In the midst of a great battle, Arjuna and his friend, Lord Krishna, stop to discuss the meaning and purpose of human life.[/caption]
“The point, old friend – and this is very important – is to do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (Atma, the Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat. This is the way to reach the supreme goal, which is to merge into God.”
— Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga, 19 (Translator: Jack Hawley)
My interest in the Bhagavad Gita came from my admiration of Mohandas Gandhi. I had heard that it was an influential text in the development of his spiritual life, and from that moment on wanted a chance to read it. And it is no wonder it caught and captured Gandhi’s attention, for the Gita’s ancient wisdom is as relevant now as it was in the days it was written. Native to the peoples of the Indus Valley, it is claimed by some to be up to 5000 years old. It is part of a larger epic narrative called the Mahabharata, and contains about 700 verses. The Gita is difficult to translate because it contains so many terms that are easily understood within the context of Hindu culture, but are alien to the West. In fact, although the Gita itself is only traditionally 18 chapters in length, the common practice when translating it into English is to expound upon the text so much that volumes are added.
By pure chance (or God-incidence), I happened upon a translation by Jack Hawley. He wanted the West to have an experience of the Gita in a way that was accessible to them, without lengthening the text and losing its depth and feel. This was an incredible way to get my first taste of the compelling narrative, and it found its way instantly into my heart.
The Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, with both lines of soldiers facing each other, just moments before the fighting begins. Prince Arjuna, who represents the forces of good, is between the two lines in his chariot and looking over the foes drawn up against him. In those forces, he spots some of his own family members, former friends, and admired teachers. He begins to despair, thinking that he would rather die than kill all these people whom he loves so dearly. He slumps down in his chariot despondently, and looks to his chariot driver and dear old friend for advice.
What the prince does not know is that his driver happens to be Krishna, god incarnate. When Krishna sees that Arjuna has humbled himself to become his student, he begins to reveal the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, and the ways of god himself. His monologue takes up the majority of the text.
A Christian reader is quickly amazed by the parallels found between Krishna’s description of the Hindu godhead, Brahman, and Christianity’s one true God. God (also called the Atma) is:
• The source and sustainer of all created things
• Eternal (goes on forever and has always been)
• Existence itself; pure consciousness (spirit)
• Unchanging, indestructible and immutable
• Beyond time
• Unmanifested (invisible)
• Unknowable, as his ways and being are infinite
• Continually sacrificing to and serving all of creation selflessly
• Love itself
The end goal of humanity, namely unity with god, is also the same as the Christian one (called theosis). And how does one reach that goal? The path is beset with the same dangers as found in Christianity. As Christians, it is easy to fall into the error of trying to work our way to heaven. The Christian who truly understands the nature of grace knows that it is in surrender to God’s will and allowing God to work through you that you are brought closer to Christlikeness. The intentions of our hearts determine whether our works are burned up or produce fruit (1 Cor 3).