Understanding the Bhagavad Gītā

The Bhagavad Gītā  is an amazing book for many reasons. One reason is that it is amazingly difficult to understand.

I became first acquainted with the Gītā through Swami Vivekananda’s books, and later through Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation. I kept coming into contact with it occasionally in the form of one translation or the other, till one day I started reading it seriously. I studied translations done by many people – Sri Lokamanya Tilak’s commentary, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s translation, Mahatma Gandhi’s commentary and translation and others that I have now forgotten. I became a collector of sorts like many others in this field.

And yet, I never really understood the Gītā. Not till I came in contact with two books: Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti’s commentary and the Yoga of Dejection.

The Yoga of Dejection was invaluable because it taught me a most basic and important Gītā principle that was tangibly useful and has remained of practical value over and over again. Without understanding this principle, I am convinced that it is not possible to understand the Gītā. In this article, I will share the principle as I have understood it from the Yoga of Dejection.

The principle of partitioned identities

What I call the principle of partitioned identities is as follows:

Identity is the net sum of imagined, partitioned identities invested in objects, people and beings external to the self.

This principle is at the heart of Arjuna’s predicament, and indeed the predicament of every individual in this world, whether human or non-human.

We can pause here to ask: who are we? As an exercise, I suggest that the reader make a list. It might look something like this:

  1. I am a girl.
  2. I am the daughter of so and so.
  3. I am the friend of so and so.
  4. I am the enemy of so and so.
  5. I am from this country.
  6. I speak this language.
  7. I support this political party.
  8. I believe in values of this particular group.
  9. I am a geologist.
  10. I have a pet cat.
  11. etc.

And yet, we are none of these identities. These are related to what is ours, rather than who we are. The word ‘ours’ implies something external to us. Our body and our mind are also external to us, at least in the worldview of the Gītā. In the first chapter of the Gītā, this point is made through Arjuna’s words. Arjuna saw his enemies on the battlefield, and became aghast at the prospect of fighting them. He described those arrayed against him as follows:

ācāryāḥ pitaraḥ putrās tathaiva ca pitāmahāḥ mātulāḥ śvaśurāḥ pautrāḥ
śyālāḥ sambandhinas tathā: [Arrayed before me are] teachers, paternal uncles, sons, nephews, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons and grandnephews, brothers-in-law and other relatives [who wish to fight me].

Arjuna’s dejection arose from the fact that he considered himself as the net sum of these identities. He was loathe to fight and kill his opponents, not because of compassion for them, but because of his refusal to commit suicide! Killing his relatives was akin to killing his fragmented identities in them. For example, if Droṇa died, Arjuna’s identity as his student would perish. This was unacceptable to him.

One might argue that Arjuna actually loved Droṇa or had compassion for him. But then one could ask why Arjuna did not have the same compassion when fighting and killing numerous enemies before. Why so much compassion for Droṇa?

Arjuna had spent enough time with Droṇa and had developed an identity in relation with him. Kṛṣṇa immediately saw through Arjuna’s appeal for compassion for his opponents because He could clearly see the principle of partitioned identities in operation. Indeed, most people who read the Gita identify with Arjuna, because most think themselves to be the net sum of these identities.

As we go through life, we may forget older fragments, and acquire new fragments, while aspiring for yet newer identities. These identities bring suffering, and also joy. When children are born, the parents are joyful. Raising kids and seeing them prosper brings joy, but also a ton of anxiety for their safety, wellbeing, future prospects, etc.

Yet these same parents do not have the same feelings for others’ children.

Interestingly, enmity is also a partitioned identity. Karṇa was Arjuna’s sworn enemy and both had replayed their anticipated final battle over and over again in their minds. But once Karṇa died, Arjuna lost his identity as Karṇa’s enemy. His life instantly became devoid of a major purpose, a purpose that drove him day and night to excel at battle. Killing Karṇa killed a part of Arjuna.

Identities can be partitioned not only in people, but also in objects and even abstract concepts. The cash amount in our bank account is one partitioned identity. Another is our values. If we strongly believe in the principles of justice, equality among people, fairness, morality, evidence based science etc., these are each a type of identity.

This is why, in response to Arjuna’s dejection, Kṛṣṇa educated him on the principle of identity. He pointed out that all external identities are temporary, while the self is eternal (in the second chapter). One’s acquired identity is therefore an illusion and grieving for loss of such fragmented identity, or being anxious for it is meaningless. Instead, one’s effort should be focused on developing or acquiring a new and permanent identity – that of a dāsa, of Kṛṣṇa.

Categories: sādhanā

Tagged as: , , , ,

6 replies »

  1. Well, what is labeled as an “identity list” can be called useful, even essential pieces of knowledge about one’s body and personality that allow one to function in the natural and social environment.

    They do become identity pieces when one is *attached* to those. And why one gets attached to them? Clearly, because one looks for stability, permanence in the flux of existence. Human being abhors constant change, instability, unpredictability of reality, impermanence of one’s existence. So as a defense he constructs this quasi-permanent identity structures and clings to them.

    It should be noted that some aspects of identity doesn’t change as long as one lives (gender, parents, place of origin, etc.) However, ultimately, all identity structures are fragile as they depend on the body that will be gone one day.

    So the spiritual solution offered is to posit *permanent* structures (1) Atman in Advaita Vedanta or (2) Krsna in GV or (3) etc. etc. and define one’s identity in relation to this or that structure. In case 2, of course, one gets an added bonus of “the true absolute eternal lover.” But, of course, to do the trick one has to have a complete “shraddha” in the *reality* of a chosen structure or, if you wish, “ista devata” in the absence of any conclusive empirical evidence. Previously, this absence really bothered me, but at present I am less attached to the empirical truth and can appreciate the wonderful benefits of unconditional “shraddha.” So why not GV? Well, I just don’t find Krsna structure as presented in Bhagavatam inspiring and/or appealing.

    But these are substantial solutions to the basic problem of fundamental unsatisfactoriness of temporary, ephemeral ever-changing existence. Solutions that potentially bring deep satisfaction and happiness given one can bootstrap “shraddha” and be inspired by the Bhagavatam and/or Goswamis vision. Of course, one should also not to become a sucker to sects, institutions, gurus, etc. but be lucky enough to find a truly inspiring and saintly or at least completely ethical, kind and caring teacher.

    • There is no empirical evidence of Krsna because Krsna is not accessible to the material mind. The Bhagavatam follows this Vedantic principle.

      Being material, the only empirical evidence the mind can possibly collect is about the non-existence of Krsna. Agnosticism or perhaps even atheism is the logical belief system if one relies on one’s mind alone. Ultimately though, it matters not what one knows or believes, because all such knowing is an illusion. There is no knower in science. Bhakti offers the possibility that I exist – and for that reason alone, it is a wonderful thing.

      One cannot develop sraddha in uttama bhakti on one’s own, or, contrary to what many people like to think, one cannot ‘cultivate’ sraddha. One either has it, or one doesn’t.

  2. If empirical evidence can be so easily disposed off, one can choose to have shraddha in anything. Krsna, Jesus, Satan, Zeus, Osiris, etc. etc. There are literally thousands of deities to choose from.

    “Mind being material and thus not able to grasp any spiritual realities” is just a particular slant of a particular view. There are others. E.g. We are inherently spiritual beings endowed with material coverings to operate in this material world. But as essentially spiritual beings we have access to spiritual realities. Or in other words, deep down we possess “spiritual mind” not just “material mind.”

    The problem is that when some guru announces certain ideas, one is absolutely discouraged to examine them critically and voice objections. Why this suppression? Because otherwise those ideas would be quickly exposed as arbitrary and baseless, hinging only on the “staunch shraddha…” So any questioning is like a death sentence.

    But there are so many ways to see things…

    • I dont think you understood my reply. You can’t choose to have sraddha in uttama bhakti.

      As for ‘suppression’- nobody is suppressing your views. Just go your way. There are many views to choose from, so pick your view.

  3. What about Sanga/Sangati/Association?
    That does play a role in shaping one’s convictions/beliefs/”Shraddha”

Leave a Reply