The Bhagavad Gita on Duty

The Bhagavad Gita is part of a longer poem called the Mahabharata, which is the story of the struggles between two leading families from the beginning of Indian history. These two families face off in the battle of Kurukshetra, which historians place between 850 and 650 B.C.E.

The Gita begins when the hero, Arjuna, a warrior, hesitates over entering into battle against members of his own family. Arjuna's conscience revolts at the thought of the war and the idea that it involves the killing of friends and relatives. He asks his charioteer, Krishna, to pull the chariot up between the two battling armies. It becomes apparent that the charioteer Krishna is God himself. The conversation is a revelation given by a friend to a friend, a young god to his companion, the prince Arjuna.

The eighteen chapters that comprise the Gita are divided into three sections of six chapters each. In the first section, Arjuna looks out on the battlefield and questions what part he will play in the battle:

When Krishna heard the words of Arjuna he drove their glorious chariot and placed it between the two armies.

And facing Bhishma and Drona and other royal rulers he said:

“See, Arjuna, the armies of the Kurus, gathered here on the field of battle.”

Then Arjuna saw in both armies fathers, grandfathers,

sons, grandsons; fathers of wives, uncles, masters;

brothers, companions and friends.

When Arjuna saw his kinsmen face to face in both lines of battle, he was overcome by grief and despair and he spoke with a sinking heart.

When I see all my kinsmen, Krishna, who have come here on this field of battle,

Life goes from my limbs and they sink, and my mouth is sear and dry; a trembling overcomes my body, and my hair shudders in horror;

My great bow Gandiva falls from my hands, and the skin of my flesh is burning; I am no longer able to stand because my mind is whirling and wandering.

And I see forebodings of evil, Krishna. I cannot forsee any glory if I kill my own kinsmen in the sacrifice of battle.

Because I have no wish for victory, Krishna, nor for a kingdom, nor for its pleasures. How can we want a kingdom, Govinda, or its pleasures or even life,

When those for whom we want a kingdom, and its pleasures, and the joys of life, are here in this field of battle about to give up their wealth and their life?

Facing us in the field of battle are teachers, fathers, and sons; grandsons, grandfathers, wives' brothers; mothers' brothers and fathers of wives.

These I do not wish to slay, even if I myself am slain. Not even for the kingdom of the three worlds: how much less for a kingdom of the Earth!

If we kill these evil men, evil shall fall upon us: what joy in their death could we have, O Janardan, mover of souls?

I cannot therefore kill my own kinsmen, the sons of kind Dhritarashtra, the brother of my own father. What happiness could we ever enjoy, if we killed our own kinsmen in battle?

— I.24–37 Bhagavad Gita

Is there a philosophy of karma in the Bhagavad Gita?

Yes, though the meaning of karmic action has changed from earlier texts. Krishna reveals to Arjuna that action performed out of a sense of one's duty or dharma, with no thought of selfish gain, leads to spiritual fulfillment.

With those words, Arjuna sank down in his chariot, overcome by despair and grief and lacking the will to fight. Krishna saw that Arjuna's eyes were full of tears, but he did not express sympathy. Rather, he reproached Arjuna and reminded him of his duty.

Whence this lifeless dejection, Arjuna, in this hour, the hour of trial? Strong men know not despair, Arjuna, for this wins neither heaven nor Earth.

Fall not into degrading weakness, for this becomes not a man who is a man. Throw off this ignoble discouragement, and arise like a fire that burns all before it.

— II.2–3 Bhagavad Gita

After scolding Arjuna, Krishna begins a lecture on the nature of reality. He sets out to outline several yogas that will help Arjuna fight the battle. Krishna is not only playing the part of spiritual advisor to his friend, he is also utilizing this moment to proclaim to all mankind his doctrine of salvation for the world. His doctrine, known as the “Yoga of selfless Action” (karma yoga), entails self-surrender and devotion (bhakti) to the Lord, who is identical with the self within all.

The Bhagavad Gita contains an analogy for a person who has accomplished yoga and has mastered himself: “Just as a lamp in a windless place flickers not.” This is the simile traditionally used for a yogi whose mind is properly controlled and who practices the yoga of the self.

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