In another Upanishad, a great seer makes a declaration which is heard by many: “There is a Self which is immortal, undecaying, unchanging. When that is attained, all is attained.” Then the King of the Gods and the King of the Demons each hear this and they come together to the sage. Putting aside their hatred of each other, they study as fellow disciples – but it is still a calm atmosphere. There was nothing for somebody who was furiously engaged in the world, in the crisis of the world. The whole tendency seems to be that you – anyway for a time – have to leave the world. The King of the Gods and the King of the Demons, it says, put aside all their royal rank and insignia and they became servants, in effect, for a year.
Now the Gita is translated generally as ‘the song’ – the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord’s song. But ‘gita’ actually means ‘sung’. It is a past participle, it means sung – and it is a plural past participle: ‘things sung’. So Bhagavad Gita means ‘things sung by the Lord’, and those things which are sung are the upanishadic secrets. The difference is that they are given just before a battle.
There is a setting in one of the great epics in which one of the princes, Arjuna, is a leading warrior on one side. He is all for the fight and he is boasting of what he is going to do in the battle. Then the sides draw up – it was something like a rugby match. The battles were fought to the death, but they were fought under strict rules and the sides used to confront each other. When he saw on the other side (this was a civil war) some of his relatives and friends and revered seniors who would be killed in the battle, suddenly his heart fails him.
His charioteer is an incarnation of God, who is partially concealed, and Arjuna, the prince, half recognises this charioteer as something more than human. He says, “What shall I do? To kill all these people is madness. Wouldn’t it be better if I simply refused to fight and walked away and became a beggar, giving them all the spoils.” Well, a lot of soldiers feel depressed – there’s a depression before a battle, and it is generally resolved by what we should now call a ‘pep talk’. The charioteer, the divine charioteer, at first gives him a sort of pep talk. He says, “Look, if you run away now, think of what they will say. ‘This great warrior, you see. Yes, but when it comes to the actual battle he is running away like a little mouse’. Think of the shame of it – and then think of the glory you will get when you win. You will smash these evil people, like your brothers want to.”
He tries this, and it doesn’t work – the depression and the disturbance is deeper than the momentary depression [experienced by] warriors, businessmen, successful housewives, artists and composers who have had a success. They also have moments of depression, and they can be brought out of it and so on, but this goes deeper. He begins to see that whatever happens, whether he conquers or loses or refuses to fight, there will be something wrong. There will be no satisfaction. There will be no happiness. He can’t take the short-term course of happiness of saying, “I want to kill these people.” So then the teachings in the Gita begin and they are teachings given for people in crisis, in the rough and tumble of life.
The Gita is said to be the secret of the king. We know, from the laws of Manu, which were very widely respected, that the king’s job was the most demanding and taxing job in the kingdom. His day was divided into three-hour periods. Twenty-four hours divided into three-hour periods – and only one of them was for sleep. He could sleep from midnight until three in the morning. Then he had to be up and receive the reports of the intelligence agents coming in the night, reporting on movements and suspicious things in the neighbouring kingdoms and so on. He had to review his troops and hear law cases. He had another three hours for recreation in the afternoon. So it was no joke. The king was the man with the hardest job in the kingdom. When he had brought up the heir apparent and his powers began to fail him he was expected to go out and lose his life in a battle, at the head of the troops.
So when it is said that this teaching is for kings, it doesn’t mean for people who are irresponsible in any way. It means it’s for people who are totally devoted and caught up and engaged with their duties in the world – and it gives the secret of how to do this. Shankara says, “Unless Yoga is practised, they will never have the strength to do it. They will become tired. They will fall away.”
The teachings begin – first of all, he declares the highest truth. This is another feature of the teaching in the Gita and in a number of the other texts. With us, we tend to think of, “You start by teaching the alphabet. With that as a basis you go on to the words, and with that as a basis you go on to the sentences, and with that as a basis you go on to constructing longer ones. Each stage depends on the one below. But the Indian teaching in the Gita is different. It begins with the highest stage. You think “What?” It begins with a declaration of the highest truth.
Now this is one of the riddles of the Gita that we are expected to solve. He begins by teaching that there is a Self which cannot be killed and which does not kill. “Even as a man throws away the worn out clothes and puts on others that are new, even so the immortal Self throws away the worn out bodies and puts on others that are new.” The doctrine of reincarnation. It is a most beautiful and logical doctrine.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 1 : Bhagavad Gita 03.04.1991
Part 2 : There is a self which is immortal
Part 3 : Reincarnation is beautiful doctrine
Part 4 : Strong passions and fears