A hundred years ago a wise old professor of mine recommended reading The Bhagavad Gita. I put it on my “to read” list but only read it yesterday. The reading was prompted by another, The Razor’s Edge, in which a pilgrim finds his way through books to enlightenment. Among them was the Upanishads, of which the Gita is considered a beautiful and accessible work. Of course I do not presume to “review” the Gita, but offer this brief reader’s response to it.
The Gita is the story of Arjuna, an Indian prince the night before battle. A powerful army has gathered to deny his rightful claim to the throne. He does not want to fight because the army contains members of his family. He receives counsel from Krishna, an apparent charioteer but in fact Lord Vishu, greatest of the Indian gods. The battle is a metaphor for the spirtual struggle, and Krishna provides personal guidance on the paths to enlightenment.
Enlightenment. Is it possible? I do not find it difficult to defend a world view that does not include a higher order or design, but I do so with diminishing conviction. There is sufficient complexity to evolution in a modern sense to explain a moral life, goodness for one’s people and future generations. Still, evolution is a downward-up drive. Up to where? If there is no higher order, is there only complexity expanding into entropy? I sometimes wonder if the brain of the atheist must finally collapse. The Gita speaks of shradda. Wrong shradda is sinking with the downward pull of our evolutionary past, not evil, only ignorant, leading to failure. Right shradda is consistent with the upward thrust of evolution, yielding better results. Easwaran says that shradda is more than faith, it is the belief system that defines a life, “One person with a serious illness believes he has a contribution to make to the world and so he recovers; another believes his life is worthless and he dies: that is the power of shradda.”
The Gita is not heavy with theology. Krishna explains that there are two main paths, one of knowledge and meditation for the few who prefer a life of solitude and contemplation. The more likely path is that of love and service, the path of action suited to most of us who prefer to live among others in the world. The paths ultimately reach the same end. A core message of Eastern philosophy is the impermanence of the ego, the illusion of a soul. “The ego’s job is to go on incessantly spinning the wheel of the mind and making new karma-pots: new ideas to act on, fresh desires to pursue.” Solitude gives a taste of egolessness since there are no other egos to bump against. The path of action exhausts the ego, yielding the same result. It is this path of action that Krisha recommends to Arjuna, faced with his difficult situation. Conditionality is our existence and Arjuna cannot escape the battle that is before him.
Arjuna must face his fears, but that is not the last word. A recurring theme in the Gita is to renounce attachment to the outcomes of our actions. We choose only our actions, and should make each act with care, an act of worship, an offering, but the results are beyond our control and should not engage us. It is the calculus of the serenity prayer, more familiar to modern readers.