What I have learned from the Gita
At the age of five was my first memorable introduction to the Bhagavad-gita. I participated in a Gita verse recitation competition in Chandrapur, Maharashtra. I remember feeling both happy and nervous: happy to have memorized several verses, and nervous about reciting them on stage in front of many people. However, that encounter with the Gita had no lasting impactr on me, at least not visibly. I forgot the Gita and went on with my life, pursuing the great Indian student dream of academic excellence.
From achievement to fulfillment
Though I had left the Gita, the Gita hadn’t left me. I retained a subconscious attraction to Gita verse recitation, an attraction that was unusual because I had no interest or talent for singing or music. Little did I know that Gita recitation would draw me back to the Gita fifteen years later.
I was in the third year of my engineering in Electronics & Telecommunications at the Government College of Engineering, Pune. I had just fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a topper: I had scored 2350 out of 2400 and stood first in Maharashtra. I expected to be elated and I was, but for a heartbreakingly brief period. There was no happiness in just looking at my mark-sheet. Only when someone congratulated me for my marks did I feel joy. And if anyone didn’t congratulate me, I felt miserable. I realized that my life’s most desired achievement had not made me happy; it had made me more dependent on others for my happiness. By working hard, I could top in another exam, but what would I get? At best, a repetition of the same brief elation. Wasn’t life meant for something better?
When our heart is ready for wisdom, wisdom finds its way there. While I was pondering such questions, a friend gave me a copy of the Bhagavad-gita with the commentary of A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada. I read the Gita (06.22) description of spiritual absorption: a state that takes us beyond dissatisfaction and disturbance. Having just tasted the shallowness of worldly achievements, I felt inspired to pursue this as my life’s ultimate achievement.
As I studied the Gita, recited its verses and applied its teachings, I found my anger decreasing, my mind becoming calmer and my life becoming more purposeful. I started sharing the Gita’s message with friends and several of them became transformed, some to a greater degree than me. They broke free from bad habits and became more positive and productive.
So sublime and transformational was the wisdom I found in the Gita that I decided to dedicate my life to studying and sharing it.
The Gita transformed me not just experientially but also intellectually. It infused my life with holistic meaning. Since my school days, I was fascinated by science, especially by how it uncovered law-like order in nature. And yet I felt disappointed, disturbed even, that science provided me islands of meaning while sentencing me to drown in an ocean of meaninglessness. Science, or more precisely scientism, told that my life was ultimately pointless; that I was just a lucky accident, a parcel of protoplasm somehow come alive for a brief lifetime.
The Gita helped me understand that the order science had discovered in the material universe was a subset of a higher order that permeated all of existence. I felt that the Gita was a masterpiece of spiritual science. It taught that:
- We have an indestructible spiritual core.
- The universe is a university.
- Life is an eternal journey of spiritual evolution.
- Everything we do can contribute to our growth in wisdom and love.
- Such growth can take us beyond the body’s mortality to an eternity of ecstasy.
The Gita begins by acknowledging that life can hurt, and hurt terribly. Arjuna was a battle-hardened warrior, the embodiment of fearless virility, trained to face death without flinching. Yet such a warrior who could tearlessly endure wounds caused by the deadliest arrows was reduced to a state of uncontrollable tears (02.01) – such are life’s overpowering vicissitudes. This traumatic beginning shows that the Gita speaks our language; it understands and addresses our predicaments as we face our life’s battles, small or big.
At the Gita’s start (01.46), Arjuna put aside his bow, disoriented and disheartened. By the end of the Gita (18.78), he picked up his bow, ready to answer the demanding call of duty. Such is the morale-restoring power of Gita wisdom.
Arjuna’s bow can be said to represent our determination. Life sometimes afflicts us with perplexities and adversities. Disheartened, we put aside our metaphorical bows. But on hearing the Gita, we become animated with spiritual devotion and connect with the supreme source of strength that lies deep inside us. Being thus empowered, we get the wisdom and strength to raise the bow of our determination and face life with confidence.
Transforming a Battlefield into a Classroom
No other book in the world has a setting as dramatic as the Gita: It is spoken in the middle of a battlefield, after the blowing of the conches that signified the start of the war. A parallel that may illustrate the momentousness of this setting is a cricket World Cup Final. Thousands of spectators are cheering, the fielders have taken their positions, and the bowler has started the run-up. Suddenly, the batsman calls the non-striker to the middle of the pitch and they start talking and keep talking, on and on.
Similar is the Gita’s setting. The Gita’s speaker Krishna, who is God himself descended on earth, demonstrates extraordinary teaching expertise: he converts a battlefield into a classroom. By his presence and presentation, he raises Arjuna far above the battlefield as they scale heights of wisdom that the world has rarely seen before or after.
The Gita’s battlefield setting conveys that no worldly problem is too mundane for God’s voice to reach us. If Arjuna on a battlefield could take time out to seek Gita wisdom, we all can too. Studying the Gita doesn’t consume time; it contributes time. Investing time in studying the Gita helps us protect the time that is otherwise stolen by our disturbed mind. The Gita helps us put first things first, thereby ensuring that we put our time to best use.
Also, just as Krishna converted a battlefield into a classroom, his message can help us convert life’s experiences into learning experiences.
The Gita’s Contemporary Relevance
- Harmonizing right and left brains
On the Kurukshetra battlefield, Arjuna was fighting a battle within, a battle between reason and emotion. Emotion had caught reason in a stranglehold. The Gita’s message helped Arjuna win his inner battle, not by helping reason defeat emotion, but by harmonizing both reason and emotion through a higher vision of life: a life of spiritual purpose. Phrasing this harmony in contemporary terms, the Gita can help us harmonize our emotional right brain and logical left brain in the uncovering of our spiritual essence, thereby enabling us to bring out our best.
- Spiritual activism
The Gita (18.46) urges us to work as worship. The mood underlying this could be re-phrased as: “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.” God wants us to discover our talents, develop them and use them for constructive contribution. The more we work in a mood of service to him and to all living beings in relationship with him, the more we grow both externally and internally. Externally, we contribute to the world; internally, we connect with the source of the supreme peace and joy. The Gita reveals an activist vision of spirituality. Modernity romanticizes the world, making us believe that everything will be hunky-dory if we just adjust a few things. Some spiritual traditions demonize the world, claiming that everything in it is simply a source of temptation and tribulation. In positive contrast to such romanticization or demonization, the Gita recommends utilization: using the things of the world for humanity’s spiritual evolution. Such evolution culminates in pure love for Krishna and all living beings in relationship with him.
- Non-sectarian religion
In today’s multi-cultural world, especially relevant is Gita (18.66): “Give up all religions – just surrender to me.” This verse doesn’t reject religion per se, but connects religion with its defining purpose: to love God. When religion is being increasingly misappropriated for promoting sectarian extremism, the Gita’s stress on religion as a means to spiritual devotion can offer precious healing to a hurting world. If our religion doesn’t bring us to the platform of having a direct, personal experience of God and our personal relationship of him, then it should be rejected as incomplete – a direct personal experience of God is higher than any so-called religious system.
- From self-destruction to self-realization
Millions the world over succumb to various self-destructive behavioral patterns such as depression, addiction and suicidal urges. Such self-destruction begins with a misleading inner voice that makes us do things that hurt us and hurt others. Pertinently, the Gita (06.05) cautions: “Elevate yourself with yourself; don’t degrade yourself with yourself. The self is the friend of the self and the self is the enemy of the self too.” Gita wisdom is an illuminating inner torchlight to identify and rectify the misleading voice. Thus, it can serve as an invaluable spiritual complement to psychology and psychiatry in healing those who have become their own worst enemies.
Personal realization and contribution
On occasions too many to count, the Gita has solaced and strengthened me. By reciting it, I access the spiritual sound that raises my consciousness above my circumstance. By meditating on it, my intelligence becomes equipped to return and face the circumstance with greater maturity and clarity.
In 2011, while I was on a morning walk in Mumbai, I slipped on some spilled water. The fall fractured severely my left leg which had been afflicted with polio when I was one and had thereafter hollowed with osteoporosis. The fracture caused pain of the kind I had never experienced before. As I struggled to endure the pain, suddenly Gita verses from the second chapter came out of my mouth, and I felt immediate relief from the pain. From that moment onwards for the next five hours till I was given anesthesia for a surgery, I was continuously reciting the Gita’s verses. By such recitation, I found my consciousness rising above my bodily pain and going deep into the Gita’s wisdom.
After this exceptional spiritual experience, I felt inspired to do something special for serving the Gita. While exploring options, I found that no one was sharing the Gita’s wisdom through concise daily reflections. Several Christian pastors were mailing daily Bible messages, and some Muslim mullahs were mailing daily Koran messages. I felt troubled: Why was the Gita not receiving similar daily service?
Of course, the Gita’s message was not sectarian, competing with that of other religious texts. The same one God has given different revelations for guiding people according to time-place-circumstance. His revelation through the Gita has enriched millions for millennia. And this revelation deserved the service of a daily reflection that could make its message concisely accessible. After praying and seeking my mentors’ blessings, I took up this service on November 1, 2011.
For over five years since then, I have been writing daily a small three-hundred-word reflection on the Gita and publishing it at gitadaily.com. I feel grateful for the opportunity and the ability to do this service to the Gita. And I feel even more grateful to see that these daily reflections are connecting thousands of readers from all over the world with the Gita.
An Israeli scholar on the Gita, Dr. Ithamar Theodor, has called my Gita presentation an expression of “humanistic Hinduism.” The Gita speaks to us through many voices. Dr. Theodor verbalized what I had inchoately sensed: The Gita is meant for all of humanity, for bringing the best out of humanity and for helping humanity get the best out of life. The word humanism is nowadays associated with secularism and even atheism, but that association is not essential to that word. In fact, these ideologies, being materialistic, often erode the core of our humanity – they reduce the cherished emotions and values that define our humanity to nothing more than chance interactions of insentient chemicals in the cranial cavity. In comforting contrast, the Gita’s worldview affirms our humanity by rooting it in our spirituality. Whereas materialism ultimately reduces our free will to an illusion, the Gita’s spirituality declares our free will to be a reflection of our eternal ontological status as conscious agents. Indeed, our humanity is best understood, appreciated and developed through the Gita’s spiritual worldview.
When I give talks on the Gita in various parts of the world from Australia to America, people often introduce me as a Gita teacher. But I see myself as a Gita student who seeks to understand it better by speaking and writing on it. I don’t teach the Gita – the Gita teaches me and teaches through me. I am profoundly grateful to the many Gita teachers, past and present, whose insights have helped me dive deeper into the Gita. As a service to them, I do my small part in keeping the Gita’s legacy of wisdom alive and accessible.
My life’s greatest fortune is to savor and share the Gita. I hope and pray that I can serve it by writing on it daily till my life’s last day.