Tuesday, March 14, 2006

An Unmystical Look at the Gita

How about taking a fresh look at some things past? One which shuns any notion of mysticism - inexplicable things that we are supposed to believe just because we see it written in some ancient text or even worse - told to us by "spiritual" people. This includes magical acts that defy our senses, supreme beings (e.g. god), and the like.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to denigrate everything that is in our past, but on the other hand, I take great pride in it. However, for me to personally respect our past I need to get past things that I cannot explain. I'm not inclined to believe stuff when it defies logic. My opinion: To honestly take pride in our cultural past, we need to cut through some of the material that may represent peoples inclinations and interpretations of things past rather than actual events.

I think the Gita is a fascinating event in the history of mankind. In a single blow, it derailed the progress of ritualistic religion and started a new age (later named the kalyug) of rational thought, rapid expansion of humanity and a new understanding of reality. A unique message, delivered secretively by Krishna to Arjun that enabled his feeble army to defeat what could easily have been one of the largest armies until that time. It ultimately led to the creation of one of the most expansive and long lasting civilizations in history, which remains all but forgotten right now.

To be clear, when I say secretive message here, I do not mean that it is somehow encoded and the reader is not going to see it unless he deciphers it. It was secretive because it was delivered in the nick of time and in a one on one situation. If you analyze the word Upanishad, it basically means a doctrine conveyed "sitting near the other". And the gita is classified as an upanishad due to the gender sense of the noun and through several references to the gita as an upanishad. If you are curious why this secrecy, read on.

To dive deeper into this, let's take a flight back in time. Buckle up! And get ready for a magical journey through time... (note however, that the following account is based not at all on accepted historical beliefs but my simplistic theories and conjectures based on the limited amount I've read and understood).

Ancient India

Like many things in ancient history, we don't know how old the Gita is. There are various conjectures, some based on astronomical observations recorded in the Mahabharata, some based on records of flooding in Hastinapura and its correlation to how many generations of kings have transpired between Arjun and the king at the time of flooding. It seems the most plausible explanation is that the Gita is at least 3500 years old (i.e. about 1500 BCE). That would put it after cities like Mohenjo-daro and Harrappa were known to exist.

I wonder what India must have been like at that time. Little villages and eventually cities of tribespeople were probably proliferating rapidly. Skirmishes between warring tribes - the aryas and the nagas, rakshasas, etc. must have escalated as a result over use of land. At the same time, vast forests, large grasslands and a fabulous variety of animals roamed free probably on much of the land. Let's focus on the tribe of the aryas, where all this happens. The aryas had proliferated far and wide through the country, probably due to their success at archery. Their ritualistic Vedic religion consisted mainly of performing animal sacrifices (the yagnas) in order to get material benefit or to avoid a perceived pain. The rajasuya yagna for example it was believed would give you incalculable material wealth, but at the same time may cause domestic strife. There are several others that can be found in the Mahabharata.

The Beginnings of Vedanta

The practice of learning to conduct these sacrificial rituals was the preoccupation of the upper class along with the necessary warrior skills of archery and other weapons use. I imagine that a dissenting voice grew out of this community. One that didn't really believe in these rituals. They were the outcasts who eked out a living in the thick forest where the first rational philosophical thought was formed as the Aranyakas, getting their name from the fact that they were composed in the forest. To avoid the ire of the ruling class, this would probably have stayed under wraps only delivered in a one-on-one situation between trusted people (hence the name Upanishad). This alternative philosophy that didn't submit itself to any divine being is called the Vedanta - quite literally the end of the Vedas or the end of the Vedic religion.

Perhaps Krishna's foster father - Nanda didn't have enough means or social status to get him into the top schools to learn the rituals, or perhaps he chanced upon Sandipani who was aware of this system of beliefs and was bold enough to teach it to his pupils or perhaps his favorite pupils. It's also possible that Krishna developed this line of thinking that is depicted in the Gita entirely himself, but there's a great resemblance between that and what culminated in the Vedanta (i.e. Upanishads), so some causal relationship is likely to exist between the two.

Ok. Enough of beating around the bush, and let's get to business. What exactly is the core message that is so powerful in the Gita? What exactly caused this so called earth shattering change? Read on....

The Run Up to the Gita

The Pandavas are humiliated by having to stay at their father in law’s place and they have nowhere to go. Krishna, who is very close to Arjuna tries one last time to persuade the Kauravas to concede the terms of their agreement made sixteen years back. The talks fail and the stage is set for the war.

In an amazing feat of political achievement he dedicates his army to the Kauravas and he himself stands by Arjuna more as a counselor than as a warrior - making sure he doesn't break ties with either side nor is he seen as being partial to any side. He knows Arjuna is going to need words of sanity to pull him out of his lack of confidence and current feeling of humility to defeat the massive Kaurava army.

Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the Mahabharata, one can imagine that a reigning king of the powerful kingdom of Hastinapura will draw alliances from many more kings than a landless king who along with his brothers has spent 16 years in the forest and are living with their father-in-law. It seems obvious as a result that the Kaurava army is much bigger than the Pandavas’ armies who have managed to muster some alliances with kings who are mainly friends of their father-in-law. The additional burden of having to face his own kin - cousins, uncles, gurus, etc - would surely bear upon Arjun and having Krishna to his side is therefore an invaluable asset.

And so it begins, Pandavas and Kauravas pick up their weapons and the battleground of Kurukshetra is ready with both armies rearing for war. Arjuna is the first one to bring his chariot to the middle – the armies wait patiently to avoid war so that one side can negotiate a truce or accept defeat and no one needs to be killed. Perhaps some negotiation will be involved they think, but it seems unlikely that they will go up against a much larger army and face a massacre.

It is in these unlikely moments that history is created. Similar to the situation in Ramayana, in which Rama whose rag-tag army of Vanars (was that a tribe or actually monkeys?) defeated the much more powerful army of Ravana. The unlikelihood of history is why it is remembered. Rama’s greatness was not that he was monogamic or that he was righteous or something else. It was in the fact that he had the courage of conviction to fight a powerful king for the sake of winning back his wife. And he had the wherewithall to win against all odds. For now though, let’s look at what exactly happened that turned the Kurukshetra battle

The Gita

Here are things from the Gita that I found most logical. I’ve ignored a lot of the text, but just like there’s a poetic license, here’s an “amateur’s license” of looking at things.

It starts with Arjuna ready to drop his weapons and willing to live a life of poverty instead of fighting his own kin. Krishna stops him and points out that the consequences of his actions are severe. He would be the laughing stock if he walks away, and will be abandoned from the big league that he is assumed to be in right now. He will in effect for the rest of his life regret walking away. Krishna also points out that he really has nothing to lose. If he dies he doesn’t have to worry what happens because he’s not going to be around to see it and if he lives and wins, he will see the fulfillment of his dreams.

The departure
This is where he departs from the traditional Vedic thought. Unlike the kings who perform rituals (yagnas) because they fear something will go wrong if they don’t and they’ll get happiness if they do, Krishna says those who say “there is nothing else but Vedas” and use flowery language to confuse and confound people are liars and should be ignored.
Instead, Krishna talks about the inevitability of reality. What exists is not going away magically (by simply not thinking about it) and what doesn't exist is not suddenly going to appear (without any action). This is what Krishna refers to as the universal principle which pervades everything. In the context of the beliefs at that time, where the inexplicable ruled your surrounds and you had to resort to believing anything can happen due to the power of the gods, this is quite a leap, to firmly believe that things don't happen until you literally make them happen.
At the same time, Krishna points out the fraility / mortaility of life. Everything you see around you – the armies the kings are not going to be around for long. And just as a human is born and lives, he also dies and just as one person dies another new one is born. So there’s nothing unnatural about death. Krishna goes on to say it doesn’t matter if you are happy or sad because these feelings come and go just as one feels warm or cold. This act of distancing one's self from one’s own emotions / feelings is another key departure from the Vedic thought before this - which benefited mostly from people taking their fears to unntatural levels and spending a lot of time and money behind a yagna.
After listening to this, Arjuna says well, if that is the case, why should I do anything? – After all it doesn’t matter, does it? To this Krishna replies – we don’t have a choice because we cannot stop for a second without doing something. Even if we are breathing, we are doing something.
So instead of pulling back one's organs of action (karmendriya) and denying one's self one's desires, one should thoughtfully recognize one’s own feelings and do everything to achieve it. At the same time he says, one who gets consumed by his feelings and focuses all his thoughts on the results is a fool (a result of the universal principle laid out at first).
To achieve results, one should not allow one’s brains to be consumed by these feelings, but instead one should at a thoughtful level recognize one’s desires and feelings and act with intelligence to fulfill them. He names a few of the feelings (e.g. lust, anger, temptation, love, fear, vanity, etc.) Krishna also gives an interesting trajectory of how one feeling leads to another.
There are some limitations in the above description because of the English language (or my ability to use English). I could have said the "mindful" recognition instead of the "thoughtful" recognition. But we associate the mind with mana which is actually the source of feelings and desires. When I say thoughtful, I am referring to buddhi which would be your conscious brain should not be consumed by the feelings and should instead be used to recognize the feeling and then acting with intelligence to fulfill them.
There is also a literal sense to all this. Especially the "pulling back" or "straining" one's organs of actions. If you notice, your breath is compressed, your hands, fingers, legs, feet are tensed if your brain is being consumed by some emotion - it might be fear, anxiety, excitement etc. Some people have later suggested (perhaps poetically) that just as there are 5 organs of senses, there are 5 organs of action, which doesn't make any sense. It's certainly not mentioned as such in the Gita. Any organ you can consciously control is a karmendriya, and this would include all your thousands of muscles.
Then there is the shloka in the Gita which people often quote: "Karmanye vadhikaraste...". To me it simply means your actions are within your scope of control (adhikar) and not the results, so focus on the actions. If instead you spend your time thinking about how great the result would be you'd simply be dreaming. This also leads to other interesting shlokas in the Gita that aren't that often quoted. Krishna says that the train of consciousness of a person who is focused on his transactions (vyawasaay) i.e. his actions and their reactions, is sharp and single ended. Instead people who tend to imagine the results have a multitude of branches of consciousness, depleting their ability to perform any action to achieve those results.
There's a lot more to write here, but perhaps for another blog...

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Community in Disguise

Here we are - as a community. Scattered across the globe, primarily a part of the global workforce. We all originated in India, many of us have lived there for most of our lives or at least for the first twenty some formative years and the vast majority of us still live in India. But globalization is a very personal experience for all of us - our friends, relatives and families or family members are far apart and we in our working lives and personal ones keeping track of timezones, planning global travel and not hesitating to communicate in an instant with our colleagues, friends and families anywhere around the world.

Many of us have done well for ourselves - as might be expected of a community obsessed with personal success. We have been taught to constantly strive for reaching the "top". And many of us have reached some sort of "top". But as might be expected, the "top" from one point of view is just another point from which other "tops" are visible. The number of "tops" keeps growing smaller, but there are other "tops". So, life continues to be a journey with its ups and downs. For some of us, boardroom battles that make and unmake fortunes is the norm. For others, getting the next passenger over is it. But the desire to do better for ourselves is strong among all of us.

We identify ourselves as being Indian. It's relatively easy for us to work with a global community but how easy is it for us to enjoy being a part of it? Say, have a drink with our non-Indian colleagues? How about dinner? There is a choice here for us. We can be an amusing Indian, the novelty of which fades in the first few minutes or the longer lasting choice - fit in.

Yes, we can make the effort to "fit in". "Get into" the popular sports, the closest athletic teams, talk about movies and news that are common to everyone in a certain geography. But is that really what we enjoy or is it just another compromise in exchange for being an indistinguishable part of the global village.

What is the Indian identity any way? Is it a religion - not really, we have all kinds of them. Is it a certain language - no again. Is it food? I doubt anyone who eats Indian food would claim to be Indian solely on the basis of that. Then what is it that makes us call ourselves Indian? What makes us "at home", comfortable, at ease?

For one, there is an undeniable sense of shared history and origins. Everything from pre-historic mythology to the freedom struggle to recent events is a history that we all share. The mythological stories some may claim are a part of the hindu religion, but one can argue that some of it is history which survives strongly in our collective memories. It is a history that in practice is shared by people of all religions in India and it rarely has anything to do with modern practice of any religion including hinduism.

Then there is a distinct set of values. How often have you seen an Indian person take a loan to get the latest dose of botox? When you see it you know it, yet has anyone tried to analyze the value system that we share? What are its origins? What is the underlying philosophy?

I'd like to explore the Indian identity here. Explore what contributes to our makeup. Our successes and our failures. So your comments are welcome: khiray@gmail.com