The Bhagavad-Gita is the record of a conversation between a young man and God (in the form of Krishna). The young warrior, Arjuna, from the royal Pandava family, is in a state of panic on the morning of a battle - the ‘enemies’ he is expected to fight are cousins he knows well. In this desperate predicament, Arjuna turns to his charioteer, Krishna, for help. The answers he gets are not exactly what he wants to hear, but it is Krishna’s opportunity to tell a mortal about how the universe operates, and the best approach to life.
The Gita is a small but much-loved part of the vast Hindu epic, the Mahabarata, a poetic chronicle of two warring groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The title means Celestial Song or Song of the Lord, and Juan Mascaró (whose translation we use here) has described it as a ‘symphony’ which represents a peak of Indian spirituality.
The beauty of this work is that it operates on various levels: poetry, scripture, philosophy, self-help guide. It is the last that we focus on.
The meaning of Arjuna’s predicament
Arjuna does not want to get involved in this damned battle, and why would he? The reader cannot but agree that it is madness to wage war against one’s own relatives. The story, though, is allegorical; it is about action and non-action, and introduces us to the concepts of karma and dharma.
Arjuna wonders, quite reasonably, why he should bother to do anything good, to do anything at all, in a world that is so bad. Joseph Campbell says that part of maturity is saying ‘yes’ to the abominable or the evil, to recognise its existence in your world. What he calls ‘the affirmation of all things’ does not mean you can’t fight a situation, only that you cannot say something does not have the right to exist. What exists does so for some reason, even if that reason is for you to fight it. It would be nice to withdraw from life, to be above it all, but you can’t. Being alive, we can’t avoid action or its effects - this is karma.
If we must throw ourselves into life, what should be our guide? There is action motivated by desire, and action undertaken out of a sense of purpose. The first type seems easier, because it allows you to live without questioning, and requires little self-knowledge. In fact it goes against the grain of universal law, usually leading to the departure of spirit from our lives. Purposeful action seems more complicated and obscure, but is in fact the most natural way; it is the salvation of our existence, and even the source of joy. The word for it is dharma.
The Bhagavad-Gita is great because it embodies the reasoning mind, capable of choosing the way of purpose over the automaticity of a life by desire. If Arjuna simply follows his desire not to fight, he learns nothing. Instead, Krishna tells him to ‘fight the good fight’ – it is his duty, his purpose, his dharma. Freed from indecision, Arjuna is subsequently told that his opponents ‘have it coming to them’ anyway; Arjuna is merely the instrument of divine karma.
The reader should not dwell too long on why God is recommending war - the point of the story is that the young warrior, in questioning his own action and existence, displays Reason. Nowadays, we tend to equate reason with intelligence. This is lazy thinking, because it means a mouse or a computer, displaying the ability to ‘work something out’, is at our level. Reason is actually the process by which we discover our place in the larger scheme of things, specifically the work or actions by which our existence is justified and fulfilled. It is what makes us human beings.
The Gita is no flight into the mystical; in showing the path to reason, it reveals our highest faculty and greatest asset.
The Gita draws attention to the three ‘constituents of nature’, Tamas (darkness), Rajas (fire) and Sattva (light). A Rajas style of life is being full of action and endless business, with fingers in too many pies, hunger for more, lack of rest and lust for things and people. It is about gaining and attaining, a life focused on ‘what is mine and what is not yet mine’. Sound familiar? This is living according to ‘outcome’, and while it may be of a higher order than Tamas (inertia, dullness, lack of care, ignorance), it is still one of mediocrity. And the life of light, Sattva? You will know you are living it when your intentions are noble and you feel peace in your actions. Your work is your sanctuary and you would do it even for no reward at all.
This holy book’s key point about work is that unless you are doing the work you love, you are darkening your soul. If this seems impossible, love what you are doing. Freedom - from the fear and anxious worry over ‘results’ - will follow. The wise always have an outcome or result in mind, yet their detachment from it makes them all the more effective. The Gita says that higher even than the peace of meditation is the peace which comes from surrender of the fruit of one’s actions; in this state, we are free from the rigidity of set expectations, allowing the unexpected and remarkable to emerge.
The steady self
You may be relaxing in front of the TV when a report comes on about this year’s Academy Awards, telling of the glitter and glory of the Oscars and exclusive post-ceremony parties. A waiter remarks that: ‘This is where the rest of the world would like to be.’ Beneath the superficial enjoyment of the report, suddenly you get a sense of inferiority. ‘Who cares if people say its shallow, I want to be there! What have I done with my life that I am not on the list for that party? Am I really going back to my job Monday morning?’
There is a phrase in psychology for this thinking: ‘object-referral’. It means having a focus on others and the seeking of their approval. Hollywood is famously a shrine to external valuations of worth, where you are always wondering what people will think of your next audition, performance or deal. This is basically a life of fear, and when things don’t turn out as you had hoped, of desperation. The Gita teaches that you can achieve a state where you don’t need any external commendation to make you feel right; you know you are of real worth.
One of the main routes to this level of being is meditation, which brings detachment from emotions like fear and greed. Through it we discover a self that is not subject to change, which is, in Deepak Chopra’s words, ‘...immune to criticism...unfearful of any challenge, and feels beneath no-one.’ This surely is real power, compared to that which we can acquire in the world of action. In your baser conscious desires you are just like everyone else; in the meditative state, you grasp your uniqueness. What we do following meditation does not generally generate negative karma, because we are emerging from a zone of purity and perfect knowledge. ‘With perfect meditation comes perfect act,’ says the Bhagavad-Gita.
The book repeatedly says that the enlightened person is the same in success or failure, is not swayed by the winds of event or emotion. It is a manual on how to achieve steadiness, which ironically comes from appreciating the ephemeral nature of life and the relentless movement of time. Though the universe may be in a constant state of flux, we can train our mind to be a rare fixed point. The book is a brilliant antidote to the feelings of smallness and insignificance which can swamp even the most confident in modern life.
Those prejudiced against religious books as ‘mystical rubbish’ may be shocked to discover that the Bhagavad-Gita is one of the great works on the sovereignty of the mind. God tells Arjuna:
"I have given thee words of vision and wisdom more secret than hidden mysteries/Ponder them in the silence of thy soul, and then in freedom do thy will."
Even though God is all-powerful, man has free will. The Gita has delivered this message with force across the ages because, perhaps ironically, it is delivered through poetry, the language of the heart.
It is a perfect self-help book because it is not scholarly or complicated but remains a source of the most profound wisdom, offering a path to steadiness of mind and joy in one’s work that could not be more relevant amidst the speed and pressure of life in the 21st century.
Source: 50 Self-Help Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on happiness and fulfilment by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)