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Reasons to Study the Bhagavad Gita
Reasons to Study the Bhagavad Gita (This article came from a blog on the web.)
It is generally accepted that the Bhagavad Gita is the supreme canonical text of the Hindu religion. But must we regard it as exclusively a religious treatise? It would actually be strange to do so, as chronologically it predates the advent of institutionalized religions like Islam and Hinduism by a thousand years and two thousand years, respectively. To view the Gita solely as a religious text simply does not explain its continuous and profound influence over the centuries; both Hindus and non-Hindus testify to its universal power. Reading it through a sectarian, denominational lens drains it of its depth and compelling gravitas.
What is the virtually miraculous fascination of this relatively short Sanskrit poem? The Gita consists of a heartfelt discussion between two lifelong friends, Arjuna and Krishna, as they stand together on the battlefield of life. Generation after generation, century after century, despairing or troubled seekers have consulted it for moral and practical guidance. Why? The reason is simple: the Bhagavad Gita is not just about overtly spiritual topics, it is not only about the nuances of the devotional lifestyle or the rarified nature of the soul. It is about everyday, ordinary life and its frustrations, it is about the messy interpersonal and other situations that crop up on a regular basis. It is about the human condition, “up close and personal.”
So how can the Gita be approached if we are not confined to a religious interpretation of its contents? Contextually, it is a part of the Mahabharata, one of India’s two great poetical epics. The tale’s climax is the great war to be fought between two opposing families. On one side are the Paandavas, who are upright, noble and righteous. On the other side are their cousins, the Kauravas, who are the polar opposite. We are only concerned here with the Paandava prince, Arjuna, who is the greatest archer in the world, and his friend and mentor, Krishna, chosen by Arjuna to be his charioteer during the conflict. The Gita opens at the point where the war is about to begin; Arjuna surveys the enemy army, sees many familiar faces and as a consequence, loses his courage. He has the sudden, overwhelming realisation that victory will depend on his killing about half of his closest family. This strikes him like a thunderbolt. Almost physically sick with despair, he lays down his weapons and turns to his friend, Krishna, for guidance. The resulting discussion comprises most of what constitutes the Bhagavad Gita. Among the specific reasons for studying the Gita are the following:
1. During the course of this exchange, there is plenty of dissent and disagreement. Krishna harangues Arjuna, even heckles him. Arjuna argues, challenges, questions Krishna. But throughout it all, neither of them is ever offensive, needlessly aggressive or confrontational. Thus the Gita serves as a template for genuine, respectful yet honest communication.
2. Essentially the Gita is Krishna remonstrating with Arjuna, giving reasons why he should stand back up, pick up his bow and fight. Krishna says that if he does not do so, he will fail in his duty as warrior, king, as a leader of men, as a defender of truth and justice, etc. This is a difficult conversation for Krishna because Arjuna is his friend and he is obviously traumatised. However, Krishna does not pull his punches; he does not hesitate to call out Arjuna’s weaknesses; he does not hesitate to dismiss his excuses; he chides him for his unacceptable behaviour. But he does all of this with great compassion and understanding. He stands patient and steadfast by Arjuna’s side while the latter works through his confusion and distress. Yet he uses every trick in the book to get through to Arjuna: he is sometimes hectoring, sometimes sweetly reassuring, sometimes devious, sometimes inspiring awe. Finally, when he has Arjuna’s attention, he presents options, recommendations, advice. But he respects his friend enough to let him make the decision in the end whether he will fight or not. Therefore the Gita is a reliable manual in the art of being a true friend.
3. Many skills can be mastered by continuous practice. If you are disciplined enough to do something over and over again, then that can become second nature, part of muscle memory, habit. The Gita says that even choosing the right action, doing the right thing is a consequence of habit. We know that habits developed in childhood are the hardest to break. That is why the Gita is also a book for children, a valuable guide to growing up and maturity.
4. The Gita informs us that the most important battles are not those that we fight with others but those that we fight with ourselves. The enemy, the Kaurava, is not the person outside. He is inside us. He is our own doubts and fears and insecurities, our own irrational loves and hates. All these thoughts and emotions feel like family because we have lived with them for so long. The trick is to identify them for what they are and then vanquish them ruthlessly. The Gita is therefore a treatise on the art of inner combat.
5. The Gita tells us that we should not fret about things we cannot control – Krishna asserts that God/the self can be worshipped in countless ways and forms, and all of them are acceptable and holy in their own way. This teaches a valuable lesson in (religious) tolerance – we can be comfortable surrounded by a multiplicity of attitudes, ideas, notions, faiths, beliefs and practices. The Gita also states that the soul is destined to live through many lifetimes before it comes to the end of its journey and has already expereienced a countless number. This can teach us to be patient with the faults and limitations of others, and with our own. So the book could be classified as an insider’s guide to positive existentialism.
6. Do you seek contentment? There is an app for that and you can find it in the Bhagavad Gita! What does the Gita say about contentment? Put everything you have into everything you do in an intelligent way. But the Gita cautions that it is foolish to imagine that the outcome will necessarily be something you desire, despite your best efforts. The Gita emphasises that although some things lie within our control, the majority of the time the outcome of our actions is not up to us. Understand that some things lie within our control, like our effort. But most things most certainly do not! Therefore focus on your effort. Let go of the outcome! In other words, play to play, do not play to win. This makes the Gita a killer app for contentment!
7. The universe gives us many, many things for free, according to the Gita – the life-giving sun, the nourishing rain, the fertile earth, etc., etc. We would be nothing more than common thieves if we did not give back in equal measure. How do we do so? Simply by doing our own duties well, to the best of our ability. Simply by shouldering our own responsibilities as parents, students, doctors, priests, lawyers, etc. with a smile and doing every action with an attitude of gratitude. Only if we do that, says the Gita, is the ancient, primordial cycle of give-and-take kept in motion. Only thus will the world avoid social and economic chaos. So the Gita can be seen as the original monograph on free trade.
8. What is wisdom? What is the ideal human being supposed to be like? What should you aspire to? According to the Gita, it is very simple. There is a recipe: when you see the world as it really is, then you have attained the status of the ideal person. What does that mean? It means you see yourself in everything and everything in yourself. It means you are able to look beyond the differences on the outside to our common nature on the inside. It means you are able to say with conviction that the entire world is my home and every creature in it my family. This makes the Gita the ultimate equal rights manifesto, one that not just individuals but governments would do well to adopt in our divisive, intolerant times.
9. The Mahabharata, all 100,000 verses of it, may have been expressly written to contain the 700 verses of the Gita, just as a tree creates a juicy fruit to house, hold, protect and disperse its seed. The narrator of the Mahabharata sets up this grand canvas, paints an engaging narrative, populates it with memorable characters, brings us to the brink of a great war, and then – wham! He introduces the 700 verses of the Gita. If you want to know how the war went, you have no choice but to plough through the 700 verses of high philosophy that the Gita is! This makes the Gita a great “how-to” guide for teachers wishing to teach a complex subject to reluctant students.
10. In Eastern thought, time is cyclical, not linear. Therefore the climax of the Gita occurs in Chapter 10, in the middle of the narrative, not at the end (there are 18 chapters in all). Just when you reach Chapter 10, and the philosophy begins to get a little overwhelming, a new twist is introduced into the tale. We are told that Krishna is not who he appears to be. The drama and spectacle of Chapter 11 follow, with Krishna revealing his cosmic vishvaruupa form. Our attention has been recaptured and we remain interested for the next seven chapters. If you were looking for a guide on how to write a riveting bestseller, you need look no further than the Gita.
11. Hard work, commitment, focus, claims the Bhagavad Gita, will get you whatever rewards you desire, in whatever quest you pursue, within reason. Therefore it is important to choose your quest well. Why would you waste your time, effort and energy pursuing rewards that are transient, like money, power, fame, success? Instead, go after the more lasting rewards. Spend your valuable energy cultivating peace and contentment. Thus the Gita is also a cautionary tale of the type “be careful what you wish for”!
12. One of the worldly topics that the Gita touches upon is the subject of food. It actually gives you a diet plan for life. It tells you what kinds of food you should be eating and its recommendations do not differ very much from modern nutritionists’. What kinds of food should you eat? It says you should eat food that is juicy, which means fresh, tender and unprocessed. It says you must eat food which is nourishing, which means clearly that junk food is out. Food not just agreeable to the palate but suited to our bodies.
What is the worst kind of thing you could do to your body? Let us listen to Krishna on this. Those who commit acts of self-violence, denying themselves food and water, confusing self-torture with faith and devotion. They are truly misguided. You see why you should ditch that crash diet and that extreme exercise regimen. They were discredited even in 500 BC. This makes the Gita a great nutrition guide.
13. The Gita tells the story of a great tree with its roots in the heavens and its branches on the ground. So thick do these branches grow, so deeply embedded are they in the earth, that we get deluded; we begin to think that the source of sustenance of the tree is the earth itself. We chase after the low-hanging fruit without seeking the source of their sweetness, which is that great trunk rising into the sky. Don’t do that, says the Gita. Keep your focus on the towering trunk and once you find it, hold on tight. (But the tree is Maya…?)
14. Happiness comes from being true to your nature, the Gita asserts. So to find the right occupation, you first have to know what your nature is, it says. If you are a deep, reclusive thinker, perhaps become a scientist or a writer or an artist. If it is the heat and dust of the “battlefield” that excite you, be a lawyer, an activist, a politician. If the hubbub of the marketplace fascinates you, then consider the role of stockbroker, banker, merchant or entrepreneur. On the other hand, if you would prefer to be a “cog in the wheel,” then find a job in a large bureaucracy. The Gita functions as a general aptitude test and as a supportive career guide.
15. The Gita has much to say on the subject of action. One of its main messages is that every action has consequences. Depending on the quality of the action, it may come back to bite you and your family in ways so devious, so unexpected that you can never be adequately prepared. Therefore choose your actions wisely. Think before you act. See the Gita, therefore, as a mathematical treatise on the complex, endlessly twisting mobius strip called karma.
16. How do you know what the right action is? No action is intrinsically wrong or right, according to the Gita. It is intent that makes it so. So question your intent before you act. Is my action prompted by my own fears, anger, desire, greed, lust, need for personal glorification? Yes? Then don’t do it! No? Then go ahead with it. The Gita is a flow chart for life with an infinite loop.
17. If the world seems to be descending into chaos, says Krishna, don’t be troubled. Be assured that a saviour will rise from your ranks to rectify the problem. If the pendulum swings too far in one direction, rest assured that change is coming and the pendulum will swing right back in the opposite direction. Eventually, a middle ground will be found and order restored. We have no reason to doubt Krishna; we see evidence of this all the time around us, in morals, politics and fashion. Therefore the Gita could also be a song titled Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
Could there be more ways to read the Bhagavad Gita than we have explored? To answer that, let us go back to the Indian Book of Answers itself. In it Krishna tells Arjuna: “What I have revealed thus far is a fraction of my infinite glory.” That could well be the Gita speaking of itself, a fitting note to end on.