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.
Violence and destruction is not always harmful. Burning fields to improve their fertility is a good thing. It is different from starting a wildfire that will burn and destroy forests. The Gita speaks of a moral war, explaining that the soul cannot be killed and that the body does not matter at all. The Mahabharata and the Gita illustrate rather than explain what constitutes a moral war. Lord Krishna speaks on the “Battlefield of Sharma.”
The noble hero, Arjun, does not want to slay his enemy. He does not want a kingdom, or victory, or pleasures. He would rather his enemy kill him than kill them. Lord Krishna convinces Arjun to fight, leaving the outcome of the war in God’s hands:
Do not care if your fighting brings pleasure or pain,
Victory or defeat.
Just do your duty.
In this way you will be free.
These lines make it clear that Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is not strictly a pacificist doctrine. It may not even be a doctrine as much as awareness, a consciousness of what human beings need to do to maintain universal harmony and balance.
The accrual of karma can be likened to the accrual of profit and loss in the accounting f our lives.
Sanchita Karma is the sum total of the unresolved karma accumulated in past lives. This is the karma that we bring from our past existences into our present existence. It determines things like the qualities with which we are born and the families into which we are born as well as the time and place of our birth which establish astrological influences in our lives. Sanchita Karma continues to accrue in our current life since, once we have acted, our present actions become part of our past.
Sanchita Karma, or accumulated karma, is karma that we have not yet burned. Until it is exhausted, it continues to generate more karma and to cause ongoing birth and rebirth. Hindu teachers tell us that we can reduce the effect Sanchita Karma through various methods of self-purification.
We can follow one of the three paths to enlightening: performing good action (which means selfless action), seeking good knowledge (which means true knowledge), or worshipping God faithfully (which means sincere, consistent worship). Or we can attain a higher level of consciousness by practicing yoga and meditation or by faithfully performing sacrificial acts.
According to Buddhist thought, the soul does not retain its attributes at death any more than a wave retains its identity when it dissipates in the ocean. An analogy often used to illustrate Buddhism’s perspective of the cycle of birth and rebirth is that of a candle that lights another candle as it flickers and becomes extinguished.
Buddhist belief in the process of birth and rebirth is validated by the testimony of Lord Buddha Himself, who upon enlightenment came to know all the details of His hundreds or thousands of past lives. He stated that His present life would be His last. Although Lord Buddha would not include God in His teachings and did not claim to be divine, His followers came to worship Him.
Buddhists pay Him homage, if not as God, then as the Enlightened One and Hindus see Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver.
Read more about Birth and Rebirth in the Buddhist Religion in On Hinduism, by Irina Gajjar.
Several legends explain how Ganesh/Ganpati got an elephant’s head. The most popular one tells that his mother Parvati created him out of the sandalwood paste on her body and of the river Ganges. Then she told him to guard her bathroom while she bathed.
Lord Shiva, Parvati’s husband, had been away and when he returned he did not recognize his son and was angry at Ganesh for keeping him away from his wife. As a result, Shiva struck off Ganesh’s head.
Parvati became devastated. To comfort her, Shiva promised to restore Ganesh to life. He told his attendants to bring him the head of any sleeping being they found who was facing north. In a while, the attendants returned with an elephant head which Lord Shiva affixed to Ganesh.
Parvati was not consoled. She told Shiva that no one would respect her son with a big elephant head on his shoulders. So Lord Shiva promised that all worshippers would forever pray to Ganpati before praying to God and would invoke Ganpati’s blessings before beginning any important undertaking in life.
In this manner, Ganpati became the leader of the people, the lord of success, the remover of obstacles, and the destroyer of evil. He is honored in most Hindu homes and establishments and people celebrate him every year in a big ten-day-long festival held in August or September. True to Shiva’s word, Ganpati has become a part of every Hindu’s life.