Life Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita
Taking the epic of Mahabharata as an allegory for the battle between the higher and lower natures of man, Charles Shahar elucidates that the Gita teaches the important lesson of moving beyond the duality of this transient world and being stationed in our unchangeable true Self
As the reader is very likely aware, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of God, is a Hindu scriptural text known for the depth of its spiritual insights. It is part of a much larger epic, the Mahabharata, that describes in intricate detail, the events leading up to and including the climactic battle at Kurukshetra.
On one side is the army of the Pandavas, a family of virtuous and noble brothers. Arrayed against them is the army of their cousins, the Kauravas, a more ruthless and opportunistic family that seeks dominance and control over the surrounding kingdom of Hastinapura.
The Gita itself describes the interactions between Arjuna, the Pandava general, and Shri Krishna, his advisor. In the period leading up to the battle, Shri Krishna offers assistance to both Arjuna and Duryodhana (The Kaurava leader)—specifically, and, the choice between Shri Krishna’s massive army and Shri Krishna Himself as counsel and charioteer. In a fateful decision, Arjuna chooses the latter.
On the face of it, the Mahabharata can be considered as a kind of morality play, but it is much more than that. It is a guide to the attainment of higher consciousness. The life lessons it imparts are meant for those seeking freedom from the bondage of their mind and senses, and who wish to ultimately realise the essential nature of their true being.
The Mahabharata is actually an allegory, within which the Kauravas symbolise the lower nature of the human being, and the Pandavas represent the higher, more refined nature of the soul or jeeva. On a deeper level, the battle is not an external one, but serves as a metaphor for the inner struggle of the individual to transcend the human condition.
In the case of the Gita, Arjuna represents the virtuous mind, the soul who seeks enlightenment, but is still affected by the changing nature of the world, and the sway that human experience has on him. Shri Krishna, as Arjuna’s mentor, represents the Divine Being who leads the higher intellect to a state of moksha or liberation from the shackles of the human ego and mind. In reality, Arjuna and Shri Krishna exist in all of us.
In this article, I want to describe the life lessons the Gita imparts. Their relevance is not as removed from our daily experience as the reader might think because the Gita deals with the human condition, which applies to us all. The question here is not how to improve our humanity, but rather how to transcend it and realise that it is the ignorance of our essential Self that leads to all suffering. Remove this ignorance, and the true brilliance of our being can then shine most brightly.
The inner battle
When Arjuna realises that many of those arrayed against him in the Kaurava army are his dearest relatives, teachers, and friends, he becomes despondent and confused. He is paralysed by the thought that they might be killed in the ensuing battle. As he surveys the scene of the impending battle, he becomes helpless, his limbs weaken, and he is not even able to wield his mighty bow.
As mentioned above, the battle itself is a metaphor for the inner struggle between the forces of light, and darkness. The forces of darkness lead the mind to feel weak, limited and helpless. The Kauravas are the personifications of attachment, greed, and fear that plague the human psyche. The higher intellect struggles to break free of their bondage, and it is only when the light of the essential Self shines through, that the being is finally free from such ensnarement.
How is it that attachment and fear can bring us so much misery? We just need to examine our own lives to derive an answer. We are attached to whatever we think will bring us happiness. Yet, as Shri Krishna remarks, the happiness of human experience is fleeting and unfulfilling (2:69). The field of human existence is forever changing. We experience a little happiness one moment, and sadness the next.
Shri Krishna speaks to Arjuna about the pairs of opposites that characterise the changing field of human experience: pain-pleasure, good-evil, like-dislike, gain-loss (4:22). When one quality of experience predominates, the other will also inevitably follow.
In this way, the human mind is constantly swinging or vacillating from one reaction or involvement to the next. It is actually helpless, because the mind’s function is to interact with the world, and the senses fool it into believing that the world will somehow satisfy its desires and preferences.
The dance of light and shadow
What does all this mean in light of our day-to-day experiences? One day you feel a great love for your spouse, the next, you both bicker. One moment your work excites you, the next, you are utterly bored. One morning you feel secure about your life, the next, you worry and agitate about your future. This is the field of change, the field of the pairs of opposites, which is the field of the wavering mind.
Arjuna could not transcend his attachments. It is a very difficult challenge to be able to do so. For instance, you can easily forego things that you don’t like, that make you feel uncomfortable or uneasy. But what about anything that brings you happiness?
This is a difficult concept for the human mind to wrap itself around. Isn’t it the whole point of our sojourn here on earth to be happy? Since this happiness is not a permanent state of being, and because human experience will always vacillate between the pairs of opposites, the experience of happiness is thereby limited and ultimately unsatisfying.
The unchanging field of bliss
Shri Krishna describes a much deeper sense of joy that is called aanand, or bliss. We tend to think of bliss as a kind of super happy state, but it is more a sense of peacefulness. According to Shri Krishna, it is only by becoming aware of our true nature, which is beyond the wavering mind and emotions, that true peace or equanimity can be attained (5:24). This state of perfect balance is not influenced by the push and pull of changing phenomena or situations.
There is a side of you, the real you, that is not affected by the changing field of this world. It remains untouched, unmoved, and immutable. This essence of your being is not the jeeva, or individual soul, but rather is the infinite, pure Consciousness, the Paramaatma, which is your true Self.
Arjuna’s main query is about how to overcome fear. Fear and attachment go hand in hand. We fear losing the objects we are most attached to. The most basic attachment we have is for our own physical body. All fears stem from the fear of death, the demise of the material form. Either we fear losing our own form, or those of people we feel closest to.
Arjuna’s fear leads to despondency, doubt and hesitation. Shri Krishna brings Arjuna’s attention to a higher reality, that Arjuna was never born and he shall never die (2:20). Of course, he is not speaking of Arjuna’s body, or even his soul. He is referring to the essence of the being, his Originality.
You are divine
Shri Krishna asserts that the body form changes and dies, but the true being is changeless (2:13). It is immortal: pure, free and forever. To attain the knowledge of our divine essence is the goal of every aware soul. Arjuna represents those sincere aspirants who wish to break the bonds of their mortality.
The true Self is hidden from the mind and senses, and hence, the mind can never grasp the source of its own existence. The Self is not a concept or something that the human intellect can understand or analyse. It is only when the individual consciousness is transcended, that the sense of ‘I’ as a body or personality merges with the pure Consciousness, and the divine nature of the being is revealed.
The true Self has no qualities. It is beyond the realm of appearance and disappearance. It has no beginning or end. It cannot be added to or subtracted from. There is a famous passage in the Gita that says: “The Self cannot be cut by weapons, burnt by fire, wetted by water or dried by wind” (2:23). In fact, Self, or pure Consciousness, is all that there is.
According to Shri Krishna, the light of awareness of your true nature must dawn if liberation from the cycle of birth and death is to be attained (4:9). The body is but, a covering or a suit that you don, and which you discard between incarnations. The cycle continues for innumerable lifetimes: birth-death, birth-death, and so on. To attain liberation, or moksha, from this wheel of birth and death is really the purpose of one’s worldly existence. You can only break this cycle when you recognise that you are not merely a body, and that this world as you perceive it, as something concrete and permanent, is an illusion created by the mind. The mind itself has no reality separate from the Self, or pure Consciousness.
Freedom from maya
Why is it necessary to achieve moksha in one’s lifetime? Because we believe the changing field of this world to be real. As Shri Krishna states, everything we value appears and disappears, including our body, mind and personality (8:16). We seek to find permanence in the impermanent. The result is suffering, unease and disappointment.
None of the forms and phenomena of this world are real the way we think them to be. It is all the play of maya or illusion. Unless we uncover the truth of our existence, suffering is the inevitable result of our human condition. This unfoldment can only happen if the sense of duality, the sense of separation from our true Self, is dissolved. We simply need to remember who we really are.
How can we unfold our divine nature? Shri Krishna represents the very truth behind our formed existence. His words are therefore a direct reflection of that truth. He represents the spiritual master who has attained the highest Consciousness, and whose words guide the aspirant to Self-realisation.
Shri Krishna also suggests that reading and imbibing from Holy Scriptures can lead one to the direct experience of pure Consciousness, one’s true Self.
Finally, the practice of meditation, when applied regularly and with commitment, is a direct path to the knowledge of one’s true nature. It is a way to transcend the changing field of human experience and attain liberation from the identification with “I” as a separate individual.
You are a non-doer
In an effort to shake Arjuna out of his despondency, Shri Krishna suggests that it is the higher consciousness that is the source of all manifestation (5:14). He urges Arjuna to surrender himself to that greater power from which all forms and phenomena have arisen. No matter what action he takes, he is really doing nothing as an individual agent, separate from God Consciousness.
Shri Krishna further urges Arjuna to give up the fruits of his actions and to surrender them to that higher power, which remains uninvolved and unmoved by the phenomena of this world (2:50). It is only by realising his ultimate nature that Arjuna can develop a sense of sublime non-attachment and attain freedom from the field of appearance and disappearance, birth and death, and a gamut of experiences related to the pairs of opposites.
How does one foster such detachment in one’s life? Shri Krishna provides a method. He urges Arjuna to meditate on his true self, to attain a sense of unity or yog with his eternal Self (6:14). Through meditation, one becomes a “watcher,” observing the thoughts and actions, but not getting involved in the play of the mind or the world. This results in a state of profound peace or equanimity.
In the case of the Gita, Arjuna attains his liberation by focusing on Shri Krishna and heeding his advice. He finally realises that there is no separation between him and the underlying pure Consciousness as represented by his liberator. A great power overtakes him; in fact, it is the power of his infinite being. He is then able to act in complete freedom, unencumbered by his wavering mind.
The Mahabharata later describes how his enemies crumble under his might, which is the light of wisdom that shines through the darkness of the ignorant or suffering mind.
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