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Perspectives on The Bhagavad Gita

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As it Is by Jeremy

As it Is by Jeremy via Flickr

By Michael Clark

To kill or not to kill

Many say The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. Among diverse Hindu scriptures, the Gita stands out as a unique gem, synthesizing several core aspects of Hinduism. At least, this is how enthusiasts talk about the Gita. Critics tend to see it as a misguided justification for violence.

The Gita belongs within the Mahabharata, an epic about two warring families. Because of its literary and philosophical sophistication, most scholars believe the Gita was added to the already existing Mahabharata around 450 BCE, approximately 500 years after the original epic was written (circa 1000 BCE).

When it comes to ancient texts, insertions like this are not unusual. Almost all contemporary biblical scholars say that diverse oral traditions and authors run though many Old Testament books formerly believed to be written by just one person.

The story of the Gita is pretty straighforward. The hero, Arjuna, of the virtuous Pandava family, is cheated out of his palace by the wicked Karauva family. As a result, the deity Krishna, seated at the back of Arjuna’s chariot, urges him to fight in a massive battle against the evil Karauvas. Because the Pandavas and Karauvas are kith and kin, the noble Arjuna hesitates when Krishna exhorts him to kill members of the Karauva side of the family.

In response to Arjuna’s hesitation, Krishna launches forth on a metaphysical discourse about sacred duty (dharma) and the immortality of the soul (atman). Krishna says Arjuna is justified in killing because it’s his sacred obligation as a member of the warrior caste (Kshatriya). As a Kshatriya he’s duty-bound to restore a moral balance perilously skewed by the Karauva’s evil ways.

On a metaphysical level, Krishna says that Arjuna would not really be killing because, at the deepest level, the soul is immortal. Arjuna’s spiritual ignorance makes him believe he’d be doing wrong by slaying the Karauvas. In fact, Krishna says physicality is an illusion spun by the web of maya (deception arising from ignorance). Krishna adds that Arjuna’s ignorance must be dispelled before he can attain the clear vision required to do the right thing–that is, to kill the Karauvas.

A psychological interpretation

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada via Flickr

Don’t let this brief summary fool you. The Gita is not a mere outburst nor artistic representation of anger. Krishna forwards a detailed philosophical and religious argument advocating the physical killing of human beings. Taken literally, the Gita says killing human beings who disrupt the moral order is not just okay, it’s holy.

Some may agree with this stance, citing rough parallels like the Jewish Holy War, the Christian Just War and the Muslim jihad. Others find it deplorable.

Like any text, literary or not, the Gita must be interpreted. So forgetting the bellicose readings of the Gita, it seems more constructive to interpret the Gita on a psycho-spiritual level. This isn’t a novel approach. Several Indian thinkers have written about the psychological aspects of the Gita. In fact, the great champion of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, said the Gita was his favorite book, one that could untie any spiritual knot.

Gandhi’s notion of spiritual knots reminds us that the psyche can be complicated. Some psychologists say that the complexities of the psyche are genetically determined. Behaviorists, on the other hand, say the mind is conditioned by the environment. Most, however, take the middle way by highlighting nature and nurture.

But the analysis shouldn’t stop there. Many theologians from different religions believe that spiritual powers act on our personalities, a perspective often ignored within psychology.

Sri Ramakrishna and C. G. Jung

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M via Flickr

The Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna says that spiritual enlightenment entails a process of purification. This process is not always easy to endure. For Ramakrishna, the inferior aspects of the personality are purged through the mechanism of suffering.

Ramakrishna gives an analogy of rotten tomatoes. Old tomatoes rot faster, he says, when bashed up and thrown out the window. This might sound enigmatic but Ramakrishna’s analogy might be better understood if we compare it to Carl Jung’s work on psychological suffering within the context of alchemy.

Jung studied ancient and medieval alchemical practices and came to see alchemy as a process of inner transformation. He believed the alchemist’s desire to transform base metals into gold mirrored their psychological transformation. As metals are heated and transformed, the alchemist evolves psychologically.

Some alchemists, no doubt, were hucksters trying to scam zealous aristocrats searching for gold, but others were sincere. The true alchemist sought to create a mystical tonic to cure illness and ensure immortality. But this elixir came through prolonged boilings, just as psycho-spiritual purification entails suffering.

Jung’s view of alchemy parallels Ramakrishna’s take on the Gita because both point to a stormy and painful stage of personal growth.

As we journey through life, people and events tempt or irritate us. During moments of temptation or agitation our lesser qualities can arise. Some accept these personality aspects, leaving them unchanged. For these people it’s not degrading to express their animal – or perhaps evil – nature. It’s just natural, healthy and whole. By way of contrast, potential saints are consumed with the idea of eradicating lower personality traits. Some may even self-flagellate in an attempt to conquer sinful tendencies.

Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes. Confronted with bad habits or irritating people, we can view that as an opportunity for reflection, knowledge and self-control.

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the...

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the cathedral of Monreale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A psychological interpretation of the Gita views much of life as a battlefield. We are often confronted with antagonistic influences, personalities and opinions. But life isn’t quite that simple. And a psychological interpretation of the Gita, while superior to a literal one, dwells on the abrasive side of human relationships.

However, disharmony is only half the story. Perhaps not even half. Conflicts will always arise. But other people can give us a lift and not just bring us down. And instead of hitting back when people hurt us, shouldn’t we try to overcome our pain and anger through understanding and compassion?

As Saint Paul says:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-2

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9 thoughts on “Perspectives on The Bhagavad Gita

  1. The Gita is really the greatest piece of literature of all times and all religions. Everyone should read it at least once in a lifetime.

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  2. Interesting thought to approach the Gita as a symbolic text on psychic development. As psychologist I am very much inspired by the Jungian approach of legends, myths, fairy tales. I am also familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work. Is there any publication known where the Gita is analyzed psychologically? Not just as an allegory (also very interesting!), but the story interpreted as a reflection of a intrapsychic development process or initiation? If someone has some reading suggestions, I would be grateful.

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  3. Me, as university teacher, also sympatize with “Jungian” ( so called heretic:-) approach to Gita.
    I am finding this kind of approach much better than the usual, “If God want us to kill and the consciousness level to decrease for thousand of years, we have no other choice than to get it as it is” ( words by Abhay Charan).
    To avoid the attitude based on traditional use of Mahabharata, I am trying to understand the matter from different points of view.
    Sometimes I stumble upon a refference to Sri Ramakrishna interpretations of Kurukshetra events, called “controversial”. Someone should even blamed the spiritual Master for changing the Space with the commentary. The interpretation affected not only some spiritual followers, but even some authors of speculative fiction (A.C. Clarke, E. Däniken). But I am unable to find the original text. I hope the text exists not only in Benegali, but was translated to western languages. Can someone help me with the matter?
    Thanks.

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    • Interesting comments. I’m not sure if Ramakrishna wrote anything himself. I’m not an expert on him but it seems most of his extant teachings are from disciples and/or interested seekers. You might want to look here and search through the text, and maybe contact them:

      http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/

      As for the psychological interpretation of the Gita, I think this is healthy. The Bible’s Old Testament also can be approached this way. As mankind develops, old habits and patterns will likely be played out but hopefully on higher and higher levels.

      So instead of physical warfare, we can see the day, perhaps, where conflict is more conceptual and even spiritual. Some contemporary writers are already talking about the idea of “transcendent warfare.” Although this idea involves the use of psi to discern possible security threats, etc., it could also include a kind of psycho-spiritual dynamic among real people.

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  4. Rather a partial understanding of the Gita.

    First misunderstanding is – that the Lord‘s message is violence – as per Kshatriya dharma.

    Clearly the preceding chapters in the Mahabharata where the Lord Krishna himself embarks on an mediation assignment for peace between the two families – those key chapters are either unread or forgotten. Immediately after the failure of that mission – the war begins.

    The Gita is an integral part of Mahabharata. Its message permeates the entire epic. It has to be read and understood as such – if one wishes a true understanding of the scripture.

    In fact the Mahabharata in toto used to be recited as a sacred scripture not too long ago. My grandmother who would in current terms be considered “illiterate“ and who passed away at a ripe old age in 1990͵ used to read the Mahabharata daily most of her life.

    Sadly modern Hindus often are the most ignorant when it comes to reading and understanding their scriptures.

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  5. Hari, thanks for your comment. In part I agree with you. This article could mention Krishna’s peace efforts (in the Mahabharata) prior to coaching Arjuna for battle. I think I do mention this elsewhere, either at earthpages.org or earthpages.ca.

    It seems the question is: How do we connect the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita? Some scholars believe the Gita is a later insertion.

    In my view, the problem is similar to that found in the Christian Old Testament (often bellicose) and the New Testament (never advocating violence). But it differs in that the Christian New Testament shows a move toward peace. We cannot say the same thing re the Gita, if indeed it comes later than the Mahabharata.

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  6. Pingback: Bhagavad-Gita | Earthpages.ca

  7. Excellent article. Objective and compassionately written. Personally I always took it on the metaphorical level with the battle as a context to express it’s messages. I have always found the Gita very practical and enlightening. I don’t read it much these days, but it was a major stepping stone on my path to spiritual awareness in my youth.

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