The Epics
The Mahabharata & The Ramayana
 
The Mahabharata (“The Great Tale of the Bharata Clan”) centers on a dynastic dispute between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kauravas, which results in a gambling match. The five brothers lose the match, which leads to a very long period of exile for them and their wife in common, lasting for twelve years. They spend a thirteenth year hiding in the palace in disguise, in the kingdom of the Matsya clan. In the Ramayana...the unfailingly righteous Rama is also exiled to the forest because of the imperial ambitions of a manipulative stepmother. Both epics contain the central message that our heroes must patiently endure the gross, flagrant injustices inflicted upon them, even by their own kin. In both epics they do so out of their unwavering commitment to dharma, “duty, righteousness, law.” The focus on dharma, especially the dharma of the elite warrior caste, the Ksatriyas, is the fundamental theme of both epics. [The Bhagavad Gita (trans. George Thompson), xxiii-xxiv]
 
 
As the Bhagavad Gita opens, Arjuna is expressing moral qualms against this war between cousins. He looks across the battlefield at both of the assembled armies. He sees kinsmen on both sides, revered teachers and dear cousins and cherished childhood playmates. This arouses a moral reaction in him that we all can recognize as true and right. His moral sense tells Arjuna clearly that such a war, especially among kin, is utterly wrong....But paradoxically Krsna does not commend Arjuna’s moment of conscience.... [The Bhagavad Gita, xxxi]
 
 
13.Then conch shells and drums, and cymbals, and tabors and trumpets, all at once resounded. The sound was thunderous!
14.And standing there on their great chariot yoked to white stallions, Krsna Madhava and Arjuna, the son of Pandu, also blew their celestial conch shells....
 
 
20.Then Arjuna, his war banner displaying the sign of the monkey, looked upon Dhrtarastra’s men, just as the clashing of the weapons was to begin. And then the son of Pandu raised his bow.
21.And, my king, he spoke these words to Krsna: “O unshakable one, stop my chariot here in the middle, between these two armies,
22.where I can see these men fixed in their positions and eager to fight, these men who are ready to fight against me in the strain of war....
26.Arjuna looked upon them there where they stood, fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles and brothers, sons and grandsons, and companions,
27.fathers-in-law and dear friends, in both of the armies. Seeing them all standing there, his kinsmen,
28.Arjuna was overwhelmed by deep compassion, and in despair he said, “Krsna, yes, I see my kinsmen gathered here and ready to fight.
29.My arms and legs have grown heavy. My mouth is dry. My body is trembling, and the hair on my head stands on end.
30.My Gandiva bow drops from my hand, and my skin—it burns. I cannot stand still, and my mind swirls like a storm.
31.Krsna, I see unfavorable signs here, and I can see nothing good in killing my own family in battle!
  • What is Arjuna’s dharma (duty) as a member of the ksatriya caste?  How does this conflict with his personal feelings about killing his kinsmen?  What does Krishna advise him to do...and why?
    • How can killing one’s own cousins be right?
    • What satisfaction can come from such a victory when the price is so high?
    • What value can the kingdom have when compared with its cost?
 
Krishnas Revelation
The Path of Bhakti (Devotion)
After teaching Arjuna the basic principles of Upanisadic wisdom (jnana-yoga) and karma (karma-yoga), Krishna goes on to reveal his true nature to Arjuna:
 
The Blessed One spoke:
19.Come, then, and I will tell you about the divine powers of my self, starting with the most important ones. But as for full detail concerning me, Arjuna, there is no end!
20.I am the very self, Arjuna, that resides in the heart of all beings. I am their beginning and their middle and their end.
21.Among the divine sons of Aditi I am Visnu....
31....Among men bearing arms I am Rama....
33....I am also imperishable time, the creator facing in all directions.
34.And I am death that carries everything away, and also the birth of those who will be born....
37.Among the clan of the Vrsnis I am Krsna, among the Pandavas I am Arjuna....
39.And beyond that, I am the seed of all beings, Arjuna. Nothing—neither what moves nor what does not move—could exist without me!
40.O Arjuna, there is no end to my divine powers! But I have shown you the extent of my power by using just a few examples.
41.Understand that whatever displays divine power, or great beauty, or enormous vigor, arises from but a small portion of my own glory!
42.But what use is it to you, Arjuna, to know all of this! With one small portion of myself I have propped up this entire world, and still I stand here.
  • How is Krishnas claim that he is the essence and sustainer of the entire world related to the basic principles elucidated in the Upanisads?  Is he simply saying the same thing, or is there a difference?
  • What are the implications of Krishnas claim with regard to the problem of karma (action)?
 


Arjuna spoke:
1.As a kindness to me, you have explained the sublime secret doctrine concerning the self. Your words have freed me from my delusion.
2.Indeed, O Krsna, you whose eyes are like lotus petals and whose greatness is unending—I have heard from you in detail of the arising and the passing away of all beings!
3.I want to see you as you have described yourself, Krsna, in your true form, as the lord of the world, for you are the supreme Spirit.
4.If you think it is possible for me to see you as you really are, lord and master of yoga, then please show your eternal self to me!
 
The Blessed One spoke...
8.But of course you cannot see me with your own eye alone. Here, I give you a divine eye. Now look at my majestic yoga!
 
 
Arjuna spoke:
15.I see all of the gods within your body, O god of gods! I see the whole array of beings—the lord Brahma sitting on his lotus seat, all of the seers, and the celestial serpents!
16.Countless arms, countless bellies, countless mouths and eyes—I see you everywhere in this infinite variety of forms! I see no ending to you, no middle, and no beginning. You, who are the lord of all things and the form of all things!...
24.I see your body as it touches the clouds, shining a rainbow of colors, your large gaping mouth, your wide flaming eyes. My inmost self trembles. I cannot find my resolve, Visnu. I cannot find peace.
25.I see your mouths and your wide gaping tusks that look to me like the fires at the end of time. I am disoriented now, and I can find no shelter. Krsna, lord of the gods and the world’s repose, have mercy!
26.And now all of those sons of Dhrtarastra, together with their host of kings, Bhisma, Drona, and Karna, the son of the charioteer, are here—and our best warriors are here as well.
27.They rush headlong past your gaping, terrifying tusks into your countless mouths. Some of them seem to hang lifeless, caught between your teeth, with their heads crushed.
28.Like the countless river torrents that flow back toward the sea, those heroes in the worlds of men pour into your blazing mouths.
29.Like the moths that rush frantically to the burning flame, and to their destruction, so these worlds rush in a frenzy into your mouths, to their destruction.
30.Visnu, you devour everything, all these worlds, licking at them with your flaming tongues. You fill the whole world with your brilliance. O your terrible flames, how they burn!
31.Tell me, who are you, O lord of such terrible form? Let me pay homage to you. O best of gods, have mercy! I wish to know you as you were in the beginning because I do not understand your present course.
 
The Blessed One spoke:
32.I am time, the agent of the world’s destruction, now grown old and set in motion to destroy the worlds. Even without you, all of these warriors arrayed in opposing battle-formation will cease to exist!
33.Therefore, rise up and seek your glory! Conquer your enemies and enjoy successful kingship! In fact, I have slain them all already, long ago. Simply be the instrument by my side!
34.Drona and Bhisma and Jayadratha, and Karna as well—and all the other war heroes—have been killed by me already, so now you should kill them. Don’t waver! Fight! You will defeat your rivals in this war!
  
 
Yoga...is an utterly central notion in the Bhagavad Gita from beginning to end. It is considered to be a traditional school of philosophy largely because of its association with the more theoretical and classifying Samkhya school Nevertheless, as a practical spiritual discipline, yoga is as fundamental to the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita as Krsna himself is. Yoga is, after all, the vehicle by means of which one attains to Krsna, by means of which one truly comes to know him. Through yoga one gains true knowledge of the self, or the atman, which is ultimately not engaged in the perpetual turmoil of time and the natural world. Yoga is the vehicle by means of which one accomplishes renunciation (samnyasa) and the abandonment (tyaga) of the fruits of one’s actions. [The Bhagavad Gita, xxxviii]
 
Technically identified with the system of yoga developed in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, though more broadly encompassing a variety of meditation systems (most notably, one called Kundalini) that focus on the use of techniques (such as the adoption of physical postures, breath control, mantras and visualization) to bring the mind to a state of one-pointed concentration, known as samadhia supreme state of consciousness that is characterized by eternal wisdom and bliss.
     In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna presents a special form of meditation that leads to a state of absorption that he calls brahma-nirvana:
 
58.When he withdraws his senses from all sensuos things, like a tortoise that draws its legs into its shell, then his wisdom is stable.
59.The fascination of sense objects withdraws from the embodied one who gives up food. For him, only the flavor, the trace of the flavor, lingers. And once he has seen the highest, that leaves him too....
61.He should restrain all of his senses and, committed to yoga, he should sit, intent on me. If his senses are under control, then his wisdom will be stable....
71.The man who abandons all desires, who goes about free from cravings, for whom there is no talk of “mind!” or “me!”—he finds peace.
72.This, Arjuna, is the divine state of Brahman. Having attained this, one is no longer confused. When one abides in this state, even at the moment of death, one attains the sublime peace [nirvana] of Brahman.
 
II. Jnana Yoga
The Discipline of Wisdom
This path focuses on a direct contemplation of the Atman-Brahman identity by contemplating the wisdom of the Vedas in general and the Upanisads in particular:

6.I am unborn, and my self is eternal, and I am the lord of all beings. Nevertheles, I take part in nature and I manifest myself by means of my own power....
9.The one who truly knows that my birth and my action are divine does not return for another birth, when he abandons the body at death. Arjuna, he returns to me.
10.Many people have been purified by the fire of knowledge. They no longer feel passion or fear or anger. They belong to me and take their refuge in me. In the end they all come to me....
19.A man whose endeavors are free from the manipulations of desire sacrifices his actions in the fire of knowledge. The wise call him a learned man.
20.Giving up his attachment to the fruits of his actions, always content, dependent on nothing—even when he engages in action, he himself does not really act at all....
23.When a man is unattached and free of all of this, when his thoughts are rooted firmly in knowledge, when he performs his actions in the spirit of sacrifice, his actions are completely dissolved!
24.The offering is this infinite Brahman. The oblation is this infinite Brahman. It is Brahman that pours the oblation into the fire of Brahman. One attains to Brahman by concentrating completely on the action of Brahman!
25.Some yogins engage only in sacrifice to the gods. Others sacrifice symbolically by pouring their oblations into the fire of infinite Brahman.
 

Karma Yoga originally focused on the performance of actions in accordance with the duties (dharma) associated with one’s caste (varna) and stage of life (asrama). By acting in accordance with the principles of varnasrama-dharma, one gradually worked through the four stages of life (student, householder, forest-dweller, renunciate) towards ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth (moksa)—though the process might take many lifetimes to complete. In the Bhagavad-Gita, however, Krishna redefined Karma Yoga by combining it with the fundamental insight of Jnana Yoga—namely the ultimate identity of the individual self (atman) and the Universal Self (Brahman)—leading to the conclusion that “it is the Absolute who performs all actions.” Through this realization, one is able to perform action “without any interest in its fruits and without any personal sense of giving.” By relinquishing one’s own attachment to the fruits of one’s actions, one attains “liberation from the self in the very midst of work”:
 
3.O blameless one, long ago I taught that there are two paths to the highest good. For the followers of Samkhya, it is attained by means of the yoga of knowledge. For yoginis it is attained by means of the yoga of action.
4.A man does not go beyond action by merely avoiding action, nor does he achieve spiritual success by renunciation alone.
5.For no one exists even for a moment without performing actions. Even if unwillingly, every one of us must act, due to the forces of nature....
8.You should perform the actions that you are obliged to perform, because action is better than inaction. Without action, you would not be able to maintain your body’s health. It would surely fail.
9.This world is in bondage to action except when it is performed as a sacrifice. You should remain unattached, Arjuna, and continue to perform action that is intended as sacrifice....
15.Know that action arises from Brahman and that Brahman arises from the imperishable syllable OM. Therefore, the Brahman that pervades the universe is established permanently in sacrifice.
19.Therefore, continue to do any action that you are obliged to do, but always without attachment. By continuing to act without attachment, a man attains the highest good.
 
 
Bhakti Yoga is closely related to the notion of Karma Yoga as presented in the Bhagavad-Gita, since it is precisely by performing action in a spirit of “devotion” to Krishna (rather than as a means of generating “good” karma that will benefit one either in this or some future life) that one attains release from the cycle of rebirth. This “devotion” is manifest as an intense feeling of love for God that is frequently expressed through various types of offerings, including poetry and song.
 
26.A leaf, or a flower, a fruit, or water, whatever one offers to me with devotion—I accept it, because it is a gift of devotion, because it is offered from the self.
27.Whatever you do—whatever you eat, whatever offerings you make, whatever you give, whatever austerity you perform—Arjuna, do it as an offering to me!
28.In this way you will be freed both from the bonds and also from the fruits of your actions, whether good or bad. Train yourself in the yoga of renunciation. Freed thereby, you will come to me.
29.Among all beings I am always the same. No one is hateful to me. No one is especially dear. But if they worship me with utter devotion, they will be in me, and I will be in them.
30.No matter how badly a man has lived his life, if he worships me and worships nothing else, let him be considered upright and wise, for he has come to recognize what is right.
31.He quickly commits himself to duty and righteousness, and he enters into eternal peace. Arjuna, understand this well: no one who is devoted to me is ever lost to me.
32.For, Arjuna, no matter how low their birth may be—whether they are women, or villagers, or low-caste slaves—those who rely on me all attain to the final goal.