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Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita regarding action in the world

March 2013

The Bhagavad Gita is one if the major texts of the Indian tradition. It is a part of one of its major books, the Mahabharata. This book tells the story of five brothers, the Pandavas. They are ruling over their kingdom until they are ousted by the Kauravas, their neighbours and cousins, a one hundred brothers family, thanks to a dishonest trick.

The Pandavas are condemned to exile in the forest during thirteen years, with a number of obligations. After those thirteen years, they claim to regain their kingdom but the Kauravas argue that they did not pay respect to all their obligations during their exile and reject their claim. War becomes unavoidable. Each prince in the whole country takes sides. Krishna, a divine avatar, is also the prince of a region at that time. Both parties ask him for his support. He gives them a choice: he will lend to one party all his armies and he will serve as a chariot driver of one of the other camp’s warriors. Arjuna, the boldest and best warrior among the Pandavas chooses to take Krishna as his chariot driver. The Kauravas are happy to enrol his armies.  

 The first day of the battle has come. As he is to launch it, Arjuna is suddenly doubting. Is he really going to engage in this battle where so many warriors will die, and among them, in each camp, family members, courageous men which he likes, senior ones whom he respects ? He is thinking of leaving his arms and letting others kill him. He feels lost and asks Krishna, his chariot driver, to advise him. The Bhagavad Gita is the account of this conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.

Krishna tells him abruptly: stop this mood and these thoughts which “are not coming from heaven”; act according to your duty. First, he says, death is only a change of state, nobody can claim to have killed anyone; second, you must perform whatever duty that is given to you. To-day, this one is right, you must serve the victory of justice. Then comes Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna about action in the world when one who seeks to reach Brahman (God).

 The way of the ermit, of withdrawing from the world, is respectable but it is no better than the one that leads to live in the world and to act in it.  This latter one is a major way to reach Brahman, provided one follows the following principles ( quotes from Sri Aurobindo's translation- French edition "Le Yoga de la Bhagavad Gita", Tchou,1969):

« The action belongs to you but not its fruits ; never act in view of the fruit it will yield” (II, 47) “… “without being attached to it, always do what has to be done; when acting without attachment, man reaches the supreme good” (III,19).

“Do your tasks as sacrifices, free of any attachment”. In other words, dedicate your actions to Brahman, who is anyway inspiring them.

The only motivation of an action that is inspired by Brahman is “ maintaining the world’s cohesion” (III,25).

When man acts along the desire and the attachment to the results of his action, he believes he acts whereas Nature’s fundamental energies are playing with him (III,27)

 Â« It is better to obey one’s own law, even a mediocre one, than to obey the law of some one else, even if it is a better one. It is better to die in obeying one’s own law. Others’ laws are dangerous” (III,35)

 â€śEverything you do, you eat, you sacrifice, you give, every ascetism that you impose on yourself, offer it to me. Thus you will be freed from the links of your action’s results, good or bad…” (IX, 27,28).

This text can probably be understood in various ways, as evidenced by the many comments that have been written about it. Moreover, one has to be careful when one was not born in India or is not deeply familiar with the Indian tradition. However, we can find food for thought there regarding two issues in this website: the ethics of action and the right action.

 The ethics of action

The Bhagavad Gita is a perfect expression of the ethical logic most often called “deontologist”. This means that it is guided by principles, not by the assessment of the actions’ consequences. There is a rational version of this logic, as we find it in Kant, and we have here the spiritual one, which is explicitly linked with a God.

We can see the dangers of such a logic. The example given by this text is clear; Krishna tells Arjuna to launch a battle that will cause many to die or to suffer. Should we interpret this text literally ? Yes, if we are in the logic which gives primacy to principles over consequences of actions. Some interpretations of the text have been in line with this.

One can think of two anecdotes. In 1209, the French town of BĂ©ziers was occupied by heretics called “Cathares” and was besieged by armed forces of the king. The Pope’s representative is told to have said: “kill them all, God will recognize his people”. More recently, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the first atomic bomb that was used against Japan, is told to have been strongly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita (Wikipedia,http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer, 03.14.2013). We do not know to which extent  those anecdotes are true, particularly the first one; however, they are illustrations of a rather frequent human behaviour.  It is understandable that this logic opens the door to every excess. Is there such a thing as a right violence ? if so, how can it be distinguished from fanatism?

The answer from the Bhagavad Gita lies in the recommendation of action without desire, without passion, which rules out fanaticism where God’s service is only an illusion, hiding the interplay of the ego’s unconscious drives and fears. It is probably also necessary to understand this text with its historical context. In that time, the cast of warriors, the  Kshatryias,  would not fight for any reason and against anybody. They would certainly not fight because of some bloodthirsty appetite. Like a samurai or a knight of the Western Middle-Age, they were expected to follow a code of honour, which was also seen as a way of personal development.

However, should we follow this path ? The answer belongs to each of us. One can also object, as some did, that this text is allegoric, that it is a myth which must be read as such. Then, the fight between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is the fight inside an individual in search for God. In this perspective, the issue of the ethics of action in the world is no longer appropriate here, or at least, less relevant.

 The right action and the quest as an illusion

 The meaning of the word “right” here is related to the notion of justice and also of accuracy. The Bhagavad Gita sets the principle of detachment from the results of what one does. That does not mean an easy going and complacent attitude. It leads to being fully present in what one does. In the perspective of the Bhagavad Gita this goes along with the action  being offered to God, which cannot be achieved without great care and attention.

We also find this principle in Buddhism, in Tao te King or in  some Zen texts, without any such reference to divinity but always with this notion of presence in what we do, without any attachment.

Without detachment, action is guided by ego’s desires and fears and it cannot be right. What the text names Nature’s forces play with us whereas we believe we are the authors of our actions. Therefore, can our quests through our actions in the world be illusions ? To this question, the Bhagavad Gita answers that they often are. Can they be different from an illusion? Its answer is also yes. The search for the right action then becomes a major way to spiritual development, to the divine in ourselves.



#1 BĂ©atrice 2016-02-20 10:33
Une phrase de la Baghavad Gitta qui résume le livre :
"Dans l'action, détaché des buts et des fruits de l'action."

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