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Acharya Prashant: So, what is the setting of the Bhagwat Gita? The Bhagwat Gita is a part of the epic, Mahabharata, which is a story of princely clans, running over many generations. So, one side, one group of allies by the name of Pandavas, are ranged against their cousin brothers, by the name of Kauravas. The setting is a battlefield. Krishna, is the Charioteer, of the lead warrior amongst the Pandavas, his name is Arjun. We must go deeply into the setting, first of all.
There is a conflict, in which, brothers, relatives, acquaintances, have all been set up against each other. Arjun’s great grandfather is on the opposite side. Many of Arjun’s friends, are on the opposite side. Hundreds of his cousin brothers are on the opposite side. The teacher, who taught him all his martial skills, is on the opposite side. The teacher’s son too, is on the opposite side.
A lot of attachment, a lot of past, a lot of relationships. And on his own side, are his brother, a lot of hurt, carry over from the past, insult that he has seen being meted out to his wife. His woes, his brothers’ woes. The feeling that he has been treated unfairly. The temptation to be a king again. The urge, to get back, what appears justifiably his. This is where Arjun is standing. All attempts, towards pacification have failed. And now, it is certain that there would be a war. And it is a great war. It is the war of Mahabharata.
Not a single state, across the Northern plains, is insulated, or secular at this point. Everybody has been forced to take sides. All kings, all princes are either on this side or on that side. There is nobody who can play indifferent. Such is the magnitude, of the formation of the war, of the strife.
And Arjun, is the most renowned, most responsible, most fearsome archer. The Pandavas are lucky to have him on their side. And just when the battle is to commence, Arjun looks at the formation on the other side, and what does he see? He sees familiar faces, he sees his childhood, and he sees his familial bonds.
He asks Krishna, “Kindly take my chariot to a more central point, kindly take it to a place where I can see, who I am fighting against. Let me first of all know, what is this battle all about.” Krishna, obliges him. And Arjun, looks at the faces of people he is about to fight. And his body starts shivering. He loses all interest in fighting. He says, what is the worth of a kingdom attained, by killing one’s own kins. I would rather die in anonymity, and penury, than be a king on the blood of my own. This is the prelude to the Bhagwat Gita.
Once, Arjun has expressed the intention, to not to fight, Krishna, starts talking to him. The dialogue, between Krishna and Arjun that thus commences, has been captured as, The Bhagwat Gita, the song celestial.
Myth has it, that the entire conversation was seen by a third person called Sanjay, using his divine sight, and he chronicled the whole thing. But that is immaterial. What is material is, there is someone in the middle of a conflict. There is someone, whose mind is divided. And there is someone, who is advising him. There is someone, who is telling him, what his Dharma is, what the right action is, in such a situation.
The eighteen chapters of the Bhagwat Gita, are all named as different Yogas. These are the eighteen chapters of dialogue between Krishna and Arjun. Only if we understand the setting of the Bhagwat Gita, would we also then know the meaning of Yoga. Why is Yoga needed in the first place? Krishna delivers eighteen chapters, one after the other, to Arjun. Starting from ‘Vishada Yoga’, to ‘Saankhya Yoga’ to ‘Karma Yoga’, to ‘Karm Sanyasa’, ‘Gyana Yoga’.
What is the need for Yoga?
The need of Yoga, is only when somebody is in the state of an Arjun. What is the state of an Arjun? An Arjun is anybody who does not know, what is right for him. Who does not know how to act in a particular situation? Who is caught in decision making? Arjun is anybody who is stuck between attachment and action, past and prejudice, friendship and foes. Arjun, is anybody who is torn between the various forces that can afflict any human being’s mind. Any man or woman, who ever experiences confusion, is Arjun.
Any mind, that ever finds itself stuck, paralyzed, unable to move, forward or backward, and also restless in its current position, is Arjun. Anybody, who has a Krishna in front of him, but is yet caught in conflict, is Arjun. If you are Arjun, then the word, YOGA, is meaningful to you.
Yoga is needed only when a man experiences, contradictory forces. Only when a mind feels that it is divided between various segments of influence and the segments are contradicting and competing with each other; when the mind is in such a situation, then that which brings peace and resolution to the mind, is called Yoga.
Yoga, hence is the only thing relevant to anybody who is mired in strife, tension, indecision, attachment, grief, memories. If this is what, riddles the mind, then what one needs is Yoga. And if, one’s position is not the same as that of Arjun, then Yoga is irrelevant. Whenever, I speak on the Bhagwat Gita, the first question that I ask my audience is, “Do you see, that Arjun is not a person, but a situation. Do you see, that Arjun is a state of mind?” And that situation is yours, that state of mind is yours. You have to see, first of all, that you are Arjun, only then Krishna would speak to you.
Krishna speaks only to Arjun. If you are not an Arjun, what business do we have eavesdropping on the dialogue of two strangers? A Krishna is talking to an Arjun, what are we doing there. A Krishna, is rendering some advice to Arjun. Of what use is that advice to us. That advice is of use only to one person, and he is Arjun. Now unless, you are Arjun, why do you want to listen to his advice?
So, first of all, one sees that the setting of the Mahabharata is highly symbolic. The battleground is not, really a physical battleground. It is a literal, a symbol. An indicative thing. It indicates the world itself. One has to quickly come to terms with the symbolism. And it’s a battleground in which one is not really facing strangers. Our world is a battleground, in which we are positioned against those, with whom we have relationships.
If there is somebody as a stranger, it is quite unlikely that you would have a serious feud with him. Our most problematic engagements are with those, with whom we have a past, a relationship, a history. Strangers, hardly ever come to grieve us, to afflict us. It is those that we have shared our life with. It is those, with whom we have had, something to do. The battleground, is our own life.
Arjun’s predicament is our own confusion. And hence, anybody and everybody, who is standing confused, not really knowing, who he is, and what he ought to do, which way to move, how to decide, where to put in energy and from where to withdraw, that is Arjun. So, through all the literal signs we are being shown the situation of our own life, and in the character of Arjun, our own face. Yes?
And then comes something that Krishna calls as Yoga. If Yoga, is the antidote to such situations, you tell me what is the basic definition of Yoga then? There is Arjun, who is in a particular situation, and Krishna is offering him Yoga as freedom from that situation, so what is Yoga then?
Do we relate to this situation?
Now, in that situation, Arjun is suffering. Chapter One of the Gita, contains description of Arjun’s suffering. He says, “His body is burning, his hand has lost the power to even lift his bow.” Instead of standing up like a warrior, he is crouching. He has put his hands on his face, as if he is hiding his face. That is his situation. Now, as a treatment of this situation, Krishna offers him chapters on Yoga, so what then is Yoga?
L: The path to end suffering.
AP: And what kind of suffering is it with Arjun? Is it physical suffering? Is Arjun trying to realize God and failing?
So, Yoga is not being offered as a treatment to some physical disorder. Arjun is a stout warrior, physically strong. He is handsome, sturdy, and the best archer, no one can match him. There is nothing wrong with his physicality. So, Yoga is not being offered as a treatment to some physical ailment.
At no point, while stating his predicament, does Arjun say that he is in a spiritual quandary. Arjun, does not say that he is seeking enlightenment. Arjun, does not say that his self-inquiry is stuck. He does not say that he wants God. He does not say that he wants to understand the origin of the Universe. So, is Arjun facing problems that we can classically call as spiritual?
AP: So, it’s neither physical, nor spiritual. What then, is the nature of Arjun’s problems?
L: The Mind.
AP: Yes, Mental. Very very mental and all pervasive and ordinary and commonplace. Arjun’s problems are your problems and my problems. Right?
What to fight, whether to fight? Why not simply escape? Why not just sleep peacefully? Why face the world at all? If I do this, what do I get and what do I lose? If I don’t do this, would I be able to rest in peace? All these questions are not hypothetical questions. Arjun is not seeking pure consciousness or sublime awareness. Is he requesting Krishna to emancipate him from the bondages of the body and mind and take him to some world, where there is only unconditional bliss and total love? Any of that in the Gita? No.
That is why Gita is such a practical document, and that is why it has held its own, through centuries and centuries and centuries. Because the Gita, does not talk of the other worldly nonsense. The Gita is a thing of THIS world. The Gita is addressed to someone who is facing very very manifest, practical and material problems. The Gita, does not seek to cure, imaginary diseases.
The Gita, is not about rising up to the heaven. The Gita, is about living in this world.
The protagonist of the Gita, is in very very common situation. It is a situation that every man and woman on this Earth can relate to. In fact, if someone says that he cannot identify with the situation of Arjun, then he does not know his own situation. There is nobody, who is not an Arjun. Hence, there is nobody who does not need a Krishna.
So, Arjun is not asking for Moksha. He is not asking, how to rise in Nirvana. Tell me the path of unconditional love. He is asking, “Here are my brothers, do I fire or not?” Fight or flight? Engage or escape? That hardly seems a spiritual question. And that’s a funny thing because,
Whenever the situation is real, then the answer to that situation has to be spiritual.
But whenever the situation is forcibly, artificially, dramatically, created as spiritual, the answer is always unreal. I will repeat that.
If you come up with a real life situation, then chances that you will be able to enter spirituality are very very high. Because, spirituality is the only real thing that is possible. Reality itself is spirituality. So, only when you honestly come up with whatever is happening in your life, would the doors of spirituality open to you.
But if you come up with fancy, make believe questions, that really don’t have much to do with actual living, then all you will get is, fairy tale answers. And fairy tale answers can please you, but not help you. You can be very easily told that you are the Atman. And you can memorize that, but that really does not help you navigate through life. You can be very easily told that you are just nothingness. And sitting as a body. You take it to your heart that you are nothing and nobody. That gives you another nice concept to identify with, but does not really help you. What Krishna is telling Arjun, is practical help.
That practical help is called Yoga. Practical help for practical issues in life. Direct, honest, to the point. What is happening, let us talk about that.
We are not talking spiritual fancies. We are not talking physical exercise. Unfortunately, that which we call as the realm of spirituality today, has become identified with both or either of these and has lost touch with reality. In the name of spirituality, there is a lot of physical stretching. And, in the name of spirituality, there is a lot of jargon. Stuff that sounds high flowing, but really does not touch you, really does not look at the way you live.
Gita is real. Gita is real, because Arjun’s situation is not a made up situation, it is a real situation. Unless you come up with what your REAL situation is, with what your REAL problem is, with what REALLY waxes you, no spirituality is going to open up for you. Because, spirituality is not about axioms or mantras or quotes or aphorisms.
Spirituality is about, directly knowing what is happening, and who are you, in the happening situation.
Yoga is the coming together of the various divided fragments of the mind.
The mind is a wonderful thing. When the mind is divided, not only are the various divisions, separate from each other, they are also then distant from their common center. So, then, the various parts of the mind, the various thoughts, the various influences, the various moods and opinions; they fight not only with each other, but also with reality.
The center of the Mind is the Truth. Which I will also call as Reality.
Coarsely, you can take the mind as a sphere. A sphere, having a center. When the sphere is broken, what happens to the various parts? They fall apart. They lose their natural cohesion. And when the various parts, fall apart, not only do they lose touch with each other, but they also become distant from the center of the sphere. Yoga, is to have an undivided mind. A mind that is not influenced. Because, the only thing that causes divisions in the mind, is the various forces of conditioning that the mind has experienced.
Arjun has been taught that respecting elders is a virtue. Arjun has been taught that non-violence is a virtue. Arjun, has also been taught, that defending your territory is a virtue. Now, these two things clash with each other. If he must defend his territory, then he must fight his elders. But he has been taught that not fighting with your elders is a virtue. Arjun, has been taught that one must take care of the interests of one’s kins and clan. But Arjun, has also been taught that one must take good care of one’s wife. Now, these two are ranged against each other. The kins have insulted the wife, now Arjun must defend and avenge the wife.
This is how, the mind gets divided.
Society influences it, media influences it, religion influences it, the entire gamut of experiences of the past, influence the mind. The biology inherent in one’s cells and tissues influences the mind. The country you come from, the system you have experienced, in terms of politics, economy, even ecology. That is what, constitutes the Mind. The Mind is the bundle of influences. And these influences, do not agree with each other, they fight with each other. Hence, the contradiction, hence, the strife that makes our life, a battlefield. That is human suffering. That is grief.
One part of oneself is fighting with another part. And none of the parts is prepared to be related directly to the center. All parts are off-center and in disagreement with each other.
Yoga is to have a composite mind. Yoga is to return to one’s innocence. One’s primal Purity, in which the mind is not conditioned, or stained at all. That is Yoga.
Still you see, we have not talked about anything that is as gross as physical objects or physical body. Neither have we talked of anything that is hypothetically extremely subtle. As subtle, as divinity or Godhood or enlightenment. Yoga, does not pertain to either of these. I repeat, Yoga is not about having a fit body. If it was having a fit body, Arjun, was the fittest of them all already. Why does he need lectures on Yoga then?
The fittest warrior is being given sermons on Yoga, surely Yoga is not about physical fitness. If physical fitness would mean Yoga, then Arjun was already established in Yoga. So, Yoga is not at all a physical thing. And Yoga is also not about, enlightenment, or other worldliness or freedom from this world, or transcendental experiences, or divine sparkle, none of that.
Yoga means, ‘How do I live?’
Yoga means, ‘What do I do with my relatives?’
Yoga means, ‘How do I treat my wife?’
Yoga means, ‘If I need to invest everything in a conflict, would I risk my son’s life?’
These are the questions that an Arjun faces.
If these questions are relevant to you, then the answers to these questions, is called Yoga.
Yoga means, coming together.
What can come together? Only that can come together, that is first of all, not together. What is not together? The mind is that, which is not together. The mind runs, hither -tither, randomly, sometimes this way and sometimes that way. There is no inherent order.
That lack of order is called Viyoga. That fragmentation is called Viyoga.
Viyoga, is unfortunately the usual state in which mankind exists. Viyoga, means that the parts of mind are not in touch with each other, and also not relating to any common center. There are thousand centers, every part has its own center. The part that relates to career, has greed and ambition and fear as the center. The part that relates to religion has tradition and difference as the center. The part that relates to family has attachment and security as the center. And all these centers are not at all, obviously coinciding. So, there is conflict.
The professional in the office is not the same, as the husband or the wife, in the home. The father in front of the kid is not the same as the man, who is talking to the neighbor. As situations change, new influences come and we start operating from a different center. Sometimes we operate from fear, sometimes we operate from attachment, sometimes we operate from one identity, sometimes from another identity. And the identities are not something that we control. The identities are dictated by the situations. Once you are in your office, you have become a dedicated professional. Out of the office, you have become somebody else. That somebody else, does not quite like the professional, hence conflict.
You cannot wear the same face, you cannot operate from the same center that is Viyoga. To be living in Viyoga, is living in slavery of a thousand different forces. You are in place one, you are a slave to place one. You are in place two, you are a slave to place two. Because the place is dictating your entire personality. The place is dictating the way you would think, the place is dictating, even your core. Your very self changes, according to the situation. That is Viyoga.
Yoga, is to have a self that is independent of place and time. Yoga, is to be firmly rooted at a point that is untouched by anything that can touch anything.
Arjun, is constantly told, to be Yogaaroodha, it means firmly seated in Yoga. ‘Firmly seated’, so that you cannot be displaced. So that, no vibration, no force, no temptation, no fear, can really disturb you or dislocate you.
Are we getting it?
Finding practical solutions, finding real solutions to the real situations of the life, is Yoga.
Yoga is just not about escaping into a fancy land. Yoga in fact, brings you closer to the soil. The Man of Yoga, is a REAL MAN. He does not live in imaginations. He does not have stories, he does not have concepts. He asks, what really is going on? Like Krishna, like Arjun. Let us talk Arjun, let us talk.
That is Yoga.
Excerpted from a ‘Shabd-Yoga’ session. Edited for clarity.
Watch the session video: Acharya Prashant on Bhagwat Gita: The Myth of Yoga