You’ll be holding the railing on bart and looking at your inbox, walking down 24th street on the phone with your mom or in Whole Foods in front on the bulk bins and you’ll have to make a decision. The decision will feel very important or maybe it won’t. The decision will end up affecting your whole life or maybe it won’t and you’ll remember this moment for the rest of your life or maybe you’ll forget about it by Sunday. Lives are made by decisions. Well thought out decisions, rash decisions, dissected, split second and decisions which are made by never being decided.
The Bhagavad Gita is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata and is 700 verses set on a battlefield in the moments of indecision before a shot is fired. The Pandavas (the “good”guys) and the Kauravas (the “bad” guys) are face-to-face, bow and arrows in hand and the leader of the Pandavas, Arjuna, seems to freeze time with his doubt.
“Standing there, Arjuna saw in both armies: uncles, grandfathers, teachers, cousins, sons, grandsons, comrades, father in law and friends. On seeing his friends and relatives positioned on both sides, Arjuna was overcome with pity and said “Oh Krishna my limbs fail me, my mouth is parched, my body is shaking and my hair stands on end seeing my relatives here and anxious to fight.” His bow fell from his hand. “My skin is burning, I can’t keep standing, and my mind seems to be reeling….” (1:28-30) Arjuna finishes by recounting the tremendous suffering that war causes and asserts that he would rather be killed then to begin the battle and retreats to his chariot.
It’s then that Krishna comes to speak to him. Krishna is the spark of divinity present in everyone. Later on he says, “I am the true Self in the heart of all creatures. I am their beginning, middle and end…whenever you see anything beautiful, powerful or prosperous, know that this arose from a spark of my effulgence.” (10:41)
Arjuna asks Krishna what so many of us, pulled down to our knees in agony have asked. “What am I supposed to do?” Specifically, he questions his dharma or duty. Krishna answers by talking about Arjuna’s soul, or Self. “Weapons do not affect the self; fire does not burn it, water does not wet it, wind does not dry it. The Self cannot be pierced or cut. It is endless, all pervading, stable, immovable and everlasting….this Self, which exists in everyone, the indweller, is invulnerable.“(2:23-24)
At first, it’s hard to see how Krishna is answering Arjuna’s question. Arjuna is asking what he should do in a very specific moment- (should I go to battle or not?) and Krishna seems to be glossing over the answer by talking about his soul, but he is actually showing us a new lens by which to make decisions. Krishna says the material, physical world is always changing and if we base our decisions on things that are impermanent we will be constantly thrown around by the winds of fate. In order to find stability, we must be able to find equanimity in both pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences. Basically, because we cannot control the sensory world, it’s silly to base our happiness on it. If you base your happiness on tamari cashews from Whole Foods, what happens when they’re out of stock? If you base your happiness on your partner, or job, or bank account what happens when those realities shift? Instead, we should focus our minds and our work on that which is permanent- our soul.
In order to uncover our souls, we must find equanimity and in order to find equanimity we must train the mind to stay centered through the constantly changing material world. And how do we do that? By focusing on what doesn’t change, which is, of course, the soul. According to the Gita, our Dharma is so much deeper than our duty or work or designated roles, so much more than being a solider or sister or father or wife or an IT specialist or yoga teacher.
Our Dharma is the work of uncovering our soul. Uncovering the soul is different for everyone. Some people find it in books, or faith, or love, or meditation or walking through a field at 5am or service or the family dog, or staring at the sunset or playing the perfect 5 notes on the piano. Many of us find it like Arjuna, on our knees in something close enough to prayer, begging for answers from whoever is closest. According to the Gita, these are the moments when it’s most important that we stay.
These moments can be an opportunity to unravel our egos and find ourselves. Retreating can look like going back to the chariot or like looking at your iphone or like closing the door and every time we retreat we lose an opportunity to connect and connection almost always comes right after the awkward, painful, scary part- right at the part where we feel the most vulnerable and alone.
The Gita tells us when we’re deciding to go into battle or to write that email or to reach across the table the take his hand, we should consider first our soul. Does this uncover my soul? Of course, the mind is loudest during times of uncertainly but the Gita asks us to listen a little deeper in order to hear the call of the soul. Literally translated the The Bhagavad Gita is just that- the “Song of the Soul.” At one point, Arjuna asks Krishna- how do I find you? How do I find my soul? Krishna answers, “ want me more than anything else.” It’s easy to get lost in the sensory world- in the painful, sexy, fearful, dreamy, annoying, ecstatic, mind-numbingly boring physical world, but ultimately the Gita asks “what do you want more than anything else?
And then comes that yoga magic. Because when you’re in pursuit of uncovering your soul- of uncovering yourself, then, only then, can you start to connect with universal soul and everybody else. And isn’t that what we’re really searching for? We seek out connection by posting our new haircut, or what we look like when we wake up or our avocado toast or the things that tear us to pieces or the things packed in our suitcases or how long we can run or the places we drink margaritas and we count up our followers and likes and it feels something like happiness but not quite. With every post, we’re asking for confirmation that we’re loved and seen and matter.
According to the Gita, this path is misguided. We are already seen and loved and matter, but seeking validation from the outside world will lead to sorrow, because it’s a distraction from real Love, or soul. The Gita says “One whose happiness is within, who is active within, who rejoices within and is illumined within, is actually the perfect mystic. He is liberated in the Supreme, and ultimately he attains the Supreme.”
In the end, Krishna boils it down to this. “Fix your mind on Me, be devoted to Me, offer service to Me, bow down to Me, and you shall certainly reach Me. I promise you because you are very dear to Me.” In the epilogue to his translation, Satchidananda boils the whole thing down to 4 words. Be good, do good.