Seeing and hearing the agony of Arjuna, Krishna smiled as he began the discourse we are analyzing. He smiled because he knew the truth of things, including the fact that Arjuna was about to come to the same understanding.
Literal and symbolic
Symbolism is an essential part of any viable spiritual tradition, and Indian spiritual lore is heavily symbolic, so much so that many begin to treat everything about it as a symbol. Christianity inherited this both from India and from Jewish philosophers such as Philo, to whom just about everything was symbolic. Origen refused to consider the Gospels as literal historical accounts and at one place in his writings mentions what a great difficulty the Christian encounters if he believes that Jesus rode into Jerusalem seated on a donkey. He does not explain what the difficulty would be and I have never known anyone who could even guess at his meaning.
For us who are sitting with Arjuna listening to Krishna’s revelation, the Gita must be seen as simultaneously literal and symbolic. If we arbitrarily decide when the Gita is literal and when it is symbolic we will not only cut our understanding of its message by half, we will also confuse ourselves. It is also very necessary that we apply the Gita’s statements to the physical, mental (higher mental, actually), and spiritual levels of our life. Otherwise we will miss many applications of its wisdom.
Why not you?
I would like to pause here for a serious statement. It is gratifying to me that you are reading my ideas on the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita. However it is my hope that you will read many commentaries on the Gita–those of past generations as well as the contemporary ones. This is because the Gita is as infinite as the Consciousness that speaks through it. Therefore a single human being cannot possibly encompass all the meanings of the Gita. Nor can the commentaries of several do so, either. So keep on reading!
You, too, need to study the Gita directly and gain your own insights. Jesus said that “every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52). The wisdom of the past is still wisdom, and the wisdom of the present is equally wise. Both are needed. The word kainos here translated “new” also has the connotation of freshness, the idea being that new insights can continue to be brought forth–and why not by you?
Now having said all this about literal and symbolic I would like to analyze the next few verses from the psychological angle since it is the mind-intellect which influences both the physical and the spiritual life. As Sri Ramakrishna often observed, “The mind is everything.”
Anyone who wishes to better himself in any way faces the necessity of effort–even struggle. The war of the Bhagavad Gita takes place internally, is a spiritual struggle to the death of ignorance and the ascendance of illumination. Many never engage in the war, frightened away by the prospect of the sacrifice and strife. Those engaged in the spiritual war often would like to avoid it or mitigate it or somehow work out a cease-fire. They commit themselves to sure defeat by such a wish if they follow it through.
We, however, wish to succeed, to win the war. So let us listen to what Krishna tells us as we, too, quail before the prospects of battle
It is our duty and our nature
And just considering your swadharma, you should not waver, for truly to a kshatriya there is nothing greater to find than a righteous battle (2:31).
I plan to wait until the fourth chapter, where Krishna tells us that God is the originator of the four castes, to go into the subject of caste in any depth, so here I want only to point out that although translators may use the expression “caste duty” in translating this verse, the actual Sanskrit says swadharma, which is something far different. That, too, is best saved for an in-depth essay later on, but right now it must be made clear that swadharma means “self-dharma,” the action which is in perfect accordance with our present state of evolution, which may be spoken about in terms of caste. Yet, the higher meaning is the dharma of the Self, the action that will best lead to the knowledge of our eternal being. So the purpose of this verse is to show that the inner struggle for enlightenment is twofold: a duty and an expression/manifestation of our true nature.
Since people are usually out of touch with who they really are, another kind of appeal is needed, and duty/responsibility is the most frequently and reasonably invoked. On the other hand, the spiritual struggle is our duty because it is our nature to ascend, to evolve. So they really are the same thing in the context of the Gita.
A problematic word
Now we need to go back a bit to a word whose analysis at that time might have distracted us from the main thrust of the Gita’s message in that part.
“The Holy Lord said: Whence has come this faintheartedness of yours in the time of danger; ignoble [unaryan], not leading to heaven, but to disgrace?” (2:2). We must look at that word, unarya: unaryan: “not aryan.”
Because the monsters who marched under the Nazi banner (which bore the sacred symbol of the swastika that was thereby dishonored and made to bear an odious connotation in the West) plagiarized the Sanskrit word arya(n), it has become usual for us outside India to use the expressions “Vedic religion” or “Sanatana [Eternal] Dharma” in reference to the spiritual tradition of primeval India. These are accurate and bona fide expressions, of course, but Arya Dharma is the oldest expression and has a unique value. So important was arya in the vocabulary of the ancient Indian sages that India itself was known as Aryavarta, the Land of the Aryas, for the people living there were commonly known as Aryas. Buddha used the term a great deal. Although his teachings are referred to as “The Noble Eightfold Path” or “The Four Noble Truths,” what he really said was “The Aryan Eightfold Path” and “The Four Aryan Truths.” This is not without real significance, so we cannot avoid looking at the word, no matter how distasteful its use in twentieth-century racial bigotry and genocide has made it for contemporary sensitivities. Hitler liked to toss around “holy” and “God” in his rants–as well as “justice” and “freedom”–but that in no way invalidates them. Evil as he was, he did not have the power to corrupt or degrade such an ancient term of honor–only to condition our response to it. And we should not let his madness prevail in our personal reactions.
Arya comes from the root word ri, which means “to rise upward.” A legitimate translation is “one who strives upward.” This gives us the whole idea about wherever it is used. An aryan is one who puts forth real effort to improve himself in any area of life. Naturally arya was most fittingly applied by the philosophers of India to spiritual and personal life. The word “noble” is too inactive and can be interpreted passively, such as in thinking that a person is born noble or made noble by the declaration of another. An arya is one who labors to rise, exemplifying the saying that a diamond is a piece of coal that never gave up. Truly a saint is a sinner that never gave up, as Yogananda often said. In other words, an arya is one on the path to sainthood as well as one who has attained it.
In very ancient Indian texts humanity is divided into two classes: the aryas and the vritras, or dasyus. Vritra means “one who covers up” in the sense of burrowing into the darkness of the earth, of material consciousness and involvement. Dasyus are slaves–slaves of materiality living in willing servitude to lower life and consciousness. Aryas, on the other hand, strive upward into the light, into freedom.
Arya Dharma, then, is the course of action an arya follows to become a perfected being. Specifically, it is the mode of life and thought outlined in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. An arya is one who responds to the inner and upward call without hesitation. For there is nothing nobler than the struggle for higher degrees of life and awareness.
Happy are the kshatriyas to whom heaven’s gate opens when by good fortune they encounter such a battle (2:32)..
Truly happy are those who engage in such a battle, for it opens the door to Infinite Consciousness, the true “heaven.”
Now if you shall not undertake this dharmic engagement, then having avoided your swadharma and glory, you shall incur evil (2:33).
Sanskrit words have many meanings, and it is good to consider all of them, since the sages packed their words with many relevant aspects.
Dharmyam sanghraman also means “dharmic assembly.” In the spiritual texts of India great emphasis is put on satsanga which, though literally meaning “the company of truth,” is always considered to mean “company with the wise.” Sri Ramana Maharshi said that for success in yoga, satsanga was an absolute essential, and Sri Ramakrishna said that spiritual life is simply impossible without continual association with other seekers for truth–and, hopefully, with those that have found it.
It is interesting that Krishna says avoiding the struggle for righteousness is an abandoning of both swadharma and glory (kirtim). Now we are able to easily consider that we have a higher duty, but usually forget that we are also glorious spiritual beings, however much ignorance may have covered up our glory. Human beings do not need to be told that they are miserable, awful, sinners, but the truth: they are glorious beings who are tragically caught in the net of “sin,” but freedom is not only possible, it is inevitable, for it is their true nature. We do not need God to forgive us our sins. We need to awaken, stand up, and shake them off like the barnacles they are, and walk onward in strength and freedom.
The word translated “evil” is papam, which is often translated as “sin,” but it means demerit–as opposed to merit (punyam). We can think of it as dirt or dust that obscures a pane of glass or a mirror. It in no ways means something that God has forbidden or which he “hates.” Rather, it is a self-injury that inhibits and limits us. It is a bond that takes away our freedom. Consequently, we are free to choose which we want, otherwise we will be only servants and slaves. Only those who are free to be foolish have the freedom to be wise. This is the basis of the “live and let live” attitude of the East that so frustrates the missionary from the West.
If we turn away from this holy conflict we will be denying our nature and betraying and disgracing no one but ourselves.
And people will forever tell of your undying infamy. For the renowned, such disgrace is worse than dying (2:34).
The word translated “disgrace” is akirtim–absence of our glory, loss of contact with what and who we really are. This is a death of consciousness much worse than physical death, for it can persist throughout countless incarnations.
The great car-warriors will believe you abstain from delight in battle through fear. And among those who have thought much of you, you shall come to be lightly esteemed. Your enemies shall speak of you many things that should not be said, deriding your adequacy. What, indeed, could be a greater suffering than that? (2:35-36).
Yes, it is a painful thing to have others speak ill of us and despise us, but how much more painful it is to despise ourselves and consider ourselves to be degraded and unworthy. There are many sad forms of humanity, but none is sadder than those who have turned away from higher life and spent a lifetime in shame and regret, condemned by none other than themselves.
A great secret
In material life we are often promised great benefits if we will only do what the promisers want us to do, the implication being that if we do not obey we will lose or be denied the benefits. But Krishna has a very different thing to say. Happiness in both this world and the next are guaranteed to the yogi.
If you are slain you shall attain heaven; if you conquer you shall enjoy the earth. Therefore, stand up resolved to fight (2:37).
In the sixth chapter Arjuna is going to present to Krishna the usual manipulative and resentful view of religionists: is not one who fails in or abandons spiritual life lost and hopeless? Krishna replies: “Truly there is no loss for him either here on earth or in heaven. No one who does good goes to misfortune” (6:40). And this is true in the inner struggle. If we literally die before winning the battle or are overcome in the battle and “slain” by the enemy, we shall still reap profound benefit. The intensely positive karma generated by meditation will result in our rising to high spiritual realms after death and enjoying its fruits there. Then, when we are reborn we will reap the good karma in the form of coming into the orbit of meditational knowledge and resume our practice. If on the other hand we persevere and win the ultimate victory we shall find life here on earth totally transfigured to a glory presently unimagined by us. In his book Practice of Karma Yoga the great Master Sivananda of Rishikesh expressed it this way:
When I surveyed from Ananda Kutir, Rishikesh,
By the side of the Tehri Hills, only God I saw.
In the Ganges and the Kailas peak,
In the famous Chakra Tirtha of Naimisar also, only God I saw.
In tribulation and in grief, in joy and in glee,
In sickness and in sorrow, only God I saw.
In birds and dogs, in stones and trees,
In flowers and fruits, in the sun, moon and stars, only God I saw.
Like camphor I was melting in His fire of knowledge,
Amidst the flames outflashing, only God I saw.
My Prana entered the Brahmarandhra at the Moordha,
Then I looked with God’s eyes, only God I saw.
I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,
And lo, I was the all-living, only God I saw.
I enjoyed the Divine Aisvarya, all God’s Vibhutis,
I had Visvaroopa Darshan, the Cosmic Consciousness, only God I saw.
Sri Ramakrishna said that to the enlightened yogi the whole world that now is a sea of suffering becomes “a mart of joy.” A Buddhist mystic wrote: “I walk through this world and no one guesses that Paradise is within [me].” Is it any wonder then that Krishna concludes: “Stand up, resolved to fight”?
Krishna continues with even more astonishing facts, underlining the truth that the Gita is not only unique among the scriptures of India, it is supreme. For next he says:
Considering pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat the same, then engage in battle. Thus you shall not incur evil (2:38).
Talk about Blessed Assurance!
Meditation deals only with the ever-changing, ever-mutating levels of our being. As Patanjali says (Yoga Sutras 1:2), yoga is the entering into the state where these levels no longer change or even move, but become transformed into a perfect mirror of spirit. This and this alone is Self-realization. But until then what a bumpy ride! This being so, we must adopt the perspective Krishna presents: “pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, are all one and the same.” That is, they are all merely shifting sands, having no stable reality whatsoever. They are but fever dreams, delirium from which yoga is intended to awaken us.
Yogis must take their true Self very seriously–even reverently. But they must never take the antics of their Self’s “wrappings” seriously at all, except to determine to tame and transmute them. For the yogi does not shed them and swim away into the ocean of Infinity. He changes them into that ocean and abides in them in freedom.
Wherefore let us go into battle and end even the capacity for wrong. Being sinners is not at all our nature, and once we become established in our true Self it will be as Saint John wrote: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (I John 3:9). The Gita clearly shows the way to such an attainment.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Buddhi Yoga