In the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, which sets the stage for its other seventeen chapters, we are told that: “Krishna brought the chief chariot to stand in the midst of the two armies. Thus facing Bhishma, Drona, and all the rulers of the earth, Krishna said: Behold, Arjuna, these Kurus assembled here. Arjuna saw standing there fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons as well as friends, fathers-in-law and companions in the two armies. In both of them he saw all relatives arrayed. Then filled with profound pity, desponding” (1:24-28), he spoke, filled with grief at the thought of the impending death of those he respected so highly and loved so dearly.
At first Krishna attempts to incite Arjuna to battle by speaking of duty and honor. This does not succeed, so he quickly passes on to the subject of the Self from which perspective alone could Arjuna truly engage in a righteous war. At one point he assures Arjuna:
This embodied Self is eternally indestructible in the body of all. Therefore you should not mourn for any being (2:30).
The Self is absolutely immutable. In a sense nothing ever even happens to it. Rather, it remains the silent, unchanging witness of all that goes on around it–but never within it or even with it or near it. In the fifth chapter Krishna describes the enlightened individual as being like a lotus leaf resting, unwetted, on water. This is not an ideal for Arjuna to strive for, but is the actual state of all sentient beings–they are never touched by anything, not even by God since God is the essence of their being. To understand that nothing ever really affects us is an essential insight, but the experiencing of it is much better.
The main point of Krishna’s statement is that it is unreasonable to mourn or grieve for anyone, since nothing has happened to them, however horrendous the appearance might be. Nor has anything really happened to us who have witnessed it. Not even their death has altered us in any degree.
When we lived in the Anza-Borrego desert we encountered an eccentric man who was caretaker of a friend’s property there. In speaking to us about him she commented that he had starred in his own movie for too long a time. That remark was both insightful and humorous, but it happens to be the truth about all of us. We are sitting in the “sense-surround” theater completely absorbed in the movies of our many lives and completely identifying with the spectacle. None of it is ultimately real, yet we suffer terribly. How is this? Unhappily, rather than “losing” our minds we have “found” them, become immersed in them, and now identify with them totally. All that happens to our body and mind we think is happening to us. And so we pass through a panorama of mistaken responses to the passing show.
Both birth and death are illusions, but that makes them no less painful if we identify with that which undergoes those changes. We must not just intellectually understand this, we must actually separate ourselves from the illusory contact and be what we already are: the indestructible Self. Then all suffering ceases–suffering that never really existed except as a mirage caused by non-existent phenomena. For Krishna assures us: “You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams” (5:14. Prabhavananda translation).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: “Happy the Warrior”