The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic well known for its 18TH book, the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita means the “Song of the Spirit” and contains dialogue between Sri Krishna and Prince Arjuna. In the book Arjuna is a leader of the Pandavas and is set to fight against the Kauravas to gain control of Hastinapura. Prince Arjuna’s has a charioteer named Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita contains 700 verses of their conversation leading up to the battle. Before the battle begins the Prince begins to doubt what he is doing and considering that the enemies are his own relatives it’s easy to understand why he doesn’t want to fight. Krishna senses his dilemma so he explains to him the true meaning of life, and his duties. He tells the Prince how to train his body and mind through renunciation, selfless service, and meditation. All three are elements necessary for the Prince to restore his karma and karma is what decides one’s fate in future existences. It is through good karma one gets closer to liberation. Through these teachings one realizes the conversations aren’t just about historical warfare but about spiritual warfare and the conflict between good and evil and how to live a life right by God.
The book represents both the moral and ethical struggles presented to one on their path to liberation. It talks about creation, birth and death, the results of actions, the eternal soul, liberation and the purpose of one’s existence. The spiritual truths in this book are what made the Indian lawyer, politician, social activist and writer Mohandas Gandhi so intrigued that he not only studied each and every word but lived by them as well. Mohandas Gandhi or as his followers called him (the great souled one) was born in India and became the principal leader of the Indian Independence movement seeking independence against British colonial rule. Gandhi believed in being harmless to one’s self and others and with this nonviolent attitude he inspired movements for freedom across the world. He was strongly influenced by his mother’s religious beliefs and when he left for college he began to practice Hinduism more seriously. He even gave up meat and became a vegetarian which asserted his commitment to Hinduism. Being that London only had few vegetarian restaurants at the time he quickly became acquainted with the other vegetarians in London where he joined a Vegetarian Society. Some of the members that he met were also associated with the theosophical society which was devoted to the study of Buddhism and Hinduism. The men that he met in the theosophical society were the ones that encouraged Gandhi to read the Bhagavad Gita.
The 700 verses were so inspiring to him, they are what influenced him and shaped his character so much so that he can be quoted saying, “Gita is not only my bible or my Koran, it is my mother… my eternal mother” (Gita-the Mother, 1945, 5). He said like an earthly mother the Gita would give unconditional love and support but unlike an earthly mother that might fail or disappoint the Gita would never change. It was his spiritual reference book and it got him through his bad and good times and shaped his journey. To understand more about the book that Gandhi was so influenced by we must talk about the main concept which is leading a simple moral life through the training of the mind the body and the soul to achieve liberation. According to the Bhagavad Gita this is achieved through yoga and it comes in separate forms which Krishna defines as separate paths and says it doesn’t matter which path one chooses because once you master one all will follow and the ultimate goal is to perform everyday tasks with non-attachment. Through these simple and spiritual truths Gandhi believes everyone is capable of being liberated (moksha). He believed that the Gita was easy to understand and the concepts easy to practice and that it was written for people of all classes. In his mind if a religion cannot be practiced in one’s everyday life then that was not true religion.
In chapter two Krishna asks Arjuna to free himself from attachment therefore he won’t think of some people being his relations and others not. According to Gandhi, Anasakti (non-attachment to the fruit of one’s action) is the basis of the teachings in the Gita. Sankhya Yoga (Ch. 2, v. 47) “your business is with the action only, never with its fruits” Karma Yoga (Ch. 3, v. 19) “therefore, perform action constantly without attachment. Roughly translated it means that if one is constantly worried about the outcome of ones work then they won’t perfect the work and all the worry will wreak havoc on the mind and body. Therefore, one must have no concern to success or failure but to live every day in selfless peace, to act without action. Krishna says the path to this is through living without “rajas” (anger, desire and selfishness). Arjuna questioning the morals of the battle leads Krishna to explain to him not to question the ethics of the path to the divine but to realize it is his obligation (dharma). His not wanting to kill because of (attachment) or worrying about the outcome goes against the divine because it is for the path of good. That is why Anasakti is so important.
Dharma which is defined as a person’s duty to the divine is a person’s way of making the world run as it should-a balance of good and evil. Desire is what can affect dharma negatively because it can get in the way of the will of the divine. If one has selfish desires, then they are acting for themselves and thinking about their fruits of action (what they have to gain from their acts). “Man, musing on the objects of senses, conceives attachment to these; from attachment arises desire, and from (frustrated) desire arises anger (v. 62); anger leads to confusion and confusion to the lapse of memory; from the loss of memory one’s reason is destroyed, and once reason is destroyed, one perishes (v. 63) Relatively speaking it’s a domino effect of worldly desires and attachments that destroys reason and leads to a bad path of karma resulting in one’s destruction.
Karma is like Dharma because both involve action. The difference is that Dharma defines what action to take and Karma takes into account negative and positive action. Positive actions are selfless acts while selfish actions are negative. These actions lead to reactions therefore good things stem from past actions that were good and bad things stem from past actions that were bad. Since everything that is living must perform actions in this world karma accrues for every action. Eventually ones Karma determines the cycle of birth and death that one has in the physical world, actions can either keep you in this world or free you from it. On the other hand, spiritual activity that is performed without attachment and without desire for personal gratification does not accrue karmic reactions. Therefore, if you live your life according to your spiritual duties you will be free from accepting another material body and can liberated (moksha). So like Arjuna if a person like a soldier or police man must kill in a certain circumstance to maintain the greater good and he does so without personal gratification or attachment then he will not accrue karma because that is his set Dharma. We see in the fourth chapter how Krishna is validating what Arjuna must do by reinforcing his spiritual wisdom of Karma Yoga and the fulfillment of his Dharma to pave the way to his Moksha.
Although there are many lessons and spiritual truths in the writings, we can see that the core principles told through Krishna and the Mahabharata war are really about a man’s ethical struggles in his worldly duties on his path to liberation. Gandhi’s interpretations of these verses are not only shown through his teachings but through how he lived his life, and even though Gandhi lived his life with a peaceful nonviolent attitude that doesn’t mean he let people walk all over him. He stood up for what he believed in, he was just smart enough to let his enemies fight themselves for he had transcendental knowledge so he was capable of letting things go by being on a different level.
This is something that actually bothered him about the Bhagavad Gita for the Mahabharata war in his eyes was never truly about a physical war but more about a spiritual war, and he worried that those that weren’t highly learned people might not understand that it wasn’t truly about war but more likened to a fable. He believed not only were the verses of the Bhagavad Gita a guide to a simple moral life but to show how war and violence are pointless. His evidence being the final chapter of the Bhagavad Gita where the victor is shown repenting, for although it was his duty he is saddened by the pain and devastation. From this interpretation he lived his life with a nonviolent attitude but stood his ground. He didn’t let others oppress his attitude and beliefs. His divine answers coming from his faith, karma, dharma and yoga. Where in his mind yoga was the path to the actions of dharma and karma but faith was the ability to be wise and through this wisdom came liberation.