“O King, as I repeatedly recall this wondrous and holy dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, I take pleasure, being thrilled at every moment.” (Sanjaya speaking to Dhritarashtra, Bhagavad-gita, 18.76)Download this episode (right click and save)
That which is learned easily, becomes forgotten easily in due course of time. That which is learned with great difficulty tends to remain. This only makes sense. If I am cramming for an exam, the night before I will likely memorize as much as I can. This way I will be prepared for the questions asked. As soon as the exam is over, I have no need to retain the information. On the other side, if I really learned the principles through hard work, challenging myself in the process, it will be more difficult to forget.
One of the most widely read philosophical books in history is the Bhagavad-gita. The title consists of Sanskrit words, but the interest spans far beyond those whose origins are India and Hindu culture. The book has been translated many times, with varieties of commentaries as well.
What are the key takeaways? What are the essential things to remember? The philosophical points aren’t so easy to learn, as sometimes people spend a lifetime studying the work and still remain amazed at the profound wisdom contained within.
1. Life is a struggle
This was likely the suspicion prior to reading the book. Even in the general approach towards the Divine, one of the common causes is distress. Krishna mentions this in the discussion with Arjuna.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me - the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
The struggle through life is touched upon directly. The living things around us, from large to small, are sparks of the spiritual energy. The Sanskrit word is amsha. Those amshas come from mam, or “me.” The “me” referred to is Krishna. Krishna is Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.7)
If we come from God, why should we struggle? The reason is the six senses, which include the mind, interacting with the material realm. The interaction leads to forgetfulness. We sink so low in that direction that we completely forget our eternal relationship with Krishna, who is all-bliss.
2. Birth and death occur in cycles
Doubt pertaining to the end of life is the spark that ignites the conversation. Arjuna is a bow warrior, and he is ready to lead his side to victory in a great war. The outcome isn’t known for sure beforehand, so there is some worry over how the opponents will be conquered. Still, Arjuna is pretty confident that his side will win.
That is the issue. Arjuna doesn’t want to kill people who are near and dear to him, who happen to be on the wrong side in the conflict. Arjuna is contemplating dropping his weapons and abandoning the battlefield. Let the rivals rule over the kingdom, even if it doesn’t belong to them.
Krishna begins the discussion by pointing out the true nature of life and death. Birth and the subsequent end of life occur in cycles. The spirit soul, the vital force living within, never gets killed. It is impossible to kill a soul, just as it is impossible to give birth to it. What constantly changes is the body, which consists of matter.
“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.11)
So from whatever angle you view things, there is no reason to lament death. As an atheist, if you think the body is just chemicals, why are you lamenting over the destruction of chemicals that was inevitable to begin with? As a theist, you know that the soul lives on after death, so what is there to worry about?
3. Everyone has to work
The spiritualist is superior, right? They don’t get entangled in action and reaction, which is karma. They are above it all. That is true in a sense, except everyone has to work. No one can escape it; not even for a second.
“All men are forced to act helplessly according to the impulses born of the modes of material nature; therefore no one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.5)
Thus quitting alone doesn’t make you superior. You could still be attached to the material body, indicating ignorance. It is the nature of the work that matters. Arjuna had a job to do. It was his duty to uphold dharma, or righteousness. By choosing kama instead, he was letting material desire get in the way of what was beneficial to both him and the people who looked to him for protection.
4. God will protect
So many different people. So many desires. So many ways to go about attaining those desires. For this reason many dharmas exist. A common translation for that Sanskrit word is “religion,” but dharma is more than just faith. It is a way of life, corresponding with the essential characteristic of something.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)
Krishna advises Arjuna to abandon all dharmas and just surrender unto Him. This comes at the very end of their conversation. The timing is intentional. Lay every option on the table. Make the cases for materialism, mysticism, and empirical knowledge. Go through the various scenarios. Slash away any doubts that may remain. Then drop the most important instruction, that the nuances don’t really matter. Just surrender to God and you will be protected. He will ensure the proper outcome. Relax, do what you have to do, and dedicate everything to Him.
5. Bhakta and Bhagavan
This is the essence of the Bhagavad-gita. If all a person can remember is this important pair, then they don’t even require reading the book. From holding it in the hands a person can remember Arjuna and Krishna from that famous day, seated on the chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
A story from Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastimes gives confirmation. One time there was an illiterate person trying to read Bhagavad-gita. Others were laughing at the man. Chaitanya asked him why he had tears in his eyes, even though he couldn’t read. The man responded that just by holding the book he remembered Krishna and Arjuna. He particularly recalled how kind God is towards His devotees. In this case Krishna acted as the charioteer, which is typically a subordinate position. That kindness from God brought tears to the man’s eyes. Chaitanya then said that the man’s understanding of Bhagavad-gita was perfect.
Birth and death in cycle to occur,
Suspicion of life’s miseries to concur.
Work according to nature you’ve got,
Better than abruptly to stop.
These from Bhagavad-gita learn,
Knowledge from page’s every turn.
Devotee and Supreme Lord the pair,
Perfect understanding when of those aware.