During these dark days of January when the the world is in lockdown and there is no sense of an ending, I throw myself into The Bhagavad Gita.
Perhaps this sacred Hindu text can illuminate the current state of affairs – as a global pandemic, Brexit and climate change send us crashing into a new world order of unending chaos and death.
The Gita, which dates from 500 BCE, addresses the question of what to do when life is bewildering, pointless and pushing us to despair.
Chapter one thrusts us into a battle field on the eve of civil war. The ‘rumbling of war drums’ fills the sky with ‘fearful thunder’ as two opposing armies prepare to slaughter their cousins, teachers, grandparents and old school friends.
The warrior hero Arjuna is traumatised by the prospect of murdering the family and former neighbours rallied against him. Martin Sheen’s haunted eyes in Francis Ford Coppola’s psychological war film Apocalypse Now – give modern expression to this horror. But we can only guess Sheen’s inner experience, whereas Arjuna confesses intimate details of his interiority across centuries
“Life goes from my limbs and they sink, my mouth is sear and dry; a trembling overcomes my body and my hair shudders in horror.”
Despite the dramatic opening, The Gita is not an adventure yarn or a treatise on war. Arjuna throws down his bow and arrow, and refuses to fight. With imagination, conscience and a tender heart, he asks Why? Why? Why?
In the remaining 17 chapters Lord Krishna, who is driving Arjuna’s chariot, delivers philosophy of action. He urges Arjuna to ‘carry on thy fight’ engaging with the battlefield of life, a metaphor for life.
But he also points to a deeper reality beyond ‘the world of the senses’, ‘pleasure and pain’ and endless cycles of life and death. He lifts Arjuna from despair by conjuring vastness and eternity, a ‘Spirit beyond destruction’.
In the philosophy of the battlefield we are unequal, different and divided.
The philosophy of Gita is democratic and wholesome. Gandhi called it the ‘eternal mother’. Its Spirit is ‘interwoven in all creation’ – permeating each body equally.
The Oneness is untouchable by sword and fire. And the sense of separateness that rips apart families and destroys kingdoms is fleeting illusion or Maya.
Gita’s message is fight – take up arms on the battlefield of life – but keep one eye on the unchanging reality the ‘is-ness’ beyond the surface of things.