“Moral decisions are always easy to recognize, they are where you abandon self interest.”
Frank Herbert

Chapter House Dune

What is Arjuna’s Problem?

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The Bhagvad Gita is a famous Hindu text. I studied the first 3rd of the text on retreat and I’ve read two translations. There is something that captivated me when I first encountered the text, though now I have less space and need for it, though it does call out to me. So over the past week I’ve been revisiting some of my notes and I came across two ideas that shimmered for me and I though to share. One is the cultural setting of the text and the other is a curious perspective about it. But, for the uninitiated, a brief orientation.

What’s the Story?

The Bhagvad Gita is a long poem and actually a part of an even longer poem called the Mahabharata.  The Bhagvad Gita begins with a description of a battle that is about to take place. The story that led up to it is not unlike a modern soap-opera:

  • There’s a blind king Dhritarashtra who has 100 sons called the Kauravas.
  • The king has a brother Pandu who has 5 sons called the Pandavas.
  • The Kauravas are a feisty bunch and they managed to cheat the Pandavas out of their rightful inheritance of land… which brings us to the war.
  • Due to the familial relations between the king and his brother, there are friends, teachers & pupils on both sides of the battlefield.
  • Arjuna is one of the five Pandavas and is said to be the greatest warrior alive – master of the bow and arrow.
  • Arjuna was required to choose between Krishna (God incarnated) and Krishna’s army.
  • Arjuna chose Krishna.
  • Krishna’s army is on the side of the Kauravas.

And so our story begins.

Cultural Setting

The historical setting  begins with the Vedas – the oldest written texts and roots of all Indian philosophy. This cultural branch of human spiritual development seems to have been very practical – and so it was focused on spiritual pursuit within the settings of family life. The Vedas were off-limits to ordinary people and remained in the hands of poet-priests – who provided guidance on how life should be lived (the Vedas are dominated by carefully prescribed rituals).

The Vedas were followed by the Upanishads – which rebelled against the domination of priests and rituals – this was a period of “power to the people”. God was said to be “within” and therefore available to all. Practitioners were considered heretics, they broke away from the caste system (and their families) and lived in hiding in forests.

Then came Buddhism which brought priest-like patterns back into the picture. Buddhism claimed that enlightenment was achieved under monastic conditions – and not in the typical settings of the Indian family values.

This brings us to the period of the Bhagvad Gita – which comes to rescue family-values. It is a call to arms to reinforce the position that a pursuit of spiritual enlightenment goes hand in hand with full family-life. You can work, get married, have kids and still achieve enlightenment. It is literally a call to action – about living a full life – about pursuing your Dharma. It is tainted with the cultural needs of its time – when it suggests “better to follow your Dharma badly then someone else’s good” – it lays the foundations for social control – manifested in India as the caste system.

Arjuna’s Depression

At the beginning of the story Arjuna asks Krishna (God incarnated, acting as Arjuna’s charioteer) to take him to the middle of the battlefield. Once there he rises to stand and looks to the enemy lines. There he sees his uncles, cousins, friends and teachers. He then collapses back into his seat in despondency and depression saying to Krishna that he cannot fight this war. The greatest warrior alive gets depressed at the outset of the greatest war in history.

The Bhagavad Gita documents the ensuing dialog in which Krishna teaches Arjuna’s the true nature of reality. Simply put – Krishna explains to Arjuna that his own misapprehensions are blinding him. His opposing cousins and uncles are already dead, because that is the nature of things and of their choices. Krishna says to Arjuna that it is his nature and fate (Dharma) to fight this war – and that he must not let his fleeting human nature blind him from his course – “You are a warrior – go and fight your war”.

I recall the first question that Paul set out for us to contemplate when we began studying the Bhagavad Gita – which to this day I feel paints in a simple and relevant light: “What is it that prompted Arjuna in the first place to ask Krishna to take him out into the battlefield knowing in advance what he will find there?”.

I have a feeling that if you peel enough layers from the question, it boils down to the question Vedanta attempts to answer: “What causes the initial disturbance from which all reality manifests?”. I take solace in an answer provided by Samkhya philosophy – which says “Don’t ask – because it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that we are here now and we are clear about how ‘here now’ works”. I don’t know about you, for me “being here now” is a full-life-job.

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Krishna takes advantage of Arjuna’s predicament to teach him spiritual teachings. Simply put – Krishna explains to Arjuna that his own misapprehensions are blinding him. His opposing cousins and uncles are already dead, because that is the nature of things and of their choices. Krishna says to Arjuna that it is his nature and fate (Dharma) to fight this war – and that he must not let his fleeting human nature blind him from his course – “You are a warrior – go and fight your war”.

I recall the first question that Paul (my teacher) set out for us to contemplate when we began studying the Bhagavad Gita – and with it I will leave you to your own contemplation. What is it that prompted Arjuna in the first place to ask Krishna to take him out into the battlefield knowing in advance what he will find there?

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