The Reverence Accorded to the Bhagavad-gītā - Part 1

A popular dhyāna-śloka (benedictory verse) for the Bhagavad-gītā is as follows:

bhīṣma-droṇa-taṭā jayadratha-jalā gāndhāra-nīlotpalā

śalya-grāhavatī kṛpeṇa vahanī karṇena velākulā |

aśvatthāma-vikarṇa-ghora-makarā duryodhanāvartinī

sottīrṇā khalu pāṇḍavai raṇa-nadī kaivartakaḥ keśavaḥ ||[1]

 

The Pāṇḍavas crossed this great war-river –

of which Bhīṣma and Droṇa were its banks

Jayadratha, the flowing water

Śakuni, the blue lily

Śalya, the whale

Kṛpa, the water current

Karṇa, the turbulent waves

Aśvatthāma and Vikarna, the ferocious crocodiles

Duryodhana, the whirlpool

with the help of the boatsman Kṛṣṇa

The aforementioned verse suggests that the different characters that appear in the Kurukṣetra War embody various mental attitudes. Looking at the grandeur of the Epic, we can infer that the Mahābhārata is not merely a tale of war but is imbued with variegated and profound intentions.

Svāsthya-sthāpanā – Establishment of Equanimity

A superficial view of the praise of kṣātra and warring tendencies appear to be an exalted worship of strength and power, but in truth it helps even out differences. The world manifests itself because of the constant competitive play of the three primordial qualities of sattva (benign goodness), rajas (endless activity), and tamas (deluded lethargy). The undulations must be ironed out from time to time for the establishment of svāsthya, or equanimity. This sort of effort to bring svāsthya to the society is figuratively described as a war. The word ‘krānti’ also suggests the same. The meaning of the word ‘krānti’ is ‘gradually progressing towards a central goal.’ The Ultimate is to have ‘divinity’ as the central goal. Only when we understand this fundamental truth can we comprehend the karma-yoga principles propounded in the Gītā. This will also throw light on the universality of the concept.

The adherence to sva-dharma (natural inclination, innate tendencies) of every individual is responsible for his/her development and also bolsters the smooth running of the world.[2] This teaching of the Bhagavad-gītā is, in sum, called karma-yoga. The formulation of this concept includes the dimensions of individual, society, and nation; because of this, it becomes the responsibility of the governments of each era to facilitate people from all sections of society to adhere to their sva-dharma. When this establishment is disturbed either by internal causes or external forces, kṣātra-dharma comes into play to re-establish equanimity in the society by driving away the imbalance. All types of governance ultimately come under kṣātra-dharma.

It is only when the government is competent that development can take place. By development it is meant the greater and greater manifestation of inner goodness. If the society is disorganized, this process of manifestation of inner goodness is impossible.

Cool Waters of Solace

Our ancestors perceived the Bhagavad-gītā primarily as a treatise of the Ultimate Reality. The reason for this is perhaps the absence of major perturbations in society of those eras.[3] As centuries passed, however, people became aware of more intricate dimensions of the teachings of the Gītā. In the last century or two, due to the large scale weakening of traditional beliefs and the complications of human relations, the Bhagavad-gītā serves as a much-needed source of solace and hope. The possibility of this [solace] has always been inherent in the Gītā. What has changed is merely the mental attitude of people. The holistic vision of the Gītā, which transcends time and place, has been established quite a long time back. It is the hallmark of great literature to reveal newer and newer layers of meaning in every era. It is in this background that the Gītā has changed from being merely a mokṣa-śāstra (a scripture for ultimate release) to being a nitya-jivana-śāstra (a treatise on daily life). The establishment of dharma lies at the heart of the teaching of the Gītā and therefore it is natural that people like Lokmanya Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose, and others were attracted to the work. The Gītā became a pillar of support to instil in the hearts of people this feeling: While it is a practical inevitability to throw away foreign yokes, it is also a dhārmic responsibility. It is not merely by chance that the Gītā took its birth on the battlefield. The war between the divine and the demonic provided the impulse for the origin of this work. This sort of conflict between opposites is present at all times. One will need to constantly look for means to deal with these dichotomies and to overcome them. The Bhagavad-gītā provides a clear pathway to achieve this. It is because of this reason that it has been revered greatly for centuries.

Inner War, Outer War

The stability of the world and the growth of an individual are both possible only through the path of dharma. Adherence to timeless values is dharma, after all. If a war is inevitable for the establishment of long-lasting peace, it is not just noble to fight the war but is in fact sinful to refrain from fighting – this is amply clear from the Gītā.[4] It is evident that the aforementioned approach is applicable in same measure to the inner conflicts of elevated and baser tendencies.

The human life is indeed a Kurukṣetra. The conflict that took place on the battlefield back then is what constantly transpires within an individual, every single day. The war is merely an external manifestation of this inner conflict. One can merely try to bring those conflicts under control but can never do away with them. In the external realm, to control these inevitable conflicts, people and the government both play a major role. The very purpose of kṣatriya dharma is the protection of the state. The entire society can live in peace only if the kṣatriya class perform their sva-dharma well.[5] This eternal truth was reiterated by Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-gītā. It is only through kṣātra that brāhma can be protected. The Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad says –

tasmāt kṣatriyāt paraṃ nāsti[6]

Therefore there’s nothing greater than kṣātra dharma

History has shown that public life has degenerated every time there has been imbalance between the material and the spiritual worlds. In the Western conception of the world, nationalism is strictly transactional. However, the Indian conception of nationalism is all-inclusive and consists of the three cardinal values – karma (working without attachments), bhakti (devotion to the supreme), and jñāna (emphasis on wisdom). The Bhagavad-gītā teaches a nationalism that is rooted in spirituality. As a result of Kṛṣṇa’s teaching, Arjuna’s confusions and attachments disappeared and wisdom blossomed in its place. Kṛṣṇa, the yogeśvara (the master of yoga) and Arjuna, the dhanurdhāri (the wielder of the bow) came together for universal welfare.

To be continued...

 

Footnotes

[1] भीष्मद्रोणतटा जयद्रथजला गान्धारनीलोत्पला

शल्यग्राहवती कृपेण वहनी कर्णेन वेलाकुला।

अश्वत्थामविकर्णघोरमकरा दुर्योधनावर्तिनी

सोत्तीर्णा खलु पाण्डवै रणनदी कैवर्तकः केशवः॥

Note: Most of the footnotes in this essay have been added by the translators.

[2] It must be remembered that sva-dharma refers to the natural, untutored aspect of one’s personality; it does not, however, refer to either the basic instincts or the animalistic tendencies possibly latent in a person.

[3] A study of Indian history indicates that our ancestors—across India—largely seemed to have enjoyed the luxury of peace in society during the period preceding tenth century CE. But in later times, particularly in the past couple of centuries, it is imperative that we see the Bhagavad-gītā primarily as what D V Gundappa calls ‘Jīvana-dharma-yoga’ (loosely translates to ‘Path of right living.’) It is most valuable to us when we see it as a practical guide to life.

[4] dharmyāddhi yuddhācchreyo’nyat kṣatriyasya na vidyate || – Gītā 2.31

(धर्म्याद्धि युद्धाच्छ्रेयोऽन्यत् क्षत्रियस्य न विद्यते॥)

“There is nothing superior for a kṣatriya than a war fought for preserving dharma!”

atha cet-tvam-imaṃ dharmyaṃ saṅgrāmaṃ na kariṣyasi |

tataḥ sva-dharmaṃ kīrtiṃ ca hitvā pāpam-avāpsyasi || – Gītā 2.33

(अथ चेत्त्वमिमं धर्म्यं सङ्ग्रामं न करिष्यसि।

ततः स्वधर्मं कीर्तिं च हित्वा पापमवाप्स्यसि॥)

“Now if you don’t fight in this battle sanctioned by dharma, you will be making the sin of ignoring your sva-dharma and your honour.”

[5] Any individual with a natural aptitude for warfare, governance, politics, administration, and management is termed a kṣatriya.

śauryaṃ tejo dhṛtir-dākṣyaṃ yuddhe cāpy-apalāyanam |

dānam-īśvara-bhāvaś-ca kṣātraṃ-karma sva-bhāvajam ||  – Gītā 18.43

(शौर्यं तेजो धृतिर्दाक्ष्यं युद्धे चाप्यपलायनम्।

दानमीश्वरभावश्च क्षात्रंकर्म स्वभावजम्॥)

“Valour, brilliance, fortitude, skill, courage (literally, ‘not running away from the battlefield’), generosity, and lordly disposition are the basic traits of kṣatriyas.”

[6] “तस्मात् क्षत्रियात् परं नास्ति”  – Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad 1.4.11

Author(s)

About:

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of greats like D. V. Gundappa and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.

Translator(s)

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

About:

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.