The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular and well-read books of wisdom in the history of humankind. Known also as the Song of God, it is a conversation between the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna and his devotee Arjuna, on the verge of the Mahabharata war.
The Gita not only provides profound philosophical understanding, it also describes clear-cut ways for implementing spiritual wisdom in everyday life. These ‘ways’ are termed as “Yoga”. Hence the Gita is also called “Yoga Shastra” meaning the scripture that teaches the practice of Yoga. It describes the various systems of Yoga, such as Karma Yoga (the way of action), Gyan Yoga (the way of knowledge) and Bhakti Yoga (the way of love and devotion). Collectively they are pathways to guide individuals through life, illuminating the ultimate aim: the blissful union of the atma (the soul) with the Paramatma, God.
Many, when they hear the story of Arjuna and Shri Krishna in the Gita, wonder at the setting of this sacred teaching as it takes place just before a war is about to start. Some are concerned that it is advocating war. A teacher of Ashtanga Yoga once wrote to me about this, asking me to clarify for her students how the principles of Ahimsa (non violence) fit into the teachings of the Gita. Though the Gita is an extraordinarily profound and subtle body of work, I will give a brief explanation for at its heart lies the deepest secret of secrets…
Arjuna is the leading warrior of the Pandava army, famous for his prowess with the bow and arrow. Yet, just before battle begins, he loses heart upon seeing the enemy and declares that he does not want to fight, that it is better he loses his life than take one drop of blood of the enemy, let alone kill them. In the opposition army of the Kauravas, Arjuna sees friends, cousins and past respected teachers. He fears the war will destroy the moral fabric of society and he wants no part of it.
This is where the 700 verses of the Gita get underway, the starting point from which Shri Krishna explains the essence and meaning of life itself to Arjuna.
Due to his confusion and doubt concerning the war, Arjuna is taught some startling truths: If he does not do his duty and fight, he will go against his karma because he has taken an oath to protect his community from tyranny and aggression. As a result he will sink into moral degradation and on death take birth in the lower regions. However, if he fights the war he will be doing his duty and will be following the path of virtue, ensuring a good future. Even if he should lose his life while fighting, still he will be rewarded with birth in the upper celestial regions.
But here comes the surprising thing: Shri Krishna explains that all of the actions just mentioned, whether they be karmically good or bad in nature, will bind him to suffering (to a greater or lesser extent) in the Wheel of Samsara, continued rebirth in the cycle of life and death. Moreover, by following any of these pathways he will not be able to realise the blissful union of the atma (individual soul) with the Paramatma (God).
He also learns that the atma is an infinitesimal part to the infinite power of Shri Krishna. It was never made and can never be unmade. It is. Therefore he does not have the power to kill anyone, since the atma cannot die. What we call death is only the death of the human body that envelopes the atma, not the atma itself. Further, he learns, that the actual time of departure of the atma from an individual human body (death) is governed by an individual’s karma (Prarabh Karma). The soul cannot depart the body a second earlier than is destined, nor a second later. The timing is exact.
Shri Krishna informs Arjuna that the laws of karma are upheld by his eternal divine power known as Yogmaya. This means no one can interfere with the timing of death of an individual. It is predetermined according to divine law. Thus neither Arjuna or anyone else has the power to decide who dies and when.
To simplify this discussion, fighting the war is purely an action; the karmic consequence of the action to the individual who performed it, is determined by the individual’s motive for doing the action. According to the motive, so will be the consequence. This law, in fact, applies to every action we perform, be it within a war or anywhere else.
Thus, Arjuna learns that if his motive is towards Maya, the material existence of birth and death, be it virtuous or not, he will remain bound to it. Wherever his life force takes him when he dies, be it to the virtuous celestial regions (Swarg Lok), or the non virtuous lower regions (Narak Lok), or reborn in the middle region, Earth (Mritu Lok), he will still be bound by Maya. He will remain bound by his karma, by birth and death, by suffering. He will not be able to realise the full blissful nature of yoga, the blissful union of the atma with the Paramatma, God.
In hearing this, Arjuna realises that every action has spiritual consequence, all of which depends on personal motive. “But” asks Arjuna, “what motive leads to God-realisation, where I will be free of suffering and experience infinite divine love and happiness?”
Shri Krishna replies “Mamekam sharanam Vraja” (Gita) “Surrender to Me Arjuna, consecrate the motive of your actions to Me, love Me, merge your mind in Me and I will take you beyond the bondage of Maya. I will give you the supreme love for which you have been seeking since eternity.”
The Bhagavad Gita is not about war. It is not about violence or non violence. It is about understanding the nature of motive and consequence, of the atma, and ultimately of how to unite with the Supreme Being who is the personified essence of infinite divine Love. This is the aim and meaning of life itself.
~Swami Govindananda is the founder of the Bhakti Meditation Centre. He is widely known for his depth of knowledge, his gentle, humorous nature and his ability to inspire in others the quest for genuine spiritual living.
Though a Westerner he lived many years in India learning personally from a legendary Spiritual Master. Swamiji specialises on teaching the essence of the great Indian scriptures known as the Vedas, Gita, Bhagawatam and Ramayan; focusing on the philosophies of Karma, Gyan and Bhakti Yoga. With this blend of cultures, Swamiji brings extraordinary clarity to the complex and timeless philosophies of India, making this knowledge easy to understand in a way that has rarely been seen in the West. He embodies positive spirituality, showing how we can all live joyous lives while moving towards our fullest potential.
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