Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chapter 1 - The Despondency of Arjuna

2.1 This week we will look at two questions. Firstly, what is the setting for the events that transpire in the Gita? Secondly, since we do not live in ancient India, how is this setting relevant to us?

2.2 Considering our first question, in verse 1 we learn that Sanjaya “one who has conquered likes and dislikes” is narrating the events of the Gita at Dritharashtra’s request. Dritharashtra means “he by whom the kingdom is held” and he is the blind king of the Kuru’s. We also learn that these events take place on “dharmakshetre kurukshetre” – “the field of duty, the field of the kurus.”

2.3 Next, in verse 2, king Duryodhana, who is the leader of the Kauravas “vacanam abravit” – “gave a speech” or “said words”. This phrasing, instead of the usual “uvaca” – “spoke”, indicates that the king is not being entirely straightforward in what he is saying.

2.4 As we might expect, Duryodhana’s gives a speech (in verses 3 through 11) in which he boasts about the strength of the Kauravas. (The Kauravas are the clan that will be opposing Arjuna’s clan which is called the Pandavas.) Duryodhana is telling his teacher Drona how well-prepared they are to enter into battle with and claim victory over the Pandavas.

2.5 Once both sides are lined up and facing each other, verses 12-19 explain, the Kauravas blow conchs and beat drums, etc., to intimidate the Pandavas. The Pandavas then respond with some deafening noise of their own. They even have names for some of the conchs they blow. By mentioning these names, Sanjaya, who is using the siddhi of psychic vision to give this account to blind Dhritarashtra, is indicating that the Pandavas are better prepared to enter this battle. We find great significance here when we consider that the Pandavas represent our intention to be on the spiritual path and that the Kauravas represent our external, materialistic nature. Encouraging as they are, these verses contain a warning about how dangerous it is to presume that we are more spiritually mature than we are. In light of this we can see that it would be safer to presume the opposite by preparing ourselves as well as we can to have the Pandavas overcome the Kauravas.

2.6 In verses 24 and 25 Krishna draws the chariot between the two armies and says to Arjuna, “O Arjuna, see these assembled people of the Kuru dynasty.” Here Krishna is indicating that the Kauravas, although they are called by a different name, are originally of the singular Kuru dynasty. This is because our outer way of being is an extension of our inner way of being; they are two ways that we exist on the relative level, which in Vedanta is called vyavahara. We also have an Absolute level which is called paramarta. But to realize the paramartika level we have to accomplish what Krishna will be teaching Arjuna throughout the rest of the Gita.

2.7 In verses 28-34 Arjuna expresses sorrow, fear and bewilderment over the prospect of fighting this war. He begins to make the case to Krishna that he can not fight since he would be fighting against teachers and relatives. Who could do such a dreadful thing?

2.8 Then in verse 35 Arjuna addresses Krishna as Madhusudana. By doing this, Arjuna is indicating that Krishna, being the founder of the Vedic path, can therefore not ask him to fight in an un-Vedic war.

2.9 Finally, in verses 36, Arjuna calls Krishna “Janardana”, which means “agitator” – “ard” of “jana” – “man”. Killing relatives is sinful, so by using this name Arjuna is indicating that if Krishna killed them instead, He would incur no sin, since He is an Avatara of Vishnu and is always creating, preserving and destroying things. The Kauravas, under the rule of their leader Duryodhana, have committed atrocities against the Pandavas so it is actually not sinful to kill them. However Arjuna argues that it is sinful regardless, because these are his own relatives.

2.10 Now we are ready to consider our second question, which is how is the setting for the events of the Gita relevant to us? At the end of the chapter (in verse 47) Sanjaya narrates that Arjuna, in sorrow, sits down on the chariot - right in the middle of the battlefield - and pitifully tosses aside his bow and arrows. This is an expression of complete despondency, and now we can see why this setting is relevant to us. Like Arjuna, we must wage a battle upon the Kurukshetra within ourselves.

2.11 At this point, if we wish to get out of our terrible despondency, we will have to come face-to-face with our competing commitments. There are many aspects and abilities we have worked hard to develop over the course of our lifetime, which have served us well in various circumstances. But not all of these aspects and abilities are helpful on the spiritual path. Now we must get rid of unhelpful abilities which are symbolized by the Kauravas. At times anger has served us and desire has served us and even greed has served us. Although these are the very gates of hell, we are hesitant to deny their value so that we can set foot on the spiritual path.

2.12 Before concluding our reflection upon this chapter, we want to also consider that spiritual instruction does not properly begin in the Gita until we get to chapter 2, verse 11. This may lead us to wonder, what, then, is the point of these first 57 verses? As we have seen, the answer to this question can be found in the obvious parallels between these verses and our own life prior to our entering upon the spiritual path. Our life is basically mechanical and seems, upon consideration, to be quite meaningless.

2.13 Further still, our life is riddled with bewildering confusions and overwhelming complications. These confusions and complications are not only internal; at this point we find them to be primarily external. We live as if caught within the clutches of a great wave of karmas that endlessly threatens to carry us into oblivion. In this state of being, even regarding those things we know we ought to do, we nonetheless remain confused. It is as if we are paralyzed and can not see the way forward. Fortunately, we will find help with these matters as we begin to study the next chapter.

om tat sat om

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Introductory Notes to the Bhagavad Gita

1.1 Before we begin our examination of the Bhagavad Gita, it will be helpful to consider a few preliminary questions. Firstly, in light of the three quintessential yogas, what is the structure of the Gita? Secondly, if we are meditating upon the mahavakya (Aham Brahmasmi – from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda), how does this structure relate? And, lastly, is there any superiority between these three yogas?

1.2 Regarding our first question, we first of all want to note that the three quintessential yogas are karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. It is because the Gita addresses each of these yogas that it is the most beloved scripture for Hindus in general and for Vedantins of every variety. Advaitins see in it verification for their precious advaita doctrine. Vishishtadvaitins support for their middling course. And dvaitins, too, find justification for their striving toward unity with Krishna amid the chaos of the world.

1.3 This being said, the structure of the Gita, which consists of 18 sublime chapters, is as follows: chapters 1-6 cover karma yoga, chapter 7-12 cover bhakti yoga and chapters 13-18 cover jnana yoga. As already mentioned, it is this beautiful inclusivity (but not only this!) that has endeared so many souls to this unparalleled Scripture.

1.4 Now we want to look at the relation of this structure to our mahavakya. First of all, however, we want to look at the meaning of the words “Aham” and “Brahmasmi”. “Aham” means “I” and “Brahmasmi” means “Brahman am”. We can translate this from the Sanskrit into English with the more euphonious phrase “I am Brahman”. But to relate our mahavakya with the Gita’s structure, we want to keep in mind the order of the Sanskrit.

1.5 “Aham” correlates with karma yoga, which is to say, the yoga of action. This is because karma yoga has to do with “I”, with myself. Since the world is a confusing place, how do I navigate through it in a beneficial manner? How do I improve myself? How do I make myself suited for the spiritual path? These kinds of questions are answered in the first section of the Gita.

1.6 “Brahmasmi” correlates with “bhakti-jnana”, or love-knowledge. In the view of Vedanta, love and knowledge are both considered valid means for realizing the Self, whereas action, important though it is, is not such a means. This is how the structure of the Gita relates to our mahavakya. In this very deep way.

1.7 We have already learned that karma yoga is not a valid means for realization. In this sense we can rightly say that it is inferior to both bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. Be that as it may, we do not want to say it is irrelevant in relation to these other two yogas. All of our work, on the spiritual path, toward increased goodness and truthfulness, is important, including, of course, our actions toward such ends. In fact it is basically impossible, generally speaking, for us to grow in love or knowledge if we are behaving in a tamasic manner, for example, in our daily conduct. As a result, we can safely say that karma yoga provides the necessary foundation for our engagement in either bhakti or jnana yoga.

1.8 Regarding the two yogas which are valid means to realization, can we say that one or the other is superior? The answer to this question is no. It is a matter that is between God and the individual as to which yoga is appropriate, since God (as Ishvara) is the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of all. However, we can say that bhakti yoga is the means for the many and that jnana yoga is the means for the few.

1.9 Nonetheless, it is to some degree acceptable for each of these yogas to affirm superiority, but this is only the case for individuals who adhere to the given yoga. For example, in Narada Bhakti Sutras sage Narada states, “(Devotion is superior to other paths) because even God hates pride and loves humility.” Similarly, Adi Shankara has declared in Atma Bodha, “Knowledge alone is the direct means for liberation.” As we might expect, both of these sages are correct.

1.10 With these points in mind, we are ready to begin our reflection upon the sublime and unparalleled Bhagavad Gita, which is to say, the Song of Lord Krishna.

om tat sat