Most of us have heard the story of the centipede who, when asked how he managed to walk with so many legs, could no longer do so, but tangled his legs hopelessly in the attempt to intellectually figure it out and ended up on his back, helpless. This is not unlike the person who attempts to plumb the depths of oriental scriptures. Right away it becomes evident that they consist of incalculable layers, nearly all symbolic in nature. Furthermore, the meanings of the symbols are not consistent, changing according to the levels on which they occur. For example, on one level water symbolizes the mind, on another level the constant flux of samsara, and on another the subtle life-currents known as prana. This being the case, our Western linear mode of thought becomes as entangled and disabled as the fabled centipede. Knowing this to be so, I have decided to avoid the Lorelei of subtle symbolism and concentrate instead on the obviously practical side of Krishna teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. Having stated this, in complete consistency with oriental thought, I shall contradict myself and consider the symbolism encountered in the first chapter of the Gita.
We find ourselves on Kurukshetra, a field of impending battle. It is not as vast as our Hollywood-epic-shaped minds might imagine, as can be seen for oneself by a visit to Kurukshetra, now also a sizeable modern city in Northern India, not very far from Delhi. At one end is a hillock topped with a great tree under which the visitor finds a life-sized reproduction in marble of the type of chariot used in the battle. This is the vantage point from which Arjuna, the great warrior, and Sri Krishna looked out over the field. Today its tranquillity is charming, despite the strong feeling in the air that something tremendously momentous occurred there in the distant past. It is both awesome and soothing.
For background information regarding how the battleground came to be thronged with soldiers, chariots, elephants and the other paraphernalia of a deadly war, see the introductory essay, “Gita and Mahabharata” in Swami Prabhavananda’s unparalleled translation The Song of God. This is the translation I will be using in these essays on the Gita. Suffice it to say that the two opposing armies are very easy to morally identify. The Kauravas, led by the murderous Prince Duryodhana, are fundamentally evil, although many honorable men have, through various complicated alliances and obligations, found themselves among their ranks. The Pandavas, headed by the virtuous and noble Yudhisthira, the eldest brother of Arjuna, are embodiments of all that is good, among them being the divine Sri Krishna himself who chose to be the charioteer of Arjuna.
The symbolism is not very hard to figure out (leaving aside the complex matter of assigning a symbolic meaning to every person named in the battle narrative). Kurukshetra is the personality-particularly the mind (intellect)-of the individual, awakened seeker for higher consciousness. Such a seeker, determined to end the whirling cycle of birth and death, finds that his aspiration itself has inspired opposition from within his own mind and heart, where good and evil, truth and falsehood, ignorance and wisdom, like the Kauravas and Pandavas, have drawn themselves up in readiness for a conflict that must end in the annihilation of one side or the other. Even more daunting is the fact that much considered “good” is found lining up in support of negativity, and most of the “Pandava” side will also be blotted out in the eventual transmutation of the individual into a higher state of being itself, much as the endearing ways of infancy and childhood must be eradicated at the advent of adulthood and replaced with completely different virtues.
In the chariot set betwixt the two armies we find Arjuna and Krishna. Many interpretations of these two pivotal figures are possible, nearly all of them correct, but the words of the Mundaka Upanishad, written long before the Gita, are certainly worthy of our attention.
“Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes.
“The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more.”
These two paragraphs are a perfect summary of the entire Gita. Arjuna is the bewildered and sorrowing atma, the individual self, and Krishna is the divine Paramatma, the Supreme Self from which the atma derives its very being and existence. Forgetful of its true nature as part of the Infinite Spirit, the finite spirit passes through countless experiences that confuse and pain it, producing utterly false conclusions that compound and perpetuate the confusion and pain. Only when the perspective of the Divine Self is entered into, can its troubles cease. We can also think of Arjuna as our lower mortal self, and Krishna as our higher immortal self. Krishna and Arjuna thus represent both God and Man and our own (presently) dual nature as mortal and immortal. Keeping this perspective before us, the ensuing dialogue which forms the Gita is to be seen both as God’s communication to human beings and the communication of our own divine self with our human self-liberation of the spirit (moksha) being their sole intention.
In the opening verse of the Gita, King Dhritarashtra, father of Prince Duryodhana, asks his minister and charioteer, Sanjaya: “Tell me, Sanjaya, what my sons and the sons of Pandu did, when they gathered on the sacred field of Kurukshetra, eager for battle?
The word Swami Prabhavananda renders “sacred field” is dharmakshetra-the field of dharma. Dharma usually means the right way of thought and action, but it can also mean the accurate expression of one’s own dominant character, for dharma also means “quality.” This entire world is a dharmakshetra, a field upon which we act out the character of our inner makeup-i.e., the quality of our emotions, mind, intellect, and will (not our ultimate being as spirit). We as individuals are each a dharmic field, expressing the actuality of our present level of evolution.
As already said, when we take stock of the inner conflict, we identify with both sides. Thinking that if they are dissolved or destroyed “we” will cease to exist, we are appalled and feel that our very existence is threatened. Then, like all human beings who do not like the truth when they see or hear it, we become “confused” and try to avoid the unpleasant prospect. Bitter as death seems the inner battle, so we shrink from it and desperately try to find a way out.
So does Arjuna. In a lengthy and impassioned monologue he presents to Krishna his ”confusion,” which is really a plea to inaction, to avoidance of conflict, thinking that such a negative condition is peace, whereas peace is a positive state, not the mere absence of unrest and conflict. It is also reached only through unrest and conflict, however little we like the fact.
Running away from spiritual obligation-and therefore spiritual life itself-is a common activity of the awakening soul, which brings all its ingenuity to bear on justification of such avoidance. Arjuna veils his aversion with words of compassion for others, when in actuality he is the sole object of his “compassion.” He simply does not wish to see others suffer because that will make him suffer-and feel guilty for their suffering. Krishna makes this clear to him. The Stoic, Epictetus, was once visited by a man who told him that he loved his daughter so much he had run from the house rather than see her suffering from illness. Carefully, gently yet firmly, Epictetus led him to understand that it was his self-love that motivated him, not love for his child.
It is the same with us; ego-involvement-addiction, actually-grips us, and we are the only ones who can free ourselves from it. And battle is the only means.
Swami Nirmalananda Giri is the abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram, a traditional Hindu monastery in the small desert town of Borrego Springs in southern California. He has written extensively on spiritual subjects, especially about meditation and about the inner, practical side of the world’s religions. More of his writings may be found at the Ashram’s website, http://www.atmajyoti.org.