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3.2: The Bhagavad Gita

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    Added to The Mahabharata between 400 B.C.E. and 400 C.E.

    The Bhagavad Gita records the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna right before the epic battle of Kurukshetra. Although it is a part of The Mahabharata, it often is taught separately for its insights into Hindu beliefs. Krishna is the eighth human avatar of the god Vishnu, who sends down an avatar every time that the world requires such serious divine intervention that the good side could not win without his help. In this instance, the warrior Arjuna finds himself in a difficult position; to fight a war against evil, he must fight members of his own family, which would normally be a sin. Krishna must teach Arjuna how to know what to do when faced with conflicting duties. Some of the tension of the work comes from the setting; Krishna and Arjuna are literally between the two armies as they talk, while both sides wait for Arjuna to blow his horn, which will start the battle. The Bhagavad Gita stands as one of the great moral documents in world literature, influencing people as diverse as Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi.

    The Bhagavad Gita

    Translated by Edwin Arnold


    Of the Distress of Arjuna

    Dhritirashtra. Ranged thus for battle on the sacred plainOn Kurukshetra- say, Sanjaya! say
    What wrought my people, and the Pandavas?
    Sanjaya. When he beheld the host of Pandavas,
    Raja Duryodhana to Drona drew,
    And spake these words: “Ah, Guru! see this line,
    How vast it is of Pandu fighting-men,
    Embattled by the son of Drupada,
    Thy scholar in the war! Therein stand ranked
    Chiefs like Arjuna, like to Bhima chiefs,
    Benders of bows; Virata, Yuyudhan,
    Drupada, eminent upon his car,
    Dhrishtaket, Chekitan, Kasi’s stout lord,
    Purujit, Kuntibhoj, and Saivya,
    With Yudhamanyu, and Uttamauj
    Subhadra’s child; and Drupadi’s;- all famed!
    All mounted on their shining chariots!
    On our side, too,- thou best of Brahmans! see
    Excellent chiefs, commanders of my line,
    Whose names I joy to count: thyself the first,
    Then Bhishma, Karna, Kripa fierce in fight,
    Vikarna, Aswatthaman; next to these
    Strong Saumadatti, with full many more
    Valiant and tried, ready this day to die
    For me their king, each with his weapon grasped,
    Each skilful in the field. Weakest- meseems
    Our battle shows where Bhishma holds command,
    And Bhima, fronting him, something too strong!
    Have care our captains nigh to Bhishma’s ranks
    Prepare what help they may! Now, blow my shell!”

    Then, at the signal of the aged king,
    With blare to wake the blood, rolling around
    Like to a lion’s roar, the trumpeter
    Blew the great Conch; and, at the noise of it,
    Trumpets and drums, cymbals and gongs and horns
    Burst into sudden clamour; as the blasts
    Of loosened tempest, such the tumult seemed!
    Then might be seen, upon their car of gold
    Yoked with white steeds, blowing their battle-shells,
    Krishna the God, Arjuna at his side:
    Krishna, with knotted locks, blew his great conch
    Carved of the “Giant’s bone;” Arjuna blew
    Indra’s loud gift; Bhima the terrible
    Wolf-bellied Bhima- blew a long reed-conch;
    And Yudhisthira, Kunti’s blameless son,
    Winded a mighty shell, “Victory’s Voice;”
    And Nakula blew shrill upon his conch
    Named the “Sweet-sounding,” Sahadev on his
    Called “Gem-bedecked,” and Kasi’s Prince on his.
    Sikhandi on his car, Dhrishtadyumn,
    Virata, Satyaki the Unsubdued,
    Drupada, with his sons, (O Lord of Earth!)
    Long-armed Subhadra’s children, all blew loud,
    So that the clangour shook their foemen’s hearts,
    With quaking earth and thundering heav’n.
    Then ‘twasBeholding Dhritirashtra’s battle set,
    Weapons unsheathing, bows drawn forth, the war
    Instant to break- Arjun, whose ensign-badge
    Was Hanuman the monkey, spake this thing
    To Krishna the Divine, his charioteer:
    “Drive, Dauntless One! to yonder open ground
    Betwixt the armies; I would see more nigh
    These who will fight with us, those we must slay
    To-day, in war’s arbitrament; for, sure,
    On bloodshed all are bent who throng this plain,
    Obeying Dhritirashtra’s sinful son.”
    Thus, by Arjuna prayed, (O Bharata!)
    Between the hosts that heavenly Charioteer
    Drove the bright car, reining its milk-white steeds
    Where Bhishma led, and Drona, and their Lords.
    “See!” spake he to Arjuna, “where they stand,
    Thy kindred of the Kurus:” and the Prince
    Marked on each hand the kinsmen of his house,
    Grandsires and sires, uncles and brothers and sons,
    Cousins and sons-in-law and nephews, mixed
    With friends and honoured elders; some this side,
    Some that side ranged: and, seeing those opposed,
    Such kith grown enemies- Arjuna’s heart
    Melted with pity, while he uttered this:
    Arjuna. Krishna! as I behold, come here to shed
    Their common blood, yon concourse of our kin,
    My members fail, my tongue dries in my mouth,
    A shudder thrills my body, and my hair
    Bristles with horror; from my weak hand slips
    Gandiv, the goodly bow; a fever burns
    My skin to parching; hardly may I stand;
    The life within me seems to swim and faint;
    Nothing do I foresee save woe and wail!
    It is not good, O Keshav! nought of good
    Can spring from mutual slaughter! Lo, I hate
    Triumph and domination, wealth and ease,
    Thus sadly won! Aho! what victory
    Can bring delight, Govinda! what rich spoils
    Could profit; what rule recompense; what span
    Of life itself seem sweet, bought with such blood?
    Seeing that these stand here, ready to die,
    For whose sake life was fair, and pleasure pleased,
    And power grew precious:- grandsires, sires, and sons,
    Brothers, and fathers-in-law, and sons-in-law,
    Elders and friends! Shall I deal death on these
    Even though they seek to slay us? Not one blow,
    O Madhusudan! will I strike to gain
    The rule of all Three Worlds; then, how much less
    To seize an earthly kingdom! Killing these
    Must breed but anguish, Krishna! If they be
    Guilty, we shall grow guilty by their deaths;
    Their sins will light on us, if we shall slay
    Those sons of Dhritirashtra, and our kin;
    What peace could come of that, O Madhava?
    For if indeed, blinded by lust and wrath,
    These cannot see, or will not see, the sin
    Of kingly lines o’erthrown and kinsmen slain,
    How should not we, who see, shun such a crime
    We who perceive the guilt and feel the shame
    O thou Delight of Men, Janardana?
    By overthrow of houses perisheth
    Their sweet continuous household piety,
    And- rites neglected, piety extinc
    tEnters impiety upon that home;
    Its women grow unwomaned, whence there spring
    Mad passions, and the mingling-up of castes,
    Sending a Hell-ward road that family,
    And whoso wrought its doom by wicked wrath.
    Nay, and the souls of honoured ancestors
    Fall from their place of peace, being bereft
    Of funeral-cakes and the wan death-water.
    So teach our holy hymns. Thus, if we slay
    Kinsfolk and friends for love of earthly power,
    Ahovat! what an evil fault it were!
    Better I deem it, if my kinsmen strike,
    To face them weaponless, and bare my breast
    To shaft and spear, than answer blow with blow.

    So speaking, in the face of those two hosts,
    Arjuna sank upon his chariot-seat,
    And let fall bow and arrows, sick at heart.


    Of Doctrines

    Sanjaya. Him, filled with such compassion and such grief,
    With eyes tear-dimmed, despondent, in stern words
    The Driver, Madhusudan, thus addressed:
    Krishna. How hath this weakness taken thee?
    Whence springs
    The inglorious trouble, shameful to the brave,
    Barring the path of virtue? Nay, Arjun!
    Forbid thyself to feebleness! it mars
    Thy warrior-name! cast off the coward-fit!
    Wake! Be thyself! Arise, Scourge of thy Foes!
    Arjuna. How can I, in the battle, shoot with shafts
    On Bhishma, or on Drona- O thou Chief!-
    Both worshipful, both honourable men?

    Better to live on beggar’s bread
    With those we love alive,
    Than taste their blood in rich feasts spread,
    And guiltily survive!
    Ah! were it worse- who knows?- to be
    Victor or vanquished here,
    When those confront us angrily
    Whose death leaves living drear?
    In pity lost, by doubtings tossed,
    My thoughts- distracted- turn
    To Thee, the Guide I reverence most,
    That I may counsel learn:
    I know not what would heal the grief
    Burned into soul and sense,
    If I were earth’s unchallenged chief
    A god- and these gone thence!

    Sanjaya. So spake Arjuna to the Lord of Hearts,
    And sighing, “I will not fight!” held silence then.
    To whom, with tender smile, (O Bharata!)
    While the Prince wept despairing ‘twixt those hosts,
    Krishna made answer in divinest verse:
    Krishna. Thou grievest where no grief should be! thou speak’st
    Words lacking wisdom! for the wise in heart
    Mourn not for those that live, nor those that die.
    Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these,
    Ever was not, nor ever will not be,
    For ever and for ever afterwards.
    All, that doth live, lives always! To man’s frame
    As there come infancy and youth and age,
    So come there raisings-up and layings-down
    Of other and of other life-abodes,
    Which the wise know, and fear not. This that irks
    Thy sense-life, thrilling to the elements
    Bringing thee heat and cold, sorrows and joys,
    ‘Tis brief and mutable! Bear with it, Prince!
    As the wise bear. The soul which is not moved,
    The soul that with a strong and constant calm
    Takes sorrow and takes joy indifferently,
    Lives in the life undying! That which is
    Can never cease to be; that which is not
    Will not exist. To see this truth of both
    Is theirs who part essence from accident,
    Substance from shadow. Indestructible,
    Learn thou! the Life is, spreading life through all;
    It cannot anywhere, by any means,
    Be anywise diminished, stayed, or changed.
    But for these fleeting frames which it informs
    With spirit deathless, endless, infinite,
    They perish. Let them perish, Prince! and fight!
    He who shall say, “Lo! I have slain a man!”
    He who shall think, “Lo! I am slain!” those both
    Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!
    Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
    Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
    Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for
    Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it
    Who knoweth it exhaustless, self-sustained,
    Immortal, indestructible,- shall such
    Say, “I have killed a man, or caused to kill?”

    Nay, but as when one layeth
    His worn-out robes away,
    And, taking new ones, sayeth,
    “These will I wear to-day!”
    So putteth by the spirit
    Lightly its garb of flesh,
    And passeth to inherit
    A residence afresh.

    I say to thee weapons reach not the Life;
    Flame burns it not, waters cannot o’erwhelm,
    Nor dry winds wither it. Impenetrable,
    Unentered, unassailed, unharmed, untouched,
    Immortal, all-arriving, stable, sure,
    Invisible, ineffable, by word
    And thought uncompassed, ever all itself,
    Thus is the Soul declared! How wilt thou, then,-
    Knowing it so,- grieve when thou shouldst not grieve?
    How, if thou hearest that the man new-dead
    Is, like the man new-born, still living man
    One same, existent Spirit- wilt thou weep?
    The end of birth is death; the end of death
    Is birth: this is ordained! and mournest thou,
    Chief of the stalwart arm! for what befalls
    Which could not otherwise befall? The birth
    Of living things comes unperceived; the death
    Comes unperceived; between them, beings perceive:
    What is there sorrowful herein, dear Prince?

    Wonderful, wistful, to contemplate!
    Difficult, doubtful, to speak upon!
    Strange and great for tongue to relate,
    Mystical hearing for every one!
    Nor wotteth man this, what a marvel it is,
    When seeing, and saying, and hearing are done!

    This Life within all living things, my Prince!
    Hides beyond harm; scorn thou to suffer, then,
    For that which cannot suffer. Do thy part!
    Be mindful of thy name, and tremble not!
    Nought better can betide a martial soul
    Than lawful war; happy the warrior
    To whom comes joy of battle- comes, as now,
    Glorious and fair, unsought; opening for him
    A gateway unto Heav’n. But, if thou shunn’st
    This honourable field- a Kshattriya
    If, knowing thy duty and thy task, thou bidd’st
    Duty and task go by- that shall be sin!
    And those to come shall speak thee infamy
    From age to age; but infamy is worse
    For men of noble blood to bear than death!
    The chiefs upon their battle-chariots
    Will deem ‘twas fear that drove thee from the fray.
    Of those who held thee mighty-souled the scorn
    Thou must abide, while all thine enemies
    Will scatter bitter speech of thee, to mock
    The valour which thou hadst; what fate could fall
    More grievously than this? Either- being killed
    Thou wilt win Swarga’s safety, or- alive
    And victor- thou wilt reign an earthly king.
    Therefore, arise, thou Son of Kunti! brace
    Thine arm for conflict, nerve thy heart to meet
    As things alike to thee- pleasure or pain,
    Profit or ruin, victory or defeat:
    So minded, gird thee to the fight, for so
    Thou shalt not sin!
    Thus far I speak to thee
    As from the “Sankhya”- unspiritually
    Hear now the deeper teaching of the Yog,
    Which holding, understanding, thou shalt burst
    Thy Karmabandh, the bondage of wrought deeds.
    Here shall no end be hindered, no hope marred,
    No loss be feared: faith- yea, a little faith
    Shall save thee from the anguish of thy dread.
    Here, Glory of the Kurus! shines one rule
    One steadfast rule- while shifting souls have laws

    Many and hard. Specious, but wrongful deem
    The speech of those ill-taught ones who extol
    The letter of their Vedas, saying, “This
    Is all we have, or need;” being weak at heart
    With wants, seekers of Heaven: which comes- they say
    As “fruit of good deeds done;” promising men
    Much profit in new births for works of faith;
    In various rites abounding; following whereon
    Large merit shall accrue towards wealth and power;
    Albeit, who wealth and power do most desire
    Least fixity of soul have such, least hold
    On heavenly meditation. Much these teach,
    From Veds, concerning the “three qualities;”
    But thou, be free of the “three qualities,”
    Free of the “pairs of opposites,” and free
    From that sad righteousness which calculates;
    Self-ruled, Arjuna! simple, satisfied.
    Look! like as when a tank pours water forth
    To suit all needs, so do these Brahmans draw
    Text for all wants from tank of Holy Writ.
    But thou, want not! ask not! Find full reward
    Of doing right in right! Let right deeds be
    Thy motive, not the fruit which comes from them.
    And live in action! Labour! Make thine acts
    Thy piety, casting all self aside,
    Contemning gain and merit; equable
    In good or evil: equability
    Is Yog, is piety!
    Yet, the right act
    Is less, far less, than the right-thinking mind.
    Seek refuge in thy soul; have there thy heaven!
    Scorn them that follow virtue for her gifts!
    The mind of pure devotion- even here
    Casts equally aside good deeds and bad,
    Passing above them. Unto pure devotion
    Devote thyself: with perfect meditation
    Comes perfect act, and the righthearted rise
    More certainly because they seek no gain
    Forth from the bands of body, step by step,
    To highest seats of bliss. When thy firm soul
    Hath shaken off those tangled oracles
    Which ignorantly guide, then shall it soar
    To high neglect of what’s denied or said,
    This way or that way, in doctrinal writ.
    Troubled no longer by the priestly lore,
    Safe shall it live, and sure; steadfastly bent
    On meditation. This is Yog- and Peace!
    Arjuna. What is his mark who hath that steadfast heart,
    Confirmed in holy meditation? How
    Know we his speech, Kesava? Sits he, moves he
    Like other men?
    Krishna. When one, O Pritha’s Son!-
    Abandoning desires which shake the mind
    Finds in his soul full comfort for his soul,
    He hath attained the Yog- that man is such!
    In sorrows not dejected, and in joys
    Not overjoyed; dwelling outside the stress
    Of passion, fear, and anger; fixed in calms
    Of lofty contemplation;- such an one
    Is Muni, is the Sage, the true Recluse!
    He who to none and nowhere overbound
    By ties of flesh, takes evil things and good
    Neither desponding nor exulting, such
    Bears wisdom’s plainest mark He who shall draw
    As the wise tortoise draws its four feet safe
    Under its shield, his five frail senses back
    Under the spirit’s buckler from the world
    Which else assails them, such an one, my Prince!
    Hath wisdom’s mark! Things that solicit sense
    Hold off from the self-governed; nay, it comes,
    The appetites of him who lives beyond
    Depart,- aroused no more. Yet may it chance,
    O Son of Kunti that a governed mind
    Shall some time feel the sense-storms sweep, and wrest
    Strong self-control by the roots. Let him regain
    His kingdom! let him conquer this, and sit
    On Me intent. That man alone is wise
    Who keeps the mastery of himself! If one
    Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
    Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
    Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
    Recklessness; then the memory- all betrayed
    Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
    Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone.
    But, if one deals with objects of the sense
    Not loving and not hating, making them
    Serve his free soul, which rests serenely lord,
    Lo! such a man comes to tranquillity;
    And out of that tranquillity shall rise
    The end and healing of his earthly pains,
    Since the will governed sets the soul at peace.
    The soul of the ungoverned is not his,
    Nor hath he knowledge of himself; which lacked,
    How grows serenity? and, wanting that,
    Whence shall he hope for happiness?
    The mind
    That gives itself to follow shows of sense
    Seeth its helm of wisdom rent away,
    And, like a ship in waves of whirlwind, drives
    To wreck and death. Only with him, great Prince!
    Whose senses are not swayed by things of sense
    Only with him who holds his mastery,
    Shows wisdom perfect. What is midnight-gloom
    To unenlightened souls shines wakeful day
    To his clear gaze; what seems as wakeful day
    Is known for night, thick night of ignorance,
    To his true-seeing eyes. Such is the Saint!
    And like the ocean, day by day receiving
    Floods from all lands, which never overflows;
    Its boundary-line not leaping, and not leaving,
    Fed by the rivers, but unswelled by those;-
    So is the perfect one! to his soul’s ocean
    The world of sense pours streams of witchery,
    They leave him as they find, without commotion,
    Taking their tribute, but remaining sea.
    Yea! whoso, shaking off the yoke of flesh
    Lives lord, not servant, of his lusts; set free
    From pride, from passion, from the sin of “Self,”
    Toucheth tranquillity! O Pritha’s Son!
    That is the state of Brahm! There rests no dread
    When that last step is reached! Live where he will,
    Die when he may, such passeth from all ‘plaining,
    To blest Nirvana, with the Gods, attaining.

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