THE BHAGAVAD GITA:
A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life
Ravi Ravindra, Shambhala Publications (shambhala.com), 2017. PP. 320. $19.95 PAPER
Reviewed by Vinita Kaushik Kapur
Sacred texts often suffer deification, an action that is a prelude to the loss of true meaning. Ravi Ravindra (Professor Emeritus, Dalhousie U.); Science and the Sacred; Heart Without Measure, etc., has brought the Bhagavad Gita out of that context. As one reads his commentary, it becomes clear that one is listening to insights that are the result of actual struggle and practice on the way of the Gita. Ravindra has brought an exploration of the value of the Bhagavad Gita for a seeker who wishes a practical path to transformation as well as a new translation.
While most commentaries on the Gita provide a strong perspective of Krishna’s teachings, very few have looked at the perspective of the seeker, Arjuna. Ravindra shows how Arjuna moves from confusion and self-doubt to clarity and strength. He brings the question in each searcher’s heart “Am I Arjuna—somewhat aware of the demands of the different levels within myself, requiring different responses?”
This commentary emphasizes the relevance of the teaching of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita for our own lives. Each moment we are invited to understand the relationship between our life in the body and the real purpose and potential of the human incarnation. Through this interpretation, the potent symbols of the Gita are revealed in a new way.
Distancing the text from its usual “religious” underpinnings, Ravindra clearly affirms the Gita as a book of yoga. As Arjuna grows in being and understanding, Krishna guides him to deeper and deeper understandings of yoga with precision and clarity. Ravindra emphasizes the fact that a seeker must be transformed to truly experience Krishna and his teaching.
He cautions against viewing the religious and metaphorical symbolism in the Gita too literally. He comments that “such teachings are dangerous unless understood with subtle discernment made possible by a radical transformation of being through which one is freed of like and dislike, of hatred and partial love, and is filled with wisdom and compassion.”
The true value of this book is its syncretic nature. Insights from the Christian tradition, from John the Baptist, St. Paul, Krishnamurti, the Buddha, Gurdjieff, and Madame de Salzmann come together with insights from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Vedas, and the Upanishads to reveal that the living roots of truth and wisdom are transcultural and transpersonal.
The cultivation of subtler and subtler attention is at the heart of all spiritual quest, ultimately moving from “my attention” to an “attention in me” in which my organism lends itself to be an instrument of the attention of Krishna working through it.
Set in the midst of a battlefield, in the middle of the Mahabharata, the great epic of Hindu mythology, the Bhagavad Gita is considered to contain the essence of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the well-known scriptures of Hinduism. The introduction invites us to consider the text of the Gita through a perspective of different levels. Arjuna’s questions in the Bhagavad Gita call forth Krishna’s teaching about levels of being inside us as well as outside. It deals with Karma, the field of action; Dharma, the field of duty; Atma, the individual soul; and Brahman, the all-pervading consciousness.
Early in the text Ravindra navigates the difficult territory between seeing the battle “within” and comparing it with the mythical one on the battlefield at Kurukshetra. When viewed as the battle within, Kurukshetra is the body-mind, the field where the battle ensues. The battle, the fighting and “killing,” is our struggle with our cultural conditioning and our behavior. “The battle is for the possession of our entire psychosomatic complex, the whole miniaturized kingdom of prakriti, which is what we call a human being.” The battle is between the two sides of our nature; the demonic or divine tendencies, or the centrifugal and centripetal forces.
Ravindra uses the metaphor of the battle as an opportunity to invite us to question the purpose of life in the physical body and the mind. Quoting Madame de Salzmann he asks “What do you serve?” and in doing so, brings the question to each one of us: “How does this apply to me?” Focusing on the everyday context of our lives and our common inheritance of the human condition, he recommends that “We need to engage in life; and at the same time, we need to ensure that the struggles in life do not make us oblivious to the subtle energies that have come into our organism for
The idea that action binds is deeply embedded within the Indian culture. Seeking freedom from the bondage of action (karmabandhana) has led many seekers to set off on the path of renunciation and even asceticism. However, in this commentary, Ravindra points out that freedom from action is not inaction or the renunciation of worldly life.
Ravindra presents the law of karma as two sub clauses: “As one is, so one acts; and as one acts so one becomes.” He refers to the constant conditioning of the psyche by the impressions it receives, creating knots that further influence the nature of our actions. Free action is “Action that is undertaken in response to the present situation, not in reaction to what happened to us yesterday.” His interpretation is reminiscent of what J. Krishnamurti often said: “The past modifies itself into the present and becomes the future.”
The means to achieve the freedom from the force of mechanicality, the “…frightening darkness of compulsive reaction,” and habit based on our conditioning, is what Krishna wishes to teach Arjuna. The author’s prose infects us with his purpose of joyously working for or towards something rather than against something in ourselves. “The whole magic lies in the possibility contained in an awareness of the present moment, signified by the semicolon in the statement of the law of karma….”
While most commentators of the Gita have emphasized the yoga of action, hardly anyone has brought attention to the fact that the Gita has a strong emphasis on buddhi yoga. The word ‘buddhi’ is derived from the root “budh,” meaning “to wake up.” Ravindra explains that “Buddhi is the integrated awareness that stands between the mind and the Spirit, between what is below and what is above, between the individual and the cosmos.” Because of the multiplicity of I’s in us, the buddhi, which has an “amphibious character” is fragmented (bahushakha or literally ‘many branched’). Buddhi yoga takes us towards Krishna’s own consciousness, towards a unified and resolute buddhi which is “both integration of the buddhi and integration by the buddhi, in a mutually supportive evolution.”
Ravindra’s wish to reveal the potential for actual practice that the Gita offers is visible throughout the commentary. He brings out the unifying character of the buddhi in which intellect, heart and will are in their proper places through a “Special quality of attention” which is the “great lookout of awareness from where one can perceive the great scenery on the still subtler side of reality.”
The word Dharma can be interpreted at many levels and has several shades of meaning attached to it, like duty, personal duty, duty of one’s situation in life, or even personal predilection. The author invites us to see the difference between “right action” based in the many interpretations of dharma, and action that is performed by the “right actor.” “Dharma is concerned with the quality of the action, whereas yoga is concerned with the quality of the actor. Krishna maintains a creative tension between dharma and yoga.”
Our actions in life show us the difference between the same action undertaken in different states of attention. We are invited to see the difference between “right action” based in the many interpretations of dharma, and action that is performed by the “right actor.” Ravindra’s commentary on Krishna’s call clearly elucidates what Krishna wants us to do. “To be in yoga means, before anything else, to be united with the source of intelligence and energy that is above oneself.”
Ravindra argues that we need to free ourselves from the natural tendency of the ego that is bound helplessly to the poles of the opposites such as like and dislike. There is a need for a higher perspective which is in harmony with the cosmic order even as it reflects in the smallest actions on the ground. The author cites yajña karma as “action undertaken as a sacrifice in the service of the Sacred and with the participation of non-egoistic energies” as a means of freeing action from bondage.
Ravindra quotes Christ to illustrate the perfect example of yajña karma. “I do nothing of myself… I seek not mine own glory… I am not the source of words I speak to you: it is the Father who dwells in me doing His own work.” (John 8:28; 8:50;14:10)
And immediately as if pre-empting the possibility of distortion, we are reminded that there is a fine line separating detachment from indifference. We need to engage in the battle skillfully while remaining above it, “…impartial to success or failure.”
How do we work with the quicksilver nature of our mind which identifies with and takes on the hues of all it perceives? We are introduced to the idea that in the Hindu tradition there is a clear distinction between the individual self and the supra-personal Self. Ravindra brings out the direction that Krishna points to with a clear instruction towards the creation of a connection with subtler levels as suggested by Madame de Salzmann. “Everything is in relation with other levels. If the energy of the body is not related to something higher, it will be taken by something lower.”
How can we bring these different levels of energies and reality into relationship not only for ourselves but for the benefit of those forces that nurture the cosmos? “Human beings cannot merely receive benediction from above; they have to play their part in the maintenance of the cosmic order.” Yajña is the act of collaboration between human beings and subtler levels of existence that brings about a process of mutual nourishment. Through the medium of love and sacrifice “[t]he whole universe participates in yajña through the principle of reciprocal maintenance.”
The author brings clarity to the question of “love” and bhakti which is integral to the Gita and to all spiritual traditions. The fact that there is no mention of the path of devotion and of bhakti until the last shloka in the sixth chapter is viewed by him as an “indication that any notion of love or worship without the necessary development of discernment and right behavior is likely to result in sentimentality or fanaticism, as is far too manifest in the histories of all religions.”
He brings our attention to the fact that love is not possible at the level of attachment and sentimentality. “As long as the ego is in-charge, … as long as there is selfishness, all our actions are without love. If we act without love, there is violation of the spirit…. True ahimsa (translated as non-violation), as well as compassion and love, are properties of the real world where they are a natural consequence of insight.”
Always returning to the practical needs of those who search, Ravindra interprets Krishna’s answers to Arjuna in a way that they are accessible to the modern mind. Arjuna wishes to know how we can recognize a person of steady wisdom? We are told a Hasidic story that has echoes in the Zen tradition as well in answer to this query. Does the pupil visit his master to hear words of wisdom? “No,” the pupil answers, “I want to see how he ties his shoe laces.”
Ravindra’s commentary on the Gita connects us to the inner realities of the human condition and the possibilities therein. He urges us to consider the resonance between our own Svabhava (the essential inner being of a person) and Krishna’s own being or Madbhava. As he points out, “We cannot come to Krishna without first coming to our own deepest self.” Through this insightful interpretation, the Bhagavad Gita becomes available for those who seek to tread the ancient path to the Real. ♦