Most of us have heard the story of the centipede who, when asked how he managed to walk with so many legs, tangled his legs in the attempt to figure it out and ended up on his back, helpless. This is not unlike the person who attempts to plumb the depths of oriental scriptures. Right away it becomes evident that they consist of incalculable layers, many symbolic in nature. Furthermore, the meanings of the symbols are not consistent, changing according to the levels on which they occur. For example, on one level water symbolizes the mind, on another level the constant flux of samsara, and on another the subtle life-currents known as prana. This being the case, the Western linear mode of thought becomes as entangled and disabled as the fabled centipede. Knowing this to be so, I have decided to avoid subtle symbolism and concentrate instead on the obviously practical side of Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. (For an exposition of the symbolism of the Gita, see Paramhansa Yogananda’s commentary, God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita.) However I do want to take some time and consider the obvious symbolism encountered in the first chapter of the Gita.
We find ourselves on Kurukshetra, a field of impending battle. It is not as vast as our Hollywood-epic-shaped minds might imagine, as can be seen for oneself by a visit to Kurukshetra, not very far from Delhi. At one end is a hillock topped with a huge tree under which there is a great bronze statue of Arjuna, Krishna and their chariot. (When I was there only the tree and a large marble replica of the chariot marked where they sat.) This is the vantage point from which Arjuna, the great warrior, and Sri Krishna, his teacher, looked out over the field. Today its tranquillity is charming, despite the strong feeling in the air that something tremendously momentous occurred there in the distant past. It is both awesome and soothing.
For background information regarding how the battleground came to be thronged with soldiers, chariots, elephants and the other paraphernalia of a deadly war, see the introductory essay, “Gita and Mahabharata” in Swami Prabhavananda’s translation The Song of God.
Suffice it to say that the two opposing armies are very easy to morally identify. The Kauravas, led by the murderous Prince Duryodhana, are fundamentally evil, although many honorable men have, through various complicated alliances and obligations, found themselves among their ranks. The Pandavas, headed by the virtuous and noble Yudhisthira, the eldest brother of Arjuna, are embodiments of all that is good, among them being the divine Sri Krishna himself who chose to be the charioteer of Arjuna.
The symbolism is not very hard to figure out (leaving aside the complex matter of assigning a symbolic meaning to every person named in the battle narrative). Kurukshetra is the personality–particularly the mind (intellect)–of the awakened seeker for higher consciousness. Such a seeker, determined to end the whirling cycle of birth and death, finds that his aspiration itself has inspired opposition from within his own mind and heart, where good and evil, truth and falsehood, ignorance and wisdom, like the Kauravas and Pandavas, have drawn themselves up in readiness for a conflict that must end in the annihilation of one side or the other. Even more daunting is the fact that much considered good is found lining up in support of negativity, and most of the Pandava side will also be blotted out in the eventual transmutation of the individual into a higher state of being itself, much as the endearing ways of infancy and childhood must be eradicated at the advent of adulthood and replaced with completely different virtues.
In the chariot set betwixt the two armies we find Arjuna and Krishna. Many interpretations of these two pivotal figures are possible, nearly all of them correct, but the words of the Mundaka Upanishad, written long before the Gita, are certainly worthy of our attention.
“Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes.
“The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more” (Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:1, 2. This is the translation found in The Upanishads, Breath of the Eternal, by Swami Prabhavananda.)
These two paragraphs are a perfect picture of the setting of the Gita. Arjuna is the bewildered and sorrowing Atma, the individual Self, and Krishna is the divine Paramatma, the Supreme Self from which the Atma derives its very being and existence. Forgetful of its true nature as part of the Infinite Spirit, the finite spirit passes through countless experiences that confuse and pain it, producing utterly false conclusions that compound and perpetuate the confusion and pain. Only when the perspective of the Divine Self is entered into, can its troubles cease. We can also think of Arjuna as our lower, mortal self, and Krishna as our higher, immortal Self. Krishna and Arjuna thus represent both God and Man and our own (presently) dual nature as mortal and immortal. Keeping this perspective before us, the ensuing dialogue which forms the Gita is to be seen both as God’s communication to human beings and the communication of our own divine Self with our human self, liberation (moksha) of the spirit being their sole intention.
With this in mind, we are ready to begin. I will be using my own version of the Gita which is based a great deal on the translation of Winthrop Sargeant: The Bhagavad Gita, published by State University of New York Press, which I recommend as an excellent version, especially since it gives a word-by-word translation of the entire text. The translation of Swami Prabhavananda is unparalleled for beauty and interpretation, so I recommend both translations.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: On the Field of Dharma