AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BHAGAVAD GITA
From Self-Knowledge Winter 1960, and reprinted in
Training the Mind through Yoga published by Shanti Sadan
The Scriptures of the world are like great statues, executed by some celestial Michelangelo, which stand eternally before mankind, able to perform miracles for those who can become absorbed in their beauty and majesty. The transforming power of a work of art, whether it be spiritual or material, will only affect the one who divests himself of all pre-conceived ideas and reactions and stands before it, vulnerable, and ready to receive its impact. No amount of description or enthusiastic talk by another will produce a permanent change in anyone ; therefore the only thing we can ask is that our steps may be directed to those eternal works of art and wisdom, in order that we may establish a personal contact with them.
The name ' Bhagavad Gita ' means ' The Song of the Lord '. In the Gita the Lord appears as a Teacher, so that it could be called ' The Song of the divine Teacher '. It forms part of the ancient classic called the ' Mahabharata '. This word means ' Great India ', and the theme of this classic is the history of India, her legends, laws and law-givers, her emperors, warriors, sages, and her spiritual wealth, which is the holy Truth which she gave forth to the world.
One of the episodes in this epic tells of a conflict which arose between two branches of the same House, the Kurus and the Pandavas. The struggle arises over a past action of their king, conceived and carried out by him in order to protect and uphold Dharma, the universal law of righteousness. Believing that only a righteous man should have power over others, he has nominated as his successor, not his own unworthy son who is the rightful heir, but the virtuous eldest son of the other branch of the family - Yudhishthira. After prolonged double-dealing by the Kurus, and after the Pandavas have wandered in exile for twelve years, a war breaks out - a war fought by the Pandavas to protect the principle of righteousness. At the time of this event Shri Krishna, a manifestation of God, has incarnated into the world as the friend and relative of both sides. He intends that righteousness shall prevail, and, while remaining neutral, makes an offer to the two forces. To one he says that he will give his powerful force of men, elephants and weapons ; to the other, himself, unarmed and alone, as a charioteer ; and he leaves it to the two sides to make their choice. The Kurus choose the vast army and the powerful weapons ; the Pandavas, Shri Krishna himself. This is the point at which the Scripture opens.
The first chapter gives a vivid description of the field of battle, with the warriors preparing for the fight ; and then the light is turned on the one who should be the foremost among the combatants, the bravest of the brave-the Pandava Prince - Prince Arjuna. Arjuna is a Kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste. He is a man of action and a born fighter, one who should be in his element in the midst of such a struggle. But the Bhagavad Gita is not an epic telling of the rise and fall of rival powers, or of the great deeds of warriors. It is a spiritual document in which, not only the truth about the Self of man is revealed, but also the hidden motives of his mortal heart, and the way in which they may be transcended. This drama is played out in the Gita to the accompaniment of a recital of the rules on discipline, the control of mind and body, and the true traditional relationship which should exist between a Teacher and his disciple.
Prince Arjuna is a typical man of action, but we find him here at psychological cross-roads. As a mighty warrior, he has hitherto fought with dispassion and skill and has performed the duties of his caste without question or diculty. Now he is confronted with a situation which tests him as a man, not as a warrior. He is face to face with opponents who are his relatives and friends ; and, identifying himself for the first time with the probable result of his actions, he loses his detachment and is robbed of all will and courage. In his extremity he turns to Shri Krishna, who is now his charioteer, but who will soon be his teacher, and tells him that he will not fight and rob his world of all its joy and inspiration, and that he would rather become a monk with a begging bowl.
Far from this decision commending itself to Lord Krishna, Krishna upbraids him and tells him that he is a coward, that he does not understand the nature and significance of true action, that he must deal with the problems of his inner life while standing firmly based on the ground of his mortal and outer life, and that he must accept the responsibilities of his caste and rise up and fight. In fact, Arjuna has not yet earned the right to call himself a man of peace and enlightenment.
Later on, when his Teacher is instructing him, he will hear him say : " Better one's own duty though devoid of merit, than the duty of another well discharged. Better is death in one's own duty ; the duty of another is productive of danger." But at this moment, hearing Shri Krishna's stern words, Arjuna gives way completely and acknowledges his bewilderment and his ignorance of what is right and what is wrong, and disclaiming any further responsibility, or choice of his way of life, asks Shri Krishna to accept him as a disciple and teach him. Now begin the imperishable teachings, revealing the philosophy, the training and the discipline to Prince Arjuna and to us also.