficulty," as being unworthy and "contrary to duty." But Arjuna is having a real battle with himself and says he would rather beg his bread round the world than be a murderer of his preceptors, feeling that "were I to destroy such friends as these, I should partake of possessions, wealth, and pleasures polluted with their blood." On the one hand, he appeals to Krishna for instruction, and on the other states flatly that he does not wish to live if he must slay his kindred.
I ask thee which is it better to do. Tell me that distinctly! I am thy disciple; wherefore instruct in my duty me who am under thy tuition; for my understanding is confounded by the dictates of my duty, and I see nothing that may assuage the grief which drieth up my faculties, although I were to obtain a kingdom without a rival upon earth, or dominion over the hosts of heaven.
And almost immediately Arjuna declares to Krishna: "I shall not fight!" Krishna, "tenderly smiling," replies:
Thou grievest for those that may not be lamented, whilst thy sentiments are those of the expounders of the letter of the law. Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth; nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be. As the lord of this mortal frame experienceth therein infancy, youth, and old age, so in future incarnations will it meet the same. One who is confirmed in this belief is not disturbed by anything that may come to pass.
Krishna then explains that heat and cold, pleasure and pain, come and go, but the wise to whom all such opposites are of equal consequence are able to "see the truth and look into the principles of things," and thus can discern that which is eternal as well as its outer covering.
Learn that He by whom all things were formed is incorruptible, and that no one is able to effect the destruction of it which is inexhaustible. These finite bodies, which envelope the souls inhabiting them, are said to belong to Him, the eternal, the indestructible, unprovable Spirit, who is in the body; wherefore, O Arjuna, resolve to fight.
The man who believeth that it is this Spirit which killeth, and he who thinketh that it may be destroyed, are both alike deceived; for it neither killeth nor is it killed. . . . it is without birth and meeteth not death; it is ancient, constant, and eternal, and is not slain when this its mortal frame is destroyed. How can the man who believeth that it is incorruptible, eternal, inexhaustible, and without birth, think that it can either kill or cause to be killed?
As a man throweth away old garments and putteth on new, even so the dweller in the body, having quitted its old mortal frames, entereth into others which are new. The weapon divideth it not, the fire burneth it not, the water corrupteth it not, the wind drieth it not away; for it is indivisible, inconsumable, incorruptible, and is not to be dried away; it is eternal, universal, permanent, immovable; it is invisible, inconceivable, and unalterable; therefore, knowing it to be thus, thou shouldst not grieve. But whether thou believest it to be of eternal birth and duration, or that it dieth with the body, still thou hast no cause to lament it.
Death is certain to all things which are born, and rebirth to all mortals; wherefore it doth not behoove thee to grieve about the inevitable. The antenatal state of beings is unknown; the middle state is evident; and their state after death is not to be discovered. What in this is there to lament?
Dick -- That is a wonderful part you have just read. Krishna seems to have left the battlefield now and become both teacher and philosopher. He surely gives a marvelous vision of the indestructibility of divinity, at the same time showing us so clearly that death and birth are inevitable, necessary processes in nature, and thus there is no cause for fear. It helps us to understand the many changes that occur in life.
Chairman -- There is indeed a wealth of profound philosophy imbodied in these few paragraphs, and I have often thought that if only this one chapter had come down to us, the Gita would still rank among the spiritual classics of the world. And yet I dare not say that, because when I think of later chapters I am grateful that the whole of this small devotional book has been preserved.
But let us return to Krishna's answer. Arjuna had asked Krishna for instruction, and he received it, but in a manner he least expected. Note how deftly Krishna ignores the obvious issue, making his appeal directly to Arjuna's higher self. Pointing to the imperishable essence of divinity that is at the core of every form of life, he sweeps Arjuna right out of his petty concern for his own dilemma into the clear ether of a cosmic perspective: the round of birth and death, of cycles of activity and rest, comes to all sentient beings, yet within and behind all is that ancestral spark of divine Intelligence, which fire cannot burn, nor wind and water dry or corrupt.
Bringing it down to the human level, Krishna points to the continuum of experience for every human being through rebirth: even as a person casts off his worn-out garments and puts on fresh ones, so the soul takes on body after body in the course of its evolutionary trek through the ages. Just as death is certain to all beings, so is rebirth in human form assured. So why grieve over the loss of the outer, the material, the temporary vestures which come and go, when within all things -- stone, plant, man, and star -- there is that which can neither slay nor be slain.
By lifting his consciousness from himself into these vast and mysterious workings of the cosmos, Arjuna is bound to have his vision cleared, and to return thence to his own difficulties with fresh understanding.
Ray, did you want to say something?
Ray -- Yes, while you were reading Krishna's answer, I kept thinking how like we are to Arjuna. Here Arjuna makes a genuine appeal to Krishna, his mentor, and asks him to tell him what it is better to do, as he is his disciple and wants to follow his instruction. But before Krishna has a chance to say even a word, Arjuna declares he will not fight. Well, at first I felt that Krishna's answer was not responsive, in that he seemed to disregard Arjuna's very real confusion. In fact, his reply appeared to me almost harsh in its impersonality. But from what you have just said, I can see how Arjuna got exactly what he needed: a shock to his personality as it were, to shake him out of his self-pity; and yet in giving Arjuna at the same time these grand ideas to think about, Krishna shows a remarkable patience which you can't help but admire. I know I have acted just as Arjuna did many a time in different circumstances.
Chairman -- Of course you have, as have all of us, however disguised the various forms of self-pity and of just plain selfishness are. The problems of Arjuna are our problems; and the answers Krishna gives, though they may at times seem abstruse and not applicable to our specific need, do provide invaluable keys to understanding the real issue which each one of us has to face.
Obviously when we seek the help and guidance of our higher self -- in this case Krishna -- the least we should do is to heed the promptings that flow down to us from this source. The answer may not be in the form of our choice, nor set out as in a blueprint, with the do's and the don'ts clearly marked. It may be double-edged like the oracles of Delphi and other ancient centers; but if our appeal is genuine, and our aspiration pure, there will be guidance. How often we think we want help, but are either afraid to accept the truth as it is, or too impatient to allow time to work its own magic of clarification. Before we know it, we have once again shut the door of our consciousness to the guiding impulse, and no one but us can open that door. Once the light is seen, it is up to us to have the courage and the trust to follow it, wherever it may lead.
Dan -- While I can see that Krishna was trying to lift Arjuna out of his terrific gloom, the problem still remains: if he slays his loved ones, his former teachers and friends, how can he reconcile this with his feeling of compassion for them? How can he come to terms with himself simply by being told that all beings and things are imperishable and divine?
Chairman -- If we stop to consider our own experience, we shall realize how often this same type of despondency tends to come over us. Here is Arjuna, seeing before him all those qualities of character and habits of thought he has held dear because so natural and customary, and which up to this point he had considered a part of his very being. Now by . . .
Dan -- You mean we shouldn't think of these "teachers and friends" as real people, but rather as qualities in Arjuna's character (or in our own for that matter), which we have to get rid of. If you look at it that way, then the whole picture falls together. In other words, at any moment in our progress we too might come to the same point Arjuna has reached here, where we would have to slay these tendencies that pull us down, or be sunk.
Chairman -- It boils right down to the fact that Arjuna asked for this -- not in words, but by his ardent determination to face and conquer himself. The setting of the first chapter on the "battlefield" -- the Field of Dharma or duty -- forms the stage, if we can recognize that the real battlefield is Arjuna's own soul. Here the "opposing army," consisting of former companions of thought and tradition, is lined up against him. Already the arrows are flying, and Arjuna recognizes he has entered the fight almost before he knew what he had to meet. Part of him wants to retreat, and he makes an urgent appeal to Krishna to save him, arguing in noble terms of compassion and sacrifice. The point of no return is here, and Krishna knows that Arjuna also knows deep in his heart that he dare not retreat but must "arise and fight!" By his own choice Arjuna is confronted with the whole army of his past thoughts, feelings, and emotions, in the guise of relatives and friends. Now he must face the full depth of responsibility that goes with the aspiration to transmute the base metal of his lower nature into the gold of self-conquest. His gloom and dejection of spirit are but one of the necessary stages of soul growth, one of the processes where the dross must be burned in the fire of pain -- the travail of the soul. By it he learns the deeper significance of nature's law that "the lower must be raised by the higher," the material be made translucent to the spiritual.
Mabel -- Then this conflict in which Arjuna finds himself does not necessarily mean that he had gone back on his ideals, but could signify that the human element in him (and in us too) is being forced out of a dreamy subjective state of consciousness right into the thick of battle, so to speak. In other words, couldn't it represent a necessary stage in the evolution of the soul rather than just "weakness of heart"?
Chairman -- Definitely, and the very fact that the Gita is one of the most esoteric portions of the Mahabharata suggests that it contains fundamental principles applicable to the evolutionary progress of humanity, and even of our solar universe, which need not be limited solely to the growth or failure of a single human being. While Arjuna does indeed stand for the individual human being, he is likewise the symbol of mankind as a whole, as well as for all of the life-waves of human souls which have been entering and leaving incarnation for countless ages, and will continue to stream in and out of earthly existence as the cycles move through their destined courses,
What then is there to grieve about when the very laws of universal nature include the birth and death of all living things, and at the same time insure their imperishability in divinity?
Arjuna is not asked to attain the Imperishable, but simply to pierce the illusions that surround his thinking; to kill forever the dominion over his soul of the dragon of self-centeredness which like the hydra-headed monster of ancient days returns again and again to tempt and engulf.
Now let us see further what Krishna has to say. Most of you have your Gita with you, so I. shall ask Tom to pick up where we left off, and either to summarize or read those portions which appeal to him. As we go along, if any of you want to stop and have any part discussed, don't hesitate to interrupt.
Tom -- Well, Krishna continues to emphasize that the "indwelling spirit" cannot be destroyed, and therefore it is unworthy of Arjuna to be so troubled and cast down about the mortal frame. He enjoins him to turn his eyes to the duties of his particular tribe, because if he can fulfill these, he need have no anxiety.
A soldier of the Kshatriya tribe hath no duty superior to lawful war, and just to thy wish the door of heaven is found open before thee, through this glorious unsought fight which only fortune's favored soldiers may obtain. But if thou wilt not perform the duty of thy calling and fight out the field, thou wilt abandon thy natural duty and thy honor, and be guilty of a crime.
Louise -- May I interrupt, please? What does Krishna mean when he says there is no duty superior to "lawful war" for the Kshatriya tribe? Now I can understand how this might apply to Arjuna as he belonged to the Kshatriya or warrior caste; but what about the other castes such as the Brahmans and the Sudras? Would this apply to them, in a different way perhaps, or is it not applicable to them at all?
Chairman -- At the time when the caste system here referred to by Krishna was in its purity and was a natural division of the various character-types of human beings, there would have been no occasion for a Brahman or a Sudra to go to war, because the Kshatriya caste, which was composed of the princes and rulers as well as the soldiers, took care of all "lawful wars" as part of their responsibility. We have no caste system in the West, but in India by tradition the lines were clearly enough seen.
The crux of Krishna's remarks as I see it lies in the words "natural duty." We must not isolate one phrase, such as lawful war, to the neglect of the larger picture in which it is contained. Here Krishna reminds Arjuna that as he is a member of the Kshatriya caste, and is both a prince and a soldier, he cannot abandon his "natural duty," but must accomplish the full responsibility of his calling, otherwise he will indeed be guilty of a crime.
You ask if this would have applied to the other castes or tribes, such as the Brahmans or Sudras as they were called. If we take the phrase "lawful war" literally, it certainly would not have been applicable. For example, were a Brahman or priest to go to war not only would he be abandoning his "natural duty," but he would have committed a further error: doing the duty that belongs rightfully to another, and that is one "danger" that Krishna warns of repeatedly.
Frank -- The phrase "natural duty" in the Sanskrit text is swa-dharma -- "one's own duty." In other words, each one of us has his own particular dharma to fulfill. "Duty, law, responsibility"-- these are very poor substitutes for the word dharma, which has even been translated at times as "religion" because it embraces in concept more than our word duty. Nevertheless, the use of swa-dharma here would seem to emphasize the importance of each one of us finding out just what our own dharma or natural duty is.
Martha -- That is helpful, because it has always seemed to me not so much a question of "lawful war" as far as Arjuna was concerned, but that Krishna wanted him to "arise and fight" and not abandon his swa-dharma or "natural duty." If he did that then he would be going backwards and committing a terrible mistake.
Hazel -- It seems to me, taking it symbolically, that we all belong to the Kshatriya or warrior caste, and therefore are called upon to war against our weaknesses as our "natural duty." Of course I realize, taking it from a more objective standpoint, it is our duty to obey the laws of our country and if we refuse to serve the colors, we set ourselves against law and order, and by so much become an exponent of anarchy. So in that sense I can see how Krishna's injunction to Arjuna has a very practical bearing in that we should do our lawful duty in fulfilling the demands not only of our "natural" but also of our national duty.
Chairman -- That is well put. All of these points are subject to numerous interpretations, so let us not be rigid in our thinking. Dick, I think you wanted to speak.
Dick -- I liked what Hazel said about all of us belonging in part of our nature to the Kshatriya tribe. But couldn't that apply equally well to the other castes? Aren't we also farmers and merchants as well as Brahmans in our devotional life?
Chairman -- I think there is much to be said for that. Originally the caste system had a truly spiritual foundation, and there was much protection in the natural classification. At that time a child could become a Brahman, even if of Sudra parentage, if he had the qualities of character requisite for the strenuous life of concentrated study and discipline. Similarly one could qualify for any of the other castes -- by interior quality rather than by accident of birth. Unfortunately, this soon degenerated into rigid lines of demarcation so that much abuse and injustice crept in.
Even today in the West, though there are no hard and fast divisions, there is a natural classification of responsibility: there are the "Brahmans" or ministers and priests whose "natural duty" is to keep alive the spiritual content of our sacred traditions; then come the "Kshatriyas," the warrior or governing class, whose responsibility it is not only to "rule" but to protect the country both in peace and in combat. The third or "Vaisya" caste comprises the businessmen, merchants, and farmers, whose concern is commerce and the general exchange of goods and commodities, not only within one's country but with other lands as well. And finally the fourth or "Sudra" class who work with their hands, and by their service keep the wheels of our complex life turning smoothly.
As Dick well said, all of these four basic qualities are represented in our natures, and it is our task to discover, with the aid of our higher self, or Krishna if we like, what is our swa-dharma or "natural duty" in this life.
George -- You mentioned that the "natural duty" of the ministers or priests is to keep alive the spiritual values of our sacred traditions. While I can understand that, I feel strongly that each one of us must weave his own destiny.
Chairman -- It is the only way, George.
George -- That's what I thought you meant. Well, when Krishna speaks there of "fortune's favored soldiers" being offered this "glorious unsought fight," I have always felt that it was really earned by Arjuna. That is, that no one could delegate such a responsibility to another, just as no priest has the right to direct our destiny. If we are one day to join the ranks of those favored warriors, then we will have to prepare ourselves by self-directed evolution, and not leave it for a minister or a teacher, or even one such as Krishna, to actually do it for us.
Chairman -- I'm with you all the way. So far as all true growth is concerned, there can be no intermediary between your higher self and you, between my divinity and me. There may be counselors along the way, brought to us by karma, but no unnaturally designated outside intermediary who can delegate the guiding of your or of my or of anyone's destiny. No one can do anything for another, except as we by our own aspirations and strength of will have set the stage -- naturally, and in the course of the performance of our own duty or swa-dharma.
It is very late, and we have not even scratched the surface of the passages we read this evening. Perhaps we might take up this last part again, and discuss further the implications of this "unsought fight" to which George referred. Obviously we cannot think of this as a physical battle. Nevertheless, we are all potential warriors whose karma has placed before us the opportunity to gain worlds -- not material worlds, but worlds of enlightenment, of understanding, and perhaps even a little wisdom.