The Bhagavad Gita: A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life

The Bhagavad Gita: A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life

by Ravi Ravindra


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611804102
Publisher: Shambhala
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 530,208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ravi Ravindra, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he served many years as a professor of comparative religion, philosophy, and physics.    He is the author of numerous other books, including  Science and the Sacred, The Wisdom of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, and The Pilgrim Soul.

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The Bhagavad Gita

A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life

By Ravi Ravindra

Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Ravi Ravindra
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61180-410-2


The Yoga of Arjuna's Crisis

No Life without Struggle

Dhritarashtra asked: Sanjaya, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do, when they were gathered for the sake of fighting on the field of dharma, in the field of the Kurus? (1.1)

The war between the Kauravas and their cousins, the Pandavas, had become inevitable. The Bhagavad Gita opens with the blind king, Dhritarashtra, asking his charioteer Sanjaya to tell him what is taking place on the battlefield where the warriors on both sides have gathered ready to fight. Dhritarashtra, the first born of the king of Bharata, had a natural right to the throne, but because he had been born blind he renounced the kingdom in favor of his younger brother Pandu. Pandu ruled the kingdom for some time, and then owing to the curse of a sage retired into the forest. Then Dhritarashtra became the caretaker king. Now the sons of Pandu (Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Sahadev, Nakula), called the Pandavas, and the sons of Dhritarashtra, led by Duryodhana, called the Kauravas, both claim the right to rule the kingdom.

Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra's charioteer, had been granted the gift of clairvoyance and clairaudience for the duration of the war so that he could see and hear all that was taking place, even at a distance, including the thoughts of the warriors, without being affected.

The battle is about to take place in Kurukshetra, the field of the Kurus. Kuru is the name of the royal dynasty to which Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and all their sons belong. At the external level, the war is between cousins who are descendants of the same grandfather. The word kuru is also indirectly related to one form of the word karma, action. The battle takes place in Kurukshetra, the field of action. Internally, the battlefield is my own psyche where the struggle is between opposing forces and tendencies within myself. Kurukshetra, the field of the Kurus and the field of action, is also dharmakshetra, the field of dharma.

Dharma is the very first word in the Bhagavad Gita. It is difficult to give a one-word translation of dharma because it can mean "order," law, obligation, responsibility, duty, righteousness; and sometimes it is erroneously translated as "religion," when "religion" is understood in the sense of the Abrahamic traditions. Dharma can also mean "teaching" as in Bauddha dharma, the Sanskrit expression for Buddhism, meaning the dharma (teaching) of the Buddha. Dharma also refers to the essential nature or quality of a creature — as in saying that the dharma of a snake is to spread poison.

Dharma is derived from the root dhri, which means "to sustain." The word for the earth, dharati, is also derived from the same root. Therefore, "support" is another meaning of dharma. It contains the meaning of "that which sustains" as well as "that which must be sustained." The family, the society, and the cosmos support us and we are responsible for sustaining them. Essentially, dharma means "responsibility for maintenance of order." Nothing that exists, whether animate or inanimate, is exempt from the workings and demands of dharma. Given the richness of the word dharma, it is useful for us to use the Sanskrit word without a particular translation.

The interplay of order, law, and obligation is what determines dharma for any creature. Thus, we act in accordance with dharma if we respond to the obligations laid upon us by right order, according to our capacity. Bees, snakes, trees, and stars all act in accordance with their dharma, although they do not have a conscious understanding. The dharma of a human being in any given situation is not easy to identify, and it may require immense subtlety of thought and feeling to understand what it is. Since cosmic, planetary, social, and individual forces make their demands simultaneously on a human being, each according to its own law, a precise understanding of a person's responsibilities in a given situation requires discernment, dedication, and effort.

Forces in the Battle of Life

Sanjaya said: Having seen the armies of the Pandavas, Duryodhana approached his Teacher [Drona] and said, Behold, O Teacher, this vast army of the Pandavas, arrayed by Drupada's son, your gifted pupil. (1.2–3)

Here are heroes, great archers, the equals of Bhima and Arjuna in battle; Yuyudhana, Virata, and the great warrior Drupada; Dhrishtaketu, Chekitana, and the valiant king of Kashi; Purujit, and Kuntibhoja, and that bull among men, the king of the Shibis; the valorous Yudhamanyu, the heroic Uttamaujas, the son of Subhadra, and the sons of Draupadi, all mighty warriors. (1.4–6)

Know also, O best among the twice-born, those who are distinguished amongst us. I shall name the leaders of my army for you: yourself, My Lord, and Bhishma; Karna and Kripa, the winner of many battles; Ashvatthama, Vikarna, and the son of Somdatta. Many other heroes, with various weapons and arms, and skilled in battle are also there, ready to give up their lives for my sake. Guarded by Bhishma, the strength of our army is without limit. But the strength of their army, under the protection of Bhima, is limited. And so in all movements, stationed according to strategy, you and your men should all guard Bhishma above all.

Then Bhishma, the mighty and splendid grandsire, the eldest of the Kurus, thundered forth his lion's roar and blew his conch, gladdening the heart of Duryodhana. (1.7–12)

Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra's charioteer, describes to the blind king the scene on the battlefield in which Duryodhana, the firstborn of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, surveys the armies of the Pandavas against whom he has to fight. Duryodhana describes to Drona, who is his teacher as well as of all the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the major warriors on both sides. Although Drona was convinced that the Pandavas were being wronged and he wished them victory in the war, he owed allegiance to his king, the blind Dhritarashtra, and to his son Duryodhana. He was indebted to them for his livelihood and for the position where he could take revenge on his archenemy, Drupada. He was obliged to fight on the side of Duryodhana because of his personal ambition and desire for vengeance, even though this pitted him against what he knew to be right.

The deep-seated spirit of vengeance across generations and in our psyche is the strongest reason for war, and it is most often justified as a battle for dharma — righteousness, justice, and order. In this battle most of the heroes on both sides are gathered for the sake of fighting in the field of dharma, seeking revenge and driven by personal hatred caused by humiliation or insult.

Duryodhana speaks impartially of the great valor and intelligence of the major heroes on the opposing side, several of them related to each other by birth or by marriage. He names many great warriors on the side of the Pandavas, likening them to the legendary heroes Bhima and Arjuna, his arch foes. The mighty warrior Bhima too, like his four brothers, was spiritually begotten by a deva, in this case by Vayu, the deva of wind. He had shown extraordinary strength from childhood and was therefore called Bhima, meaning "formidable." He was said to have the strength of a thousand elephants. He was an earthy man with a most voracious appetite and was also called "wolf-bellied." His name has become a byword for anyone possessing immense strength and courage.

The outstanding Pandava warrior is Arjuna to whom the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is delivered by Krishna. Like his two older brothers, Yudhishthira and Bhima, he too was born of Kunti spiritually. He was begotten by Indra, the chief of the devas. Arjuna literally means "white," "clear," "bright"; he is so called because he was pure in action.

Duryodhana then mentions the great heroes on his side, starting with Drona whom he is addressing. Next is Bhishma, the commander-in-chief of Duryodhana's armies. Bhishma, the respected elder, the grandsire of all the assembled warriors, was renowned for his continence, wisdom, bravery, and fidelity to his word, and he was universally respected by everyone. Bhishma has no doubt that the Pandavas have right and justice on their side, and he wishes them victory, but because he is obliged to the Kauravas for providing his livelihood he must fight on their side. As he himself said "It is true that man is the slave of wealth and that wealth is no man's slave: I have been held captive by the Kauravas with their wealth" (Mahabharata 6.64.41:30–44).

Other warriors are also mentioned by name. Each one has a reason — personal revenge, jealousy, duty, convention, pride, loyalty, friendship, or destiny — to fight for one side or the other. Their stories are complex and fascinating and weave a tapestry of compulsions by which we human beings are driven to act, often against our own will and better judgment. The most common reason for the major heroes in the battle to be ready to kill and be killed is the compulsion to take revenge for humiliations suffered by them personally or by their ancestors. This is true for Drona and Karna, both of whom became the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army in succession after the death of Bhishma. The same is true for Drupadas son Dhrishtadyumna who is the commander of the army of the Pandavas.

Duryodhana's own self-occupation and self-importance are evident as he refers to many other heroes ready to give up their lives for his sake. They serve Duryodhana — out of fear, personal ambition, or a sense of revenge — hoping to serve their own personal interests in the process. There is no higher principle or dharma at stake for them. If we watch what goes on in ourselves impartially, we will see that our psyche is the battlefield in which the various forces of greed, ambition, jealousy, revenge, loyalty, fear, wish to do right, desire for this or that outcome are in constant struggle. All war and conflict is a result of greed, lust, vengeance, and other such common human tendencies of the ego. This battle is in everyone.

As the battle is about to begin, Duryodhana has a right to be confident with Bhishma at the helm of his vast armies. He exhorts Drona and his men to guard Bhishma, the commander-in-chief. The guardian must be guarded! Bhishma on his part gladdens the heart of Duryodhana by thundering forth his lion's roar and blowing his conch.

The Inner and Outer Battlefield

Conches and kettledrums, tabors, horns, cymbals and trumpets blared forth together making a tumultuous sound. Then in a great chariot yoked to white stallions, Madhava [Krishna] and the son of Pandu [Arjuna] blew their divine [divya] conches. Hrishikesha [Krishna] sounded Panchajanya and Dhananjaya [Arjuna] sounded his Devadatta. Bhima, wolf-belly, the man of terrible deeds, blew his great conch Paundra; the king Yudhishthira, the son of Kunti, blew Anantavijaya, Nakula and Sahadeva sounded Sughosha and Manipushpaka. The king of Kashi, the superb archer; and Shikhandi on his great chariot; Dhrishtadyumna; Virata, the unconquered; Satyaki; Draupada and sons of Draupadi; and Subhadra's son, the mighty-armed, blew their conches on all sides, O Lord of earth. That tumultuous uproar re-echoing through the earth and the sky tore the hearts of Dhritarashtra's sons. (1.13–19)

Then, as the clash of arms had begun, seeing the sons of Dhritarashtra, the monkey-bannered Arjuna lifted up his bow and spoke to Krishna: O Unshaken One [achyuta], stay my chariot between the two armies so that I may see these people who long for battle and whom I have to meet in this game of war. I wish to see those who are gathered here ready to fight desiring to please the evil-minded [durbuddhi] son of Dhritarashtra. Thus addressed by Arjuna, O Bharata [Dhritarashtra], Krishna brought the best of the chariots between the two armies in front of Bhishma, Drona, and all the princes of the earth and said, Behold, O Son of Pritha [Arjuna], these assembled Kurus. (1.20–25)

The various noises and the general tumult of the battlefield include the sounds of conches, kettledrums, horns, cymbals, tabors, and trumpets. Six conches are specifically named: that of Krishna, who is here called Madhava (likely meaning "the slayer of the demon Madhu") as well as Hrishikesha ("Lord of the Senses"), and those of each of the five Pandavas, in part suggesting the character of the warriors. Krishna's conch, Panchajanya, and Arjunas conch, Devadatta, are described as divya — divine, heavenly, wondrous, beautiful.

Duryodhana and his armies are alternately elated and terrified: they are elated when they hear the lion-roar of Bhishma and the sounds of his majestic conch shell exuding strength and virility, but they are frightened when they hear the mighty sounds of the other side. As they hope for victory, they fear defeat. Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin; as long as there is hope for something, the apprehension of it not coming to pass is also there.

Arjuna urges Krishna, his charioteer, to place his chariot in the middle of the two armies so that he can survey the assembled warriors whom he has to fight. Arjuna, the great warrior, is the master of miraculous weapons that he had won with extremely hard work. He is universally acknowledged as a mighty hero excelling in the game of war.

Krishna appears as a wise and good king in the Mahabharata, and his divine status is not clear until his teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. He is related to Arjuna who married Krishna's sister, and in general he favors the Pandavas' cause, which is more just. But he is basically above the conflict, not moved (achyuta in 1.21) by like or dislike, success or failure. Along with others, he had tried to bring about a reconciliation between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. When it became clear that war was inevitable, both Duryodhana and Arjuna approached Krishna for help, and they were both happy with what they received. Arjuna chose Krishna to be on his side with the understanding that Krishna would not take up any weapons in the battle. Duryodhana was happy to get all of the armies, elephants, and chariots of Krishna. Duryodhana is called durbuddhi (1.23) not only because he is "evil-minded" but also because he is dim-witted, for he does not realize the extreme value of wise counsel in the heat of battle.

Krishna, unconcerned about his status, plays whatever role is necessary; he becomes Arjuna's charioteer in order to be near him and to be his constant adviser during the battle. He had said that he would not actually fight in the battle; however, he can watch the play of forces and intervene from a different perspective and level.

Arjuna's Crisis

Then Arjuna saw uncles and grandfathers, teachers, cousins, sons and grandsons, comrades, fathers-in-law, and benefactors in the opposing armies. Seeing all those kinsmen, Arjuna was filled by great pity and spoke with sadness: Seeing my own people, set for battle, O Krishna, my limbs sink down, and my mouth becomes parched, my body shudders, and my hair stands on end. My bow falls from my hand, and my skin is burning. I cannot be still and my mind wanders. I perceive inauspicious omens, Krishna, and I foresee no good arising from the killing of kinsmen in battle. I do not desire victory, O Krishna, or sovereignty or pleasures. Of what use is kingdom to us, of what use enjoyment or even life? Those for whose sake we desire to win kingdom, possessions, and pleasures are gathered here for battle, ready to give up life and wealth: teachers, fathers, sons, as also grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen as well. (1.26–34)

Even though they may kill us, I do not wish to kill them, O slayer of Madhu, not even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, much less for that of this earth. What joy will be ours, O Krishna, by slaying these sons of Dhritarashtra? Evil alone would light upon us if we slay these aggressors. Therefore we should not kill these sons of Dhritarashtra, our kinsmen. How can we be happy, O Krishna, by killing our own people? Although they, with their minds overcome by greed, see no evil in destroying the family or the crime in hostility to friends, why should we, O Krishna, who see the evil resulting from destruction of the family, not turn away from this sin? (1.35–39)

With the destruction of the family, the eternal dharma of the family is destroyed; with the collapse of the dharma, disorder overwhelms the whole family. When disorder predominates, O Krishna, the women of the family go astray. When the women are corrupted, O Krishna, a mixture of castes results. This confusion leads the destroyers of the family and the family itself to hell; their ancestors fall, for they are deprived of offerings and oblations. When the destroyers of the family lead to the confusion of castes, the eternal dharma of the caste and that of the family are destroyed. Those whose family traditions are destroyed, O Krishna, are doomed to live perpetually in hell — thus have we heard. (1.40–44)

Alas! in preparing to kill our kin out of greed for the pleasures of kingship we have set out to do a great evil. It would be better for me if the armed sons of Dhritarashtra slay me unarmed and unresisting in the battle. (1.45–46)


Excerpted from The Bhagavad Gita by Ravi Ravindra. Copyright © 2017 Ravi Ravindra. Excerpted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A Note about Diacritical Marks xiii

Introduction 1

1 The Yoga of Arjuna's Crisis 13

No Life without Struggle (1.1) 13

Forces in the Battle of Life (1.2-12) 15

The Inner and Outer Battlefield (1.13-25) 18

Arjuna's Crisis (1.26-47) 20

2 The Yoga of Awareness 27

An Inward Turn (2.1-9) 27

A Vaster Vision (2.10-38) 30

Buddhi Yoga (2.39-53) 42

Flow Does a Person of Clear Insight Walk? (2.54-72) 50

3 The Yoga of Action 56

Action beyond Action (3.1-9) 56

Yajña Karma: Sacred Action (3.10-24) 60

Actorless Action (3.25-35) 66

Action against Our Own Will (3.36-43) 70

4 The Yoga of Sacred Knowledge 76

The Timeless in Time (4.1-6) 76

Incarnation for the Sake of Dharma (4.7-10) 79

Many Paths to the Absolute (4.11-15) 82

Non-action in Action (4.16-23) 88

The Fire of Sacred Knowledge (4.24-42) 90

5 The Yoga of Renunciation in Action 97

Renunciation and Action (5.1-7) 97

Reaction, Response, and Actorless Action (5.8-13) 100

Nirvana through Self-Knowledge (3.14-29) 102

6 The Yoga of Meditation 107

A Friend or an Enemy (6.1-9) 107

Seeing the Self by the Self (6.10-22) 110

Yoga Is Breaking the Bond with Suffering (6.23-28) 113

The Self in All Beings and All Beings in the Self (6.29-32) 116

At the Heart of Detachment Is Love (6.33-47) 117

7 The Yoga of Sacred Knowledge and Discernment 127

Many Are Called but Few Are Chosen (7.1-3) 127

Two Natures of Krishna (7.4-14) 128

All There Is Is Krishna (7.15-19) 130

Monotheism - not My-theism (7.20-30) 131

8 The Yoga of the Imperishable Brahman 135

Remember Me and Fight (8.1-10) 135

Mind Centered in the Heart (8.11-22) 141

The Right Time to Die (8.23-28) 145

9 The Yoga of Knowledge and Sacred Mystery 148

A Receptive Mind and an Open Heart (9.1-15) 148

The Father of This World, Its Mother, Its Ordainer (9.16-25) 152

Love from the Pure Heart (9.26-34) 155

10 The Yoga of Manifestation 160

Know Me as the Unborn (10.1-11) 160

You Alone Know Yourself (10.12-18) 164

I Am the Cunning of the Cheats and the Truth of the Truth Tellers (10.19-42) 165

11 The Yoga of the Vision of the Universal Form 170

Eyes of the Flesh Cannot See the Things of the Spirit (11.1-8) 170

Brighter than a Thousand Suns (11.9-31) 172

Without God It Cannot Be Done; Without Humans It Will Not Be Done (11.32-34) 175

My Heart Is Glad but My Mind Is Afraid (11.35-46) 177

Let Your Heart Rejoice (11-47-55) 181

12 The Yoga of Devotion and Love 184

Personal God or Impersonal Absolute? (12.1-7) 184

Krishna as the Supreme Aim (12.8-20) 186

13 The Yoga of the Distinction between the Field and the Knower of the Field 191

Know Me as the Knower of the Field in All Fields (13.0-6) 191

The Identity of the Knower and Knowledge (13.7-11) 191

The Object of Knowledge Dwells in the Heart (13.12-23) 194

The Supreme in All Beings (13-24-34) 198

14 The Yoga of the Three Gunas 201

The Dweller in the Body (14.1-20) 201

Strive after Me (14.21-27) 209

15 The Yoga of the Highest Spirit 211

Yogis See Him Dwelling in Themselves (15.1-11) 211

I Am Lodged in the Heart of All (15.12-20) 215

16 The Yoga of the Distinction between Liberating and Binding Qualities 218

The Evil Despise Me Who Is Lodged in Their Own Body (16.1-20) 218

Three Doors of Hell (16.21-24) 221

17 The Yoga of the Threefold Division of Shraddha 225

Levels of Shraddha (17-16) 225

Levels in Every Undertaking (17.7-22) 231

OM-TAT-SAT (17.23-28) 235

18 The Yoga of Freedom by Renunciation 237

Relinquish Attachment to the Fruits of Action (18.1-12) 237

Daivam and the Results of Action (18.13-28) 240

Levels of Understanding (18.29-39) 245

Essential Responsibility (18.40-48) 247

By Love You Can Come to Know Me (18.49-62) 249

The Ultimate Leaching (18.63-66) 252

Caring for the Teaching (18.67-71) 254

Voluntarily Placing Oneself under a Law (18.72-73) 255

A Link between Two Levels (18.74-78) 257

Appendix 259

Notes 269

Glossary of Frequently Used Sanskrit and Pali Words 281

Selected Bibliography 287

Index 308

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