The Mahabharata epic, composed in around 200 BCE, is the longest poem in the world, and about eight times as long as the combined Iliad and Odyssey. The most famous section is Chapters 25-42 of the sixth book, known as the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) in which the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the Battle of Kurukshetra. Counterintuitively, Krishna advises Arjuna not to succumb to his scruples about killing his enemy cousins, the Kauravas, but to do his duty and fight on.

The Gita opens with the father of the Kauravas, the blind king Dhritarashtra, asking his advisor Sanjaya what is happening at Kurukshetra:

On the field of Truth, on the battlefield of life, what came to pass, Sanjaya, when my sons and their warriors faced those of my brother Pandu?

Sanjaya had received the gift of divine vision, enabling him to see the events from afar in the palms of his hands. The rest of the Gita consists of Sanjaya’s transmission of the philosophical conversation that took place between Krishna and Arjuna at the outset of the battle.

As the drums and conch shells are sounding, Krishna drives Arjuna’s chariot into the middle of the battlefield. From this vantage point, Arjuna can see his cousins, elders, and teachers, lined up on the Kaurava side. He throws down his great bow Gandiva: "Oh day of darkness! What evil spirit moved our minds when for the sake of an earthly kingdom we came to this field of battle ready to kill our own people?"

Arjuna presents Krishna with three arguments against fighting, founded in consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology. First, why gain a kingdom if those we want it for are all dead? Second, fighting and killing our enemies makes us no better than them. And third, infighting in a family undermines the social order.

Krishna counters these three arguments: death is an illusion; a warrior’s duty is to fight; and doing one’s duty is the greatest good.

The wise despair neither for the living nor for the dead, because life and death pass away, and we have all been, and will all be, for all eternity:

If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth. The Eternal in man cannot kill: the Eternal in man cannot die.

In fact, the battle is an opportunity for Arjuna to do his duty as a Kshatriya (warrior), and there is no greater good or greater happiness than to do one’s duty, without worrying about the outcome. We should do our work, not for its reward, but for its own sake, without being moved by apparent success or failure: "Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom … How poor those who work for a reward!"

Yoga is tranquillity of mind, without which there cannot be joy. Pleasure leads to desire, and desire to passion, which upsets and confuses the mind. When driven by desire, we forget our duty and forsake the peace that it brings.

When a man dwells on the pleasures of sense, attraction for them arises in him. From attraction arises desire, the lust of possession, and this leads to passion, to anger. From passion comes confusion of mind, then loss of remembrance, the forgetting of duty. From this loss comes the ruin of reason, and the ruin of reason leads man to destruction … There is no wisdom for a man without harmony, and without harmony there is no contemplation. Without contemplation there cannot be peace, and without peace can there be joy?

There are two paths to perfection: Jnana Yoga, the (Upanishadic) Path of Knowledge, and Karma Yoga, the (Vedic) Path of Action. Not by monkish renunciation, or refraining from action, does one attain freedom from action. Action is unavoidable; so, instead, we should aim at unattached or desireless action.

Even as the unwise work selfishly in the bondage of selfish works, let the wise man work unselfishly for the good of all the world … And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.

It is through work that the Yogi surrenders his earthly will, climbs the heights of Yoga, and finds peace—and in peace, God. Then, he sees himself in every being, and every being in him: “When he sees me in all and he sees all in me, then I never leave him and he never leaves me.”

The greatest Yogi dwells beyond renunciation, knowledge, or work, in the love of Krishna. It takes many lives to become a Yogi, but with each new life we begin where we left off. Past strivings will not be forgotten.

The surest and easiest path to Brahman (God) is surrender in love of the fruit of one’s actions. Even if people do not understand all they are told, still, by faith and adoration, they can achieve liberation.

The themes of the Gita suggest that it is rooted in a time of religious flux, when even great warriors like Arjuna took to questioning the ethics of war. And what it represents is an attempt to resolve the tension between competing strands of Hinduism, including Vedic ritualism (Karma Yoga), Upanishadic wisdom (Jnana Yoga), and the likes of Buddhist and Jain asceticism (Raja Yoga), by integrating them into devotionalism (Bhakti Yoga) and bringing this to the fore. This also served to democratize the religion, which, to ordinary people not given to ritual sacrifice, study, or meditation, must have seemed remote and elitist.

After the Gita, everyone, including women and outcastes, could achieve the moksha (liberation) of the renunciate through inner renunciation of the fruits of action. Indeed, this, rather than monkish idleness, is the true meaning of renunciation.

According to temperament, a person may be better suited to Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, or Raja Yoga, but, in any case, they all lead to surrender, that is, to Bhakti Yoga. Those unsuited to Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, or Raja Yoga might instead go straight to Bhakti Yoga, which is not only simpler but surer—so long as one has the faith, or rather, the love, without which salvation, whatever the route, is impossible.

Read more in Indian Mythology and Philosophy.

References

Quoted passages from: Bhagavad Gita, Chapters 1-3. Trans. Juan Mascaro.

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Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita

90 19
14.05.2024

The Mahabharata epic, composed in around 200 BCE, is the longest poem in the world, and about eight times as long as the combined Iliad and Odyssey. The most famous section is Chapters 25-42 of the sixth book, known as the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) in which the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the Battle of Kurukshetra. Counterintuitively, Krishna advises Arjuna not to succumb to his scruples about killing his enemy cousins, the Kauravas, but to do his duty and fight on.

The Gita opens with the father of the Kauravas, the blind king Dhritarashtra, asking his advisor Sanjaya what is happening at Kurukshetra:

On the field of Truth, on the battlefield of life, what came to pass, Sanjaya, when my sons and their warriors faced those of my brother Pandu?

Sanjaya had received the gift of divine vision, enabling him to see the events from afar in the palms of his hands. The rest of the Gita consists of Sanjaya’s transmission of the philosophical conversation that took place between Krishna and Arjuna at the outset of the battle.

As the drums and conch shells are sounding, Krishna drives Arjuna’s chariot into the middle of the battlefield. From this vantage point, Arjuna can see his cousins, elders, and teachers, lined up on the Kaurava side. He throws down his great bow Gandiva: "Oh day of darkness! What evil spirit moved our minds when for the sake of an earthly kingdom we came to this field of battle ready to kill our own people?"

Arjuna presents Krishna with three arguments against fighting,........

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