The Power of the Bhagavad Gita
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Many years ago, when I
was still a graduate student, I traveled by train from central India to Simla,
then the summer seat of the British government in India. We had not been long
out of Delhi when suddenly a chattering of voices disturbed my reverie. I asked
the man next to me if something had happened. “Kurukshetra!” he replied. “The
next stop is Kurukshetra!”
I could understand the excitement. Kurukshetra, “the field of the Kurus,” is the setting for the climactic battle of the Mahabharata, the vastest epic in any world literature, on which virtually every Hindu child is raised. Its characters, removed in time by some three thousand years, are as familiar to us as our relatives. The temper of the story is utterly contemporary; I can imagine it unfolding in the nuclear age as easily as in the dawn of Indian history. The Mahabharata is literature at its greatest–in fact, it has been called a literature in itself, comparable in its breadth and depth and characterization to the whole of Greek literature or Shakespeare. But what makes it unique is that embedded in this literary masterpiece is one of the finest mystical documents the world has ever seen: the Bhagavad Gita.
I must have heard the Gita recited thousands of times when I was growing up, but I don’t suppose it had any special significance for me then. Not until I went to college and met Mahatma Gandhi did I begin to understand why nothing in the long, rich stretch of Indian culture has had a wider appeal, not only within India but outside as well. Today, after more than thirty years of devoted study, I would not hesitate to call it India’s most important gift to the world. The Gita has been translated into every major language and perhaps a hundred times into English alone; commentaries on it are said to be more numerous than on any other scripture. Like the Sermon on the Mount, it has an immediacy that sweeps away time, place and circumstance. Addressed to everyone, of whatever background or status, the Gita distills the loftiest truths of India’s ancient wisdom into simple, memorable poetry that haunts the mind and informs the affairs of everyday life.
Everyone in our car got down from the train to wander for a few minutes on the now peaceful field. Thousands of years ago this was Armageddon. The air rang with conch-horns and shouts of battle for eighteen days. Great phalanxes shaped like eagles and fish and the crescent moon surged back and forth in search of victory, until in the end almost every warrior in the land lay slain.
“Imagine!” my companion said to me in awe. “Bhishma and Drona commanded their armies here. Arjuna rode here, with Sri Krishna himself as his charioteer. Where you’re standing now–who knows?–Arjuna might have sat, with his bow and arrows on the ground while Krishna gave him the words of the Bhagavad Gita.”
The thought was thrilling. I felt the way Schliemann must have when he finally reached that desolate bluff of western Turkey and knew he was standing “on the ringing plains of windy Troy,” walking the same ground as Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and Helen. Yet at the same time, I felt I knew the setting of the Gita much more intimately than I could ever know this peaceful field. The battlefield is a perfect backdrop, but the Gita’s subject is the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious.
Perhaps the clearest way to grasp the Gita is to look at the way it describes those who embody its teachings. There are portraits like this at the beginning of the Gita, the middle, and the end, each offering a model of our full human potential.
The first is given at the end of chapter 2 (2:54–72), verses which Gandhi said hold the key to the entire Gita. Arjuna has just been told about Self-knowledge; now he asks a very practical question: when a person attains this knowledge, how does it show? How do such people conduct themselves in everyday life? We expect a list of virtues. Instead, Krishna delivers a surprise: the surest sign is that they have banished all selfish desires. Their senses and mind are completely trained, so they are free from sensory cravings and self-will. Identified completely with the Self, not with body or mind, they realize their immortality here on earth.
The implications of these are not spelled out; we have to see them in a living person. G. K. Chesterton once said that to understand the Sermon on the Mount, we should look not at Christ but at St. Francis. To understand the Gita I went to look at Mahatma Gandhi, who had done his best for forty years to translate those verses into his daily life. Seeing him, I understood that those “who see themselves in all and all in them” would simply not be capable of harming others. Augustine says daringly: “Love, then do what you like”: nothing will come out of you but goodness. I saw too what it meant to view one’s body with detachment: not indifference, but compassionate care as an instrument of service. I saw what it means to rest in the midst of intense action. Most important, I grasped one of the most refreshing ideas in Hindu mysticism: original goodness. Since the Self is the core of every personality, no one needs to acquire goodness or compassion; they are already there. All that is necessary is to remove the selfish habits that hide them.
Chapter 12 gives another portrait in its closing verses (12:13–20), and here we do get an inspiring list of the marks of those who follow the path of love:
That one I love who is incapable of ill will, who is friendly and compassionate. Living beyond the reach of I and mine and of pleasure and pain, patient, contented, self-controlled, firm in faith, with all their heart and with all their mind given to me – with such as these I am in love. (12:13–14)
And finally comes the passionate description with which the Gita ends, when Krishna tells Arjuna how to recognize the man or woman who has reached life’s supreme goal:
One who is free from selfish attachments, who has mastered himself and his passions, attains the supreme perfection of freedom from action. Listen and I shall explain now, Arjuna, how one who has attained perfection also attains Brahman, the supreme consummation of wisdom. (18:49–50)
These are not separate paths, separate ideals. All three passages describe one person: vital, active, compassionate, self-reliant in the highest sense, for he looks to the Self for everything and needs nothing from life but the opportunity to give. In brief, such a person knows who he is, and in that knowing is everything.
This is not running away from life, as is so often claimed. It is running into life, open-handed, open-armed: “flying, running, and rejoicing,” says Thomas à Kempis, for “he is free and will not be bound,” never entangled in self-doubts, conflict, or vacillation. Far from being desireless – look at Gandhi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa, St. Francis – the man or woman who realizes God has yoked all human passions to the overriding desire to give and love and serve; and in that unification we can see, not the extinction of personality, but its full blossoming. This is what it means to be fully human; our ordinary lives of stimulus and response, getting and spending, seem by comparison as faint as remembered dreams. This flowering of the spirit appeals, I think, to everyone. “This is the true joy in life,” says Bernard Shaw:
the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; . . . the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Instead of “Nature” with a capital N, of course, the Gita would say “an instrument of the Self”; but that is the only difference. One of the most appealing features of the Gita for our times is that it clears up misunderstandings about spiritual life and shows it for what it is: active, joyful, intentional, a middle path between extremes that transfigures everyday living.
Two forces pervade human life, the Gita says: the upward thrust of evolution and the downward pull of our evolutionary past. Ultimately, then, the Gita is not a book of commandments but a book of choices. It does mention sin, but mostly it talks about ignorance and its consequences. Krishna tells Arjuna about the Self, the forces of the mind, the relationship between thought and action, the law of karma, and then concludes, “Now, Arjuna, reflect on these words and then do as you choose” (18:63). The struggle is between two halves of human nature, and choices are posed every moment. Everyone who has accepted this challenge, I think, will testify that life offers no fiercer battle than this war within. We have no choice about fighting; it is built into human nature. But we do have the choice of which side to fight on:
Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. If you egotistically say, “I will not fight this battle,” your resolve will be useless; your own nature will drive you into it. (18:58–59)
Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. With your heart and mind intent on me, you will surely come to me. (8:7)
Thus the Gita places human destiny entirely in human hands. Its world is not deterministic, but neither is it an expression of blind chance: we shape ourselves and our world by what we believe and think and act on, whether for good or for ill. In this sense the Gita opens not on Kurukshetra but on dharmakshetra, the field of dharma, where Arjuna and Krishna are standing for us all.
This article consists of three excerpts from the introduction to Easwaran’s translation, The Bhagavad Gita.