Monday, May 15, 2017

The Bhagavad Gita

Book Review: The Bhagavad Gita – translated from the Sanskrit with an Introduction by Juan Mascara (Penguin Books, 1962)

Here is a translation of the spiritual classic, (The Song of God - the Bhagavad) embellished only with an introduction. Mascara shows great excitement about the text and knowledge of Sanskrit. He notes that the first translation directly from Sanskrit to English was an 1802 translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins. The Gita contains 18 chapters of verses.

The introduction gives a history of Sanskrit literature, which is quite vast. Through the Vedas to the Upanishads and the great epics, the Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part) and the Ramayana, the grammar of Pannini, the philosophy of Samkhya, the great yoga works, the works on law and custom, lore, and on and on there is a distinct emphasis on spirituality. Here in the intro he introduces some ideas that are assumed in the Gita like the ideas of Brahman and Atman, the essence of Self. He defines them as Truth: Brahman as the truth of the universe and Atman as the truth within oneself. From the Upanishads he also defines the sacred sound Om as a sacred name for Brahman and Atman. Brahman can also be approached as the unity Sat-Cit-Ananda, or being-consciousness-bliss. He seems to see in the Upanishads the beginnings of Indian theism, the search for God, or the Absolute. Mascara translated other Sanskrit classics including Upanishads and the Buddhist Dhammapada. He was born on the island of Majorca. He taught English in Sri Lanka. He taught biblical philosophy and about the Spanish mystics. He sought to transmit Sanskrit through poetic English. I would say Mascara comes from a theistic perspective and thus emphasizes that. But in Indian parlance, God is often thought of as within rather than beyond.

The Bhagavad Gita is included in the epic Mahabharata but is thought to have been added later. The epic is about a war, probably historic, between the Pandavas and the Kuravas. It is a dialogue that occurs on the battlefield just before the battle begins, between Arjuna and his charioteer who manifests as the supreme god Krishna. Mascara sees Arjuna as the soul of man and Krishna as the charioteer of the soul. He sees it as the struggle of the human soul. The principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga are found in the Gita – the yogas of action, knowledge, and loving devotion. He notes that the ideas of ‘self-harmony’ and ‘self-control’ are praised repeatedly in the Gita. Self-control is required for effective karma yoga and service (seva). He equates jnana, bhakti, and karma as light, love, and life. He sees the Upanishads and the notion of sat-cit-ananda as exemplary of jnana yoga. The Gita suggests love and devotion as the superior means to the Divine. This bhakti, or devotion to the deity, I think is the reason theists often associate the Gita with other theisms like Christianity. While devotion is the supreme means there is also karma yoga which is seen as a means to approach the divine through one’s everyday actions, done mindfully with self-control and good intentions. This is perhaps a key concept to the allure of the Gita for the common person. Finding a sense of spiritual activity and joy in everyday work is not unique to the Gita or karma yoga. The ritualism of Confucianism or any other mindful and joyful approaches to toil and human interaction are similar. Even Homer extolled the beauty of humble work. However, the karma yoga of the Gita is a more detailed analysis.

Commentaries on the Gita are many. Some of the most famous are those by Sankara and Ramanuja. The Gita is dated here to about 500 BCE although many others have noted that many notions within put it post-Buddhism so later in its final form. The essence of the story itself may be older and certainly the historical events depicted were much older, perhaps as old as the second millennium BCE. 

The battlefield itself is called the ‘field of dharma’ or as Mascara translates, the ‘field of Truth.’ Arjuna first has his charioteer Krishna take him to see the battle lines. There he sees relatives and kinsmen aligned on different sides and is overcome with grief and despair at what is about to take place. He asks Krishna what good could come of such pointless slaughter and says he will not fight. The Spirit of Krishna arises, says the text. Krishna advises him to discard his despair and that the wise do not become obsessed with grief. He also notes that the soul lives on beyond death and that the wise are not overly swayed by the senses. The Spirit is eternal and immortal says Krishna. He speaks of the wisdom of Samkhya and of Yoga. He says that there are those who are devoted to the Vedas and yet are awash in selfishness. Interestingly, he notes that the world of the Vedas is the world of the three Gunas and that Arjuna should:

“Arise beyond the three Gunas, Arjuna! Be in truth eternal, beyond earthly opposites. Beyond gains and possessions, possess thine own soul.” (2-45)

“Yoga is evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same” (2-48)

Upon being asked how to contemplate, Krishna suggests that he surrender his desires to divine grace so that he becomes “the sage of unwavering mind.” Withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) like a turtle drawing his legs under his shell is recommended. Sorrows and despairs arise from attachment to pleasures and passions and subside when such attachment subsides. 

Arjuna asks how to attain the Supreme. Krishna replies that there are two paths: The Jnana Yoga of Samkhya and the Karma Yoga of the yogis. He calls karma yoga the path of ‘consecrated action.’ This is action without desire. Krishna even says that even though he is not bound to action he still acts, otherwise people of the world would perish. In a more religious sense he says to offer to me all of your works and to have faith, to follow my doctrine. Attachment (desire, greed, lust) and aversion (hatred, fear), he says, arise from our lower nature. These are the enemies of the soul that cloud wisdom. 

“They say that the power of the senses is great. But greater than the senses is the mind. Greater than the mind is Buddhi, reason; and greater than reason is He – the Spirit in man and in all.” (3-42)

Krishna gives a lineage for his original teachings from Visvavan (the sun) to Manu (the first man) and onward but says that the teachings were forgotten in time so he returns, knowing his own past incarnations, to teach Arjuna. 

He talks about the best approach to ‘work:’

“He whose undertakings are free from anxious desire and fanciful thought, whose work is made pure in the fire of wisdom: he is called wise by those who see.” (4-19)

He talks about the great variability of ‘sacrifice’ and offering, the variability in ways to ‘go to Brahman.’ To find wisdom, to live in ‘self-harmony’ is the goal.

The true renouncer does not crave or hate. Krishna says that Sankhya and Yoga are the same path as they have the same result. Renunciation is difficult without the yoga of work, presumably karma yoga. He praises evenness of mind, which leads one to be not carried away by pleasure or pain. Impartiality and non-preference are yogic virtues.

Krishna says the yogi should practice day after day in deep solitude. Yoga is a harmony, a balance between extremes. Yoga is to be followed by faith and a courageous heart, he says. With reason and resolve the yogi should quietly contemplate Spirit. The greatest yogis are compassionate.

Arjuna complains about the restlessness of the mind. Krishna tells him that even though this is the case, the mind can be trained. Arjuna laments that he may never reach the endpoint of the yogic path. Krishna replies that it may very well be that the failed yogi will be born again with the ability to strive in yoga. Efforts toward the good are not lost, he says. 

“And the greatest of all Yogis is he who with all his soul has faith, and he who with all his soul loves me” (6-47)

The previous statement seems to suggest that Bhakti Yoga is superior to the other yogas.
In chapter 7 Krishna expounds on his nature as omniscient and as the essence and source of all things. Good beings seek him, he says:

“These four kinds of men are good, and the four love me, Arjuna: the man of sorrows, the seeker of knowledge, the seeker of something he treasures, and the man of vision.” (7-18)

Krishna also says he is hidden by his veil of mystery and is rarely seen in his true form. Only those without delusion can see his true form.

Arjuna asks about Brahman, Atman, Karma, and self. 

“Brahman is the Supreme, the Eternal. Atman is his Spirit in man. Karma is the force of creation, wherefrom all things have their life.”  (8-3)

He also notes that what or on whom one thinks at the very end of life – there he goes, though “sympathy with his nature.” Not unlike the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, the notion is that a wandering or distracted mind at death can lead to harm so the development of mental concentration is important.
The abode of Krishna is the Invisible and Everlasting abode, beyond things that arise and fall away.
He mentions two paths: one of light that leads to the “land of never-returning” and one of darkness that leads to a return to sorrow.

The Yogi who know the Truth of light and darkness has access to the highest rewards of life.
All beings have their rest in me, says Krishna. He brings forth all creation. He thus declares himself the creator God, the Infinite God. He is the sacrifice, the offering, and all that is holy. He declares that he is beyond the heaven of Indra. Those there merely chase and attain pleasures that pass away. When Krishna is worshipped with “righteous will” even a ‘sinner’ can become pure. The theistic import seems strong in this chapter (9).

Krishna says ‘all the gods come from me.’ Arjuna, now convinced of Krishna’s divinity addresses him as ‘Source of Being in all beings, God of gods, ruler of all.’ Krishna then continues his description of his infinite self as source of all – all gods, seers, destructive entities, demons, elemental powers, knowledge, and infinitely more.

After hearing of the greatness of Krishna through words, Krishna asks to see his greatness. At this Krishna reveals his celestial, or universal form(s). He appears as vast infinite multiple innumerable beings. Arjuna trembles in awe and wonder as he sees numerous gods and sages praising Vishnu, as Krishna, the god of Yoga. He also sees Krishna’s powers of destruction, to destroy worlds. Then Krishna informs him that he has come here to the battlefield to doom warriors to death due to the fate of their Karma. Arjuna also refers to Krishna as creator of Brahma, who is the god of creation itself. Thus one might see the Gita as the text that places Vishnu, in his form as Krishna, as the Supreme God. Krishna does state to Arjuna that his universal form had never been shown to man before this manifestation to Arjuna. 

“Not by the Vedas, or an austere life, or gifts to the poor, or ritual offerings can I be seen as thou has seen me” (11-53)

“Only by love can men see me, and know me, and come unto me.” (11-54)

“He who works for me, who loves me, whose End Supreme I am, free from attachment to all things, and with love for all creation, he in truth comes unto me.” (11-55)

Arjuna next asks an interesting question: Is he best worshiped as an immanent god or a transcendent god? He answers that devotion with love and faith is the best means. He says the path of the transcendent is difficult for mortals to attain. I am not sure what he means by that really. He also says he may be sought by yoga concentration and by consecrating all work and service to him. 

“For concentration is better than mere practice, and meditation is better than concentration; but higher than meditation is surrender in love of the fruit of one’s actions, for on surrender follows peace.” (12-12)

Humans of compassion and good will and those who are not selfish are those who love him and who are dear to him. 

In Chapter 13 Krishna talks about his ‘fields of creation.’ These include the body, consciousness, the thought of “I,” desires and aversions, pleasures and pains. Freedom from attachment to these fields is the goal and requires pure devotion and “a constant yearning to know the inner Spirit.” He says that both Prakriti, nature, and Purusa, spirit are without beginning, and that time and the Gunas come from nature. Nature is the source of material things and Spirit is the source of consciousness that feels. The spirit in man feels the impermanence of nature when he binds to its ever-changing-ness and he is subject to good and bad fate.

“But the Spirit Supreme in man is beyond fate. He watches, gives blessing, bears all, feels all. He is called the Lord Supreme and the Supreme Soul.” (13-22)

“Whatever is born, Arjuna, whether it moves or it moves not, know that it comes from the union of the field and the knower of the field.” (13-26)

There is the Spirit, the seed of immortality in the mortal. The God within one is within all of nature and others so that to harm them is to harm oneself. All work is the work of nature. The Supreme Spirit (Purusa) is posited as permanent and unchanging so that it is contrasted to Nature (Prakriti) which is ever-changing and impermanent.

Next Krishna gives a teaching about the three Gunas, the three strands of material nature, Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas; light, fire, and darkness.

“Sattva binds to happiness; Rajas to action; Tamas, overclouding wisdom, binds to lack of vigilance.” (14-9)

He mentions the importance of the prevailing Guna at death:

“If the soul meets death when Sattva prevails, then it goes to the pure regions of those who are seeking Truth.” (14-14)

“If a man meets death in a state of Rajas, he is reborn amongst those who are bound by their restless activity; and if he dies in Tamas he is reborn in the wombs of the irrational.” (14-15)

When a human goes beyond these three conditions of nature he enters immortality. He is no longer attracted to nor affected by the three modes. He is steady and impartial. 

“There are two spirits in this universe, the perishable and the imperishable. The perishable is all things in creation. The imperishable is that which moves not.” (15-16)

“But the highest spirit is another: It is called the Spirit Supreme {Krishna}. He is the God of Eternity who pervading all sustains all.” (15-17)

Chapter 16 concerns virtues and vices, which here are typical to Indian sentiments: kindness, effort, generosity, peace, etc. are virtues while deceit, selfishness, greed, lust, anger, excessive pride, etc. are vices. He mentions three gates to hell: the gates of lust, greed, and anger. 

Self-control becomes self-torture when the mind is dull. Impure motivations make an act impure. Generosity is impure if there are expectations of future reward. 

He explains the words/syllables OM, TAT, SAT, each as a word for Brahman. All acts of sacrifice, generosity, and self-harmony. OM is the beginning of the pure act. TAT is doing the act with a sense of renunciation of its fruits. SAT is what is good and true, constant faithfulness. Work done without faith is ASAT, or nothing.

In the last chapter Arjuna asks about renunciation and surrender. Again Krishna notes that works of sacrifice (ritual), gift, and self-harmony (spiritual practice) should be done with a sense of renunciation and surrender of any sense of reward. In Samkhya, he says, the five sources of action are: the body, the lower “I am,” the means of perception, the means of action, and Fate. Wisdom, steadiness, and pleasure can be obscured (impure) or pure. 

Finally Krishna tells Arjuna that he is loved and to go on with his duties. Hear the words and teach the words, he says, but only to those who have some self-discipline. At the end the occasional narrator Sanjaya describes the words of the Gita between Krishna and Arjuna (the great archer) as the ‘mystery of Yoga’ and Krishna as the ‘End of Yoga.’ 

My own ending comments suggest a comparison of the Gita to Buddhist doctrine. While some ideas are the same and others overlap significantly the difference is mainly the theistic approach – the notion that the Eternal God is the refuge rather than the evolved spiritual being. The Buddhists would call these teachings a form of ‘eternalism’ which posits a permanent unchanging aspect that can be sought, which is rejected in Buddhism. It is also possible that Buddhist ideas affected both Samkhya and some of the ideas in the written Gita. Buddhism, however, does not posit an eternal unchanging soul identity that is transferred from life to life but a mere continuation of a clump or residue of changing causes and conditions that make up tendencies and influences.

Krishna, as the Eternal God, has been compared to the biblical God and to Christ. Both he and Christ incarnate in human form. Though the dogma is significantly different there is much similarity in the theistic framework. That I think has led some theists to see them as manifestations of the same monotheistic god-principle and perhaps they see each as strengthening the validity of the other and of monotheism in general. I would disagree and emphasize the differences more than the similarities. The similarity is mainly structural and is the positing of an omniscient God that creates and penetrates all things. 


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