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The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Spirit of True Renunciation

After the brief introduction to the important features which are predominant in the whole of the Bhagavadgita, we have to enter into the main theme of the exposition. The setting of the occasion of the Gita, the context of the delivery of the gospel, is the human situation, which I tried to liken to the atmosphere of a battlefield, an air of war, conflict and confrontation, to be expected at every step, every moment of time, and under every circumstance. The structure of the universe appears to be such that it faces us as a complex of various layers of conflict which we are supposed to overcome, and which are known as achievements in life. A particular context or situation has an opposing or conflicting context or situation. If this opposition were not to be there staring at every given occasion in life, there would not be any impulse to action. There would be no necessity for any activity. There would be no such thing as achievement.

Achievement is the result that follows the bringing about of a reconciliation or a harmony between a particular position and its opposition, usually known as the thesis counterpoised by the antithesis. The two have to be synthesised. And the whole of the Gita is nothing but this tremendous progressive process of achieving larger and larger syntheses in our life, so that we become an embodiment of synthesis to such an extent that when it reaches its climax or logical conclusion, we achieve a comprehensiveness of being, which is inseparable from a universal synthesis of experience. This may be regarded as equivalent to what we call God-realisation, or whatever one would like to call it.

The aim of the Gita is to lead us up to this universal synthesis or the ultimate balance of things. But for this achievement towards the goal of life we have to move from stage to stage, and the admonition which the Gita gives us at different degrees of this exposition is the Yoga of the Bhagavadgita. Many of us, perhaps all of us, might have had a glance over the various chapters of the Bhagavadgita. We are aware as to what it is about. We know how many chapters there are, and what the First Chapter is telling us, and what the Second Chapter is about, and so on.

Usually, we gloss over the First Chapter. Many exponents and commentators of the Gita have opined that the First Chapter is something like an introduction, and we generally pass over an introduction to the main subject of the text. But this is a mistake. The First Chapter is not an introduction in the sense of a prolegomena or a preface that an author may write to his own book. Vyasa, or Krishna, or whoever may be the author, is not giving a publisher's note in the form of the First Chapter. We would be wondering that at the end of the First Chapter, it is designated as a Yoga: “Arjuna-Vishada-Yoga”. It is a Yoga; a wonder, indeed. It is as much a Yoga as any other chapter of the Gita is. It is an inseparable vital limb of the entire body of the doctrine. It is a Yoga and, therefore, it cannot be escaped or glossed over or passed on.

The context in which Arjuna, the hero of this epic, the symbol of humanity in general, finds himself, is the total human situation. It is our situation, and everybody's. The Mahabharata is not a book giving us merely a story of some historical event that occurred in ancient times. It is an exposition of the nature of the culture of the nation—one may say, the whole of humanity. It is a teaching which is intended to show the path to humanity in its entirety, leading it up to its destination by gradual stages; and the Bhagavadgita is the kernel of this intention of the Mahabharata epic. The purpose of the Bhagavadgita is unique, though it is clothed in an epic colour. Its outer shape is linguistic, artistic, mythological, and is in the form of a narrative, but this is so because of its occurrence in the atmosphere of an epic, a heroic poem, and a tremendous heroism of a peculiar type permeates the whole of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita. It is not a cowherd's gospel. It is not the gospel of a hermit or renunciate who abandons and cuts himself off from everything. There is a spirit in a state of ebullition, welling up into action of great consequence and moment. We will be stirred up into a tremendous urge for moving forward, as we read through the chapters of the Mahabharata.

The Bhagavadgita is principally a spiritual message, spiritual in the true sense of the term. We have to clear our minds of the usual notions of spirituality and religion. When we take to such textbooks of Yoga as the Bhagavadgita, we have, first of all, to recondition our minds and make ourselves prepared for the reception of this impersonal teaching. We are personal, and the teaching is impersonal, manifest in various stages. Ultimately, it will become totally impersonal, into which the personalities vanish altogether, as if they had never been at any time. But we are hardboiled individuals, our personality is as realistic to us as flint, and so it would not be easy for us, who cling to the status of our individualities, to appreciate and to receive into our minds the great cosmic intention behind the teaching of the Bhagavadgita.

The teacher of the Gita knows this psychology very well. Perhaps he is one of the greatest psychologists we can ever imagine. And so he commences the teaching from the level of the ordinary human being. The feelings of man are to be taken into consideration when he is confronted or dealt with in any manner. And it is the feelings or the groups of the feelings of the individual that work themselves up into action. When we face the world or are busy with the performance of any duty in the world, our feelings guide us along a particular direction. When we are small boys, youngsters, jubilant with youthful enthusiasm, we entertain great hopes and imagine that we have great powers. We make a programme of our life. “Such is to be my achievement in life.” But this enthusiasm is beclouded with a lack of understanding of the nature of the atmosphere in which one lives, to which fact one is awakened gradually as one becomes more and more mature. The boyish enthusiasm subsides slowly, and the maturity of the grey hair begins to speak in a different language and tells us that the world is made of a different stuff altogether from what we imagined earlier when we were not sufficiently educated in the art of living.

Arjuna was such a person, and he stands as a symbol for any person, anywhere, at any time, a simple person embodying in his personality the forte and foible of anyone. The strength and the weakness of man can be seen in Arjuna. Every one of us, anywhere, has a strength but also a weakness. All these points have to be taken into consideration. We should not unnecessarily underline the weaknesses of ourselves, ignoring our strengths, nor should we go to the other extreme of imagining that we are all-in-all and that we are free from every defect.

We are in a world of conflicts and forces, rajas, which pulls us outward in the direction of space, time and objects through the avenues of the senses, and sattva, which keeps us intact, integrated in our own selves and in our own status. The stability of our personality is maintained by the sattva that is present in us, and the distractedness of our life is caused by rajas, which also preponderates simultaneously, in some measure. And a feeling of enough with work, the getting fed up with things, an exhaustion, a tiredness that we often feel in life is the result of tamas, the principle of inertia. All these are to be found in us at all times. We are sattvika, rajasika and tamasika, at every time. Only one of these properties comes to the surface at a time, putting down the other two, or at least one goes down sometimes, and we appear to be in a particular mood of the hour. The mood can change. Even our ideas can vary; our outlook can completely get transformed for reasons we cannot easily understand, due to the coming to the level of our consciousness of these properties, one or the other—  sattva, rajas or tamas. These properties, or qualities, which are psychological and individual, as well as physical and cosmical, work in various ways and constitute not only the body of the objects of sense, including our own bodies as subjects, but in a subtle form make up our psychological organ, so that, as the Gita itself says in one place, there is nothing anywhere which is not a compound or complex of these three gunas, i.e., sattva, rajas and tamas. Neither on earth nor in heaven can we find anything, anywhere, which is not the result of a permutation or combination of the three gunas. One may be an angel in heaven, or a mortal here in this world, but all these forms are constituted of the gunas.

So, the human being, in the human context, finds himself in an arena of conflicts of these forces; and the battle of life, so-called, is nothing but the field of the action and reaction of these forces. The battle of the Mahabharata or any battle whatsoever, inward or outward, is the colour and the shape that these forces put on when they commingle in the interest of cosmic evolution. They collide one with the other. There is a collision of the thesis with the antithesis for a higher purpose of the evolution of the individuality of both the thesis and the antithesis, and there is a coming together of both in a blend to form a totally new thing altogether, giving birth to a new baby, as it were, in the form of a synthesis which transcends the lower opposing categories.

The context of the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is the atmosphere of tense feelings in the field of a tremendous Armageddon, each one imagining that one would win victory over the other, each one intent upon overcoming the other, so that each one musters in all the powers of oneself available for unleashing the same in this battle that is to ensue. The individual faces this world before it as a confrontation, a field of action and opposition. The child, in its moods of unintelligent enthusiasm, imagines that it can do anything with this world—possess it, enjoy it, overcome it, utilise it, harness it for its purposes. As we grow older, we become aware of the fact that the world is too much for us. Its quantity frightens us, as the ocean can terrorise us when we gaze at it from the shore. We are afraid of it because of the tremendous magnitude that is in front of us. How vast is this arena of the Universe! How difficult it is to think of the powers of these five elements, the whole of nature.

Not merely that; there are other things to which we are connected—our social relationships. The setup of Nature is a different thing, a consideration of which will come later on in the course of our study of the Gita. But we have immediate problems which are related to our human relationships, more imminent and demanding greater attention from us than the powers of Nature. We may be feeling heat and cold, we may be under the pull of the gravitational power, the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, ether—may be there before us as terrible forces, no doubt, but they are not our immediate consideration. When we get up in the morning we are not usually thinking of the five elements, though it is true they are there as powerful oppositions before us. We are, rather, thinking of immediate human relationships and other things connected with our personality, emotionally related, and the concern of today, for instance. There are loves and hatreds in relation to our connections with humanity in the immediate vicinity of our existence.

When we are in the midst of people to whom we are accustomed, we are not in a position to properly go deeper into the secrets of these relationships. We are living in a social atmosphere, we are living in a town, we are living in a monastery, in an ashram, in a house, in a family. When we are living in an atmosphere of this kind, which is human and social, we cannot know our mind wholly, because the fish is in water, and it thinks that everything is fine. We must bring the fish out of water and then see the fate of it. We wrench ourselves from social relations for some time, be not in the midst of people, do not go to the shop for purchase, do not live in the town, do not have anything to do even with family relations, do not speak to anyone, do not look at anybody's face for some months. We will know ourselves better then, than when in society.

We will be a little bit restless in the beginning stages. We will be unhappy for reasons we cannot easily know. We will like to get up and run away into the thick of human relations once again, because man is a social animal basically. And to ignore this aspect of the human individual would be not to properly comprehend the psychology of the human being. The attractions and repulsions, the likes and dislikes in relation to personalities, are inborn in us. We are born into this circumstance. We have something to say about the people around us. For or against, we have some opinion about people, and we always pass a judgement on things in our own selves. A judgement in the form of a logical conclusion that we draw in connection with our understanding in relation to humanity around us becomes the propelling force for our conduct and behaviour in relation to people.

Our attitude towards people is the result of our understanding of people. We have an opinion in such-and-such a manner and, therefore, we have to deal with this situation in such-and-such a manner. This so-called dealing in respect of people outside is our conduct which we express in behaviour outwardly, an expression of our internal attitude or feeling psychologically. Mostly, we are tied up by ropes of likes and dislikes which pull us in two different directions, and we rarely bestow thought on the interesting feature behind our likes and dislikes, namely, that a like implies a dislike, and a dislike implies a like. They are not actually two different activities of the mind. It is one outlook, one attitude, which puts on the colour or feature of a double attitude. The like which the mind entertains in respect of a particular thing or a group of things implies the exclusion of factors which do not contribute to the makeup of that atmosphere in which this thing or this group of things exists. The inclusiveness in respect of a particular situation implies exclusiveness in respect of other situations. So, as the obverse and reverse of a coin, like and dislike go together, one signifying the other, one being impossible without the other. This is, again, an internal warfare that is taking place in us, a perpetual conflict between the circumstances within us pulling us in the direction of likes and dislikes.

Arjuna was such an individual. He had likes and dislikes. The whole story of the Mahabharata is a description of the conflict among the varieties of likes and dislikes. The spiritual seeker is taught, through the epic atmosphere of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita, the lessons of life and the morals that follow from these lessons. When our reasoning capacity is turbid, our knowledge is inadequate, and our adjustments with the world outside, including human society, are not strong enough. They collapse at the least touch of confronting situations, because human relationships are only an outer form of an internal propulsion of these three forces—sattva, rajas and tamas—which are cosmically present everywhere. There is a cosmic purpose behind even our individual likes and dislikes. And our entanglement in like and dislikes is the result of our not understanding our wider involvement in a cosmical meaning that is at the base of all human situations. We always feel, “I have a like” and “I have a dislike”, but we do not know why we have that like, why we have that dislike. Why is it that we should like this and dislike something else? We cannot give a satisfactory answer except that which is purely sentimental and emotional. But the world does not live on sentiments and emotions. It is a perfectly logical system, and all the parts of the mechanism of the universe are scientifically arranged; and our behaviour outside as well as our thoughts and sentiments inside, our relationships of any kind, are conditioned by this final structure of things in general, of which we are integral parts.

The mistake of the human being in Arjuna was the incapacity to go deep into this involvement of the human individual in the larger setup of things. It is difficult for us to imagine that we are related in a more significant manner with things than what appears on the surface. The son is related to the father, the father is related to the son, there is a relation between friends, etc. This is only the outer form of some of the relationships that appear before our eyes. But these relationships are metaphysically conditioned, cosmically organised by an impersonal government which has no friends or foes, and which does not bestow favours on anyone. It is like a large computer system which has no friend and which has no enemy. It depends upon how we manipulate the mechanism, how we feed this system, how we approach it and how we conduct ourselves in relation to it. If our conduct is in any way disharmonious with the requirement of the setup of the mechanism, we will find that an undesirable result follows, something we did not expect. And the reason behind this unexpected occurrence cannot be attributed to any kind of error in the setup of things, in the mechanism we call the computer, but in the mistake we have committed, in the error that is involved in our relationship, in our not understanding properly how it works.

Arjuna, and anyone, could not and cannot easily understand or grasp this circumstance. So, we have hundreds of occasions every day to be jubilant in joy and hundreds of occasions to be sunk in sorrow. The Mahabharata concludes with these words: “Fools find themselves in umpteen situations every day when they can be happy, or when they can be unhappy, also.” It is the stupid man, not the wise one, who sees occasions for joy or sees occasions for grief in the world. The world is not intended to bring us joy, nor is its intention to pour on us sorrow. A vast computer has no intention to give us satisfaction, nor is it intended to be there to bring us sorrow. It is impersonal, and it has no such emotional meanings behind it. But human beings are emotionally composed. They are not bathed in the light of wisdom at all times. We have secret directions from impulses which sometimes appear to be irrational because they cannot be explained in a scientific manner, though ultimately there is an explanation for everything in this world.

The seeker on the spiritual path is described in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Arjuna being made the spokesman of this occasion. The field of battle is the field of life. The things that we want to do in this world are the confrontations before us, and our wisdom will be judged by the manner in which we deal with these situations. A situation means anything and everything with which we are connected, anything that we are supposed to do in the world. In this duty that we are called upon to perform, there is no such thing as a superior or inferior duty. There is no superior thing or inferior thing in this world, just as in a huge machine we cannot say that some part is superior, some part is inferior. Everything has its role to play. Any kind of comparison or contrast would be odious in such a setup which has no human significance but is cosmically oriented.

The spiritual seeker, the sadhaka, has a spiritually oriented enthusiasm in the beginning. Every one of us has a love for spiritual life. And the moment the idea of spiritual life arises in the mind, we find ourselves in an unspeakable situation of clinging to something and abandoning something else. This is the obvious feature in religion and in the popular spirituality of mankind which goes by the name of asceticism, renunciation, etc. The idea of spirituality is generally inseparable from the idea of renunciation, the giving up of something for the sake of clinging to something else which we imagine at that moment as our ideal. We bifurcate one thing from the other. But the Bhagavadgita is not a gospel of renunciation of this type. No doubt, it is fired up, right from the beginning to the end, with a surge of renunciation which will burn and burnish us into the gold of the ideal higher personality. If at all there is any scripture which emphasises wholeheartedly the spirit of renunciation, it is the Bhagavadgita. But if there is anything which tells us that spiritual life does not mean the cutting of oneself from what is real but constitutes a harmonisation of oneself with the atmosphere in which one lives, there cannot be a greater and more significant teaching than the Bhagavadgita in this respect.

While, when a particular mood preponderates in us, we may be stirred into an aspiration for God, as we conceive God, and feel or imagine that we are fed up with this world, it may subside because this is likely to be a tentative mood which is occasioned by a particular circumstance that may not continue for all times. And when the wheel moves, when the spokes find themselves in another position, our understanding, our feelings, or attitudes change simultaneously, and we see different things altogether before us. We do not like a thing always, nor dislike a thing at all times. As years pass, our ideas of things change, and what we loved one day may not be the thing that we love today. So is the case with the things that we disliked one day or disregarded at some moment of time.

These moods of ours are relative to the conditions through which our psyche passes in what we may call the process of evolution. They are relative and not absolute situations. We cannot have an absolute love for anything or an absolute dislike for anything. They are like the stages of the healing of a disease or a wound, the recovery of health by degrees, when we begin to feel different things on different days. This is what happened to the great Arjuna, and to every one of us it does happen, also. The sentiments in us are strong enough to counterblast our rationalities and our arguments, though they may be philosophical or supposedly spiritual. Whatever be the philosophical profundity of our arguments, we should not imagine that our sentiments and feelings are weaker. They take up the case and argue in a manner which is deserving of equal attention, as the argument of the opposite party. And the arguments of Arjuna in the First Chapter were the repudiation of all the feelings that he had entertained earlier, just the opposite of what he said a few days before.

Merely because of the nature of the confrontation before us, we may be repelled after a time even by the goal of spirituality, the very ideal which attracted us earlier, because our comprehension of the nature of this ideal was not comprehensive enough. One cannot keep up the sobriety of spirit throughout one's life, because of the power of rajas and tamas within, whose nature one does not properly understand. The things from which we withdraw ourselves in a spirit of renunciation may demand recognition some time later, at some moment, on some occasion when they find that the circumstances are suitable for their having a say, because, usually, the religious renunciation is a misguided attitude in most cases of even so-called genuine aspirations, all because we work upon the reports given to us by the sense organs; and to a large extent our idea of God, the idea of spirituality, the notion of renunciation, are all conditioned by what the senses tell us.

What gives us pain and sorrow, and that which appears to be not in consonance with our idea at any particular moment of time of what we call the spiritual ideal, may be regarded as worth renouncing. Persons and things are abandoned, and the world is regarded as the field of bondage. We dub it as a factory in which Satan works, from which we have to extricate ourselves at the earliest moment. Our idea of God is sensory. If we would deeply consider this theme, we may realise that we are unable to dissociate the God-ideal from sense-perception, boiled down to its essentiality. We may not conceive the God-ideal or the spiritual ideal in a physical or material form, but the sensory atmosphere does not necessarily mean a material atmosphere. It is a peculiar organisation of consciousness that we call the field of sense-activity.

When I speak of the sense-world, I do not mean the physical world necessarily or the material objects with which the senses come in contact. It is, rather, an arrangement of consciousness by which it bifurcates subjectivity from objectivity, cuts the object of perception from the subject that perceives or cognises, and refuses to see any kind of vital relationship between itself and its object. The field of sense activity is such that the object of sense perception does not appear to have of any kind of organic connection or real meaning in respect of the subject, so that we can wholeheartedly love something and wholeheartedly hate something also, without any impact of it upon our own selves. This is how the senses work. But every love and hatred has some kind of impact upon the subject, because it is not true that the world is made up of isolated subjects and objects, finally.

So, the war of the Mahabharata, in which Arjuna was engaged, was not a war against some people, merely. He was engaged in a vast atmosphere from which he could not extricate himself psychologically, a point which was driven into his mind by Sri Krishna, as explained in the Second and Third Chapters.