Growing up in India our social studies books told us that the Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu religious text. But this theory is not settled as the Gita predates organized religion. It was written 500 years before Jesus and over 2000 years before Hinduism really became a thing.
Bhagavad Gita, or the Gita, means “the song of the Lord”, contains profound wisdom. Some scholars date its origin as early as the 5th c BCE. The earliest translations of this work from Sanskrit into English were made around 1795 by Sir Charles Wilkins. This timeless classic is the ultimate manifesto for individual, communal and environmental well-being. For over two millennia, the Gita has consistently appealed to people across the world.
The Gita became part of India’s national epic, the Mahabharata – a poem eight times the length of the Illiad and the Odyssey combined – that tells the story of a war on the battlefield of Kuru between the two clans of a royal family. One clan is the Pandavas who are upright noble righteous and the other side is the Kauravas who are not. The Pandavas, are led by Prince Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, and his four brothers. Opposing them are their evil cousins, the Kauravas, the 100 sons of the blind king Dhritarashtra.
The text is a dialogue between the Pandava Prince Arjuna, who is the greatest archer in the world, and Krishna his friend and mentor, who is his charioteer during the war.
The book has 18 chapters, each about a type of Yoga, and this week we will begin at the beginning, chapter 1. Since Arjuna’s grief is the main topic in Chapter 1, it is aptly called Arjunaviṣāda-yoga.
In the battlefield, Arjuna discovers the problem of Samsara (flowing around) – the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth.
The war is about to begin when our hero Arjuna looses his nerve. The sudden realization that he is about to destroy half of his family, strikes him like a thunderbolt.
Sick with despair he lays down his arms and turns to his friend Krishna for guidance. Until then Arjuna was convinced that his cousins were unrighteous and he, as a Kṣatriya (the warrior caste), has to fight the battle to establish righteousness. In a moment of weakness, Arjuna retreats from reason to relation. Instead of seeing the violators of dharma, he sees his beloved kinsmen.
The problem of saṃsāra, can be said to be the problem of attachment (kṛpā or rāga), grief (śoka or viṣāda) and delusion (moha). When one is not happy with oneself, one has to seek external aids. This leads to dependence and attachment. Since the conditions of the dependent factors are unpredictable, the very peace of mind of that person is in trouble. A disturbed mind can make only faulty judgements complicating the matters further. Thus a vicious cycle is created. This, in short, is the problem of saṃsāra.
Naturally, Arjuna is over-powered by attachment. Then follow the twin offshoots of attachment namely, grief and delusion. The grief shakes him completely. This indicates the extent of his attachment. Veiled by attachment, his discriminative power becomes inoperative and he commits a series of false judgements. Interestingly enough, Arjuna
even quotes the scriptures to support his unreasonable stand. Thus, Arjuna gets caught up in delusion. In this way,
Arjuna finds himself in the deep sea of attachment,
sorrow and delusion (rāga, śoka, moha). Arjuna
sincerely wants to get out of this problem. He thinks that the solution is to call off the battle. But, one corner of his mind is not convinced by this. At the same time, he has not realized that the problem is too deep for him to solve independently. Hence he doesn’t surrender to Kṛṣṇa either. Thus caught in a dilemma, Arjuna sits back on the chariot sorrowfully.
The Gita thereby gives the essence of the Vedas, the purpose of life is to be happy and help others, which is possible only by being good and doing good to others. The goal of the Gita is to enable a person to live as a good human being and to face all situations in life with poise outside and peace inside. This is done by a unique method of combining self-control, forbearance, kindness and knowledge, with a good dose of devotion to the Devine (Truth). The Gita is concerned not just with the metaphysical but with the very physical. Not just with the other worldly but with the very worldly. Not just with the after-life but with the life itself.