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.