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.

Uncovering morality through the Mahabharata – Part 1

The Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, has endured for more than 5000 years. The Mahabharata is truly a classic which embodies eternal truths that will live on forever. The Mahabharata differs from Greek Mythology which are tales of adventure and exploits of Greek Gods and heroes in many ways. The Mahabharata besides including in it rich tales of adventure also weaves in its account eternal and timeless moral concepts.

The Mahabharata tries to handle the delicate issue of karma and dharma in the lives of its characters. There are so many lessons that are captured vividly in those tales that the Mahabharata leaves the reader trying to tussle with these difficult concepts in his own mind.

The central theme of the Mahabharata is the war for justice in Kurukshetra between the virtuous Pandavas (with the divine presence of Lord Krishna) and the Kauravas led by Duryodhana. The war is rightly termed as dharmayuddha or the battle of justice by Lord Krishna. Duryodhana is a scheming, cunning king who is jealous of the valor of the Pandavas and cheats the Pandavas of their kingdom through deceit and trickery. He invites Yudhistra to a game of dice and cheats him of his kingdom.

The Pandavas spend 13 years in exile after which they are supposed to get back their kingdom but Duryodhana stoutly denies giving their half back. The Pandavas are unwilling to fight and are willing to settle for just 5 mere villages. However, Duryodhana is stubborn and is unwilling to concede anything. Finally the Pandavas reluctantly go to war against the Kauravas as a last resort. The Pandavas are aware of horror of the war but are forced into it in order to reclaim what is rightly theirs. The Mahabharata does dwell on Yudhistra’s unwillingness to fight.
Similarly in the battlefield when the two armies are arrayed against each other with their conch shells blaring, Arjuna another valiant hero of the Pandavas has a moral crisis. He is unable to understand how the killing of his teachers and sages, among the enemy ranks, whom he so venerates, can be considered as a winning. He wants to put down his arms. The Mahabharata highlights the human issues that are involved with utter clarity and brings this despondency of Arjuna at a critical juncture.

It is then that Lord Krishna clarifies the situation where he states that the process of dharma or the need to uphold justice sometimes requires that evil be stamped out with authority. It is here that Lord Krishna’s celestial song Gita to Arjuna is rendered.

The dharmayuddha does raise the question as to what is the right course of action. One could argue that war, though violent, is required in order to eradicate evil. It leaves the reader with questions as whether virtuous ends justify violent means. Would it be right to say that dharma is upheld when the greatest good is done to greatest number?

The Mahabharata through the many tales tries to weave an intricate pattern of moral issues involved in day to day life. The interesting aspect to the Mahabharata is that the epic provokes the reader to deep thinking on moral issues.

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.

Striking similarities in Matsya Purana and Old Testament

There are some striking similarities between the Matsya Purana of India and the Old Testament of Judeao Christianity. The following excerpts from Matsya Purana and the Old Testament will make this clear

Matsya Purana : The Matsya Purana talks of the story of the king Manu who decided to live a quiet life near a river. One day when he washed his hands in the river a little fish asked him to save him from the big fish saying that it will one day save him in return. Hence King Manu (also known as Satyavrata) put the little fish in a jar. After a few days the fish grew and the king transferred the fish to an urn. It grew even more and had to be transferred to a pond, then a river and finally it was moved to the ocean. When it was put in the ocean the fish asked the king to build a boat and take along with him all types of seeds, eggs, animals and birds. King Manu realised that this was no ordinary fish but was the avatar of Lord Vishnu himself. Subsequently there was a great deluge and the fish with a horn came to King Manu. The King tethered his boat to the horn of the fish using Adisesha the serpent and the fish took King Manu to Mount Mandara. All the living creatures on the earth were wiped out by the deluge except King Manu and the creatures in his boat.

Old Testament : Genesis 6, of the old Testament says that Lord was unhappy with the wickedness of mankind and requested Noah to build an Ark. The Lord told Noah “of very living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee they shall be male and female”. Hence Noah built a huge ark and like Manu took into the ark seeds and a pair of every living creature. Then there was a deluge which lasted for several days. Noah took his ark to the top of Mount Ararat. All creatures on earth
were destroyed by the deluge except Noah and the creatures in Ark.

The similarity in these stories are really striking. Was there really a great deluge about 1200 B.C. Did the legend of Manu travel to the West or did the story of Noah’s Ark travel to India. The common thread in both stories is about the deluge which is supposed to have lasted for 7 days and 7 nights.