Continuing in the theme of the soldier’s dilemma, we have the Bhagavad-Gita, an excerpt from the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata. It is often read alone however; partly because the Mahabharata is so long (about one hundred thousand verses, or thirty times the length of Paradise Lost by one count), and partly because the Bhagavad-Gita is such a concise introduction to some of the key ideas of Hinduism. Like the Iliad, it centers on an epic war that could be based in historical fact.
Actually, the main story is a quite reminiscent of the Iliad; it’s also the tale of a great warrior who balks at fighting in an epic battle. The story begins with the warrior Arjuna, son of Pandu, on the night before a battle between his army, the Pandavas, and their cousins, the Kauravas, sons of Dhritarashtra. The kingdom has been divided following the retirement and death of Pandu and the Kauravas won a 13 year guardianship of the Pandavas’ half in a gambling match. Time’s up and they won’t return the territory to their cousins. The Pandavas hope to win back their kingdom and their honor. Arjuna has come to survey the battlefield with his charioteer Krishna. He is not sure he wants to join the battle.
It strikes me that the reservations Achilles has about fighting are primarily self-centered, while those of Arjuna are actually pretty reasonable. He objects that the war will require him to kill fathers, teachers, grandfathers, brothers; not to mention killing his own kin and former instructors: he sees no glory in this. Moreover, war shatters social stability. Arjuna: “When unrighteous disorder prevails, the women sin and are impure; and when women are not pure, Krishna, there is disorder of castes, social confusion.” Certainly, he’s not the first soldier to worry about adultery at home! His larger point is that war does not forge a new order, but represents the collapse of all order. Unleashing war can do more harm than can be undone; Arjuna wants to know how we can tell that the alternative wouldn’t have been better. Of course, we want to win; how to be sure that things would actually be better under our rule, and enough so to justify rupturing the social order? In true neoconservative style, Krishna doesn’t really address these concerns at first, instead implying that Arjuna is a coward!
This is not good enough for Arjuna. Krishna tells him furthermore that death is nothing to fear because the spirit (dehin: one in the body, also called atman: ‘self”), does not die, but passes from body to body, perhaps eternally; what we mean by reincarnation or samsara. The Eternal in man is to be found by renouncing desires and acting wisely and unselfishly. Yoga is this wisdom in work, and the lesson of the Bhagavad-Gita, incidentally. It is a story about how to act in the world.
Different castes have different works; Arjuna is of the Kshatriya, warrior caste, and should do a warrior’s work. A man’s work is itself worship of God. But his Kshatriya nature, as determined by the Karmic forces of his past life, compels him to fight regardless of his feelings. Arjuna is a warrior and cannot transgress his role in this life. Krishna talks often about offering sacrifices, but I think we should read this as meaning that all good works are a sort of inner sacrifice. The answer to being moral is not renunciation of all actions, but consecrated actions; unselfish work for the good of all. Going beyond the Greek ‘moderation’, the ideal is a peaceful absence of attachments to a transient material world. Somewhat vaguely, Krishna says that the Spirit must conquer the soul; the meaning is clear enough.
Krishna goes further, however, explaining that the external Spirit is only a small part of the larger reality. Brahman is the universal world-soul; atman is its Spirit in man. If we live and work directed towards this Spirit Supreme, we will pass into the Kingdom of Light and live with that Spirit. Krishna does not exactly name it, but the sense is that a person who achieves freedom from earthly passions and sin will also reach moksha: liberation from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. Those who set their hearts on the One which is Transcendent, Omnipresent, and Beyond-all-things will be freed from the ocean of life and death. Living a perfected life allows eternal union with the Spirit Supreme.
Clearly, Krishna is no ordinary charioteer, but a god image of the Brahman Supreme; the One in human form; also called the Supreme Being (Savayam Bhagham) or Lord Himself. All gods are his avatars, and all that is good, beautiful, powerful and glorious is only a part of him. This time through, I was struck by the monotheism in the text, which had escaped me at age 18. Notice also how different the Divine/Human interactions are here in comparison to Homer: where the gods in the Iliad often cloud men’s minds to keep them fighting, here a god speaks directly to a warrior, cheerfully answering his questions and enlightening him as no man before him. In fact, Krishna gives Arjuna divine sight, enabling him to see his true nature as a multiplicity of forms and beings. Not surprisingly, Arjuna is terrified by this theophany.
When I first read the Bhagavad-Gita as an undergrad, I found it very strange that a story about war advises the reader to lead a life of nonviolence. I also objected to the fact that Krishna gives Arjuna very little choice; the Kauravas are doomed to die, even if he doesn’t fight. And perhaps I am characteristically modern in becoming a bit uncomfortable whenever anyone has a god telling them to wage war.
Reading it again, the answer I think is that this is not the story of a war at all, but an explanation of how man succeeds in conquering his lower nature. The Kauravas are an image of evil, the Pandavas an image of good; and the battlefield offers an image of man’s struggle to live a good life and act unselfishly. It strikes me that Krishna’s advice is actually more plausible for a life spent in peace and unremarkable toil. I guess this is probably an obvious reading- and I’m guessing there are Hindus who would say, “well, duh!”- but it completely escaped me on the first reading, and only occurred to me this time in a dream while napping after reading it. Make of that what you will!
1. Next, I think I’d like to return to Homer and post something about the Odyssey. I do hope, at some point, to post about the other great Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, but have to locate my copy of it!
2. It would probably also be good to post something about Hesiod’s Theogony, and the Epic of Gilgamesh in the near future.
3. It might well be the era in which I was educated, but I’ve never thought of the canon as being solely “Western”, and I’m not sure I see any real utility in conceptualizing it that way. So, I don’t plan to. Of course, non-westerners are invited to call it out whenever I mangle any spellings or definitions!