When the great war was about to begin, Arjun, the most accomplished of the Pandavas, refused to fight. The two armies were arraigned in all their military splendour opposite each other. Conches and symbols, kettledrums and trumpets sounded in the air. There was the glint of armour, as impatient warriors, legendary for their skill and valour, stood ready for battle on horse-drawn chariots and magnificently caparisoned elephants. Arjun, standing on his great chariot yoked to milk-white stallions, asked Krishna, his sarathi (charioteer), to halt mid-way between the armies. On both sides he saw kinsmen—fathers, uncles, brothers, teachers, elders, companions. And his will faltered. He did not want to kill them. 'I desire not victory, nor kingdom, nor pleasures, he told Krishna, 'if these are to be won at the cost of so much bloodshed.' His lips were parched, his body shook and his hair stood on end. 'It is against honour to kill one's own cousins,' he said. There is a special place in hell for those who destroy their family, for once the family is destroyed, unredeemable chaos is the only consequence.' And so, on the great battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjun, the great warrior, slumped in dejection and put his bow and arrow down, overcome by sorrow and anguish.
It is with this dramatic portrayal that the Bhagvad Gita, a text of pivotal importance in the Hindu view of the 'Song Divine’. It is, however, much more than a lyric. Its 700 shlokas in eighteen chapters, placed in the sixth book of the Mahabharata, essay a philosophical outlook of the most profound impact and significance. The text unfolds in the nature of a dialogue between Arjun, caught in the throes of doubt and confusion, and Krishna, who counsels him in his moment of crisis. In the end, Arjun, his mental equilibrium restored and his sense of futility removed, picks up his bow and arrow and boldly enters the fight.
The eclectic ideological framework of the Gita allows for each of its commentators to interpret it from a subjective perspective, although, inevitably, many such commentators assert that their interpretation is the only valid one. The Gita, by its very nature, indulges such interpretative individualism. Perhaps, therefore, it is better to comment on the Krishna-Arjun discourse from a personal frame of reference, from a viewpoint that derives authenticity because it stems from an intimacy of experience. To do so does not require one to have a specialized knowledge of all the philosophical intricacies that have been tagged on to the Gita. An amalgamation of all the interpretations of the Gita would be an exercise in prolix meaninglessness. This is not to suggest that there is nothing to be learnt from some of these interpretations. But, ultimately, in the arena of the human predicament, there has to be contemplative solitude. And it is how the Gita impacts on the silences that constitute the discrete experience of each person's existential dilemma that gives it enduring meaning and value.
On the battlefield, Arjun, representing 'generic man', suffered a motivational void. In a flash, all the carefully imbibed 'oughts' of his life crumbled. He was gripped by the sudden realization of the futility of effort, in a world bereft of any ontological meaning. Endeavour and strife have intrinsic value if they are earthed in an explicable context. But to a man who does not know why he is born, and why he will die, the din and fury of the intervening period becomes, at the first moment of corrosive questioning, a pointless pantomime. There is no collective panacea for a man who, in one valid but unguarded instance, comes face to face with his own irrelevance. In a universe, be numbingly vast, with galaxy upon galaxy existing in causeless, mechanical monotony, the individual is dwarfed by his own meaningless finitude. In one blindingly perceptive realization, the conditioned moorings of his life are swept away by the sheer barrenness of the cosmic drift, informing him and everything else in his life. One is born, one lives and one dies. There is no enlightening redemption from the starkness of this sterile charade. And all of a sudden the purport of ambition and achievement, of causes and goals, becomes opaque. And a weariness ensues.
The greatness of the Gita was that it began by portraying this alienation. It recognized the thinking individual's rebellion against the unquestioning acceptance of the validity of effort. Arjun was not Bheema, whose actions were characterized by temperamental fluctuations; he was also unlike Yudhishthira, whose choice of volition had congenitallv subordinated itself to the call of conventional duty. Arjun's despair had authenticity because it afflicted him. The entire burden of his conditioning was to accept battle as his very raison d* etre. And yet, being Arjun, at a crucial moment of his life, he was consumed by doubt about the value, in any ultimate sense, of his assumed role.
The aim of Krishna's discourse was to attempt to give purpose and context to the lives of people like Arjun. The attempt was both adroit and Herculean; adroit because an armada of approaches were employed without scattering the focus of the exercise; and Herculean because the task was nothing less than to salvage for the individual a framework for existence, which would perhaps render palatable—or even help transcend—the essential meaninglessness of his life.
Krishna's first task was to devalue the human condition in its empirical attributes by postulating the infinitude of its essential and non-empirical attribute. It was an efficacious methodology, not because it was startlingly original, but because the basic Vedantic logic was put forward with refreshing clarity and as a pragmatic response to a specific existential situation. Arjun could not comprehend an imperative for action in a phenomenal world that was stubbornly inexplicable. The Gita partially conceded his point. The world as perceived prima facie was indeed finite, transient and bereft of ultimate value.
The body would wither away; friends and relatives were equally perishable; material wealth was ephemeral; the whole network of mortal life, unanchored to any larger, enduring reality was a fleeting ripple in an endless sea of subsistence, and hence meaningless. But, said Krishna, there is, behind the bewildering futility of manifest phenomenon, something else which transcends empirical limitations. This is the self, the soul, the essential being, Atman, the Supreme Spirit, the Brahman—call it what you will. The body may suffer birth and death, but this Self is never born and does not die. It is indestructible, eternal, unchanging, immovable, indefinable, unseen and omnipresent. Arjun's despondence at the pointlessness of endeavour in the human realm had validity but only in a constricted frame of reference. By these terms of reference, he, as a mere individual, was an infinitesimal irrelevance in an existence galactic in its aimlessness. But if he could be persuaded that, unknown to himself, his essential self, was inherently transcendent over the incomprehensible
dross of his perceived existence, then a first step towards the reclamation of purpose in life could be made.
A second step directly related to the first was the assertion that this essential self was, even at the individual level, beyond the clutches of mortality. It is mentioned in the Gita:
Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die—for life and death shall pass away.
Because we all have been for all time: I, and thou, and those kings of men. And we all shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever. As the Spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and old age, the Spirit wanders on to a new body: of this the sage has no doubts. He is never born, and he never dies. He is in Eternity: he is for evermore. Never-born and eternal, beyond times gone or to come, he does not die when the body dies.
The finality of death renders redundant mortal activity. The thread of life hangs in perpetual dread of the severance of death. Why? What for? To what purpose?—these are the questions which chip away the
individual's sense of belief in his own being, when confronted by his irrevocable vulnerability in the face of death. The assertion, therefore, that mortal death is not the final chapter and that each particular soul on its way to salvation will reincarnate itself in another body, provides a continuum of perspective that at once imbues with value and meaning the scope of endeavour in this life. It gives to our otherwise puny and insignificant lives a larger canvas. The stage of our human here-and-now endeavours acquires a wider perspective. Our actions acquire intrinsic value for their quality will determine the journey that our soul will take in more lives to come. Our karmas in this life will be responsible for the fruits we get in the next. Our actions are thus not forlornly adrift in isolation. At once, we become part of a greater destiny, and the inert vacuum of purpose afflicting our lives is set aside by the breadth of this new vision. Life then becomes not a one-act, vaudeville show abruptly terminated by death, but a more serious business, with questions of purpose and meaning linked to a continuum governed by its own mortality—defying the dynamics of cause and effect.
Within this larger metaphysical framework, the question of how best to interface with the mundane world, with its daily tedium of action and choice, volition and consequence, remains. The Atman or Brahman may be eternally fulfilled, but the individual, even incorporating in himself an ansh of that transcendent reality, has to strive to retain equilibrium and balance reflective of that reality, in the midst of the business of living. The bulk of the Gita is devoted to essaying a modus vivendi to answer this seminal existential poser. The first premise is that in the human realm, involvement with action in some way or the other is unavoidable. There cannot be renunciation of action. The Gita is crystal clear on this.
If action cannot be avoided, then the next question is how to 'cohabit' with it while retaining one*s serenity and peace of mind. The 'action* in question here is not that which falls within the purview of mechanical stimulus and response. It is not an involuntary sequence of locomotion. The eye blinks, the tympanum vibrates, the nose twitches. This involuntary action of the motor nerves is not at the core of the action-in-life which is the focus of the Gita. The Gita is concerned with action which is the result of conscious choice. It is this locus of movement which internalizes in itself the potential for turbulence. This was the source of trauma for Arjun on that day of battle. In his own case the canvas was spectacular: shining banners, the battlefield and resplendent chariots. But the virus could as easily affect an ordinary clerk, one ordinary day, as he gets ready to go to the office: Is the effort justified? Is it required? What will be its reward? Can it be substituted by another
course of action?
The clamor in action arises when the mental processes interface with the daily vicissitudes of living. This interface is unavoidable, but its consequences are not unalterable. An object, a person, a relationship, a situation, a place becomes important because we give it a certain value. The point to consider is to what extent the giving of this value is a necessary and inherent aspect of the human situation.
It would appear that in the praxis of human situations, there is no fixed law of universal cause and effect. For instance, situation A influences person B, but leaves person C unmoved. Now, if there was something inherently value-invoking in situation A in a universally applicable way, then person C would have been influenced with the same intensity as person B. Obviously, if the giving of this value is not an inherent attribute of the situation itself, then its origins must be in the person himself. From here arises the next and fundamental question: To what extent can this giving of value be controlled?
The Gita firmly believes that the value imbuing process is controllable. Going further, it strongly advocates that in order to overarch the tension and agitation of daily life, the individual should seek to control it. The Gita's prescription, in this regard, breathtaking in its simplicity, but undoubtedly based on profound empirical observation, is that action-in life should be performed free of attachment, sans desire, and, most importantly, without tainting it with the value of expectation.
A mindset, acquired through conscious effort and discipline, which de-links the performance of action with a contemplation of its reward is, according to the Gita, an invincible panacea to the strife of daily living. Like much else in the Gita, it is an exhortation based on sound common sense. In the mortal world, involvement in action is unavoidable but it hardly needs reiteration that there is no guaranteed nexus of efficacy between effort and achievement. There are in life too many imponderables and variables that can make the most well planned actions go awry, and the most unintended effort achieve success. Even from the point of pragmatic expediency, an obsession with consequence even as the effort is unfolding, is an inefficient utilization of available energy. Action, which one considers right, should be performed, as an end in itself, severing it from the debilitating and ineffectual preoccupation with reward. Then, action, which in the absence of such an approach could agitate, becomes a means to constructively overcome such agitation, an act of consecration, enabling the retention of peace of mind.
But is the ideal of nishkama karma—desireless action—really feasible? After all, it appears but natural for an individual to work towards a result, to be conscious of the desired consequence of his efforts, to be seized, in short, of the likely rewards of his endeavours. Does the Gita, therefore, espouse an impracticable behavioural pattern? We are all conscious of our individual identities. Each of us has an ego that strives for recognition and achievement. Can this sense of 'l-ness' this ahankar, this consciousness of 'self constantly striving for projection in competition with other individual egos, be nullified?
The Gita's answer, drawing heavily from the mainstream concepts of Hindu philosophy, is twofold. At one level, it devalues the scope of such an ego. These warriors,' Krishna tells Arjun, 'will one day cease to exist even without you/ A man who, therefore, thinks that without him, the world around him will collapse, is deluded. In a transient and ephemeral world, there is a finiteness to our preoccupations, and an even greater finiteness to our abilities in configuring them. As Krishna reiterates: 'When a man sees himself as the only agent, he cannot be said to see." More importantly, our actions, are, in the normal course, far less autonomous than we would like to believe. 'There is no being on earth, or among the Gods in heaven free from the triad of qualities that are born of nature,' Krishna says to Arjun. Our actions are affected by these inherent qualities of nature, 'but deluded by individuality, the self thinks, "I am the actor."'