Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman

Chapter 9

Compassion and Duty

Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 3, cont.
(From Sunrise, May 1961. Copyright © 1961 by Theosophical University Press.)

Chairman -- It has been some weeks now since we took up the Gita together. It so happens that last month I received a very interesting letter from a friend abroad who had recently come across a copy of the Gita in a bookshop. She is disturbed at what she calls the "selfish" path advocated by Krishna, finding it very difficult to interpret his repeated advice to "become indifferent to pleasure and pain" as anything other than a running away from life. She feels, in fact, that the whole atmosphere of his instruction to Arjuna is contrary to the path of compassion taught by Christ and the Buddha and other world teachers.

It is a thoughtful communication, but before inviting comment upon it, I think we ought to pick up the threads where we last dropped them. If I recall correctly, we had already begun Chapter 3.

Tom -- Yes, we spent two evenings on it. I have the place marked where we stopped -- toward the bottom of page 24, after the part about rain and sacrifice and the gods nourishing man, and Krishna's statement that all action performed in the right spirit springs from the Supreme.

Marie -- That was a wonderful discussion we had, particularly about the interdependence among all the kingdoms. Someone called it a brotherhood that included the whole hierarchy of life, from the lowest to the highest, and said that every kingdom in a way actually sacrificed a part of itself in order to help the kingdoms above (and below) it to evolve.

Chairman -- Yes, I remember it very well now. Let us see how Krishna develops the thought. Ray, would you like to begin?

Ray -- Krishna strikes fire right off, it seems to me, when he says that he who merely gratifies his passions and personal desires lives in vain because he does not "cause this wheel thus already set in motion to continue revolving." He offers no compromise.

Chairman -- No compromise whatever. Either we put our shoulder to the wheel of cosmic growth, "this wheel already set in motion" by the divine impulse that brought the universe into being, or our lives are without value. Please continue. Ray; I hope you don't mind my butting in!

Ray -- No, I like your thought there, because apparently the only real worth we have, to ourselves or to others, is when we forget ourselves! Kind of a paradox, but I guess that's why Krishna keeps hammering away at non-attachment and selflessness. Anyway, in the next sentence he says that only the man who focuses his attention on the Self within and is "content with that alone, hath no selfish interest in action."

He hath no interest either in that which is done or that which is not done; and there is not in all things which have been created, any object on which he may place dependence. Therefore perform thou that which thou hast to do, at all times unmindful of the event, for the man who doeth that which he hath to do, without attachment to the result, obtaineth the Supreme.

He adds that Janaka and others reached perfection through the performance of "works," implying that we should do likewise, having only the "good of mankind" in view --

for whatever is practiced by the most excellent men, that is also practiced by others. The world follows whatever example they set.

There is nothing "in the three regions of the universe" which it is necessary that Krishna do, nor anything for him to obtain that he has not already obtained; and yet, he says:

I am constantly in action. If I were not indefatigable in action, all men would presently follow my example. If I did not perform actions these creatures would perish; I should be the cause of confusion of castes, and should have slain all these creatures.

Those who don't know better work with the "hope of reward," but Arjuna should act "without motives of interest" in order "to bring the world to duty and benefit mankind."

Hazel -- What Ray has read would seem to hold one answer at least to your correspondent, that the path of selflessness is the one path which will benefit mankind.

Louise -- That may be, but I have sympathy for the lady who wrote the letter because Krishna is always pointing to "reaching perfection" and "obtaining the Supreme" as the main goal. It is so different from the Buddha who renounced nirvana in order to be "a light to the world."

Betty -- I felt a little that way when I first read the Gita. Krishna appeared cold to me, too impersonal, and I thought that if he was a true teacher he should feel more compassion for Arjuna's very human indecision and weakness. But as the months went by and I had a chance to get more into its spirit and also to compare notes with others, I began to realize that Krishna actually shows a quality of compassion which only the very wise have the courage to maintain.

Trudy -- It isn't spelled out in words, but it seems to me the fact that there is a teacher like Krishna is itself an act of compassion. If he is sharing these wonderful truths, how could he be advocating a selfish path?

Dan -- That's what I was thinking. Krishna frankly says that if he didn't remain "constantly in action" the universe would fall into confusion and every creature would die -- well, this to me is the epitome of compassion; especially when he adds that there is really no reason for him to stay on earth, as he has nothing more to gain or to do here. But still, he is "indefatigable in action" just so everything will keep going!

Jack -- Don't the scientists say that if it were possible for them to annihilate a single atom of "matter" they would destroy the universe? That's a remarkable thing -- they can't create "life," but they can't destroy it either. All they can do, with their fusion and fission of particles, is to break up one set of patterns and allow new ones to form. But the scientists aren't doing the creating; they're just producing the environment that will permit the transformation of one combination of "matter" into another. Well, anyway, I was wondering with Dan here, whether Krishna's statement that by remaining "constantly in action" he keeps the worlds in progress isn't the key to the whole of life: to ourselves, to the minerals and plants and stars, and everything. For unless Divinity or God or Brahman sets the whole thing going and by the Divine will, so to speak, keeps it holding on course, I should think everything would fall apart and disintegrate.

Paul -- Like removing the keystone of an arch!

Chairman -- Right on target, all of you. No, we should not take lightly Krishna's statement that were he not "indefatigable in action" -- the word "action" being our old friend karma -- he would be the direct cause of disorder in the cosmic processes and indeed the death of all creatures. The fact that Krishna had nothing more to learn or to gain in the "three regions of the universe" -- by which is meant heaven, earth, and the underworld -- suggests that he had long since graduated from the schoolroom of merely human experience and was entitled to enter higher spheres of growth. But what did he do? Pass on into nirvana and become a jivanmukta or "freed spirit"? Or did he, as Gautama Buddha was to do thousands of years later, renounce the beauty and wonder of complete omniscience in order to maintain his link with mankind, and indeed with the entire hierarchy of living beings that make up the universe?

Krishna tells us in the next chapter when he says to Arjuna:

Both I and thou have passed through many births. . . . Mine are known unto me, but thou knowest not of thine.
Even though myself unborn, of changeless essence, and the lord of all existence, yet in presiding over nature -- which is mine -- I am born but through my own maya, the mystic power of self-ideation, the eternal thought in the eternal mind.
I produce myself among creatures, O son of Bharata, whenever there is a decline in virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of he wicked, and the establishment of righteousness.

Here we have a clear reference to Krishna in his role of Savior or Avatara -- the word is Sanskrit and means "descent," implying the incarnation or "descent" into human imbodiment of a Divine influence. Krishna says that he does not come only once, but periodically, "from age to age," enters the world of men in order to overthrow materialism and restore a knowledge of the ancient truths.

Martha -- May I suggest that anyone in doubt of Krishna's tender concern for mankind and its spiritual well-being has only to read Chapter 10? I hope it will not be amiss, Mr. Chairman, if I read one verse now:

For them do I out of my compassion, standing within their hearts, destroy the darkness which springs from ignorance by the brilliant lamp of spiritual discernment.

Louise -- That is just what the Christ came to do -- "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" to shine a light upon the darkness, as St. John expressed it. I can see it now, that the Gita does have a background of compassionate regard for humanity, though I still think it is difficult to realize this at first because of the stress on self-development.

Frank -- I've been thinking we have to watch that we don't try to fit everything we read in various scriptures into an identic framework of thought. If we have looked into Buddhism, for example, or into the writings of Blavatsky, especially her Voice of the Silence, we will find mention of "two paths" leading to self-knowledge: the one considered "selfish" because the goal is for oneself alone; the other "compassionate" because all knowledge gained is for the benefit of all. If this idea interests us, it is only natural for us to try to find it as fully outlined elsewhere; but I feel we may unconsciously be judging the Gita unfairly simply because of its more subtle treatment of this concept

Chairman -- An important point, Frank, and I'm glad you mentioned it.

Dick -- Isn't it so that we can find both these paths in the Gita? It depends on what we are looking for, I think.

Chairman -- Quite true. Actually, however, the distinction between the "two paths" leading toward complete knowledge of the Self is not new, nor was the Buddha the first to expound it. It is the esoteric core of teaching given by every Savior, Avatara or Christ the world has seen. Nevertheless, its profound import has time and again been overlooked due to the layers of dogma that have repeatedly clouded the pure message. And while it is the touchstone by which to test the validity of any doctrine, we should not be so foolish as to assess a scripture solely by its outer mode of expression. If we do, we may miss the kernel of wisdom we are looking for.

Now, then, let me add another thought here which may help round the picture. As you know, Gautama -- later called buddha or the "enlightened" after he had attained full self-illumination under the Bodhi tree -- lived and taught in India about six centuries before Christ. By this time, the Brahmans, who considered themselves the sole repository of all spiritual knowledge, had become extremely rigid in regard to the interpretation of their ancient scriptures. But along comes Gautama, with his message of deliverance to all, not just to the privileged few. In his simple yet dynamic way, he openly shared with the multitude the very teachings which the Brahmans for centuries had held "secret," within their "closed fist." Not least of which was the assurance that all people, regardless of birth or caste, could attain individual salvation if they would but follow the Four Noble Truths that tell of sorrow's cause and sorrow's ceasing and the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment. One doctrine in particular that appealed to many, and which the Northern or Mahayana School of Buddhism has preserved, was the difference in quality and purpose between those who follow the path of endeavor "for oneself alone, called the pratyeka path, and the grander but far more difficult path of compassion. This is the "deathless" or amrita path, of which Gautama himself was the embodiment and which strives for self-mastery and self-knowledge solely to lay the fruit of such conquest on the altar of humanity's progress.

Dick -- To have stressed this point would not make the Buddha very popular with the Brahmans!

Tom -- I believe many of them did follow him, though. But I was trying to figure when the Gita was written, and whether or not the people had this scripture when Gautama came.

Chairman -- No one knows for certain when the Bhagavad Gita, which as you all know is a small episode of the great Indian epic, the Muhabharata, was actually committed to writing. The earliest date suggested by a few scholars is between 400 - 500 BC, which would place it a century or so after the time of the Buddha. Of course, its content is far older, its traditions and philosophy possibly dating as far back as Krishna himself, who is said to have died something over 5000 years ago. But during the hundreds of years that elapsed before its teachings were recorded, it may well have lost much of its original esoteric power. Yet even as we have it today, it is a scripture of inestimable worth. It has brought inspiration and guidance to millions of Hindus for centuries, and it is evidently doing the same today here in the Western world, as witness the great number of pocket editions being printed and sold on the newsstands.

Ray -- The thought just came that possibly we owe its written form to the Buddha?

Tom -- What do you mean? The Gita is not Buddhist; it is the devotional scripture of those who follow Brahmanism.

Ray -- Yes, I know, but it was mentioned earlier that there were certain "secret" doctrines which the Brahmans had been jealously guarding for generations, perhaps transmitting them only "from mouth to ear," as it were. So when Buddha told the people right out that the way of enlightenment was open to everyone, regardless of whether they were Brahmans or Sudras or even outcastes, this may have given the Brahmans the push to record more of their oral traditions. So maybe this is how the Gita was finally written down.

Chairman -- You may have hit on something, Ray, or at least a possibility; but frankly we don't know. So please, I hope none of you will "run away with the pudding string," as we say in Pennsylvania, and state categorically that "this is how it happened."

Well, I see we have digressed as usual. Yes, Betty?

Betty -- One difficulty is that Krishna seems to take so many different forms. In the first chapter, he is simply Arjuna's friend, who becomes his charioteer and guide; but as soon as we interpret the poem symbolically, it is not easy to decide whether Krishna is Arjuna's higher self, a world teacher, or even a God!

Chairman -- That is true, but it is not really so difficult if we remember there is no separation where Divinity is. Think of Krishna always as an expression of the Divine Intelligence -- commensurate in his cosmic aspect with Brahman or the Supreme Spirit; and in his human form as one with the Divine Self or atman of Arjuna and, as such, he is the guide and friend of all mankind. Again, when he speaks of himself as "indefatigable in action," fulfilling his dharma or duty that the universe and all its hosts of creatures might grow and evolve, we can liken Krishna to a cosmic hierarch, bearing upon his mighty shoulders, as an Atlas, the compassionate burden of the world's karma. No, if we are open to it, we will find the Gita is the embodiment of the highest compassion.

We had better get on with the reading now. Note how quickly Krishna resumes his human role, as a tender and thoughtful counselor, warning Arjuna against creating "confusion in the understandings" of those who know little and therefore lean to "outward works"; telling him that if he will quietly set the example in his own life, others will follow, and in this way the "wheel thus already set in motion" will continue revolving. Wilbur, would you carry on from there, please?

Wilber -- Krishna now brings in the three qualities or gunas by which all actions are brought into manifestation, explaining that those who are deluded say "I am the actor," because they do not know that the Self within, the atman, being distinct and apart from these qualities, is unaffected by them. But again he carefully reminds Arjuna not to "unsettle those whose discrimination is weak and knowledge incomplete," nor encourage them to relax from their duty.

Throwing every deed on me, and with thy meditation fixed upon the Higher Self, resolve to fight, without expectation, devoid of egotism and free from anguish.

Elmer -- Pardon me, but I don't understand what is meant by the "qualities." I suppose you may have discussed them in the past when I wasn't here, but if you wouldn't mind I would very much appreciate a brief explanation.

Chairman -- That's right, Elmer, we did go into them some time ago, but it is an important theme, and as it comes up several times in later chapters it is well to review them. Simply stated, the three qualities, called in Sanskrit the gunas, are said to be universally present, surrounding and interpenetrating our globe as well as human consciousness. The highest is sattva, with the characteristics of truth, light, wisdom, and serenity; the middle quality is rajas, or desire, the driving passion that impels to action, good and bad; while the lowest is tamas, or heaviness, inertia, and darkness.

The key to understanding their relation to ourselves lies in the fact that the qualities or gunas spring from what the Gita calls prakriti or the "matter" side of nature, whereas the Self within, referred to as purusha or the "Divine Man," is rooted in Spirit which, being divine at heart, is "distinct from the qualities" and hence unaffected because apart from their influence. That is why Krishna urges Arjuna to think and act without selfish or personal motive and to center his sole interest on the Self or atman within. By persisting in this course, he tells him, he will gradually free himself from the incessant bombardment of the "impulses to action" that arise from these qualities and which, even in their higher ranges, tend to bind rather than free the soul.

I don't know if this helps at all, as it is hard to condense so vast a subject in a few words.

Elmer -- That helps certainly, though I don't fully grasp it, I'm sure.

Chairman -- Don't ever hesitate to interrupt, any of you, as our purpose here isn't merely to "get through" the Gita, but rather to distill something of its spirit as we go. All right, Wilbur.

Wilbur -- The paragraph ends with a passage which to my feeling is a little difficult to understand at first reading, but after a while it comes to be a wonderful guide in meeting life with calmness:

It is better to do one's own duty, even though it be devoid of excellence, than to perform another's duty well. It is better to perish in the performance of one's own duty; the duty of another is full of danger.

Jane -- That's a question which Elmer and I have talked about often, but I cannot say I understand it. How can one tell where "one's own duty" ends and another's begins? The more I have tried to find this out, the more complicated everything seems to become.

Chairman -- No one can answer that for another, as the whole purpose of life is to develop spiritual self-reliance, and we will never acquire this by looking to others. The more sincere our aspiration and the greater our knowledge, the narrower does the way become. It is truly a razor's edge of decision that faces every aspirant to self-mastery. On the one hand, he finds the warning: "There is danger in the duty of another; better to die doing one's own duty, however poor it may seem, than to perform another's with excellence." And on the other hand, the equally challenging statement: "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin."

How then can we discriminate between a mere sentimental gesture of assistance, which may in the end make things harder for others, and that compassionate act which springs spontaneously from within, with no thought of self or motive of gain? If a person is floundering in quicksand, in your sympathy for his plight do you heedlessly jump in with him, with the likelihood that both of you will go down under? Or in your wisdom do you show the greater compassion by staying on firm ground, and from where you are throwing him one end of a rope or large branch so that with your help he can pull himself to safety?

Obviously time and patience and the endeavor of lifetimes are required to attain that high quality of discrimination of which Krishna speaks. Nevertheless, even though the goal is far distant, if we can keep in mind that every human being, however unconsciously to himself, is on the same path toward enlightenment that we are, this will provide us with a solid basis upon which to meet and fulfill our natural karmic responsibilities to others as well as to ourselves.

No one can cross the threshold of truth for another -- that is axiomatic, for each must take every step of the way himself. Therefore when we are confronted with a situation or problem in the affairs or experience of another in which help seems advisable, all we can and should do is to try to help him to help himself. This may be doing nothing; or it may mean giving active assistance. Whatever is called for, this one thought may serve as a guide: if we make a decision for another that he himself should make, we have by so much robbed him of the strength and wisdom that would be acquired had he met and fulfilled the particular karma facing him. Not only will we have hindered his spiritual progress, but we will have added a demerit to our own record.

Martha -- I am wondering whether the phrase "one's own duty" isn't the word swadharma -- the term used by Krishna so effectively in the second chapter to challenge Arjuna to fulfill his "natural duty" with honor and "arise and fight." If it is, it opens up a vast field of thought.

Chairman -- You are correct; the word is swadharma, meaning "one's own duty," sometimes given as one's "natural duty." Unfortunately it is much too late to go into this any further tonight. So let us close by remembering that the Gita's first word is Dharma-kshetra -- 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.

We begin to see perhaps why the theme of duty recurs in every chapter and almost on every page. It is dharma or the "duty" or inner "law" of our being that provides the sole means whereby the immortal spark of Divinity can fulfill its progressive responsibility within each human being and consequently within the whole of humankind. It is the immortal linkage between action and reaction and cause and effect. In short, it is the soul's dharma that lays before us our individual pattern of karma so that we might learn by our errors and indeed by all our former thoughts and actions, good or bad. In this way we can intelligently fulfill the high calling of the Self or Atman within, that divine monadic essence that is one with the Supreme and which resides at the core of all.

Chapter 10