The Lamp of Spiritual Discernment

By Ingrid Van Mater
A mighty spirit moves through the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita. It has the seductive influence of beauty; yet, like strength, it fills one as with the sound of armies assembling or the roar of great waters. Appealing alike to the warrior and the philosopher, it shows to the one the righteousness of lawful action, and to the other the calmness which results to him who has reached inaction through action. -- William Q. Judge, Bhagavad-Gita/Essays on the Gita, Theosophical University Press, p. 137

The Bhagavad-Gita is a mandate for action, for activity of the inner spiritual faculties. Its strength and power derive from its challenge to each of us to show initiative and discernment in pursuing the spiritual path. Throughout this work Arjuna seeks the help of Krishna, his inner god or higher self, who guides him through the conflict between what he would like personally and what his real duty is as an aspiring human being and member of the warrior caste. Judge remarks that in the process we learn "from Krishna what is the duty of man in his warfare with all the forces and tendencies of his nature" (p. 119). Arjuna, the warrior, represents each of us, and his conflicts are those of any one of us battling with the various elements within to try to understand our real Self.

Krishna was a divine incarnation who came to earth at a significant time when humanity had reached a very low point. He is said to have lived about five thousand years ago and, according to Hindu scriptures, his death marked the beginning of kali-yuga, our present Dark Age. Compassionate beings dedicated to helping humanity, such as Krishna and Jesus, have at periodic intervals made the sacrifice necessary to restore universal wisdom to the world. There is great comfort in the thought that there have always been wise ones overseeing human endeavors on our journey of self-discovery through countless lifetimes on earth. The genuineness of such teachers can be judged by their message: impersonal love for all, charity, forgiveness, unselfishness, self-sacrifice, the highest morals and ethics, and emphasis on the necessity for individual responsibility.

Like Jesus, Krishna uses the first-person pronoun "I" to express the divinity he represents, this "I" referring not to the personality, but to the Krishna- or Christos-spirit within. Every religion points in some way to the invisible path leading to the awakening of the qualities of love, compassion, and discrimination. As Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," so Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita states, "I am the life, and the power of concentration in those whose minds are on the spirit" (7:9, pp. 41-2). Krishna also points to the universal quality of this message, asserting that "even those also who worship other gods with a firm faith in doing so, involuntarily worship me, too, O son of Kunti, albeit in ignorance. . . . I am the same to all creatures" (9:23, 29; pp. 51-2).

Emphasizing the compassion which moves all great ones, Krishna says: "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" (10:11, p. 55). Often in the Christian faith God is regarded as a distant being, yet there are many passages in the Bible that affirm that God is immanent as well as transcendent. Divinity is indeed the motivating energy behind all life, and manifests in human beings as the higher self, sometimes called the guardian angel. It is ever protecting and watching over us, and is much closer to us than we realize. Krishna describes it in this way: "I am the goal, the Comforter, the Lord, the Witness, the resting-place, the asylum, and the Friend" (9:18, p. 51).

The Bhagavad-Gita centers on an actual battlefield of historical record, presented allegorically in this context. Arjuna realizes that it is his duty as a warrior to fight, but looks to those forming the opposing armies lined up on both sides. Confronted with the prospect of battling friends and family, Arjuna trembles, his bow slips from his hand, and he says to Krishna: "I shall not fight" (2:9, p. 8). The whole of Chapter 2 is Krishna's response to Arjuna's quest for guidance. He has reached a point where he has earned the right to take a step forward, but must still awaken to his obligation. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan explains in his rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita that as the light begins to shine in any soul, it provokes the darkness to resist it. Arjuna faces outer and inner difficulties, such as the resistance of relatives and friends, and his own doubts and fears, passions and desires -- all must be laid on the altar and understood in a broader context.

Jesus presents a similar conflict:

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. -- Matthew 10:35-7

Here we realize that in reaching for the real path we have to make sacrifices, not giving up rightful responsibilities and obligations, but rather not clinging to personal desires. The relatives here are symbolic of personal attributes and attachments that must be released in order that the genuine aspect of us can come through. There must also be recognition of our duality and inevitable conflicts.

The question of readiness to accept challenges in order to attain the path is clarified further in Matthew (10:34). Jesus says: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" -- and that sword is the spiritual will, which must be activated along with the practice of the various virtues.

The main theme in the Bhagavad-Gita centers around challenging instructions that help Arjuna to see his genuine duty as warrior and truth seeker. While Krishna gives guidance, he also stresses the need for each one to find his own pathway. He indicates certain pitfalls along the way, illusions, and weaknesses stemming from lack of inner equilibrium, strength, and readiness.

One of the prime thoughts in the Gita concerns an in-depth explanation of duty: that there is both a universal duty and a personal duty that belong to each one, different for each individual. Krishna reveals that the law of karma operates in such a way that we must make our own choices, since it is our own duty or self-duty (svadharma) which no one else can fulfill. He points out to Arjuna that everything is revolving on the wheel of life, so that even if Arjuna does not determine his course now, by karma and by his natural destiny he will sooner or later be inwardly compelled to make the choice. This is the evolutionary challenge for each of us, because of our ability to self-direct our own destiny.

In the last chapter, Krishna asks Arjuna: "Hast thou heard all this, O son of Pritha, with mind one-pointed? Has the delusion of thought which arose from ignorance been removed, O Dhananjaya?" And Arjuna replies, "By thy divine power, O thou who fallest not, my delusion is destroyed, I am collected once more; I am free from doubt, firm, and will act according to thy bidding" (18:12-13, pp. 102-3). Thus Arjuna, through his own efforts and trials, ultimately makes the bigger choice. We learn through Arjuna's experiences that it is possible to live in the world and still follow the inner path that leads to greater understanding. This small volume is at once practical and profound. There is no need to isolate ourselves, which is one of the strong messages of this scripture. Radhakrishnan sums up the idea of carrying on the spiritual life while being part of the world:

Arjuna could have overcome his feeling of helplessness and anxiety by submitting completely to the social authority. But that would be to arrest his growth. Any sense of satisfaction and security derived by submission to external authority is bought at the price of the integrity of the self. . . . Arjuna disentangles himself from the social context, stands alone and faces the perilous and overpowering aspects of the world. . . . By developing our inner spiritual nature, we gain a new kind of relatedness to the world and grow into the freedom, where the integrity of the self is not compromised. We then become aware of ourselves as active creative individuals, living, not by the discipline of external authority but by the inward rule of free devotion to truth. -- The Bhagavadgita, pp. 44-5

In applying these ideas, W. Q. Judge suggests that we assume the attitude of doing every act -- whether trifling or important -- simply because it is before us to do, viewing ourselves as instruments merely carrying out the will of that Deity which is ourself. It is an encouraging thought that even the smallest effort in the right direction counts. We must remember, whatever our struggle, that any positive move will bring a corresponding result in the end, no matter how long it takes.

Especially these days, when our life and consciousness tend to be so readily fractured, it is helpful to realize that we can turn to universal truth which provides an inner stability through the trials we face. Eventually we will triumph over some of the negative elements that harass all of us time and again. The wisdom required is within each of us. The ever present challenge is to become aware of it, and then draw on the courage, patience, and understanding to follow it.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1997/January 1998. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press.)

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