Bhagavadgita and Contemporary Crisis
Bhagavadgita has this uniqueness that, unlike other great religious books of the world, it does not stand apart as a work by itself. It is given as an episode in an epic history of India and of a great war fought in it. This episode focuses on a critical moment in the soul of one of the leading personages of this epic history, Mahabharata. It is also a moment of the crowning action of his life, where he faces a work which is terrible, violent and sanguinary. And he is confronted with a critical choice when he must either recoil from it altogether or carry it through to its inexorable execution. The criticality of the Situation forces this great leader, Arjuna, to raise some of the deepest questions that compel an answer at the deepest level. The answer that we find in the Bhagavadgita is, therefore, important not merely in the light of general philosophy or ethical doctrine, but it has also a bearing upon a practical crisis and the application of the highest knowledge to human life.
The reason why the Bhagavadgita reads almost as fresh and still in its real substance even today as ever is because it is directly connected with the questions of highest importance in human life and attempts to apply the most absolute and integral realisation to the outer actualities of man's life and action. The relevance of the a has been in a sense perennial right from the time it
first appeared or was written into the frame of the Mahabharata. But considering that humanity is passing today through a grim and unprecedented crisis, we are bound to look into this great book with fresh eyes and compelling concern. It has been said sometimes that all we need to do is to be found in the Gita today. This is we must say, an exaggeration and if we took that view too literally, it would encourage the superstition of the book. The highest truth, we might say, is infinite and cannot be circumscribed in that manner. While approaching the Gita or any other similar great work, we must be ready to accept that Truth is everywhere and cannot be the sole monopoly of one single book. It will also be dogmatic to declare that the truth that this book gives is the supreme knowledge, while some similar books have missed it or only imperfectly grasped it. Our approach should be impartial and our concern should be to look for the actual living truths that the Gita or any other similar work contains, to extract from it what can help us or the world at large. As students of life and seekers of the science and art of life, we should avoid academic disputation or assertions of mere theological dogma.
An impartial study of the Gita will show that it contains a very rich and many-sided thought, it manifests a synthetic grasp of different aspects of the ethical and Spiritual life, and that it takes us to some of the highest possible experiences of which human mind is capable. It can even be said that it contains most of the main clues of the secret of reconciliation of the supreme states of consciousness and dynamic demands of the battles of life in which we find ourselves all the time, but particularly, at critical moments.
The setting in which the teaching of the Gita emerges is typical. The setting is that the Kurukshetra, the field of battle, which is also the battle of life, the battle that
we face in our life, visibly or invisibly, in our own times. Arjuna, the leading hero of the battle, is the representative man of the great world struggle, and he typifies the human soul of action brought face to face through that action in its highest and most violent crisis. And the crisis itself is ridden with the problem of human life where all standards of action fall and where a new basis of the action must be found at any cost. As we all know, the crisis that gripped Arjuna can come upon any one of us, and if we examine the contemporary Situation we can clearly see how we ourselves are gripped by that crisis. Perhaps the dimensions of our crisis are even deeper and vaster.
It has sometimes been suggested that the crisis of Arjuna arose because, confronted with his duty, he felt compulsion of emotions is and ideas which induced him to escape from his duty and to take resort to the gospel of renunciation of worldly pursuits and actions. This is a misreading of Arjuna's crisis. It cannot be said that Arjuna did not know his duty as a kshatriya or as a warrior whose aim was to ensure the rule of the right and justice. Butt his crisis arose from the fact that he saw an inextricable clash of the various related conceptions of duty; one concept clashing with another concept; one level or perception clashing with another level of perception. In other words, Arjuna's crisis arose from the collapse of the whole intellectual and moral edifice erected by the human mind. Arjuna knew that "is duty was to fight, but what happens when that duty becomes to his mind a terrible sin? He knew that he had right on his side, but that does not and cannot satisfy him because, as he argues, the justice of his legal claim does not justify him in supporting it by pitiless massacre destructive of the future of a nation. He feels that he must refrain from what his conscience abhors, though a thousand duties were shattered to pieces. And
yet; who knows or how to know whether one should follow one or the other, the first alternative or the second alternative? Is there, it is effectively asked, a possible compromise or a radical solution?
There are several possible answers, and we find them all presented during the course of the answer that any that Sri Krishna presents. One answer is that of the performance of the social duty imposed by the creed of the Aryan fighter. Another answer is that the spiritualised ethics, which insists on ahimsa, on non-injuring and non- killing. According to the argument of this answer, the battle, if it is to be fought at all, must be fought on the spiritual plane and by some kind of non-resistance or refusal of participation. It may also advocate participation in the battle by taking recourse to non- violence and to soul resistance. (Non-violence has been consider-ed by Sri Krishna as one of the divine gifts.¹) It may be that the soul resistance does not succeed on the external plane and the force of injustice conquers; even then, the argument would be that the individual will still have preserved his virtue and vindicated by his example the highest ideals. In a third possible answer, one may advocate a more insistent extreme of the inner Spiritual direction, passing beyond this struggle between social duty and an absolutist ethical ideal; one would then favour the ascetic turn which points to get away from life and all its aims and standards of action, declaring that not here in this world of dualities but somewhere in celestial or supra-cosmic stage, one can find an effective exit from the problem. The Gita rejects none of these things in their place; it insists on the performance of social duty, the following of the dharma for the man who has to take his share in the common action; it accepts ahimsa as a part of the highest spiritual-ethical ideal; it
¹ Bhagavadgita, Chapter XVI.2
recognises also the ascetic renunciation as an effective way, if not as a solution of the problem, yet as a way of coming out of the problem. But the Gita goes boldly beyond these conflicting positions. It justifies all life to the spirit, and asserts the compatibility of a complete human action and a complete spiritual life lived in reunion with the highest states of knowledge and
Let us state clearly Arjuna's arguments.
In thee first place, Arjuna argued that he would like to reject that aim of life which seeks enjoyment and happiness.
Secondly, he declared that he would reject the aim which seeks to attain victory and rule and power and government of men, — the aim that was described in the Indian dharma for the kshatriya, the man of power and action.
Thirdly, he rejected the ethical element that was the main spring of the entire preparation for the war. His arguments in this connection could be summarised as follows:
(a) What exactly is "justice" involved in fighting the war that was about to commence? Was it not, he asked, interest of himself, his brothers, and of his party for possession, enjoyment and rule? And even if it be granted. that these aims were justified, he raised the question as to what would be the means for securing that justice. Would it not mean, he asked, the sacrifice of the right maintenance of social and national life which in person of the kin of the race stood before him opposing him in the battlefield?
(b) Turning to another line of argument, Arjuna felt. that even if happiness and life were desirable, they were so only if they were shared with all others, particularly with "our own people". But here, Arjuna argued, "our own people" are to be slain, and who would consent to slay them for the sake of all the earth and even for the kingdom of the three worlds?
(c) At this stage, Arjuna formulated even a more fundamental objection. He declared that slaughter is a heinous crime, in which there is no right and no justice. And further, the sin became graver when those who were to be slain were objects of love and reverence.
(d) Formulating this ethical argument further, Arjuna conceded that the sons of Dhritarashtra were guilty of grave offences, of sins of greed, and selfish passion, but he argued that they were overpowered by ignorance and they had no sense of guilt. On the other hand, would it be right, he asked in effect, to enter into a sinful act voluntarily with a clear knowledge that sin was to be committed?
(e) Once again, Arjuna brought in another ethical consideration. Even if a sin was to be committed, and even if that could be justified in one way or the other, how could it be justified if that leads to the destruction of family morality, social law, law of the nation? Arjuna declared that the family itself would be corrupted, race would be sallied, laws of race, morality, and family would be destroyed. And who would be responsible for these crimes? Indeed, those, in particular, who would enter into the war with the knowledge and sense of guilt and sin.
These arguments led Arjuna to declare that he would not fight.
The most salutary thing that Arjuna did was, however, to turn to Sri Krishna with deep humility for advice. Like a pupil, he sought from Sri Krishna some decisive word by which his confusion could be dispelled and he could be enabled to act in the right way. And Sri Krishna's help was unfailing.
Sri Krishna perceived clearly that behind the refusal of Arjuna was a mixture and confusion and that there was a tangled error of ideas and impulsions of the sattvic, rajasic and tamasic ego. He also perceived that Arjuna was overcome by the fear of sin and its personal consequences and that his heart had recoiled from consequences and that his heart had recoiled from individual grief and suffering. Sri Krishna also detected that Arjuna's reasoning was an attempt to cover his egoistic impulses by self-deceptive specious pleas of right and virtue.
In the first brief reply, Sri Krishna referred to the highest ideas of the general Aryan culture in which Arjuna had been educated. In that context, Sri Krishna pointed out, "There is no greater good for a kshatriya than a righteous battle and if thou dost not this battle for the right, then thou hast abandoned they duty and virtue and thy glory and sin shall be thy portion."²
With reference to Arjuna's appeal to the consequences of action, Sri Krishna pointed out that if he (Arjuna) were to be slain in the battle, he would win Heaven and if he were to be victorious, he would enjoy the earth. Therefore arise", asked Sri Krishna, "resolved upon battle. "³
Sri Krishna was, however, aware that this answer would not satisfy Arjuna for he was thinking of the slaughter of the battle as a cause of sorrow and sin. Sri
² Bhagavadgita, Chapter 11.31, 33.
³ Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 11.37
Krishna, therefore, asked Arjuna to rise to a higher and not sink to a lower ideal. In doing so, Sri Krishna distinguishes the path of renunciation which leads to inaction and that path of renunciation which leads to inner freedom even in the midst of performance of action. While admitting the effectivity of the first alternative, Sri Krishna explains why the latter is preferable. In that context, Sri Krishna told him:
"Know thyself, and source of thyself; help man and protect Right; do without fear or weakness or faltering thy work of battle in the world. Look not at thy own pleasure and gain and profit but above and around, " above at the shining summits and around on this world of battle and trial in which good and evil, progress and retrogression are locked in stern conflict. Destroy, when by destruction the world must advance but hate not which thou destroyest, neither grieve for those who perish. Know everywhere the one Self, know all to be immortal souls and the body to be but dust. Do thy work with a calm, strong and equal spirit; fight and fall nobly or conquering mightily. For this is the work that God and thy nature (swabhava and swadharma) have given to thee to accomplish."
This higher answer of Sri Krishna consists of three Steps:
(a) Realise that one has the right to action but not to consequences; hence one should give up desire for the fruits of action;
(b) Realise, in a larger vision of the world, that even in regard to action, there is a mutual giving and receiving, and all action must be a part of one's sacrifice
to cosmic powers, who in return, sacrifice themselves for the production of action;
(c) Sacrifice done with knowledge is the highest sacrifice and that alone brings the perfect working.
It is at this stage that one begins to realise that one should do one's action, but not by impulsion of desire and ego-sense; one should discover the impersonal Will that is at work behind the universe, a Will that does not proceed from desire to acquire and possess, but which proceeds from inner fullness of being as an expression of inner unity.
The Will that proceeds from inner unity manifests unity in the outer world; the unity of the world is lokasangrah, holding together of the people.
The solution that Sri Krishna presents has three layers; at each layer, Sri Krishna presents a secret, a secret not of outward conduct or of any belief which can be easily but vainly practised by the ethical or religious mentality, but of a living transformation of Consciousness attain-able by application of the truths of higher possibilities of psychology. The first secret, guhyam rahasyam, is to find out how the field of circumstances in which one is placed can be apprehended or comprehended and mastered. This secret is the knowledge of the distinction between the field of circumstances and the knower of the field, kshetra and kshetrajna. There is behind and above the field of circumstances the secret conscious-ness that can be experienced as a silent witness, purusha or as a transcendental immobility, Brahman or as the controlling and ruling giver of sanction and master, anumanta and ishwara. One of these experiences or all of them together can provide a sure basis of freedom from the tangles of the problems that the field of
circumstances and the battle of life present to us by means of an interplay of the three gunas of Nature sattwa, rajas, and tamas. But at this level of experience, although there is here freedom from action and its Problems, one does not yet have the key to the freedom of action, freedom in action and freedom to disentangle the knots from the problems and their gripping? difficulties. For that we need to have a deeper secret guhyataram rahasyam, the secret of the origin of Nature in a higher Nature, the origin of apara prakriti in the Para prakriti, where is also to be found the origin of multiple individualities which are the centres of the Supreme Self, Purushottama, who at once reconciles and synthesises the Status of Purusha, Brahman and Ishwara. And the knowledge of this higher Nature not only librates us from the tangle of Nature, but gives us also the capacity to harmonise various threads of Nature which would even allow the transmission of the dynamic and creative action that would resolve the knots and problems of all our activities of life. This is the knowledge by which the cognitive, affective and conative powers of our psychology can be perfected and synthesis of karmayoga, jnanayoga and bhaktiyoga can be effected. But there is still a culmination of this deeper secret; there is still the deepest secret, guhyatamam rahasyam. This secret is that of the possibility of the transmutation of lower nature by higher nature, of the attainment of sadharmyam, where human law of action is substituted by the divine law of action. And the secret method is to move at a stage where all that one is or one has is reposed unconditionally in the hands and in the being of the Supreme, as a result of which all that flows through the individuality is the incorruptible breath of the Supreme which unites the Truth, Beauty and Goodness and constantly creates conditions suitable for the unity and harmony of the people, lokasangraha.
In terms of our dealings with action in the process of rising out of the human into the higher and highest planes, there are three great steps. In the first step, there is insistence on renunciation of desire and a perfect equality even when works are performed; but works have to be done as a sacrifice, yajna. In the second step, there is not only the renunciation of the desire of the fruits of actions but also the renunciation of the claim to be the doer of works in the realisation of the Self as the equal and the immutable principle and of all works as simply the Operation of universal Force of the prakriti. In the last step, the Supreme Self is to be seen as the governor of prakriti, both lower and higher, of whom the individual self is a partial manifestation, by whom all works are directed, in a perfect transcendence through Nature. Here whole being has to be surrendered to the Supreme and the whole consciousness raised up to dwell in this divine consciousness so that the human soul may share in His Divine transcendence and act in a perfect Spiritual liberty.
Sri Aurobindo sums up the entire core of the teaching in the following words:
"The first step is Karmayoga, the selfless sacrifice of works, and here the Gita's insistence is on action. The second is Jnanayoga, the self-realisation and knowledge of the true nature of the self and the world, and here the "insistence is on knowledge; but the sacrifice of works continues and the path of Works becomes one with but does not disappear into the path of Knowledge. The last step is Bhaktiyoga, adoration and seeking of the supreme Self as the Divine Being, and here the "insistence is on devotion; but the knowledge is not subordinated, only raised, vitalised and fulfilled, and still the sacrifice of works continues; the double path becomes the triune way of knowledge, works and
devotion. And the fruit of the sacrifice, the one fruit still placed before the seeker, is attained, union with the divine Being and oneness with the supreme divine Nature."4
The solution that is offered by the Gita can be found applicable also to the contemporary crisis, if not fully in all details, but still by employing all the clues that are given here. Whereas the kshetra of the Gita was the local field of a large but still local battle, the present world has become, since the outbreak of the First World War, a global field of global war, whether that War breaks out in world-wide physical configuration or it remains simmering in conditions of a cold war, or else burning in the minds of men, as it is today, with huge piles of nuclear warheads that have the potentiality of destroying the world many times again and again. The kshetra of today is also great battle with the entire nature and environment which is being constantly eroded and, as it is feared, which might endanger the survival of various species including the human species. Just as Arjuna was the lead personage of kshetra desirous of protecting and establishing the Claims of the right and justice, even so, each one of us is, if not a leading personage, at least a participating solider in the army of men and women all over the world who are filled with aspiration to uphold the causes of survival, peace and unity, and also engaged in one way or the other in the battle to fulfil that aspiration.
Just as Arjuna felt gripped by the sense of crisis, we too feel gripped by a sense of crisis. We belong to that stage of human progress which Stands today intellectually sceptical, morally weakened and spiritually bankrupt. We started with the Renaissance with the
4 Sri Aurobindo: Collected Works, Vol. 13, Centenary Edition, p35
affirmation that Truth can be discovered by pure Reason and that truth can be known with certainty. After numerous experimentations, we are still debating the notion of the Truth and the only certainty we have is that all knowledge is only probable in character. We began at that time with the idea that human life can be lived in harmony with effectivity and fruitfulness because both the individuals and the collectivity can be harmonised by the ethical and social principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Today we find increasing force of the idea that morality is a matter of emotional responses and that there is no rational justification for one set of moral values against the other. Again, after various experimentations, we have found that when liberty is promoted, equality has to be sacrificed; and when equality is to be promoted, liberty requires to be strangulated; and fraternity has as yet no chance of flowering except in terms of Sovietic comradeship or capitalistic association of interests. As far as spirituality is concerned, while India had the knowledge but lost it and compounded this loss by neglecting Life and matter, in spite of the fact that for a long period it had cultivated to great heights material and cultural efflorescence, the West has the knowledge of matter and life, but in spite of having a powerful tradition of spirituality neglected spirit; as a result, there is today deplorable Spiritual poverty or even bankruptcy. The total result is that of uncertainty, confusion and incapacity to answer the dilemmas of life. There is a collapse of the edifice of Standards of action, and one does not know in what direction and how we should move forward.
Time has come when it is perfectly possible for humanity to develop a comprehensive and integral culture where both spirit and matter can join together and create a spiritualised society that can at last answer to the perennial aspiration of humanity expressed in
terms of a new earth and a new heaven, of the City God and of the Kingdom of God on the earth. But precisely at this time, the crisis can be seen acutely in the fact that rational powers which can be a powerful lever to uplift humanity from its lower aims and pursuits to higher heights of ethical and Spiritual objects, are today gripped by the currents of scepticism and disabling compromises that build up arguments against the upward effort to break the limitations of the modes and structures of life that have been built up. The major difficulty of the present modes and structures of life is the machinery of standardisation, mechanisation, and dehumanisation. A structure has been raised up in the Services of the mental, vital, physical Claims and urges and this structure has become so huge that it is un- manageable; it is a structure of great complexity meant to provide political, social, administrative, economic and cultural machinery; and its focus is on providing collective means for intellectual, sensational, aesthetic and material satisfactions. This System of civilisation has become too big for the limited mental capacity and understanding and for the still more' limited Spiritual and moral capacity; it has become a too dangerous servant of the blundering ego and its appetites.
At a time when an upward effort towards the ethical and Spiritual perfection is both possible and imperative, just at that time, means have been made available readily to humanity for it to create and sustain machineries which can keep it arrested by the downward gravitational pull of animal desires and satisfactions.
What is needed is the transition of humanity from the pulls of lower nature towards the liberating powers of higher nature, the transition from apara prakriti to para prakriti to use the suggestive words of the Bhagavadgita. The solution that has been suggested
by the Bhagavadgita by means of which the needed transition can be effected is directly relevant to it. It is that while the Bhagavadgita has described in full the path, it has only hinted at the perfect fulfilment and the secret of it. For, the fulfilment is, in any case, a method of experience and no teaching can express it. It cannot be described in a way that can really be understood when we have not yet entered into the portals of the effulgent transmuting experience. And yet, Gita's secret of dynamic, and not only static identity with the inner Presence, its highest mystery of absolute surrender to the Divine Guide, is the central secret. It is by pursuit of this secret that the needed change can be effected, and it is by the pursuit of this path that the crisis of humanity can be resolved.
Fortunately, what is needed is a decisive turn in humanity and even if the major changes that we expect can take a long time before fruition, if we are moved by the conviction that it is for the upward movement whereby human life can be transformed, we shall have contributed to the decisive beginning that is of capital importance. Fortunately, again, the aspiration to move upward seems to be gathering the force of burning fire, and both in the East and in the West, experiences of the new realms of Spiritual and supramental manifestation seem to be breaking a new ground. Therefore, even though the path is difficult and obstacles are "formidable, we need not fear to aspire and to work for the triumph of the Divine Will in securing for the earth a life of liberty suffused with the spirit of fraternity and designed for equal upliftment of all members of the "human society.
At tile same time, we need to underline the imperative need of constant effort of research in a s ant enlargement of horizons of knowledge.
Knowledge is always power, and it is the constant journey of developing knowledge that will give us increasing powers to break our limitations which would enable us not only to survive but also to arrive at the highest goals that humanity can conceive.
We stand today at the head of a new age which is bound to be marked by a very vast synthesis. A mass of new material is flowing into us. We are required to assimilate the influences of the great theistic religions of India and similarly of the great theistic religions of the world; we have also to assimilate the recovered sense of the meaning of Buddhism. Relevance of Jainism has also to be underlined. We have to take into account the potent, though limited, revelations of modern knowledge and seeking. A fresh and widely embracing harmonisation of our gains in both intellectual and spiritual areas is the necessity of the future. In the task of this comprehensive harmonisation, the understanding of the Gita and its contemporary relevance is perhaps one of our major needs.
Let us recall a Vedic prayer which inspires discovery of new knowledge:
युगेयुगे विदध्यं गृणद्भ्योऽग्ने रयिं यशसं धेहि नव्यसीम्। 5
"Found for those who from age to age speak the word that is new, the word that is a discovery of knowledge, O Fire, their glorious treasure."