The Bhagavad Gita

Review by Edward Tanguay
July 31, 1996

The introduction by Juan Mascaro to my Penguin Classics edition of the Bhagavad Gita was surprisingly lucid, concise and informative. Mr. Mascaro compared and contrasted the Hindu culture, religion, and texts to those of the Western world. Here he shows how Greek and Indian culture are complementary:

Greece and India give us complementary views of the world. In the Greek temple we find the clear perfection of beauty: in the Indian temple we find the sublime sense of Infinity. Greece gives us the joy of eternal beauty in the outer world; and India gives us the joy of the infinite in the inner world.

And the Bhagavad Gita gives us that: a trip into the inner world, but not a detailed analytic explanation but rather some tips and pointers which make you realize that enjoyment of the Bhagavad Gita comes not from reading it, but from practicing its simple instructions. The Bhagavad Gita is like a simple instruction booklet for the deeply complex, intricate, and mysterious gift that we all received called life.

In order to appreciate this booklet, however, you need some background on Hindu beliefs. For instance, you have to understand that the self of the Gita is not a one-time Christian self which gets deflected into either heaven or hell as it speeds through its short span on earth, but rather is something that is never born and never dies. It continually gets recycled without being able to remember its previous lives. I found it interesting that the next life is determined by the thoughts you have in your head when you die. Your next life didn't seem to depend on the acts in your life as a whole, but your state of thought in the moment that you died.

I also noticed the recurrance of a distinction between the two main truths of the Hindu religion, Brahman and Atman:

We find in the Upanishads the great questions of man, and their answer is summed up in two words: Brahman and Atman. They are two names for one Truth, and the two are One and the same. The Truth of the Universe is Brahman: our own inner Truth is Atman.

I think just these two concepts (all and self) could occupy a serious meditator for his whole life time. If you enjoy philosophical concepts, you can get quite a bit of mileage out of trying to conceive the extensions and scope of the definition of these two concepts as they ebb and flow in and out of each other, subsuming the other wholly and becoming the other and One.

Although I usually have a short believing-game toleration for religious texts which capitalize nouns such as Joy, Oneness, and Consciousness, the Bhagavad Gita is so innocent and nonthreatening that you don't feel that these concepts are being offered to you in bad faith, or that you have to somehow believe in the reality of a host of abstract ideas before you get going with the meat of the religion. The Bhavagad Gita doesn't complicate in this way, but rather it simplifies. "Withdraw and be simple," a voice seems to say throughout the text. Notice how many times the word "silence" is used in the Bhavagad Gita. Mr. Mascaro uses the simple act of breathing to explain one's spiritual behavior in the Hindu religion:

. . . but every little finite action should be a surrender to the infinite, even as breathing in seems to be the receiving of the gift of life, and the breathing out a surrender into the infinite Life.

As the Bhagavad Gita is really a book of signs all pointing you the way toward inner peace, it seems ironic that the setting of the book is actually a conversation between a god and a warrior in which the god is giving the warrior advice on how to fight. The introduction of my edition advises the reader to "forget the battle to get the meaning" or to understand the battle as life itself.

As to the text itself, I was impressed with the idea of working not for a reward, but simply as your duty:

Set thy heart upon they work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work. (2:47)

Interestingly, the text stresses that those who work for their earthly rewards will actually get those rewards, but that those rewards are simply not the goal of this forever-returning soul. There didn't seem to be a hell to which one goes if one does not do what is prescribed here--you simply just miss the mark. The goal is to work and do and think in such a harmonious and simple way that all desire dissipates and your soul merges into the Universe. I also appreciated the idea that the achieving of this Nirvana is not in itself a reward, but is simply the goal to which you should work, it is simply your duty. In contrast, Christianity teaches that if you follow the tenets of the religion, you will receive your reward in heaven--the rich will be poor and the poor will be rich. If you follow the tenets of the Bhagavad Gita, you will receive no reward and will not become rich, you will just disappear--for lack of desire. That's the goal: to remove all desire so that your self melts into the universe. If you acheive this, there will be no self left to receive any reward:

When the sage of silence, the Muni, closes the doors of his soul and, resting his inner gaze between the eyebrows, keeps peaceful and even the ebbing and flowing of breath; and with life and mind and reason in harmony, and with desire and fear and wrath gone, keeps silent his soul before final freedom, he in truth has attained final freedom. (5:27-28)

As you remove desire and begin to melt into the universe, into Brahman, you realize that it is not you that is working, you begin to lose your sense of self:

"I am not doing any work," thinks the man who is in harmony, who sees the truth. For in seeing or hearing, smelling or touching, in eating or walking, or sleeping, or breathing, in talking or grasping or relaxing, and even in opening or closing his eyes, he remembers: "It is the servants of my soul that are working." (5:9)

Becoming one with All entails becoming empathetic:

And he is the greatest Yogi he whose vision is ever one: when the pleasure and pain of others is his own pleasure and pain. (6:32)

Your goal is to "reach the land of never-returning." Lose yourself in this coalescence of Self and All to the point that you cannot come back to yourself.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that there is something inside of you for which you should work. It doesn't give you a plan of action nor tell you to follow someone else's but points you to your own inner plan and tells you to be quiet and follow it:

And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another's, even if it be great. To die in one's duty is life: to live in another's is death. (3:35)

I was struck by the fact that the Bhagavad Gita included a "nobody is refused" clause:

For even if the greatest sinner worships me with all his soul, he must be considered righteous, because of his righteous will.

In effect, this states that no matter how down and out you are, you can still attain the ultimate goal in life, it is not too late. This unconditional love and "wide open arms" policy is also found in Christianity. I wonder if it is a characteristic of all lasting religions that somewhere in their texts they state that they will take anybody no matter how low they have descended in sin.

My favorite part of the Bhagavad Gita is in Book 10 when Krishna describes himself to Arjuna. It is a two-page answer and simply floors you in its exhaustiveness, beginning with:

Listen and I shall reveal to thee some manifestations of my divine glory. Only the greatest, Arjuna, for there is no end to my infinite greatness. I am the soul, prince victorious, which dwells in the heart of all things. I am the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that lives.

and ends . . .

Know thou that whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of my own radiance. But of what help is it to thee to know this diversity? Know that with one single fraction of my Being I pervade and support the Universe, and know that I AM.

To read the full text is almost like reading a declaration of love. It is full of confidence and full of offering. Quite powerful.

In trying to sum up what the Bhagavad Gita teaches us, I think the best answer is contained in the scripture itself, at the beginning of book 16:

Freedom from fear, purity of heart, constancy in sacred learning and contemplation, generosity, self-harmony, adoration, study of the scriptures, austerity, righteousness; Non-violence, truth, freedom from anger, renunciation, serenity, aversion to fault-finding, sympathy for all beings, peace from greedy cravings, gentleness, modesty, steadiness; Energy, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, a good will, freedom from pride--these are the treasures of a man who is born for heaven. (16:1-3)

But simply reading the Bhagavad Gita is like reading about sky diving or bungy jumping--it's nothing like the real thing. You've got to practice what the Bhagavad Gita teaches in order to experience its importance. It's not a book to discuss with other people but a book use to set off on a journey into your inner self and find your meaning within the universe. It is a book to use to simplify and quiet your soul.

Edward Tanguay

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