Although The Bhagavad Gita is not conventionally classified as the most authoritative writing in the Hindu Scriptures (as it is not a part of the Vedas), it may be the most influential and widely read. Embedded in the middle of the Mahabharata, the great battle epic of ancient India (think Iliad), the Gita is an extended aside that bears the vivid stamp of personal mystic experience. Reading the Gita, one delves into the same type of thought as Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. We leave systematic reasoning and theology based on extrapolations from authoritative texts behind, and enter the realm of experience. As Louise Claude de Saint-Martin first observed, it truly does seem like:
“all mystics speak the same language, for they are from the same country.”
These writers, including the anonymous author of the Gita, are clearly natives of a different land.
As the Gita begins, Prince Arjuna is about to enter an epic battle against his own countrymen, but finds himself distressed; he turns to his charioteer, Krishna, for advice. But far from focusing on the war about to take place, Krishna – the incarnation of God – focuses on the battle within, revealing the nature of the soul, its relationship to God, and its mission to accomplish. We enter a different realm and the battle fades to the background as the conversation continues. After the soaring dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna – the Lord of life and death – we return to the battle and the Mahabharata epic continues. Although not originally part of the larger story, The Bhagavad Gita has become forever forged into Indian culture by being incorporated into the traditional tale.
In this first excerpt, Krishna counsels Prince Arjuna to adopt a life of selfless service, as those who live for their own pleasure, ignoring the needs of others, “have wasted their life”:
“Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act. Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit.
At the beginning, mankind and the obligation of selfless service were created together. ‘Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires’: this is the promise of the Creator…
The spiritually minded, who eat in the spirit of service are freed from all their sins; but the selfish, who prepare food for their own satisfaction, eat sin. Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes from selfless worship and service.
Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. Brahman is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law, O Arjuna. Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life. But those who realize the Self are always satisfied. Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world. They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security.
Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind. It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; others too have followed this path.”