The following first article in the Essential Concepts in Bhagavad Gita series
is an extract from the June 1996 issue of the Vicharasethu.
Bhagavad Gita is present before us as a sovereign response of the Soul of man to the crises of emotions the mind poses and the recurring questions the intelligence raises, when life’s course begins to stifle man beyond measure. Gita describes the inevitable but grand outcome of the adventure man is led to in the hands of his own complex mind.
Life on the earth is at its best beautiful and harmonious; but at its worst it can and will be the other extreme as well. Unless the great impersonality of the Soul is struck, man will not be able to withstand and survive the challenges and vicissitudes, preserving peace and poise for himself and extending welfare to others.
Can such an inward potent treasure be valid and useful in all contexts of external life? Will man and women in all walks of life be able to generate practical vision and views from such a great impersonal possession? Can the benefits derived relate themselves amply to the facts and compulsions of life? How should one seek, either as a significant quest or as an imperative measure of practical relief, such a unique enrichment? Bhagavad Gita holds lasting answers to all these questions and even more!
The discussions of Gita, when properly viewed cannot be any sudden emergence. Their genesis lies far deeper, taking us back to the post-Vedic thoughts of the land. Vedic thinkers were no doubt religious, but only for a short time in the beginning. Very soon their temperament grew sharply analytical and philosophical to enter irresistibly into the deep spiritual realms, which engulfed their life and pursuit. The course and finale of Vedic thinking are clear to the discerning mind even today, when it glances through the great sublime literarture, which is climaxed and crowned by the great Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita in fact reflects the extensive Vedic voyage, although it emphasizes more significantly the Upanishadic pursuit and findings. While it has a brief religious background, the foreground it builds up and presents is fully of the great Upanishads. With vigour and emphasis the Gita dialogues delineate the subtle philosophical foundations of life as also the unshakable edifice built firmly on them!
Mahabharata is an exhaustive epic, which describes, discusses and debates the complex life of mankind, generating in the process the much-coveted enlightenment for everyone to lead his life righteously forward. Vyasadeva, the author of the epic, makes the life and behaviour of his own descendants the main theme of his narration.
The course of events, which led to the woeful fate of the Kuru dynasty threatening to become extinct, offers great insight into human nature and the havoc greed and possessiveness can bring. By sheer wish, will or the strength of bargain no lasting safeguards can be won by a parent for his progeny or lineage. The disheartening promises, which Satyavati’s fisherman father wrenched from Santanu through his magnanimous son (Bheeshma), alas, proved utterly hollow when Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya (Satyavati’s sons from Santanu) died childless. Where was the fisherman’s lineage now to inherit the powerful kshatriya throne?
Conflicting reflections on the episode that had transpired and the treacherous climax it now fetched made Satyavati restless and pensive: How could the famous throne be perpetuated? Where lay the expediency by which her widowed daughter-in-law could be gifted with royal motherhood, and the throne entrusted to proper heir?
The distress compelled her to approach the stepson Bheeshma for bestowing children to his widowed sister-in-law. Bheeshma’s sterling adherence to his vow of celibacy, the purpose of which had now evidently become redundant, made him refuse the stepmother’s appeal. He, however, agreed to find out a remedy. And thus did the mother send for Vyasa. Bheeshma felt clear in his mind that his living step-brother would be the right substitute for the departed sons of Satyavati by right as well as his marked additional ascetic merits.
Vyasadeva arrived in the palace. Explaining the implications of the crisis, the mother asked the son to gift children to his sister-in-law, as sanctioned by law and upheld by custom. The great Vyasa resented and protested, holding that such a sudden transgression on his part would be disharmonious to his spiritual life and mission, especially in the background of his scriptural authorship. But Satyavati insisted on firm grounds of Dharmic propriety that the pressing needs of the society were ultimately greater than the personal principle and compulsion of an individual. Finally, she ordained that Vyasa being her son, must obey – his Guru. The ascetic Vyasa had to yield to such a final royal persuasion, but he stipulated, as a safeguard, his own austere conditions for the women to adhere to, before the fateful meeting with him after a year could be undertaken.
Thus under Satyavati’s extreme pressure each daughter-in-law did have the appointed meeting with the Ascetic, but in a marked note of repulsion to his unpleasant appearance. The inability to sublimate their personal dislikes before the larger needs of the country and the resultant disharmony that engulfed the promising encounter vitiated its visible outcome!
Well, did Satyavati, the elderly Queen of Kuru palace reminisce her own long forgotten encounter with Sage Parasara in the midst of the turbulent sea? Was she then favoured with a better and more harmonious mind for the expected meeting, which had gifted her the great ascetic? Was it because of this background that she now felt confident that a similar meeting proposed by her would be heeded by the daughters-in-law with meaningful patience and austerity?
Vyasa, the son, had the requisite heredity to dissolve his personal ego for the sake of a great social redress. But Ambika and Ambalika, the daughters-in-law, obviously lacked such lofty impersonal notes, although the victims in the process were no other than their own progenies.
Bheeshma, living in the palace as its supreme custodian, could not rise to fulfil the society’s pressing need of the hour, whereas the Sage, living in distant solitude pursuing his sublime ascetic mission, could eschew his austere resignation and fulfil the desperate needs of the society! The glaring contrast evidenced by the powerful royal heredity and the holy ascetic tradition even today shines with stunning luster in the annals of the great culture of our land!
The birth of Pandu and Dhritarashtra transpired in such a desired but most displeasing background. In the next generation were born the five Pandava brothers and the hundred Duryodhana brothers. All the grandchildren grew under the common supervision and tutelage of the Grandfather Bheeshma. But Dhritarashtra’s sons loved to revel in vice, wickedness and stealth, while Pandu’s children found their zeal in lofty moral values, social ethics and administrative propriety. Neither group could think of bartering their nature or diluting their ways. The sharp divergence inevitably led to growing royal rivalry from one side and ceaseless tolerance and resolve from the other.
The great Bheeshma tutoring equally both the sides found himself helpless in intercepting the galloping rivalry. This drove him to adopt and preserve his great spiritual note of transcendental bahaviour. He continued to remain in the Hastinapura palace, witnessing the ever-increasing sinful behaviour of the Duryodhana brothers. Advise he did every time with significant sternness, but it was of no avail. The avoidable consequences he witnessed and also accepted with towering impartiality and prudence. Such an impersonal stand is even today intriguing in every way but equally exemplary. It calls for constant self-effacement coupled with an exalted spiritual transcendental vision.
Bheeshma’s poise and vision to tune himself to the Infinite will is sure to invite criticism first, but evaluation next, only to compel faithful emulation last. Like the great Creator, their celibate grandfather shines as an exemplary luminary in the firmament of our culture revealing a character, worth and resolve hard to ignore and harder to excel!
The princely rivalry, jealousy and hatred, which commenced in the palace, began to swell and gradually spread beyond the Hastinapura boundaries. Invading contemporary rulers, big and small, it grew tremendously to divide the entire people of our land in a bid to decide for ever what should rule the mind of the land’s rulers: virtue or vice, good-will or ill-will, fraternity of intolerance. The intensity and impact of the wave overtook the ruling minds and hearts so much that they marched in full spirit of combat to Kurukshetra arraying under Yuddhishthira, wedded to righteous resolve and restraint, and Duryodhana, steeped in greed and intolerance. The events and circumstances resulting in such a climax were unprecedented in every way.
This is a land where personal nobility and spirit of sacrifice had richly adorned the great rulers of the past. Welfare of the subjects alone guided the wish and will of the throne. The peerless culture and the refinement in monarchial character and conduct were bequeathed to the princes through education, training and austerity right from their birth. Heredity thus always played its undeniable part in the birth and blossoming of the ruling class. Wherever disheartening exceptions intercepted the august lineages, the elderly custodians of the throne did not hesitate in resorting to the stern measure of banishing the undeserving right in time.
The passage of time, however, wrought its havoc to erode the great culture of character and patriotism in the ruling class, posing a grave question to Mother nature, who alone shapes the minds and hearts of mankind. And thus emerged in critical times the unhappy but inevitable confrontations to determine the place of morality and ethics. Whenever unchecked greed began to overwhelm the mind of one or more individuals threatening to extend the corruption in ample measure, the opposite virtue too, though strangely, somehow got activated to capture another’s mind and yet another’s elsewhere in succession, like gravities of planets, to generate and strengthen the necessary balance and harmony.
Human character and values are stronger than the qualities of external substances! In time they can and will grow to be pronounced, powerful and unyielding. While the vicious men may find their easy votaries, their virtuous counterparts often have to wait patiently to draw their sure associates, who will often display even greater prudence and stronger will to achieve their destined end. It is natural that the hidden course of the mind’s alliance will take longer time to fruition. The amazing pattern of human nature persists even today with the same vehemence and complexity, although the old monarchial order has become extinct and the new democratic institutions have taken its place.
It was thus the irrepressible conflict of values that led finally to the colossal war Vyasadeva describes, in which this great land’s countless kings of might and merit with their powerful armies arrayed in Kurukshetra to fight and win, or to kill and die. In the changed order of today the same character and course of the mind and the inescapable sequence they warrant still prevail visibly although the place and style in which they assemble to confront each other can no more be similar. Equally so, the teams to confront cannot be the acclaimed heirs of monarchial orders.
Bharat is distinguished for its recurring fights between virtue and vice. It is not surprising then that the same old Mahabharata war comes to be fought again in the new civilized institutions. Corruption in the rule will again be the ceaseless challenge and persuasion before all. It is no wonder then that the ruling leaders and their groups posed to stifle or destroy the esteemed values of character and restraint, are punished or banished by public will and choice. Instead of casting aspersions on the new democratic order or the disadvantages of elected governance of the day, timely alertness and readiness to protest, resist and rectify the misrule is the crying need of the hour.
By penning the old episodes of kingly rulers and their evil deeds in the epic style and dimension, Vyasadeva has set the eternal notes of resistance and remedy, which by their intrinsic worth are relevant for all times to come. When the determined but disciplined thoughts of correction become strong and focused, the willful move to accomplish their end cannot be lacking. The poetic pen of the great Sage has to inspire us constantly, making every citizen either the unwilling but, well-resolved Arjuna to fight unrighteousness or the ever-prudent watchful Krishna instructing efficiently to denounce timidity and pronounce courage.
The event in Kurukshetra leading up to the emergence of war cries from the confronting armies transpired without causing any major conflict in any one. But the scene suddenly changed when Krishna, at the bidding of Arjuna, drove the chariot and stationed it in front of Bheeshma and Drona, who led the larger army of Duryodhana as Commandres. Surveying the enemy fronts Arjuna was suddenly overwhelmed with fear, doubt and reluctance.
To fight against teachers and guardians for whom his mind fostered only love and adoration, was unthinkable, said Arjuna. Whatever be the demand of kingly rule or citizenly welfare, such a treachery was unbecoming of human mind. The redemption could lie, he said, only in laying the weapons down and retreating from the warfield. He would rather resort to the mendicant’s life, though it was not enjoined for the kshatriya clan, than think of confronting with weapons Bheeshma and Drona, who at any time, deserved to be worshipped by him in all humility and fondness. Presenting a number of other social, religious and moral persuasions against the impending war, he did not feel timid in finally pleading for utter inaction or full-fledged withdrawal.
How could a fighter strike such a line of moral defense and resistance especially in the ‘twelfth hour’ of events? The great interception clearly meant the twanging of a great spirituo-moral bow, which halted every fighter’s move and robed even the attention of horses and elephants in the battlefield. The harmony of such an intervention can, if at all, be attributed only to the undying influence of sublimity, which the ancient Kuru’s austerity still generated, making the field famous as Dharmakshetra. It was this powerful sublimity of the place that Dhritarashtra alluded to when he made his significant enquiry to Sanjaya: “What did my sons and Pandavas do in the Dharmakshetra Kurukshetra?”
It is true that even today no war can be fought by any fighter with the fear of sinfulness or the doubt of treachery. Reluctance of the mind and the heart aroused by the deeper notes of righteousness and propriety are much stronger than the spirit of rivalry and enmity or the compulsions of conquest. The human being has always the greater and lasting triumph in the hands of his subtle personality, which weapons cannot swing and where conquest makes not the least appeal.
Arjuna’s desperate yearning evidenced in his forceful questions of propriety and the demand for an unfailing vision and clarity were not then the least irrelevant, although these would normally be the full subject of dedicated pursuit of an ardent philosopher or a devout ascetic in forest. The Kurukshetra battlefield reverberating with its age-old subtle vibrations of austerity made Arjuna’a enquiry uniquely relevant and harmonious, justifying how the penance of a place enfolds all those who step into it for any reason whatsoever.
Memories may die but the memorable events do not. Surviving the onslaught of time and the ravages of history, they will continue to exert their indelible influence under which the human mind is bound to swerve and swing, in a bid to be graced with supreme vision and glory. And this is what significantly transpired just before the battle began in the famous Kurukshetra.