Every jīva’s characteristics and circumstances differ from one another. Therefore every one’s dharma is different. Thus everyone has his or her own svadharma.
For a kṣatriya, fighting a war for dharma becomes dharma. Therefore, it was Arjuna’s duty. Not Vyāsa’s. Accepting five husbands became dharma for Draupadī; not for any other woman. It became dharma for Ambikā and Ambālikā to seek offspring from their own brother-in-law; not for other women. Therefore, dharma takes varied forms based on class, capabilities and circumstances of an individual. Hence
dharmasya tattvaṃ nihitaṃ guhāyām — Mahābhārata, Vanaparva 314.119
(The essence of dharma is hidden in secret)
The ascertainment of dharma is possible only via an analysis of reality.
yastarkeṇānusandhatte sa dharmaṃ veda netaraḥ | (Manusmṛti 12.106)
itikartavyatābhāgaṃ mīmāṃsā pūrayiṣyati | (Kumārila’s Bṛhaṭṭīkā)
It is pāpa to slip from one’s own dharma. It is not a pāpa for a kṣatriya to kill during battle; but running away from battle is. What is pāpa? The descent of the jīva towards a worse state. It is thus that Bhagavān said - “Arjuna, look at it from the perspective of a jīva’s welfare. This war is an opportunity for you to fulfill your dharma. Therefore there will be no loss or failure of dharma.
After stating the dharma of one’s own duty, Bhagavān with a doubt as to whether Arjuna understood this deep and Supreme philosophy or with an intention to test Arjuna’s mind states other exhortations for war.
1.The death of kinsmen causes sorrow. However, in this world, the dualities of sorrow/happiness and profit/loss come and go just as winter and summer. They have to be forborne. One should not abandon dharma out of fear for them.
2. This war has happened by chance. Not because you wished for it. Therefore you will not beget any pāpa.
3. Not fighting this war will bring sin upon you.
4. Fleeing from this war will cause infamy.
5. The world will deride you as a coward and bring you disrespect.
6. You will achieve heaven if you die.
7. You will achieve your kingdom if you win. Thus does Śrīkṛṣṇa show many allurements as well as fears. In the Kaṭhopaniśad, when Naciketas prays to Lord Yama for Self-knowledge, the latter tests him by offering him enticements much lower than Self-knowledge such as “I will give you palaces; a wife; a long life-span and riches”. Śrīkṛṣṇa similarly tested Arjuna. In addition to these seven arguments, Śrīkṛṣṇa added these three in another part of the work.
8. The tendency for war is innate to you. You cannot overcome it. Even if you try to control it, it will get you to fight.
9. If you do not desire to fight for your own selfish desires, do it for the welfare of the world.
10. This war is due to the will of the Divine. It will not stop if you do not participate in it. It will definitely happen. Those that you refuse to kill will not stop dying. They have already entered the jaws of death. It will be your loss if you do not fight.
The inevitability of war and the importance of the duty of fighting in one are stated first. Then are expounded the Universality of the Self, steadiness in samādhi and the mental makeup the seeker needs to have while discharging one’s duty.
The Vision of the Universality of the Self
“Arjuna, what you just said are the words you heard from the people of the world. Those are useless. Why don’t you reflect upon the principle of reality with your own intellect? I have told you what the Supreme Principle is - it is of the nature of the Self. That indeed is sāṅkhya (knowledge). Keeping the Self as your foundation, reflect upon the conundrums of life by yourself. When that is done, your fetters of pāpa and puṇya will fall away.
buddhyā yukto yayā pārtha karmabandhaṃ prahāsyasi | (BG 2.39)
As long as one is embodied, action is inevitable. dharma too is a karma (action/work) that leads one towards the Self. The natural qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas are mixed into every karma. These three qualities might be present in dharma-related work too. Perform your dharma while going beyond these three qualities i.e., while others do their dharma keeping heaven and other desires in mind, do your dharma without any desire. Your objection that śruti (revealed śāstra) and smṛti (remembered śāstra) teach works with specific results in mind is valid. However, such works are prescribed for those who qualify only for that and cannot reach the next level. The intention of such prescriptions by the śruti is to initially motivate the lower category of seekers to eventually turn them towards the Divine.
yāvānartha udapāne sarvataḥ samplutodake ।
tāvān sarveṣu vedeṣu brāhmaṇasya vijānataḥ ॥ (BG 2.46)
Even if there are multitudes of wells, ponds, and tanks in a town, and all of them are full of water, we take only what we need for our cooking, ablutions, drinking or other needs. Not all of it. The same is the case with the teachings of the Vedas and śāstras. There are hundreds of teachings. We can choose only those befitting our eligibility. The śāstric terminology for this eligibility is ‘adhikāra’. The instruction befits one’s adhikāra. All instructions do not apply to all. Of the ten reasons I have stated, act according to the reason that fits you or if they do not suit you, do so from the perspective of the Universal Self that is beyond all desires. Remember the following rule regardless of how you act. You have the right only to perform your duty, not to its results. Effort is under your control; victory and defeat are left to the Divine. (See 18.14). If your mind is not attached to results, the merit or demerit of that work will not attach itself to you. That is Yoga.
karmaṇyevādhikāraste mā phaleṣu kadācana ।
mā karmaphalaheturbhūḥ mā te saṅgo’stvakarmaṇi ॥ (BG 2.42)
“You have adhikāra only in performing the work prescribed to you. You have no adhikāra over the results of the work. Do not examine the work’s results and think - “What’s in it for me?”. Do not give up work.”
This is a highly celebrated verse. It is natural for anyone to think about the results whenever they begin work. This question is quite the norm in the case of one’s duty as a citizen. The government is powerful. It could be performing actions that are unjust or dangerous. What is the benefit in opposing it? The government will not swerve from its decision whereas protests and protestors will earn only its ire. Such is the usual argument that most have heard. But this is not what the Gītā teaches. Duty lies in opposing injustice and adharma under all circumstances. Even if the one opposed to evil has to fight all alone without any assistance, he must stand firm to protect that which his Inner self holds to be dharma and destroy that which is opposed to it.
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.
"Stanzas on Freedom", James Russell Lowell
Defeat is not rare for the one who fought for dharma. That is sometimes a daily occurrence. He must not consider external defeats and victories but rejoice in an inner feeling of contentment. It is not possible to deduce how dharmic a certain work is from its result. Dharma does not rest upon results but is independent. Its origin is in the energy of Consciousness in the Self; in the discernment between the Self and the non-Self; in the ardent desire for the elevated state of the Self. Dharma is solely for the betterment of life, not for external achievements. Bhagavān again confirms it thus.
yogasthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṃ tyaktvā dhanañjaya ।
siddhyasiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṃ yoga ucyate ॥ (BG 2.48)
Not giving any attention towards the results of a work after performing it is yoga. Appearing effortless even during effort, not fatigued even after sweating, being of a contented mind is yoga. That is karma-kauśala or excellence in works.
To be continued...
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.