It is said that a classic is a book which has never finished saying what it has to say. Admirers and followers of the Gita say the same thing, i.e., even after years of study and analysis, every time someone reads the scripture, new meanings and messages come out of it. It is always fresh, always new. I do not oppose this assertion, and my only concern has always been that Indians have always considered Gita as a symbol or a label, to take oath in courts, as a token to prove their religious nature, truthfulness, attachment to duty and so on. Very few people ever take the trouble to open it and see what actually is written on those pages. Treatment of Gita is no different from that of Swami Vivekananda — the moment children or youth open their messages, their parents become afraid that they are going to become monks! And of course, parents’ own desires and ambitions are attached to the children, so why would they allow that to happen?
If you ask anyone about Gita, they would recite 2-3 popular verses. First is the ‘Whenever Dharma suffers, and Adharma gains . . .’. Second is of course, ‘Your right is only on work and not the results . . .’. And someone who has taken a little more effort, would mention ‘Renounce everything and turn to me only’. That is all.
But my friend, there are in total 700 verses, grouped into 18 chapters, each one dedicated to a particular theme and subject. It is a composition in poetic excellence. I am afraid, and certainly it is improper to make comparisons, still I believe that Hindu tradition has not been able to produce a better work of art. Yes, Gayatri came earlier to Gita.
Well then, I see your frown. Afterall, it is God’s words. How far are we justified in making comparison between human and divine skills? However, I have always been reluctant to put anyone on a high pedestal. See, besides Vaman, Ram and Krishna were the only two human incarnations of Lord Vishnu, others being animals, or demi-humans (viz., Narasimha), or celestial damsel (viz., Mohini). There is one more distinction — in all other incarnations, Lord Vishnu had an objective to accomplish, once that work was done, the duration of incarnation was over. It was like a small episode, or you can say, like a short story. The lives of Ram and Krishna were more like a novel, they stayed in the incarnation for a full lifetime. The objective was to put forward various ways of conduct, behaviour and so on, suitable for those times, leading by example so to say. They could have come, killed Ravan, Kansa and others, and left. Instead, they chose to remain as human till the natural end of a human life. Well, I correct myself; in fact, neither Ram nor Krishna met a natural end.
My point here is, when the Lord himself had chosen to live and stay as a human, wouldn’t it be proper for us to treat him as such? Only then we would be able to pay honest tribute to all his efforts and pains that he endured.
Their straight message was — ‘See, this is how one should do things; if I could achieve this, surely you too can’. Remember, Krishna did lift the mountain, but he took the villagers along with him. Ram took the army of monkeys and bears to invade Lanka. It was a team work. And above all, Krishna’s message stares you in face when he announced that he wouldn’t lift weapons. What greater faith in human capability and ability do you expect than this? ‘A human working under divine guidance’ — it was the straight message put forward both by Ram as well as Krishna. And incidentally, this action under divine guidance is the central theme of the Gita, one that keeps repeating itself over several times.
I would not argue with you if you differ from me, but I think that considering both Ram and Krishna as humans increases my respect and admiration for them. Then I consider them as fellow human beings, as good friends, become more open and listen to their message and follow their example. I love them all the more, but I do not worship them. I consider them as elder brothers, as best friends. Swami Vivekananda said ‘In the moments of utmost need, one stands alone’. If such is the case, what greater assurance could a poor human being get than ‘I do take care of well-being’ (योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम्), ‘My devotee does not perish’ (न मे भक्तः प्रणश्यति).
But when we put them on a high pedestal, we increase the distance between us. We consider all their deeds as some miracle which are fit to be achieved only by divine forces, and are much beyond our capacity. It works in exactly the opposite way than what these incarnations had intended. Sure, we are inferior to them in capacity, but then there is difference in abilities of humans too, isn’t it? So, even if we could not reach those heights of achievements, we could still achieve something, however small.
Let me give you one specific example. Whenever students or colleagues complain and weep on the amount of work that needs to be done, and the little time at hand with the deadline approaching, I always rebuke them and say –
— Why don’t you stay up one night and complete it all? Yes it is unhealthy, but when things are so wrong, it should not matter. Why, if there were someone ill in your home, wouldn’t you stay awake?
— Oh, I cannot take that trouble. Never did that.
— Laxman stayed awake for 14 years, can’t you stay for one night?
— Oh he was God.
And there it ends. So see, we use our devotion as an excuse, as an escape. By turning them as God, we rub our hands off any responsibility to follow their examples and take their message in their straight meaning. Then we do not have to work, we do not have to do anything. Only worship. On the other hand, by treating them as human, responsibility falls on us to work and to act in a similar way.
I read a wonderful article by Swami Akhandananda Saraswati on these two incarnations. He is a strong advocate of human effort, bravery, persistence and perseverance, esp. in the face of obstacles. In that article he brought forward the human side of these two souls. He enumerated all the pains, obstacles and hard times that they had to go through. The underlying message was that Gita could not have been spoken by anyone else, other than Krishna; it is not a scripture, instead a diary or a chronicle of Krishna’s experiences. Ever since his childhood, through his youth, and till the end, he had to face opposition, obstacles, conspiracies, maligning, and so on. Then Swami Akhandananda went on to narrate few examples of fellow humans who have taken the message in letter and spirit, and faced obstacles with a brave face and won over all of them, thus settling the superiority of human endeavour.
Treatment given to Gita is no different from that given to incarnations. We consider her sacred, and put her in a corner of our home, away from all possibility of human touch. We burn essence before her, pray alongside other innumerable gods and goddesses, and loudly boast of her importance to Hindu and in general Indian culture and life — Gita, Ganga, Gayatri. And that is all. We have pushed her so far from us that we do not hear what she still has to say, neither do we remember what she had said earlier, if we ever heard her at all. Her mention comes only as a Hindu scripture, only as a religious book, nothing beyond. But it is not that. She is a book of Yoga, and not religion. Understand the difference. As Sri Aurobindo said, ‘Yoga is the tree, religion is a branch’. Once you open it, you would find deep philosophical gems of deep thought and analysis. The queries made by Arjun had even surpassed those made by Nachiketa to Yamaraj. He questioned, cross-questioned, and argued every assertion that was made by Krishna. You would also note that Krishna did not push him to blind faith, instead cleared all his doubts and gave explanations to all his theories and assertions — all too patiently, again and again. Now contrast this to the rebuke we receive whenever we pose any doubt about our ancient philosophies. And above all her language is simple, it is post-Mahabharat, and unlike Vedic Sanskrit. That means, with even a basic knowledge of Sanskrit, one can study it in original. This is important for two reasons. First, on several occasions we notice that some particular message is interpreted in different ways by people following different theories, and hence are biased according to their own point of view — e.g., Shankar would put it as Advaita, while Ramanuj as Dwaita. Therefore, it is all too wise to read her in original and understand what she has to say . . . to you. In the present times when Hinduism has been limited to immersing idols, burning crackers and building temples, it is high time that Hindus discover themselves and truly understand the soul of their philosophy.
The second reason is even more important. Every day you witness people being brainwashed, and convinced to act in a certain way because ‘that is the way scriptures ask them to behave’. It is this practice which is behind the rise of the godmen who take advantage of human faith and also ignorance. Once you open the Gita, even if you do not understand her completely, you would at least be aware of what she contains. Nobody would be able to fool you, to brainwash you. Who knows, may be one day you too would be able to exclaim — ‘But Gita does not say so!’
So open her and read her. Don’t worry, you won’t become a monk! Neither did Arjun.