Without question, these are the times that try the soul. Certainly each of us must deal with occasional traumas like illness, the loss of loved ones and financial reverses, but recently all of us have been bombarded by an onslaught of momentous circumstances. Consider the crises we’ve lived through in recent years: the shock and heartbreak of 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, Darfur, Katrina, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the unending insanity of the Middle East, and the Great Recession of 2008.
The weight of any one of these situations might feel overwhelming; their cumulative effect could well be traumatic. But for a truly sensitive and practical person, pain and misery begs this essential question, “Is there anything I can do right now to end the sorrow?”
“YES,” Yoga Science resoundingly answers––“but only if you are willing to bid adieu to some old, unhelpful habits.” After all, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.
Right now, if you’re ready and willing to experience peace and happiness in this lifetime, there is no better path to the goal than the study and practice of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Indian scripture that literally means the “Song of the Lord.” The authorship of the Gita is attributed to Vyasa, legendary compiler of the spiritual epic Mahabharata. Although it has been honored by the Hindu culture for thousands of years, its Perennial Philosophy is actually derived from the older oral tradition of Yoga Science. The exact date of the written form of the Bhagavad Gita is a matter of conjecture, but most scholars agree that the scripture is at least 5,000 years old. That would mean that the Gita came into the library of man 1,700 years before Moses, 2,500 years before Buddha, 3,000 years before Jesus the Christ and 3,800 years before Muhammad.
Four fundamental doctrines form the core of the Perennial Philosophy contained in the Bhagavad Gita.
First: that the phenomenal world of matter and individual consciousness––human, animal, plant and mineral––are all manifestations of one Supreme Reality, within which all partial realities exist, and apart from which they do not exist.
Second: human beings are capable of experiencing the eternal wisdom and bliss of the Supreme Reality by direct intuition. Experiencing this undistorted truth, the individual knower unites with the one transcendent Divinity.
Third: that human beings possess a dual nature: a limited ego/personality or lower self and an eternal Higher Self or soul––an aspect of the Supreme Reality. If there is a sufficient desire, it is possible for a human being to unite with the Higher Self.
Fourth: that the purpose of life (and the secret of happiness) is to identify with and become an instrument of the Higher Self. This union is experienced through spiritual practice (sadhana)––the process of sacrificing the ignorance of the ego/personality and serving the perfect, intuitive wisdom of the Higher Self as reflected by the conscience (buddhi).
The Gita presents this Perennial Philosophy as an internal dialogue between the two aspects of mankind’s dual nature. In this intimate conversation, Krishna represents the Lord, the Higher Self within each person, and Arjuna represents the individual personality seeking happiness and fulfillment while working through a mental maze of fear, anger and self-willed desires. Arjuna is a warrior-prince and the most accomplished military general of his time. He is about to do battle against family, friends and teachers to defend his older brother’s legitimate claim to the ancient throne of his kingdom. Krishna is not merely Arjuna’s trusted counselor and charioteer, but also the Bhagavan, the Lord and inner Guru within each human being, who fosters and preserves the universe against the forces of ignorance and darkness.
The opening scene takes place on the battlefield at Kurukshetra, where civil war is about to begin. Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him between the opposing armies to survey the front lines. When Arjuna sees his relatives, friends and teachers prepared to do mortal combat against one another, he steps down from his chariot, drops his bow to the ground and falls to his knees. Overwhelmed by sorrow and despair he laments, “O Krishna, my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body trembles and my hair stands on end. I am unable to stand and my mind seems to be whirling . . . It would be better to renounce the kingdom than to fight with those who are so close to me.”
In modern parlance, Arjuna has an anxiety attack. He has previously been successful in battles against foreign enemies, but Arjuna now finds himself faced with the responsibility of fighting a civil war against people he loves and respects. In this seemingly untenable position Arjuna finds neither defeat nor victory to be acceptable. In the face of deep-seated, personal attachments Arjuna forsakes his discriminative faculty (his buddhi) and cannot engage in the battle that his duty (dharma) requires of him. Deluded by the faulty perspective of the ego-driven personality, Arjuna misperceives his circumstances and is emotionally paralyzed––unable to make the skillful choices that would uphold the fabric of society by serving the eternal wisdom of his Higher Self.
The setting of the Gita is a battlefield because the scriptural war is a metaphor for the long and strenuous campaign each of us must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, senses and unconscious mind. For the Yoga scientist, the Gita is not at all a military discourse. It is a spiritual handbook for Self-realization and daily living. The questions posed by Arjuna and the loving, compassionate answers provided by Krishna are meant to inspire each of us to do battle with our own self-willed limitations through the practice of meditation and its allied disciplines. Mahatma Gandhi once reflected that, “When doubts haunt me; when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort and inspire me. Then, I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”
For one who practices Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna, the Gita becomes a road map of life. It clearly illustrates direct pathways to the most rewarding of destinations. Recognizing the variety of human temperaments, the Gita, like any good map, provides more than one route. Accordingly, Krishna offers Bhakti Yoga: the path of devotion (a spiritual practice in which an individual worships a deity primarily through chant, prayer, song and ritual); Karma Yoga: the path of selfless service (giving away the fruit of one’s actions); Jnana Yoga and meditation (the Yoga of wisdom through discrimination) that is primarily for individuals who are eager to find answers to such questions as: Who am I? From where have I come? Why am I here? Where will I go? and finally, Raja Yoga (the royal path of traditional Yoga Science) which combines the elements of Jnana, Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Through all three––devotion, wisdom, and action––a spiritual aspirant is assured of reaching the ultimate destination of union with God.
The lessons of the Gita, written in elegant prose, do not require its reader to become a scholar or philosopher. Rather, Krishna offers imperishable comfort to any earnest seeker by His words, “Whoever comes to me with devotion will attain Me.” The Gita explains that even though individuals have various dispositions that suit them for differing paths, the truth that each aspirant (sadhaka) experiences is one and the same. Therefore, the Gita does not endorse one path over another. Instead, it encourages each sadhaka to follow the path best suited to his or her needs and proclivities.
Throughout its eighteen chapters the Bhagavad Gita details the two forces pervading human life. The first (akin to the “Big Bang” theory of physics), is the outward thrust of evolution. This externally-oriented drive motivates us to seek happiness and security in the endless procession of objects and relationships that appear to come from outside of us. The second force is involutionary. This inwardly-directed drive (one of the definitions of Krishna) motivates us to seek and find true happiness and wisdom from within our own consciousness. Ultimately, the Bhagavad Gita is not a set of commandments from on high, but rather a practical manual of how to rely on our own inner wisdom to make conscious, discriminating choices that will inevitably lead us toward our greatest fulfillment.
But life’s journey, as taught in the Bhagavad Gita, is not always easy––in part because Self-reliance is neither very fashionable nor valued in our modern culture.
A thought-provoking example of how easily we acquiesce to the suggestions of outside “experts” is presented in the 1979 movie, “Being There.” In the movie Peter Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener named Chance who, through strange twists of fate, becomes a trusted advisor to the President of the United States. While Chance remains the naive and innocent gardener he’s always been, everyone else in the movie assumes him to be a highly cultured man of the world––with great wisdom and insights about human, political and economic issues.
At one point in the film, the concerned President asks the supposedly wise Chance what he thinks the future will bring. After a moment of quiet reflection, Chance responds as only a gardener could. “There will be growth in the spring.” Not knowing Chance is referring to the kingdom of flowers and vegetables, the President interprets the reply to be a positive and encouraging vision of the nation’s economy.
The Gita teaches that it is never appropriate to rely exclusively on others for our happiness. At best, outside suggestions represent hearsay and therefore, are never completely reliable. That is why William Shakespeare echoes the Gita’s eternal truth when he writes, “Above all else, to thine own Self be true.” If we leave all external supports and instead rely on our own inner intuitive wisdom, Krishna promises, we are certain to encounter endless possibilities for rewarding and creative growth.
Today humanity is facing many challenges of historic proportions. Wars, terrorism, natural disasters and global economic collapse are dramatic evidence that our previous choices have taken us, and our children, in a perilous direction. To remedy these ills, no amount of intellectual discussion can be of much help. Intellectual knowledge, however attractive and well intentioned it may be, has little power to change character, conduct or consciousness. Meditation and the timeless, universal teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are the mighty instruments that can transform the power of fear, anger and selfish desire into previously unimagined creative solutions. If we take to heart the loving words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and practice meditation sincerely, systematically and with sustained enthusiasm, our physical and emotional problems will naturally inspire their artistic and creative solutions.
As the Gita aptly concludes, our painful circumstances reflect a deep-seated struggle for supremacy between the forces of darkness and light within our own individual minds. Yes, we are the problem, but we are also the solution. While our past actions are forcing us to engage in this battle within, each of us must still decide on which side we will fight. To help us make this crucial decision, Krishna leaves Arjuna with these final instructions: “Make every act an offering to me; regard Me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through My grace. But if you will not heed Me in your self-will, nothing will avail you.”
And so for Arjuna, the Gita ends where it began––with his destiny in his own hands. For each of us today the message is clear and compelling: we are the architects of our lives and we determine our destiny––by what we trust in, think about, speak of and act on. When we consistently base our thoughts, words and deeds on the inner, intuitive wisdom of our Higher Self, we will find our troubled times transformed into a season of infinite, joyful and rewarding possibilities.
Painting credit: “Triumph of Death” by Pieter Breugel the Elder, circa 1562