Life guidance from the Bhagavad Gita. Translated with commentary by Ravi Ravindra
The Bhagavad Gita, part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, was composed more than two thousand years ago. In the text, the Hindu god Lord Krishna advises the prince Arjuna about his duty as a warrior and responsible spiritual being. In Professor Ravindra’s new translation and commentary, the Bhagavad Gita is considered as a universal guide to navigating the battle of life.
Many Are Called but Few Are Chosen
Krishna urges Arjuna to practice yoga, fixing his mind more and more on the essential nature of Krishna, and he promises Arjuna that he will teach him jñāna (sacred knowledge) and discriminative discernment (vijñāna), knowing which nothing else remains to be known. At the same time, he is quite clear that out of thousands of human beings only a few will strive for perfection, and out of those who come to a perfection of character, very few will know Krishna’s real nature. As we look around at the general human situation and see what largely occupies humanity, any notion of striving for spiritual perfection seems very far away and quite rare. This is not new; even at the time of the Buddha or of Christ, or at the time of Krishna’s human incarnation and before, very few people seem to have had an interest in searching for the Real. Like the author, the readers also need to ask themselves periodically about the quality of their search for the Truth.
The Blessed One said: Hear, O Pārtha, how by practicing yoga with your mind fixed on Me, and with Me as the base and the refuge, you will know Me completely and without doubt. I will speak to you, without omission, of the essential sacred knowledge [jnāna] and of comprehensive discernment [vijnāna], knowing which nothing else remains to be known. (7.1–2)
Among thousands of human beings scarcely one strives after perfection, and among those who strive and attain perfection, scarcely one knows Me in the full truth of My being. (7.3)
Furthermore, any serious contact with the Real is not only a matter of human effort, however strenuous. Grace of the devas is also needed. Even among those few who strive, still fewer seem to be chosen to attain Truth. It is the same everywhere and at all times “for many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)
Two Natures of Krishna
The notion of two natures in human beings is universal. St. Paul speaks of carnal and spiritual nature (1 Corinthians 15:44–49); Plotinus speaks of lower and higher nature; Krishna speaks of āsuric (demonic) and daivic (divine) nature (16.6). Here Krishna describes what we usually call nature (Prakriti), consisting of eight elements or components, very much following the theory in the philosophical system of Sānkhya — earth, water, fire, air, ether, manas, buddhi, ahamkāra (sense of a separate self, egotism)—as his lower nature. This is the domain of manifestation, of space-time, causality, and the law of karma. His higher spiritual nature consists of the life force and consciousness. What is important to emphasize is that the lower nature is also Krishna’s and cannot be dismissed if one wishes to relate with his whole essence and being. Everything is Krishna; there is nothing completely separated from him. The lower nature emerges from the womb of the higher nature of Krishna. Then he goes on to specifically relate to the subtle properties of the material world by identifying himself as the liquidity in the waters, light in the sun and the moon, the primordial unstruck sound of Om in all the Vedas, and virility in human beings. (7.8)
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind [manas], understanding [buddhi] and a sense of a separate self; this is My eightfold nature. (7.4)
This is the lower nature, but, O Mighty-armed, know my other nature, which is different from this. It is the supreme, consisting of the life force [ jīvabhūta], by which this universe is upheld. Know this to be the womb of all beings. I am the origin of the whole universe and also of its dissolution. Beyond me there is nothing else, O Wealth-Winner. All that is here is strung on Me like pearls upon a string. (7.5–7)
I am the liquidity in the waters, O Son of Kunti, I am the light in the sun and moon, I am pranava, the sacred syllable OM, in all the Vedas; I am sound in ether and virility in human beings. I am the pure fragrance in the Earth and the brilliance in fire, I am life in all beings, and the fervor in all ascetics. (7.8–9)
Know Me to be the eternal seed of all existences, O Pārtha. I am the awareness of the aware and the splendor of the splendid. I am the strength of the strong who are without selfish desire and hankering. In beings I am the desire [kāma] which is not incompatible with dharma, O Bull of the Bhāratas. (7.10–11)
And the states of all beings — the harmonious [sāttvic], the passionate [rājasic], and the inert [tāmasic]—are from Me alone. However, I am not in them, they are in Me. The whole world is deluded by these three kinds of becoming composed of the gunas, and does not recognize Me, supreme beyond these and imperishable. My divine māyā, composed of the gunas, is hard to surmount; only those who turn and come to Me cross beyond it. (7.12–14)
Krishna is the seed of all existence, and he continues to indicate his presence in all manifestation by identifying himself with the life in all beings, with the fervor of the ascetics, and with the awareness of the aware. When Krishna speaks of himself as kāma, not incompatible with dharma (7.11), we see a larger meaning of kāma. It is usually understood to mean “selfish desire,” but it is also the desire for learning, for moksha, and for Nirvāna, as was discussed in some detail in chapter 3.
The three gunas—sattva, rajas, tamas —are the major constituents and forces of Prakriti and determine the basis of the various states in all beings. All these states are created by Krishna and are contained in him. However, creatures in general do not contain the fullness of Krishna; nor do they recognize his true nature, which transcends the gunas, because they are being driven by the illusion and power (māyā) generated by the gunas. Only those can come to him who make a complete turn from the centrifugal tendencies of pravritti driven by the gunas to the centripetal movement of nivritti toward Krishna.
All There Is Is Krishna
Those who are deluded and are evil do not turn to Krishna; they cannot come to him. All those who turn to him in devotion are considered virtuous, but they have various motivations. We can wish to be connected with the Divine when we are in distress, or when we pray for acquiring some goods for ourselves, or out of curiosity for knowledge. Those who are full of sacred knowledge naturally turn to Krishna. He says that he is very dear to such wise people and they are very dear to him. All those who turn to Krishna, with whatever motive, are noble, but the possessors of sacred knowledge who are united with the Self are the very self of Krishna. It may take many lifetimes, but finally a wise person comes to Krishna and realizes that all there is is Krishna. Given the subtlety of such perception, it is to be expected as Krishna says (7.19) that such a person is a great soul but very rare. This can be said to be the real goal of all the great sages in India—not simply to think about it or wish it, but to realize it in their whole being—that all there is is Krishna or Brahman or the Absolute or That. Here, as in many places in the Gita, we have a strong echo of the Upanishads. “All this is Brahman. This Self is Brahman.” (Māndākya Up. 2) “The Self, indeed, is all this. One who understands this delights in the Self…and has unlimited freedom in the world. Those who think otherwise, are dependent on others; they have no freedom.” (Chāndogya Up. VII.25.2)
Deluded, vile human beings, who are evil-doers, do not reach Me. Their knowledge is taken away from them by māyā and they manifest demonic nature. (7.15)
Among the virtuous ones who turn to Me with devotion, O Arjuna, there are four kinds of people: those who are in distress, those who seek worldly goods, those who seek knowledge and those who are wise, O Bull of the Bhāratas. (7.16)
Of these the wise, wholly devoted to and ever united with the Divine, are the best. I am extremely dear to the wise, and they are dear to Me. All these are noble, but I hold the wise, who accept Me as the highest goal and are integrated in the Self, as My very self. (7.17–18)
At the end of many births, a wise person comes to Me, realizing that all there is is Krishna [Vāsudeva]. Such a person is a great soul and very rare. (7.19)
Monotheism — not My-theism
Krishna has already spoken of himself several times as the highest deva, one with Brahman, thus very much invoking the spirit of monotheism. Historically, there is a very strong emphasis on monotheism in the Abrahamic traditions. We hear the very subtle and powerful enunciation of monotheism in the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) This proclamation has had an enormous impact on Christianity and Islam as well. Monotheism is often considered by pious people and scholars in the West to be the acme of religious understanding. But no other religious notion has had a more pernicious consequence in creating bigotry and fanaticism than monotheism. Monotheism has resulted everywhere in “my-theism,” leading to warfare against other people’s religious forms. No one would say, “There is one God, and it is not my God but yours.” The late Nobel laureate Octavio Paz said, “We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst sins of Western civilization—the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism—can be traced to the monotheistic mindset…. For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth.”1
Limited by this or that selfish desire by which their understanding is deluded, some, having taken up vows impelled by their nature, resort to other devas [gods]. But whatever form any devotee with shraddhā [faith, respect] wishes to worship, I make that shraddhā firm and steady. (7.20–21)
Disciplined by that shraddhā, the devotees who worship those forms obtain their desires. In truth I myself give these to the devotees. But the fruits sought after by people of limited intelligence are transient. The worshippers of the devas go to the devas; those who are devoted to Me come to Me. (7.22–23)
The ignorant ones think of Me, the Unmanifest, as a limited manifestation; they do not know My supreme nature of being, imperishable and most high. Enveloped in the power [māyā] of my yoga, I am not revealed to all; the deluded world does not know Me, the Unborn and Imperishable, O Arjuna. (7.24–25)
I know all past, present and future beings, but no one knows Me. The delusion of opposites arises from selfish desire and hatred, O Bhārata, and by that, O Scorcher of Foes, all beings in creation are led into illusion at birth. But those who act virtuously, who are freed from the delusion of opposites and in whom evil has come to an end worship Me with steadfast resolve. (7.26–28)
Those who depend on Me as their refuge, and strive towards release from old age and death, come to know all actions as Brahman, the highest Self. Because they know Me with their integrated awareness [buddhi] as the supreme being [adhibhūta], the subtlest deva [adhidaiva] and the greatest yajna [adhiyajna], they remember Me even at the moment of their departure from here. (7.29–30)
Krishna’s monotheism is not of an exclusive sort that says “You must not worship any other god.” On the contrary, it is very inclusive. Of course, depending on the degree of understanding and the quality of one’s inner nature, a person may be inclined to worship this or that deva. But all the devas are included in Krishna and he blesses them all. “But whatever form any devotee with shraddhā (faith, respect) wishes to worship, I make that shraddhā firm and steady. Disciplined by that shraddhā, the devotees who worship those forms obtain their desires. In truth I myself give these to the devotees.” (7.21–22) It may be mentioned in passing that this inclusive aspect of the Hindu religion was much emphasized by Vivekananda, the great Hindu monk of India, in his speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and he quoted these shlokas from the Gita. It should also be mentioned with some sadness that in some Hindu quarters there is a tendency, often in reaction to exclusivist biblical religions, to make Krishna a sectarian God, in competition with other gods,2 but the Gita is nothing if not inclusive.
Krishna, as the Unmanifest, Unborn, and Imperishable, is not and cannot be revealed to all. Most of us are caught in the delusion of opposite—us and them, believers and infidels, good and evil, and the like—which arises from desire and hatred, attraction and repulsion; and this illusion arises right at birth, as Krishna says. (7.27) This could lead to a notion similar to “original sin” in Christianity, resulting in a deep sense of personal guilt. But it is possible to be free of this delusion of opposites and come to Krishna realizing that all action is Brahman. (7.29 and also 4.24) Those who know that Krishna is the supreme being (adhibhūta), the highest deva (adhidaiva), and the greatest yajna (adhiyajna) remember him even at the time of death and are united with him. ♦
1 Cited by Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In a Los Angeles Times “Global Viewpoint” interview by Nathan Gardels, October 22, 2001.
2 Such shadows of the bright sun emerge in every tradition. In this connection, see Ravi Ravindra, The Pilgrim Soul: A Path to the Sacred Transcending World Religions (Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, 2014), especially the last chapter.
From The Bhagavad Gita by Ravi Ravindra © 2017 by Ravi Ravindra. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com