Krishna and Arjuna, Unknown artist, ca. 1830
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Krishna and the Gita
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“The Bhagavad Gita,” Grace MacDougal said, “has an infinite number of meanings.”
“How can you say such a thing?” Justus Fowler asked with a frown.
“Well, it means something different to everybody, and all people who might read it have not yet even come into existence. And since we have no way to know how many of them there might be, so there is no possibility of assigning a number of them.”
August Altman broke in, seeing that this could lead to hours of pointless discussion. “The salient point may be different for each person who reads or hears it,” he said. “But it teaches certain things to all. The idea that the soul is eternal, the importance of duty, propriety, and an underlying goodness, are clearly made available to everyone. But there are certain points that one person might miss, though they be central issues to others.”
“Would you like to expand on that?”
“Well, let’s start with the text itself.”
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The Kurukshetra War pitted friend against friend, brother against brother, son against father. The war was based on greed, and it ended with disaster for nearly all involved. No one gained. Almost everyone who fought in it and survived was diminished. And most of the people involved in the war were killed.
Krishna was one of several people who attempted to mediate a fair solution, but he could not succeed because of the hardness of the hearts of those involved. Unable to stop the war, he tried to mediate at least a treaty.
Arjuna was one of the princes, and it was his chariot that Krishna drove. As the chariots were drawn up on the battlefield, the two of them went out between the lines, and Arjuna looked about himself. All his brothers would fight on the same side he did. But the enemy was made up of close relatives, cousins, friends, men who been his teachers when he was a child, people he loved, people he admired and respected. He tried to prevent the bloodshed, but he could not. When Arjuna returned to his place in the battle line, he told Krishna that he wanted to drop his weapons, abandon his chariot, and leave the battlefield altogether.
Krishna told him all the reasons why he should not do that. He had to fight, and if this meant that he had to hurt, or even kill, those arrayed against him, then it did.
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“It is a paradox,” Justus asserted. “It is one thing about the Bhagavad Gita I have never been able to understand.”
“Arjuna had to fulfill his destiny,” Dora Snyder commented.
“That is one way of putting it,” August added.
“I still don’t understand.”
“In any life, there are likely to be times when the only possible action is one a person would naturally want to avoid. Try as they might, people caught in a situation of that type cannot find any alternative. We saw that in the story of Rama, who could not be both the good husband and the good king he wanted to be. Arjuna’s story is another such time.
“He tried over and over to avoid the bloodshed. He tried to prevent the war. He tried to end the war once it started. He tried to find a way not to inflict pain on those he loved, despite the fact that they were trying to harm, or even kill, him. Nothing he did along these lines succeeded.
“It was when he expressed a desire to run away that Krishna told him the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna pointed out that the life of a physical body can only come to an end, because that is the nature of physical existence, but the life of the spirit goes on without end. In all things, it is necessary to find what is good and honorable, one’s duty, and perform that task.”
“If Krishna was really a man, or a god, of peace, then how could he advocate war and killing? Why didn’t he tell Arjuna to run away?” Justus asked.
“Arjuna was a hero,” Grace told him. “If he had run off, he would have been forgotten. He would have been a nobody.”
Dora Snyder added to this, “There are people who say the real reason why the Kurukshetra War was fought was just so Krishna could tell Arjuna the lessons in the Bhagavad Gita. And that was just so it could be told to other people who would come after. Krishna’s words were not advice to be violent. However hard they were, they were lessons of goodness and duty.”
August chuckled at this. “You know, this is interesting to think about. What would have happened if Krishna had told all those things to Arjuna, and then Arjuna had run away?”
“That would have made the Bhagavad Gita meaningless!” Fred Williams sounded astonished.
“Well, it might have meant that the story would have been lost for that particular time, anyway. Arjuna probably would not have told anyone about it. And Krishna would have presented what the world has come to regard a wonderful religious text to no avail. Yes, in a sense it would have been meaningless – at least to Arjuna, as he would have been.” August sounded reflective.
“That is hard to imagine,” Grace said. “It would have been lost!”
“I think, “August replied, “that it would have altered the story somewhat. Perhaps Krishna would have had to tell the story again, to some other hero, on some other battlefield. Perhaps Vishnu would have had to incarnate another time, just to fulfill the task of giving it to everyone. But it was fated to be, and so it would have been.”
“But why?” Justus asked. “What is so important about it?”
“Arjuna was presented with a job,” August answered. “It was a job he hated. It was a job he even found morally reprehensible. But no matter which way he turned, it was the job that came to him to be done.
“That is a lesson for all of us. In the end, he was moved by his duty, by something greater than duty, Dharma, if you will. He came to understand, through the words of Krishna, that there was a greater good that he had to fulfill. And he had to perform that job, even though he did not understand all of the reasons why.
“Krishna made the path clear. The issue here was not about the fate of physical bodies on Earth. It was about things that are eternal. It was not just about duty. It was about what is right. It was not just about honor. It was about love, grace, and faith. It was a lesson that is available, at least in part, to anyone who reads the Bhavagad Gita.”
“And you are leaving me with a question.” Justus asked, “What does all of this have to do with me?”
“Why are you here?” August returned to the question that started the whole story. As he did so, he looked at the bonfire and the people dancing around in its light. They had moved on to waltzes, and danced to music of an orchestra that had grown larger than just a fiddle and a flute.
“I don’t know. I needed a home, and this seemed as good as any.”
“You know, Just, I think you were running away from something.”
“And what would that have been?” Justus sounded sarcastic.
“My guess is that you were running away from a situation you found untenable.”
“Right. And what do you suppose that might have been?”
“Based on your reaction when Victor Solothurn was appointed to the Supreme Court, I could guess that it had something to do with him. Or possibly it had to do with his family. Should I get more specific?”
Justus looked at August in surprise. “No,” he said.
“I could surmise that you were not doing what was presented to you to be done,” August said. “You were running away.”
“And somehow, through some act of Destiny, you wound up here,” Annie added with a gentle smile.
“Certainly, we all might have wondered why an attorney, educated at Yale, would wind up in this tiny metropolis, with its very simple accommodations and barely functioning communication ties to the rest of the world.”
“We might have wondered,” Annie added. ‘But we didn’t.”
Justus did not reply to this. He just looked on, wondering what would come next.
“You asked me why I was here,” August said. “I said that I was participating in life. I could have said more, but you would not have understood without knowing the story I have told you tonight.”
Justus formed two words slowly, “What more?”
“The people living in Gorse all share some interesting things in common,” August said. “One of them is that we all came here, or in some cases were born here, to spend some time together, celebrating a memory of something that happened long ago. It is an interesting memory. And you, who came along in the middle of the celebration, happened to be part of it.”
“What memory? What part?” Justus asked as though he was afraid to hear the answer.
“Everybody in this town knows you, Justus.”
“Yes,” Dora asserted, “Every single person here knew, right from the first time you got off that train, that you were the one who kidnapped Annie!”
“Kidnapped Annie? What are you talking about?” Justus asked with a tone of disbelief.
“Ravana kidnapped Sita.”
Justus was speechless.
“Justus, you cannot escape your past. Either you deal with it, or you come to a place where it lies in wait for you to deal with it. You can run away. You can run away every time you meet it. But until you deal with it, it will always be there.
“And the more things you run from, the more often you find yourself facing them. You ran away from a simple past in Connecticut. And you ran into a much more complicated past in Nebraska.”
“Justus, you have an air of emptiness about you. You present an image of a person who feels that he has to look out for himself, to see that he gets the things he needs, because no one else will give anything to him.”
“Truth be told, Justus, you act like a person who is afraid of being consigned to oblivion because you think you have no positive value.”
“What else can I do?”
“You could act like a god,” Annie told him. “You could act for the benefit of all, and if you do that quite well, the things you need will come equally well.” She turned to August. “Could you tell him again what the difference between a god and a demon is?”
“The demon acts for himself,” he answered. “A god acts for the good of all people, and all creatures, for that matter.”
“And that does not mean that you have to be perfect,” Annie continued, “or that you must never fail. Every one of us fails. And if you decide to be a god, instead of a demon, then you could be quite a god, indeed. You have that in you. And think of it – you would not have to be afraid of having to deal with your own past any more.”
“There are also other differences between gods and demons,” August added. “A god has a feeling of fulfillment where a demon has a feeling of emptiness. This gives a god a feeling of value, where a demon has a feeling of worthlessness. It gives a god a sense of connection to all things, were a demon feels alone.”
“Do you really think I can do that?”
“If you decide to put your love for all things ahead of what you feel is a need to satisfy your own desires, you would be a god,” August said. “It is entirely your own decision.”
“Why would you ever wish to be a demon, when you can be a god?” Annie asked.
The moon appeared as the clouds passed. Bright stars shone across much of the sky. The dancers continued to waltz around the bonfire. And those who sat on the porch drank their beer, ate their toasted cheese, and chatted amiably about the fullness of Destiny and the roles of the gods in the lives of human beings. That night, the people of Gorse, Nebraska, had quite a party indeed.