The setting for the Bhagavad Gita is a battlefield during the time of a great war between two families who are relatives. An ancient historical battle in Kurukshetra is recorded in the Mahabharata, India's great epic. The Bhagavad Gita is an excerpt from that epic. In the Gita, the story of that battle moves into the territory of our hearts and minds. The battle takes place in our lives every day.
Chapter 1, verse 1:
When they were in the field of virtue, in the field of the Kurus,
Assembled together, desiring to fight,
What did my army and that of the Sons of Pandu do, Sanjay? 1.1
The first verse we encounter in the Gita is this question: What's happening? What is going on in this battle? If we look at this battlefield as our own life, this is the question that we are to ask ourselves: what's going on here? What's happening in my life? What are the forces at work?
This battle is really a battle for the soul life. The forces at work are the various viewpoints of the mind, the tensions between the lower drives in the mental field—our selfish desires, unruly emotions, and misguided limiting tendencies—and the opposing pull of the soul, or higher consciousness, toward the freedom to fulfill its divine destiny.
When Paramahansa Yogananda wrote his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, he said we should ask ourselves every day who will win this battle. Will it be the soul? Will it be our higher drives and inclinations? Or will it be our lower drives? Will it be clarity? Or will it be confusion? Will it be hatred or aversion? Will it be compassion? Will it be resistance and trying to control outcomes? Will it be acceptance? Forgiveness? Will it be resentment? Will it be love?
Living the Bhagavad Gita: The Battle of Everyday Life
The first chapter of the Gita is the Yoga of Arjuna's Despondency or despair. The principal character, the warrior hero Arjuna, is counseled by Lord Krishna. With a symbolic view, we see Arjuna as the seeking soul, the universal representative of the would-be hero of the inner life. He is our own self, learning to live spiritually in the world. And Lord Krishna is the higher Self, the Lord of Love, seated within our hearts. Lord Krishna is the ever-present support, the Divine Friend, and Guide.
The theme of Arjuna's despair is that life is difficult. We would rather not hear that. We spend a lot of time trying to avoid the difficulties in life, and that's what we see Arjuna doing. He doesn't want to fight. He doesn't want to engage in the battle. It seems to him that there's no way he can win. This story starts in a familiar place for most of us on the spiritual path. We think life is difficult and the spiritual life is arduous. We wonder: How do I possibly do what I need to do on the spiritual path and still pay the bills, take care of the family, and do all the things required of me? How is this possibly going to work?
How to Live Your Life
This line of inquiry takes us right onto the battlefield with doubts and tensions in our mind. We start our exploration there. What is this battlefield in my life? And how are these forces at play? What are the choices that I'm making every day? Are my decisions leading to greater freedom, or are they taking me into bondage? How am I responding to karmic influences from family, ancestors, and circumstances? Am I responding in a way that carries on a legacy of bondage? Or am I turning towards freedom for myself and others? In other words, how am I living my divine life?
In the tradition of Kriya Yoga, the masters have been clear that we're here to awaken fully now, not in some future lifetime. We're here to fulfill that dharma and live with higher purpose. To do that, most of us have to make changes. We must change our priorities that determine how we live and make the associated adjustments to what we do daily. There are habits to overcome. There are adjustments to make in our relationships. And we often think this is not going to be easy! People are going to be upset with me when I make this change. I don't know how to do it.
When we admit what we know in our heart and what we must do to live our higher purpose, we despair that making this change will be too hard. Perhaps we think friends or family will not understand us, and we may disappoint some people. Or we despair, thinking we will fail or have to give up certain things that we don't want to give up. All kinds of conflicts are going on inside of us. We can relate to Arjuna's despair. How can we do what we know we should do?
The Bhagavad Gita Offers the Solution
The inspired beauty of the Gita is that the Lord of Love, the higher Self as Lord Krishna, is present on the battlefield. Right from the beginning, he is there with Arjuna. Even while Arjuna doubts and questions how he can do it and how a solution is possible, the Lord of Love, the higher true Self, is already present. And the fact that Arjuna has resistance and doubts and wonders how this will play out is, in a sense, a sign of readiness. The teaching of the way through doubt and despair will unfold from this moment forth.
This questioning indicates a vital juncture in the spiritual life. When we have a calling (and we all do), and we're in touch with that calling, it should be high enough, spiritually expansive enough, that we don't know how we're going to do it. And that's where the Gita begins. And it's helpful to see that Arjuna, this personification of the seeking soul, is not without skill. He's highly skilled. He's not an impetuous youth just running headlong into battle. He's stopped. He's in a prayerful moment, and he's feeling everything that he needs to feel. And that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing because he's looking deeply. What is going to be the outcome of this? He prayerfully asks.
As the Gita proceeds, Arjuna turns to Lord Krishna and says, I don't know what to do. I don't know how to do this. My mouth is dry, my hair is standing on end, and my limbs are trembling. I cannot hold my mind steady. Please help me. Esoterically, this moment represents our struggle with meditation. How many of us have found it challenging to meditate amid things that are going on in our life? We sit down and close our eyes, but that battle still plays out in our minds. To move beyond that battleground of mental chatter and into the peace of meditation, we focus on a single point and allow the tumult of thought to settle. Then in the stillness of the soul, the Lord of Love can begin to guide us.
In the Gita, once Arjuna becomes quiet, the teachings begin to pour out from Lord Krishna about how to approach his dharma and live skillfully, one day at a time.
What does Lord Krishna say to Arjuna?
He says: Stand up, arise! You have everything that you need.
The Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God, begins to unfold from there.