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Shock Treatment in the Bhagavad-Gita

Koti Sreekrishna and Hari Ravikumar

In many ways, the Bhagavad-Gita is a unifying text. Krishna cuts across class distinctions, mocks at social
prejudices, abhors outdated traditional practices, and finds convergence for divergent thoughts and beliefs. And
in the process, he rattles the cage on several occasions.

No unification is possible without loss of individual identity – and this is not taken lightly by the various
factions. Unification calls for not just revolutionary fervor but also flawless reasoning. Krishna seemingly
instigates chaos in the heart of Arjuna and then brings order by the force of his impenetrable logic. The
Bhagavad-Gita has many such ‘shock treatment’ passages where Krishna tries to shake Arjuna out of his stupor.

Krishna gently mocks at the elite and the orthodox, and repeatedly claims that the religion of the Vedas (the
foremost revealed scriptures of Hinduism) is inclusive. Time and again, he talks of egalitarianism but with focus
on the inherent strength of an individual. He challenges Arjuna to think differently and not to buy into
traditional baggage.

Even to this day, it is hard for an orthodox brahmin, on his own, to teach the Vedas to a non-brahmin. Some years
back, an orthodox brahmin had resigned from his position at a state-run Vedic school when the authorities
insisted that he should teach the Vedas to anyone who wanted to learn. This is perhaps the effect of attaching
importance to outdated traditions in the face of the eternal truth.

Krishna begins his shock treatment early on; he starts off by mocking at Arjuna at his foolish decision at a
crucial juncture. Then he says,
“You grieve for that which you should not,
yet you speak words of wisdom.
The wise do not grieve for the
dead or for the living.”
(2:11)

Contrast this to Arjuna’s worry that the ancestors, deprived of the funeral and post-death rites, would land up in
hell (1:42-44). Ironically, this view is upheld by many ardent Hindus even to this date. Down the ages, usually
tradition tends to shake the truth, like a tail wagging the dog. It is noteworthy that Krishna declares that the
essence of the religion was lost over the years (4:1-2).

At one point, Krishna directly attacks the orthodox with his genial approach,
“Those who lack proper insight
delight in the letter and not the spirit of the Vedas
and proclaim in flowery words:
‘there is nothing else other than this’.”
(2:42)
“They are filled with desires, and
reaching heaven is their supreme goal.
Caught in the vicious cycle of karma,
they perform many elaborate rituals
to attain pleasure and power.”
(2:43)

“Those attached to pleasure and power


are led astray by that flowery language of the Vedas;
they never attain the firm intellect
of a contemplative mind.”
(2:44)

At the crescendo of his argument, Krishna presents a simple analogy that will not, hopefully, fail to clarify to
Arjuna the importance of right living rather than mere reading.
“What is the use for a well when there is a flood
and water is flowing freely everywhere?
What is the use of all the Vedas
when one has realized the ultimate truth?”
(2:46)

It is important to note that Krishna was not opposed to the Vedas; he says in 15:15 that
“Realizing the supreme is the goal of all the Vedas;
I am the source of the Vedas.”
Basically, he wanted people to realize the higher purpose of the Vedas.

Later in the conversation, Krishna clarifies a huge doubt about the role of the divine in daily life. He says that it
is foolish to hold god responsible for the acts of good and evil on earth. Whatever good and evil that we have
on earth are just results of the actions that we have performed; why bring god in the picture?

“God does not command people to act.


God does not create activities
or its associated rewards.
All these arise from nature.”
(5:14)

“God is not responsible


for goodness or evil.
People are deluded because
their knowledge is clouded by ignorance.”
(5:15)

Krishna also evens out all the distinctions that exist in societies – be it ancient or modern. He presents an
egalitarian approach and shows how external factors mean little when greater heights are reached spiritually.
Societies typically look down upon certain sections of people.
Krishna clarifies that whoever submits to the supreme attains liberation, irrespective of their birth, gender, or
occupation.
“Even if a man steeped in evil
takes on to my worship with undivided devotion,
he must be considered as noble
because he has taken the right decision.”
(9:30)

“Readily, he becomes righteous and


attains everlasting peace.
Arjuna, know this:
no devotee of mine is ever lost.”
(9:31)

“Whoever takes refuge in me –


even men of sinful birth, women, traders, or laborers –
will attain the supreme goal.”
(9:32)

Krishna often presents the idea that a wise person treats everyone equally. For example, a scholar is one who is
generally held in high esteem in society while a person who eats a dog is considered to be at the lowest level.
The wise notice the same inner spirit in all these beings irrespective of their external characteristics.
“A wise person treats everyone equally –
a scholar endowed with modesty, a cow, an elephant,
a dog, and one who eats a dog.”
(5:18)

The pièce de résistance of the shock treatment verses comes in the concluding portion, when Krishna says,
“Giving up all forms of dharma
take refuge in me alone.
I will liberate you from all sins,
do not grieve!”
(18:66)
[Here, dharma is used in the widest sense of the word
– law, virtue, support, religion, duty, path, etc.]

This one verse basically puts all middlemen (priests, swAmIs, tAntriks, etc.) out of business. The connection is
between the individual and the universe, between the individual and god. There is no need for a via media.
There is no need, perhaps, for an organized religion. The sanAtana dharma (eternal path) of ancient Indian
thought was a way of life, and a path of self-illumination rather than a set of rules and rituals. And Krishna is the
foremost among the upholders of this ancient tradition, and he didn’t think twice before rattling the cage to
clarify the true meanings.