By Ed Staskus
The “Bhagavad Gita,” a classic poem of 700 verses divided into eighteen books, composed in about 200 BC, is considered a monument to the human heart and spirit, testifying to man’s quest for truth and wisdom. It is often called “The Song of God.” It covers a wide range of topics, dilemmas, and themes, some vintage hallowed, some not so much among the angels.
In its own way, and in the same way, it rivals the “Iliad.” It sings of arms and the man. It is about volition judgment heroism redemption. It is about making yourself the man you mean to be, the man you must be to meet the world headfirst.
For more than two thousand years the canonic text, long ago subsumed into India’s national epic “Mahabharta,” has been considered one of the ultimate instruction manuals for living a spiritual life, no matter that it is set in martial times. Vyasa is supposed to have written it, but that’s like saying Homer wrote the “Iliad” or God wrote the Bible.
It was written for a reason, but the reason can be faceted dimensional conflicting.
In modern times, like the Bible and the Quran, many of the insights of the “Bhagavad Gita” continue to address the problems of the 21st century, speaking to issues such as choice, duty, and purpose.
Many great men have extolled its virtues.
“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
“When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe, everything else seems so superfluous,” said Albert Einstein.
“It’s about the game of awakening, about the coming into Spirit,” said Ram Dass, the author of “Path to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.”
In the world of yoga, the Gita is both bedrock and revelatory, because it is through Arjuna’s questions and Krishna’s answers – the mainstays of the text – that the underpinnings and practice of yoga are revealed. Although yoga has much to do with physical and mental well-being, in the “Bhagavad Gita” the original spiritual purpose of the practice, connecting one’s consciousness to the supreme consciousness, is the nexus of the poem.
Everything else is coincident to controlling one’s body, mind, and senses for the purpose of uniting with the divine.
The “Bhagavad Gita” is not without its problems, however, among them its epic warrior sub-text, its wild inconsistencies regarding non-attachment, and its top-down rationale for ordering human affairs.
One of the most vexing problems is how to take Krishna. Is he a spokesman for yoga’s most abiding and sublime motifs, such as vairagya and ahimsa? Vairagya, or non-attachment, and ahimsa, or non-violence, are two of the basic precepts alive and well in nearly all forms of yogic thought.
Or is he a monster who advocates war for his own unspeakable reasons, justifying fratricidal conflict with specious arguments about the meaninglessness of physical existence?
Is he the avatar of liberty, or is he Uncle Caesar, Uncle Napoleon, Uncle Sam on the recruiting poster?
The problem comes to a boil in Book 11.
As Book 10 ends Krishna declares that he is so vast and great that just a single fragment of him is enough to “support the entire universe.“ Despite this grand declaration, Arjuna responds that although he doesn’t doubt Krishna’s greatness and godliness, he would still like to see first-hand what it amounts to.
“I want to see for myself the splendor of your ultimate form.”
Krishna grants Arjuna divine sight for a few minutes so that he can transcend his mortal vision and see Krishna for what he really is. What follows in Book 11 are six omniscient narrative stanzas and seventeen stanzas spoken first-hand by Arjuna describing what he is seeing.
His eyewitness account makes up the salient stanzas, beginning with “I see all gods in your body.”
Krishna is described as being everything and everywhere, without beginning or end. At the same time, he is described as sitting on a lotus throne, wearing a crown, and bearing a mace and a discus.
The discus is a symbol of the knowledge of truth and the mace is a symbol of the power of knowledge. Krishna is everything, but at the same time is the King, or Lord. He knows what the truth is, being everywhere and everything, and as the King or Lord, wields the power of that knowledge.
Arjuna goes on to describe the angels and demons that gaze on Krishna in amazement, the chants the sages sing to him, and how the “innards” of mortals tremble at the sight of him. The image of guts going gutless is unsettling. Since Krishna is said to have “billion-fanged mouths blazing like the fires of doomsday” no one should be surprised at the bellyful of distress mortal men might feel at the sight of him.
The next lines are the crux of the problem.
They describe the opposing armies on the battlefield of Kuru, who are those of the Pandavas, led by the virtuous Arjuna, and those of the Kauravas, led by the one hundred sons of a blind king. They are both being swallowed up indiscriminately by the voracious Krishna, who Arjuna is seeing stripped down to his real greatness.
“Rushing headlong into your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged jaws. I see them with skulls crushed, their raw flesh stuck to your teeth,” Arjuna says.
“As the rivers in many torrents rush toward the ocean, all these warriors are pouring down into your blazing mouths. As moths rush into a flame and are burned in an instant, all beings plunge down your gullet and instantly are consumed.”
It is a godless Gita as Krishna goes about his grisly business. He is on the other side of fear. He is safe in his immortality.
The Hebrew god of the Old Testament is often described as angry and cruel. He has nothing on the Hindu god Krishna. Not once in the almost seven thousand sightings of the Christian divinity in the Old Testament is Yahweh ever described as having “gaping, knife-fanged jaws.”
If the “Bhagavad Gita” is a recruiting poster for Krishna’s promotion of the war, which is his often-stated and explicit intention throughout the poem, the slogan “I Want You” takes on a sinister double meaning.
Regardless of what side they stand on, all the warriors on the battlefield of Kuru are grist for the mill. All of Krishna’s reasoning, arguments, and commands are to one purpose, which is to get the detritus of war to pour down the craw of his rapacious mouth.
In the movie “King Kong”the big monkey tried to use Fay Wray as a toothpick. In Greek mythology Kronos, the Titan god of time, devoured his children for fear that they would one day overthrow him. In the “Bhagavad Gita” everything is grist for the mill.
Neither self-survival nor the niceties of gastronomy seem to motivate Krishna. He is the great maw that must be fed and sated, although from all accounts in the “Bhagavad Gita” it is doubtful that Krishna can ever be sated, given his enormous appetite and preoccupation with the eternal.
Krishna does not explain himself other than to say he is death, annihilating all things, the “shatterer of worlds.” He bluntly declares that both armies will perish with or without Arjuna, and echoing Homer again, specifically the “Illiad,” urges Arjuna to fight and win everlasting glory.
It is a harrowing picture.
Krishna then blandly advises Arjuna to not be frightened anymore and to see him as he was before. When he does, Arjuna is put at ease. It is an extraordinary turnaround after seeing the “shatterer of worlds” gobble up thousands of men like so many French fries.
Krishna explains the merits of living in the now for most of the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of Book 11 he has apparently succeeded. Arjuna says his “mind has regained its composure” and it is on to the next thing. There will be blood, and that’s that. He has moved forward from one now to the next now without any thought of consequences or repercussions. Every now is now the same as every other now.
In Book 1 Arjuna catalogued his many and valid reasons for not going to war, not including ahimsa, which is never mentioned. Be that as it may, Krishna has won the day. Arjuna says at the end of the poem, “I have no more doubts. I will act according to your command.”
Like a lamb going to slaughter he consents to Krishna driving his chariot back into the god-ordained fray. It is unclear how this decision to go to war on the battlefield of Kuru dovetails with uniting to the divine, the supposed purpose of Krishna’s yoga lessons.
The godless Gita gets it wrong when it goes recruiting poster, when Krishna goes the phantom of liberty.
George Orwell got it right in “1984” when he savaged the high and mighty self-righteous ruling class with the bitter epithet “Freedom is slavery, war is peace.”
The “Bhagavad Gita” ends with the poet Sanjaya, who is reciting the poem, saying that he has seen “splendor and virtue and spiritual wealth.” This may be an apt assessment, especially in Books 2 through 8, but it cannot be right when seen in the light of Book 11, in which Krishna reveals his true nature, which is self-serving and spiritually bankrupt, if not downright deadly.
Practicing non-attachment in order to apprehend the divine, as Krishna advises at the beginning of Book 7, may be the way to go when living the yogic life, but when Krishna adds the refrain that it requires “surrendering yourself to me,” it may be time to speed-dial the nearest dentist for custom-made cosmic orthodontic retainers to hold back the “knife-fanged jaws” of the ferocious god.
A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus