What Gita teaches us and what it doesn’t

1/ I recently finished Menon’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. There’s a lot to like about it, but it leaves a few issues unresolved.

Here are my notes.

2/ The story revolves around the warrior Arjuna who faces conflict during a war with his cousins. He simply cannot bring himself to kill the people he grew up with. So he tells his charioteer, Krishna, that he’d rather die than go to war.

3/ This conflict is used as a backdrop by Krishna, who actually is an incarnation of God, to reveal the truth of the world to Arjuna. The ideas and concepts in Gita are consistent with other Hindu philosophies and ideas.

4/ The key philosophical teaching in Gita is that the human soul is one with Brahmana, the ultimate God. However, that soul is embodied and unaware that it is one with God.

5/ So, the body must go through Samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth until it realizes its oneness. Gita stresses that the real condition is of non-separateness. That only Brahmana exists that’s beyond time, space and quality.

6/ It’s only because of Maya, the illusion, that it seems reality consists of separate beings (souls). This idea was expressed in Ramayana as well when Hanuman meets Ram.

7/ Krishna tells Arjun that each soul has a karmic accounting going on. If after death, there’s positive karma, souls are sent to heaven where they enjoy until they end up using all their balance and then they’re sent back to the Earth.

8/ If the karmic balance is negative, souls get reborn as ‘lower’ creatures.

9/ The only way to get free of this constant cycle of birth and rebirth is by seeking a zero balance of karma while being alive.

10/ And, there are two paths to zero karmic balance. First is through renunciation whereby you give up all action and meditate on how all beings are one. Also, if action is minimized, karma will not accumulate.

11/ The second path is through duty without desiring anything in return. This lack of desire also doesn’t accumulate either positive or negative karma.

12/ Krishna tells Arjuna that the minimization of action via renunciation is hard and that no matter how much one tries, some action does happen inevitably. So, it is much better to take the second path and take action in the world but avoid karma accumulation by expecting nothing in return.

13/ This expectation-free action doesn’t accumulate karma because the desire of pleasure always brings about its counterpart: pain. In fact, Krishna considers pleasure and pain to be the two sides of the same coin.

14/ The reason pleasure seeking (or pain avoidance) is problematic is because it makes one self-centered, and hence one step away from the realization that all beings are one and same as the God.

15/ This expectation-free duty is where I think Gita leaves me wanting. The word duty had a very specific meaning during the time when Gita was written.

16/ Duty in the early Aryan period meant doing work that’s prescribed by society to your caste. The four castes – brahmans, kshatriyas, vaishiyas and sudras – have their work clearly defined in Gita and Krishna stresses that this classification ordained by God.

17/ Arjuna being from the warrior cast must fight. And he shouldn’t hesitate killing his cousins because a) souls never die, only bodies; b) if he does this as a duty, he’ll not attract negative karma.  Arjuna gets convinced and finally does go to war.

18/ The caste system was obviously there for the benefit of people in power at the time Gita was written and we can’t take that definition of ‘duty’ at face value today.

19/ However, if we can’t adopt the duty given by our caste and must choose our actions out of free will, how are we supposed to prioritize our lives in a non-emotional manner?

20/ See, doing actions without expecting fruits in returns only makes sense if what you need to act on is clear. But in a world where you have to define your own duty, how can that happen in a morality-free manner?

21/ The minute you have a prioritization framework for what to do in life is the minute you start having expectations from life. You can’t be neutral about an action when it has been chosen over other actions. What does neutrality even mean in that case?

22/ What to do in life is perhaps the biggest question you can ask. Unfortunately, there is no easy resolution to this riddle. Gita certainly doesn’t provide it for the (caste-free) world where a person can become whatever s/he wants to become.

23/ Reason cannot be a guide to life. It executes plans for what the inner-yearning seeks as a goal.

24/ Want to make the world a better place? Good, but remember that it’s as much a valid choice as sitting all day and watching Netflix. You cannot think your way to happiness, you can only discover it.

25/ This is where I feel Gita fails. It doesn’t guide on how to pick a goal. Its teaching kickstarts once you’ve picked a goal, and then it tells you to prioritize actions over daydreaming.

26/ Nobody can teach you what to do in life. That’s what keeps life interesting.  Unlike other games in the market, life doesn’t come with a tutorial.

27/ There’s a lot more to Gita than I have done justice here. I highly recommend reading it.

Hope you liked my notes and analysis.

Have an opinion on this essay? You can it to me (tagging my handle @paraschopra) or you can send your feedback on email. Thank you!