This morning I woke up early to try to get my meditation practice going again, and afterwards, to keep with the theme and try to keep myself motivated, I decided to read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s short, I’ve read it a couple of times before, but have never really studied it per se. I’ve found lots of parts that resonated with me, but for some reason, this morning more than ever, just the story of it really struck me as almost overwhelmingly poignant.
Here you have Arjuna, the leader of an army of men on the battle field, facing off against an army that from a human perspective looks just about like his own army. He is in a chariot with Krishna and they ride out between the two armies, surveying the situation. Not only does he know personally many of the men in his own army, but he recognizes men from the opposition, knows them by name and knows that many of them are related to his own soldiers. It reminded me a bit of the American Civil War in that sense. Upon seeing this, he is struck with crushing sorrow at the impending loss of life of his friends on both sides.
He talks with Krishna, explaining that though his army is not the aggressor, the men he will be fighting aren’t bad, they’re just blinded by greed. He wants to know how he can commit the travesty of leading his men into battle? How can he justify the slaughter of so many people? He is so overtaken with emotion that he falls to the bottom of the chariot and can’t bear to face the scene before him.
What made it hard for me to get into this story before was this desire to analyze it for historicity. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which I will maybe get into later, but it also happened that this morning I was thinking about another word, epokhe. This is a Greek word that I learned while reading the Stoics that means “I suspend judgment.” I hope that that word, that idea, becomes a theme of this blog. That temporary suspension of disbelief brought the story of Arjuna home to me.
Anyway, so Krishna is able to explain to Arjuna why he should go ahead into battle despite the death. This is really, as I see it, one of the main points of the Gita. It’s part of understanding non-attachment and the somewhat complex relationship between performing actions (doing stuff) and yet not becoming attached to them. It also has a lot to do with the idea of non-dualism (we’re part of the same One) and to the idea of reincarnation. My understanding of all of the above is fairly limited, so I’ll quote a bit from the David Mitchell translation of the Gita and let Krishna use his own words to explain. First, he give some big-picture perspective:
If you think that this Self can kill or think that it can be killed, you do not well understand reality’s subtle ways. It never was born; coming to be, it will never not be. Birthless, primordial, it does not die when the body dies. Knowing that it is eternal, unborn, beyond destruction, how could you ever kill? And whom could you kill, Arjuna?
Then, he explains why Arjuna needs to head into the battle:
Blessed are warriors who are given
the chance of a battle like this,
which calls them to do what is right
and opens the gates of heaven.
But if you refuse the call
to a righteous war, and shrink from
what duty and honor dictate,
you will bring down ruin on your head
And finally, a bit about non-attachment:
You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.
Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure.
This equanimity is yoga.
This is just the surface of what I’m discovering to be a surprisingly, refreshingly powerful story. Hopefully I’ll be able to suspend judgement just a bit more as I delve into the rest of the Gita.