D – Dhritarashtra & Duryodhana (Verses 1-12) – Innumerable soldiers have assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra due to the obstinacy and deep-rooted material aspirations of these two characters, bent on usurping their cousins’ kingdom. Sitting in his palace, King Dhritarashtra inquires about the latest events on the battlefield, while his son Duryodhana is busy firing up his army as it prepares for fratricidal war. Dhritarashtra is physically blind, but he and his son are also blinded by greed, envy and material desire. When the individual starts to think in terms of “I, me and mine”, primarily interested in selfish gain and personal aggrandizement, then anxiety, frustration and disappointment are inevitable. Unfortunately, one who is materially entangled becomes oblivious to the ill-effects of his actions.
O – Ominous result (Verses 13-20) – Despite Duryodhana’s boastful
words, the ominous result of this confrontation is made clear from the onset. Too many signs indicate his inevitable defeat. Those who stand on the side of purity and righteousness are always victorious, regardless of whether the worldly odds seem stacked against them. One who is a carrier of goodness is never overcome by evil.
U – Uncertainty (Verses 21-27) – Despite knowing that he defends
virtue, Arjuna is still uncertain about fighting his opponents, who are
also his relatives. The chariots are readied, arrows are drawn, battle
cries are sounded, but Arjuna wants to take a final look at the armies.
He orders Krishna, who assumes the role of his charioteer, to drive to
the middle of the battlefield so he can satisfy his curiosity. To his credit, despite the intensity of the situation, Arjuna takes time to reflect. Life may be crammed with responsibilities and pressing issues, but attendance to such demands should not be at the expense of quality spiritual introspection. Unfortunately, the chronic disease of modern man is the excuse of “no time” when it comes to such soul-searching.
B – Bewilderment (Verses 28-30) – Foreseeing the imminent suffering
and death that is the inevitable consequence of war, Arjuna begins
to analyse his predicament. At this stage, bereft of broader spiritual
vision, his uncertainty intensifies and he becomes bewildered. When
one lacks an understanding of his spiritual identity, his relationship
with God, and the critical purpose behind this world, one inevitably
becomes disturbed and frustrated by life’s challenges.
T – Turning point (Verses 31-42) – Arjuna justifies his decision to
retreat from fighting: 1) It would be cruel and heartless to prematurely terminate the lives of so many soldiers; 2) Even an unrivalled kingdom would bring no happiness, since he’d be bereft of the company of his near and dear ones; 3) One would surely accrue bad karma as a result of such brutal violence; 4) The wholesale killing involved would destroy the family unit and social structure, causing havoc for future generations. Thus, his mind overwhelmed by grief, Arjuna sets aside his weapons and resolves not to fight.
G – Guru (Verses 1-10) – Determined not to fight, but simultaneously
torn and confused, Arjuna approaches Krishna. “I am in dire need of
guidance,” he humbly submits, “please enlighten me so I can mitigate
my miserable condition.” Through Arjuna’s example we learn the
first fundamental step in spirituality; one must approach a guru who
comes in an authentic lineage of teachers and who has mastered the
spiritual art. Most things in life require guidance and instruction under a qualified teacher and the spiritual discipline is no different. One may argue that everything they require for their spirituality is contained within, and while this may be true, we still require help to reawaken that pure inner consciousness. As the saying goes, “One who accepts himself as a guru, accepts a fool for a disciple!”
I – Identity (Verses 11-30) – Krishna begins by teaching Arjuna the most fundamental understanding of spiritual life; as the driver operates a car or as the bird lives in a cage, we, the spirit soul, are similarly utilising this body. Although living within the body, we are simultaneously different from it, temporarily operating it to perform activities, fulfil our desires and interact with the world around us. Until we realise our true identity as spirit soul, we undergo the process of reincarnation, accepting unnatural material bodies and the subsequent sufferings and distresses of life in this material world. This is the first teaching that the guru imparts; knowledge of who we really are. While it may seem elementary and basic, such wisdom has seldom been understood and truly realised. This answer to the eternal question of “who am I?” can set the soul free. It is an answer that is worth hearing again and again.
T – Two Duties (Verses 31-53) – One may then ask how such knowledge practically affects our day-to-day life in the “real” world. Krishna addresses this by delineating the two essential duties of the spirit soul. Dharma loosely translates as “duty” but in a deeper sense refers to intrinsic characteristics and qualities of something that cannot be avoided, neglected or negated under any circumstance. Firstly, the soul has a sva-dharma, a worldly duty which consists of responsibilities towards family, friends and society. Secondly, the soul has a sanatanadharma, an eternal spiritual duty which comprises of one’s relationship with God, nature and all spirit souls. One must execute such dharma side-by-side. Many individuals neglect their sanatana-dharma, becoming too preoccupied with their sva-dharma. On the other extreme, individuals can prematurely reject their sva-dharma and falsely try to absorb themselves in sanatana-dharma. The most progressive path is to be fully alert to both duties, and in doing so lead a happy and balanced material and spiritual life.
A – Atmarama (Verses 54-72) – What is the result for someone who
performs such duties with determination and enthusiasm? Such a
person becomes an atmarama – a spiritually realised soul who finds
pleasure in the self. Krishna explains how the atmarama is unaffected
by happiness or distress, gain or loss, honour or dishonour. Transcending the dualities of this world, such a spiritualist rids himself of qualities such as fear, attachment, and anger, and remains absorbed in spiritual delight and transcendental consciousness.
T – Tyaga (Renunciation) (Verses 1-9) – At first, Arjuna displays the
typical confusion of an immature spiritualist. He thinks spirituality
means retirement from active life and the adoption of asceticism in
strict seclusion. Often, the easiest response in times of difficulty is
one of escapism. Worldly life entails awkward dealings with money,
possessions, people and career to name but a few. How can such a
lifestyle be compatible with spiritual goals? Krishna explains that true
renunciation does not entail a mere abandonment of worldy duties. True renunciation is to give up the mentality that one is the “controller” and “enjoyer” of all his deeds. Thus, by offering the results of one’s daily work (money, knowledge, influence etc.) to God, knowing God to be the ultimate enjoyer and controller, one achieves a real state of renunciation.
R – Rungs (on the Yoga Ladder) (Verses 10-16) – To work without any selfish motivation whatsoever is undoubtedly an advanced stage of spiritual realisation. Thus, Krishna explains how to progress to such a level. He describes a “yoga ladder” with different rungs which represent progressively higher levels of understanding. On the lowest level an individual is solely interested in materialistic enjoyment and has no spiritual inclination. One stage higher is karma-kanda, where one still desires materialistic enjoyment but now tries to achieve it via religious observances. When one realises the futility of material enjoyment they progress to sakama-karma-yoga, where one begins to offer a portion of his results to God but still maintains some selfish motivation. At the next stage of niskama-karma-yoga one accepts whatever necessities he requires to
maintain himself and offers everything else to God. Those who progress to this level of spirituality break free from all karmic implication and become peaceful and liberated.
E – Exemplary (Verses 17-35) – Thus, karma-yoga is outlined as the
practical process by which one overcomes his material attachments
through working in the world. So what about one who has achieved
perfection through karma-yoga? Do they need to continue working?
Can they retire and simply meditate on God now that they are free
of all selfish motivation? Krishna explains how perfected spiritualists
continue working in the world for the sole purpose of setting the proper example for others to follow and be inspired by.
E – Enemy of the soul (Verses 36-43) – After hearing about this practical and logical process, the natural reaction is an enthusiastic resolve to dedicate oneself to it. But Arjuna asks Krishna, “In life, even though I know the best course of action, what is it that impels me time and time again to act improperly and against my good intelligence?” Krishna then explains the root cause of this phenomenon is the eternal enemy of the aspiring spiritualist – lust! The inherent quality of the soul is to love; to selflessly serve without any personal agenda. However, when the soul descends to this world that pure love perverts into lust, and one ceaselessly tries to enjoy in a self-centred way without proper regard for others. The way of lust impels one to seek immediate gratification and abandon activities that actually benefit them. In this way, lust cheats one of a progressive and happy life and offers only meagre, instantaneous and temporary gratification in return.
E – Eternal education (Verses 1-10) – Just as every gadget comes with
an instruction manual, this entire universe comes with guidelines
which enlighten one about its purpose and function. Such guidelines
are found inthe ancient scriptures, which contain knowledge of divine
origin, imparted at the time of creation. Krishna explains how this
eternal educational system was originally set up by Him. This system
perpetuates in the universe through qualified and saintly persons, who impart spiritual knowledge to the masses in a dynamic, relevant and practical way. Thus, the material creation is essentially a university wherein we rediscover our relationship with God. As the creator and maintainer, Krishna periodically appears in the world to re-inject spirituality, remove materialistic influences and ensure the smooth functioning of the universe.
A – Accurate Understanding (Verses 11-15) – Most people know
something about religion, and something about God, but their
understanding can often be quite hazy and confused. However, when
transcendental knowledge is received through the eternal educational system one gains an accurate understanding. In three verses, Krishna clears up three common misunderstandings of Eastern spirituality. Verse 11 addresses the misconception that all spiritual paths lead tothe same destination – Krishna explains that while there is unity in diversity, there are also different gradations of spiritual elevation. Verse 12 addresses the misconception that Eastern scriptures talk of polytheism and the worship of many “gods” – Krishna re-emphasises the monotheistic stance that there is only one God. Verse 13 addresses the concern that the caste system is unfair and exploitative – Krishna outlines the true criteria and purpose of such classification.
R – Removing Reactions (Verses 16-24) – While transcendental
knowledge helps one to clear up philosophical doubts, it also helps
one to clear up their “karmic bank balance”. Karma is a universal law
of nature – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
While bad karma is obviously undesirable, Krishna further explains
that even good karma should be avoided since it also binds one to
material existence. Beyond good and bad are activities performed on the spiritual level, that is, action which yields no reaction and ultimately frees one from the anxieties and entanglements of this world. Such action is known as akarma.
S – Sacrifice (Verses 25-42) – In order to acquire, understand and realise transcendental knowledge one must make a sacrifice. While material knowledge is dependent on calibre, spiritual knowledge is dependent upon character. Sacrifices help refine one’s character so they become eligible to achieve this knowledge. One of the biggest sacrifices is to relinquish one’s pride by humbly submitting oneself before the bona fide guru. By faithful service and sincere inquiry within such a relationship, the heart becomes fertile ground for spiritual knowledge to blossom.
S – Stay in the world (Verses 1-12) – Arjuna is still confused. Despite
Krishna’s explanations in Chapter Three, Arjuna still considers work
and renunciation to be mutually exclusive paths. Thus, Krishna
elaborates on how an individual who works in a spiritual consciousness is automatically elevated to the platform of renunciation. If one engages in righteous work, offering the results to God, and all the while keeping alert to the ultimate goal, then such work becomes worship. For most people it would be premature and detrimental to sever themselves from worldly relationships and duties in pursuance of spiritual perfection. Thus, the path of karma-yoga offers a progressive means of spiritual development while simultaneously staying in the world. Just as a lotus leaf is surrounded by water but remains completely dry, one can stay in the world and still remain aloof from its influences.
T – Three doers (Verses 13-16) – While living in this world, however,
one can easily assume the mentality that they are the director, the
controller and the breadwinner. In reality, Krishna explains that there
are three doers in any activity; the individual soul, the Supersoul,
and material nature. What to speak of controlling the results of our
activities, we are barely in control of even the physical and mental
tools with which we perform those activities. The individual soul can
only desire. That desire is then sanctioned by God (who resides within the heart as the Supersoul) and then the ability to perform that activity comes from material nature, which arranges the necessary facilities. Just as an infant lacks the ability to ride a bike but can still pretend to do so with the help of stabilisers, in this world, the individual soul is constantly supported by the Supersoul in the heart who provides all the knowledge, inspiration and facilities to function.
E – Equal Vision (Verses 17-26) – Since the Supersoul resides in every
living being, the advanced spiritualist is able to see every life form,
be it plant, animal, or human, as a temple of God. In this way, utmost
respect is given to every living being. Different bodies with different
qualities are produced according to one’s past actions, yet each entity
is of the same spiritual quality. Thus, the spiritualist is not only free of
racism, nationalism, ageism and sexism, but also “species-ism!”
P – Peace (Verse 29) – This chapter emphasises the temporary nature
of our stay in this world. We come into this world with nothing and
we leave with nothing. In the interim, our claims to proprietorship
and attachments to various objects create fear, insecurity and conflict. Change is a constant theme in this world – our relationships are changing, the environment is changing, our possessions are changing, and our desires are also changing. To the extent that we develop a sense of detachment, understanding the Supreme Lord to be the proprietor and ourselves as simply caretakers, to that extent we can experience a sense of peace within. Interestingly, it is this inner peace that brings about global peace; a community of individuals who are free from attachment, greed, envy, and covetousness is what this world really needs.
E – Enemy or Friend? (Verses 1-9) – During our sojourn in this
temporary world we are perpetually accompanied by the “voice within”. Yes, we have all experienced it, the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, each giving their own advice to the confused person inbetween. The mind is that voice within; essentially a storehouse of memories and experiences that offers options to the individual. An uncontrolled mind will agitate, misguide and entangle the soul within this world, forcing us to succumb to our lower nature of lust, anger and greed. The controlled mind, on the other hand, acts as a friend on our spiritual journey, helping us make progressive and healthy choices which bring us closer to God. When one controls and befriends the mind, one experiences tranquillity, peace and freedom from the duality of happiness and distress.
A – Astanga-yoga (Verses 10-36) – One way to control the mind is
through the process of astanga-yoga (which includes dhyana-yoga, the practice of meditation). Krishna explains the ancient path as it was practised in bygone ages. Living in seclusion, practising celibacy,
and under strict regulations of eating and sleeping, the yogi would
sit in a perfectly erect position, focusing his consciousness on the
Supreme Soul within. Despite mental and bodily distractions, the yogi
would meditate in this way for many years, maintaining stillness and
complete silence. Hearing about this strict discipline, Arjuna admits his amazement – “This practice seems impractical and unendurable!” he exclaims, “to discipline the mind is more difficult than controlling the wind!” Krishna reasserts that disciplining the mind is essential and that it is possible through appropriate practice and detachment.
S – Success and failure (Verses 37-45) – Hearing about the difficult
astanga-yoga process raises a new concern for Arjuna. What happens
if one faithfully takes to this yogic process, but later falls away without perfecting his spiritual consciousness? The unsuccessful spiritualist is seemingly left in “no-man’s land” having failed to attain spiritual satisfaction and simultaneously squandered his opportunities for worldly pleasure. Krishna appeases all such fears by explaining that whoever takes up a genuine spiritual process is eternally benefited even if they don’t perfect it. If we don’t complete it in one lifetime, we carry on in the next life from the same point, and the individual thus evolves towards spiritual perfection.
Y – Yogi (Verses 46-47) – After summarising the arduous process of
dhyana (meditation) and astanga-yoga, the chapter concludes with a
ray of hope. Krishna reaffirms that the perfection and goal of all yoga
systems is to help the individual become fully conscious of God at
all times. While all yoga systems are certainly beneficial, the easiest,
most efficient and essential path is known as bhakti-yoga (the yoga of
devotion). In this age, the primary practice of bhakti-yoga is mantra
meditation – chanting the names of God (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare
Hare). Through this process, any person from any background can
attain spiritual perfection and experience all the benefits described in
this chapter and elsewhere.