Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 16

Krishna said: 

—Courage, inner virtue, constancy in My way, charity, temperance, sacrifice, contemplation of scripture, austerity, sincerity, peacefulness, veracity, lack of animosity, relinquishment, tranquility, fidelity, compassion, lack of avarice, courteousness, humility, perseverance, vitality, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, amity, and lack of pride. These are the divine qualities of man. The opposite of these are man's demonic qualities. 

—The divine qualities lead a man along My way, and he will find release from earthly bondage. But the demonic qualities ensnare man in life and in death, and he is enslaved. Arjuna, do not despair. You will find release, for your qualities are divine. 

—In the worlds of My creation, you will find some with divine qualities, and others with demonic. I have spoken at length of the divine; now let me describe the demonic. 

—Men with demonic qualities do not know when to act, nor when to refrain from action. Within them you will find impurity, bad conduct, and falsehood. 

—"The world is a lie," they say, "and God is a lie. There is only desire." 

—"There is no creation," they say, "nor any Creator. Lust alone produces birth." 

—They cling to these thoughts and this lack of perception. They are strangers to Me. Cruel and depraved, they pollute the world. In lying and lust and arrogance, they wander deluded, immersed in false doctrines. They are enemies, worshipping only the satisfaction of desires that can never be satisfied. Anxious and craving, they are bound to the world with as many chains as they have desires. 

—"I have fulfilled this wish," they say. "Tomorrow I will fulfill another." 

—"I have amassed great wealth," they say. "Tomorrow I will be wealthier still." 

—"I have slain my enemy," they say. "Tomorrow I will slay the rest." 

—"I am master; I am lord," they say. "I have fortune and power and happiness." 

—"I am wealthy and noble," they say. "None is my equal." 

—“I will offer sacrifice,” they say, "and donations, celebrating my success." 

—This they say, deluded and ignorant, enslaved by desire and driven by objects of desire. They imagine themselves kings on a royal road, but their way leads them only to hell. Esteeming themselves, absorbed in their pursuit of pleasures, they make sacrifices and offerings improperly, only to honor themselves. 

—Their strength is weakness; their pride, debasement; their pleasures, transient; their anger, self-destruction. They hate Me in themselves and in others. 

—Vile and wicked, they waste their lives on this ruinous road, dying again and again, reborn only to earthly desire. They wear their chains and fetters like a robe of honor. Foul and strutting, they follow this ruinous road through the gates of tormenting desire, suffocating anger, and insatiable greed. 

—Turn away from these three gates of hell. He who accepts My way never comes to these gates. He who rejects My way finds no rest and that ruinous road is his eternal home. For him, happiness and success are elusive and transient. Let My words guide you. In My teachings, be firm and unwavering, and you will know what to do, and what to refrain from doing. Knowing this, you know which road to take.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Context of the Gita

The text of the Mahabharata, in which the Bhagavad Gita, the "Divine Song," is found, describes the Gita as the only scripture needed to understand God's message to mankind. There is a rich mythology surrounding the writing of the Mahabharata. Vyasa is considered its author, and Ganesha, sacrificing a tusk in the task, is Vyasa's amanuensis, taking every word down faithfully. 

Yet the Bhagavad Gita stands apart from this mythology. While Vyasa is the putative author, the text of the Mahabharata itself describes the episode of the Bhagavad Gita as something special—a full and exact recounting of Krishna's words to Arjuna, while they speak between the contending armies. The Mahabharata itself testifies that, in the Bhagavad Gita, it is Vishnu Himself speaking to the listener, to the reader. It can be argued that the rest of the Mahabharata can be dispensed with, and the message of the Gita still dazzles.

In this sense, the Gita's extraction from the Mahabharata is wholly appropriate. After all, while Krishna speaks and acts in other episodes of the Mahabharata, and while exegetical interpretation of those words and actions is not objectionable, the Gita remains the prism through which those words and actions must be understood, even if sometimes they seem to contradict the spirit of the Gita. In essence, the Bhagavad Gita remains the best and most complete distillation of what Krishna reveals to Arjuna, and what Krishna asks mankind to believe.

In reference to the Gita, the text of the Mahabharata is explicit:

"There is no need for any other scripture….The Gita includes all the scriptures; Hari [Krishna] comprises all gods; the Ganga contains all the places of pilgrimage; and Manu's text holds the wisdom of all the Vedas….And the nectar of the entire Mahabharata was in Krishna's song to afflicted Arjuna, extracted and offered face to face."

There is something uncomfortably convenient about believing that one does not need to refer to the Mahabharata to understand the Gita. Krishna's actions in the Mahabharata are sometimes at odds with the words he reveals in the Bhagavad Gita. Simply ignoring the rest of the Mahabharata is an easy, though not elegant, way to paper over any seeming contradictions. In the Temple of Hanuman I address those contradictions, so I will not address them here. Nevertheless, making no reference to the Mahabharata to students unfamiliar with the epic seems like a dodge.

Finally, the argument is made that the Gita was originally an independent work, an independent Upanishad inserted into the Mahabharata later. Yet the context in which the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna takes place remains relevant. What better time to ask questions of God than when standing between two armies at the decisive moment, when you are preparing to put those you have loved and esteemed to the sword? "Is this my duty?" Arjuna asks. Understood either literally or figuratively, the Bhagavad Gita is the most precious fruit from the tree of this great epic. If not itself the original product of the Mahabharata, this fruit is not served by cutting down the tree.

Ignoring the Mahabharata might also be justified by the Mahabharata's oppressive length. It is many times over the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey together. Its characters, and the basic outline of the story are unfamiliar to Western readers, and a commitment to reading it is hampered by the difficulty of finding complete translations of the entire work, and the sheer time required to read it.

Abridgments are useful and available, and can provide a quick introduction to the story. I think this, at least, is appropriate before reading the Gita itself, to place the work again in its context. Though many would undoubtedly consider any summary of the work to be inadequate, there is no harm acquiring some immediate familiarity with this, the longest Sanskrit epic. Knowing that I am unequal to the task of attempting an interpretation of the Mahabharata from start to finish. I would encourage the reader to find an abridgment, or at least a scholarly overview.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 15

Krishna said:

—Arjuna, you have heard of the Tree of Eternity, its trunk nested in the heavens, its branches here among us. Its leaves are the hymns of praise, of sacrifice, and of ritual. The one who knows this Tree, knows the first of scriptures.

—Into all the worlds, its branches spread, each bud an object of desire. Nourished by the three dispositions, its roots attach to action.

—Who has seen this Tree from root to branch? Who has seen its expanse and the breadth of its canopy? Its end, its beginning, its foundation no living eye perceives.

—Hew this Tree with the axe of detachment. Escape the tangle of its roots and branches. Say, "I take refuge in Him. I seek solace in Him alone, the Most High, the One supreme."

—Come to the place from whence none return. Cut away the fruit of every action. Step out from the shadow of desire and attachment. Come to the One from Whom none depart.

—Give up selfish desire, and reject the opposites of hatred and love, of pain and pleasure, of sorrow and delight. Fix your eye on the inviolable Self and take comfort beneath the canopy of My majesty, within the precincts of My mercy. Here there is no sun, no moon, no fire. My eternal home shines with the light of My glory.

—With but a spark of Myself, I kindle the light of all lamps. Without its light, what use has a lamp? Who cannot see the fire that burns there? Coming into this world, a man has five senses and mind, and he experiences the objects of sense. Departing from this world, by Creation's perfume he is scented. Yet the one who is lost to himself does not understand his own coming, his going, or his experience of the three threads of nature. While the wise man sees him dwelling within himself, the lost, even by seeking, cannot find him.

—I am the light of creation. Without Me, the sun and moon go dark, and the fire has no glow. I sustain creation. I am the food and drink of every creature. I am their digestion, their inhalation, their exhalation. I reside within every heart, and from Me, your every thought, your memories, your reasonings are possible. I reside in scripture, and am the key to scripture, and its voice. I complete every scripture.

—Within creation there is impermanence and permanence. The impermanent include the lives of every creature. The permanent is the inviolable Self. But there is a third transcending both impermanence and permanence. This is the Most High, the One Supreme, and He alone holds together these three worlds.

—I transcend time and eternity and am higher even than the inviolable Self. In this world and in scripture I am acknowledged as the Most High by those who are are free from delusion, who have come to Me as I have bidden them come.

—Blameless prince, I have revealed My wisdom, the best end of all understanding. Knowing with My knowledge, a man becomes wise, and the purpose of his life is achieved.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Intepreted - Part 14

Krishna said:

—Listen, Arjuna, while I reveal to you My wisdom, the best end of all understanding. Those who know it, depart with the taste of its perfection on their lips. Knowing with My knowledge, they are free from the bondage of life and death.

—In the shelter of My creation, I am mother and father. I have conceived all beings. In the fabric of creation are three threads intertwined: the light of joy, the fire of restless desire, and the darkness of ignorance. All creatures are born, caught in the web of these threads.

—These three qualities bind all creatures, but sometimes one prevails over the others.

—The light of joy binds men to happiness; in goodness and right action they reside. When a man shines with the light of joyous knowledge, we know what quality prevails. In light, he ascends to the heavens of light.

—The fire of restless desire binds men to passion; always in action, they are never satisfied. When a man lusts for possession, the fire of restless desire scorches him. In fire, he is reborn to the anguish of desire.

—The darkness of ignorance clouds vision and binds men to negligence; seeing nothing, they make no offering. When a man resides in negligence, thoughtless delusion envelops him in darkness. In darkness, he descends to the torment of ignorance.

—Yet these three threads are themselves bound to the phenomenal world. They are contingent on the senses even to be perceived. Those who know My way, they see that I am not found among these qualities. They are unencumbered by these qualities and pass beyond all that is, or was, or ever will be. They ascend to Me alone. They are free from the bondage of life and death.

Arjuna said:

—O Lord, how is he known; how does he act; how does he transcend the light of joy, the fire of restless desire, and the darkness of ignorance?

Krishna said:

—He is untroubled, neither seeking nor avoiding these qualities. Perceiving light, perceiving fire, perceiving darkness when they come to him, he sees them as they are. He knows they are bound to nature and cannot reach the inviolable Self. He transcends them when he is firm, unmoved, unperturbed, and disinterested. He does not distinguish between them and is equitable to pleasure and displeasure, praise and censure, honor and disgrace, friend and enemy. He sacrifices the fruit of all actions, undertaking nothing to achieve these qualities. Aspiring only to Me, he transcends these ephemeral qualities. Not straying from My way, he ascends to Me. For I am the changeless shelter of Eternity, the wellspring of Law, and the light of Perfect Bliss, blazing like the sun where night never falls.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Grove

The one who takes her expectations as her standard of Truth, is deprived of apprehending Truth. Expectation is a snare, the greater the expectation, the longer the noose. In the grove which was her prison, Sita despaired of rescue. Hanuman said, "Rama will defy all earthly expectations of him, all your feeble notions of him. Be firm. In your unjustified sorrow, don't hang yourself by your own hair; cut it short."