Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1: The Despondency of Arjuna

"Dharma Kshetre Kuru Kshetre"
"On this Field of Dharma, on this Field of the Kurus...."

With that first line, begins the Bhagavad Gita. The blind King Dhritrashtra asks his minister Sanjaya to tell him what is occurring between his own sons and the sons of his dead brother Pandu, the Pandavas, on the field of Dharma and the field of the Kurus (his ancestors and lineage). The field of the battle is known as Kurukshetra as it belongs to the Kuru people, which both the Pandavas and Kauravas belong to. The more pertinent name of Dharma Kshetra is applied to this field at this time because this is the place that the olden code of Dharma battles with the new code of Dharma as put forth by Krishna. It is on this field that Dharma as righteousnes, law, justice and morality will play out.

One of the most perplexing and amorphous words in any language is the word Dharma. It has a wide range of meanings from natural law, positive law, morality, tradition, justice, righteousness, duty, religion and harmony. Those are its most used meanings. Dharma literally means "that which upholds or sustains". In the Gita, Krishna uses Dharma in nearly every conceivable sense of the word to fully flesh out the complexity of the human and even the divine existence. Dharma is the starting point and the ending point of the Gita, if not of all Hindu and Buddhist thought. As such, through out this series of posts I will keep referring back to this conception.

Duryodhana, the antagonist, approaches his teacher Dronacharya, who is also the commander in chief of the Kaurava army. He asks to describe the relative strength of his army and also the armies of the Pandavas. The mighty and vast armies of both sides are then described focusing on the greatest warriors on each side. The Pandavas have 7 massive regiments and the Kauravas have 11 massive regiments totaling nearly 4 million people. The Kauravas blow their conches and trumpets while beating their drums. The sound shakes the very ground. The Pandavas respond in kind but the sound of their divine conches appears to shatter the very firmaments of the earth and sky. At this point, lifts up his bow Gandiva, an indestructible celestial bow and then straps on his two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. He stands on his invincible chariot, a gift from the Devas or gods.

Arjuna looks at Krishna, his charioteer and then asks him to drive his chariot in between both armies so that he can fully grasp the logistics of both sides. Krishna without a word does so. He drives the golden chariot between both sides and stops. Arjuna then spends a few minutes looking between both sides. The desire for battle begins to slowly whittle away when he sees his brothers, uncles, friends, cousins, nephews, teachers and even his grandfather all aligned against each other. The inevitability of this war, if not all wars, dawns upon him. He will have to kill those he loves and cares about. Suddenly, it hits him, all war specifically this war will kill generations of people and kill people who have a connection with each other.

The sanskrit verses that follow and describe Arjuna's feelings are simply touching and absolutely humanizing but for the sake of brevity I will give a synopsis. Arjuna sees all his friends and relatives on both sides ready to fight and kill each other. A wave of compassion crashes into him and he comprehends the simple fact that here on this field all these ties of family, relations and friendship are tossed aside and replaced with a desire to kill. Years of love, emotions and experiences together suddenly become merely a pebble to step over. With that realization, the reality of heinous act of killing strikes his very core. The physical reactions begin first, his limbs start to quiver, his body trembles, his mouth dries up, the hair on his body stands up and the celestial Gandiva in his hand begins to slip from him grasp. His mind begins to spin and he loses his balance. Shock sets in and the fight is leaving him....

Arjuna explains a very ethical, compassionate and practical view. What good comes from killing those we care about even if we gain all of the universe, when those who we would like to share it with will die here too? Even if those who want to kill us are prompted by greed, why should we who know better also engage in killing? How can we happy in killing others especially our own family and friends just for land and rights? By killing people we destroy families leaving women and children alone. When families are destroy the foundations of society and tradition are corrupted leading to a cycle of pain and problems, not to mention sin attaching to those who kill, so why fight this war and kill? Why should we engage in the sinful act of killing so that we can claim our right to govern?

Arjuna ends by telling Krishna, "It is better that the Kauravas, the sons of my uncle Dhritrashtra, kill me unarmed and unresisting than me killing them and gaining the kingdom." He then throws down his bow and arrows, sitting down in his chariot.

The first chapter of the Gita is an important one because Arjuna presents to Krishna and us, all the human emotions and rationale that come with weight of killing and war. Arjuna, here is the everyman or woman. He connects to us as the reader or listener and explains our own qualms about the very act of killing. Why should we fight and kill another being especially those whom we love for something as intangible as a right or something as inconsequential as property? Arjuna captures the idea of a cycle of violence, to hurt or kill another will not no matter what lead to good results, the potential for more pain and problems grows. Furthermore, the individual who commits those acts becomes burdened with both the sin of the action and the psychological consequences. Arjuna, like most of us, is filled with compassion and restraint from harming those we are close to as the pain and loss from that is lifelong. He then resolves to not fight and allow himself to be killed if attacked. Thus ends Chapter 1 of the Gita and sets the scene for Krishna's response. Comments...?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Brief Background of the Bhagavad Gita

To fully appreciate and understand the various strata that are layered on the Gita, it is important to understand the events and story that led up to that moment. The Gita is situated in the Mahabharata, the world's longest and largest epic, nearly 100,000 verses. For me to try and recap all of that in any succient and perfect would be a prodigious task that is probably beyond my skill and ability. So I will just present a very very brief synopsis that will work for our purposes.

The Gita begins off with two armies facing each other ready for complete annihilation. On one side is the side of the Pandavas including Arjuna and Krishna, who are fighting for their rightful claim to the throne and even more so that they are in fact legitimate members of the royal family. On the other side are the Kauravas including all the elders and family of the Pandavas. The Kauravas are the faternal cousins of the Pandavas. They have tried to poison, burn and exile the Pandavas. They also attempted to disrobe the common wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi in middle of court. The Pandavas were exiled from their land for 13 years and if they were to be discovered before that term ends they were to enter back into exile for another 13 years. They tried to assassinate the Pandavas while they were in exile and then refused to return the kingdom to the Pandavas when they successfully completed the terms of the exile.

After the exile, the Pandavas send Krishna as their messenger of peace. Krishna gives the Pandavas and the Kauravas a choice, between picking him and his world famous personal battalion the Narayana Seni. The caveat is that Krishna swears that he will not raise any weapon nor fight in the war but will only behave like a charioteer. Duryodhana and the Kauravas choose the Narayana Seni and essentially laughed at the Pandavas for picking Krishna. Krishna on behalf of the Pandavas, asks for peace and only 5 villages but the Kauravas led by Duryodhana, refuse to give them even enough land equal to that of a tip of a needle. It was at this point that the war became inevitable. Nonetheless the Pandavas tried to just avoid war but prodded on both their mother Kunti, their wife Draupadi and Krishna, they decide that war is the only course of action to assert their rights. Both sides amassed their armies in total about 4 million people and meet on the field of the Kurus. It is on the first day of battle that the Gita occurs.

The Gita is essentially a conversation within a conversation, the meta conversation is between Sanjaya, a minister of the Kurus, and King Dhritrashtra, the blind king who is the uncle of the Pandavas and father of the Kauravas. Sanjaya, who has been granted divine vision to observe all that occurs on the battlefield, conveys to Dhritrashtra all that transpires. As such he relates to Dhristrashtra the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna as they are situated between both the armies. Time is said to have slowed down as the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna took place. In the next post, I will start with Chapter 1 titled "The Despondency of Arjuna".

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Gita and Me

This past year has been a very interesting year for me. Beginning of the year was period in which I walked a path I never thought I would but in July things took a rather different spin. I think I found my center and my greater journey, I was inspired and also had a deep realization. I really owe a couple people my deepest heartfelt thanks and am blessed/honored to have been inspired by them, one day I will tell them personally but for now to them all I say Endaro Mahanu Bhavulu... "I offer my humble obeisances to all the great people".

I occasionally re-read the Bhagavad Gita, which to me is one of the greatest if not the greatest spiritual text of mankind. The Bhagavad Gita is traditionally said to have been spoken by Krishna to his cousin and friend Arjuna in the year 3137 B.C.E. on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, in the plains of the of what is near modern Delhi. Modern scholarship, based on linguistic analysis and comparison to various other texts, places the composition of the Gita from 500 B.C.E. to about 200 B.C.E.. Whatever the date of the actual composition or recitation of the Gita is, means little to most people who read it. It was the favorite book of Gandhi, Vivekananda, Henry Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, Robert Oppenheimer amongst other luminaries in all walks of life. It has influenced and changed the lives of millions if not billions of people, including mine.

The Gita is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, just as Arjuna is about to fight in the most pivotal war of his epoch. The war of Kurukshetra was a civil war of sorts but also involving every country, nation and tribe known to the ancient world of India. Arjuna, who was the greatest warrior of his time, became overcome with compassion and despondency. He was about to enter into war with his grandfather, his teachers, his friends, his family and his kinsmen. He had fought them on previous occasions but this battle was the war to end it all and he knew it.

Arjuna asks Krishna to draw his chariot in the field between the two armies. He looks across and sees all those he will fight and kill. He loses his nerve and refuses to fight. He is mouth drys up, he gets dizzy, his skin feels like its on fire and he drops his bow. He tells Krishna that he would rather let himself be killed than fight his loved ones. He tells Krishna that he has no desire to fight and is conflicted between what he is supposed to do and the feelings and angst he is going through. He then falls to Krishna's feet weeping asking him to instruct him. It is at this point that Krishna smirks and thus begins the perennial Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord.

I read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time when I was 18 years old before that time it was merely something that my father had taught to me in snippets, I did not understand nor care to understand most of it. When senior year of high school came around, I began to become interested in my own cultural and literary background. I had been attending Catholic School for nearly four years and had imbibed in the Bible, both the old and new testament. I also became well acquainted with Catholic tradition, theology and dogma. It dawned on me, I knew more direct source material about non-Indian religious traditions than I did about Indian traditions.
It slowly became apparent to me that I should at least get a grasp on my own background, so I picked up the copy of the Gita we had at home, the one that nearly every gita owner has, the Hare Krsna one. It was from that moment on that the Gita became my best friend.

The Gita is a voice that spoke to me from ages past yet a voice that knew what I needed to hear. It is a text that has been with me through all my moments of darkness, despair and fear. When I was alone and confused, it brought me solace and clarity. When the world appeared bleak, the Gita gave me the lamp of knowledge. Where the world was Krishna through the Gita became more than just a friend but a deep confidant. It seems absurd for a man, I use that term loosely in reference to me, living in the 21st century to think that a person from possibly several millenium back could be a confidant but such is the case. Anytime I felt the weight of the world drop on my shoulders like that of Olympus and the titan Atlas, I would open the Gita and read. Suddenly it would be like all around me ceased or at least froze and Krishna, himself spoke to me. His voice was at once both deep with immense gravitas and yet with the air of play. As if he was pointing out the most sublime thing to me and saying look how obvious it is.

Krishna forces one to examine yourself from a myriad of perspectives. In the Gita, he weaves in various strata of analysis and also justifications. He uses keen psychological analysis to peel away the layers of ego and the lifetime of armor that we have levied on ourselves. He does so without even alerting us to it, as he does to Arjuna himself, where by the end of the entire text you have automatically without conscious understanding submitted yourself to his guidance. After he presents all his arguments and conversation he then says "yatha icchasi tatha kuru", which is "As you wish so should you do". Krishna never forces one to do what he asks but by the time one gets to that stage, Krishna has already won them over. The Gita delves into our very core and asks us to look at the root of all our problems and troubles. It dives into our emotions and fears finding in them our own desires and attachments as its root cause.

Aside from the religious truths that the Gita expounds, it also gives us practical advice on how to view life and our role in life. The foremost both in my mind and in many others is the idea that all we have the right to is the action not the fruit of that action. We have the right to act and we must act as we see our duty and let the consequences of that action fall where they may, there should be no attachment to them. To many this may seem a bit odd, but to fully grasp this idea one must understand the fundamental tenant of all Indian religious and philosophical systems, existence as we experience it is bondage and the goal is release from this bondage. Krishna's point is that any sort of attachment to the fruits of an action creates more bondage. As long as one's ego is still in the picture so does attachment remain and as long as attachment remains so one will remain trapped in this limited existence. The goal Krishna says is to act but to act without desire of "victory or defeat" but act because it is required of oneself and also to ensure that society continues to function. The God that the Gita gives us, is the only God I think that can exist.

Gita presents to us a God that at once both so amazing and transcendental yet so connected to all living things. The God of the Gita, is both beyond all duality and yet abides in the souls of all beings, baring witness to all their anguish, pain, fear, hurt and also their joy, happiness and love. He is the "mother, father, grandfather" of all beings. A deity who does not show favoritism nor does this deity turn away any faithful seeker, no matter what path or faith they chose to worship him. In fact, he says he comes to them as they worship him and even steadies/strengthens their faith. "So is the faith of a man, so is he" is what Krishna says. Krishna makes one believe that despite any pain, loneliness and desperation that they experience, he isn't faraway but in fact he is dwelling with us during that experience, never abandoning. He makes a promise to all those that seek him:
"man-mana bhava mad-bhakto
mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaishyasi satyam te
pratijane priyosi me

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
mokshayisyami ma sucah"

My translation:
"Think of me, become my devotee
Worship me and offer homage unto me
You will come to me, without fail
As you have become dear to me

Give up all your dharmas
seek refuge at my feet
I will release you from all evil
Do not grieve"

These two stanzas are the foundation of all bhakthi or devotion in modern Hinduism. They also contain in them the idea of a loving God, a god who will not abandon anyone that seeks Him/Her. Here the relational aspect of God becomes key, just as God becomes the focus of the devotee so does the Devotee become the focus of God, the devotee becomes dear to God. As Krishna says earlier that one who has become close to God can never be lost because he has placed his success/failure and all into God, forcing God to become his raft in the ocean of transmigratory existence.

He also reveals to Arjuna his universal form, the form that contains all things known and unknown. Both amazing and terrifying at once. This scene had such a big impact on the life of Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the atomic bomb, that when he saw the power of the bomb he quoted the Gita specifically the line "Death I am, destroyer of all worlds". The Gita gives a fitting description of what looking at God would be akin to, "if hundreds of thousand suns were to rise in the sky at once, it MIGHT resemble the splendor of that great being". The amazing part of this description of the Universal Form is that, the Gita holds that this form is constantly around us and in fact we exist in this form but with our limited vision, we cannot see it. Krishna gives Arjuna divine vision to see it. It is in this chapter that we gain full understanding of who Krishna is and one of the most touching lines is when Arjuna who is Krishna's cousin recognizes Krishna's nature and apologizes for his own ignorance in his relationship.

The purpose of me writing this particular entry is I would like to relate to what this text means to me and in subsequent blogs I want to address the Gita chapter by chapter for all 18 chapters. I don't want do a straight translation but present my thoughts on the particular chapter and how it has affected me and how it pertains to us all. I hope you will all follow me on this journey of sorts and maybe at the least develop a respect for one of the greatest testaments to human thought. Hopefully something more! Any comments or questions are much appreciated and solicited!

"Yatra Yogeshwara Krishno
Yatra Partho Dhanurdharah
Tatra Shri Vijayor Bhutir
Dhruva Nitir Matir Mama"

"Wherever there is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga
Wherever there is Arjuna, the Wielder of the Bow
There is also certainly Opulence, Victory, Power
and Law/Morality/Ethics, such is my opinion"

- Mukunda