by Swami Krishnananda
The Gita is a system of meditation. It is not a story that is being told to us of what might have happened centuries back. It is a concentrated spiritual guide which takes us from the very level in which we find ourselves at any given moment of time, and enables us to rise from that level to the next higher level, from the next higher level to a further higher level, and so on in a graduated manner. There is no double promotion or sudden jumps in the teachings of the Bhagavadgita.
In a way, we may say that the Bhagavadgita starts with the worst of conditions that we can think of. What can be worse than a battle? We know that the Gita was not taught in a temple or in a church or a monastery, which would have been the proper place for a teaching on Eternity. Is a battlefield the proper place for a teaching on Timeless Existence? The reason the Gita was taught on a battlefield is that a life that is spiritual is not merely an idealism of human aspiration, a possibility of future attainment, but a realism of the present moment. There is no use having ideas of a possible attainment in the future without appreciating its connection with the condition existing today. As it is said, we cannot jump out of our own skin. We are planted on the earth so firmly. Our feet are so sunk in the mire of this physical existence that whatever be the power with which the mind soars into the empyrean of the transcendent, we will not be allowed to forget that our feet are in clay. That is the reason why the situation that can be considered as most abominable has been taken as the venue for the teaching of that which is the best of all teachings. It is as if from hell we are rising to the highest heaven.
The conflicts of human society are presented in the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita; and the otherwise very adventurous and enthusiastic spiritual seeker is likely to suddenly find himself or herself in a predicament which would be ruled by the emotions and sentiment rather than the reason. Arjuna asked Sri Krishna: “Please place my chariot between the two armies so that I may have a purview of what I am facing.” This Sri Krishna could have done and kept quiet; but he would not keep quiet. He uttered a few words that stirred the emotions of Arjuna: “Look at the Kurus arrayed in front of you!” At the proper moment if I utter one word, it will go so deep into you that you will never forget it. At a proper time I should say that proper word, like pressing a button at the proper moment. The name Kuru refers to the ancestral family from where the Kauravas and the Pandavas both descended. To say, “Look at the Kurus” is to say, “Look at the field which is filled with your own kinsmen, as you have all descended from the Kurus.” The blood of the Kurus flowed through the veins of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It was a family feud, and the name Kuru stimulated sentiments of an emotional concord towards the kinsmen.
Even if we dislike one of our relatives for some reason, we cannot forget that person is related to us. The idea that “he is a relative and known to me and very much intimate with me” will come up one day or the other, in spite of other factors that may make us dislike that person. This is because blood relations are so very intense in a biological sense. A mother’s love for the child is due to the fact that her own biological stuff is flowing through the child – and she loves herself, as it were, in her love of the child. In a similar manner is the love of relations.
Arjuna hated the Kauravas to such an extent that he did not want them to live. And then he thought, “But they are my kinsmen. These are my nephews, these are my brethren, these are my Gurus, these are my teachers, this is the set of people who have brought me up” – like Bhishma, for instance, on whose lap Arjuna sat as a little baby, and Drona who was the master archer and also the Guru of the Pandavas. It was because of the learning that they received from Drona that they were able to stand in the battlefield. Ingratitude is supposed to be the worst of sins. Arjuna felt, “Am I ungrateful to these great warriors who are my own relatives, first of all, and are most revered elders? There is nothing worse than ingratitude.” The name Kurus simulated a biological sentiment of affection in Arjuna rather than the rational military spirit with which he wanted to enter the field.
I often feel that the first chapter is the most important chapter in the Gita, while many people skip it and start with the second chapter because they think it is only an introduction. In my book entitled The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita, six chapters are devoted to explaining the first chapter. No one else has written so much on the first chapter. A book reviewer in Bhavan’s Journal said it is the best commentary he has ever read. Anyway, the point is that to understand where we stand now is more important than to focus on what we would expect to happen afterwards. Forgetting the present predicament is to become feeble in our feet when we try to ascend further and further; and every step that we take in spiritual life should be a firm step. It does not matter if we take only one step, but it should be a firm step. Suppose we hurriedly take steps – there is the possibility that afterwards we may have to retrace our steps. That should not be done. Even if years are needed to take these steps, it does not matter if even the little that we have achieved is a firm and solid achievement.
When the spiritual seeker passes some years of self-abnegation, a determined spirit arises: “I have risen above all the desires of the world. I have enough of all things. I am now here to fight the battle of life, to transcend the world, to face it, to overcome it, and then go beyond it.” The Pandavas facing the Kauravas is like a spiritual seeker facing the whole world. The objective sentiments are represented by the Kauravas, and the subjective sentiments are represented by the Pandavas. It is difficult for the subject to face the object entirely on the assumption that it is an alien element that is outside, because the world is not an alien element. The blood of the subject flows through the very fibre of the objective world. The individual is a content of the world and, therefore, all the realities of the world will also be seen in the realities of the physical personality. There is nothing in us which is not in the outside world. We will realise later on that when we fight this battle of life and want to overcome the temptations and the errors of perception in the world, we are actually heading towards a battle against our own self. We will discover that the forces that we have to face and overcome in the form of an assumed externality of the world are actually in us, because all the faces of reality, positive and negative, that one tries to visualise in the outside world are in a miniature form in our personality.
The three gunas of prakriti – sattva, rajas and tamas – constitute everything in the world, and they also constitute our physical personality. Even our minds are conditioned by these three gunas only. Therefore, any kind of envisagement by the subjective consciousness in respect of the outside world would have to take into consideration the fact that the envisager is constituted of the very same elements that constitute the objective world, in the same way as the blood that was in the Pandavas was also in the Kauravas. And so we feel a sense of fright, a sense of diffidence.
Spiritual seekers who are honest in their pursuit will begin to feel a sense of internal fear and tremor after years of spiritual practice, due to various questions that will arise which did not arise earlier because they had a wrong notion that the things they have to fight against are totally outside. The experience in spiritual meditation, living with Gurus, doing austerities in ashrams, etc., will slowly bring out the facts of the inner components of nature, and after years of living a monastic life or a spiritual life under a Guru, a fright of an unknown nature will take possession of the individual.
Questions arose in the mind of Arjuna: “Is it proper to stand against the very same constituents that are also the constituents of my personality? That is to say, can I fight against my own relatives? Is it ethically sanctioned?” In a family, if one member attacks another member, is it a permissible, ethical attribute? The Kuru family was large enough to include all the Kauravas and all the Pandavas. Now in this attitude of military onslaught, it appears as if a large family is fighting against itself, like a house divided against itself. Is this ethically permissible and of any practical utility at all? It looks like patricide, homicide, and any kind of ‘cide’, which is condemned in ethical courts.
Secondly, the spiritual seeker feels a doubt of another kind: “Am I deserting the world in my enthusiasm for God?” Advanced spiritual seekers will have such questions. “Have I not a duty towards people who are suffering? Am I to fly to God individually, allowing my own brethren, kinsmen and humanity to wallow in the mire of ignorance? Is it not my duty to be of some assistance to these sufferers?” A little bit of spiritual enlightenment is like a half-baked pot which breaks when water is poured into it. It breaks the very determination of the spiritual seeker to reach God, and he would like to become a saviour of the world, a worker for the welfare of mankind. He goes to foreign countries, establishes centres, has thousands of devotees, and feels a satisfaction that his mission is fulfilled. This is an extension of the logic of Arjuna’s feeling that the world is too much of a reality to be bypassed so easily with the feeling that it can be attacked, subjugated and destroyed, because of the fact that it has a relation of kinship with oneself. “They are me and, therefore, I have a duty towards them; and my duty is not to oppose them, but to feel for them.” This is one question.
Another question arises in the spiritual seeker is: “I have practised meditation for twenty years and have lived in an ashram for forty years. What is it that I have achieved, finally?” There will be a despondency of spirit. “If forty years have not brought anything, what is the guarantee that another twenty years will bring something? Perhaps there is some error.” A very, very intelligent friend of mine who is living in a nearby ashram – who is practically the founder of that ashram, a veteran who worked day and night for establishing that ashram – came to me one day, twenty years after the hard work that he did in establishing that ashram. I was going for a walk and by chance he was walking behind me. He asked, “Are we also finding time to read the commentary on the Gita by Jnaneshwara – the chapter on meditation? Swamiji, do we really believe in these things?” He asked me, “Do we really believe in these things?” His mind had gone off a little bit, somehow or other. His enthusiasm for social welfare and for establishing a centre of Hindu revivalism possessed him to such an extent that his nerves broke down, he had heart attack, and doubts arose in his mind regarding the existence of God Himself; and he is now in a broken condition.
It is not the problem of a beginner in spirituality. It is the problem of an advanced person in spirituality. The world is not afraid of a beginner; it knows that he is a fly, so it does not care. An elephant does not care about a fly sitting on it, but if a lion comes in front of it, it will be conscious of the lion. Similiarly, the world will not care to recognise even ten or fifteen years of japa, meditation, etc., because these japas are not going to touch even the skin or the fringe of the reality of life. But if we are determined, the world begins to feel that we actually mean to encounter it. Then it will show its teeth and claws and will stir up the emotions which had been buried inside, and the renunciation that we resorted to will irrationally sink down into the sentiments of unfulfilled subconscious potentialities, and petty desires will manifest themselves. A person may be a well-to-do individual, coming from a rich family, and he may have renounced that for the sake of the pursuit of God. But after thirty or forty years of meditation he may feel so starved and his appetite will increase so much that he will eat much more than he had eaten when he was with his family; and petty desires will arise for things like a wristwatch or a radio. He had been a well-to-do man, the son of a big landlord, but that does not matter, because individual sentiments manifest themselves only when the social sentiments are suppressed.
When we are well placed in the midst of society and everybody respects us, we cannot know what kind of persons we are. The society should reject us or we should reject society, either one or the other, and then we will stand by ourselves. At that time, what we are in our basic subconscious will surface, and we will be neither rich nor poor; we will be just sentimental individuals like anybody else. Then the doubts arise: “This is not for me.” “I have made a mistake in choosing the Guru. I will have to go to another Guru.” “My meditations must have been wrongly manoeuvred.” “What happens to me? When I die, I lose all things. This world is lost for me.” “I have a father and a mother who love me.” The little affection of those parents and relatives will sting like a scorpion when everything is cut off and there is nothing for us to stand upon. And, as I mentioned, silly desires, most irrational instincts, will take possession of the individual when he totally cuts himself off from society and becomes an itinerant monk or an austere individual, starving his sentiments. “What is the guarantee that I will attain God in this birth? It may be a great hope, but from what has happened to me over the last fifty years, I realise that I have achieved nothing. I have not taken even one step in the direction of God-realisation.”
The sentiments, the inner subconscious forces, take possession of the individual, and finding the weak point of the individual sentiment, they ambush like guerrillas and take the opportunity to attack him, and the advanced spiritual seeker becomes this petty individual who is practically helpless: “God has not come; the world has gone.” At a particular time we will either feel that the world has left us or that we have left the world, but God has not come. That is the situation in which we find ourselves – neither this nor that, in a vacuum – and it is at that time that we can develop a neurosis or have a breakdown, or develop a peptic ulcer or peculiar illnesses where the brain malfunctions and the mind becomes deranged. I have seen one swami who kept shaking his head. He said, “I have done meditation on the great truth of the presence of consciousness everywhere. I began to see consciousness in all things. This made me very happy. I went on concentrating on the presence of consciousness in everything. Suddenly one day I got a bolt from the blue, as it were, and now I am feeling like this. Is there any remedy that you can think of?” I gave him some remedy which helped him, satisfied him.
Arjuna should be well prepared for all the psychological eventualities that he may have to face, rather than merely being prepared for the physical eventualities. To fight with the mind is more difficult than to fight with people, and it is the mind that sees values in things and considers people as friends or enemies, etc. Who tells us that so-and-so is a friend and so-and-so is an enemy? It is the mind. Hence, it is a peculiar psychological reaction from ourselves that is the determining factor in defining our envisagement of values. Otherwise, we cannot know who is a friend and who is an enemy, because a relationship of this kind, positive or negative, is a counteracting medium of the mind itself which has some mould into which these values are cast; and if the susceptibility to react in terms of affection and hatred were not to be in our minds, we would not experience affection and hatred. There is some weakness in the mind which is submerged in ordinary social life, because when we are in a good society we don’t always think in terms of affection and hatred, etc. Everything looks fine and we are all well off. But when we are totally alone, the possibilities of the otherwise-ignored aspects of the mind will come up and tell us that we have totally ignored them, we have not paid our debts to them; the tax has not been paid and, therefore, we will not be able to move further. Arjuna asked: “Even if I face these people, and even if I am the best of spiritual seekers, what is the guarantee that I will succeed? I may conquer the world – or the world may conquer me. I may perish in this attempt.” Arjuna himself put this question: “If somebody perishes in the middle, having attained nothing, what will be his fate?” Lord Krishna answers it in some other chapter.
Do we find ourselves in a helpless condition spiritually? We will not be able to answer this question unless we live an individual life. We should not be in society. When I say we should not be in society, I do not mean that we should sit under a tree or go into the jungle, etc. The mind should be dissociated from any kind of social contact. A person may be sitting next to us, but we may not be socially connected with him or even be aware that he is there. It is like a railway station. We are travelling in a coach on the train. Many people are sitting in the same coach. Are we connected with any one of them? It is a society, no doubt. We are sitting in the midst of a large number of people, which is nothing but human society, but we are not even aware of the existence of these people and we don’t care what kind of people they are. It is total detachment of our minds, for reasons which are obvious. So we can be in the midst of thousands of people and yet be unconcerned with them. Similarly, the detachment that is required socially is not actually a physical running away from Rameswaram to the Himalayas. That is not of any utility, finally, because it is the mind that works havoc, and not the body.
“Will I succeed? If I perish, what happens?” This is Arjuna’s question. Secondly, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, etc., are not ordinary people. They are ten times stronger than Arjuna, and Arjuna knows that. Nobody can face these people.
Before the commencement of the war (this is a little digression from the main point) when all were arrayed on the battlefield, wearing their armour, with bows and arrows in their hands and swords drawn – everything was war-hot and nobody knew what would happen the next moment – Yudhishthira put down his weapons, removed his shoes, put on a single cloth, a dhoti, and in the thick of the array went forward. Nobody understood what was happening to this crazy man; he was walking into the midst of his enemies, who had drawn their swords. Arjuna said, “What has happened to my brother? Has he gone crazy?” Duryodhana and others said, “Coward! Coward! The coward is coming. He is afraid. By seeing us he is afraid. He is coming to sue for peace.” Krishna said, “I am aware of what it is. He is neither a coward, nor he has made any mistake. He is following a great tradition of paying obeisance to elders.” We have to pay obeisance to our elders, which is one of the great dharmas of India. He went and prostrated himself before Bhishma. “Bless me for success,” said Yudhishthira. “Not as long as I am alive,” Bhishma replied. “Then what?” “Not as long as I am alive.” “When I shall have success? How will I defeat you?” “This matter we shall discuss later on.” Yudhishthira then went to Drona and prostrated himself before him. “Please bless me for success.” Drona replied, “Nothing doing, as long as I am in the field.” Yudhishthira then went to Kripacharya, who said, “No success for you as long as I am here.”
The world will tell us, “I am not going to leave you like that, so easily.” It catches hold of us, with all our sentiments and desires and longings and social relationships. The gold and silver, and the milk and honey of this world are not easy to abandon. There is a joy in being an important person in the world. There is a satisfaction in being a king, an emperor or a ruler of a country. There is a satisfaction in being a very wealthy person, a millionaire rolling in gold. Can we say these are not satisfactions? And if this temptation is thrown at us – suppose we are offered a gold throne – what will we say, my dear spiritual seeker? We will hesitate. It is said that Satan showed a large field of gold and silver to Christ. “Take this for yourself. Convert stone into bread, etc. You are a master. You have attained great siddhis. Now what further meditation? Stop it. Do some good work for people who are suffering.” This was told to Buddha also, in a different way, and will be told to every one of us.
Arjuna was an epic representation of the internal chaos that one may have to face in the beginning of spiritual life. I am describing the initial stages of spiritual life, not the advanced conditions where we are receiving something positively: “Great confusion – I have lost everything. I have lost my father and mother. I have no friends here, and nobody talks to me. I am sick. I have achieved nothing. I have no guidance, no teachings. I will go crazy.” A spiritual seeker may feel like that, and run about here and there. Sometimes, to save themselves from going mad, they go on travelling from place to place. That is also a way. If we are very angry, and take a long walk, our anger comes down. But, finally, these tactics will not take us anywhere. The reason is that we have not properly founded ourselves on the correct appreciation of values. Whether to renounce the world or not renounce the world – who told us what is to be done? Has anybody told us that it is necessary to renounce the world? Something has been told to us by our elders. Something is told in some scripture. Is it because of the statement of some book that we are trying to kick the world out? Or have we got any actual reason for it? Is there a rational ground for our feeling that the world has to be renounced? I think very few people will give an answer to this question: What is the rational ground for our renouncing the world? Is it because we want God? We will find that this is a very horrible question, and we will not have a rational ground. Let the scriptures say that, Gurus say that, the Bible says that, the Gita says that; nobody will help us here. When we are drowning, no Gita will come to our rescue. Nobody will come. Our own conscience will come. Thus, Arjuna’s difficulty is a spiritual difficulty; it is a spiritual crisis in which he found himself. And in an epic manner, Vyasa describes this chaos of the spiritual seeker who was otherwise very adventurous and who went forward to face the battle of life, but who immediately became diffident and threw down his weapons. “No japa, no meditation, no book-reading – all this finished. I am unable to do anything,” Arjuna said.
In this condition, our only resort is the Guru. Fortunately, Arjuna had a good Guru; and, fortunately, he had the sense of feeling that it was necessary to surrender himself; and, fortunately, he knew that his egoism was not going to work any longer. Had his self-confidence continued and had he stuck to the wrong arguments that he put forth in the First Chapter, nothing would have come out of it. However, some sattvic karma rose up and he felt that it was necessary for him to know what was to be done: “In this chaotic condition of my mind, what is my duty? I surrender myself to you, the great Master. Please tell me.”
The answer of Bhagavan Sri Krishna is that we understand nothing. Without proper understanding of the structure of life and our relationship to people or things in general, we draw conclusions. This is a very sorry state. How can we draw conclusions without proper premises? If we draw a conclusion based on a wrong premise, the conclusion is also wrong. Therefore, all that we have been told up to this time is without any foundation, because we do not know either ourselves or the world. What is the meaning of knowing oneself and the world? These questions will be answered gradually in the Second and the Third Chapters. The second chapter will tell us what we are. The third chapter will tell us what the world is.