Human quest is a journey to know the purpose of life and the real nature of the self. This knowledge is called moksa jnanam, knowledge that leads one to freedom. We saw in the previous article that sruti, where this knowledge is available, is not easy text to start the spiritual journey. So, how does one start?
Bhagawad Gita is a part of the Itihasa, Mahabharata. Here, a situation is created where Arjuna faces a dilemma – should he fight an army which includes his own cousins, and other relatives, elders in the family as well as his acharya in order to maintain dharma? Using this particular problem, Lord Krishna addresses a universal issue – understanding the nature of the self and the purpose of human life.
For several reasons this is a good text to start one’s journey.
- Bhagawad Gita is moksa sastram
While the Gita is not sruti, the knowledge it imparts is for gaining the ultimate human goal, moksa.
Karma kanda of the of the Veda focuses on means and ends, on punya-papa and on antah karana shuddhi; smritis are codified laws for living in the jagat; puranas and itihasas teach us certain values. Jnana Kanda of the Veda, which consists of the upanisads is the only source of the knowledge for freeing oneself from the bondage of the jagat. However, Gita is also called an upanisad, in the sense it gives us moksa jnanam.
- Student we can identify with
Generally, in every text which teaches this knowledge, there is a guru-sishya samvada, a dialogue between a guru and sishya. Students in various upanisads, such as Narada and Indra in Chandogya upanisad, Ashvalayana in Kaivalya upanisad, or even Nachiketa in Katha upanisad are people who are already very accomplished and worthy of being revered. It is easy to get the feeling that one is not in their league and therefore, would not be able to grasp what is being taught in these texts.
Most people feel that Vedanta is an esoteric text, something outside one’s reach. Knowing that the sishyas in these texts are themselves highly accomplished, one tends to feel inadequate and shy away from the text.
However, Arjuna the sishya in Bhagawad Gita, is someone we can relate with more readily. Though highly acclaimed, Arjuna is portrayed as “one of us” One would thus feel encouraged to study and understand the text.
- Giving up the jagat
Upanisads seem to indicate that all accomplishments in the jagat, the universe, are of relatively little or no value. All of them are anitya, ephemeral, all of them are accompanied by the obverse, dukha and, all of them seem to be of a nature that does not ever totally satisfy one. Pursuing knowledge alone, to the exclusion of every action, every accomplishment in the jagat is the way to gain moksa.
Giving up the jagat seems impossible to most of us. We carry responsibilities that we have undertaken – to children, parents, society, nation, religion, humanity etc, — that we cannot easily let go. “What do you want me do? Drop everything, go the Himalayas, find a guru and learn?” Everyone nods in agreement.
Bhagawad Gita acknowledges our inability to abandon our jagat, and leads us to gaining this knowledge through Karma Yoga – a way of life that allows us the possibility of gaining moksa without first having to “give up” anything. It is a compassionate text that allows us the freedom to continue to live within the jagat, engaging in diverse activities and yet move towards that ultimate goal, moksa. Lord Krishna assures us that the objective one can achieve through sanyasa, renunciation of the jagat can also be gained through karma yoga.
- Understanding Isvara
An understanding of the idea of Isvara, God, is a pre-requisite for the readiness to gain the knowledge. Everyone has his own concept of God. Even a person who claims to not believe in God has a concept of God that he does not believe in! Because the knowledge is so different from anything one has known, one has to revisit many of the previous assumptions and orientations. This is difficult, in fact impossible, without clarity about Isvara. Chapters VII through XII of the Gita are all about Isvara.
Gita allows us the gentler path of understanding the truth through first understanding God before recognising the truth of the self. Lord Krishna also takes us by the hand and walks us through the concept of Isvara in the form of avatara purusha, another area of confusion for many.
When we start on the spiritual journey, we need to be able to accept the jagat as it exists, as well as the idea of Isvara as all-power and all-knowledge. If we can turn to Isvara, it can be greatly helpful in the journey. An avatara purusha, as a visible manifestation of Isvara becomes useful in reaching that calmness of mind when one is well prepared to understand the true nature of the self.
Thus, Bhagawad Gita provides an excellent step to the start of the spiritual journey.
Which version of Gita?
There are many translations and interpretations of the Bhagawad Gita because it is one of the most common texts among Hindus. For the same reason, there are varied interpretations of what message of the Gita is, many of them suspect. Ideally one should study the Gita with a guru who is a strotriya, one who has learnt from his guru in the parampara.
However, in the absence of such a guru, an option available to one starting on this journey is the Gita Home Study by Swami Dayananda Saraswati. This is an edited transcript of classes conducted by Swamiji. Reading it gives one the impression of sitting in the class of a Master. Read and discussed regularly in a small group, this would not only give one a good understanding of what the text is trying to tell us, but can also be helpful in finding a guru.
In further parts, we will look at what Atma jnanam is and how one can hope to gain this knowledge.