God Proposes, Man Accepts
(A condensed version of this article was published earlier here. This article has been expanded at the request of readers who had wanted to read more on this theme.)
“Man proposes, God disposes” is a familiar wry comment. It is a saying by which we try to philosophize when factors beyond our control foil our best plans. Despite the adage, we do feel immensely frustrated when we have to watch helplessly as providence wrecks our cherished plans one after another. When we either can’t get what we want or must accept what we don’t want, we become miserable. And because such situations come quite frequently in our life, misery is our unavoidable companion.
Little Control Means No Control
Most people tackle this dilemma by trying to increase their ability to control things. They think that acquiring wealth, power, knowledge, fame, beauty, and even renunciation will help. But do these really solve the problem? They seem to give us control over our lives and surroundings, but they themselves are beyond our control. For example, a wealthy person imagines that his monetary power gives him control over his life and so wants to increase his wealth unlimitedly (Bhagavad-gita 16.13–15). But he can lose the wealth through events beyond his control, such as a stock market crash. Thus wealth creates an illusion of control. It only increases anxiety by making us more dependent on things beyond our control. And money can’t bribe death, which in a moment strips us of everything (10.34). Hence the Gita (2.8) asserts that material solutions offer no actual relief. Srila Prabhupada succinctly states the futility of mundane attempts to control our lives: “Little control means no control.”
The Bhagavad-gita offers a dramatically different remedy: God proposes, man accepts. All attempts to become happy in the material world are ultimately misdirected. They keep us out of harmony with God. The perfection of our intelligence is to harmonize our will with the divine will (7.19).
All the major religions teach us to faithfully and gracefully accept reversals as the unknowable will of the Lord. The prayer of Jesus the night before he was crucified—“Let Thy will be done, not mine”—is a well-known example. In times of pain and grief, prayerful surrender to the will of the Lord can bring relief. But most people cannot muster the faith needed for offering such a bold prayer.
The Bhagavad-gita holds a unique position among the world’s scriptures in that it offers a solid intellectual springboard and a well-defined spiritual trajectory for this leap of faith. The philosophy of the Gita is so cogent, coherent, and complete that after understanding it Arjuna accepted the Lord’s desire that his relatives be killed. And he went even further. He agreed to help bring about the execution of Krishna’s desire. Karisye vacanam tava: “I will do whatever You say.” (18.73)
Insights from the GIta
Here’s a summary of the Gita’s extraordinarily empowering perspective on the reversals of life:
- We are not gross bodies or subtle minds, but are eternal souls (7.4–5). Therefore the sufferings caused by the mind, the body, and their extensions—relatives, friends, possessions, positions—no matter how devastating, do not deprive us of our essential spiritual identity and purpose in life: to revive our loving relationship with God. We have a changeless, blissful core that no reverses can take away. Knowing that is a source of tremendous solace and strength when everything around us seems to be falling apart (2.13–16).
- Krishna is our Supreme Father (14.4). He loves all of us, even when we spurn His love or deny His existence. The practical sign of His selfless, causeless love is that He creates and maintains everything we wayward children need to enjoy material happiness. He provides all the universal necessities, such as heat and light (15.12–13). He keeps all our bodily functions, such as digestion, in proper order (15.14). He gives us the inspiration and intelligence to enjoy life according to our desires (15.15). Thus the Lord is our supreme well-wisher and supporter (5.29).
- The universal laws of action and reaction govern all events in the material world. Reversals come upon us not by cruel chance but by our own past misdeeds, in either this or earlier lives. To accept the law of karma is not fatalistic, creating feelings of helplessness and impotence, as some people say. Nor is it psychologically damaging, creating haunting feelings of guilt, as others allege. Rather, a mature understanding of the impartial law of karma is empowering. It confirms that we do have some control over our lives. By harmonizing with the universal laws of action, as explained in the God-given scriptures, we have the power to create a bright future for ourselves, no matter how bleak the present may seem (3.9).
- For those steadfastly devoted to the Lord, karmic laws aren’t all that’s involved. The Lord Himself orchestrates the events in the lives of His devotees so that they are most expeditiously elevated to the platform of unlimited, eternal, spiritual happiness (12.6–7). Indeed for the faithful the Lord transforms material adversity into spiritual prosperity. An intelligent transcendentalist is therefore able to see a painful reversal as a spiritual catharsis, as a surgery for the materially infected soul. A surgery, though painful, frees the body from dangerous infection and promotes recovery. Similarly, material adversity, though painful, frees the soul from the shackles of matter and promotes the realization of his blissful spiritual identity.
Wisdom in Action
After hearing Krishna’s message, Arjuna realized that Krishna was not urging him to fight the war for petty personal gains. Rather, Krishna was giving him the privileged opportunity to play a crucial role in a divine plan. He could help reestablish order and harmony in human society. He could destroy the anti-social elements who had grabbed power. Hence his fighting was necessary and beneficial service to God and to all living beings as the children of God. He realized that all the assembled warriors, including his loved ones, were eternal souls. They would continue to live after their bodily death. And by dying in the presence of the supremely pure Lord Krishna, they would be purified of their sinful mentality and would attain spiritual freedom.
Before hearing the Gita, Arjuna had felt hopeless (2.6). If he killed his relatives, he reasoned, he would be committing a heinous sin (1.36). If he chose not to fight, he would have no way to live and would be disgraced for having abandoned the battle like a coward (2.33–36). After hearing the Gita, he recognized that he had no need to fear sin. Krishna taught him that action in line with His will brings purification and elevation, not sin and suffering (18.65–66). Arjuna’s fighting would benefit not only himself but the whole world, including his slain relatives.
Because Krishna’s will always triumphs, Arjuna would not die while fighting. But even if he did, he would attain the highest spiritual realm of everlasting happiness by laying down his perishable body in a holy war. Therefore after hearing the Gita, Arjuna confidently picked up his famed Ga∫∂iva bow, which he had dejectedly cast aside. He emphatically declared his willingness to execute the all-beneficial will of the Lord (18.73). Thus the Gita is a graphic illustration of how action in accordance with spiritual wisdom transforms a disastrous reversal into a glorious triumph.
The Gita’s comprehensive philosophical explanations serve as a map for the aspiring transcendentalist on the spiritual odyssey back to harmony with the Lord (16.24). Yoga, linking one’s consciousness with the Lord, is the means to return to harmony. The Gita states that meditation (dhyana-yoga), speculation (jñana-yoga), detached action (karma-yoga), and devotional service (bhakti-yoga) are means by which a soul can advance on the path back to harmony. Ultimate success, however, comes only by devotional service (11.54–55). Other paths are only steppingstones to the attainment of that devotion (6.47, 7.19, 3.9). The best method of devotional meditation for the current period in the cosmic cycle (Kali-yuga) is mantra meditation (10.25), especially the chanting of the maha-mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—which awakens the soul to his eternal identity.
Abstaining from self-destructive activities of meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex accelerates the return to harmony. Bhakti-yoga progressively leads to the full blossoming of our higher nature and culminates in prema, selfless love for the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. This love includes unconditional surrender to the will of the Lord. The resulting harmony of divine love makes life a joy at every moment even in this life. This divine love is the ultimate achievement of life. It conquers even death, for it continues eternally in the highest abode, the spiritual world, the realm of pure consciousness.
In Gita-mahatmya, Sripad Sankaracarya explains the unique position of the Bhagavad-gita within the vast Vedic library. He compares the Vedic scriptures to a cow, Krishna to a cowherd boy milking the cow, Arjuna to a calf, and the Gita to the milk of the cow. Thus he considers the Gita the essence of all the Vedic literature.
Appreciation for the Gita is not limited to Vedic circles. Many Western scholars, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have found the Gita to be amazingly lucid and relevant. Mahatma Gandhi comments about the transforming potency of the Gita’s wisdom: “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and meanings from it every day.”
Despite significant scholarly appreciation, the message of the Gita became a beacon light guiding the lives of millions worldwide only through the tireless efforts of Srila Prabhu-pada, the greatest exponent of Vedic wisdom in modern times. Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is continues to be the world’s most widely read version of the Gita, with millions of copies in print in dozens of languages. In his Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada succinctly states the pragmatic and profound value of its wisdom: “The purpose of the Gita is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence. . . . If one adopts the principles enunciated in Bhagavad-gita, he can make his life perfect and make a permanent solution to all the problems of life.”
Let us therefore equip ourselves with the wisdom of the Gita and confidently traverse the unpredictable journey of life to successfully achieve our eternal home in the kingdom of God.