World-renowned philosopher and spiritual teacher Ram Dass—author of the groundbreaking classic Be Here Now—presents the contemporary Western audience with a lively, accessible guide to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Hindu text that has been called the ultimate instruction manual for living a spiritual life.
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Context and Conflict
Before we approach the Bhagavad Gita, we need to have a contextual framework for the way it fits into the Mahabharata, of which it's a part. The Mahabharata is one of the two great Indian epics (the Ramayana being the other). The Mahabharata is a huge book-a typical edition runs to nearly six thousand pages. It is said to be the longest literary work in the world; it is seven times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, and the only unabridged English edition runs to twelve volumes. It's thought to have been written somewhere between 500 and 200 b.c., and it covers a distant period of Indian history: tradition places the battle of Kurukshetra in 3102 b.c., although historians say it was probably more like 1400 b.c. when the events that inspired the Mahabharata took place.
At one level, the Mahabharata is an historical study of a kingdom; but at another level, it is an extraordinary symbological study of all human interactions, of all human emotions and motivations. It's like an incredible psychology book cast in the form of a drama, and it's written from a very conscious point of view, which means that although it can be read just for its romantic, melodramatic story line, it can also be read to uncover its deeper symbolism. And right in the middle of the Mahabharata, on the eve of the climactic battle between the kingdom's two warring families, comes the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna that's called the Bhagavad Gita, or "the Song of God."
The story of the Mahabharata concerns the kingdom of Bharat, in northern India. The king of Bharat had two sons, Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Dhritarashtra was the elder brother, and ordinarily would have been next in line to inherit the throne after their father died; but he had been born blind, and the traditions of the time didn't allow for a blind king, so Pandu became the king instead, and ruled the kingdom.
Now, what it is that Dhritarashtra's blindness represents in the story is something that has been expounded upon with great relish by countless Hindu pundits over the centuries. Some say his blindness represents his attachment to his son, Duryodhana, which makes him blind to the dharma, blind to truth or to higher wisdom. Some say the blindness represents the nature of the human condition, which is blind because it lacks the higher intellect. The symbolism is very rich.
Pandu, the younger brother, the king, had two wives-Kunti and Madri-and he had five children by them. Of these five children (and these turn out to be the good guys, by the way-the Pandavas), Yuddhisthira was the eldest. Yuddhisthira was virtually the embodiment of dharma, although he did have one minor failing, which was that he gambled-he liked to play dice-and that, we will see, is what ultimately leads us to the predicament we find ourselves in at Kurukshetra. Bhima, Pandu's second son, was very strong and rather reckless. Arjuna, the third, was pure, noble, chivalrous, and heroic; he turns out to be our hero in the Gita. And there were two younger sons, twins by Madri.
Dhritarashtra-the elder, blind brother-had a hundred children, all by one wife. (I know a hundred children-but we're just going to have to allow for these strange things in the Mahabharata. We make room for them in the Old Testament, with 120-year-old men having scores of children. So let's just assume that things are different in different times.) Dhritarashtra's wife, Gandhari, was incredibly devoted to him. She was so devoted that since he couldn't see, she kept her own eyes bandaged throughout her entire married life, because she said that it would be unseemly for her to see when her husband was blind. That's devoted!
Well, a few years into his reign, Pandu accidentally killed a Brahmin. Killing a Brahmin, even by accident, is a very bad thing to do, so to atone for it, Pandu retired to the forest to do tapasya (penances), leaving the kingdom in the care of Dhritarashtra. After some years, while he was still away in the forest, Pandu died as the result of a curse, and Dhritarashtra just went on ruling Bharat.
As the children grew up, Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra's eldest son, grew more and more jealous of Yuddhisthira, the eldest son of Pandu. You can see that the laws of succession would be a little hazy in this situation, but it looked as though Yuddhisthira, as the eldest Pandu son, was going to be the one to inherit the kingdom whenever Dhritarashtra died-and Duryodhana wanted it for himself. He pulled every dirty trick in the books to try to get it; the Mahabharata devotes hundreds of pages to descriptions of all the ways Duryodhana went about scheming to get rid of the Pandavas, so he could take over the kingdom. Finally, Duryodhana held a huge celebration, and invited all the Pandavas to attend. He had a magnificent palace built to house them, but he had it made of some very flammable material, and during the night, when he expected all the Pandavas to be asleep inside, he set the building afire. Luckily, the Pandavas had been forewarned by a loyal servant, and so they-the five boys and their mother-had escaped through an underground passage and gone off into the jungle, into hiding.
Now, just to give you a little more of the flavor of this story: While they were in hiding, living in a cave in the jungle, the Pandava boys heard that there was to be a swayamvara, a husband-selecting ceremony, for Draupadi, the beautiful daughter of a very high king, to find a suitable mate for her. All the princes would be there, of course, because they all wanted to marry this rich, beautiful lady.
At the gathering, a number of tasks were set for the would-be suitors: stringing a magical bow, shooting a target by looking at its reflection in a pool of water, feats like that. All the princes tried, and all the princes failed. Then this poor young Brahmin priest came along, and he easily accomplished all the tasks, one after the other. That was Arjuna in drag, of course. So Arjuna won Draupadi's hand, and he and his brothers took her and headed back to their cave in the jungle.
As they approached the cave where they were living, the boys yelled out to Kunti, their mother, Come out, Ma! See what we have brought today!
Kunti was in the cave and couldn't see her sons, but she called out, Whatever it be, share it equally among all of you. That's a good thing for a mother to say to her five children-usually! But this time it meant that all five brothers ended up being the husbands of Draupadi-she had five husbands by the mother's "boon."
Well, after some years in hiding, the Pandavas made their way back to the kingdom of Bharat, and Dhritarashtra (who wasn't a bad guy, really-it was his son who was out of control) insisted that Duryodhana give them a piece of land to rule. Duryodhana, as you'd expect, picked out the worst piece of land in the kingdom to give to the Pandavas; it had nothing going for it. But in spite of that, Yuddhisthira and his brothers made a go of it, and created a very good kingdom, prosperous and well ruled. That just made Duryodhana more jealous than ever, of course; he grew insanely jealous, and all he could think about was plotting against the Pandavas.
Duryodhana remembered that Yuddhishthira, the oldest Pandava brother, really liked playing dice, so he challenged Yuddhisthira to a dice game, and got a crooked dice player to play opposite him. The two of them played out their dice game, and in the course of it Yuddhishthira lost everything: He lost his kingdom, he forfeited his brothers into servitude, he sold Draupadi down the river-everything he had, went.
Duryodhana was ecstatic! He was so haughty about what he'd done that he had Draupadi brought in, planning to strip her naked in front of the court, to shame her. But when he went to pull off her sari, he found that no matter how many saris he pulled away, there was always one more underneath. He had piles of saris everywhere, but Draupadi was still clothed, because she was protected by the purity of the dharma. (And, of course, Krishna, whom the Pandavas had met while they were off in hiding, was helping secretly, on the side.)
When Dhritarashtra heard about the episode with Draupadi, he was so embarrassed by his son's behavior that he offered Draupadi three boons. She said, Well, for the first one, let my husbands go free, and for the second, give them back their weapons. And that's enough-I won't even need the third boon. They'll be able to take care of things from there."
Well, Dhritarashtra kept his promise and freed the Pandavas; but as soon as the brothers were free, Duryodhana sucked Yuddhisthira into another dice game. (Yuddhisthira just never seems to learn, does he?) In this dice game, the losers (who, of course, turned out to be Yuddhisthira and his four brothers) had to go off and live in the jungle for twelve years. And then, in the thirteenth year, it got even worse: They had to hide out for that whole year, because if they were found by Duryodhana during the thirteenth year, they'd have to do still another twelve years in the jungle. But if they made it through all that, Duryodhana promised that at the end of their exile they'd get their kingdom back.
So back they went to the jungle. They did their twelve years, and in the thirteenth year, in order to hide out, they became servants to a king in a neighboring kingdom. Duryodhana tried everything to find them, but he couldn't. At the end of the thirteenth year, they came back to Bharat and presented themselves before Duryodhana and said, "OK, we did it. Now we want our kingdom."
Duryodhana said, Tough. I'm keeping it. He said, I wouldn't even give you enough land to carry on the tip of a needle.
Now that is the background to the situation in which we find ourselves at the time when the events in the Bhagavad Gita are about to take place. That is, Duryodhana has finally pushed the Pandavas too far, and they have no choice now but to fight. Injustice has taken over their kingdom. Arjuna and his brothers have been cheated and lied to; truth has been trampled on. The dharma has to reassert itself-the good guys have to make a statement. War is their only recourse.
At this point in the story, an interesting event takes place: Arjuna and Duryodhana both go to Krishna, who happens to be God in an avataric form, and they both ask him for his help. In a kind of Solomon-like decision, Krishna says to them, "OK, here are your options: One of you can have all of my weapons and all of my armies...and the other one can have me, but without any armies or weapons." Arjuna immediately says, "Well, I want you-forget about the armies." His mind was turned toward God, and so he said, "All I want is God on my side."
Well, Duryodhana was very pleased with that! He, being the worldly, adharmic fellow, said, "That's perfect! I'm very happy. I get all the arms and all the might." So now the bad guys have this huge army, while the good guys have a much smaller force. And Krishna, although he's God, is only the charioteer for Arjuna-he's not even carrying a bow.
At this point, let me introduce you to a little more of Krishna's story, so we can see how he came to this moment on the battlefield. Krishna was the child of Vasudev and Devaki, and Devaki had a very mean brother named Kamsa. Kamsa was so mean that he put his own father in jail, just in order to take over the kingdom.
But mean though he was, Kamsa had a soft spot in his heart for his sister Devaki. So when she married Vasudev, Kamsa threw a big celebration for her, with a great feast, and afterward announced that he would drive the chariot himself to take the couple to their new home. While they were on their way there, however, a great voice suddenly spoke from the sky and said to Kamsa, "Beware! The eighth child of this couple will kill you."
Well, that, of course, freaked the brother completely! He was about to kill Devaki and Vasudev right on the spot, but they begged for their lives, and he finally relented. He said, OK, I won't kill you. But you'll have to agree to live in jail for the rest of your lives, and to give me all your children as soon as they're born.
What could they do? They agreed.
So Devaki and Vasudev were imprisoned, and their first seven children were taken away the minute they were born. The first six were killed by Kamsa; the seventh has a complicated story of his own, which we won't go into here.
When the time came for the eighth birth, Kamsa was especially wary. He put extra guards on duty at the prison, and he locked Vasudev and Devaki in chains. But as the time of the birth approached, the guards began to feel very sleepy, and they all dozed off. And then the baby was born. As he came out of the womb, the baby (who, of course, was Krishna) said, "Take me to Gokul, to Nanda's house, and there you will find a girl-child. Substitute me for that baby girl."
Vasudev said, "How can I take you to Gokul? The doors are locked, and I'm in chains." At that point, Vasudev's chains dropped away and the prison door flew open. Well, Vasudev felt that was a pretty clear message, so he took baby Krishna to Gokul and brought the baby girl back in his place. The guards woke up and saw the baby, and went to tell Kamsa. The wicked brother came to the cell, and thinking that the little girl was his sister's child, he grabbed the baby by her feet, planning to throw her to the floor. But as he touched her feet, she flew out of his hands and up into the sky. As she was going, she called back, "I would have killed you, but you touched my feet; and even though you did that intending to kill me, I will treat it as though you were honoring me and let you go this time." Then she disappeared up into heaven.