Re-interpreting the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu text, supposed to have been written more than 5000 years ago.  According to Hindu mythology, Krishna recited the verses in the Gita to Arjuna, in the battlefield during the Mahabharata war. However, it is said that many of the sayings in the Gita can probably be traced to earlier Upanishads.

The Gita includes some pretty heady philosophy of the Personal Self (Atman) and the Supreme Consciousness (Brahman). Some of these parts may or may not be relevant in today’s context and body of knowledge.  This post will skirt around such philosophical questions and look on some of the more practical sayings of the Gita.

I would like to give a different slant to some of the sayings from the Gita as opposed to the accepted interpretation. This could be a case of the ‘devil citing the Scriptures for his own purpose’. In any case you decide

Here goes

Gita: You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action

The above saying requires us to do our prescribed work without giving thought to the results of the work. However most of us do something, in anticipation of success or a reward of some kind. To a large extent, it is this success/reward, which motivates us to do better. But it appears that the Gita wants us to ignore the reward, but just mindlessly carry on with our work, with total disregard for the outcome.

In my opinion this is not so. If people are not driven by the thought of success, people will  simply do things mechanically. I think is important that we always do, what we need to do, to the best of our abilities. While we can be mindful of the taste of success, we should not be so carried away by success that we under-perform. Also on the other hand after having tasted success we should neither become giddy-headed with success nor be broken hearted by failure. We need to be able to face both success and failure with equanimity. So in essence, while we can be driven by success, to perform better, we should not let this come in the way of our performance as either anxiety or over-confidence.

‘Nishkama karma’

The Gita enjoins us to perform ‘nishkama karma’ or desireless -action. In fact the Gita goes on to say that ‘desire leads to anger, anger leads delusion, from delusion loss of memory and finally loss of spiritual intelligence’. In other words desire is the root of all evil.

This is again a very sticky point. For this we need to understand what desire really is and when it is bad?  Some people take the route that all desire is bad. They carry it to the extreme where and claim that one has to be content with whatever life throws one’s way.

My interpretation is that there is a fine line between desire and ambition. To me, it absolutely fine, if you want to become a millionaire, get the snazziest car or desire for a really great house as long as you work  honestly towards acquiring it. Desire is only bad when we try to acquire the object of desire through illegal, wrongful methods. However as the Gita says we should not get attached to these worldly belongings.

So after you become a millionaire, if you start getting attached to the millionaire lifestyle then you are in for some deep trouble. So go after what you want, but do not become dependent on these worldly acquisitions. Do not be under the impression, that Gita forbids ambition of any sort.

A true yogi treats success and failure, praise and criticism, good and bad alike.

This saying has the danger of being mis-interpreted that we should neither react to success or failure nor to good or bad things that happen to us in our life. In reality what we need to do, is not get proud because of success, nor be dejected because of failure. If we face problems in our lives we should not face them stoically all the while imagining ourselves to be a true yogi or the ‘biblical Job’. Rather we have to stand up to our problems and take positive action.

So those are my interpretation of some of the more common sayings in the Bhagavad Gita.

This fleeting life…

If you wonder about the transience of butterflies, whose average life span is about month, here is news for you. Our life span of 70-80 years, is also fleeting and transitory, in the face of the age of the universe. We are were now, gone then!

We live only once in this corporeal body in this planet earth. We are then gone forever.

Under these circumstances it is important to be aware of the following
There is no heaven or hell, no swarga or naraga. There is no afterlife, there is no rebirth. Also there is neither a soul nor is there an atman.

This life, this existence, is all that we have.
Given this fleeting existence, in this lonely planet, that is lost in the wilderness of space, does it make sense to fret, fume, worry, be anxious etc.? It really does not make any sense at all. The suffering, pain, anxieties, worries don’t mean anything in the long run. So the next question is why worry, why be anxious etc.?

Unfortunately it is not easy to break out of this cycle of worry, anxiety, anger and other negative emotions as we have been programmed to behave in this way. These emotions that we experience are the result of centuries of conditioning in our mental makeup. This conditioning forces to react in a particular ways.

When somebody hurts our ego we get angry. When we are humiliated we feel hurt. When we imagine some outcome that is contrary to what we expect, we start to be anxious and begin to worry. We can’t get away from this cycle. However it is good to temper all your reactions with the thought, that your emotions, worries and anger are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. It may not do away with the ill feeling, but it is still worth a try.

The centuries of mental conditioning will cause the neurons to fire is specific ways, and we can’t make the neurons to ‘unfire’. We can’t swim against this tide of emotions which are reactions to events.

While there is no soul or atman, these may be useful mental constructs to some in  helping them to stick to values.  The soul is supposed to be ennobled by good deeds and defiled by bad ones. The atma is above buddhi(intellect), manas (mind) and the indriyas( senses and is synonymous with the Self. Supposedly knowledge of the Self will result in bliss and peace.

But the soul or atman don’t really exist. If one needs to take recourse to these concepts to maintain a value driven life it is fine. But we should be aware that these are just concepts.

I was reminded of this John Lennon song, Imagine
Imagine there is no heaven,
It is easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

So in essence, in this short span of existence we should live sensibly. We need to look at life in the correct perspective and not get embroiled in imaginary concepts like swarg-narag, heaven-hall, soul-atman.

While we cannot avoid some of the emotions we must be cognizant of the fact that all good and bad experiences must pass and we will leave this corporeal frame forever.

Uncovering morality in the Mahabharata – Part 2

Arjuna’s despondency
When the Pandavas return after their exile from the forest after 13 years and try to reclaim what is rightly theirs they are only met with stout denial by Duryodhana. Lord Krishna tries to negotiate a settlement where the Kuaravas would only need to part with 5 villages to Pandavas. But even this meager request results in a refusal by Duryodhana. Finally after much deliberation Yudhisthra as the eldest amongst the Pandavas declares war.

On the day of the war with both armies standing impressively facing each other Arjuna whose chariot is driven by none other Lord Krishna himself suddenly is overcome with mental anguish. Arjuna the great and courageous warrior goes through intense emotional turmoil. He is not able to come to terms with the violence of war where he would have to kill the Kauravas who are his own cousins. Besides the Kaurava army also has in its ranks the venerable Bhishma and Drona who have taught him all the necessary lessons of life along with the skills of warfare. This is an important juncture in the Mahabharata where the epic balances human emotions of compassion against the needs of justice. It is as this point Lord Krishna sings the inimitable and ineffable song of the Gita. Lord Krishna reiterates that man must perform his duty without attachment to the results of his work. He should look at joy and suffering with equanimity. The Gita also expounds that behind the material body is the indestructible soul or the Atman which is eternal in nature.

Arjuna is finally convinced when he witnesses Lord Krishna’s divine form and starts to fight for dharma or justice. The war results in victory for the Pandavas. However, the Pandavas are able to overcome Bhishma, Drona and Karna only through devious means. The Mahabharata brings into its narrative a human element of frailty. It clearly shows that even the virtuous Pandavas are not superhuman. Besides it brings into question again the issues of ends versus means. What is dharma? Does it represent something that should be beyond individual interests? Should one subordinate individual interests to the larger interest of the people?
The war ends with victory for the Pandavas. However, even the Pandavas army is destroyed by the wrath of Aswatthama leaving only the five Pandavas with widows and an empty kingdom.

Yudhisthra rather than rejoicing in his victory is tormented by the Pyrrhic victory which resulted in a lot of bloodshed. Again the Mahabharata does not glorify the victors nor belittles the vanquished. The Mahabharata does make one to reflect deeply on what is right and what is wrong. Given the virtues of truthfulness, compassion, ahimsa, charity what should be the most appropriate course for an individual be?

Atman – Do we need it?

Swami Vivekananda, in his discourse on Patanjali’s aphorisms (Complete works of Swami Vivekanada – Volume 1) explains the Atman thus. “The organs (Indriyas), together with the mind (Manas), the determinative faculty (Buddhi), and egoism (Ahamkâra), form the group called the Antahkarana (the internal instrument). They are but various processes in the mind-stuff, called Chitta. The waves of thought in the Chitta are called Vrittis (literally whirpool)… the intelligent soul is behind”.

Hence behind this physical frame of the mind and the senses is the Atman or the Soul. The Atman is described as being changeless, effulgent, omniscient and omnipotent. This is the definition of the Atman, the Self or the Soul according Hindu philosophy. Buddhism completely denies the existence of anything behind this physical body.  Buddhism does not subscribe to the concept of a Personal Soul or the Self.

How do these two different philosophies, Hindu and Buddhist, deal with the problem  of human suffering.



Suffering – The Buddhist Way

According to Buddhism, suffering is inevitable in human life. We have to accept suffering as a fact of this mortal existence. Buddhism also states that suffering is born of attachment, cessation of suffering is attainable and the path to cessation is based on taking the middle path given in his eight-fold path. The key aspect with the Buddhist way of handling misery in life is to accept this in our lives. Rather than trying to wish away suffering or imagining things we have to boldly accept it and strive to remove it by following the eight fold path based on right living, right speech etc. In many ways this is echoed in the Road Less travelled by Dr. Scott Peck who advocates accepting suffering in our lives. Dr. Peck mentions that if we run away from problems and pain in our lives we will tend to suffer from neurosis.










Suffering – The Hindu Way

The Hindu Way is the same for both pain and pleasure. The Hindu Way suggests a technique of detachment. It is based on the need to understand that pain and pleasure always only exists in the physical plane consisting of the mind and the physical body. Our suffering is because of the waves that are caused in our “chitta” or consciousness. Hinduism states that behind this physical frame of ours is our Soul which cannot be affected by pain, pleasure and is completely changeless.

While both approaches are equally valid, I personally prefer the Hindu way. The moment we understand that our interactions in this world are all because of activity of the mind and the physical senses we realize that we have a faculty that can transcend this physical frame. We can observe the changes that happen in our mind, the frustrations, the anger, the despair.

It is this higher faculty, of awareness, which enables us to be conscious of the perturbations in our physical frame, as it happens, is what I would like to call as the Atman or the Soul.

Hence I find a lot more comfort in the Atman concept.

Me and the Atman

Central to Hindu philosophy is the concept of the Self or the Atman which is the unchanging phenomenon behind the changeable universe. The Atman is supposed to be changeless, formless, colorless and immanent, indestructible and so on. Knowledge of the Atman, the sages say, will enable us to transcend the dualities of this world.
However, any attempt to know and understand this phenomenon is a difficult task and is fraught with dangers. We can easily start hallucinating or imagining things that are not true. As the Gita says that only a true yogi who is completely disciplined in mind, body and spirit can probably attempt such profound knowledge.

However closer to the earth, we mortals can definitely attempt to understand ourselves better. We have to look inward into ourselves. We need to understand why we react the way we react. We need to look into ourselves and find out what is it that causes us to be impatient, to be intolerant, to get angry, or makes us swell with pride or conceit.

Rather than chasing some difficult concept as the Atman, Brahman we need to get down to earth into the journey into ourselves. Why are we so proud? Why do we crave for attention? What makes us sad?

These are questions for which the answers only we have. It is all based on our inner beliefs, our convictions and our view of what is right and what is beautiful. Before judging somebody we need to look into ourselves and look at our beliefs of what is it that is correct behavior. While it is likely that the other person had transgressed, it is equally likely that our understanding of what is correct behavior in the given circumstances could be wrong.

Hence we have a lot of answers within ourselves. Sometimes we have to correct our view of the world. Once we understand ourselves better, and on why we behave the way we do we can understand the world better and why people behave the way they do.

Parallels in Hindu & Christian philosophy

It is remarkable that Hindu and Christian philosophies which evolved independently of one another more than 2 millenniums ago have such striking similarities.

1) The Bible maintains that all human beings have a soul behind the material body. The Bible also states that somebody can hurt the body but not the soul which is immortal. According to the Hindu belief behind the body is the unchangeable Atman which is immutable and eternal. In Chapter 2 of the Gita Krishna expounds “That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable Atman.”

2) According to Christian thought is the concept of sin. Based on our actions in this world we will be judged on the ‘day of judgment’ when the good deeds of the person will be weighed against the bad deeds. A virtuous person will enter heaven or the kingdom of God and an evil person will enter Hell. Similarly according to the Mahabharata there is a concept of “swarga” or heaven and “naraga” or hell. Chitragupta is the king who keeps tally of the good acts of the person against the evil acts and sends the person to either swarga or naraga. However the Hindu philosophy differs slightly from Christian thought in that a human being’s stay in swarga or naraga is not permanent and he will have to undergo another rebirth. The concept of rebirth is not there in Biblical thought.

3) In the Bible, in Matthew 7.7 are the words “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”. There is a similar saying in the Ramayana which states “If only it would ask, it would tell the truth”.

It is really amazing that these two major religions of the world have such similar ideology.

Who am I?

“Who am I?” this question suddenly popped into my mind today. This question “Who am I?” has been plaguing philosophers for an eternity. Everybody from ancient Indian thinkers to Zen Buddhists has struggled with this question.

I was not interested in metaphysical concepts of the ‘I” as the soul or the atman. I wanted to look at myself as an ordinary observer and try to understand what this “I” is.  With a little thought I came to realize that I am aware of my “I” through my pre-dispositions in life.

At the most basic level I am pure consciousness. “I” am the life force behind this mortal frame, the power behind my mind and intellect. However there is something unique in my “I”.  I realized “I” was a bundle of fears, anxieties, likes and dislikes. I knew “myself” by how “I” reacted to external events. There were certain things that made me happy, certain things that made me sad, and other things that annoyed me. I had buttons which when pressed truly irritated me.

At a the surface it looked like “I” was just a product of my life’s experiences, a bundle of things I learnt from my childhood and things taught to me by my parents, teachers and friends and my environment.

So while “I” came into existence after my birth, am “I” just a sum total of my living years? With a little more thought I realized that this cannot be. Clearly “I” am more than just my experiences in life. I also have instincts and innate tendencies that were neither learnt nor taught to me in this life time. As a human being “I: was more inclined to go after pleasure and avoid anything either caused pain or disappointment. These came to me as a package from my birth. So where did these instincts and innate tendencies come from?

One answer, if one believes in the transmigration of the soul, according to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy we could say that my instincts are all the learned experiences of my soul which existed in other bodies before myself. Since this theory has neither been proved nor disproved I wanted a more rational explanation.

So I realized that my inborn instincts are the product of genetic transference from my ancestors. The experiences of my forefathers and ancestors were transferred from generation to generation to the now living and breathing “I”.

I came to the understanding that “I” was older than my own age. “I” had been living from millions of years. I realized that “I” was not just myself but much, much more.

The Structure of the Unconscious Mind

Behind the thinking mind is the subconscious mind. Below the subconscious mind is the unconscious mind. It is the view of many psychologists and philosophers that buried in the subconscious and unconscious mind are answers to all of our questions. According to the Platonic “Doctrine of Recollection”, man already knows everything that he has to know. Discovery is just a matter of recollection of this knowledge. Even according to Swami Vivekananda the Law of Gravitation was already in Newton’s mind waiting to be discovered or unveiled. The falling of the apple was just a suggestion to Sir Isaac Newton.

So it is clear that all the answers to mankind’s questions are already in the unconscious mind waiting to be uncovered and unveiled. So how did all these get into the unconscious mind? Human beings have evolved over a million years. Each of us has probably several billion ancestors. The human mind has evolved from its earlier primitive state to its current refined state.

Our ancestors, the homosapiens, must have had primitive minds with simple needs like eating, sleeping and procreating. As man evolved there were more interactions at various levels and the need was not just a matter of survival. Man started to have complex social interactions which resulted in new ideas and thoughts. Man developed a complex value system with different virtues and vices. There must have been many who were intelligent who must have wondered about the structure and the mysteries of the universe.  What has happened to all these ideas, thoughts and experiences?

All these complex ideas, thoughts, visions and insights are frozen in time and passed from generation to generation in the sub-stratum of the human mind, namely the unconscious. All the great learning, insights and philosophical thoughts of our forefathers are buried deep down in  the strata below the  conscious mind. So all the learning of the billions of our ancestors are passed down to us. We only need to know how to unlock this rich storehouse of infinite knowledge.

In fact the Atman or the Personal Soul, referred to by the Indian mystics, which is supposed to be infinite, all knowing must have referred to this unconscious mind. The Brahman or the Universal Soul according to Hindu philosophy must have referred to the collective unconscious.

What man has to learn is to be able to tap this infinite storehouse of knowledge in the unconscious mind. We must discover the key to unlock the mysteries of the unconscious mind and most of our questions about the mysteries of the universe will be answered.

The Atman or Soul is closer to the heart

The Atman or Soul is closer to our heart than our head

Our mind is a wonderful instrument. With it we can analyze, invent, solve and do a lot of things. But the mind is only capable of intellectualizing. The head is capable of performing a lot of useful functions. We can think, solve, create and analyze with our heads. With our heads we process thoughts. In other words our minds are nothing more than thought processing mechanisms. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in some day in the future man will be able to mimic the thought processing capability of the mind.

On the other hand, the heart is the seat of far more subtler emotions like love, compassion, tolerance etc. These are unique and can never be imitated by machines. It is the seat of nobler emotions than the mind. The heart is generally considered as the seat of these emotions. However the heart is just another organ. Can it be the place where these emotions generate?

In my opinion emotions like love, kindness or tolerance emanate somewhere from the chest. The psycho-physiological activities behind these emotions must be far more complex but it is centered in the middle of the chest where the heart lies. Our conscience is also generally assumed to be centered on our heart.

Devotion, faith or bhakti also can also only emanate from this heart region. Faith or bhakti cannot come from the mind through reading of scriptures or philosophy. We cannot intellectualize the concept of the Supreme.

A good life is full of love, compassion, kindness and devotion to a Supreme Being. Hence it is clear that the seat of human goodness in general comes from the heart.

Also central to several faiths of this world is the concept of a Personal Soul or the Atman. Since the Atman or the Soul can only be centered on human goodness it becomes obvious that the Soul and the Atman are closer to the heart than to the head.