Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2: The Yoga of Discernment (Samkhya) (Part 1)

Krishna observing the actions and decision of Arjuna looks at him and in compassionate words first appeals to Arjuna's sense of courage and honor telling him that it does not become him to run away from battle and from one who is of strong determination. At this point, Krishna has not yet accepted Arjuna as a disciple but only as a cousin and friend. Arjuna's compassion and his despondency at the prospective of having to kill his family continues to weight heavily on him. He tells Krishna, "It is better to beg for a living than kill these men such as Drona and Bhishma, who are my superiors and great souls." Then he makes a very very real point, "if we kill them than everything we gain will be tainted with blood." Arjuna does not lose the sense of phyrric victory here, all violence and all gains from violence will fundamentally be tainted with the pain and blood of others. Arjuna says at this point that he is utterly confused as to what his Dharma (duty) is and what actions of his are being dictated by desire and his grief at having to fight. Arjuna tells Krishna, please show me the way and take me as your disciple and counsel me. He looks at Krishna and says to him "Govinda, I shall not fight." (Govinda being another ephitet for Krishna, he who is friend of the cows)

Now is when Krishna finally speaks in his full capacity. This verse is amazing poignant even though many people gloss over it. Here, standing in the midst of this world war while Arjuna is breaking down in front of him and all others, then Arjuna resolving not to fight, Krishna merely smiles or smirks. It is the smirk of a being who sees the situation as it is, the world's greatest archer Arjuna is now cowering in the battlefield like a child refusing to fight. He smiles, as he conveys all that he needs to convey in that smirk. He smiles because he knew this was going to happen, he would not fight this war with his hands or weapons but using his knowledge and wisdom. For Krishna, this was his war, to reignite Arjuna's knowledge and ability to discern reality and dharma from the trappings of fear and ignorance. He wasn't fighting men but the shackles of the human condition and he knew he would break them so that we can transcend the limitations of our own existence and enter into the bliss of knowledge and truly see the nature of the world.

With that smile, Krishna launches into his song, his Gita. Looking down upon Arjuna, Krishna says, "You seem to speak such wise words Arjuna but you are lamenting for what is not worth lamenting over. The wise do not grieve for the living nor the dead. There was never a time you did not exist, neither these kings nor me. Nor is there a future when we will cease to be." Krishna here begins to give Arjuna a brief lesson on what really constitutes the "I" and its nature. It is consciousness which is what we truly are, nothing more or less. The body, the mind and all that is connected with that are transient. The emotions we experience are like seasons to the planet, they exist but for a moment then pass on. As they are by nature fleeting, one is to weather them and remain steady through their emotions. The body is like clothing for the consciousness, it is worn then discarded when time comes with a new body then taken.

Krishna asks Arjuna to look past the phenomenal world, the world that appears and into the world that is ever eternal, which is the substratum for the world of sensory perception. For those who are born death is certain and so is life certain for the dead, it is the way of nature, why should you grieve for the inevitable. Krishna makes a key point about the nature of duty (dharma) and ones action. One must discharge their duty, for a warrior/prince like Arjuna, whose duty is to always fight for righteousness, law and justice, this war is his calling. As I briefly touched upon in my post Background of the Gita, the Pandavas have been harassed and continually assaulted and viciously attacked by the Kauravas. As long as they lived they would be under constant threat of death. Even a request to govern 5 villages was refused. Krishna's point is it is your duty, no one else's to fight for your rights and principles, if you get stuck with the ephemeral emotions and attachments then justice/dharma will never be served. Once you determine a course of action and see justice falter, you cannot hesitate to do your duty. In fact, he even says its a sin to shy from your duty. A teacher who doesn't teach is sinning, a doctor who doesn't help people is sinning and so on.

Krishna does something quite peculiar at this point, he undermines the very nominal understanding of the scriptures, the Vedas. He says that the Vedas, only deal with the tripartite nature of reality sense gratification, selfishness and knowledge. "All purposes of a small well can be served by a large body of water, so all purposes of the Vedas can be served by those who understand its nature and limits." Krishna tells Arjuna to transcend the bounds of the letters of the Vedas and religion and to rise beyond them and all duality. Here Krishna makes one of the most iconic and fundamentally poignant statements, "You are only entitled to the action/duty that you are beholden to, never to the fruits of that action. You are not the cause of the result of your actions and never be attached to avoidance of your duty. Acting without attachment to success or failure and equipoised in those results, that is what is yoga."

This is called Nishkama Karma, or desireless action. It is the crux of all Hindu spirituality and social action. As conscious beings, we are required to act but we shirk from those duties and actions that are necessary because we are too attached to the outcome, good or bad, success or failure. All desire bind whether the desire is good or bad, so does all attachment to fruits of that action. Krishna's point is act because you have to act not because the success or failure of that action. Do the right thing because it must be done not because good is going to come from it. A doctor's duty is help people in times of physical ailment or deterioration. Whether or not they can actually save the person isn't fully in their power, so the end goal isn't something in their control so why make that the focus of your action. All consequences of any action are dependent on infinite number of factors, one of which is the action of the individual but it is not the sole or overriding factor but it is an important. It is better to act out of duty, which is the only thing that one can control then not act and let things pass by. Krishna is asking Arjuna and us to see ourselves as clogs in the universal machine, an important one but nonetheless one of infinite clogs. The universal machine cannot continue to proceed properly without our actions but it can function without our desires or attachments to the fruits. Now, I will address the rest of Chapter 2 in a subsequent post. Comments?