by Swami Krishnananda
(Spoken on Gita Jayanti in 1973)
The culture of mankind may be said to have reached its zenith in the thoughts of the Upanishads, wherein we have an exposition of the quintessential essence of all values that humanity has been seeking through the passage of history. In this groundwork of human culture, we have the perennial inspiration of the soul of man, the cry of the deepest in the human individual, the raptures of what may be regarded as the most valuable part of human nature. Such is the meaning hidden behind the gospel of the Upanishads, which soar into the empyrean of the superhuman and the meta-empirical, rising to levels of such ecstatic heights almost inaccessible to the faculties available to the human individual, making us giddy with the heights that they have reached. It is practically impossible for the modern man especially even to think of their significance except that they are wonderful spiritual messages given to us. While the human mind is always able to very quickly misunderstand things, it is not so easily able to understand things in their proper perspective and context. It is very easy for me to misunderstand you, but it is not so easy to understand you. This is human nature in its simple openness and placid empiricality. To commit a mistake is easier than to pursue the course of truth.
The glorious teachings of the Upanishads contain truth in their simple nakedness, unclothed with vestures of human liking or sentiment. This is precisely the reason why they could not easily become a guiding directive of the practical life of man in the workaday world.
In the Bhagavadgita we are supposed to be given a practical turn to the supreme and ideal loftiness which the spirit of the Upanishads embodies. You will remember that towards the end of each chapter of the Gita is the colophon: iti shrimadbhagavadgitasu upanishatsu. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita are like brothers or sisters born of the same parents – the Vedas, the Srutis and the Smritis – which contain within themselves the wisdom of man in its theoretical as well as its practical aspects.
We have in our own sciences such as mathematics or physics the theory and the practice, the theorem and its corollary, and so on. In one sense at least, though not in every sense, we may say the Upanishads lay down the fundamental theory of the cosmos on which we have to work out the practical application of the doctrine in our day-to-day life. This application of the theoretical dictum or the fundamental principles of the Upanishads is in the gospel of the Bhagavadgita. The Upanishads tell us how to think, and the Bhagavadgita tells us how to act. We always think before we act; but how are we to think? The direction of our thoughts is provided by the Upanishadic gospel but the direction of our action is given in the Bhagavadgita. So we have in the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita a complete science of life.
And today, as we are here to humbly and yet solemnly observe the sacred occasion of the delivery of the Bhagavadgita many thousands of years ago, we may very well confine ourselves to what the Bhagavadgita seems to expect of us in our life – no doubt, on the basis of the wisdom of the Upanishads.
The Bhagavadgita is the science of mankind’s culture and activity, to put it simply and precisely. The Bhagavadgita is not a religious gospel of the Hindus. It is not a scripture in the sense of any sectarian doctrine. It does not teach religion in the popular sense of the term. It does not teach any type of ethics or morals in the common understanding of the meaning of the term ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’. The Bhagavadgita purports to expound human nature in its various aspects. It is not necessarily the Hindu nature or the Christian nature or the Buddhist nature; it is human nature. The problem of Arjuna was a human problem. It was not a Hindu problem or an Eastern problem particularly. It was a problem of the psychology of the human individual, and psychology is the same everywhere, wherever man or woman is. So in this sense, we may say that the Gita is a universal gospel. It is meant for me, and it is meant for you, and for all alike. It has no distinction of sex, colour, caste, creed, state, language or hemisphere. It also does not belong to a particular time in history. It is not a historical document that is given to us. It is a spiritual message. Inasmuch as the spirit has no time and space, this message of the Gita also may be said to be timelessly and spacelessly valid, which means to say that it is going to be a directive in our life at all times – past, present and future.
In the life of Bhagavan Sri Krishna we have a pictorial representation of what the Bhagavadgita ideal of life should be, ought to be. We have in the glorious life of Bhagavan Sri Krishna a representation of the doctrines of the Bhagavadgita in practical life. The understanding of the nature of life is a presupposition of understanding the meaning of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita. It is very difficult to make out what is actually the sense that the Gita ultimately conveys to man, on account of which hundreds of commentaries on it have cropped up like mushrooms – not one giving the entire meaning of it, and not any one of the commentaries being capable of being regarded as redundant. Every commentary gives an aspect of the truth of it, but not the whole of it. The Bhagavadgita is such a totality of approach that even Bhagavan Sri Krishna declined to tell it a second time when Arjuna requested him to speak it once again after the war was over. That comprehensive approach cannot be summoned into consciousness constantly in human life. Very rarely do we rise to such heights of human understanding. For Sri Krishna himself to say that he could not speak it a second time would give us an idea as to the meaning hidden behind the whole gospel.
We may say it is God speaking to man. When God speaks to man, He speaks from every corner of the world. He does not speak only from the front or from behind or from any particular direction, because the existence of God is not a local, objective station. The presence of God is not like the presence of an object. It is not here or there or somewhere. It is everywhere. And therefore, the message of God should come from every direction. When it comes from every direction, it touches every aspect of life. It does not merely touch every aspect of life, but solves every question and every problem. Thus we are told that the Bhagavadgita is sarva shastra mayi, which means to say the essence of every teaching is in the Upanishad and the Bhagavadgita. Whatever question may arise in one’s mind, that question can be answered in one way or the other in a word, in a phrase or a sloka of the Bhagavadgita. There is no mental trouble or psychological complex which is not touched in the Bhagavadgita, and there is no remedy for the psychological ills of man which cannot be unearthed from some place in the Gita gospel.
Thus, as the teaching of the Bhagavadgita is of universal significance, to study it is to study man himself, to study life. If we can chant with the poet who said the proper study of mankind is man, we can also say in the same strain that the proper study of the Bhagavadgita is man. But the understanding of the real purport of the Gita gospel is almost a superhuman task. It is difficult to make out what it actually teaches. Some think that it teaches the principles of action or activity in the world. There are others who think that it teaches the way of devotion to God, the creator of the world. There are still others who are of the opinion that it is a political gospel. It is also a guide light for social life, for individual discipline, for even the sciences of civics and economics. These standpoints have given rise to various expositions of the Gita, as I mentioned a few minutes before. All these aspects may be regarded as true, inasmuch as we have to accept that the Gita touches all sides of life in its generality. But when we try to apply its knowledge in our day-to-day existence, we have to take it very seriously and apply it in a manner consonant with the various difficulties that we face from morning to night.
It may be reiterated that the Bhagavadgita is not such a gospel of any religion as to be consecrated in a puja room or only for certain occasions of festivity, ceremony, etc. It is our vade mecum, our pocket guide for every problem, even in our prosaic earthly life – maybe in an office or a factory or the fields of our vocations. If the Bhagavadgita cannot give us piece of mind, it would mean that the Bhagavadgita has not helped us, which would also mean that we have not understood it. We cannot read all eighteen chapters of the Gita and then start crying, cursing and complaining. It is to prevent this erroneous, ugly attitude of the human mind that this gospel has been introduced to us.
Every verse of the Gita points to a particular corner of human life and tries to throw a floodlight into that corner. While our activities are manifold, they can be classified under certain primary heads or groups so that a study of these principle heads of our activities would be tantamount to a study of the entire life of every one of us. As I pointed out a little earlier, we have to think before we act. It would not be proper for us to act first and repentantly think later on. Most of us try to go headlong into an activity without proper thought being bestowed upon the nature of the activity before us. We are emotional too much, sentimental beyond a permissible degree, and that is why we act first and think afterwards. Generally, the thought that comes after the action is one of grief, repentance, melancholy, and intense unhappiness. “Oh, I have made a mistake!” But why did we rush into activity so hurriedly without considering the pros and cons of the action? This requires self-control. Unless we have a control over our own nature, we cannot restrain our emotions; and unless the emotions are restrained, thought cannot precede action because we must have time to think, but the emotions will not allow us any time to think even once. They start speaking and acting suddenly, at the spur of the moment, without laying the foundation of proper thought over the issue that has arisen.
The Upanishads are the basic building bricks of the basis of the structure of thought to precede human action in general. I do not mean any particular action specifically. Human action in general, whatever be its nature, is to be preceded by a type of thought, which is beautifully represented in the Upanishads. We cannot go into the vast details of this scientific subject in the few minutes available to us here, but suffice it to say that while the thoughts of the Upanishads lay the foundation for a universal approach to things, the Bhagavadgita gospel brings into high relief the daily operation of this thought in every nook and corner of the world through each and every action of the individual.
The problem of Arjuna was a sentimental and an emotional one, sentiment and emotion having overpowered his understanding, preventing him from thinking in the right direction and urging him to take a decision contrary to what was justifiable under the circumstances. How are we to decide upon the yes or no of an action? Is an action right or wrong; how are we to know? This is the question that the Bhagavadgita tries to answer. Whenever we embark upon a line of action, we are likely to think that it is the right course. Each one thinks that he or she is right and others who oppose that line of action are wrong. Now, is this a permissible course of thinking? Can I say that whatever I do is right and anything contrary is wrong? If each one starts saying this, who is right and who is wrong?
For this, a standard of reference is provided by the Bhagavadgita. Whenever we say that something is right or something is wrong, we have a standard of reference in connection with which we pronounce this judgment. How do we know that something is wrong? Because we have in our mind an idea of the right. Wherefrom has this idea of the right arisen in our mind? This idea might have arisen on account of various factors, but those factors should be based upon an unshakable principle. If the very principle itself is to be shaken and if it is going to be susceptible to changes in the course of time, then our idea of the right will also go on changing every day. The Bhagavadgita provides a permanent standard of reference for judging whether a particular course of action is right or wrong. From this standpoint, Arjuna could decide whether what he thought in his mind was proper or otherwise.
The rightness or the wrongness of an action does not depend upon the pleasure or the pain of the individual concerned in the action; this is the first warning given to us in the Bhagavadgita. We are likely to think that what brings us satisfaction is right and what brings us sorrow or grief, unhappiness, is wrong. This is an unfortunate, hedonistic approach which cannot be ultimately justifiable from the scientific point of view. A scientific principle does not care for our pleasure or pain. When we talk of a scientific principle, we speak of a truth that holds good for every person under all circumstances, irrespective of the emotional condition of the individuals concerned. So our joy or sorrow, personally and individually speaking, cannot become the standard of reference for the rectitude or otherwise of an action.