By Uma Majmudar
(Notes from a lecture given at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta on Sunday, November 14, 2010)
From Shankara, Charles Wilkins, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau to Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak, Aurobindo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Chinmayananda, and Ram Dass, to other scholars and Swamis of Vedanta such as Prabhavananda, Nikhilananda, and Ranganathananda (the list could go on and on), the Bhagavad Gita has influenced, inspired and guided not only great thinkers, but even more ordinary and illiterate people around the world.
What One Finds in the Gita Is Determined by Who the Seeker Is and What One Seeks
The viewpoint of each speaks of his/her basic composition (predominant guna) as well as the nature of his work and interest.
- Adi Shankaracharya would read the Bhagavad Gita from a pure Advaitist viewpoint.
- Emerson, Thoreau and other American transcendentalists would be fascinated by the spiritual perspective and practical wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita (from now on referred to simply as the Gita).
- Mahatma Gandhi would call Gita his “Mother” and a Spiritual Dictionary to be referred to as a practical guide for his day-today living.
- Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gandhi’s predecessor and leader of the Indian freedom movement, would see it in the light of Karma Yoga.
- Shri Aurobindo would interpret it in the light of raising one’s consciousness from a temporal to a transcendental level.
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s would center his “transcendental meditation” on the teachings of the Gita.
- Swami Vivekananda would call the Gita “a bouquet of beautiful flowers of spiritual truths collected from the Upanishads.”
- Students of Vedanta and the Upanishads consider Gita as the pure distilled substance or the “Milk of the Upanishads.”
What Then Is the Central Message of the Gita?
- Is it the “Nishkamakarma” philosophy of Karma yoga, meaning, working selflessly for the good of all without any expectation of reward, name, fame or even recognition of one’s lifetime’s work?
- Is it Sankhya or Jnana Yoga? (called “Buddhiyoga” by Swami Chinmayananda).
- Does Krishna want to teach Arjuna the Sankhya metaphysics of the nature of the Atman as immortal, imperishable, unchanging and as an ultimate reflection of the Paramatman (Supreme Being) in contrast to the mortal body and an ever-changing reality of the finite world?
- Does Krishna wish Arjuna to become a “sannyasin” or a renunciate?
- Or would he rather wish that he just take refuge in Him and become His bhakta?
- Or does Krishna try to convince Arjuna to be a Rajayogi — a self-disciplined ascetic who has mastered his senses and mind through meditation?
The answer is all of the above; but above all, Krishna advises Arjuna to be a “Sthitaprajna”: A Man Firmly Established in Wisdom. But how does Krishna drive home this message to Arjuna? By describing in detail major characteristics of a “sthitaprajna” in Chapter Two (Sankhya yoga) and by bringing them up again and again in almost every chapter, Krishna conveys his central message that Self-harmonization is a prerequisite to Self-realization.
Who Is a Sthitaprajnya? What Are His Characteristics?
The Sanskrit term is a combination of two words: sthita: established; and prajnya: wisdom, meaning a person WHO IS FIRMLY ESTABLISHED IN WISDOM. Wisdom here does not mean “worldly wisdom,” although one cannot go wrong in applying the same principles in one’s day-today affairs, challenges or problems. What is indicated by SUPREME WISDOM is that for knowing one’s true nature—which is ATMAN—and for its union with the Divine—BRAHMAN—one must first do a complete spiritual workout. What is that? In Chapter Two: verses 15,45,47,48,50,51,53, and verses 55 to 72, Krishna describes the key qualities of a person of equipoise:
Balanced in pleasure and pain (15)
- Nirdhwandwa: without dualities or beyond the pairs of opposites (45)
- Karmanye vadhika raste ma faleshu kadachana: your business is with action only, never with its fruits (47)
- Samatvam yogam ucchyate: equilibrium is yoga (48)
- Yogaha karmasu kaushalam: yoga is perfection in work or skill in action (50)
- Karma falam tyaktwa: renouncing the fruit of action (51)
- Nishchala buddhi: steady or immovable intellect; yogam avapyasi: fixed in contemplation (53)
- Atmanye atmana tushtaha: Satisfied in the Self by the Self (55)
- Vitaragabhayakrodhah: indifferent to pain and pleasures, devoid of attachment, fear, rage and other rajasic and tamasic qualities (56)
- Nabhi nandati na dweshti: who neither likes nor dislikes; whose understanding is poised (57)
- Yasya prajnya pratishthita: whose intellect is established in wisdom (58)
- Vashe hi yasya indriyani tasya prajnya pratishthita: whose senses are restrained and mastered; whose understanding is poised (61)
- Dhyayato vishyan punsah sangasteshupajayate; sangat sanjayate kamah kamat krodhabhijayate: Musing on the objects of senses, he develops an attachment to these; from attachment arises desire; from (frustrated) desire arises anger (62)
- Krodhatbhavati sammohah sammohat smritivibhramah; smritibhranshat buddhinashah buddhinashat pranashyati: From anger arises delusion; from delusion confused memory; from confused memory the destruction of Reason, from destruction of Reason, he perishes (63)
- Prasnnachetaso hyashu buddhih paryavatishthate: In a person whose heart is peaceful, Reason soon attains equilibrium (65)
- Nastibuddhiryuktasya…ashantasya kutah sukham: without concentration there is no peace, and for one without peace, how can there be joy? (56)
- Yanisha sarva bhutamam: That which is night for all beings, for the disciplined man is the time of waking; when others are waking, it is night for the Muni who sees (69).
- Vihayakaman yah sarvan pumanshcharati nihspruha; nirmamo nirhankarah sa shantim adhigacchati: One who has forsaken all desires and is free from yearnings, who is selfless and without egoism–he obtains ultimate peace.
(The ideas and characteristics described above are also repeated in Ch. 3, verses 7, 17, 19, 20, 30, 37; Ch. 4, verses 10, 20, 21, 22, 23; Ch. 5, verses 7, 11, 12, 18, 23, 26, 28; Ch. 6, verses 1, 5, 7, 8, 10, 14, 17, 18, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 32, 46; Ch. 7, verse 28; Ch. 8, verses 8, 27; Ch. 9, verse 28; Ch. 10, verses 4, 5, 10; Ch. 12, verses 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19; Ch. 13, 22, 33; Ch. 14, the gunas: verses 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 20, 24, 25; Ch. 15, verses 5, 11, 19, 20; Ch. 16, verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 22; Ch. 17, verses 11, 15, 16, 17,25, 26; Ch. 18, verses 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11,17, 23, 24, 26, 27, 45, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 5658, 59, 51, 52, 53, 55, 58, 78.)
In different Sanskrit terms and in different contexts—of karma, jnana, bhakti or yogic disciplines, Krishna stresses the supreme importance of acquiring first a balanced mind which is unattached to the senses and sense-objects (muktasangah; asangah; gatasangah); which is free from the rajas and tamas gunas of attraction and repulsion, likes and dislikes, fear, hatred, wrath and ego (vitaragabhayakrodhah; nispruha; nirmamah; nirhankari); which is devoid of dualities and pairs of opposites (nirdhwandwaha; nishchalah); and which is always satisfied in the Self by the Self (atmanye atmana tushtah; atmasansthah manah); and one who is always even-minded and equal-minded (samadarshin; sarvatram samadarshanah). Because such a person is well-aligned (yoga yuktah) and Centered in the Self, he is always peaceful and focused on the Supreme Being.
The Central Teaching of the Bhagavad Gita
Krishna’s ultimate message in the Gita to Arjuna is loud and clear:
Regardless of whichever path he follows, he should strive to be a Sthitaprajna and acquire supreme wisdom (prajna) in order to realign himself to the source of his Divinity; and to re-unite his Atman (pure consciousness) with Brahman—the all-pervading, eternal, non-dual Divine Principle.
Krishna’s primary aim on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is not just to advise Arjuna regarding whether he should fight the war or not, but to teach him through this war-dilemma, the most essential spiritual teaching of all: How Arjuna can raise his consciousness from a mundane to a transcendental level without leaving the battlefield of life and without shirking his Kshatriya dharma (his sacred duty as a warrior) in order to fight adharma (here, untruth or injustice).
The ideal for Arjuna is to become a Sthitaprajnya and his ultimate goal is to acquire Supreme Wisdom through Self-harmonization for Self-realization.
UMA MAJMUDAR received her Ph.D. from Emory University. She published Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light (SUNY) in 2005, and is currently researching her next book, a comparative study of: “Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.”