Deeply admired and quoted by great personalities such as Adi Shankaracharya Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein, the Bhagavad Gita is a source of timeless knowledge. Being on one hand the most important scripture of Hinduism, at the same time it is permeated by Yoga related wisdom.
Though sometimes confused and blended into one same practice, Yoga and Hinduism are actually two distinct traditions. Yoga is basically a practical method to achieve spiritual realization, which doesn’t necessarily require a faith, as many religions do. Hinduism, on the contrary, belongs to this last category of spirituality. The bonds between them are strong, as Yoga flourished in a Vedic Hindu society.
The text, written somewhere between 5th B.C. and 1st A.D. describes events that took place around 2000 and 4000 years before that and marked the end of an era. Eras or great periods of time, each manifesting a particular state of order in the world, are known in Hinduism as Yugas. Though the dates are uncertain, historical accuracy is not to be taken too seriously, as the important facts are the actual value of the teachings. Among these, those about Karma Yoga, the Yoga of action, stand out during the dialogue, but many other great branches of Yoga are also dealt with in the text, including Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of devotion, and Jnana Yoga, the Yoga of knowledge, unifying them in a whole.
The scripture tells a story that is addressed to everyone, giving great advise and explanations on morality, ethics, dharma and karma. But as many of the great spiritual texts, the Bhagavad Gita is not written on just one level, and thus it can be regarded as an esoteric text on another level. Pure esoteric teachings can be found underlying the story, teachings that need to be explained, intended to the yogis.
An Intimate War
Events regarding a great war between two groups of brothers are described as having taken place in Kurukshetra, a land comprising many kingdoms in the north of Delhi, India. One of the bands, the Kauravas, were reluctant to give back the throne that they were unfairly occupying, triggering the reaction of the other group of brothers, the Pandavas, the real heirs of the throne, and actually their cousins. The text is basically a dialogue between one of the Pandava princes, Arjuna, and god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, who was serving as his charioteer. This dialogue is being conveyed to the father of the Kauravas, a blind king, by one of his counselors.
In the moment right before the battle, Arjuna finds himself amidst big doubts, feeling very strongly against the idea of war, especially with his own family. But at the same time he is aware that it is a war for righteousness, a battle against the evil side. Some yogis interpret this as a symbol for the struggle inside the human soul, our virtues against our dark forces commanded by our ego, symbolized by the blind king. A battle against our ego is in a way a fight with ourselves, as symbolized by the war against own same family. In contrast, other commentators consider that the text is written with many different layers, and while the former can correspond to one level of interpretation, they believe that the events have been historical facts in reality. They believe that transcending the interpretation of one’s fight with their own ego, the scripture clearly states a philosophy to act in the outer world in every day life.
In his despair, he turns to his charioteer Krishna for counsel. Arjuna is aware of what is about to take place, he cannot understand how it was possible that that terrible point had been reached. We must take into consideration the time in which the Pandava prince was leaving, a Yuga in which the world displayed a different order, infused with righteousness and purity. A war against one own’s family and acquaintances was absolutely inconceivable He thus foresees the atrocious consequences of the encounter, for it would for sure mark a turning point were things would go for worse and the whole society would decay.
Karma Yoga, the Yoga of Action
To act or not to act? That’s the dilemma that Arjuna is facing. Is it better to fight for what one knows is right even though the terrible consequences that it might bring? Is there a reason to act? Here is when Karma Yoga appears as the great wisdom imparted by Krishna.
We, that wrongly consider ourselves as individuals, are just but pieces in the cosmological order, acting in the way a greater Consciousness is both enabling and at the same time surveying. No “individual” action ever takes place, because in the universe everything is interconnected, in the same way as an individual wave is part of the sea.
Then, the right way of acting is performing an action according to one’s own place in the order of the universe, and how we can relate to a greater harmony within it. This is called svadharma, or the right acting according to one’s own circumstance. The right action will also depend on svabavha, or one’s natural constitution.
In the universe’s call of duty, Krishna explains, we should detach from the fruits of our actions. This is the core of Karma Yoga, the performance of an action because it is the right thing to do, without expecting to get any reward from it. By expecting to obtain the fruits of it, one loses the picture of the whole and gets trapped under the ego veil. It is the consciousness of one’s participation in the setting of the whole that brings satisfaction, and that becomes transcendental to the action itself. If this universal principle is maintained behind every act you perform, the Universal Being will protect you.
In this way Krishna explains prince Arjuna that both action and inaction are able to bring people in union with him (the Divine), but that between both, action is preferable to inaction. And thus Arjuna learns that the war against the dark side should be carried on, that he is just a part of the cosmological order which has lead to the war, and that it is his duty to fight for the side of the Good.
Arjuna’s predictions were correct, and the war did mark a great change in the world order. It set the beginning of a new era, called Kali Yuga, the time in which we are living at the present, characterized by the decadence of ethics and moral values, the rise of materialism and the oblivion of Spirit. But we are not left alone in the darkness: the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna touches the reader, because its deep philosophy can be well applied to every day life if we are in the search for Spirit. In this way the Bhagavad Gita has survived millennia, and either being a metaphor or actually having the aim of directing our worldly lives, its wisdom will continue to bring us light, because the deeper we search in it, the more profound our understanding of what our purpose on this world is, will become.