Bhagavad-gita for the Jet-age

by December 22, 2011

“We have guided missiles and misguided men.” This poignant remark by Martin Luther King, Jr., about the state of the modern world rings strikingly true. In recent times there has been an amazing increase in human ability to control the outer world through science and technology. But with that has come an alarming decline in human ability to control the inner world. The resulting irrational passions lead to immorality and corruption at best, and terrorism and brutality at worst.

The current state of the world rests on the search for happiness, a quest that, Lord Krishna tells us in Bhagavad- gita, lies at the heart of all human endeavors. While asserting that happiness is our inalienable right, the Bhagavad-gita provides a clear pathway for its achievement. The fundamental teaching of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita is that our current existence has two dimensions—material and spiritual; we are spiritual beings residing in material bodies. (2.13)* Modern scientific studies in fields such as past-life memories, near-death experiences, and consciousness also strongly suggest a spiritual part of our being that exists after bodily death.

Furthermore, Lord Krishna explains that just as the soul animates the body, the Supersoul, the Supreme Being, animates the entire cosmos.

Lord Krishna tells us that material existence is temporary and troublesome because of an existential disharmony: human beings tend to neglect the spiritual dimension of their lives and focus only on material ambitions and achievements. This imbalance stunts their ability to partake of the fullness of life. The resulting dissatisfaction appears individually as stress, depression, anxiety, irritability, and so on, and socially as disunity, violence, and war. This disharmony also results in the universal and inescapable evils of birth, old age, disease, and death (13.9).

Our innate longing for immortality in a world subject to death suggests that we belong to an immortal world. Lord Krishna posits a higher-dimensional world beyond the pernicious effects of time (8.20). That realm is characterized by a sweet harmony of divine love between the innumerable subordinate souls and the Supreme. There, the Supreme Person, being all- attractive, is the pivot of all relationships and is therefore best known as Krishna, “The All-Attractive One.” There, all souls enjoy an eternal life of full awareness and bliss, provided they are in harmony with Krishna’s will. If they rebel, they fall to the realm of matter, where they can see the results of disharmony and eventually decide to reform themselves.

Suffering and Its Solution

During their exile in the material realm, souls occupy different bodies according to their desires and activities. Each body, whether human or subhuman, imposes on the soul the demands of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The soul struggles hard to try to fulfill these bodily demands, whose repetitive nature makes life a continuous hardship, with only momentary relief whenever the demands are satisfied.

Suffering, however, is good, because it provides the necessary impetus to return to harmony, just as fever provides the impetus to accept a cure. Among the 8.4 million species that inhabit the cosmos, the human form is specially gifted: only in a human body does the soul have the requisite intelligence to question his suffering and attempt to remedy it. Bhagavad-gita addresses such intelligent human beings.

Asserting that material nature is endlessly mutable (8.4), Lord Krishna advises the seeker of true happiness to not be disturbed by the dualities of heat and cold, pain and pleasure, and so on, that result from the inevitable changes in the material world (2.14). But Krishna does not recommend a life of inane fatalism; He exhorts us to direct our energies in a fruitful direction. Because our anomalous condition results from a disharmony with our spiritual nature, Krishna recommends that attempts for improvement be directed not in the material realm but in the spiritual.

The Relevance of the Bhagavad-gita

It is here that we can see the relevance of Lord Krishna’s teachings to the modern state of affairs. Over the past few centuries modern man has performed immense intellectual labor in an attempt to decrease the miseries of material existence. But all these efforts have been directed within the realm of matter, resulting in an improved ability to control material energy through science and technology. Modern man has, with almost a religious dogma, avoided applying his intellectual faculties to understanding the spiritual dimension. But all the cherished human qualities—love, compassion, honesty, selflessness—spring from the soul, the spiritual aspect of our being. Therefore negligence of spiritual life has had disastrous consequences, including a marked decline in human virtues. Hence Dr. King’s observation that we live in a time of guided missiles and misguided men.

Lord Krishna systematically explains the difference between matter and spirit and provides a practical method for spiritual elevation. Lord Krishna thus helps us understand how ignorance and neglect of the spiritual dimension is the bane of modern civilization.

Returning to Harmony

Lord Krishna recommends yoga as the means to spiritual emancipation. Contrary to the general notion, Lord Krishna states that mere physical postures and breathing exercises do not constitute yoga; they are just the beginning of one type of yoga. Actual yoga involves harmonizing all energy—material and spiritual—with the original source of energy, the energetic Supreme. Lord Krishna states that meditation (dhyana-yoga), philosophical speculation (jnana-yoga), detached action (karma- yoga), and devotional service to the Lord (bhakti- yoga) are means by which a soul can advance on the path back to harmony. But ultimate success comes only by devotional service (11.53-54); other paths are only stepping stones 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. A person moving forward on the path of harmony discovers in time a decrease in mental agitation from irrational passions, an unshakable inner tranquility, and finally an eternal ecstasy of love coming from the spiritual stratum (6.20- 23). Lord Krishna therefore concludes with an unequivocal call for loving harmony with the Supreme (18.66).

Lord Krishna declares the higher realities of life to be pratyaksha avagamam, directly perceivable within (9.2). Thus we see that Lord Krishna’s approach to the study of the cosmos is not at all dogmatic; rather it is bold and scientific. He presents the postulates logically and systematically and provides the enterprising spiritual scientist with a practical method to verify those postulates.

Srila Prabhupada’s Gift to the World

Lord Krishna’s explanation of the truths of life is so cogent, coherent, and profound that, for most modern Western scholars who studied Bhagavad-gita for the first time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was love on first reading. The remark of the famed American writer Henry David Thoreau is a sample: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”

Unfortunately with the passage of time, imperial biases among Western scholars obscured the wisdom of the Bhagavad- gita from enlightening the whole of humanity. And Indian intellectuals, afflicted by feelings of cultural inferiority from prolonged foreign subjugation, did not give the Bhagavad-gita the importance it deserved.

It was only when His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada carried the wisdom of Bhagavad-gita to the West in the 1960s that the world started recognizing the glory of this philosophical masterpiece once again. Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is soon became the most widely read English edition of the Gita. Now translated into dozens of languages, Bhagavad-gita As It Is has transformed the lives of millions from confused despair to enlightened happiness.

East-West Synthesis

Srila Prabhupada has been acknowledged as the greatest cultural ambassador of India to the modern world. His vision was a global East-West synthesis. If a blind man carries a lame man, they can both move forward. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada understood that if the materially prosperous but spiritually blind West and the spiritually gifted but materially impoverished India joined forces, the combination would usher in an era of peace and prosperity all over the world. ISKCON is working tirelessly at the grassroots level to make this vision a reality.

The West has embraced a hedonistic way of life. And the East, especially India, enamored by the glitter of Western culture, is casting away the treasure of Vedic wisdom that is its priceless heritage. It behooves all intelligent and responsible students of Bhagavad-gita to understand, assimilate, and distribute to their fellow human beings the gift of the wisdom of Lord Krishna.

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