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The Spiritual Import of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Challenges of the Spiritual Seeker

The power of sadhana does not gain adequate confidence until divine powers collaborate with it, and God Himself seems to be at the back of the seeker of God. We have been noting a great epic symbol in the Mahabharata, wherein we are given the narration of the adventure of the spirit in its struggle for ultimate freedom. The wilderness of the forest life that the Pandavas had to undergo is a great lesson to the spiritual seeker. No one can escape the ups and downs of life, the vicissitudes of time through which the ancient sages and saints have passed; everyone seems to have the duty to tread the same path. We have to walk the same path, and the path is laid before us with all its intricacies, with all its problems and difficulties, as well as its own facilities. We seem to be lost to ourselves and lost to the whole world, with no ray of hope before us, at least to our waking consciousness.

When the Pandavas were in the forest, they did not know what would happen in the future. It was just oblivion and gloom which hung heavy like dark clouds upon them. When we are in the thick of the dark night of the soul—a dark night not of ignorance, but of the spiritual quest; when we are in a period of transition between the world and the Absolute, a universal screen falls in front of our eyes, as it were, and we cannot see what is ahead of us. When we are going to be severed from our attachments to the particular objects of sense and are about to enter into a larger expanse of a vaster experience, in that period of transition there is an unintelligible difficulty. Efforts cease, because all the effort that the human being can harness has been tried and found wanting.

The strength of the Pandavas was not equal to the task. Draupadi in the forest reprimands Yudhishthira as a coward and insults God Himself, as it were, when she cries aloud saying, “If God had eyes, He would certainly see our fate, and that He does not seem to be seeing us is not of any credit to Him.” Yudhishthira could not bear these words of taunt which Draupadi expressed even against God Himself; his reply was simple and expressed in a few words. He was aware of the strength of the other side. He spoke to Draupadi, “Poor lady, you do not know where we are actually standing. The power of Bhishma, the power of Drona and Karna is so immense that we would not be a match to these heroes, and to take up arms against them at a premature time would be folly.” To fight the world one must have strength enough—otherwise one would be in that condition described by the old adage: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Seekers, enthusiasts and honest sadhakas many a time overestimate their powers, and they do not know the strength of the world. The Kauravas had their own strength and it could not be in any way underestimated. When the war was actually to take place, the strength would be seen. And it was seen—not an easy task it was.

God helps us, it is true, but He helps us in His own way—not in the way we would expect Him to work. There is a logic of His own, which is not always expressed in terms of human logic. Sri Krishna was there, alive, even when the Pandavas were tortured, almost, in the forest, but we do not hear much about his movements during this period of twelve years. There was, however, a mention of his casual visit to the Pandavas, where he expresses in a few words his wrath, his intense anger against what had happened. “Well, I am sorry that I was not present. I would not have allowed this to have happened if I had been present.” That was all he could say, and that was all he did say. Well, his associates were more stirred up in their feelings than could be discovered from the words of Krishna Himself. They spoke in loud terms and swore, as it were, to take active steps in the direction of the redress of the sorrows of the Pandavas at once, without even consulting Yudhishthira. But Krishna intervened and said, “No. A gift that is given is not as palatable as one's own earning. The Pandavas will not accept gifts given by us—they would like to take it by themselves. We may help them, but this is not the time.”

Many a time we feel as if we have been lost and have been forsaken totally. Even advanced seekers, saints and sages have passed through this critical moment of the sinking of the soul when, in anguish, words which would not ordinarily come out of their mouths do come and did come in respect of God. 'God, are You blind?' can be a poem of a great saint when no action is taken to redress the sufferings of the seeker, no blessing is bestowed upon him, no vision comes forth and he is only put to the grind and made to suffer more and more, more critically than the world would have tortured him had he been in the world. All these are peculiar psychical conditions in which we have to find ourselves and for which we have to be prepared, and no one is exempt from the law of the mind. Whether it is Buddha's mind or it is the mind of a rustic in the fields, the structure of mind is the same, and in its evolution it has to pass through all the stages of agonising suffering, emotional tearing, as it were, on account of the tussle that one has to undergo between the spirit within and the spirit without.

This spirit that is implanted in us suffers for union with the spirit outside, the Absolute. There is its critical moment. It is as if we were going to embrace the ocean. This experience has been compared in many ways to merging into fire, tying a wild elephant with silken threads, swallowing fire, etc. The problem arises on account of the peculiar nature of the mind. The mind is addicted to sense experience. It is accustomed to the enjoyment of objects, and it is now attempting to rise above all contacts and reach the state of that yoga which great masters have called asparsha yoga—the yoga of non-contact. It is not a union of something with something else; that would be another contact. It is a contact of no contact. It is difficult to encounter because of a sorrow of the spirit, deeper than the sorrow of the feelings, which even a saintly genius has to experience. The deeper we go, the greater is our sorrow, because the subtle layers of our personality are more sensitive to experience than our outer, grosser vestures. We know very well that the suffering of the mind is more agonising than the suffering of the body. We may bear a little sorrow of the body, but we cannot bear sorrow of the mind—that is more intolerable.

There is such a thing called the sorrow of the spirit, though it may look like an anomaly. How could there be sorrow for the spirit? Yes, there is some kind of situation in which our deeper self finds itself in its search for the Absolute. These are all interesting stages that are in mystical theology and the yoga of the advent of the spirit. Some of the songs and poems of the Vaishnava saints of the south, the Alvars, particularly the Nawars, and some of the rapturous expressions of the leading Shaivite saints, will be enough examples to us of the inexpressible and intricate spiritual processes through which the seeker has to pass. We are accustomed merely to a little japa, a little study of the Gita that we chant and repeat by rote every day like a machine, and we feel that our work is over, that we have done our sadhana. The deeper spirit has to be touched, and it has to be dug out like an imbedded illness. When it is pulled out there is a reaction, and the reaction is a spiritual experience by itself, through which Arjuna had to pass. A little of it is given to us in the first chapter and the earlier portions of the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita.

The jiva principle within us has the double characteristic of mortality and immortality. We are mortals and immortals at the same time. It is the mortal element in us that causes sorrow when it comes in contact with the immortal urge, that seeks its own expression in its own manner. There is a tremendous friction, as it were, taking place between the subjective feelings and the objective cosmos. No one can know the strength of the universe. The mind cannot imagine it, and we are trying to overstep it. We can stretch our imagination and try to bring to our memories what could be the magnitude of this task. We as individuals, as we appear to be, are girding up our loins to face the powers of the whole universe—a single Arujna facing the entire Kaurava forces, as it were.

Yes, Arjuna had the strength, and also he had no strength. If Arjuna stood alone, he could be blown off in one day by a man like Bhishma. Well, Duryodhana pleaded every day before Bhishma and cried aloud, “Grandsire, you are alive, and even when you are alive, thousands and thousands of our kith and kin are being massacred. How can you see it with your eyes? We are depending upon you, we have laid trust in you—and with all this, this is what is happening.” Bhishma's answer was, “Don't bother; tomorrow, let me see.” Many “tomorrows” passed and there were massacres on the side of the Kauravas. Again Duryodhana came to plead, “How is it that while you are alive this could happen?” He gradually lost faith in Bhishma and wanted to replace him with someone else like Drona or Karna, if possible, but he could not speak these words. He dared not speak to this terrible old man, so instead he tauntingly expressed his misgivings concerning the future of this great engagement in war. “But there are some faults,” said Bhisma, “which I am not able to face.” This will come a little later.

I am just giving an outline of the situation, which goes deeper then the ordinary psychological level. It touches the borderline of the spirit, and yet has not entered into the universal spirit. That situation is a terrible situation indeed, where we have lost everything that we can call our own, and lost our grip and hold over things which are near and dear to us, yet have lost also our grip over that which we are seeking. This is exactly the condition of being left adrift at sea. “I am at sea,” as they say, which means there is no succour. We are just sinking because there is no support at all from anywhere. It is not true that there is no support, but it appears as if we are sinking on account of a contradiction between the values of the individual and the values Universal. We are still wedded to the calculative spirit of the individual sense, which assesses even the Absolute God Himself in terms of individual benefits and rewards. It is impossible to get out of our brains the idea of reward and pleasure.

Before the Universal takes possession of us, it burnishes us and cleanses us completely. This process of cleansing is the mystical death of the individual spirit. There it does not know what happens to it. That is the wilderness; that is the dark night of the soul; that is the suffering, and that is where we do not know whether we will attain anything or not. We weep silently, but nobody is going to listen to our wails. But the day dawns, the sun shines and there seems to be a ray of light on the horizon. That is towards the end of the Virataparva of the Mahabharata. After untold suffering for years, which the human mind cannot usually stomach, a peculiar upsurge of fortune miraculously seems to operate in favour of the suffering spirit, and unasked help comes from all sides. In the earlier stages, it appeared that nothing would come even if we asked. We had to cry alone in the forest, and nobody would listen to our cry. Now the tables have turned and help seems to be pouring in from all directions, unrequested for. Great princes, rulers of the time, join themselves into a force and gather into a power in an assembly led by Sri Krishna, contemplating the future steps to be taken under the circumstances. The most beautiful and magnificent force of literary strength of Vyasa comes in the Udyogaparva of the Mahabharata. God Himself takes up the responsibility of guiding the spirit. Well, when that happens there is nothing else that we need. We need not even speak—He speaks for us. He does everything for our sake. He advises us, He reprimands us and shows us the path.

The Udyogaparva, which describes in a beautiful manner the assembly of the princes of the time in the court of Virata, goes further into greater detail of the contemplations of these princes. There are difficulties in the decisions to be taken—what is to be done? There are various opinions coming forth from various parties. Whenever a personality faces the world, the universe in front of it, it has various interpretations of it. Are we to make friends with it? Are we somehow or other to adjust ourselves with it, to make its law our own law? Are we to change the world, or are we to change ourselves—which is better? What is the relationship between me and the world? These were the questions, the deliberations of the great assemblies that were held prior to the war of the Mahabharata. Ambassadors were sent on both sides; there was concourse between one party and the other party. A decision was difficult to take. We cannot finally come to a conclusion as to our relationship with the world. We always have favoured the things of sense and the delights of reason. This difficulty persists even to the last moment, until doom, we may say, because the evaluations of things in terms of worldly experience continue even at the last point of spiritual aspiration.

God-realisation is interpreted in terms of sense experience and psychical satisfaction. If we read the history of the evolutionary process of religion, we find that people always hesitated to touch the last point, and always satisfied themselves with everything but that last deciding factor. It will not be clear to us what is it that we are actually asking for, unless the logical limit of the conclusion is reached. But we never want to reach the logical conclusion of anything. We leave everything halfway. We somehow or other adjust ourselves with the law of things and then allow the things to rule us, though in a different manner. We may not be servants, vassals or underlings of an emperor, but the subjection continues. The freedom of the spirit is not a possession of any status or an acquisition of a power that is empirical, but a complete dissolving of all empirical values and an awakening into a new set of values altogether, which the mind at present can never even dream. Hence to think God would be a futility. The mind cannot think, because all thoughts are conditioned by evaluations, which again are nothing but interpretations of sense.

The decision is taken by God Himself—man cannot take the decision. And Sri Krishna took up the lead in this path of what decision is to be taken finally. Is the universe as an object to be retained, even in a subtle form, or is it to be abolished altogether? Is it to be absorbed totally? And do we have to see to the deathbed of the entire objective existence, or is it necessary to strike a lesser note and come to an agreement with factors which are far below this level of extreme expectation? Yudhishthira was wavering, he could not come to a conclusion; and we too are wavering. It is not easy for us to love God wholly, because that would mean the acceptance of the necessity to dissolve the whole world itself in the existence of God, and one would not easily be prepared for this ordeal. “It is true that Krishna is my saviour and my friend, philosopher and guide, but Duryodhana is my brother-in-law and my cousin—how can I deal a blow to him? Bhishma is my grandsire and Drona is my Guru. My own blood flows through the veins of these that seem to be harnessed against me in the arena of battle.” So there is a double game that the spirit plays between love of Krishna and love of the world, love of relations, love of individuals and love of family contacts, or to put it in a clinching manner, love of empirical values.

But God is an uncompromising element. There is no compromise with God. Either we want Him, or we do not want Him. There is no half-wanting God; that does not exist. But if we want Him really, as we would expect Him to understand the situation and expect us to want Him, it would be a terror to the ego, and that is the last thing which anyone would be prepared for. Who wants more with the world, because that is an undecided adventure. Every battle is undecided as to its future—it is only a game of dice, as it were. And so, an intellectual, philosophical or metaphysical acceptance of the absoluteness of God would not really cut ice before the practical necessity to face a reality that is there as a terror before us. The world has something to tell us, in spite of our acceptance of God's supremacy. We may be intellectually prepared, but emotionally unprepared. There is something in us deeper than our understanding, and that is the voice of the spirit within us. While it is decided that God is supreme and the demand of God is unconditional, which means to say there cannot be any kind of acquiescence with the law of the world, there is a tentative acceptance of it; but a string is tied to this acceptance.

The leader of the Pandava forces, from the point of view of military strategy, was Arjuna. It was he who finally agreed that war was the only way—there was no way out. But it is he who became diffident, in contradistinction to the spirit of valour which he exhibited earlier. There is a great mystical situation before every seeker also. Every one of us is convinced that God is All. Who is not convinced? We have read the scriptures; we have listened to the Srimad Bhagavatam; we have attended satsangas; we have heard so many sermons from Mahatmas. We agree that the realisation of God is the ultimate goal of life and nothing else is worth attaining, but this conviction is not enough when the task is there before us is as a daylight reality. Any kind of psychical, intellectual, rational or philosophical acceptance is not enough to touch the bottom of the spirit within us. Our whole soul has to accept it, and it appears perhaps that Arjuna's entire soul did not accept that venture. So when the whole world was there glaring or staring at Arjuna in the form of an army arrayed before him, he changed his attitude immediately—and everyone will be subjected to this quandary of changing of ideas.

The compromise with the condition of the human individual is a very strong impulse which has been planted in us since ages past, and no one wishes to die. To enter into the field of battle is to be prepared for death, whatever be the reason behind the justice of the war. But death is the last thing that anyone would be prepared for, because all life is for mere being. If being itself is threatened, what is the purpose of action? All my adventures, all my efforts, all my activities are ultimately to perpetuate my being—my life is to be secure. If I am embarking upon an activity which is going to threaten my very life itself, then I will have to think thrice before taking a step in that direction. Arjuna was despondent. “It appears as if we are going to lose everything, and the very intention behind which this great adventure was embarked upon is at stake. The very goal is being frustrated; the very purpose is not going to be served. The purpose of war is victory—nobody says that the purpose of war is defeat. But is it sure that victory is going to be ours? Perhaps the victory may be of the other side. Where is the guarantee that the victory is going to be ours?”

This doubt will come at the last moment, at the critical point when everything is ready to strike the match. When the fire is going to be ignited, at that very moment the spirit doubts. “Doubts are our traitors,” says Milton in a passage. Our enemies are our doubts, and finally we have a doubt after everything is clear; and that final doubt crushes down all that we have done up to this time. Finally the doubt comes: Is it after all going to bring anything, or am I going to lose everything under the pretext of going to gain God to attain salvation? This doubt will not present itself in the earlier stages. The most ferocious enemy always comes later; the lesser powers are released earlier. In every war, in every battle, the minor powers are used first and the powerful reserves are kept for the last action.

So we seem to be very complacent and everything seems to be all right; all doubts are removed and we are clear in our heads. But there is a subtle pull which is secretly kept inside our own psyche, and that pull will manifest itself as a final doubt of the 'perhaps'. A peculiar 'perhaps' will come out. “Perhaps I am not up to the mark. There is some defect in the whole bold procedure that has been undertaken, and I am going to lose.” Buddha had this. A great master, a genius like Buddha had this feeling. “After all, this has brought nothing; tomorrow I am going to die.” This is what Buddha also felt. “I think today is the last day. All my austerities have brought nothing; I have wasted my efforts. I have lost this world completely. All the pleasures of life are gone, and nothing else is going to come. Okay, this is the last moment. I am going to breathe my final breath.”

This what a man like Buddha felt, and why not anybody else? The great mystics, whether of the West or the East, had these difficulties. These problems are described in various types of nomenclature as maya, Mara, Satan and what not. But all these descriptions are only enunciations of the peculiar reaction that is set up by the world, the universe as a whole in its encounter with the spiritual aspirations of man. These powers of the universe are again like the powers of a large army. The lesser powers come first and the larger powers are kept for reserve in the end. There are layers and layers of cosmos. We have heard of various lokas—bhu-loka, bhuvar-loka, suvar-loka, mahar-loka, jana-loka, tapo-loka and satya-loka. These lokas are nothing but the various layers of the powers of the universe, as we have layers inside us—annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, etc. The inner layer is more powerful than the outer, and when we somehow or other succeed in overcoming one particular level, the other one comes in with its power and faces us. These encounters from the various levels of objective power are the descriptions of the Mahabharata battle in the Bhishmaparva, Dronaparva, Karnaparva, etc., all of which are enunciations of the spiritual encounter of the soul with the layers of the cosmos in its attempt at the realisation of the Absolute.