The Bhagavad Gita: Preliminary Sketches

Krishna_and_Arjun_on_the_chariot,_Mahabharata,_18th-19th_century,_India

The Family Feud

The Bhagavad Gita is a majestic poem within the larger Mahabharata, an epic whose length defies any present-day imagination. It is a comprisal of a narrative set within the larger framework of Philosophical Mysticism. Its tone is one of crisis on an epic scale—one that constitutes the incessant war that is waged within the inner-battleground of the embodied enslavement of man’s Spiritual Composition. Although based on actual ancient warfare taking place nearby modern-day Delhi, its account is more archetypical and allegorical in nature, one that encompasses the full scope of the human condition—one that is inflicted with both external and internal turmoil. This cosmic-drama revolves around an ancient family-feud. It involves a dispute between cousins over who was to rule the Kuruksetra kingdom located in central India. At one time the kingdom belonged to five brothers of the Pāndavas family, but they lost their rule during a dice-game and ceded their kingdom over to their shady-cousins who were the hundred sons of a blind king named Dhrtarāstra. Originally the latter family was to return the kingdom over to its rightful ownership after some length of time, but due to their devious nature totally reneged on their promise. Therefore, the Pāndavas had to wage war to reclaim their rightful property. The problem was, though, being cousins both sides had once shared the same teachers and advisers—the very same ones who were now being called upon to advise them in time of war; accompanied with this precarious predicament was the fact that both sides would be facing beloved family members and friends who would be killed due to this ongoing clash. Hence we now arrive at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita just before the huge battle was to be waged. We find the main protagonist of the Gita, Arjuna, agonizing within himself over his responsibility as a noble war-lord to do his duty, yet having to “do-in” his own family and friends as part of this obligation.

Our text will soon begin with the blind king, Dhrtarāstra, inquiring from his minister, Samjaya, how events were progressing on the battlefield. Upon describing the nature of the warriors involved, Samjaya turns his focus to Arjuna and his faithful charioteer, Krishna. The focus will now shift to a dialog between Arjuna and Krishna during the bulk of the Gita. Arjuna begins by lamenting his predicament of facing so many family members and friends who will surely die in the heat of battle. In response, Krishna (Divine Consciousness) will take Arjuna on a marvelous mystical tour into the very heart of his own consciousness, thus empowering him to respond to the crisis with the necessary gnosis that will totally liberate him from his (as well as our own) life-predicaments.

One of the salient themes to bear in mind throughout this series is the Sanskrit term dharma. The emphasis upon dharma within the Gita will be that of Arjuna performing his sacred duty. On the larger scale of things, in particular for those of us with Buddhist sensitivities, Dharma encompasses “all that sustains” us in our spiritual journey ; and being faithful to the Buddhadharma will always assure us of victory over all dark forces that dare imprison us in psychophysical bondage. The word, Gita, means “Song”. And hence the full title means the Song of the Lord; and for Buddhists, generally, the Song of the Blessed One.  In transcendent terms, it is also conveyed as the Song of Spirit—for ultimately this involves Spiritual Warfare for the Spirit’s own liberation from the evil principalities and powers who want nothing more but to keep this Self-Same Spirit enslaved in the ignominious body-consciousness. So, yes, it’s a Spiritual-Family feud, one revolving around the Tathata Family over the nefarious family of the Evil One.

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7 Responses to The Bhagavad Gita: Preliminary Sketches

  1. N. Yeti says:

    Some Buddhists worry about the predicament this allegorical war represents, concerned that the denial of a human moral agency for such a predicament might be seen as all-encompassing and extend to any sort of action whatsoever, even the Third Reich — some of whose leaders infamously were obsessed with mysticism and specifically the BG.

    But it is important to note that Gandhi too was deeply inspired by Gita in the midst of great sweeping conflicts, and used it cultivate non-violence in his heart and those who would listen. Each seeker for herself or himself must recognize their own moral agency, and not depend on scriptures or outside agencies for this authority.

    “The doctrine of ahimsa is the distinctive feature of Indian moral thought. But the basis for this precept can differ from one tradition to another. The resulting interpretation and evaluations of action, then, admit of great diversity or even contradiction, but almost no one ever explicitly denies ahimsa itself. The arguments for the non-violent nature of explicitly violent actions such as war, or the denial of human agency in the commission of such carnage, as in the Bhagavadgita for example, do not challenge the moral principle of ahimsa, but only quibble about the facts of the particular case.”

    Source: Buddhism and War:
    A Study of the Status of Violence in Early Buddhism
    By: James A. Stroble
    University of Hawai’i at Manoa
    December 17, 1991

    • Vajragoni says:

      Very good and helpful analysis; another point about the nazi-thing is their perversion of so many symbolic representations, in particular the “swastika” which is originally a hindu-buddhist symbol stretching back centuries. Unfortunately its symbolism today is, by and large, reduced to being a false representation due to its hijacking and twisting by the Nazis for their own nefarious purposes in the last century.

  2. Methexis says:

    Hegel in his oeuvre developed a very interesting idea – that the consequences of an idea are not merely extraneous to it, but somehow inscribed within the idea itself (as a potentiality).

    That is to say, it’s too easy to say “ah, those Nazis and their interpretations!” – because they picked the BG specifically, not a Buddhist text. They also picked Nietzsche.

    Of course it would be idiotic to say there is something national-socialistic in Nietzsche or in the BG. But there is a potentiality for misunderstanding.

    Just as there is in (some forms of) Zen that over-stresses the emptiness doctrine over the Buddha-Nature doctrne.

    For all teachings that nullify phenomena as irrelevant – which within Tiantai’s system are categorized as “Common Teaching” – will have this potential consequence.

    If all is One and all is Illusion, then the Holocaust is an Illusion, and the Holocaust and the Pure Land are really identical. This is not mere fanciful philosophizing, it’s a serious logical inference.

    This is why Buddhism transcends this level in the Separate Teaching and even more in the ultimate, Perfect Teaching (aka Integrated Teaching).

    Basically, this can be explained using Nagarjuna’s logic:

    1) phenomena are
    2) phenomena are not
    3) phenomena are & are not simultanously
    4) phenomena neither are, nor aren’t

    The first is naive realism aka materialism. The second is our bad guy, – now of course it has its merits, but if it’s not balance with Provisional Positing (Conventional Reality) it one-sidedly asserts the Absolute as if it was separate from its phenomenal manifestations.

    To put it in BG’s terms:

    1) phenomena are real;
    2) phenomena are ultimately unreal, only Krishna is real in His ultimate form;
    3) phenomena and Krishna are the Same expressing Itself in two different ways;
    4) …

    I’ll leave (4) empty on purpose here, as a placeholder for our Perfect Teaching.

    The Japanese criminals liked Zen and the Nazis liked the BG. What they liked was (2) – the one-sided emptiness teaching nullifying the importance of particular, conventional phenomena.

    Buddhism in its Integrated teaching affirms the ultimate identity between the provisional and the Ultimate. This is the highest teaching of the Buddha and this teaching cannot be abused for phenomena are not nullified BUT embraced by what Zhiyi calls No-emptiness – the permanent & dynamic Buddha-Nature

    In the Integrated teaching, everything counts, even minutiae of daily life. This is why Zhiyi’s thought influenced early Zen – just have a look at the pre-Huineng records (the 6th Patriarch and the myth around him is already a regression …), Daoxin etc. – this is why Zhiyi’s meditation manuals were always used in Chán halls in China – but Westerners remain ignorant of this fact.

    Basically, the crux is the relationship between Ultimate and Conventional/Provisional.

    The relationships can be put in these terms:

    1) There is no Ultimate Truth (materialism) – the provisional alone is real

    2) Provisional is only illusion; only the Ultimate Truth, emptiness is real ( Common Teaching including some forms of Madhyamaka and Bhagavad Gita and some forms of Zen – the position preferred by Nazis and Japanese war criminals because it obliberates their sin and their evil : “all is illusion, so even bad karma must be illusion, so even the Holocaust is illusion!” ) – one-sided fixation on the Absolute.

    3) There is a Same that expresses itself either Provisionally or Absolutely. ( sometimes this is the Zen position; you could even understand BG to be this … Phenomena here are accepted but ONLY as expressions of the Absolute)

    4) Provisional is Ultimate, Ultimate is Provisional. The teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The Eternal Buddha’s upayas are all provisional (there is no specific definite teaching) – but nevertheless all teachings have the same eschatological attractor (Buddha-Nature) and are therefore revealed to be the ultimate

    Thus only the Integrated Teaching expounded by Grand Master Zhiyi posit an Ultimate reality that fully embraces the phenomena.

    This is something not even dreamed by the writers of Bhagavad Gita and other Indian yogis high on soma who plagiarized Lord Buddha’s teaching and pretended it was part of their own religion – but presented it out of context so that Mara-Krishna can teach his deadly teaching of obliteration of phenomena.

  3. Methexis says:

    PS: I wrote the above in a haste … let it be clear I’m not attacking you or Zen or anyone. Zen is a broad word and sometimes it embodies Perfect Teaching, other times the Common Teaching. It depends WHICH zen. The illusion that all Zen masters are teaching the same thing is a pernicious one.

    Also Zhiyi serves as a good classification for Buddhist teachings … I’m not bringing Tiantai into this conversation. So let’s forget about that. What I’m stressing is merely that the BG and the emptiness-teachings in Buddhism IF taken out of context (the FULL context given in the Lotus sutra) – then they can be dangerous and lead to indifference towards the phenomenal.

    On the other hand my own contemplations of mind and studies lead me to believe Zen at its best is like Tiantai (the Perfect Teaching). Tiantai is however scholastic and conceptual so it leads to thousands of pages of philosophy. Zen is about the direct insight.

    It’s a grave new-age mistake to say “all wisdom traditions teach the same”. Only the Buddha-Dharma teaches the Perfect Teaching!

    I know you know this, but I’m writing it to some potential readers that might get confused about classification of teachings!

  4. Methexis says:

    To conclude, my hope is that we would all turn away from nonbuddhist paths and focus on this Path which is SO immense by itself that to add ecumenical largesse to the task at hand would be truly counter-productive!

    When I asked Tozen about nonbuddhist teachings and the possibility of exploring them, he always said the same thing: “If you want to waste a few years, why not! It will be useful for your future students.”

    What he meant is – exploring nonbuddhist paths is ‘wasting time’ because it’s not the PErfect Teaching, but even wasting time has some usefulness – you will be better equipped to explain others about nonbuddhist paths.

    Here we have an example of “not obliterating” and “embracing” !

    Good luck, happy holidays – I hope these comments can be useful. I’ll come back in a few months hoping to see your good intellect at work with the Lotus Scripture or the Nirvana Sutra.

  5. N. Yeti says:

    Methexis, my son knows he hates Brussels sprouts because he refuses to eat them. It’s all the proof he needs.

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