Approach to Bhagavad-Gita

(Context of Chapter-1)

Outline of the discourse at
Siddhashrama, Harrow on 23rd March 2014

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Aum Gurubhyo Nama: Namaskarams.

My thanks to Mr. Balaji, for inviting me once again to share some thoughts under the caption “Approach to Bhagavad-Gita – Context of Chapter 1”. It is a great privilege. I hope you are all comfortable and completely relaxed for the exchange of thoughts, as the subject matter is quite intricate. Study of Bhagavad-Gita is the preparation-for-perfection. So it must be done with ease of mind and focus. I am also aware that most of you have studied the chapter with verse-by-verse meaning and so, are well-equipped.

In few words, let me give you the essence of our discussion today, in case any of you need to leave before the talk ends.  It is this: We seek happiness but grief always intervenes; we realize happiness is our natural state but the mind complicates our happy-state-of-affairs by bringing all sorts of miseries either because of our own making or otherwise. Bhagavad-Gita, as the essence of Veda provides a remedy for the miseries. It is evident as the Lord Krishna in the very first verse of his teaching states ‘panditha na anusocanti ’, meaning that the learned will never grieve. He ends his teaching with the phrase ‘na suca:’, to mean therefore ‘do not grieve’. So Bhagavad-Gita is the guide to remove our sorrow and to lead us towards total-happiness. We must enjoy total happiness from as early as possible in our life; so Bhagavad-Gita should enter into our life, right from our teen-age rather than a retirement activity. Also, the study of Bhagavad-Gita is not necessarily a religious rite or a ritual like pooja etc. but a course for true self-development. This is the summary that we will explore.

  1.  What are we discussing?

We know that it occurs in the great epic Mahabharata, at the war-front, starting as a dialogue between two friends and ending as the greatest exchange between a supreme master and a superb student. We may study this for its story, history and the esoteric knowledge etc., but what has it to do with our life-struggles? How can it impact our life, here and now? So the first question is our CONTEXT in the study of Bhagavad-Gita.

Assuming we establish the context and the need for the guidance of scriptures, we ask why Bhagavad-Gita is the most significant text for our rescue. What does Bhagavad-Gita address that we cannot find elsewhere? In short, what is the core CONTENT of Bhagavad-Gita or the essence of Bhagavad-Gita?

Having established the context, a general understanding of content and relevance of Bhagavad-Gita to our life, what then should be our mission? How do we assimilate the knowledge of Bhagavad-Gita? When do we start to learn? How do we implement? In other words how do we CONSTURCT our life around Bhagavad-Gita? Inquiry on this most important goal is also our next agenda.

Finally, and briefly, we should look at the ultimate benefit of living a life as guided by Bhagavad-Gita. Where does such life lead to? It must be for the completion of all human endeavours and fulfilment of all human goals, the Purushartam.

COMPLETION is indicated by the perfection and a position from where evolving to divinity or if one wishes so, to be one with God, true emancipation is possible. By briefly looking at these four C’s, we shall try do some justice to the topic. Given that we have just about an hour only – we have to be quick and precise, leaving many necessary explanations aside, perhaps for separate contemplation.

2.1 What matters to us the most?

In our transactional life, we engage in all sorts of activities and with the times of Google and Facebook etc. our noses are permanently poking into many worldly interests; but really what matters the most are only those that impact our lives; Only in such matters, we should put our efforts. On that basis, unless the scriptures of religions and the books of knowledge such as Bhagavad-Gita actually bring matters that are of importance to our lives, that too for the life-here and now, not to some elusive life-after, we cannot sustain prolonged interests on them. It is understandable.  To check this out, first we must understand human-context.

2.2     What makes us special?
As human-beings, we are very special. Other most developed life-form, only lower to the human-beings, is that of animals. Although we share the same basic traits with them, known as the animal-instincts, such as to eat, to sleep, to breed and to protect, it is clear that as human-beings, we have special capabilities to give us a differentiated life style than that of animals. Such special capabilities enable us to rule over others, innovate and apply knowledge to fulfil our needs through far better and sophisticated ways, to seek betterment for our standard of living. What are these special traits that separate human beings from the animals? It is the power of intellect, known as ‘buddhi’ in Sanskrit. 2.3 What are the benefits of buddhi? This buddhi, which is special only to human-beings, provides us with three unique capabilities:

Self-Consciousness or the ability to place identification on the Self is the foremost. It is an undeniable and insuppressibly endowed knowledge of every human-being. We are constructed to live with this ability and to properly realize its potential; we cannot deny its existence. It is not available to other lower life-forms. Can a dog or a cow look itself in the mirror and recognize itself? No, animals do not have such self-consciousness; they simply exist as long as their animal instincts are fulfilled.

Application-of-knowledge or the ability to comprehend all available knowledge and put to use, primarily to improve our standard of living is next.

Discriminating-Intellect,  or viveka  that separates right from wrong, real from unreal, truth from untruth is the third; Vedas define viveka as ‘nitya anitya vastu viveka’.

The capabilities of buddhi may not be realized at the same level across all human beings. That is why we see differences among us, in our endeavours and progress. In fact, many of us do not fully understand the power of buddhi and so barely exploit its potential.

2.4 What are the impacts of buddhi?

The benefit of Buddhi is to be remembered as SAD: Self-Consciousness, Application-of-knowledge and Discriminating- intellect. Sounds sad, is it not? I purposely say this in order for you to remember, that the very power of buddhi which brings happiness and progress that are not available to other life-forms can also bring immense fear and grief to mankind, miseries that other life-forms are not subjected to. Therefore buddhi is a double edged knife. Through incorrect knowledge, it can cause havoc in our mind. Take an example of our attitude resulting from the wrong use of buddhi. You buy a beautiful car, say a Toyota out of your hard-earned money; it gives you immense pleasure every time you look at it. But only until the neighbour parks his brand new BMW on his driveway. Then on, your car no longer looks good to you; your self-esteem is lower when driving your car.

Why? It is because your mind is now clouded, with the self-imposed grief, known as ‘asooyai’ envy or greed. It is a sure way to hell. Such miseries are only special to mankind. Animals do not have such problems as they do not have such buddhi. Similarly is the fear or bhaya. We are fearful to lose our possession; afraid of old age and death. Have you ever seen an animal dreading for the eventual death? Even at a butcher’s place, as the goats are being slaughtered, you can see other goats happily munching their food with no sign of distress. Perhaps it is due to their ignorance. The point is that they do not deduce fear. They may undergo the pain of death but not the fear of death. Only we anticipate failures; as we know the eventual onset of old age and death, we dread. Therefore, buddhi, the special gift to human beings, while generating pleasures and comforts that other life-forms cannot reach, also gives us grief and fear that no other life-forms ever need to undergo. So when not utilized correctly, the very ability of self-consciousness, application of knowledge and discriminating intellect could lead us to grief by immersing us in desires that eventually alter our character and lead unto fear and untold misery. Such sorry state of affairs is what is known as ‘samsara’, the agitation of mind that traps us away from the total happiness or the perfection that we are truly capable of.

2.5     What do we want?

Total happiness, is it not! Who wants suffering? Do we ever go to hospital seeking medicine because we suffer from happiness? No, our intrinsic nature is to be joyful; so being happy is our innate nature. Grief is therefore to be cured; what we seek is total happiness; the ability to secure more and more happiness which no other life-forms can dream off, as well as the ability to remove all sorrows which again, no other life-forms are subjected to. That is the context for all human-being, is it not?  It does not vary, no matter which colour, caste, creed, race or religion you are. Therefore if we need to spend our effort and time in Bhagavad-Gita, it must address the needs of the human context for the total happiness. After all, Bhagavad-Gita and the Vedas as part of Sanatana-dharma are said to be for all mankind; are these not? This is the case and we shall see how.

3. Context: Bhagavad-Gita

Let us briefly look at our personal context within the general human-context.

3.1      Why Krishna’s teaching is the solution to our woes?

Lord Krishna is said to be Jagadguru. But in Bhagavad-Gita, He only teaches to Arjun. How then He is the Jagadguru? It is because, what He has imparted to Arjun, applies to the Jagad, the world; that is why we are still discussing His dialogue with Arjun, after many thousands of years.

3.2     Why is the context of Arjun in Mahabharata relevant to my life?

I am not Arjun. I am not fighting a war to recover any kingdom; I do not need to kill my kith and kin. My problems seem very different. I have to manage my life; I need to make both ends meet; I have children to take care-off, studies to complete, jobs to get, love to secure, illness to cure, aging to fear; tensions at home, office, business and even on the play grounds! How are these issues addressed in Bhagavad-Gita? I have no problem reading Bhagavad-Gita because it is a spiritual text and give interesting and profound thoughts. I may even memorize the slokas and recite without even looking at the book, but what is the point! To internalize the teachings of Bhagavad-Gita, I must find the context-mapping, of my life and my struggles with that of Arjun. In other words, I must become Arjun. Our search is therefore to validate the situation of Arjun with that of general context of human-beings.

3.3     What roles that the human-beings play?

All human beings basically assume two roles in life: ‘Doer’ and ‘Consumer’, known as Karta, who performs or engages in some actions and Bhokta, who enjoys or suffers from the consequences of actions, either of his or others. You perform; you enjoy or suffer; that is all the life, is it not? If you take any instance of your life and look at yourself, you will see that you are in one of these two roles only. If we agree to this simple definition, then life is all about making sure that as Karta and Bhokta, you maximize your total joy. Maximizing total joy means, to reach the maximum happy-potential out of your buddhi and at the same time, to avoid the risks of grief that no other life-forms need to suffer. As Karta and Bhokta, we want to the perfectly happy. This is the intrinsic goal of every embodied life, which we must understand.

3.4     What is the role of Sastra?

That is why the goal of Sanatana-dharma also is to provide the knowledge and the means to better our roles of Karta and Bhokta. These knowledge and the means are declared either as ‘instructions’ or as ‘guidance’ and these constitute what is known as sastra. The definition of sastra is that which instructs ‘sasana iti sastra:’ and guides, ‘bhodana idi sastra:’.

3.5     What is the relevance of Bhagavad-Gita?

Bhagavad-Gita is the essence of Veda Sastra and therefore addresses the knowledge and means to perfect our roles: Karta and Bhokta. Study of Bhagavad-Gita is not a religious act, not a ritual or pooja; it is learning a sastra; it is about self-development. Therefore, no matter where you are born and what creed you follow, as you are only a Karta and Bhokta, you need help and the help is in Bhagavad-Gita, which is your right to seek. The primary goal of Bhagavad-Gita is to prepare you, firstly to live a life of karma-yoga the most important first-step for constructing our life in the path of dharma and thus qualify to pursue for perfection or completion.  We shall briefly see what these terms dharma and karma-yoga mean in the context of our discussion.

3.6     What about the differing priorities among human-beings?

All of us do not have the same needs or priorities and therefore same problems, as we employ our buddhi at different levels. For example, some amongst us, who are able to apply the viveka to discriminate the real from unreal, eventually seek a different set of goals. They seek assurance of happiness in life-after-life and therefore as Karta, prepare to know and perform virtuous acts, even though such acts may not produce visible benefits in this life. As they maintain faith in the undeniable nature of ‘cause and effect’, they associate effects that occur in this life without any direct effort on their part, due only from the accrued result of past deeds; in other words, they understand and believe in karma-palam. Therefore to maximize karma-palam for total happiness, they seek in the sastra for prescribed dharma. As they follow the prescribed dharma, their characters in the performance of the roles of Karta and Bhokta are gradually enhanced.

Character-modification is an important and required quality for the evolution of human beings, who seek total happiness. There are yet another set of people. Also among those who adhere to dharma and refine their characters, only a select-few may go further to seek total perfection. Such rare human-beings operate at the apex of viveka. By being so, they see the futility of the roles of Karta and Bhokta in life-after-life as if in a vicious circle; it is not freedom, they deduce! They seek the ability to break the loop at will. In fact, they do not want to assume the role of Karta and Bhokta but to simply remain as the being, mere existence of eternal bliss.

3.7     What are then the stages of development for the differing priorities?

In the light of our discussion of varying levels of priorities, we can redefine the goals of human-beings into three stages:

  • Differentiate life-style from that of lower forms of life
  • Instil the highest of human ideals to excel among humans
  • Evolve from humanity to divinity or beyond for the emancipation

We may not set-up such goals visibly, but an analysis will show that, in fact, all our life-objectives take us towards these stages of development only. Again to help you remember these, I shorten these as D, I, E – to DIE for. Our buddhi is SAD and the goal is to DIE!  SAD to DIE!

3.8     Why should I seek progress and struggle to be different?

Some may say, ‘wait, why taking all these troubles, why not just live like animals. Act only to fulfil the basic needs; there is no need to bother about dharma etc. Why inviting more work?’ But is that really possible?   We do see from time-to-time, many take such path, leading a purposeless nomadic life; but however simple and pure it may be, they are not able to remain peaceful. Ultimately they regret for missing out the precious times on such lowly indulgence, as they cannot find peace.  Why? It is because, the nature of human mind or the higher faculties such as buddhi, will not accept animal-like life. Self-consciousness is not a faculty that we can switch on and off at our will. We are conditionally made to recognize our true nature and to strive for its complete realization. Therefore, progress, whether you like it or not, is the destiny for human race. Unless of course, we use our buddhi, the double edged knife, to carve out a lowly life and infinitely delay the progress. I don’t think any of us here want that and so our goal remains as to DIE for. Now we must check the Contents of Bhagavad-Gita to see if it can help us in our context.   We want to replace the state of being “SAD to DIE” with “SAD NOT to DIE”.


Remember, we are not studying Bhagavad-Gita for some religious virtue or only out of devotion of bhakti, which are all very good indeed, but to actualize our learning and to position the Bhagavad-Gita as the modifier of our life; we plan to construct our life along the path of Bhagavad-Gita, from right now. Therefore, before we embark on this lofty ideal, we must know if the contents of Bhagavad-Gita are suitable for the context of our problems. The essence of Bhagavad-Gita reflects the potential of human-beings and it is built on the essential nature of human-beings which is buddhi. As I have told you before, the very first verse of Lord Krishna maps the knowledge as the cure for grief; ‘pandita: na anusocanti:’.  Also Karma-yoga which is also called the Buddhi-yoga is the first-aid and the foremost prescription; it is based on buddhi, the special quality for mankind. Therefore Bhagavad-Gita is all about progress of the mankind and for the right use of buddhi.

4.1      What is the authority of Bhagavad-Gita to command such position?

Bhagavad-Gita is the foremost of smriti, which are the texts that repeat what is already said in the Vedas (‘veda artha anuvadah vakhya: smriti:’). Since Vedas contain so much knowledge and lofty thoughts, study of Vedas require disciplined tutelage under a guru and adherence to the guru-paramapara or traditional learning. Only to support pragmatic propagation of Vedic truths to all, the Seers of Sanatana dharma have created smriti which retell in certain ways the same truth that make sense to the society and the contemporary time. Among many smriti is Bhagavad-Gita, as the supreme and being revered as the Veda itself. Therefore what Krishna says in Bhagavad-Gita is nothing but what the Vedas declare. So some understanding of Vedas will help in the study of Bhagavad-Gita. Equally, good understanding of Bhagavad-Gita will give the essence of Vedas.

4.2     What is the essence of Veda?

The content of mighty Vedas is so beautifully classified by Bhagavan Adi Sankara, in his introduction to Bhagavad Gita, into two basic types of knowledge. pravritti lakshana: nivritti lakshana: dvidhokta: vedokta: dharma: The first one is known as pravritti-lakshana or “the dos” and “don’ts” of karma which one must follow for perfecting the roles of Karta and Bhokta.   This is simply known as dharma. The second is nivritti-lakshana which is about gyana. So Vedas provide dharma and gyana which are respectively referring to ‘life-principles’ and ‘inquest beyond life’. Let us take dharma or pravritti-lakshana first.  These are prescribed in ‘vidhi nhisheta rupa:’. vidhi is what must be followed and nhisheta is what must be avoided. To understand these better, we can also look at these vidhi nhisheta rupa into two types of namely samanya-dharma and vishesha-dharma.  

4.3     What is samanya-dharma?

samanya-dharma is that which is  ordinarily to be followed by all; these apply to all human-beings and do not change according to times or places. These are the common virtues.

For example, the statement ‘satyam vatha:’ or speak the truth is a samanya-dharma. Samanya-dharma refers to fundamental virtues and we must be able to recognize these easily because of the inherent human-nature. These need not be learnt only by the study of scriptures, which of course is good, but simply through the human instincts. One way to identify samanya-dharma is through personal validity: If something that is done to you is no good to you, you shall not do that to others. For example, I do not like my goods to be stolen by anyone; this would mean that I shall not steal from anyone. So just remember, all common virtues are samanya-dharma.

4.4     What is vishesha-dharma?

The second is vishesha-dharma, or special dharma. This requires proper understanding and correct learning from the learned and the tradition. It is only because vishesha- dharma varies from person to person and also on the time, depending on their roles. So within generic human context, we must consider our role-context as we perform under different and multiple roles.

4.5     What is personal role-context?

Although we have the roles of Karta and Bhokta in general, we also perform different and multiple roles within being a Karta or Bhokta. The roles are what we assume or what are given to us, as we go through various stages of our lives. Student-life or brahmacharya, family-life or grahasta, retired-life or vanaprasta and a life of a seeker or sanyasa are the stages of our personal progression. Vedas define dharma for these stages under ashrama-dharma. Additionally, in discharging our duties in the society, we may have to follow certain roles in the capacity of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra etc. Vedas define this as varna-dharma. I am not going to spend time now on this concept, known as varna-ashrama-dharma. Simply understand the multiple role responsibilities that one has to own in ones life. Nowadays, we can simply equate this to roles in our personal context like father, husband, wife, son, friend etc. and in the societal context as doctor, teacher, politician, soldier etc. For each role, there are special duties to be followed which are known as vishesha-dharma.

4.6     What is the confusion in the role-context?

Our confusions in life mainly originate in the lack of understanding of our roles and associated role responsibilities. We may be good teacher at school, but if we behave like teacher at home all the time and not as a parent, we would fail in our parental-responsibilities. True wisdom is the ability to discriminate our dharma for the role we have chosen and following. The conflict of role responsibilities and the priorities between the vishesha- dharma and samanya-dharma get us into a muddle; such conflict of dharma is known as dharma-sankatam. It is a problem that can only be solved with the guidance of the scriptures as these relate to the choice of right dharma. Arjun was trapped in such confusion only and deluded about his role-responsibilities.

4.7     Which takes the priority between samanya and vishesha dharma?

Sastras clearly state that the vishesha- dharma must take priority and must be enforced. For example, ‘do not kill’ is a samanya-dharma to all, but for the solider, the vishesha-dharma is to kill the enemy at war. He cannot remain passive at war as his vishesha- dharma orders otherwise. He is not bound by the samanya-dharma at the time of just war. I said ‘just war’ because all these conditions are under the rule of dharma and dharma alone. When the karma is guided by dharma and when dharma paves the path for our endeavours, then we can lead a lofty life and personify the very essence of humanity. In reality, karma is very much ruled by dharma, so these two aspects are inseparable Thus we understand that dharma is the core requirement for the second goal: to instil high ideals in our life.

4.8     What is the benefit of following dharma or the pravritti-lakshana?

There are three key benefits.

Needs: Firstly, it helps us to achieve our needs for life on earth, the two of the purushartam namely Arta: and Kama:, in righteous ways; these needs of living and enjoyment is also known as preyas.

Objective-knowledge:Secondly, it gives better understanding of life and therefore modifies our goal. We attain purusharta-viveka or the Objective-knowledge, the ability to identify the right goal or objectivity.

Transformation-of-character: Thirdly, it also equips us with the right qualification by making character-modification within us to achieve purusharta-yogyata, or to be fit for the chosen goal. So, the benefits of dharma are NOT:  achieving the Needs, Objective-Knowledge and Transformation-of-character.

To recap as human-beings, to achieve total happiness in the roles of Karta and Bhokta:

  • with buddhi, we possess SAD (Self-consciousness, Application-of-knowledge, and Discriminating-intellect);
  • by following dharma, we achieve NOT (Needs, Objective-knowledge and Transformation-of-character).
  • so that we can progress through the goals: to DIE (to Differentiate-living, Instil-human-ideals and Evolve-to-divinity-or-emancipation).

By following the prescribed dharma, we achieve the state: SAD NOT to DIE, a short phrase to recollect the meaning behind.

4.9     What is the progression from pravritti-lakshana?

So by following pravritti-lakshana, we become modified in our characters, our goals are refined and now we are ready to seek the path for the total happiness – called sreyas. According to Vedas, this requires the second part of sastra, which Adi Sankara calls as nivritti lakshana.

4.10    What is nivritti lakshana?

nivritti lakshana’ is the path of Gyana, or gnosis, the path which take the seeker beyond the roles of Karta and Bhokta. It is the path to the final Purushartam: Moksha. Vedanta, the final parts of Veda, also known as Upanishad provide this knowledge as nivritti lakshana. Please be aware, there is no discussion on dharma or karma in the Upanishads. That is why one should not read Upanishad, without the proper guidance of a fitting Guru; otherwise, our understanding and inferences from Vedanta may easily become erroneous, not giving the desired outcome.

4.11    What is the benefit of following  nivritti-lakshana?

nivritti lakshana’ is the path of Gyana to inquire the beyond life, to realize the futility of cycling in the roles of Karta and Bhokta and eventually attaining liberation to BE and FREE. We can simply assume, the benefit is to BE-FREE. While dharma gives the courage and the means to face the life as Karta and Bhokta (SAD NOT to DIE), progressing into the path of gyana leads us to be beyond the roles of Karta and Bhokta and to be free (BE-FREE). As Bhagavad-Gita provides us with both dharma and gyana, it leads us to total happiness and total freedom (SAD NOT to DIE, BE-FREE).  We shall see how. Only to illustrate these goals, the grand ithihasa Ramayana and Mahabharata were compiled.

4.12    What is the significance of Ithihasa ?

Ithihasa is not a fiction. Ithi, ha and asa respectively mean thus, truly, happened. Ithihasa is history perhaps presented with some poetic freedom. Ramayana, one of the greatest epics is all about illustrating the ideals of dharma. Lord Rama performed all His karma with strict adherence to the prescribed dharma, even though He had to endure untold grief during His life. Ramayana gives us confidence that in spite of all troubles, if we follow dharma, we will achieve happiness in the end and excel among the human race, the second goal.

4.13    What is the significance of Mahabharata ?

While Ramayana explores and amplifies dharma or the pravritti-lakshana, the other grand epic Mahabharata, brings both pravritti-lakshana and nivritti-lakshana that is both dharma and gyana into yoga, as the unified means for accomplishment. That is why Mahabharata, in particular Bhagavad-Gita is valued as the fifth Veda. What I have also learnt is that, in fact, the title Mahabharata was not the original name given by its composer Veda-Vyasa. He had called it by the name ‘Jaya:’ meaning Victory which I think is the most appropriate. Only in the later years, it acquired the name Mahabharata. The same is the case with the chapter-heading for Bhagavad-Gita. Veda-Vyasa has only called them as pratama-kanta etc. Great scholars have renamed the chapter heading to reflect the essence of each chapter in later years. That is how pratama-kanta has become Arjuna Vishada Yoga. These revised chapter headings are so revealing which we shall see later. Also as you all know, Mahabharata, the magnum-opus has 100000 verses, of which Bhagavad-Gita is only of 700 slokas in length but considered as the jewel of the epic, and the exquisite essence of all Vedas.

4.14    How does Bhagavad-Gita map to the human-goals?

Bhagavad-Gita reflects the Veda-sastra in providing us with three key aspects: karma, dharma and gyana. Although these are all interwoven, to make the point for our discussion, I force some simplicity. karma, like the word dharma has number of meanings; here karma relates to the list of actions and their ways of execution that would differentiate human-beings from that of the animals. In other words, karma contributes to the first of the goal DIE: Differentiate from lower life forms. But performing karma alone is not good enough. Differentiating from animal-life is necessary but not sufficient. In us, as human-beings, are many intrinsic tendencies that show reverence and respects to all life. Therefore there are certain attitudes to life that are naturally expected from us.

4.15    What are the intrinsic qualities of human-being?

Take an example. You are feeding your pet dog; for some reason, it does not eat, but it is letting other stray dogs to eat; that would worry you; you would think that the animal is sick, as it is not behaving the way it should be! Now imagine you also see a man eating sumptuous food in front of others who are starving. In this case too, you would think that something is wrong with the man as he displays no basic courtesy to share his food, which is naturally expected of a human-being. Same action but different expectation! To share is the expected and natural human tendency. No one needs to read the Vedas or Bhagavad-Gita for such virtues. Therefore we need to find answers for two key questions:

  • What are such noble qualities that are natural to us which should be clearly known and carefully nurtured?
  • What are the bad qualities that may surface naturally, like the weed that comes without effort, but must be removed with our deliberate effort?

Only by knowing these, we can reach the second goal, which is to instil human-values to excel among the humans. These are the values we saw as in the sastra as dharma. Bhagavad-Gita explains both dharma and gyana in the context of real-life with all sort of physical, moral and psychological conflicts, with Arjun as the point of reference.

4.18    What is the background for the Bhagavad-Gita?

We all know the story of Mahabharata and the reason for the war. With the television series, we are far more informed about this, which may be a good thing. I will not dwell there as we are not interested in the story. The first chapter itself provides some background, which we must understand, mainly because it reveals the mind-set of Arjun, a key for our understanding the rest of the chapters. At the place called Kuru, which is said to be somewhere near present-day Haryana, two opposing armies were standing to fight. On one side was the Kaurava, the 100 children of Dhritarashtra with mighty warriors like Bhishma, Drona etc. under command. On the other side were their cousins Pancha Pandava or 5 brothers, who were the children of Pandu, the younger brother of Dhritarashtra. Lord Krishna was on their side, taking the role of charioteer for his beloved friend Arjun. The war has reached the 10th day; mighty Bhishma was already defeated and down on the bed of arrows. The messenger Sanjaya who had been observing and logging the events of the war on-behalf of Dhritarashtra had approached the King and declared the fall of Bhishma. Until then, the King was not keenly interested to know the minute details of the war. Now overcome by fear and the blind-love on his own children even though they were unrighteous, the King had asked Sanjaya to stay next to him and narrate what all had happened and about to happen. The composer Veda-Vyasa has given a special boon to Sanjaya; he could remotely see what all were happening at the Kurukshetra, not only at physical level but also at the mental level of those where were waging war against each other.  In fact Vyasa had offered such gift to the King, who refused to take the offer as he did not want to get the vision only to witness the tragedy!

4.19    What is to be understood from the Chapter 1?

Chapter 1 begins with the sloka which is the question of Dhritarashtra to Sanjaya. I know you have gone through verse by verse under the tutelage of Sri Balaji. I shall not therefore spend time; however, I will explain the very first sloka at the end, if time permits, as this sloka itself could consolidate the whole of Bhagavad-Gita, as imparted by the greatest guru, Kanchi Paramacharya. I will come to that later. After this very first verse, single verse, there is no mention of Dhritarashtra in the Bhagavad-Gita. In chapter 1, verses 2 to 20 describe the great warriors at the warfront. Verses 21 to 23 introduce Arjun at the warfront. In these verses, he commands Krishna, his charioteer to take up a position; he says ‘take my chariot to the middle of the battle ground so that I can see who all had come to die on behalf of the King’. But a mere witnessing of his own kith and kin on the other side, including reverential teachers was enough to baffle Arjun. He suddenly lost his vigour to fight and also his sense of duties. In the rest of verses in chapter-1 and also the first 10 verses of chapter-2, Arjun reveals his mind, speaking thus the war must be stopped at all counts. Finally, he drops his weapon and the will to fight. Many lessons have to be learnt in the fist chapter itself. Lord Krishna has exemplified how a friend and teacher should behave. He did not utter a single word until Arjun had stopped talking. He simply witnessed the performance of Arjun who had come to the conclusion that his buddhi was no more useful to discriminate the right from the wrong. He had lost the special abilities that we have talked so much for the human being – the buddhi. That was when he took complete refuge at the divine feet of Krishna. That was when the relationship between Krishna and Arjun had changed, from intimate friendship to intense Guru-sishya relationship. Now let us ignore the story and look at our practical use.

4.20    What does the title of chapter-1 reveal?

The title of the first chapter is Arjuna Vishadha Yogam. The term Vishada means despondency or insurmountable shoka or grief of Arjuna. Yoga is sadana or the means; although here yoga refers to the chapter, it also indicates that shoka is leading to yoga. Can shoka or grief lead to yoga? Certainly so! Only when in distress, we seek help; only in sorrow, we think of God. Some may even ask you, if they know that you are going to spiritual classes or Bhagavad-Gita lectures such as these, ‘what is wrong with you, you have started going to all these spiritual places’ etc. It is because generally grief is taken to trigger the need for prayers and spiritual pursuits. But it does not need to be. Life is for enjoyment, granted; but living is the perpetual preparation for perfection.What is the point of thinking about digging a well, when the house is already on fire! So, let us not wait for grief to drive us to God or spiritual lessons. When we are without worries and at ease, we should seek the knowledge and be prepared.

4.21    What causes grief?

The culprit is attachment. It is known as ‘raga’ in Sanskrit. Only when there is attachment on an object, other character modifications occur within us that create various emotions towards the object of desire. Three of the key emotions are: Kama, Krotha and Lobha. Kama refers to excessive lust or greed that is based on adharma or violating dharma. It manifests as excessive passion on things. When such passion cannot be fulfilled, raga expresses itself in terms of Krotha or anger; even when fulfilled, it creates a sense of insecurity and a possessiveness for not to part or share; such miserly attitude is called ‘Lobha’. The whole Mahabharata war is the result of these three character modifications that had impacted the Kaurava.

4.22    What it the result of raga?

It creates bhaya or fear. The fear affects us completely. It affects our external organs or bhashya-karana. That was why Arjun had to suffer from trembling hands, shivering legs, tearful eyes, breathing difficulties, goose-bumps etc.; he barely could stand and became physically unstable out of fear. He had even dropped the bow, his instrument of war. Fear also affects the subtle internal organs known as antha-karana. For a simple understanding, take antha-karana to mean two parts: the manas or the mind which deals with thoughts based on feeling and emotions and the buddhi that deals with thoughts based on discriminating intellect. Arjun’s fear was not due to cowardice but due to raga or attachment. Such bhaya can completely weaken your body, mind and intellect. The bhaya on the anta karana results in shokam on the mind, as grief, despair and sorrow and in moham on the buddhi as delusion, confusion and the inability to choose the right from the wrong. Buddhi afflicted by moham is deluded; it cannot control and is enslaved by the grieving mind. In grief, the mind cannot discriminate right from the wrong and as a result make the buddhi to falter in its functions.

4.23    What does the despondency of Arjun imply?

Arjun is completely affected by raga and its adverse effects, bhaya, shokam and moham. His mind is full of shokam; his buddhi is full of moham. He lost his ability to think well. Only to justify his position, he was seeking external confirmation in the forms of omens. In the 30th sloka, he points to Krishna that there are bad omen ‘vipareeta saguna’ everywhere. How sad! He even argues why giving up the fight is the right thing. He suddenly becomes very philosophical. We too do the same; when you fail in something – exam or business – you would be in a mood to philosophize: why such failures are not important; life is after all transient; nothing is real etc. Such temporal renunciation is known as jihaasa vairagyam in Sanskrit – utterly false. That is what Arjun speaks. ‘What is the benefit of this war’, he asks. Arjun also points out that one must have control of senses and should not yield to war. It is interesting, as he is saying this in the verse 32, Arjun addresses Krishna as Hrishikesha, which means the one who has complete control of senses. Was he trying to make the Lord sensible to his point of view! He also begins to speak in plural-terms. The same Arjun who said to Krishna with pride ‘take my chariot to the middle’ in the beginning, now does not use the first-person singular ‘I’, but the plural ‘we’ for each sentences. He wants to bring Lord Krishna as a party to his plea, perhaps to get Krishna’s empathy.

4.24    Was it a Just War? Was he right to refuse to fight?

Some argue that war is never right, and how could Krishna preach war? This we must understand clearly. Remember in dharma, war is the lost resort and an option to use. In any conflict – be it war or other challenges that we face – there are four progressive strategies to be pursued according to Veda-sastra; sama dhana bheda danda’. sama means to make peace. First effort is to avoid any fight and try to make peace through reasoning and by all possible means; if that is not successful, then we should take up dhana which requires compromising or giving-up our possession or expectation for the sake of peace. If these two strategies do not work, then there is a moral obligation to weaken the unrighteous side. To do this, the first option is to apply bheda which is about creating differences in such a way that the unrighteous side is weakening. This may involve for example reducing the capability of the unjust enemy, divert those who support the unjust cause etc. If all that fails, then there is a duty to fight, danda, take the weapons in order to defeat the unrighteous and establish justice. Before the war at Kurukshetra, Pandava with the guidance of Lord Krishna have attempted all avenues to avert the war according to the prescribed dharma, but all in vain. So Arjun’s war was just.

4.25    Was Arjun fully convinced of his decision to give-up the fight?

No! If so, why could not he command Krishna, the charioteer to drive away from the battle field? After all Arjun had instructed once ‘take my chariot to the middle’, had he not? But Arjun was deluded. He realized he was not in a position to use his buddhi and therefore needed help. So he fell at Krishna’s feet. Total surrender was evident. When we know that we need help, we must seek. This is the foremost qualification that we must develop. We usually don’t ask for help only because our pride is bigger than our brain. Vain ego makes us feel as if we are stooping low by asking for help; it is completely wrong. Do ask for help as and when required, without inhibition, without pride. This is a key lesson.

4.26    What nobility does Arjun reflect?

Another important point is that Arjun’s reluctance to fight was not out of fear of his life. He says that he is happily willing to die at the hands of others. His misplaced worries are on those who may be killed by his arrows. He is willing to sacrifice all his possessions including his life to avoid the war. This is a noble character which we must learn. Ready to sacrifice for the goodness to prevail is a great virtue. Sacrifice and Surrender have made Arjun a fitting recipient of Gods gospel.

4.27    Why did Krishna choose Arjun to impart Bhagavad-Gita?

There were many stalwarts, yogis, in the story, yet Arjun received the words directly from God. But it is not Krishna who chose Arjun. It was Arjun who chose Krishna. First as a friend, when he had a choice between Krishna and His mighty army, Arjun chose Krishna. Then at the war he gave himself completely to Krishna and chose Him as his teacher. With his absolute surrender at the divine feet, devoid of all ego, Arjun fell silently, after emptying his deluded mind through words of grief, perhaps confused and grieved but surely as pure as the gold. We all need to become like Arjun, focused on our goal, steadfast devotion to our means, ready to sacrifice for others, devoid of ego with reverence to all, full of love and total surrender to the divine.

  1. Construction

We must now briefly discuss about constructing our life according to Bhagavad-Gita. It requires many discussions and as we have not much time, I am going to just pick up few key lessons – mainly for the preliminary progress – to understand karma-yoga. Let us leave the extensive knowledge for other Bhakti and Gyana for some future sessions.

5.1      What is the key lesson from Bhagavad-Gita, for our goals?

The foremost lesson from Bhagavad-Gita is that you must take the responsibility for yourself. You may seek help from God, learned and all those who are powerful enough to help you, but it is only your self-effort and self-responsibility that matter and deliver. By saying self-effort and self-responsibility, it may sound as if we are left to our own devices. Perhaps we are, but what it implies is that we have absolute freedom and infinite potential within our disposal. This is the foremost lesson from Gita which we must first understand to construct our life.

5.2     What are our first requirements?

In Chapter 6 verse 5, the lord says uddhared Atmana AtmAnam na Atamanam avasAdayet Atmaiva hy Atmano bandhu: Atmaiva ripu: Atmana: This is very important verse. uddhared Atmana AtmAnam: meaning that you must lift yourself. Na Atmanam avasAdayet , do not lower yourself. Thus in the first line, there are two clear instructions given: Self-effort and Self-Responsibility. You have to uplift your self esteem. Once you are able to think for yourself, perhaps from the age of thirteen or so – you must own up to self-effort and self-responsibilities. Why? It is given in the next sentence, ‘Atma Eva Atmana: bandhu:’ – meaning you are the relative to you; ‘Atmaviva Atmana: ripu:’ – you are your enemy. What does this mean? When you are a child, yes, everyone is taking care of you. You are not expected to be on your own. But as soon as you are able to apply your buddhi, there is an expectation on you to demonstrate responsibilities. No one is responsible for your progress from then on, except yourself. Parents, friends and loved-ones would all be there to share your pain and pleasures but none can help you in your progress. This must be clearly understood. Society also expects you to demonstrate certain responsibilities. So you need to be bootstrapping – lifting yourself by your own effort. If you do, then you are good to yourself and therefore your are your best relative or the best friend; if you do not put effort or take responsibility for your actions, then you will lower yourself and that would mean, you become your own enemy, causing damage to yourself.

5.3     How is self-responsibility sustained?

To put self-effort and take self-responsibility, we need internal transformation of character. Let us understand. In Sanskrit ‘effort’ is known as ‘yatnam’. When you put yatnam or efforts, then such act clearly indicates that you are not lazy and is prepared to work. Putting effort means and implies certain character modification. There are three types of ‘guna’ – which we will not go deep here. Tamo guna means sloppy, lazy and indulgence behaviour. It exhibits inertia. Rajo guna is passionate action oriented, not necessarily in control; Satva guna is balanced and controlled knowledge. If someone is putting effort or taking action, then it means he is moving from tamo guna to rajo guna. But effort by itself is no good. Many of us put efforts but do not get success in our life. Why? If we analyse, a key reason would be the inappropriate efforts. Proper effort is denoted by the word prayatnam, with the prefix ‘pra’ in Sanskrit indicating glorified, perfect, purer etc. So prayatnam is what we need to improve the chances of success. How do we convert yatnam to prayatnam? For this, character modification is required. To know proper effort, you must attain the proper knowledge about the tasks to perform correctly; seeking and attaining such knowledge indicate satvic guna. Therefore prayatnam implies that the action of rajo guna is supported by the sativic learning. Where do we focus our self-effort (sva prayatnam)?  For our self-development only: physically, mental and intellectual progress. It means, at the gross level, for example, proper self-effort  is required to achieve a healthy body. In Bhagavad-Gita, the Lord gives advice on all such intermediate goals: what food to eat, how to eat, how to sleep, how long to sleep and many such topics of importance at gross level, to lofty ideals at intellectual level; all these is to guide us in our self-efforts and self-responsibilities.

5.4     What follow the Self-effort and Self-responsibility?

The next step is to develop our interaction with the world in terms of karma-yoga. First of all, please do understand karma-yoga is the basic quality for constructing our life along the path of Gita; we are only focusing on this aspect today. To understand this, let us look at another important verse from Chapter 2, Verse 47. This is mainly to highlight, the most often talked about import of Bhagavad-Gita, namely the karma-yoga. karmany evAdhikAras te mA phaleshu kadAcana mA karma-phala-hetur bhu: mA te sango stv akramani There are four instructions given in this verse which provide the framework for karma-yoga. The first line gives two instructions. ‘karmani eva AdhiKaras te’  – you have complete control on the action – when? – before you start. Before embarking on any action – we have complete power and freedom. We have lots of choices and opportunities to analyse what and if we need to do, before we do. But we seldom leverage on such power to us; we hastily jump into action. Do not spoil such golden opportunity and power before embarking on any action, uttering any word etc. But once we have committed for an action, then we have no power on the impact of the outcome. We have no freedom or choice on the outcome or its impact.  This is the second point from the first line of the verse.

The second lines give the 3rd and 4th instructions.    mA karma-phala-hetur bhu: – the impact of the outcome of our action is based on the true motive of our action. We must understand this well. Outcome is the state of termination of an action. Impact of outcome is the consequences of the outcome. For example, if I steal money from someone, the outcome to me is the money gained; the impact may be completely different; the one who lost the money perhaps lost other opportunities for which the money was intended; by stealing, I have committed a sin and so ultimate grief would impact me. Hope you see the difference. Here Lord says that the impact of the outcome depends on the motivation of the performer. Another example would help: One man pulls the hand of a lady suddenly; another man offers a bunch of flowers. If the motive of the man who has pulled the lady is only to save her from falling then the impact of the outcome should only be gratitude and respect. In contrary, if the motive of the man offering the flowers is to ultimately cheat her, the apparent outcome may be pleasantries, but the real impact is sin and ultimate grief. That is why we need to be very clear and pure in our motives. Earning money can be a good motive if it is for righteous necessity. Killing an enemy in a just war is not a sin as the motive is good, to defend one’s nation. The lesson here is that our motive should be guided only by dharma. By looking at these three instructions, think before you act, once committed you have no free-will on the outcome and your motive defines the impact, you may wonder why take all these troubles and decide to  give-up the action. That would be wrong too. Do not choose inaction over action – this is the fourth instruction on the second line. Arjun faces the same problem; he had many choices before coming to war. He must have deliberated all options and then committed to the war. Now he is trying to manipulate the outcome and refine the motives. Failing to recognize the true motive of the war, he is choosing inaction over action. This is absolutely wrong according to the karma-yoga.

5.5     What is karma-yoga?

In simple terms, the above four rules form the foundation of karma-yoga. Firstly remember, karma-yoga is not specific ritual; it is not like hatha-yoga or dhyana-yoga which all require certain time, place and method to practice. One cannot say, ‘I do karma- yoga every day 5 to 6 in the morning’. karma-yoga refers to an attitude towards our actions and outcome; it defines our behaviour as Karta and Bhokta. It is the very way of living. Therefore we should be performing karma-yoga all the time, 24 x 7 making karma-yoga as our life-style and not a specific activity in our life. Let me say in a different way. Duty is karma ; Right is your reasonable expectation from the outcome of the duty performed. karma-yoga is all about performing the duty without keeping our ‘Right’ as the motivation for doing it. As an example, when you help someone, helping is your duty and their gratitude to you is your right. Say, you pick up and hand-over the object that someone had dropped; suppose the person walks away without thanking you, you may feel hurt; the hurt was caused by your expectation or the motivation of your right. If so, then the act was not done according to karma-yoga. Unfortunately, all our actions are only driven by motivations based on our potential rights. Even the parental care is built on the expectation of children’s help in the future. It cannot be karma-yoga. Only when we perform without the motivation of our rights on the outcome, we can become karma-yogi. When one performs his karma as karma-yoga, he becomes action-less in action. In other words, his very nature shines through as his performance – like the Sun. Sun gives light. Do we say that Sun performs an action to give us the sun-shine? Although it does, we treat this as its innate nature to give lights. Such is the ideal for karma-yogi to perform without expectations. It is an attitude, which we must develop right away. The foremost and for many of us, the only one lesson on which to construct our life based on Bhagavad-Gita is the ability to perform without expectation – to become a karma-yogi.

5.6     What is the use of being a karma-yogi?

The Lord gives lots of explanations in the verses, but to put it simply, by performing our karma as karma-yoga, we attain mental purity and clarity ‘chitta suddhi’. This is an essential qualification or yogyatha for us to go beyond towards Perfection or Completion.


Even when the mind is clear, or we have chitta suddhi, through karma- yoga,  the mind may still not be steady and strong. Clear mind must be made to remain steadfast and strong. The vacillating mind must be controlled. One of the ways to achieve control over the mind is by upsana. This is described as part of Bhakti and Dhyanayoga in Bhagavad-Gita. When the clear mind is controlled for strong-will and focus, we are able to attain the position from where we are able to detach from the roles of Karta and Bhokta.

6.1      What is the point of such detachment; what exists beyond those roles?

Such curiosity will incur within us and lead us to the path of Gyana, by pursuing which we reach perfection; Completion of human endeavour or purushartam is thus done.


That is how I like to introduce in this short time, an approach to Bhagavad Gita.  We must take-up the study of Bhagavad-Gita as early as possible and so do encourage the youngsters. It is not for retirement time-pass.  Also bear in mind that it is not a book of rituals but a sastra for our own self-development and so we must leverage on its wisdom. Also take it from this talk the phrase: SAD NOT to DIE: BE-FREE!  

Now if we have time, I want to take the very fist sloka. The greatest among the Seers, Sri Sri Kanchi Maha Periva has beautifully explained the core message of Gita by its first verse itself.

Let us draw the inspiration from his teaching. dharmakshetre kurukshetre samveda yyutsava: mamaha pandavaschaiva kimakurvada sanjaya (1-1) Dhritarashtra is asking Sanjaya, ‘in the holy place Kurukshetra, there is assembly of warriors for my children and Pandava, what is happening, tell’. Dhritarashtra is blinded by love of his own children. That is why instead of referring as two warring sides, he stresses ‘mamaha’ – my children against ‘pandava’. That is how the Bhagavad-Gita starts.    But great seers bring greater meanings. Paramacharya of Kanchi has given a different interpretation based on which I like to explain this verse, as this one verse could give you the context for the last C of our discussion – the COMPLETION of our understanding of Bhagavad-Gita. If we read as ‘kshetre dharmakshtre kuru’ – then it means, your body or the embodiment, in order to become ‘dharmakshetre’ or righteous, ‘kuru’ – perform the righteous duties. The instruction is to take-up active virtuous life or dharma; the benefit is pure and perfect living.  Why is this instruction? It is because there is a war – “samveda yyutsava” – between who? mamaha pandavaschaiva; Mamaha is the ahankar or the ego attached to the claims ‘me’ or ‘mine’. It is the mind filled with rajo and tamo gunas, full of unrighteous desires. Pandu means white. Shiva is also called as Pandu. Here Pandava means purity within our hearts. It refers to buddhi endowed with satvic- guna or righteous knowledge. There is always conflict between these two.

What is the benefit of performing righteous actions? It gives eternal victory! The word Sanjaya is seen as San + jaya. Jaya means victory. San is the noumenal case of sat which is a derivative of ‘asti’ meaning eternal or reminder. So Sanjaya means eternal victory. So the first verse itself is the essence of the whole Gita.

To achieve total-happiness, you need to remove undue grief which is the result of vacillation of the mind. It requires fight with the right buddhi which is buddhi-yoga or karma-yoga to be victorious. With that victory of dharma, you can enter the path towards divinity and to be free – the true COMPLETION of human birth.

God bless.

Mee. Rajagopalan

23 Mar 2014

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