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In Appreciation of the Bhagavad Gita

A Healing Revelation

My first direct encounter with the Bhagavad Gita was in the parking lot of the Methodist church in Montgomery City, the small Missouri town where I spent most of my growing up years. I was reared Catholic, not Methodist, but was in the church parking lot because a flea market was being held there. I had gone there with my grandmother to sell her handmade arts and crafts. My mission was to find old sci-fi paperbacks and comic books.

But the Bhagavad Gita was also very much on my mind. My father had died two years previously – after a long, painful ordeal – and I had consequently undertaken a search for answers to the deep questions of life: Why is there so much suffering? What is the purpose of this life? And what happens after we die? In the intervening months, I had also seen the film Gandhi and begun reading anything I could find by or about the nonviolent Indian freedom fighter.

The Methodist Church where Jeffrey Long found the Bhagavad Gita at a flea market.I had simultaneously developed a great fondness for the music of the Beatles – especially George Harrison, whose fascination with India in turn became a source of fascination for me. I’d been seeing references to Lord Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita in the writings of Gandhi and in the lyrics, interviews, and album cover art of George Harrison, even in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which I was reading. So I was quite keen to read this ancient text and go right to the source of the wisdom that had inspired my heroes. I was fourteen years old.

The Bhagavad Gita, however, was not easy to come by in Montgomery City, so I was not sure when I would get to read this wise and ancient book. But on that spring day in 1983, something happened that changed the course of my life. Seeing a flea market table that looked like a promising place to find books, I saw the Bhagavad Gita sitting on top of a pile of old magazines. It was the richly illustrated Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, the Gita as translated by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and friend and teacher of George Harrison.

I opened the text, seemingly at random, to one of the illustrated plates – a portrait of a man who had died and was surrounded by his grieving family. The picture hit me like a lightning bolt, as it seemed to sum up perfectly the experiences of my family over the past couple of years. Standing at some distance from this grieving family was a wise Hindu sage, gazing upon them with a serene, compassionate detachment, and gifted with the ability to see the divinity within each family member (illustrated by a small image of Lord Krishna floating over each person’s heart). Beneath this picture was a caption that read, “The wise lament neither for the living nor the dead,” with a page number given.

Reading these words, I felt as if I was hearing the voice of God speaking directly to me in this Methodist church parking lot.

I looked up the page reference indicated next to the caption and came to the eleventh verse of the second chapter of the text: “Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead. Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth, and then to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.”

I cannot begin to describe the power these words had for me that day, a power that resonates to this day. Transfixed, I could not put the book down. Here was the wisdom I was seeking. Here were answers that actually made sense, both logically and intuitively. I bought the book for a quarter – the best quarter I’ve ever spent!

The Bhagavad Gita is actually a fairly small portion – eighteen concise chapters – of a much, much longer text, the Mahabharata, which is roughly four times the length of the Bible. Composed, at least in its current form, about 2,000 years ago in the sacred Sanskrit of ancient India, the Mahabharata tells the story of a war between two branches of a royal family – the Kurus or Kauravas, and the Pandavas, though it also includes many other stories and discourses on ethics and spirituality.

The Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of the Blessed Lord,” is simply called “the Gita” by most Hindus, though many gitas, or songs, have been composed through the centuries, songs such as the twelfth century Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, narrating the love story of Radha and Krishna, and Guru Gita, a hymn to one’s teacher.

The Bhagavad Gita recounts a dialogue at one of the most dramatic points in the Mahabharata, just as the final battle of the Kuru-Pandava war is about to begin. The Pandava hero, Arjuna, is about to lead his forces into battle by blowing the conch shell horn that will signal the charge. He asks his charioteer (who is not only his cousin and best friend, but, it turns out, Krishna – God incarnate) to drive him to the center of the battlefield, between the two assembled armies.

Arjuna observes the brave, heroic, and noble men in both armies. His own teacher, Drona, and the grandfatherly Bhishma, out of adherence to their oaths of loyalty, have actually ended up on the other side of the battle against Arjuna and his brothers, although the mutual affection between the Pandavas and these two figures remains undiminished.

It is, in short, a classic civil war situation, with family member fighting family member. Arjuna, despondent at the thought of the slaughter to come, and the fact that he is duty bound to take up arms against the very men whose feet he has previously touched in respect, men to whom he still looks up to with profound reverence, wishes that he was anywhere but on this field of battle. He turns to Krishna for advice.

Krishna – who, again, is no ordinary friend, but Bhagavan, the Blessed Lord – proceeds to advise Arjuna. His advice may be shocking to someone who associates Hinduism with Gandhian nonviolence and grew up during or in the wake of the great peace movements in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Krishna does not tell Arjuna to become a pacifist and embrace his enemies. He advises Arjuna, rather, to fight the battle before him as duty demands. As Gandhi and others who adore this text attest – Gandhi famously called the Gita his “dictionary of daily reference” – the point here is not to endorse violence, but to inspire all of us to face the challenges of life with courage.

From a literary perspective, the battlefield situation functions to give Krishna (and the author of the text) the occasion to launch into an extended discourse on the meaning of existence and the way to our ultimate goal: the supreme peace of Brahman (brahma-nirvana). Beginning with the doctrines of the immortality of the Self and the process of birth, death, and rebirth (which I found so reassuring in my youth and that continue to reassure me today), Krishna takes Arjuna on a comprehensive and detailed journey. The journey visits the various spiritual paths, or yogas, that lead to ultimate bliss.

It is not by avoiding the things that we fear, the Gita teaches us, that we become free. It is by facing them head-on, with the courage of a warrior, and offering each action and experience as an offering to the divinity who dwells within us all that we can at last reach the state of transcendence, in which we see God in everyone and everything that we encounter. And if God is everywhere, in everyone and everything, what is there to fear? An encouraging message indeed, for a fourteen-year-old who has lost his father, and for people struggling everywhere to find a way to true and lasting inner peace.