Welcome to a new Gita Talk series!
Stepping into the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is the total opposite of stepping into your favorite yoga studio!
It is not at all welcoming.
Instead of being greeted by the embracing comfort of your own peaceful, little oasis; that safe place you frequent to connect with your own inner bliss, the Gita begins by plopping you straight into one of the main character’s worst nightmares.
It’s dark and frightening, and the discomfort so utterly unbearable, Arjuna declares at the end of the first chapter that he would rather die than have to face it. Literally.
Yes, this most critical yoga text begins with a death wish. With depression, tension and confusion so thick and overwhelming it makes death look peaceful.
They say that every one of us will suffer an existential crisis before we die.
Ironically, it seems to be programmed into the human experience as tightly as our survival instinct is, possibly woven into our DNA strands even: that dark night of the soul in which we become totally disoriented and collapse. Arjuna collapses in the Gita, his bow slipping from his hands.
We all know the drill: circumstances in our life become so uninviting we begin to despise them, dread participating in them, and inevitably find ourselves crawling under cozy blankets and wishing with all our might we didn’t have to face our own life. Do I really have to revisit this now? The Bhagavad Gita asks that we do.
This ancient guide to peace wants us to start with war: the wars we fight with ourselves. Those most uncomfortable, yuckiest, crisis moments we’d rather forget about. The times we start freaking out in life, as Arjuna did in the Gita. But I thought yoga was supposed to make me feel better? Do I really have to go there?
Yoga asks that we take fearless looks into the places we resist most.
Usually journeys into our dark places are ones we take by ourselves. They are private, often embarrassing and they expose our most vulnerable weaknesses, leaving us emotionally naked and raw. This is that humbling space we only let our best friend into. You know the one. When you’re such a total mess you only trust a loved one to see you that way. To Arjuna, Krishna is that person. He lets him in because he trusts him.
Krishna is Arjuna’s best friend. Before he is his chariot driver, or his guru, or his brother-in-law, or his doorway beyond darkness, Krishna is a person Arjuna knows he can trust. So at the beginning of the Gita we find Arjuna in tears and trembling, giving up on life, breaking down in front of Krishna and basically turning himself over to Krishna’s loving compassion.
When we lose trust in ourselves, and our ability to see our own reflection, and to spot the light at the end of the tunnel, we turn to someone close to us and entrust that person to authoritatively illuminate the path back to ourselves.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, anyone who helps you through rough spots in your life, and shifts your perspectives of reality into more inspiring ones -the kinds that make you want to participate fully in your life- is playing the role of a yoga teacher, whether they know it or not, in the broadest sense of the term.
Yoga, as you have probably heard, comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj, which means to connect, to link, to join together, or unite. What does yoga aim to connect us with? A healthy, flexible body? Nirvana or Samadhi? That mysterious something we call God? How about mystical powers or eternal peace? Maybe yoga moves us toward a Hindu deity with blue skin and four arms?
Without getting too fancy here, yoga simply connects us with our highest, most dynamic potential.
Yoga affirms our raison d’être and celebrates our life. It becomes like a best friend cheering us on. Not forcing us, not dictating to us, but gently inviting us to make the best possible choices we can for ourselves.
Krishna first identifies yoga in the Bhagavad Gita (chap. 2 verse 39) as clear discernment that will free one from feeling forced into action.
~I invite you to ponder that for a second.~
When Krishna responds to Arjuna’s despondence, he is like the best friend who reminds you that staying in bed all day eating junk food and watching TV is not really what you want to do.
Avoidance is not the answer, he says. Neither is worrying oneself into a stagnating paralysis because of fear or confusion. But, you already know this deep down inside, don’t you?
Connect with that knowledge, Krishna says. And not just in theory but in practice. Get out of bed and live your life! Not because you feel forced to, but because you want to.
Speaking directly to Arjuna’s stagnation, Krishna emphasizes the importance of action that does not calculate what fruits one might obtain from those actions. Krishna also makes it clear that yoga is not just philosophy, (as in Sankhya’s teachings) but philosophy in action: a lifestyle.
Yoga is clear, discerning, totally voluntary, dynamic participation in one’s life.
It aims to make us aware that we are the authors of our own lives. Written any good chapters in your lately? Yoga teaches us how to do that.
The word author comes from the Latin root word auctor, which also gives us the English word authority. Our own personal relationship with authority inevitably becomes a big part of the beginning of any yoga practice. It is also the way the Bhagavad Gita begins.
The Bhagavad Gita is a scene, within another scene, within a greater book clad The Mahabharata.
When we open the first page of the Gita we step into a story that is already in progress. It’s as if you had fast-forwarded through a movie until you reached the most intimate, uncomfortable, heart-to-heart dialogue between two of the characters, (in which one of them was freaking out), and you only watched that part of the movie.
Why zero in on that part of the movie? Maybe a good way to answer that question is to find out who has the most lines in that cross section of the film.
Who has authorized him to speak?
We are all free to accept or reject anyone’s word as authority in our lives. Usually how influential someone is in our life depends on how connected we feel to them. We allow ourselves to be most intimately connected to those whom we trust, and effortlessly turn their words into ones worthy of our attention.
Krishna’s voice is the dominant voice in the Bhgavad Gita. Of the nearly 700 verses comprising the text, Krishna speaks 585 of these. Although the entire book consists mainly of Krishna’s conversation with Arjuna, given his friend’s despondent state, Krishna does most of the talking. And Arjuna listens. Not just with his mind, but he listens with his heart.
Arjuna takes Krishna’s words to heart because he knows Krishna loves him and will speak in his best interests.
The intimacy Arjuna has in his friendship with Krishna is what makes what Krishna has to say most valuable to him. Arjuna does not open himself up to a stranger. Instead, he does so to his closest friend.
Arjuna’s level of vulnerability with Krishna is commensurate with the level of intimacy they share.
Arjuna does not surrender his life to some unknown guru, instead he finds shelter within the loving words of his best friend.
Authority begins with us. It begins with us choosing whose views we’re going to be receptive to.
In the relationship highlighted in the Gita, it is the love between friends that gives Krishna’s words authority. This same love then shines the light on Arjuna’s obscured views. Sun rays dispel darkness.
In the yoga tradition the sun represents authority.
The sun is also the dynasty to which Krishna belongs. And it rises on the horizon as the dialogue begins between these two main characters of this book.
The sun illuminates two battlefields in The Bhagavad Gita: the one Arjuna initially resists joining, and the one that rages fiercely within him, and how they feed off each other.
After the first chapter, the Gita begins to broaden past Arjuna’s tunnel vision into the expansive landscapes of alternative perspectives offered to him by his brilliant friend, Krishna.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the way the Gita emphasizes our own authority to decide how we are going to make our way across those landscapes, as we understand the consequences of what maps we follow.
The more closely we listen, the easier it will be to traverse them. The first person we listen to is ourselves. We tell ourselves who we trust enough to be in a position of authority in our life. Without trust we lack real receptivity.
In yoga, trust becomes the bridge between darkness and light.
So, as we begin this journey together, deeper and deeper into the fields of perception Krishna takes Arjuna through in the Gita, you may wish to start by contemplating this:
What is your own relationship with authority, both inner and outer?
For yoga is all about curiosity, and inquiry and our relationship with the wondrous world around us and within us, and all the inspiring connections we make in our lives.
Please see the next article in this series, Yoga In The Gita: What Do We Do When We Feel Out Of Control?, by Braja Sorensen, which continues on the subject of authority. Our journey into the Gita will engage translations from A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami and Graham M. Schweig. Buckle your seat belts for an exciting ride! We are thrilled to have you aboard.
To keep track of all the articles on this series, go to
~Graham M. Schweig will be teaching from his translation of The Bhagavad Gita at the next Yoga Journal Conference in NYC, April 12-16.. For a peek at his classes, please click here. ~
Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Ghosh. All rights reserved.