Nitya Teachings

Home | Overview | My First Book | My Second Book | Gurukula Books | Book Introductions | Bhagavad Gita | Hercules | Magazine Articles | Misc. Articles | Class Notes - 2004 to 2012 | Class Notes - That Alone | Class Notes 2015 to 2017 | Lynx
Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita

THE GITA FOR THE QUANTUM AGE  

         Once upon a time, the world’s longest and arguably its greatest epic, the Mahabharata, was written. Over its vast course the work contains a compendium of all types of human beings, from the sublime to the grotesque, the wise to the ridiculous, almost as if it was a summary of all life on Earth intended for the cosmic library at the center of the universe.

         Nestled right in the titanic war forming a major climax of the epic, someone inserted a jewel of wisdom that put the entire panoply in perspective. Lifted back out of their context, the 700 verses of that gem have come to be known as the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Guru. A guru is that which removes the darkness of ignorance, and the dawning of light is the sweetest song of all. The Bhagavad Gita is nothing more or less than a textbook of guru instruction at its best.

         While few scriptures have enjoyed—or suffered from—as many explications and commentaries as the Gita has, the work is perhaps more mysterious today than it would have been at its first appearance. This is partly due to the subject matter itself, and not to any limitation of the minds that have lent themselves to the task. The nature of the Absolute is an eternal mystery, not a thing, and as such will defy description for all eternity. But like the allied concept of Mother Nature, any attempt to describe and delineate the absolute throws a lot of light on it, light which can improve and illuminate our lives. At the same time, the wildly misleading ideas that have sprung up, many of them propagating their own sects, have obscured the meaning like a jungle growing over an ancient temple.

         Most Gita commentaries pursue a religious tack or deal in abstruse and outdated philosophies. Some even assume that the Gita was originally written to present the detritus of orthodox beliefs that have grown up around it. Not at all! The material itself rejects orthodoxy in no uncertain terms, defining itself clearly as an absolutist mystical text. Excavating its buried wisdom is the goal of the present commentary. The intention is to present the work in the simplest possible modern terms, so that it can touch the many who could benefit from the practical application of its very valuable wisdom.

         It is impossible to fully explain a work of this scope and depth, but just because a thing is impossible is no reason to stop trying. The reader will find much of value in these pages to energize their own search.

THE PRESENT COMMENTATOR

          Nothing is known for certain about the origins of the Bhagavad Gita, as no records were kept in those days. Linguistic analysis points to the written version appearing somewhere around the first century CE, but it is obviously taken from an older oral tradition. An astounding amount of philosophical ferment peaked around 500 BCE, with Buddha and Mahavira’s Jainism, and the Gita speaks to it as a contemporary.

         Vyasa, the author’s name, means simply “writer or compiler,” equivalent to “anonymous.” While some revere the Guru Krishna as a god, no one claims the Gita was written by anyone other than a human being. So there is not much to say on the academic front. Instead, we can direct our attention to the core meaning of this unsurpassed gem of wisdom.

         My own lineage begins formally with Nataraja Guru, the eminent disciple of Narayana Guru, who produced a remarkable and unique commentary on the Gita in the 1950s. He meticulously trained his disciple Nitya Chaitanya Yati, who in turn became an eloquent expounder of many aspects of wisdom. I was fortunate to take a number of full courses on the Gita with Nitya, and was his amanuensis during the preparation of his own commentary on it. Nitya’s book was written during an extremely busy period, and skips over many intriguing ideas he presented in his classes. Later he put everything he had into a Malayalam commentary, which we hope to someday find a translator for. In the interim there is a lot of room for a Gita exegesis based on his superlative vision. There are several thousand Gita commentaries in existence, and a handful of them are even pretty good. Most have serious drawbacks, however.

         I offer what follows as a distillation of the wisdom of my immediate forebears, which to my knowledge has no equal in print. I have never found one that came anywhere near Guru Nitya’s wealth of psychological insight. For the radically-minded seeker of truth free from religious dogma, this is a fine tree to climb. On the other hand, those who wish to underwrite a particular religion or social construct will find it corrosive of their parochial beliefs, and might as well look elsewhere.

WHY THE GITA IS SET ON A BATTLEFIELD

         Sometime in their lives, often in their forties and fifties, most human beings go through a crisis. Whether precipitated by a traumatic event or not, previously accepted notions of right conduct no longer provide the feeling of security they crave. For a moment they stand as if naked, broken free from traditional beliefs. The abruption between their awareness and the society can be very painful, and occasionally their anguish makes them brave enough to challenge the predominant paradigm, if only briefly. They flail about, trying to sweep back the cobwebs of accumulated debris. Decisions taken during this period of heightened intensity will have repercussions for the remainder of their lives.

         While such a crisis is an essential balancing act for an individual who has bartered some degree of freedom to the surrounding social reality, many are convinced they are abnormal for simply having this experience. There is little approbation for it in the workaday world. This usually leads to further self-doubt, followed by a sheepish return to the fold. Accommodation with an unsympathetic world can be eased by any number of compromises. Some indulge in wild behavior and partying. Others redouble their efforts in work, drowning their sorrows in activity. Still others become pious religious devotees, and learn to tolerate misery as a prelude to a better life after death. Many are secretly and bitterly disillusioned, and live out their lives as timid spectators rather than participants. There are many alternatives through which to suppress the self, with those rocking the boat least being the most acceptable.

         But there is a road less traveled, and it offers the healthiest alternative of all: intelligent contemplation of the self to break the chains of habit, allowing the individual to connect with and fulfill his or her optimum capabilities. Those who take this road are the rare souls who have inordinate impact on their world. They become wise teachers, effective transformers of society, revolutionary artists, inventive scientists, loving friends to all. Many are drawn to them by a sort of magnetic attraction that awakens their own dormant longing for liberation. Humanity’s richness can be measured in such people. Without them our collective spiritual poverty would be immeasurable.

 

         The Bhagavad Gita was written for those who feel trapped in their lives. Those who are happy and content might have only a passing interest in it, as they are busy frying their favorite fish. Spiritual liberation calls to those who feel a deep-seated urge to break the chains of their humdrum daily existence and reawaken their lost sense of aliveness.

         Inside each of us is the original free spirit that once was born into a loving and unfettered existence. This is usually the case in the womb, though some meet troubles even there. Whenever the struggles begin, sooner or later that essential core is overlaid with layer upon layer of duties and obligations. Our original state of freedom has become almost entirely a vestigial, unconscious memory by the time of adulthood. Many of us feel completely oppressed by our obligations to family, work and society. This can grow into an unhealthy condition approaching desperation.

         Such is the state we find Arjuna in as the Gita opens. Like most of us, his first thought is to run away, to become something he isn’t. Some of us run to other places, most run to psychological hideouts. Arjuna wants to become the kind of person who doesn’t have to deal with the situation in which he finds himself. But he is very lucky—if it is only luck—to have a Guru with him who can present the most refined understanding of his predicament.

         The Guru Krishna’s first piece of advice is to stop being afraid and trying to escape, and to face the situation squarely. He then unfolds a wisdom teaching that reconnects Arjuna with his true inner nature, his forgotten core, from which ground a free and expert life again becomes possible.

 

         Everywhere, children in adult bodies go about their lives, guarded and worried, desperately trying to follow vaguely grasped laws and internalized exhortations. All Krishna is really asking of Arjuna is that he grow up. The Gita is in a sense a rite of passage tale, in which an adult human being is born. Arjuna is an obedient boy who has outgrown his subservience, and wants to discover what it means to be everything it is possible for him to be. Krishna deftly shows him who he is (and who he isn’t), how he fits into the big picture, gives him some useful advice, and sets him free to follow his own star.

         An adult should be able to act independently, with as much free will as possible. Independence and freedom overlap to a large extent. But the vast majority of people never grow out of the habit of doing other peoples’ bidding. Or, they reject outside interference and spend their time acting contrary to what is expected of them. Both these polarities are bound to the status quo. Only someone who can stand above both attitudes at once is able to experiment in the area of unfettered activity.

 

         This inner disquiet is very often veiled by a compensation in which a part of us becomes our own caretaker, competent and seemingly well adjusted. Outwardly, we appear “in charge,” but beneath the surface calm is an anxious soul, cut off from its connection with its own being. Thinking our way through life instead of allowing it to unfold naturally, we have a visceral sense that something profound is lost but we don’t know what it is. Such a compromised existence works adequately until a crisis reveals its limitations. Then the emptiness of our understanding takes center stage. Suddenly we desperately need to know what’s missing in our life. If we are fortunate to find it—and it is always within us, waiting to be found—we will begin to fulfill our potential. Luckily, there are a few who have reconnected with themselves who are willing to help, and they are often right nearby just at the moment we are ready to turn to them. They are called Gurus.

         In the Gita a great teacher or guru, Krishna, helps one such baffled seeker, Arjuna, to restore the dynamism of his own nature from out of the desert of conditioning he has become trapped in. Other than brief appearances by a narrator and one verse by the king, these are the only two characters in the drama.

         A guru is a representative spark of the Absolute itself, whose touch restores the seeker to life. The usual course of events is for the nation, institution or individual to die and be replaced by a younger life form, but Krishna proposes to restore life to the living as well, by reestablishing the connection with the Source. Reawakening life through connection with the Absolute is the Gita’s wisdom jewel, and it offers some novel strategies to attain that state.

         The Gita maintains it is within everyone’s reach to renew their life at the level of creation, through ever-new, joyous participation in the torrent of Absolute expression. One need not slip into abject misery before heeding Krishna’s call to come awake once more. At whatever point you realize you are slipping out of communion with the Absolute, you just bring yourself back. As a regular exercise this infuses life with its natural exuberance.

 

GURU AND DISCIPLE

 

         It helps to know that the Guru is a principle and not necessarily a person. A Guru is a remover of darkness, a teacher, but each of us is guided by the totality of our surroundings in this benign universe. Sometimes that takes the form of a human being, but the Guru appears in whatever way the next stage of learning takes place. Often seekers will open a book chosen at random, start to read at random, and find the words speak directly to their current problem. Or they will sit by a stream and listen to the rush of water, and suddenly have an insight into how to proceed with a difficult situation. Nowadays they might be stuck in traffic and have their revelation there. Whatever. The outer condition is eliciting our inner truth, our intuition, in a million ways, if we only allow ourselves to be open to it.

         Krishna is the Bhagavad Gita’s Guru, who is most commonly referred to as Bhagavan, and it is he who gives his name to the Bhagavad Gita, the song of Bhagavan. Just as commonly the term is translated as Lord, based on some highly dubious and dualistic conceptions that are out of step with the unitive flavor of the work. MW (MW means the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, New Edition) defines the word as “possessing fortune, fortunate, prosperous, happy, glorious, illustrious, divine,” before the usual “adorable, venerable, holy,” etc. I have followed Nataraja Guru in translating it simply as Krishna. What that means is revealed by a searching scrutiny of the entire Gita, especially (X, 20) where Krishna is “the soul seated in the heart of all beings,” and “the beginning and the middle and even the end of beings.”

 

THE EPITHETS

         Throughout the work, Krishna and Arjuna have many epithets substituted for their names, such as “Mighty armed,” “Winner of wealth,” etc. Nataraja Guru suggests there is a world of implications contained in these monikers, but to avoid confusion, I have used merely the names Krishna and Arjuna. They are really not all that significant. The adjectives almost certainly play a role by helping the text fit the exacting meter of four lines of eight syllables each for every verse. They incidentally reveal a fascinating aspect of the Gita as an oral document, however.

         Although the Gita itself is incredibly tight, obviously the product of careful planning, the Mahabharata epic in which it is housed much more closely resembles the broad, rambling nature of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Scholars of the ancient Homeric epics have concluded that the similar usage of epithets in them is evidence of their original composition as improvised oral performances. Any bard worth his salt has an arsenal of such handy phrases to fit every metrical demand. Moreover, the use of stock phrases is a gambit allowing time for the bard to simultaneously ponder the next thrust of improvisation.

         Recognizing that these vast epics are an artistic compendium of oral archives accumulated over a long period of time makes it comprehensible that a single anonymous author or group eventually set them down. They are a precious historical record being preserved for posterity. Creating them purely from scratch would require an intellect of unbelievably vast dimensions. As with the case of genius composers like Mozart, there is certainly a geyser of inspiration, but it is expressed in the musical language structure of the period. Invention and convention thus go hand in hand. The existing forms may be greatly enriched and expanded by the composer, but they also serve as the supporting ground from which the leaps of creativity are launched. None of us lives in a vacuum. We cannot help reflecting the mental structure we have imbibed from birth, even under the benign influence of overwhelming inspiration. The amalgam of structure and formless creative inspiration is the dialectical expression of life at its best.

         In the case of the Gita, recording the mystical process of wisdom transmission offers the additional benefit of not merely providing instruction for disciples but gurus as well. We see many modern “gurus” who became enlightened by accident, in the bathtub or lying in bed, for example. They have a certain glowing cachet, but their appeal can be rather tepid and their teachings sparse until they assimilate some of the tried and true methods for conceiving and explaining what is happening to them. They have to learn how to express the ineluctable experience in comprehensible terms, for their fellow human beings if not for themselves.

         The Gita may thus be viewed as a textbook for gurus even more than as instruction for disciples. Many nuances of the bipolar dance of enlightenment are revealed or implied herein. The ancient secrets—ancient even at the time of their being set down in written form perhaps 2500 years ago—are codified to guide potential teachers for all eternity. In the present case the guidelines have held up very well indeed. Undoubtedly they have been tinkered with down through the ages, as have all the really old scriptures, but in this instance at least, not to their detriment.

 

 


 

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com