NOTES ON THE BHAGAVAD-GITA
by William Brehon, The Path magazine, 1895
We assume, quite justifiably, I think, that the Bhagavad-Gita sets forth Aryan philosophy. The Aryan is white and noble in contradistinction to the black and ignoble. This book then, if Aryan, must give us a noble system of philosophy and ethics, useful not only for speculative minds but also in daily life. Whoever was the author, he, or they, compressed into a short conversation — that is, short for Indians — the essence of religion and philosophy.
The singular manner in which this conversation or lecturing or teaching came about should be first noted. It is after the very beginning of a battle, for the arrows had already begun to fly from side to side. A rain of arrows would first be thrown in before the hand-to-hand encounter began. Arjuna and Krishna are in Arjuna’s great chariot. And there, between the two armies, Arjuna asks for advice and receives it through eighteen chapters. All of this has significance.
Arjuna is man or the soul struggling to the light, and while Krishna was one of the Avatars or manifestations of God among men, he is also the Higher Self. Arjuna as man in this world of sense and matter is of necessity either always in a battle or about to begin one, and is also ever in need of advice. This he can get only in a valuable way from his Higher Self. So the singular manner of placing the conversation where it is, and of beginning it as it begins, is the only way it ought to be done.
Arjuna is the man in the life his Karma has produced, and he must fight out the battle he himself invited. Arjuna’s object was to regain a kingdom, and so each one of us may know that our fight is for a kingdom gainable only by individual effort and not by anyone’s favor.
From the remarks by Arjuna to Krishna we can perceive that the kingdom he — like ourselves — wishes to regain is the one he had in some former age upon this planet or upon some far more ancient one. He has too much insight, too much evident soul-power and wisdom to be an Ego who only for the first, or second, or third time had visited this earth. We likewise are not new. We have been here so many times that we ought to be beginning to learn. And we have not only been here, but beyond doubt those of us who are inwardly and outwardly engaged in the Theosophical movement for the good of others, have been in a similar movement before this life.
This being so, and there being yet many more lives to come, what is the reason we should in any way be downcast? The first chapter of the Book is really not only the survey of the armies, but also the despondency of the principal person — Arjuna. He grows downcast after looking over all the regiments and seeing that he had, on both sides, friends, teachers, relatives, as well as enemies. He falters because want of knowledge prevents him from seeing that the conflict and many apparent deaths are inevitable. And Krishna then proceeds to give him the true philosophy of man and the universe so that he can either fight or refrain from fighting, whichever he sees at any time the best.
Krishna leads him gradually. He plays upon his pride by telling him that if he backs out all men will say he is the most ignoble of all cowards; then he plays upon his Hindu religious teaching, telling him that a warrior must obey the rules of his caste, and fight. He does not plunge at once into high metaphysical speculation or show him occult wonders. And herein it seems to me is a good lesson for all working Theosophists. Too many of us when trying to spread forth the theosophical teaching drag the poor Arjunas we have caught right into obscure realms where Theosophists themselves know nothing at all but terminology. Krishna’s wise, practical and simple method should be followed, and much better results will be obtained. Our object is to spread theosophical philosophy as widely and quickly as possible. This cannot be done if we indulge in words and phrases far removed from daily life. What good does it do to talk about the Absolute, Parabrahm and Alaya, and to say manas when we mean mind, and kama when desire and passion are the English equivalents? It only puzzles the new enquirer, who feels that he has to learn a new language before he will be able to do anything with Theosophy. It is a good deal easier to show that the new terms can be learned afterwards.
The first chapter having introduced the practical question of life, the second is equally practical, for it directs attention at the outset to the larger and eternal life of which each incarnation is a day or a moment. For Krishna says:
“I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth; nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be. As the Lord of this mortal frame experienceth therein infancy, youth and old age, so in future incarnations will it meet the same. One who is confirmed in this belief is not disturbed by anything that may come to pass.”
Thus, continued practical existence as opposed to continued theoretical and so-called heavenly existence, and as opposed to materialistic annihilation, is declared at once. This is true immortality. The Christian Bible has no word in the original, teaching immortality such as this; and the preaching of the priests does not lean to an unselfish view of continued existence. And it is very certain that if one is fully confirmed in the knowledge of eternal life through reincarnation he is quite unlikely to be disturbed by things that disturb other people. So at the very outset the teachings of Krishna open up a tremendous vista of life, and confer a calmness most necessary for us in the fight.
The generality of men have many and widely branching objects for mental devotion. It is a devotion to sense, or to self, or to wrong belief or to improper practice. But the follower of the Bhagavad-Gita gradually comes to see that the true devotion is that which has but one object through all changes of scene, of thought, or of companionship. That object is the Self which is all in all. The Self, as object, is immovable, whereas the objects taken up by the unwise are movable and transitory.
Equal mindedness and skill in the right performance of duty are the true rules — this is yoga. This right performance of duty means themental state, for the mere performance of an act has no moral quality in it, since even a machine may be made to perform acts usually done by men. The moral quality resides in the person inside and in his presence or absence. If a human body, asleep or devoid of a soul, raised its hand and took the life of another, that would not be a crime. And oppositely the performance of a good act is no virtue unless the person within is in the right attitude of mind. Many an apparently good act is done from selfish, hypocritical, crafty or other wrong motives. These are only outwardly good. So we must attain to a proper state of mind, or mental devotion, in order to know how to skilfully perform our actions without doing so for the sake of the result; doing them because they ought to be done, because they are our duties.
Krishna warns Arjuna also against inactivity from a false view of the philosophy. This warning necessary then is so still. On hearing this teaching for the first time many say that it teaches inaction, sitting still, silence. And in India great numbers taking that view, retired from life and its duties, going into the caves and jungles away from men. Krishna says: —
“Firmly persisting in yoga perform thy duty.”
To endeavor to follow these rules empirically, without understanding the philosophy and without making the fundamental doctrines a part of oneself, will lead to nothing but disgust and failure. Hence the philosophy must be understood. It is the philosophy of Oneness or Unity. The Supreme Self is one and includes all apparent others. We delude ourselves with the idea that we are separate. We must admit that we and every other person are the Self. From this we will begin to see that we may cease to be the actor although outwardly doing every act that is right. We can cease to be the actor when we know we can withdraw ourselves from the act. Attachment to the act arises from a self-interest in the result that is to follow. It is possible for us to do these things without that self-interest, and if we are trying to follow the rule of doing our actions because they ought to be done we will at last do only that which is right to be done.
A great deal of the unhappiness of life comes from having a number of interests in results which do not come out as expected. We find people pretending to believe in Providence and to rely on the Almighty but who are continually laying down plans for those powers to follow. They are not followed, and as the poor mortal fixed his mind and heart on the result, unhappiness follows.
But there is a greater unhappiness and misery caused by acting, as is the usual way, for the sake of results. It is this that causes rebirth over and over again unendingly. It is by this that the great humdrum mass of men and women are whirled around the wheel of rebirth for ages, always suffering, because they do not know what is happening to them, and only by an accident altering the poor character of births incessantly repeated.
The mind is the actor, the person who is attached. When it is deluded it is not able to throw off the subtle chains that bind it to reincarnation. Having spent an incarnation in looking after results it is full of earthly impressions, and has made the outer skandhas very powerful. So when its stay in Devachan is at its end the old images, impressions and the powerful skandhas drag it back to another life. At the time of bodily death the mind is temporarily almost altered into the image of the dominant thought of life, and so is beside itself or insane by comparison with the sage and with what ought to be its proper state. Being so it is impossible for it either to prevent rebirth or to select and take up an incarnation with a definite end and work in the world in view.
The bearing of the teaching upon ethics is in my opinion very important. It gives a vital system as opposed to a mechanical one. We are to do our duty with the thought that we are acting for and as the Supreme Being, because that Being acts only by and through the creatures. If this be our real rule it would in time be impossible for us to do wrong, for constantly thinking thus we grow careful as to what acts we commit and are always clearing up our view of duty as we proceed.
On the other hand a mechanical code of ethics leads to error. It is convenient because any fixed code is more convenient to follow than the application of broad principles in brotherly spirit. Mechanical codes are conventional and for that reason they lead to hypocrisy. They have led people to mistake etiquette for morality. They cause the follower of them to unrighteously judge his neighbor who does not come up to his conventional code which is part of his ethics. It was a mechanical system of ethics that permitted and encouraged the Inquisition, and similar ethics in our later days permit men professing the highest altruism to persecute their brothers in the same way in intention. If the law and liberty of the times were not opposed they would slay and torture too.
But I have only time to touch lightly upon some of the many valuable points found in the first two chapters. If but those two chapters were preserved and the others lost, we would still have enough.
The remaining chapters deal with universal cosmical truths as well as with philosophy and ethics. They all enforce the great doctrine of unity or non-separateness. In going over them we find such references as require us to know and to believe in the Wisdom-Religion. The rise and destruction of races is given, the obscurities and darkness between evolutionary periods, the universal great destructions and the minor ones are there. Through all these the Self sits calmly looking on as the spectator, the witness, the receptacle.
Where Arjuna the Archer is, he who was taught by Krishna, with him is glory, honor, fortune and success. He who knows Arjuna knows himself.
This post is dedicated to his Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabupada, my anonymous Krishna Conscious Spititual Advisor (you know who you are) and my brothers and sisters at New Bihar Mandir.
For furtther study…
Listen to the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is of
His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabupada. All 700 verses – click here!