The Bhagavad Gita
Translated by Eknath Easwaran
Vintage Books, 122pp., $15.00
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 in India 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 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 the 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, 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.
The Gita and its Setting
Historians surmise that like the Iliad, the Mahabharata might well be based on actual events, culminating in a war that took place somewhere around 1000 B.C. – close, that is, to the very dawn of recorded Indian history. This guess has recently been supported by excavations at the ancient city of Dvaraka, which, according to the Mahabharata, was destroyed and submerged in the sea after the departure of its divine ruler, Krishna. Only five hundred years or so before this, by generally accepted guess, Aryan tribes originally from the area between the Caspian Sea and the Hindu Kush mountains had migrated into the Indian subcontinent, bringing the prototype of the Sanskrit language and countless elements of belief and culture that have been part of the Hindu tradition ever since. The oldest part of the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, dates from this period – about 1500 B.C., if not earlier.
Yet the wellspring of Indian religious faith, I believe, can be traced to a much earlier epoch. When the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent through the mountains of the Hindu Kush, they encountered a civilization on the banks of the Indus river that archeologists date back as far as 3000 B.C. Roughly contemporaneous with the pyramid-builders on the Nile, these Indus-dwellers achieved a comparable level of technology. They had metalworkers skilled in sheet-making, riveting, and casting of copper and bronze, crafts and industries with standardized methods of production, land and sea trade with cultures as far away as Mesopotamia, and well-planned cities with water supply and public sanitation systems unequaled until the Romans. Evidence suggests that they may have used a decimal system of measurement. But most remarkable, images of Shiva as Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yoga, suggest that meditation was practiced in a civilization which flourished a millennium before the Vedas were committed to an oral tradition.
If this is so, it would imply that the same systematic attitude the Indus Valley dwellers applied to their technology was applied also to study of the mind. This was brahmavidya, the “supreme science” – supreme because where other sciences studied the external world, brahmavidya sought knowledge of an underlying reality which would inform all other studies and activities.
Whatever its origins, in the early part of the first millennium B.C. we find clearly stated both the methods and the discoveries of brahmavidya. With this introspective tool the inspired rishis (literally “seers”) of ancient India analyzed their awareness of human experience to see if there was anything in it that was absolute. Their findings can be summarized in three statements which Aldous Huxley, following Leibnitz, has called the Perennial Philosophy because they appear in every age and civilization: (1) there is an infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change; (2) this same reality lies at the core of every human personality; (3) the purpose of life is to dis- cover this reality experientially: that is, to realize God while here on earth. These principles and the interior experiments for realizing them were taught systematically in “forest academies” or ashrams – a tradition which continues unbroken after some three thousand years.
The discoveries of brahmavidya were systematically committed to memory (and eventually to writing) in the Upanishads, visionary documents that are the earliest and purest statement of the Perennial Philosophy. How many of these precious records once existed no one knows; a dozen that date from Vedic times have survived as part of the Hindu canon of authority, the four Vedas. All have one unmistakable hallmark: the vivid stamp of personal mystical experience. These are records of direct encounter with the divine. Tradition calls them shruti: literally “heard,” as opposed to learned; they are their own authority.
By convention, only the Vedas, including their Upanishads, are considered shruti, based on direct knowledge of God. According to this definition, all other Indian scriptures – including the Gita – are secondary, dependent on the higher authority of the Vedas. However, this is a conventional distinction and one that might disguise the nature of the documents it classifies. In the literal sense the Gita too is shruti, owing its authority not to other scriptures but to the fact that it set down the direct mystical experience of a single author. Shankara, a towering mystic of the ninth century A.D. whose word carries the authority of Augustine, Eckhart, and Aquinas all in one, must have felt this, for in selecting the minimum sources of Hinduism he passed over almost a hundred Upanishads of Vedic authority to choose ten central Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Gita, I would argue, is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer (traditionally Vyasa) and inserted into the epic at the appropriate place. Other elements were added in this way to the Mahabharata, and to other popular secondary scriptures; it is an effective way of preserving new material in an oral tradition. There is also traditional weight behind this idea, for as far back as anyone can trace, each chapter of the Gita has ended with the same formula: “In the Bhagavad-Gita Upanishad, the text on the supreme science [brahmavidya] of yoga, this is the chapter entitled . . .”
Finally, by way of further support, we can observe that except for its first chapter, which sets the stage, the Gita not only does not develop the action of the Mahabharata but is rather at odds with it. Battle lines are drawn – the climax of decades of dissension – and on the eve of combat, Prince Arjuna loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do. Then what? Krishna – no ordinary charioteer, but an incarnation of God – enters into some seven hundred verses of sublime instruction on the nature of the soul and its relation to God, the levels of consciousness and reality, the makeup of the phenomenal world, and so on, culminating in a stupendous mystical experience in which he reveals himself to Arjuna as the transcendent Lord of life and death. He counsels Arjuna to be compassionate to friend and enemy alike, to see himself in every person, to suffer others’ sorrows as his own. Then the Gita is over, the narration picks up again, and battle is joined – a terrible, desperate slaughter compromising everyone’s honor, by the end of which Arjuna’s side emerges victorious. But almost every man of fighting age on both sides has been slain. Only great genius would have placed the Gita in such a dramatic setting, but it stands out from the rest as a timeless, practical manual for daily living.
To those who take this dramatic setting as part of the spiritual instruction and get entangled in the question of the Gita justifying war, Gandhi had a practical answer: just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically and see if you find killing or even hurting others compatible with its teachings. (He makes the same point of the Sermon on the Mount.) The very heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and act accordingly, and the scripture is full of verses to spell out what this means:
I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me (6:30–31).
When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union (6:32).
That one I love who is incapable of ill will, who is friendly and compassionate . . . . who looks upon friend and foe with equal regard (12:13, 18).
He alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every creature, who see the Deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Thus they attain the supreme goal (13:27–28).
Scholars can debate the point forever, but when the Gita is practiced, I think, it becomes clear that the struggle the Gita is concerned with is the struggle for self-mastery. It was Vyasa’s genius to take the whole great Mahabharata epic and see it as metaphor for the perennial war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in every human heart. Arjuna and Krishna are then no longer merely characters in a literary masterpiece.
Arjuna becomes Everyman, asking the Lord himself, Sri Krishna, the perennial questions about life and death – not as a philosopher, but as the quintessential man of action. Thus read, the Gita is not an external dialogue but an internal one: between the ordinary human personality, full of questions about the meaning of life, and our deepest Self, which is divine.
There is, in fact, no other way to read the Gita and grasp it as spiritual instruction. If I could offer only one key to understanding this divine dialogue, it would be to remember that it takes place in the depths of consciousness and that Krishna is not some external being, human or super-human, but the spark of divinity that lies at the core of the human personality. This is not literary or philosophical conjecture; Krishna says as much to Arjuna over and over: “I am the Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence” (10:20).
In such statements the Gita distills the essence of the Upanishads, not piecemeal but comprehensively, offering their lofty insights as a manual not of philosophy but of everyday human activity – a handbook of the Perennial Philosophy unique in world history.
The Upanishadic Background
The Gita, naturally enough, takes for granted that its audience is familiar with the basic ideas of Hindu religious thought, almost all of which can be found in the Upanishads. It also uses some technical vocabulary from yoga psychology. All this needs to be explained in contemporary terms if the modern reader is to grasp what is essential and timeless in the Gita’s message and not get bogged down in strange terminology.
First, however, the non-Hindu faces a third obstacle: the multiplicity of names used for aspects of God. From the earliest times, Hinduism has proclaimed one God while accommodating worship of him (or her, for to millions God is the Divine Mother) in many different names. “Truth is one,” says a famous verse of the Rig Veda; “people call it by various names.” Monastic devotees might find that Shiva embodies the austere detachment they seek; devotees who want to live “in the world,” partaking of its innocent pleasures but devoted to service of their fellow creatures, might find in Krishna the perfect incarnation of their ideals. In every case, this clothing of the Infinite in human form serves to focus a devotee’s love and to provide an inspiring ideal. But whatever form is worshipped, it is only an aspect of the same one God.
In the Gita – in fact, virtually everywhere in Hindu myth and scripture – we also encounter “the gods” in the plural. These are the devas, deities which seem to have come in with the Aryans and which have recognizable counterparts in other Aryan-influenced cultures: Indra, god of war and storm; Varuna, god of waters and a moral overseer; Agni, god of fire, the Hermes-like intermediary between heaven and earth; and so on. The Gita refers to the devas as being worshipped by those who want to propitiate natural and supernatural powers, in much the same way that ancestors were worshipped. In modern terms, they can best be understood as personifying the forces of nature.
This question out of the way, we can proceed to the Upanishadic background the Gita assumes.
Atman and Brahman
The Upanishads are not systematic philosophy; they are more like ecstatic slide shows of mystical experience – vivid, disjointed, stamped with the power of direct personal encounter with the divine. If they seem to embrace contradictions, that is because they do not try to smooth over the seams of these experiences. They simply set down what the rishis saw, viewing the ultimate reality from different levels of spiritual awareness, like snapshots of the same object from different angles: now seeing God as utterly transcendent, for example, now seeing God as immanent as well. These differences are not important, and the Upanishads agree on their central ideas: Brahman, the Godhead; Atman, the divine core of personality; dharma, the law that expresses and maintains the unity of creation; karma, the web of cause and effect; samsara, the cycle of birth and death; moksha, the spiritual liberation that is life’s supreme goal.
Even while ancient India was making breakthroughs in the natural sciences and mathematics, the sages of the Upanishads were turning inward to analyze the data that nature presents to the mind. Penetrating below the senses, they found not a world of solid, separate objects but a ceaseless process of change – matter coming together, dissolving, and coming together again in a different form. Below this flux of things with “name and form,” however, they found something changeless: an infinite, indivisible reality in which the transient data of the world cohere. They called this reality Brahman: the Godhead, the divine ground of existence.
This analysis of the phenomenal world tallies well enough with contemporary physics. A physicist would remind us that the things we see “out there” are not ultimately separate from each other and from us; we perceive them as separate because of the limitations of our senses. If our eyes were sensitive to a much finer spectrum, we might see the world as a continuous field of matter and energy. Nothing in this picture resembles a solid object in our usual sense of the word. “The external world of physics,” wrote Sir Arthur Eddington, “has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions we remove the substance, for indeed we have seen that substance is one of the greatest of our illusions.”
Like the physicists, these ancient sages were seeking an invariant. They found it in Brahman. In examining our knowledge of ourselves, the sages made a similar discovery. Instead of a single coherent personality, they found layer on layer of components – senses, emotions, will, intellect, ego – each in flux. At different times and in different company, the same person seems to have different personalities. Moods shift and flicker, even in those who are emotionally stable; desires and opinions change with time. Change is the nature of the mind. The sages observed this flow of thoughts and sensations and asked, “Then where am I?” The parts do not add up to a whole; they just flow by. Like physical phenomena, the mind is a field of forces, no more the seat of intelligence than radiation or gravity is. Just as the world dissolves into a sea of energy, the mind dissolves into a river of impressions and thoughts, a flow of fragmentary data that do not hold together.
Western philosophers have reasoned their way to a similar conclusion, but with them it was an intellectual exercise. David Hume confesses that whenever he was forced to conclude that his empirical ego was insubstantial, he went out for a walk, had a good dinner, and forgot all about it. For these ancient sages, however, these were not logical conclusions but personal discoveries. They were actually exploring the mind, testing each level of awareness by withdrawing consciousness to the level below. In profound meditation, they found, when consciousness is so acutely focused that it is utterly withdrawn from the body and mind, it enters a kind of singularity in which the sense of a separate ego disappears. In this state, the supreme climax of meditation, the seers discovered a core of consciousness beyond time and change. They called it, simply, Atman, the Self. I have described the discovery of Atman and Brahman – God immanent and God transcendent – as separate, but there is no real distinction.
In the climax of meditation the sages discovered unity, the same indivisible reality without and within. It was understood as advaita: “not two.” The Chandogya Upanishad says epigrammatically, Tat tvam asi: “Thou art That.”
Atman is Brahman: the Self in each person is not different from the Godhead. Nor is it different from person to person. The Self is one, the same in every creature. This is not some peculiar tenet of the Hindu scriptures; it is the testimony of everyone who has undergone these experiments in the depths of consciousness and followed them through to the end. Here is Ruysbroeck, a great mystic of medieval Europe; every word is most carefully chosen:
The image of God is found essentially and personally in all mankind. Each possesses it whole, entire and undivided, and all together not more than one alone. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us of all our life.
In the unitive experience, every trace of separateness disappears; life is a seamless whole. But the body cannot remain in this state for long. After a while, awareness of mind and body returns, and then the conventional world of multiplicity rushes in again with such vigor and vividness that the memory of unity, though stamped with reality, seems as distant as a dream. The unitive state has to be entered over and over until a person is established in it. But once established, even in the midst of ordinary life, one sees the One underlying the many, the Eternal beneath the ephemeral.
What is it that makes undivided reality appear to be a world of separate, transient objects? What makes each of us believe that we are the body rather than our own Self? The sages answered with a story still told after thousands of years. Imagine, they said, a man dreaming that he is being attacked by a tiger. His pulse will race, his fists will clench, his forehead will be wet with the dew of fear – all just as if the attack were real. He will be able to describe the look of his tiger, the way he smelled, the sound of his roar. For him the tiger is real, and in a sense he is not wrong: the evidence he has is not qualitatively different from the kind of evidence we trust when we are awake. People have even died from the physiological effects of a potent dream. Only when we wake up can we realize that our dream-sensations, though real to our nervous system, are a lower level of reality than the waking state.
The Upanishads delineate three ordinary states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. Each is real, but each has a higher order of reality. For beyond these three, the Upanishads say, is the unitive state, called simply “the fourth”: turiya. Entering this state is similar to waking up out of dream sleep: the individual passes from a lower level of reality to a higher one. The sages called the dream of waking life – the dream of separate, merely physical existence – by a suggestive name, maya. In general use the word meant a kind of magic, the power of a god or sorcerer to make a thing appear to be something else. In the Gita, maya becomes the creative power of the Godhead, the primal creative energy that makes unity appear as the world of innumerable separate things with “name and form.” Later philosophers explained maya in surprisingly contemporary terms. The mind, they said, observes the so-called outside world and sees its own structure. It reports that the world consists of a multiplicity of separate objects in a framework of time, space, and causality because these are the conditions of perception. In a word, the mind looks at unity and sees diversity; it looks at what is timeless and reports transience. And, in fact, the percepts of its experience are diverse and transient; on this level of experience, separateness is real. Our mistake is in taking this for ultimate reality, like the dreamer thinking that nothing is real except his dream.
Nowhere has this “mysterious Eastern notion” been formulated more succinctly than in the epigram of Ruysbroeck: “We behold what we are, and we are what we behold.” When we look at unity through the instruments of the mind, we see diversity; when the mind is transcended, we enter a higher mode of knowing – turiya, the fourth state of consciousness – in which duality disappears. This does not mean, however, that the phenomenal world is an illusion or unreal. The illusion is the sense of separateness. Here again we can illustrate from physics: the world of “name and form” exists only as a condition of perception; at the subatomic level, separate phenomena dissolve into a flux of energy. The effect of maya is similar. The world of the senses is real, but it must be known for what it is: unity appearing as multiplicity. Those who disidentify themselves with the conditions of perception in maya wake up into a higher mode of knowing in which the unity of life is apprehended directly.
The disciplines for achieving this are called yoga, as is the state of union: the word comes from the root yuj, to yoke or bind together. The “experience” itself (properly speaking, it is beyond experience) is called samadhi. And the state attained is moksha or nirvana, both of which signify going beyond the conditioning of maya – time, space, and causality.
In this state we realize that we are not a physical creature but the Atman, the Self, and thus not separate from God. We see the world not as pieces but whole, and we see that whole as a manifestation of God. Once identified with the Self, we know that although the body will die, we will not die; our awareness of this identity is not ruptured by the death of the physical body. Thus we have realized the essential immortality which is the birthright of every human being. To such a person, the Gita says, death is no more traumatic than taking off an old coat (2:13, 22).
Life cannot offer any higher realization. The supreme goal of human existence has been attained. The man or woman who realizes God has everything and lacks nothing: having this, “they desire nothing else, and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow” (6:22). Life cannot threaten such a person; all it holds is the opportunity to love, to serve, and to give.
Dharma, Karma, Rebirth, and Liberation
It has been said that if you understand just two words, dharma and karma, you will have grasped the essence of Hinduism. This is a simplification, but it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of these concepts. Both are deeply embedded in Hindu thought, and the Gita, like other Hindu scriptures, takes them for granted, not as theoretical premises but as facts of life that can be verified in personal experience. The word dharma means many things, but its underlying sense is “that which supports,” from the root dhri, to support, hold up, or bear. Generally, dharma implies support from within: the essence of a thing, its virtue, that which makes it what it is.
An old story illumines this meaning with the highest ideal of Hinduism. A sage, seated beside the Ganges, notices a scorpion that has fallen into the water. He reaches down and rescues it, only to be stung. Sometime later he looks down and sees the scorpion thrashing about in the water again. Once more he reaches down to rescue it, and once more he is stung. A bystander, observing all this, exclaims, “Holy one, why do you keep doing that? Don’t you see that the wretched creature will only sting you in return?” “Of course,” the sage replied. “It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting. But it is the dharma of a human being to save.”
On a larger scale, dharma means the essential order of things, an integrity and harmony in the universe and the affairs of life that cannot be disturbed without courting chaos. Thus it means rightness, justice, goodness, purpose rather than chance.
Underlying this idea is the oneness of life: the Upanishadic discovery that all things are interconnected because at its deepest level creation is indivisible. This oneness bestows a basic balance on the whole of nature such that any disturbance in one place has to send ripples everywhere, as a perfect bubble, touched lightly in one place, trembles all over until balance is restored. The implications are caught perfectly by those famous lines from John Donne, which deserve to be read now with a fresh eye as not merely great rhetoric but a faithful representation of reality:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
There is an ancient Sanskrit epigram, Ahimsa paramo dharma: the highest dharma is ahimsa, nonviolence, universal love for all living creatures; for every kind of violence is a violation of dharma, the fundamental law of the unity of life.
Thus every act or thought has consequences, which themselves will have consequences; life is the most intricate web of interconnections. This is the law of karma, one of the most important and least understood ideas in ancient Indian thought. Karma is repeated so often in the Gita that I want to illustrate it in some detail: some intuitive sense of karma as an organic law makes Krishna’s teachings a good deal clearer.
Literally, the Sanskrit karma means something that is done. Often it can be translated as deed or action. The law of karma states simply that every event is both a cause and an effect. Every act has consequences of a similar kind, which in turn have further consequences and so on; and every act, every karma, is also the consequence of some previous karma.
This refers not only to physical action but to mental activity as well. In their analysis of the phenomenal world and the world within, the sages of the Upanishads found that there is not merely an accidental but an essential relationship between mental and physical activity. Given appropriate conditions to develop further, thoughts breed actions of the same kind, as a seed can grow only into one particular kind of tree.
Plainly put, the law of karma says that whatever you do will come back to you. No one, of course, has the omniscience to see the picture fully. But the idea of a network of connections, far from being occult, is natural and plausible. The law of karma states unequivocally that though we cannot see the connections, we can be sure that everything that happens to us, good and bad, originated once in something we did or thought. We ourselves are responsible for what happens to us, whether or not we can understand how. It follows that we can change what happens to us by changing ourselves; we can take our destiny into our own hands.
The physical side of karma, however, only touches the surface of life. To get an inkling of how karma really works, we have to consider the mind. Everything we do produces karma in the mind. In fact, it is in the mind rather than the world that karma’s seeds are planted. Aptly, Indian philosophy compares a thought to a seed: very tiny, but it can grow into a huge, deep-rooted, wide-spreading tree. I have seen places where a seed in a crack of a pavement grew into a tree that tore up the sidewalk. It is difficult to remove such a tree, and terribly difficult to undo the effects of a lifetime of negative thinking, which can extend into many other people’s lives. But it can be done, and the purpose of the Gita is to show how.
Karma is sometimes considered punitive, a matter of getting one’s just desserts. This is accurate enough, but it is much more illuminating to con- sider karma an educative force whose purpose is to teach the individual to act in harmony with dharma – not to pursue selfish interests at the expense of others, but to contribute to life and consider the welfare of the whole. In this sense life is like a school; one can learn, one can graduate, one can skip a grade or stay behind. As long as a debt of karma remains, however, a person has to keep coming back for further education. That is the basis of samsara, the cycle of birth and death.
A good many wrong and misleading words have been written on this subject, largely because of the fascination it seems to hold in the West. Rightly understood, however, reincarnation is not exotic but quite natural. If personality consists of several sheaths, the body being only the outermost, there is no reason why personality should die when the body is shed. The sages of the Upanishads saw personality as a field of forces. Packets of karma to them are forces that have to work themselves out; if the process is interrupted by death, those forces remain until conditions allow them to work again in a new context.
Again, sleep can illustrate the dynamics of this idea. In sleep a person passes in and out of two stages, dreaming and dreamless sleep. In the first, consciousness is withdrawn from the body and senses but still engaged in the mind. In dreamless sleep, however, consciousness is withdrawn from the mind as well. Then the thinking process – even the sense of “I” – is temporarily suspended, and consciousness is said to rest in the Self. In this state a person ceases to be a separate creature, a separate personality. In dreamless sleep, the Upanishads say, a king is not a king nor a pauper poor; no one is old or young, male or female, educated or ignorant. When consciousness returns to the mind, however, the thinking process starts up again, and personality returns to the body.
According to this analysis, the ego dies every night. Every morning we pick up our desires where we left off: the same person, yet a little different too. The Upanishads describe dying as a very similar process. Consciousness is withdrawn from the body into the senses, from the senses into the mind, and finally consolidated in the ego; when the body is finally wrenched away, the ego remains, a potent package of desires and karma. And as our last waking thoughts shape our dreams, the contents of the unconscious at the time of death – the residue of all that we have thought and desired and lived for in the past – determine the context of our next life. We take a body again, the sages say, to come back to just the conditions where our desires and karma can be fulfilled. The Self-realized person, however, has no karma to work out, no personal desires; at the time of death he or she is absorbed into the Lord:
But they for whom I am the supreme goal, who do all work renouncing self for me and meditate on me with single-hearted devotion, these I will swiftly rescue from the fragment’s cycle of birth and death, for their consciousness has entered into me (12:6–7).
Such a person, the Upanishads stress, can actually shed the body voluntarily when the hour of death arrives, by withdrawing consciousness step by step in full awareness. Some of the Gita’s most fascinating verses, for those who can interpret them, are Krishna’s instructions on how to die (8:12–13).
In trying to describe their discoveries, the Upanishadic seers developed a specialized vocabulary. Their terms were later elaborated by mystics who were also brilliant philosophers – Kapila, Shankara, and others, the ancient Indian counterparts of authorities like Augustine and Aquinas in the West. The most useful part of this vocabulary comes from Sankhya, the philosophical system whose practical counterpart is the school of meditation called Yoga. Both are traditionally traced to one towering authority, Kapila, and have much in common with Buddhist philosophy. An ancient saying celebrates their practicality: “There is no theory like Sankhya, no practice like Yoga.”
The Gita does not belong to the Sankhya school or to any other; it is as comprehensive as the Upanishads. But Sankhya provides a precise vocabulary for describing the workings of the mind, and the Gita draws on that vocabulary freely.
Sankhya philosophy posits two separate categories: Purusha, spirit, and prakriti, everything else. This is not the Western mind-matter distinction. Prakriti is the field of what can be known objectively, the field of phenomena, the world of whatever has “name and form”: that is, not only of matter and energy but also of the mind. As physics postulates a unified field from which all phenomena can be derived, Sankhya describes a field that includes mental phenomena as well. Mind, energy, and matter all be-long to a field of forces. Purusha, pure spirit, is the knower of this field of phenomena, and belongs to a wholly different order of reality. Only Purusha is conscious – or, rather, Purusha is consciousness itself. What we call “mind” is only an internal instrument that Purusha uses, just as the body is its external instrument. For practical purposes – at least as far as the Gita is concerned – Purusha may be regarded as a synonym for Atman. Purusha is the Self, beyond all change, the same in every creature.
The Forces of Evolution
Sankhya describes prakriti as a field of forces called gunas – a concept that gets a good deal of attention in the Gita. According to Sankhya, the evolution of primordial prakriti into mind and matter begins when the equilibrium of prakriti is disturbed. In Hindu myth this is the dawn of the Day of Brahma (8:17–21), a period of explosive expansion not unlike the Big Bang of modern cosmology. At this instant of creation, thrown into imbalance, prakriti differentiates itself into three basic states or qualities of primordial energy. These are the gunas. Every state of matter and mind is a combination of these three: tamas, inertia; rajas, activity; and sattva, harmony or equilibrium. These are only rough translations, for the gunas have no equivalent in any other philosophy I know.
The gunas can be illustrated by comparison with the three states of matter in classical physics: solid, liquid, and gas. Tamas is frozen energy, the resistance of inertia. A block of ice has a good deal of energy in the chemical bonds that hold it together, but the energy is locked in, bound up, rigid. When the ice melts, some of that energy is released as the water flows; rajas, activity, is like a swollen river, full of uncontrolled power. And sattva, harmony, can be compared with steam when its power is harnessed. These are very imprecise parallels, but they convey an important point about the gunas: all three are states of energy, and each can be converted into the others.
Guna means strand, and in the Gita the gunas are described as the very fabric of existence, the veil that hides unity in a covering of diversity. Tamas is maya’s power of concealment, the darkness or ignorance that hides unitive reality; rajas distracts and scatters awareness, turning it away from reality toward the diversity of the outside world. Thus the gunas are essentially born of the mind. When the mind’s activity is stilled, we see life as it is. We can also think of the gunas as different levels of consciousness. Tamas, the lowest level, is the vast unconscious, a chaotic dumping ground for the residue of past mental states. “Unconscious” in this sense has something in common with Jung’s collective unconscious, in that it is the repository not only of past experiences but also of our evolutionary heritage, the basic drives of the human being’s animal past.
This record is shared, of course, by all human beings, and at its deepest levels the unconscious is universal. There is no choice in tamas, no awareness; this is complete ignorance of the unity of life, ignorance of any other need than one’s own basic urges. Rajas is what we ordinarily mean by mind, the incessant stream of thought that races along, desiring, worrying, resenting, scheming, competing, frustrating and getting frustrated. Rajas is power released, but uncontrolled and egocentric. Sattva, finally, is the so-called higher mind – detached, unruffled, self-controlled. This is not a state of repressive regulation, but the natural harmony that comes with unity of purpose, character, and desire. Negative states of mind do still come up, prompted by tamas and rajas, but there is no need to act on them.
According to Sankhya, everything in the world of mind and matter is an expression of all three gunas, with one guna always predominant. This becomes particularly interesting in describing personality as a field of forces. The rajasic person is full of energy; the tamasic person is sluggish, indifferent, insensitive; the sattvic person, calm, resourceful, compassionate, and selfless. Yet all three are always present at some level of awareness, and their proportions change: their interplay is the dynamics of personality. The same individual will have times when he is bursting with energy and times when inertia descends and paralyzes his will, times when he is thoughtful and other times when he is moving so fast that he never notices those around him. The person is the same; he is simply experiencing the play of the gunas.
As long as he identifies with his body and mind, he is at the mercy of this play. But the Self is not involved in the gunas’ interaction; it is witness rather than participant:
Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play (13:14).
The gunas form the basis of the most compassionate account of human nature I have come across in any philosophy or psychology, East or West. They not only explain differences in character; they describe the basic forces of personality and allow the possibility of reshaping ourselves after a higher ideal. Because personality is a process, the human being is constantly remaking himself or herself. Left to itself, the mind goes on repeating the same old habitual patterns of personality. By training the mind, however, anyone can learn to step in and change old ways of thinking; that is the central principle of yoga:
Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will. The will is the only friend of the Self, and the will is the only enemy of the Self (6:5).
The Gita speaks of this kind of growth as part of spiritual evolution. In its natural state, consciousness is a continuous flow of awareness. But through the distorting action of the gunas, we have fallen from this native state into fragmented, sometimes stagnant awareness. Seeing through a divided mind, we see life divided wherever we look: separate selves, antagonistic interests, conflicts within ourselves. Evolution, according to the Gita, is a painfully slow return to our native state. First tamas must be transformed into rajas – apathy and insensitiveness into energetic, enthusiastic activity. But the energy of rajas is self-centered and dispersed; it must be harnessed to a higher ideal by the will. Then it becomes sattva, when all this passionate energy is channeled into selfless action. This state is marked by happiness, a calm mind, abundant vitality, and the concentration of genius.
But even this is not the end. The goal of evolution is to return to unity: that is, to still the mind. Then the soul rests in pure, unitary consciousness, which is a state of permanent joy:
In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself. Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment (6:20).
The Essence of the Gita
The Gita does not present a system of philosophy. It offers something to every seeker after God, of whatever temperament, by whatever path. The reason for this universal appeal is that it is basically practical: it is a handbook for Self-realization and a guide to action.
Some scholars will find practicality a tall claim, because the Gita is full of lofty and even abstruse philosophy. Yet even its philosophy is not there to satisfy intellectual curiosity; it is meant to explain to spiritual aspirants why they are asked to undergo certain disciplines. Like any handbook, the Gita makes most sense when it is practiced.
As the traditional chapter titles put it, the Gita is brahmavidyayam yogashastra, a textbook on the supreme science of yoga. But yoga is a word with many meanings – as many, perhaps, as there are paths to Self-realization. What kind of yoga does the Gita teach?
The common answer is that it presents three yogas, or even four – the four main paths of Hindu mysticism. In jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, aspirants use their will and discrimination to disidentify themselves from the body, mind, and senses until they know they are nothing but the Self. The followers of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, achieve the same goal by identifying themselves completely with the Lord in love; by and large, this is the path taken by most of the mystics of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, the aspirants dissolve their identification with body and mind by identifying with the whole of life, forgetting the finite self in the service of others. And the followers of raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, discipline the mind and senses until the mind-process is suspended in a healing stillness and they merge in the Self.
Indians like to classify, and the eighteen chapters of the Gita are said to break into three six-chapter parts. The first third, according to this, deals with karma yoga, the second with jnana yoga, and the last with bhakti yoga: that is, the Gita begins with the way of selfless action, passes into the way of Self-knowledge, and ends with the way of love. This scheme is not tight, and non-Hindu readers may find it difficult to discover in the text. But the themes are there, and Krishna clearly shifts his emphasis as he goes on using this one word yoga. Here he focuses on transcendental knowledge, there on selfless action, here on meditation, there on love.
Thus the Gita offers something for every kind of spiritual aspirant, and for two thousand years each of the major schools of Indian philosophy has quoted the Gita in defense of its particular claims. This fluidity sometimes exasperates scholars, who feel the Gita contradicts itself. It also puzzled Arjuna, the faithful representative of you and me. “Krishna,” he says at the beginning of Chapter 3, “you’ve been telling me that knowledge [jnana] is better than action [karma]; so why do you urge me into such terrible action? Your words are inconsistent; they confuse me. Tell me one path to the highest good” (3:1–2). No doubt he speaks for every reader at this point, and for those who go on wanting one path only, the confusion simply grows worse.
For those who try to practice the Gita, however, there is a thread of inner consistency running through Krishna’s advice. Like a person walking around the same object, the Gita takes more than one point of view. Whenever Krishna describes one of the traditional paths to God he looks at it from the inside, extolling its virtues over the others. For the time being, that is the path; when he talks about yoga, he means that one particular yoga. Thus “this ancient word” yoga, says Gandhi’s intimate friend and secretary, Mahadev Desai,
is pressed by the Gita into service to mean the entire gamut of human endeavor to storm the gates of heaven. . . . [It means] the yoking of all the powers of the body and the mind and soul to God; it means the discipline of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, the will, which such a yoking presupposes; it means a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects and evenly.
The Gita brings together all the specialized senses of the word yoga to emphasize their common meaning: the sum of what one must do to realize the Self. The thread through Krishna’s teaching, the essence of the Gita, can be given in one word: renunciation. This is the common factor in the four yogas. It is a bleak word in English, conjuring up the austerity and self-deprivation enjoined on the monastic orders – the “poverty, chastity, and obedience” so perfectly embodied by Francis of Assisi. When the Gita promises “freedom through renunciation,” the impression most of us get is that we are being asked to give up everything we want out of life; in this drab state, having lost whatever we value, we will be free from sorrow. Who wants that kind of freedom?
But this is not at all what the Gita means. It does not even enjoin material renunciation, although it certainly encourages simplicity. As always, its emphasis is on the mind. It teaches that we can become free by giving up not material things, but selfish attachments to material things – and, more important, to people. It asks us to renounce not the enjoyment of life, but the clinging to selfish enjoyment whatever it may cost others. It pleads, in a word, for the renunciation of selfishness in thought, word, and action – a theme that is common to all mystics, West and East alike.
Mahatma Gandhi encapsulates the Gita’s message in one phrase: nishkama karma, selfless action, work free from any selfish motives. In this special sense, whatever path the Gita is presenting at a given time, it remains essentially a manual of karma yoga, for it is addressed to the person who wants to realize God without giving up an active life in the world.
In the Gita, the four traditional yogas are not watertight compartments, and in practice, all of them blend and support each other on the path to Self-realization. Nishkama karma means literally work that is without kama, that is, without selfish desire. This word kama – indeed the whole idea of desire in Hindu and Buddhist psychology – is frequently misunderstood. These religions, it is sometimes held, teach an ideal of desireless action, a nirvana equated with the extinction of all desires. This drab view is far from the truth. Desire is the fuel of life; without desire nothing can be achieved, let alone so stupendous a feat as Self-realization. Kama is not desire; it is selfish desire. The Buddha calls it tanha, “thirst”: the fierce, compulsive craving for personal satisfaction that demands to be slaked at any cost, whether to oneself or to others.
Thus, the concept also includes what Western mystics call self-will – the naked ego insisting on getting what it wants for its own gratification. The Gita teaches simply that this selfish craving is what makes a person feel separate from the rest of life. When it is extinguished – the literal meaning of nirvana – the mask of the transient, petty empirical ego falls, revealing our real Self. Work hard in the world without any selfish attachment, the Gita counsels, and you will purify your consciousness of self-will. In this way any man or woman can gradually attain freedom from the bondage of selfish conditioning.
This is a mental discipline, not just a physical one, and I want to repeat that to understand the Gita, it is important to look beneath the surface of its injunctions and see the mental state involved. Nishkama karma is not “good works” or philanthropic activity; work can benefit others and still carry a substantial measure of ego involvement. Such work is good, but it is not yoga. It may benefit others, but it will not necessarily benefit the doer. Everything depends on the state of mind. Action without selfish motive purifies the mind: the doer is less likely to be ego-driven later. The same action done with a selfish motive entangles a person further, precisely by strengthening that motive so it is more likely to prompt selfish action again.
In the Gita this is said in many ways, and from differences in language it may seem that Krishna is giving different pieces of advice. In practice, however, it becomes evident that these are only various ways of saying the same thing.
To begin with, Krishna often tells Arjuna to “renounce the fruits of action” (karma-phala):
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind (2:47–48).
“Fruits,” of course, means the outcome. What Krishna means is to give up attachment to the results of what you do: that is, to give your best to every undertaking without insisting that the results work out the way you want, or even whether what you do is pleasant or unpleasant. “You have the right to action, but not to the fruits of action”: each of us has the obligation to act rightly, but no power to dictate what is to come of what we do. Mahatma Gandhi explains with the authority of his personal experience:
By detachment I mean that you must not worry whether the desired result follows from your action or not, so long as your motive is pure, your means correct. Really, it means that things will come right in the end if you take care of the means and leave the rest to Him. “But renunciation of fruit,” Gandhi warns, in no way means indifference to the result. In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He who, being thus equipped, is without desire for the result and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him, is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.
This attitude frees us completely. Whatever comes – success or failure, praise or blame, victory or defeat – we can give our best with a clear, unruffled mind. Nothing can shake our courage or break our will; no setback can depress us or make us feel “burned out.” Clearly, as the Gita says, “Yoga is skill in action” (2:50).
Only the person who is utterly detached and utterly dedicated, Gandhi says, is free to enjoy life. Asked to sum up his life “in twenty-five words or less,” he replied, “I can do it in three!” and quoted the Isha Upanishad: “Renounce and enjoy.” Those who are compulsively attached to the results of action cannot really enjoy what they do; they get downcast when things do not work out and cling more desperately when they do.
So the Gita classifies the karma of attachment as pleasant at first, but “bitter as poison in the end” (18:38), because of the painful bondage of conditioning. Again, Krishna repeatedly tells Arjuna to surrender everything to him in love. But this is not different advice, merely different words. Krishna is asking Arjuna to act entirely for His sake, not for any personal gain. The whole point of the path of love is to transform motivation from “I, I, I” to “thou, thou, thou” – that is, to surrender selfish attachments by dissolving them in the desire to give. Krishna puts this most beautifully in the famous verses of Chapter 9 which begin, “Whatever you do, make it an offering to me” (9:27). Do it, that is, not for personal reward but out of love for the Lord, present in every creature. “Whatever you eat, whatever worship you perform, whatever you give, whatever you suffer”: everything is to be done and given and endured and enjoyed for the sake of the Lord in all, not for ourselves. Manmana: this is the refrain of the Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna repeatedly, “Fill your mind with me, focus every thought on me, think of me always”; then “you will be united with me” (see 9:34). The same injunction was given to Moses and reiterated by Jesus and Mohammed. In practical terms, it means that awareness will be integrated down to the deepest recesses of the unconscious, which is precisely the significance of the word yoga.
Meister Eckhart says eloquently of this state:
Whoever has God in mind, simply and solely God, in all things, such a man carries God with him into all his works and into all places, and God alone does all his works. He seeks nothing but God; nothing seems good to him but God. He becomes one with God in every thought. Just as no multiplicity can dissipate God, so nothing can dissipate this man or make him multiple.
Thus we arrive at the idea of “actionless action”: of persons so established in identification with the Self that in the midst of tireless service of those around them, they remain in inner peace, the still witness of action. They do not act, the Gita says; it is the Self that acts through them: “They alone see truly who see that all actions are performed by prakriti, while the Self remains unmoved” (13:29).
Again, this is a universal testimony. Here is one of the most active of mystics, St. Catherine of Genoa:
When the soul is naughted and transformed, then of herself she neither works nor speaks nor wills, nor feels nor hears nor understands; neither has she of herself the feeling of outward or inward, where she may move. And in all things it is God who rules and guides her, without the mediation of any creature. And the state of this soul is then a feeling of such utter peace and tranquility that it seems to her that her heart, and her bodily being, and all both within and without, is immersed in an ocean of utmost peace. . . . And she is so full of peace that though she press her flesh, her nerves, her bones, no other thing comes forth from them than peace.
Again, when the Gita talks about “inaction in the midst of action” (4:18, etc.), we can call on Ruysbroeck to illumine the seeming paradox. The person who has realized God, he says, mirrors both His aspects: “tranquility according to His essence, activity according to His nature: absolute repose, absolute fecundity.” And he adds,
The interior person lives his life according to these two ways; that is to say, in rest and in work. And in each of them he is wholly and undividedly; for he dwells wholly in God in virtue of his restful fruition and wholly in himself in virtue of his active love. . . . This is the supreme summit of the inner life.
This is the only kind of inaction the Gita recommends. It is action of the most tireless kind; the only thing inactive is the ego. To live without the daily sacrifice (yajna) of selfless service – to work just for oneself, or worse, to do nothing at all – is simply to be a thief (3:12).
It is not possible to do nothing, Krishna says; the very nature of the mind is incessant activity. The Gita’s goal is to harness this activity in selfless service, removing the poisonous agency of the ego: “As long as one has a body, one cannot renounce action altogether. True renunciation is giving up all desire for personal reward” (18:11). Meister Eckhart explains,
To be right, a person must do one of two things: either he must learn to have God in his work and hold fast to him there, or he must give up his work altogether. Since, however, man cannot live without activities that are both human and various, we must learn to keep God in everything we do, and whatever the job or place, keep on with him, letting nothing stand in our way.
It would be difficult to find a better summary of the Gita’s message anywhere – and this, incidentally, from someone considered to represent the path of knowledge. Krishna wraps all this up in one famous verse: “Abandon all supports and look to me for protection. I shall purify you from the sins of the past; do not grieve” (18:66).
Krishna is the Self; the words mean simply to cast aside external props and dependencies and rely on the Self alone, seeking strength nowhere but within. Why does selfless action lead to Self-realization? It is not a matter of “good” action being divinely rewarded. Self-realization is not some kind of compensation for good deeds. We can understand the dynamics if we remember that the Gita’s emphasis is on the mind. Most human activity, good and bad, is tainted by ego-involvement. Such activity cannot purify consciousness, because it goes on generating new karma in the mind – in practical terms, we go on getting entangled in what we do. Selfless work purifies consciousness because when there is no trace of ego involvement, new karma is not produced; the mind is simply working out the karma it has already accumulated. Shankara illustrates this with the simile of a potter’s wheel. The ego’s job is to go on incessantly spinning the wheel of the mind and making karma-pots: new ideas to act on, fresh desires to pursue. When this pointless activity stops, no more pots are made, but for a while the wheel of the mind goes on spinning out of the momentum of its past karma. This is an anguishing period in the life of every mystic: you have done everything you can; now you can only wait with a kind of impatient patience. Eventually, for no reason that one can understand, the wheel does come to a stop, dis-solving the mind-process in samadhi.
A Higher Image
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 this 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 as 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 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 the spiritual life and shows it for what it is: active, joyful, intentional, a middle path between extremes that transfigures everyday living.
Faith and Spiritual Evolution
One last untranslatable concept and I will let the Gita speak for itself. That concept is shraddha, and its nearest English equivalent is faith. I have translated it as such, but shraddha means much more. It is literally “that which is placed in the heart”: all the beliefs we hold so deeply that we never think to question them. It is the set of values, axioms, prejudices, and prepossessions that colors our perceptions, governs our thinking, dictates our responses, and shapes our lives, generally without our even being aware of its presence and power.
This may sound philosophical, but shraddha is not an intellectual abstraction. It is our very substance. The Gita says, “A person is what his shraddha is” (17:3). The Bible uses almost the same words: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Shraddha reflects everything that we have made ourselves and points to what we have become.
But there is nothing passive about shraddha. It is full of potency, for it prompts action, conditions behavior, and determines how we see and therefore respond to the world around us. When Norman Cousins talks about a “belief system” analogous to the body’s organ systems, that is one aspect of shraddha; he is referring to the power to heal or harm that is inherent in our ideas of ourselves. One person with a serious illness believes he has a contribution to make to the world and so he recovers; another believes his life is worthless and he dies: that is the power of shraddha. Similarly, self-image is part of shraddha. One person believes she will succeed in life and overcomes great obstacles; another, who believes she can do nothing, may be more gifted and face fewer difficulties but accomplish very little. Yet shraddha is not brute determination or wishful thinking. When St. John of the Cross says, “We live in what we love,” he is explaining shraddha. This is our world. Our lives are an eloquent expression of our belief: what we deem worth having, doing, attaining, being. What we strive for shows what we value; we back our shraddha with our time, our energy, our very lives.
Thus, shraddha determines destiny. As the Buddha puts it, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. We are made of our thoughts; we are molded by our thoughts.” As we think, so we become. This is true not only of individuals but of societies, institutions, and civilizations, according to the dominant ideas that shape their actions. Faith in technology, for example, is part of the shraddha of modern civilization.
“Right shraddha,” according to the Gita, is faith in spiritual laws: in the unity of life, the presence of divinity in every person, the essentially spiritual nature of the human being. “Wrong shraddha” is not necessarily morally wrong, merely ignorant. It means believing that there is no more to life than physical existence, that the human being is only a biochemical entity, that happiness can be got by pursuing private interests and ignoring the rest of life. Such beliefs are misplaced: we have attached our shraddha to beliefs that life cannot bear out. Sooner or later they must prove false, and then our shraddha changes.
Like our thinking, therefore – like we ourselves – shraddha evolves. The purpose of karma is to teach the consequences of shraddha, so that by trial and error, life after life, the individual soul acquires the kind of faith that leads to fulfillment of life’s supreme goal. Krishna explains the dynamics: When a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that. Then, when faith is completely unified, one gains the object of devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me (7:21–22).
This is perhaps the most compassionate insight into human evolution ever expressed. The Gita is steeped in it, but it is not exclusive to the Gita or to Hinduism. “Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not,” says Meister Eckhart, “secretly Nature seeks and hunts and tries to ferret out the track in which God may be found.” The whole purpose of every experience, every activity, every faculty, is to turn the human being inward and lead each of us back to our divine source. Thus, every person seeking satisfaction in the world outside – pleasure, power, profit, prestige – is really looking for God: “As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me” (4:11).
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 the 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.
Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) is one of the twentieth century’s great spiritual teachers and an authentic guide to timeless wisdom. He is a recognized authority on the Indian spiritual classics. His translations of The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, and The Dhammapada are the best-selling editions in the USA. His books on meditation, spiritual living, and the classics of world mysticism have been translated into twenty-six languages.