Our world’s religions tell varying tales of creation, but for the most part, they involve God in some way. We hear stories of how and why and how quickly our world came to be. According to the Bhagavad Gita, in which many Hindus believe, either literally or symbolically, the world was God’s idea. Furthermore, Lord Krishna, in Chapter Ten, explains that He causes the world to appear and disappear simply because He wants it to.
At the same time, the whole purpose of life in the view of many religions is to obtain happiness in the afterlife.
I think these notions are somewhat odd. They suggest that our existence is an exercise in futility. We and the whole world did not exist. Then God creates the world and us and then it all will disappear. Yet our goal in this life exercise is to be as good as possible in order to make our non-existence blissful.
Many of us recognize that in the course of our activities and behaviors, our journeys mean more than reaching our destinations. So, though we are focused on our goals, most of our energy is expended in transit. We also recognize that the effects of our journeys are what we leave behind. But to what end?
The mind and body are part of nature and matter rather than an essential or integral part of the God, although God is everywhere. In his manifest form, God personifies the same subtle elements that make up the body plus mind, reason and the self:
I am made of the earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, reason, and the self. These eight things are one side of Me is what makes the whole world exist and is called the “life principle.”
The Gita understands God to be both the knower and the known, or that which we wish to know. He is the great soul, the individual soul called Atman. He is spirit. God is the knower of the universe and the knower of the “field” which means the human body as well as all embodiment. “Field” refers to place or area, like “field of knowledge.” The term field implies that the body is a place where action or conflict occurs. Lord Krishna delivered the Bhagavad Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, also known as the field of Dharma or righteousness.
Hinduism sees the body and the mind as one unit, separate and distinct from the soul:
The body is a collection of many things. It is made up of ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These are called the five subtle elements. The body is also made up of mind and the five senses of hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Wanting, hating, happiness, unhappiness, and courage are also part of the body.
Although God cannot be understood by the mind, God can be known by the spirit. In chapter seven of the Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjun that he will understand God after knowing Him. God says the He knows all beings, but they do not know Him. People cannot see God because confusion and desire cover their minds, but they can reach God by seeking Him.
The Sanskrit language distinguishes between spiritual knowledge (seeing, knowing) and rational knowledge (understanding). We can come to know God only by seeking Him. Trying to understand God is a path to knowing Him, yet we cannot understand God without knowing Him. This is an apparent paradox, not a real one. It means that we must take steps toward understanding God in order to experience God. While the absolute cannot be understood by our finite mind, it can be known by our infinite soul. However, the soul can only experience the truth if the mind strives for it to do so. Reason or understanding is a path that leads to spiritual knowledge, but only spiritual knowledge has the power to reveal God.
This excerpt is from On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar. If you’d like to read more from On Hinduism, you can find the book here.
Arjun’s journey from doubt to faith symbolizes mankind’s journey. The journey is premised on a belief in a principle greater than ourselves and on a belief that we can ultimately transcend our human limits. Meanwhile, as we travel on the road to enlightenment, we can improve our human condition. But the journey must begin with the idea or hope that the end will have meaning.
God is The Gita’s premise. Its message is that life’s purpose is to attain enlightenment and eternal bliss merging into God. This message is a familiar one. However, its new and concise formulation coalesced Hindu thought and its fresh expression has guided Hindu behavior into the twenty-first century. In the revelation that is the Gita, God delivers His word with beauty and simplicity. This scripture contains eighteen chapters and seven hundred verses upon which uncounted commentaries have been written and continue to be written.
In the course of responding to Arjun, God as Lord Krishna unclouds Arjun’s vision, opens his mind and touches his heart. He speaks of His own nature and power, of human nature and human duty, or worlds, knowledge, of what is knowable, of the universal and human cycles of birth, life, and death and He speaks truth. Questions related to these matters intersect and overlap and they give rise to further questions and answers. In the end, the Gita paints an integrated picture of our human role in the vast scheme of things that is beyond us but not beyond our wonder.
The Gita is structured as a dialog between God and Arjun. The first chapter describes Arjun on the battlefield facing his enemies. Earlier, both he and his opponents called upon Lord Krishna for help. Krishna offers his entire army to one side and Himself as charioteer to the other. Arjun chooses Lord Krishna.
But even with God by his side, Arjun feels dejected and filled with doubt. His mind starts spinning. He sees his wise old uncle, his teacher, and his cousins facing him and he cannot make himself fight:
How, Krishna, can I fight Bhishma and Drona with arrows on the battlefield? I respect them. It is better to live as a beggar, but without killing, Because after killing them Our hands will be stained with their red blood.
Lord Krishna’s response is the Gita. After hearing God’s word, after receiving God’s answers to his many questions, and after seeing God’s powers, Arjun is both humbled and strengthened. He no longer doubts or fears. He finds faith and courage. He stands ready to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to fight for his honor:
Lord Krishna, Because of your mercy I know the Truth. I will be firm and do what you wish.
The crown jewels of Hindu mythology are its two grand epics, Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These reflect Vishnu’s incarnations as Rama and Krishna. Both epics are literary masterpieces containing a wealth of history, legend, philosophy, and ideology. They are post Vedic works considered smiriti or recollection rather than sruti or revelation.
The Ramayana was composed by Valmiki, a bandit turned saint and poet. Lord Brahma inspired him to write the Ramayana, a dramatic poem consisting of seven books divided into five hundred stanzas and 24,000 verses. It is believed to have been recorded about 500 BCE or earlier. The story is an intricate one with a large cast of characters including gods, demons, humans, super humans, animals, and birds who personify good, evil, or both. The well-developed characters act out their karma with elegance and might. The master plot containing intricate subplots takes many twists and turns and contains many diversions designed to keep its listeners riveted to every adventure and full anticipation up to the very end.
Chapter 13 of the Gita explores the relationship between the body and the spirit. The Lord explains that the body is called the field and that the spirit is the knower of the field. Our spirit is the glow of God. It is the spark of creation that exists beyond our physical, emotional or intellectual being.
In this chapter Lord Krishna discusses the role of knowledge in human existence. He describes knowledge, the opposite of ignorance, as many good things and particularly as awareness of God.
The ultimate purpose of knowledge is for us to reach the state of enlightenment which enables us to become one with God.
To some extent, our lives are determined by the choices we make. But to what extent are our choices real? This question underlies most human dilemmas.
Arjun’s doubt about whether it would be better to be killed than to fight and kill his enemies is the focus of The Gita which synthesizes Hindu philosophy. Here, God explains why Arjun must fight and He shows us that Arjun really does not have a choice.
Yet, human decisions though tethered are not fully predetermined. They depend upon our nature, our capacity to judge, our circumstances, our mood and upon the choices we made in the past. At the same time, our current actions and inactions affect our future as well as the futures of all who are touched by what we do or do not do. Thus, as much as our choices arise from our karma, they create it.
Fortunately, we are not always aware of the many big and little choices we make throughout our days. If we were fully aware of them, we would probably go crazy. Still, though fettered or made in haste, our decisions matter. So, we must do the best we can, heeding our consciences and the advice of those we respect.
See Chapter Six, Karma and Reincarnation in On Hinduism, by Irina Gajjar.
In Hindu philosophy, goodness, truth, and God are one. God is absolute goodness and eternal truth. The Absolute Soul that is God illuminates the soul of all beings. However, human goodness is a material human trait.
The human traits of goodness and evil both pertain to the body, not to the spirit. In Hindu thought, the mind is part of the body. It is the energy that powers out intellect, our judgment, and our ego, but it is temporal and it is shed when the soul is released from the bondage of repeated reincarnations.
The body and mind are matter whereas the soul is spirit. A particular life comes into being when the spirit and the body join together and it ends when the soul and the body separate at death.