Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita -- James A. Long, Chairman
Chairman -- Ever since our last discussion, Krishna's statement about Arjuna's "unsought fight" has been running through my mind. As I see it, anyone who wants to follow a more spiritual way of life by so doing invites a battle. So I can't understand how this struggle of Arjuna's could be called unsought, because I feel we actually do seek a battle the moment we try to handle our negative tendencies.
George -- I would also like to hear a word or two about those "favored soldiers" who take on this unsought fight. That seems to open up a vast horizon of thought.
Chairman -- Before we discuss these specific points, perhaps we had better re-read the passage in question:
A soldier of the Kshatriya tribe hath no duty superior to lawful war, and just to thy wish the door of heaven is found open before thee, through this glorious unsought fight which only fortune's favored soldiers may obtain. But if thou wilt not perform the duty of thy calling and flight out the field, thou wilt abandon thy natural duty and thy honor, and be guilty of a crime.
Krishna then tells Arjuna that if he fails now to meet this challenge his ill-fame will be infinite, as his enemies and even the generals in the army will think he has abstained because of fear; and what could be more dreadful than this for a man of courage? If slain, he will attain heaven; if victorious, the world will be his reward.
Wherefore, son of Kunti, arise with determination fixed for the battle. Make pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, the same to thee, and then prepare for battle, for thus and thus alone shalt thou in action still be free from sin.
What does Krishna mean by this "unsought fight" which only those favored by fortune may obtain? A more literal rendering may help: "blest are the warriors for whom such a battle occurs spontaneously (unsought) as an open door to heaven." Have we not found that those problems and circumstances that come to us of their own accord, without our having specifically set out "to fight" our lower tendencies, represent our greatest chance for growth? We should never regret them, whatever form they take, for if we can meet the full impact of our karma as it comes, however unexpected or painful, we can turn the most overwhelming odds into the greatest of victories.
It is the unsought elements of our day-to-day karma that indicate the most dominant signposts of guidance from our higher self which is seeking to lead our ordinary human self into those very roadways of experience that will bring strength and understanding. The paradox is this: if we consciously or deliberately, with our personal wills, try to search for those pointers of direction, we shall never find them; or if we think we have, they may lead to blind alleys of wasted effort, because they will not be a part of our "natural duty."
Can we say then that the whole battle of life is unsought? Yes and no. From the merely personal side of our natures, which sees only a portion of the outline of one short lifetime, the struggles and problems may seem both unsought and unmerited; and, as Arjuna's deep despondency reminds us, they may even be unwanted in that we find ourselves with decisions and entanglements not to our liking and we believe not even of our own making. But, when we view all things from the vantage point of our higher self, we know we have not only sought but have challenged our own godhood to lead us to that point in our growth where arise we must, "with determination fixed for the battle."
Ellen -- The .phrase "lawful war" has bothered me, especially when Krishna tells Arjuna that for a soldier there is no superior duty. We shouldn't interpret this literally, of course. Could we say then that we are fighting a war according to the law or will of nature rather than according to the law of man?
Chairman -- Let us lift this whole question right out of the realm of physical warfare, to where the plain of the Kurus is no longer seen as a battlefield but becomes that inner sphere of thought and action on which you and I and all the Arjunas of the world find ourselves every day of our lives. As we stand between the opposing armies of our former thoughts, emotions, and tendencies of character, one thing is clear; we are not faced with this "unsought fight" either by favor of god or caprice of fortune but because, as warriors for the right, the accumulated strength of our aspiration built up in times gone by has now brought us this glorious opportunity -- to meet and conquer those forces that would oppose our progress.
Ellen -- In other words, it is really a war between light and darkness, not only in ourselves but in all of nature.
Chairman -- Very true, because Arjuna's battle is but one aspect of the larger karmic contest that is taking place in every portion of the cosmos. As soon as the universe "breathes out" its trillions of atomic lives which make up its many layered constitution, bipolarity comes instantaneously into being, and spirit and matter play their respective roles in every grade of the vast hierarchy which is nature. This same bipolar expression is dynamically pinpointed in man in the arena of his own soul, where he finds all the unprogressed elements of his nature clamoring for dominion, while at the same time he feels the strong impress of divinity as he becomes more and more receptive to the will of his higher self.
Dan -- It seems to me rather strange that Krishna would offer a bonus, as it were, to Arjuna, when he tells him that if he is slain, he will get to heaven, or if he is victorious, he can have the world. It doesn't seem to line up with the selfless approach that we associate with the Gita or other scriptures of this character.
Chairman- Again we must remember that all the sacred literatures are stamped with the traditions and ritualistic practices of the peoples among whom they were written, and the Bhagavad-Gita is no exception. Here the mystical and historic background is Hindu, and the use of "heaven" or swarga simply denotes the boon of highest felicity that could be awarded to those slain in battle. This incidentally is similar to the Norse tradition which holds that the heroes lost in battle are taken by the Valkyries direct to Valhalla. Moreover, in the Mahabharata, from which the Gita is taken, Arjuna is by birth a prince, and thus his "natural duty" as a member of the warrior or Kshatriya caste is to protect the kingdom, by "lawful war" if need be. As for the offer of the world should Arjuna be the victor, that again is clearly a symbolic way of saying that if he conquers himself in this crisis, he will be the conqueror of the world -- for knowledge of self in the ancient traditions always implied knowledge of cosmic things.
Let us keep in mind that we are reading the Gita as a narrative of spiritual instruction and not as a historic account of physical combat. It may seem heavily interwoven with traditional and ceremonial rites, which may mean little to us perhaps, but we should respect their fundamental values as they were and still are held sacred by millions of Hindus; and what is more, most of them have significance if we understand their original intent. If we can think of Krishna as representative both of the supreme divine energy in the universe as well as the higher human self, and Arjuna as standing for you and me and every sincere individual who is seeking guidance and self-mastery, we shall have no difficulty in finding our way through the Gita.
Tom -- What you have just said strikes me as most important to keep in the background of our thinking when we read any of the world's epics. For instance, take the Iliad of Homer; there actually was a defeat of Troy, historically speaking, but the general idea of the Iliad has little if anything to do with Troy; and, for that matter, its similarity with some of the Hindu stories as found in the Mahabharata is so marked that many of our Western scholars have called the latter the Iliad of the East. The point I am trying to make is that there may well have been an actual physical battle between two peoples to which the Gita alludes; but whether or not such a war took place, it is pretty obvious, as you say, that the author merely uses it as a prop or stage-setting in order to impart certain spiritual principles.
Chairman -- Principles which are universal and therefore as relevant today as they have ever been, whether it is Homer who sings of them in his immortal poems, or the sage Vyasa who uses the figure of the avatara Krishna to deliver this divine message. It is the same old story: who or what Vyasa was and when he lived, no one knows, any more than we shall ever know who or what Homer was and at what archaic period he wandered over the hills of Greece. What is of value are the essential spiritual truths which have been preserved not only in the sacred literatures and epics of the world but in the universal language of symbol, legend, and myth.
Harry -- Is there any danger of feeling that we can win this battle, and then divorce or separate ourselves from those we are fighting? Aren't those lower elements also part of ourselves, and don't they too have to learn something from this encounter?
Chairman -- We can never divorce or separate ourselves from any portion of the universe. All is part of the divine economy, and without question the material elements of our nature are as essential to the overall plan of nature as are the spiritual. How could we possibly "slay" the opposing forces on the plain of the Kurus, those qualities of character which are now beneath our present stature, unless at the same time we gave them a push upwards?
Every step of the way in our endeavor to search out the goodness and the truth in all our experiences, we have the opportunity to transmute the unprogressed elements in our nature. Whenever we succeed even in a small degree in casting off the dominion of our lower desires, to that degree do we "slay" or cast off the outer shell in which they are encased and by so much release the spirit that animates them. Don't you remember what Krishna told Arjuna in the first portion of this chapter about the imperishable essence of divinity that enlivens every atom of the universe, and that regardless of who or what was "slain" or what happened to the mortal frames, always the unit of divine consciousness was deathless and eternal?
Frank -- That is a marvelous concept, and Emerson must have had this particular portion of the Gita in mind when he wrote his poem called "Brahma." I can't remember all the verses, but the first two run something like this:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.
The thought that shame and fame, shadow and sunlight, are the same in essence to Brahma or Krishna is a source of immense encouragement. It makes you realize that it is not failure to win that is important, but the failure to "arise and fight" that is the real "sin," as Krishna puts it.
Chairman -- I am glad you said "in essence," because wrong action is never right action. But it is true, as Emerson understood perfectly, that shadow and sunlight are one in essence, because within both matter and spirit resides the identic fire of divine intelligence. Coming back to Harry's question: as Arjunas we have a serious responsibility to the "opposing army" of our former thoughts and deeds which now and then seem to take on demoniacal form to tempt and drag us down. But every time we meet them squarely on their own field, not only do we give ourselves a mighty push forward, but in direct proportion to our own growth do we elevate the vast army of lives that build the material elements of nature -- both human and cosmic.
Do you realize that every single atom of our constitution will not only circulate in and through all the layers of material and spiritual substance which comprise us, but will likewise make a circuit in and out of the entire solar system? Moreover, in its wanderings to the sun and back each one of our millions of atoms will mingle with countless other atoms belonging to all the kingdoms of nature, not only the human. We have indeed a great responsibility.
Thus there can be no question of our "winning" or getting to "heaven," and then divorcing ourselves from our own opposing army. All the elements and forces which play through us are equally vital and essential to our growth. All must live and move in their own sphere of experience. We can feel assured, however, that as we rise steadily on the scale of progress, so will they advance. It is a beautiful pattern: all for one, and one for all. If it is a fact that every single monadic unit less evolved than we is on the way to becoming a human being -- in other words, that the human kingdom does in truth stand midway between the highest gods and the lowest of elemental lives -- then truly there is a continuance of responsibility up and down the gamut of evolution. What then is to prevent our own godspark in the distant ages of the future finding its "natural duty" in and through a stellar organism, with our whole constitution evolved and functioning in full harmony with nature's cosmic pattern? While we cannot push this thought too far, it does suggest we will always bear the full onus of responsibility to spiritualize rather than materialize every portion of our nature.
Martha -- May I put in a word here? Speaking of the two sides that are ever with us, the material and the spiritual, won't the struggle go on forever, almost like two gremlins within us each trying to win? Even Krishna recognizes this, it seems, as he gives Arjuna a kind of pep talk. At one moment he is appealing to his pride and offers a reward -- either heaven or a kingdom on earth -- yet almost in the same breath he points to deep truths.
Chairman -- No matter how many conquests we make, the struggle for more light will continue all along the way. But if by the divine power that is attempting to guide us through the medium of our own Krishna or higher self we can transmute our own thought-force and emotional habits by "slaying" their hold on us, we will in time find the "door of heaven" wide open before us. But what is this heaven that Krishna speaks of? Nothing more nor less than an expansion of consciousness. Once we get that broadened concept, and realize that we shall never be relieved of the need constantly to be forearmed, we will begin to find our way with increased confidence. The real task is the transmutation or alchemicalization of our own consciousness. Hazel, were you wanting to say something?
Hazel -- Yes, I have been thinking while you were speaking of the old myths which usually have a prince as hero who must prove his valor, first by success in extraordinary exploits, and finally by slaying a dragon or other fearful monster. Once he proves his invincibility against the dragon and various forms of temptation, he then receives a kingdom to rule over with a lovely princess; and often the very creatures which opposed are transmuted into loyal and devoted helpers.
Chairman -- In other words, with his bride and the world before him, the door of heaven does indeed seem wide open, and his opposing army of lower tendencies now slain has become his fortification and strength. That is an excellent contribution because it points up the universal foundation of these mythological statements that we find in all the epics and ancient legends. Certainly the heaven of the Gita is not a locality or static place, something like the Isles of the Blessed or an angelic paradise, but is obviously that clearer perception that always accompanies each victory.
Trudy -- Could you say then that our opponents become our allies, in the sense that those qualities are now working for us?
Chairman -- Instead of dragging us away from our true goal? Why not, except perhaps they do not become our allies so much as they strengthen and contribute their vital essence to the immortal element within us.
Mabel -- But is the victory ever complete, as the very foes we would vanquish seem always to take another and more subtle form? I have thought that Krishna's injunction to Arjuna to make "pleasure and pain, victory or defeat" the same before preparing for the battle may in itself be a protection in that it would tend to forestall our building up a sort of spiritual pride just because we may have won some kind of victory. So often the victory after all seems a false one, as we find the same old foes still alive and troubling us.
Chairman -- We cannot expect to gain mastery overnight. Ultimate victory is not to the swift, but to those who steadfastly refuse to be defeated. What if the foes do return again and again, in this or that form? The very fact that we recognize them as such is a sign of progress. The more subtle they are, obviously the more dangerous; but they would not take that finer form unless we had already conquered them on the more material plane, and that in itself is a victory.
Let us not seek to do battle, however, nor worry overmuch whether the end result appears to be victory or defeat. There can be no real failure if we never give up.
It all resolves itself into the simplest of rules: let us do the duty that karma and our higher self have shown is ours, and we shall find ourselves one of "fortune's favored soldiers." As we become stronger and more resistant to the opposing army of our unprogressed nature, the "flying arrows" may indeed thicken and our despondency at times deepen. But always we can take courage anew and "prepare for battle." To the degree that we allow the Warrior within to take command, to that degree will we gain not only the "open door to heaven" in an expansion of insight, but we will have achieved a far greater clarity as to our own "natural duty" in the field of our daily karma.
We can begin to see now why so many have said that the first two chapters of the Gita contain the root and seed of philosophic wisdom!