bhagavad gita - a scripture for daily living

"excerpts from sri eknath easwaran’s introduction to the bhagavad gita for daily living"

there is no significant problem in life which cannot be referred to the bhagavad gita for a perfect solution. the gita is one of the most powerful of the sanskrit scriptures of ancient india, but in my eyes it is the neither philosophy not theology, metaphysics or poetry. it is a practical manual for daily living in any age, in any religious tradition, and its teachings can be specifically applied to the problems facing us in modern life.

today there is an urgent need for such a manual. we see this reflected in our newspapers, magazines, books, movies, and television program, but most of all in our daily living. life has never seemed more futile. in spite of all our technological advances and material prosperity, we have no peace of mind and live in fear and anger in the midst of increasing violence. we are cought in the lurid dream that the pursuit of pleasure will lead us to joy, the pursuit of profit will lead us to security, and most of us have no other purpose in life than this driving urge to bring about our own private fulfillment even if it is at the expense of other persons, races, or countries.

the bhagavad gita shows us how we can awaken from this dream. in sanskrit, the language of the gita, the underlying reality of life is called by a simple but very powerful name: advaita, not two.’ in the words of a lovable mystic from modern india, meher baba, “you and i are not ‘we’, you and i are one”. there is no division, no fragmentation in life at all; no matter how much we may appear to differ on the surface, the welfare of each one of us is inseparable from the welfare of all others. even on the level of the body, we know that in cancer the whole organism is eventually destroyed when even a single cell begins to pursue its own course independently of the rest. similarly, the bhagvad gita tells us, you and i cannot fulfill ourselves by going our own way. we can find lasting fulfillment only by contributing to the joy and fulfillment of others, in which our own joy and fulfillment are included. this is not a philosophical platitude, but a practical principle which we must learn to live by if our civilization is to survive.

every mystic will interpret the scriptures in accordance with the urgent needs of the times. though the bhagavad gita is timeless, it too must be interpreted in accordance with the needs of the times – the yugadharma in sanskrit, the ‘special law of the age’. in commenting on the gita, i always stress the indivisible unity of life because this is the need of our time. i do not stop with the family of man, but extend this unity to all life and to the environment as well. it is the urgent need of our time to recognize the unity of all forms of life, and the intimate relationship between water, earth, air, plants, and all creatures. i am a vegetarian not only because my ancestors were, but also because i perceive this unity. ecologists have begun to tell us that there is an interpenetrating relationship among all things which we can violate only at our peril. jacques cousteau, who has devoted his life to studying the oceans of the earth, tells us: “we forget that all life-cycles are one. environment is one too. there is no such thing as an environment of a single species, of man for example.” spiritual living and sound ecological practice go together. a vegetarian diet respects this partnership among all forms of life and meets man’s nutritional needs with a minimum demand on the earth’s resources.

salvation, self-realization, nirvana, moksha – these are just different words for the same discovery of the unity of all life. this is what we have come into life to accomplish, and until we have accomplished this, we have not attained fulfillment. even one person attaining this goal elevates the entire consciousness of mankind. as philo of alexandria said: “households, cities, countries, and nations have enjoyed great happiness when a single individual has taken heed of the good and beautiful. such men not only liberate themselves; they fill those they meet with a free mind.” in the hindu spiritual tradition there is an unbroken continuity of illumined men and women who have verified the supreme goal in their lives. there is always someone with us in india to embody the ideals of spiritual living, and through their personal life such people are able to inspire those around them to follow the supreme goal. when they write a commentary on the scriptures, it is in the light of their own experiences and enables us to practice their teachings in our daily life.

my own approach to the spiritual life appeals to many men and women today, partly because i have not retired from the world – i live very much as a family man, a good husband, son, and friend – but also because i have tried to combine the best of west and east. i live together with forty friends at our ashram, or spiritual community, and though i have heavy responsibilities in guiding our work, i take time for recreation. i go with friends to the theatre: i am fond of western and indian classical music; i like to take the children to the ice cream parlor and the dogs to the beach for a run. but perhaps what appeals most deeply is that i understand the difficulties of living in the modern world. before taking to meditation, in my ignorance of the unity of life, i too committed most of the mistakes that even sensitive people commit today. as a result, i understand how easy it is to make those mistakes, and i know how to guide and support those who are trying to learn a wiser way of living.

i am a believer in the little man and do not look to governments and corporations to set the world right. in india, the tropical sun dries up almost all vegetation during the hot season, and a shade tree is a precious shelter from the deadening heat. the leaves of the tamarind tree are very small, but they are packed so closely together that they give better shade than the large leaves of the banana tree. my grandmother, my spiritual teacher, used to point to the tamarind tree and remind me that a large number of little people, working together closely, can accomplish much more than a few big people. the lord within, whether we call him krishna, christ, the buddha, or allah, is the source of all power, and when we live for others in accordance with the unity of all life this power flows into our hands, enabling us to take on the biggest problems facing the modern world. in hindu mythology, ganesha, the elephant god, is the symbol of the lord’s power. the elephant is a huge, strong creature, but very gentle. often he does not know his own strength. his eyes are so small that in india we say he thinks he is only a small creature, not capable of much. he never knows his own size. my gita commentary is aimed at ordinary men and women who think they are small, who do not realize their real stature.

even if it takes a whole lifetime to learn to practice the teachings of the gita, we shall have made a valuable contribution in life. you and i can make a contribution to the spiritual evolution of humanity by learning to resolve the terrible civil war described vividly in the gita. this war is continually raging within every one of us, and the two armies in conflict are all that is selfish in us pitted against all that is selfless in us. it is a lifelong stuggle between the demonic and the divine.

the bhagavad gita, which is found in the hindu epic the mahabharata, is the most influential scripture to come down the ages in india. it is the quintessence of the upanishads, giving us their perennial wisdom in a manner that can be systematically practiced. the upanishads, which come at the end of the vedas and are among the oldest, most revered hindu scriptures, contain flashing insights into the nature of life and death. the gita gives order to the insights of the upanishads and tells us how to undertake spiritual disciplines to become aware of the supreme reality always.

my surmise is that the gita was originally an upanishad which has been inserted into the mahabharata, its first chapter serving as a bridge between the epic story and the upanishadic teaching in chapters two through eighteen. perhaps this interpretation cannot be substantiated by scholarship, but in the traditional invocation to the gita we find this verse:

sarvo ‘panishado gavo

dogdha gopalanandanah

partho vatsah sudhir bhokta

dugham gitamritam mahat

all the upanishads are cows

milked by krishna, the cowherd boy,

and arjuna is the calf.

those who are wise and pure drink the milk,

the supreme, immortal nectar of the gita.

the gita also uses the dialogue form of the upanishads and is especially similar to the katha upanishad, where yama, the king of death, teaches the teenager nachiketa how to attain immortality through self-realization. in the gita, the dialogue is between sri krishna (a full incarnation of vishnu, the preserver in the hindu trinity) and arjuna, a young prince who represents you and me. arjuna is a man of action, living in the midst of society and confronting essentially the same problems that challenge us today. his friend and spiritual teacher, sri krishna, is the lord of love who dwells in the depths of our consciousness. he is the atman, our real self.

to practice the teachings of the bhagavad gita no amount of intellectual study can be of much help, because intellectual knowledge, by its very nature, has little power to transform character, conduct, and consciousness. meditation is the mighty instrument which enables us to bring the timeless teachings of the gita into our life, day by day, step by step.

in the hindu scriptures meditation is called brahmavidya, the supreme science, in which all human desires are completely fulfilled. if we practice meditation sincerely, systematically, and with sustained enthusiasm, our physical and emotional problems find their solution, all of our artistic and creative capacities come to full maturity, and we are able to contribute to the welfare of our family and community. we live in the world as integral members of our society, and by transforming ourselves, we transform those with whom we live. this is joyful living; it is not running away from problems but facing problems with a quiet confidence and unfailing insight that come to us day by day in the practice of meditation.

in order to bring the teachings of the gita into our daily lives and to practice meditation, we must observe the simple rules of right living. on the strength of my own small spiritual experience let me indicate here the eight-point program which i have found extremely useful in my own life. this body of disciplines, which can enable us to fulfill the supreme goal of life, self-realization, can be followed by every person capable of some resolution, some endurance, and some sense of dedication.

the eightfold path

meditation is at the center of the program, supported by seven disciplines that will help you to deepen your meditation and transform your life. easwaran’s book meditation is our core book about the eight point program which consists of:

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silent repetition in the mind of memorized inspirational passages memorized inspirational passages from the world’s great religions. practiced for one-half hour each morning.

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silent repetition in the mind of a holy name or a hallowed phrase from one of the world’s great religions. practiced whenever possible throughout the day or night.

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setting priorities and reducing the stress and friction caused by hurry.

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giving full concentration to the matter at hand.

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overcoming conditioned habits and learning to enjoy what is beneficial.

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gaining freedom from selfishness and separateness; finding joy in helping others.

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spending time regularly with others following the eight point program for mutual inspiration and support.

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drawing inspiration from writings by and about the world’s great spiritual figures and from the scriptures of all religions.

it is essential that all eight steps be practiced daily. though they may at first seem unrelated, they are closely linked. quieting your mind in morning meditation, for instance, will help your efforts to slow down at work, and slowing down at work will, in turn, improve your meditation. hurry at work and your mind will race during meditation; skip meditation and you will find it difficult to be both slow and concentrated.

in other words, some of the steps generate spiritual power while others put it to wise use during the day. unless you practice all of them, you cannot progress safely and far.

naturally, certain disciplines will be easier for you than others. give your best to each; that is all that is expected. mahatma gandhi suffered many setbacks in the campaign to free india, but he was never despondent. he often said, “full effort is full victory.” maintaining your enthusiasm, being regular and systematic in your practice – these really count.

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