On the eve of the great war, Arjuna refused to fight as he could not bear the thought of killing and slaughtering his family and friends. Krishna tried to convince Arjuna, and after listening to his speech, Arjuna made up his mind to join the fight. This dialogue is compiled into Bhagavad Gita, and it is the only section in Mahabharata in which the gods speak directly to men, and thus it is also known as the Song of the Gods.
As the most renowned religious and philosophical text in India, the entire epic consists of 18 chapters and 700 lines, and explores “spiritual knowledge” such as the cycle of time, the laws of karma, reincarnation and liberation, and branches of yoga.
The Bhagavad-Gita suggests that every person will experience the cycle of birth and death – upon death, the soul leaves the earlier body and enters into a new one, for each and every lifetime, for eternity. Bhagavad-Gita attempts to answer one question: how can people be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and attain eternal happiness? Before providing the answer, Krishna begins to expound on the nature of the world, and the relationship between spirituality and the body.
According to Bhagavad-Gita, the material world where people live in fact exists within the spiritual world, and the material world is created as Lord Krishna breathes: once he breathes out, countless material universes are born, and he maintains these universes for long periods of time and up to a trillion years; and when he breathes in, he takes everything back into his body and destroys the universes created. Time dominates the material world, and by succumbing to the powerful cycles of “creation, maintenance and destruction”, countless universes experience life and death non-stop. All living beings created cannot escape from the wheels of time and karma, and can only be repeatedly reborn in the material world. Karma, is in essence, the cycle of actions. One action will bring about a certain kind of retribution, and triggered by the effects of retribution, one will then do another action. For those who are caught in the cycle of karma, there is no end to the material world.
The Katha Upanishad likens the human body, mind and spirit to a horse carriage – the five senses are five horses; the heart is the rein; intellect is the horseman; the spirit is the passenger. The best case scenario is that the horseman uses his intellect to control the horse through his rein, safely escorting the passenger to the destination. The key to cultivating spirituality is precisely on how the rein (heart) is controlled.
There are two sides to the mind: that of thinking and feeling. The clash between rationality and sentimentality creates a kind of desire that is collectively referred to as “mindfulness”. The spirit should learn to keep mindfulness under control. Once it lets loose, it will unconsciously think and feel for the purpose of satisfying the desire of the senses, as if an animal that only runs after materialistic pleasures. Learning to control the ever-changing mindfulness is no easy task since our thoughts and feelings constantly change. In order to attain a “peaceful state of mind”, one must live and practise a holistic life of yoga.
Having clarified the two points above, we can proceed to explore how the Bhagavad Gita sets forth the methods of liberation from the cycle of reincarnation through the struggle of Arjuna.
While the difficulties faced by Arjuna before the great war may seem distant to us, these are things we often experience – the contradiction between reason and emotion. On the one hand, Arjuna could not bear to kill his friends and family, but on the other hand, to fight was his vocation and duty. In light of Arjuna’s struggles, Krishna emphasized the “karma yoga”, and proposed using “Dharma” as guidance for action or inaction, that is, if one is a member of the Kshatriya order, then he must take up the responsibility to fight.
“Dharma” is an ancient Indian philosophical concept, which is highly abstract, and has been interpreted differently by academics from ancient to modern times. .
The kind of “Dharma” described by Krishna in Bhagavad Gita can be narrowly understood as a set of ethical and metaphysical framework and guidelines that intends to bring forth positive guidance to amongst others: human behaviour, thought, character and social responsibility. However, it should be noted that whilst “Dharma” may serve as a form of guidance, it does not impose any rigid rules. Instead, it is a force that is constantly interfered by outside influences, yet one that manages to maintain its balance.
As a form of ethical and metaphysical interference, the goal of “Dharma” is very simple: to build human society upon a strong moral foundation in order to attain the highest ideal in life – that of “liberation”. Hence, the ideal character is described in the Bhagavad Gita in a very detailed and meticulous manner. That is, if everyone can understand and experience “Dharma” and do the right act, the right act will certainly bring forth good results when catalysed by time.
One must understand “Dharma” in order to attain “liberation”. However, “liberation” cannot be achieved by understanding “Dharma” alone. As pointed out by Krishna, the spiritual path of yoga leads the way to “liberation”. The form of “yoga” described here is not the kind of yoga exercise practised in contemporary society. Instead, yoga means “connection”. Strictly speaking, yoga is a collective term for the exercise of the mind and body, with the goal of connecting with Krishna in terms of body, mind and spirit. Bhagavad Gita described four branches of yoga which are complementary to one another, namely: “Karma Marga” (path of action), “Jnana yoga” (path of knowledge), “Raja yoga” (path of meditation) and “Bhakti yoga” (path of loving devotion to a personal god).
Krishna believes “karma” is human nature and we are all moving helplessly in a material world. Actions in themselves do not constrain us, but we become bound once we fixate on the outcome of actions. For example with Arjuna, Krishna pointed out that not fighting does not free him from karma, because the outcome of any action (not doing something is also an action) is inevitable – one must act not for the sake of the outcome to achieve the ways of “Karma Marga”.
However, whether one acts rightly or wrongly, one is still bound to the material world. It is easy to accept that the “I” exists in the material body of “myself”, which gives rise to the illusion that the material body is the “I” i.e., the “false self-consciousness”, which makes it difficult to recognize the world beyond the material realm. Therefore, Krishna proposes “Jnana Yoga” which is about understanding all types of spiritual knowledge including material energy, threefold attributes, oversoul and so on. Through all knowledge and phenomena, and the elevation of the concept of knowledge, to realize the ultimate reality in “Brahman”.
In addition, the condition of the body should be improved to more easily recognize “Brahman”. “Jnana yoga” from the Bhagavad Gita, or the “8 limbs of yoga” from Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, are Yama (Self-restraint), Niyama (Observance), Asana (Posture), Pranayama (Breath), Pratyahara (Withdrawal of senses), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyani (Meditation), and Samadhi (Union). “Jnana yoga”, also known as “8 part yoga” or “Raja yoga”, is focused on the control of the mind and the ability to be still for long periods of time in meditation.
Of the three different yogas described, Krishna sees “Bhakti yoga” as the most sublime and critical. While the other types of yoga can train the mind and body on various levels, yoga means “connection” and the connection needs a defined supreme goal to not be a futile exercise. “Bhakti” means that all of our actions are a sacrifice to the supreme God – Krishna, dedicating our minds and bodies to Krishna and to “think” (meditate) of Krishna. If we can worship Krishna wholeheartedly, we can elevate our state of consciousness and not be bound by material energy. And because Krishna is transcendent, the action of “Bhakti” is also transcendent to allow liberation from karma.
楊逢才, & 江信慧. (2009). 印度智慧書：認識《薄伽梵歌》的第一本書 (1st ed.). Business Weekly.