The Mystic Spiral

The flow of ideas in the Bhagavad gita

I was recently travelling through south India on holiday. At every hotel I stayed in there would be, without fail, a copy of the Bhagavad-gita on the bedside table. This intrigued me, because in my travels around England I am accustomed to see copies of the Holy Bible in the same place, ready to give consolation to any world-weary traveller. The Bhagavad-gitas I examined were often well-thumbed, evidence that hotel guests had at least read a portion of it. And no wonder; the Bhagavad-gita, or simply the Gita, as it is normally called, has been read, recited, and memorized by millions of people in India for thousands of years. Hindus chant verses from the Gita at births, marriages, funerals, and at all their religious ceremonies in between. It is the most important gift to give to someone at a key point in his or her life. Only 700 verses long, the Gita is written in easy language, is poetic, clear and concise. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation of India, read the Gita during spells in prison and when in seclusion. He said that when he no longer saw a silver lining on the dark cloud in his life he would pick up his Gita and read words of comfort. English explorers and foreign scholars have all marvelled at the Gita – that so much deep philosophy could be placed in one book. The zeitgeist at the moment, certainly in the West, is for a book that brings humanity together; that creates harmony where there is discord. What is required is a book of truth that rises above the religious classifications that are often based upon geographical, tribal linguistic and cultural boundaries. The Gita, a sacred conversation between two friends, is the oldest of all, spoken before all the religions of the world were born. To the scholar, the Gita ranks as the main text that encapsulates the essence of the ethical and spiritual culture of India. Yet to the genuine spiritual seeker it is much more than that: it is a sublime and metaphysical dialogue of universal importance that will provide immediate clarity and reward. For thousands of years it has enriched the minds of the greatest eastern thinkers; now is the time for it to be found on the bedside tables in the west. The Bhagavad-gita is the world’s oldest book of wisdom. The ‘As It Is’ edition, now forty years old, translated from the original Sanskrit with clear and straightforward commentary by the great scholar and saint, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, deserves a place on every bookshelf in every home. More importantly, it deserves to be read daily before breakfast, its verses discussed by thoughtful people, and its meaning put into practise by those who wish to see good in this world.

The spiritual journey begins

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and the first step on a spiritual journey is usually a question. Whether spoken out loud or held within the heart, the question that needs an answer is the start of our journey. When we ask a second question, and receive an answer, we take another step. Our questions may arise from curiosity, or in a desire for knowledge, or simply to improve some aspect of our life. Many times we ask questions at a time of inner confusion or uncertainty. Such internal feelings are not an obstacle; rather, they can be a prompt for spiritual growth. It is at precisely this point that we, as spiritual seekers, are welcomed to a conversation between two old friends. Arjuna, the mighty archer and winner of many battles, stands on his chariot overlooking a vast plain. Behind him, his own army, armoured elephants waiting for the order to charge, sun glinting on the helmets of legions of troops, flags fluttering in the breeze. Before him, stretching to the horizon, an even larger army led by his dear cousins, martial arts teachers, and respected elders. Their horses move restlessly, ready for battle. At this point he feels confused and fearful, not from personal cowardice but because he is a warrior and yet a spiritually developed man. At this point he lays down his bow and asks his dear friend Krishna, beside him on the chariot, for answers to his questions. This part of the Gita, the beginning of the sacred conversation, encourages us to voice our deepest questions without fear of ridicule; to abandon our pride and to accept help with openness and humility. In this initial adjustment, the Gita explains, we make great progress at the start of our upward path. Krishna takes the role of teacher, Arjuna the student, and the philosophical dialogue begins. The mighty archer listens intently, and through his ears, we hear the sound of Krishna’s voice speaking to us.

The inner self

Your body changes constantly, all through the course of your life, begins Krishna, and so does your mind. Yet you remain the same person. Who are you? Who is that unchanging inner person you know yourself to be? If you are the soul within, distinct from the body, then how can material things bring you happiness? And if you are simply impersonal chemicals and neural connections, then what is the meaning of life, love, virtue, and compassion? Krishna explains that we exist forever, and have always existed. We, the conscious spiritual being, move through time and space as a passenger within the unconscious material body. When body and soul function as one we call this life, and when they separate we call it death. At that time the inner self moves on to enter a new body. To understand all this – to experience it as a waking reality – we must tolerate the impermanent, all the changes taking place around us in the world of matter. If we practise patience we will learn to distinguish the firm ground of truth from the waves of illusion. The soul – the fully conscious spiritual person – is like a fish stranded on a riverbank. All it needs is to be placed back in its natural environment, the water, and then it will be happy. The spiritual atmosphere, existing above and beyond the interactions of matter, is natural for the soul, and the process of yoga, or ‘linking,’ allows us to once again swim freely in the eternal waters of the spirit. Inner concentration and stillness is the first symptom of an enlightened soul. This state of mind, once reached, overcomes the craving for material pleasure that is the very source of all our unhappiness. A more satisfying contentment is available and when you have it you will become free from attachment, fear, greed and anger. But selfish motivation must be given up. The mind is different from the self and can be used for good or bad. The five senses likewise. A mind accustomed to obeying the demands of the senses will lead you into tangled karmic actions and reactions. The senses make good servants but bad masters, and therefore the senses must be controlled by a mind governed by intelligence. But first, in order to be able to do this, we must taste spiritual bliss, a higher taste. Only then will it be easy to make the right choices, free from artificial repression. While unlimited physical enjoyment – or fantasizing about it – seems to offer the real happiness we’re looking for, the results on such a path are disappointing. One must sacrifice the apparent freedom of sensuality to gain real freedom and pleasure.

Three stages of enlightenment

There are three stages of enlightenment. The first level is the awareness and enjoyment of eternity, the sense that, in truth, All is One, and that we exist above and beyond the dream of illusion in the bright light of the Absolute. The second level is reached with the dawning comprehension that there is a separate source of the bliss we feel, and that we are as rays of light from this divine origin. We feel that we are pervaded by this source of all, yet remain distinct. We are dependent and that the source is independent like the sun. Comprehending this, we awaken to the knowledge that even though we have tasted eternity, there exists a relationship with the One who radiates love for us and this impels us to reciprocate. More than this: that just as there are distinctive qualities within the world of matter, the inverted reflection of the world above, there is an even greater variety of colour, forms and sensations within spiritual existence. These now become manifest to us, as objects and figures appear from a mist. As our revelation progresses, we comprehend that our essential personality is not extinguished by our enlightenment; that personhood is the irreducible component of all existence, and that there is a personal God, and that God has always known us, and loves us. Finally, the culmination of enlightenment arrives, that we fully restore our long dormant relationship of loving service to God. The Sanskrit name for God is Krishna, or ‘One who attracts all.’

Three primary forces

But to attain any degree of enlightenment we must struggle with the forces that keep us in the darkness. The Gita explains that there are three primary influences that constitute all of nature and its powerful hold over us. Like the three primary colours of red, blue and yellow, which mix to create all colours, the qualities of material nature combine and interact in endless permutations. So long as we live in this world of matter we cannot escape their primary influences. These three gunas or ‘ropes,’ described as ‘goodness, passion and ignorance’ strongly codify and colour our perception, desires, goals, interaction with others and hence our diet, choice of fellowship, sense of morality and therefore our belief system or ‘religion.’ The pure desire of the soul to be united with Krishna is filtered through these ‘colours’ and hence a multitude of different earthly aspirations and religions are born. When geographical and historical factors are added to this mixture, we arrive at the confusing paradox of a world where many religious paths each claim to have discovered an exclusive truth. Yet no sincere religion practised with faith is decried in the Gita. Even though the speaking of the Gita took place before the manifestation of the religions we can list today, still the modes and mentalities that produced them all existed in very ancient times. They are all, ultimately, on the same path. As the practitioners become free from illusion, in this lifetime or the next, so the ultimate goal of the spiritual path will be revealed.

Three kinds of yoga

At a certain point, Krishna, the old friend of Arjuna, reveals his true identity: that he is God come to Earth to restore, balance, and clarify the ancient path of yoga, and that he comes age after age in a stream of incarnations. In a blinding epiphany, Krishna shows his universal form to his old friend, as proof of his divinity. Arjuna understands that God has been with him all along. Krishna continues teaching Arjuna, explaining that there are many forms of yoga, all of which can bring a person close to him. Karma Yoga, the path of action in consciousness of Krishna, involves working in the world but not being of it, like a lotus is never touched by the mud and water in which it grows. By working with detachment to the results of your work, and by offering those results, whatever they may be, to Krishna, you become progressively transcendent to the effects of karma. The path of Jnana Yoga, the rigid path of philosophical enquiry, bodily austerity and discipline, is for those who are done with work and the spirit of enjoyment. By using intellectual discrimination as a sharp knife to cut away attachment to this temporary world, they also come closer to Krishna. Then there are those on the path of Astanga Yoga, the eight-limbed path of personal restraints and disciplines, sitting postures, breath control, turning of the senses inwards, meditation, contemplation, and absorption in trance. They also come closer to Krishna. There are various difficulties inherent in each of these paths, explains Krishna, who then proceeds to describe the ultimate path of Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion and Surrender. In all things, says Krishna, think of me. Hear about me from those who know me. Sing about me, offer all your daily actions to me, including the very food you eat. I will bless your voice, your actions, and your food and make them sacred. Give up all processes of self-centred religiosity. Bow down to my image, revere this sacred conversation, and at the end of your life you will come to me. You will forever be free from the wheel of birth and death, and will live with me eternally.

Common questions

  • How old is the Gita?
Indian historical sources state that the Bhagavad gita was originally spoken in 3137 BC.  This date can be established by astronomical references found within the Mahabharata, the larger, 100,000-verse book in which the Gita is found. Other references as to its antiquity were corroborated in 1995 when satellite imagery discovered the dried-up course of the fabled Saraswati river, also mentioned in texts of the period.

  • What language is it written in?
Sanskrit or ‘pure language’ is said by many scholars to be the ‘mother tongue’ of several European and Asian languages.  Sanskrit words or their derivatives occur in Latin, Gaelic, Welsh, Greek, and in Old Russian.  Sanskrit has 46 letters, 12 cases, and takes 12 year to learn properly.

  • Who translated it from Sanskrit?
In November 1784, the first ever direct translation of a Sanskrit work into English was completed by Charles Wilkins.  The book was the Bhagavad gita. Friedreich Max Mueller (1823-1900) the German Sanskritist spent most of his working life as professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University. He served as chief editor of Sacred Books of the East. The Gita was included in this famous collection. Since then, it has become one of the most widely read texts of the world.

  • Are there any existing copies of the Gita?
The Bhagavad gita was traditionally inscribed on leaves and none of these have survived.  However the sacred culture of guru-disciple ensured a succession of hand-written versions of the text down through the centuries, and guaranteed that the pronunciation of the Sanskrit verses were preserved.  The oldest existing handwritten copy of the Bhagavad gita is from 1488 and is kept in a museum in London.

  • Why is your version called ‘As It Is?’
The Bhagavad gita As It Is is unique amongst translations; the original Devanagari text is included along with a Romanised transliteration so any modern reader can pronounce the original language. But it is also As It Is because both the translations and the extensive commentaries were written by a Sanskrit scholar steeped in the practical devotional culture of the Bhagavad-gita. The Vaishnava teacher A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw that though there were many translations of the Gita, there was not one written by someone who actually believed and practised its teachings. The As It Is version of the Gita is now the best-selling edition in the world.

  • Who is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada?
Born Abhay Charan De, the author of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, was born in Calcutta, India in 1896.  In 1922 he met his spiritual master and was requested by him to take the message of the Bhagavad Gita to the English-speaking people.  For his scholarship and spirituality he was honoured by the Vaishnava community with the title of ‘Bhaktivedanta Swami.’ After almost an entire life in preparation he was finally able to travel to America in 1965.  From there, he travelled the world a dozen times. At his passing in 1977, there were over one hundred temples with thousands of followers. More than thirty years later, the phenomenal growth continues.

  • What is special about the Bhagavad Gita As It Is?
Firstly, this is not a partial Gita or an extract of the Gita, or a poetic version.  This is the Gita in its entirety, exactly as it was spoken between Krishna and Arjuna all those centuries ago.  The original Sanskrit in Devanagari script is fully present, and the edition is filled with the combined wisdom of the lineage of Vaishnava preceptors.  This is the first Bhagavad-gita that has created an entire worldwide revival of the authentic practise of the teachings.

  • Why does the world need yet another holy book?
We can see that rival religious followers and their holy books seem to be the cause of much conflict in the world.  An intelligent person might reasonably question how another holy book – with another set of followers – could possibly help the situation.  Yet the Gita itself is not a sectarian book for a particular tribe or race, at a particular time in history.  Its metaphysical teachings are universal in nature, transcendental to the divisions of geography, ethnicity, language or time period.  They are concerned only with the spirit, which knows no mundane identity, and the spirit’s eternal relationship with God. They cover how to attain enlightenment, become free from illusion, and how to restore peace and happiness to life. In this the Gita is the essential information for all thinking people who value peace and prosperity in the world.
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