All Paths Lead to Moksha: Reflections on the Bhagavad Gita

Krishna and Arjuna in the midst of the armies on the fields of Kurukshetra

Fixed in yoga, perform actions
Bhagavad Gita, II.48

What is bound as the Bhagavad Gita today is extracted from a larger context, the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, said to be the longest epic in human history. It is highly symbolic; while a dramatic historical study of a kingdom, it is also an allegory of human morality, psychology, and a transformative theology. Wendy Doniger characterizes two readings of the text: as the martial Gita and the philosophical Gita. The tension between these readings has persisted for centuries, engendered by the Gita’s transformative theology itself. In a sense, part of the Gita’s importance as pertains to yoga practice (or varieties of practice), rests in the binding of war and peace in this uneasy tension. As we shall see, it is the synthesis of many yogas in devotional concert that become salvific practice for the attainment of moksha, or liberation from suffering, here on earth.

Bhagavad Gita translates to The Song (gita) of the Lord (bhagavan). Almost the entire 2,800 lines of the Bhagavad Gita are a conversation between our dharmic protagonist, Arjuna, a ksatriya, or warrior prince, and God in his avataric form as Krishna, who is cast as Arjuna’s chum and charioteer (in the Gita’s time, charioteer is a rather workaday gig for a ksatriya, not to mention for God incarnate!). As Winthrop Sargeant writes in the preface to his translation, “when God speaks, it is not illogical for time to stand still while armies stand frozen in their places.” The Mahabharata drama leading up to the philosophical and practical resolution of an apocalyptic climax, we call the Bhagavad Gita has set us up for this frozen moment: the battle of Kurukshetra, which pits kith and kin face to face on the battlefield. It is a sandhi, or juncture, in the larger epic narrative, and bears the Mahabharata’s summary devotional message.

As the story opens, Arjuna bids Krishna drive his chariot out to no-man’s-land so that he may survey the warring sides. Arjuna despairs when he realizes that amongst myriad friends and family members, his teacher Drona and grand sire Bhishma are on the other side of this battle. He is at war with everyone he knows and loves, and subsequently everything he holds dear, down to identity itself. Horrified, and overwhelmed with grief, trembling head to foot and hair standing on end, he throws down his weapon and refuses to fight.

As Ram Dass writes, Arjuna has looked at the enemy, and he’s seen that it’s us. For the first time in his life, his moral and social duties are at odds. This psychic break ushers in an opening for Arjuna’s reorientation, but only scratches the surface of the identities he’ll need to shed as the message of the Gita unfolds.

Krishna offers a number of core disciplines (yoga), as practical prescriptions to solve what is fundamentally a crisis of dharma, or duty. Dharma, like all Sanskrit words, bears an immensely variegated semantic field, and is contextually fluid. Here dharma can be translated as virtue, law, righteousness, or social and caste duty in accordance with the greater cosmic order. In addition to being an historical event, the battle of Kurukshetra is read as symbolic of the inner battle we all face in the intersection of worldly and spiritual life. Gandhi said this battle rages on perennially in every human soul. Richard Davis puts it succinctly, “Kurukshetra is both a particular field of battle and a perpetual field of dharma.”

While the details of life 1,500 – 5,000 years ago (there are various opinions on exactly when the Gita story takes place) have changed, the rajasic warrior culture of the Gita is easily mapped onto ours. The term rajas describes desirous and frenetic doing, being caught up in the drama of our activity. Arjuna comes from a culture of mostly doers, and we can empathize with him, his dharmic crisis not so unlike ours despite the passing of millennia. Beneath the surface, he is also like us, in that he is not quite ready to surrender to his dharma. He is still attached to the melodrama of the predicament in which he finds himself. Like Arjuna, we are not renunciant’s, achieving liberation outside of society in hermitage, but rather are householders, embedded in the world and the duties worldly life demands of us.

Arjuna expresses his despondent bewilderment, calling himself dharmasammudhacetah, one “whose mind is confused as to duty” (II.7). Until this moment in his life, he has been perfectly dharmic, or so he thought, but the place from which he is acting is pretty superficial, dharmically—he is attached to his identity as Arjuna, the good, pure son and righteous warrior. He is acting from a place of enlightened self-interest, with attachment to his family and friends and the very caste system that plopped him down in a privileged scene where he could receive the grace of being friends with God, and to ultimately receive the Gita’s transformative teachings. We are dropped into the calm before the storm, each side poised to charge, awaiting the blowing of the conch, the Indic bugle call to war. The conch itself, its spiral form representing the upward journey of the soul’s development and transformation, carries more than martial significance. It is also blown at the start of rituals to awaken the power of truth.

The drum and conch cacophony of the first chapter rises to a tremendous crescendo, which is sonically punctuated by Arjuna abruptly falling silent, his dharmic crisis having reached its fever pitch. He throws down his arrow and bow, and sits down on his chariot seat, declaring to Krishna that he shall not fight. This crisis has so disoriented and confused him, that he is finally open to reorientation, to use the material he’s been given to become something totally new.

Despite having been buddies with Krishna for years (in the epic they are cousins and later brothers-in-law), in this silence he is not only speechless, but also prepared to truly hear Krishna’s message. Arjuna’s moment of crisis is his awakening; he is no longer just a warrior, but now a student and disciple, Krishna’s shishya (say that five times fast!). The first chapter of the Gita is mainly logistics, setting the scene. It is in the second chapter, when Krishna speaks, that the Gita’s teachings begin to unfold.

To absolve Arjuna’s crisis, Krishna advises that his class duty as a ksatriya takes precedence over his duty to protect the family and friends pitted against him on the battlefield. Krishna’s advice doesn’t satisfy Arjuna, so he offers another method of practice: karma yoga, in order to “cut away the bondage of action” (II.39). Karma yoga offers what was at the time of the Gita a radical shift in the practice of transformative arts. Previously, the path to moksha (liberation from worldly suffering) had required renunciation of social and familial responsibilities. The practitioner dropped out of society to pursue a disciplined, hermetic life of austerity and meditation, in order to cease acting in the world, disrupting the infinitude of desire’s ripple effect.

Renouncing action was predicated on the supposition by many religious philosophers (Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu) that desire, the fundamental motivator for action, created human suffering. In a worldview that includes reincarnation, desire-borne actions are never finite, but ripple forward and backward throughout our various lives, shackling us within the wheel of human suffering forever, rebirth after rebirth. Note here that the term karma can vary in meaning. Primarily, it means “action,” but in classical India its expanded meaning denoted a residue of past action, “the persisting moral consequences of actions,” writes Richard Davis. This extended meaning is also the karma of popular parlance in modern English today.

Karma yoga offers a reconciliation of worldly action within a cultural climate of renunciatory practice. Rather than retreating beyond society, as an outward renunciation, we retreat inwardly, renouncing the outcome of our actions. Our hermetic cave is the cave of the skull. The five Pandavas (the “good guys,” the family of which Arjuna is the middle brother) can represent the five senses or the five organs of action, the karmendriya. They are pitted again 100 Kauravas (the “bad guys”), 100 being a symbolic number suggestive of the infinity of manifold form. In this meta-reading of the text, we are shown that rather than remaining enslaved to the dramas we self-author, swept up in the information our senses provide us, instead we can put our faculties to dharmic work in the world, in service of attainment of moksha, maintaining presence.

Verse, II.47 delves into this idea, one of the most essential teachings of the Gita. Krishna explains that the dharmic path is the path of the guna, or quality, of sattva; it is light, clear, and true, neither mired in the grasping type-A achievement of rajas (desirous action), nor in the slothful depressive darkness of tamas (delusional inaction):

Your right is to action alone;
Never to its fruits at any time.
Never should the fruits of action be your motive;
Never let there be attachment to inaction in you.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit name, Arjuna, bears the same proto-Indo-European root as the Latin argentum, and can mean “white,” “clear,” or “silver.” In choosing to act dharmically, Arjuna makes a sattvic choice. His sattvic actions in the text compare to those of his cousin and adversary, Duryodhana, whose rajasic actions become increasingly ego-inflated in the Mahabharata and on the battlefield of Kurkshetra. Krishna’s prescription of a sattvic attitude also bears striking contrast to the tamasic choice to abstain from acting. In fact, Arjuna’s sattvic nature is assumed in the close relationship he and Krishna share. That said, as Krishna’s teachings delve into deeper layers of Arjuna’s karmic patterning, he is even going to have to give up his attachment to being sattvic, trading in the lightest of the gunas for a formlessness beyond duality. Krishna’s specific instructions to Arjuna are to be “free from those three qualities (the gunas)… indifferent to the pairs of opposites, eternally fixed in truth” (II.45).

As karma yogis, practitioners who are in the world, and not out renouncing in cloistered hermitage, we have to accept the material we’ve been given to work with, like it or not. Rather than renouncing action, it is in fact our dharma to act, Krishna posits, and to cultivate equanimity in facing the results of our actions. We disable desire’s deleterious effects on the path to liberation closer to the root. Arjuna, like us, has his own ideas about what he’d like his dharma to be. When the way he knows himself is challenged, when he finds himself in an impossible situation that threatens to disrupt the ego constellation he’s constructed, he’d rather throw down his weapons than fight a battle he wishes he wasn’t part of in the first place.

Dharma itself is the path through the battle we may not wish to fight, our own personal Kurukshetra. It happens based on our karma, the constellation and accumulation of all the acts of our past lives. Even if we choose not to believe in reincarnation, the concept functions fairly well in the context of a more Western conception of life and death. Whether we conceive of time as infinite, as in Hindu thought, or time book-ended by “beginning” and “end,” as in Judaeo-Christian thought, we can offer our deeds, rather than austerities, as sacrifice to a higher calling, working towards liberation. This is the first time in the Indian textual tradition that seeking freedom becomes work-, family- and world-friendly. As Wendy Doniger writes, “The Gita also introduces two strikingly original new ideas that were to have a deep [effect] on the subsequent history of Hinduism. First, it offers a corrective to the older belief that the transmigrating soul is stained by a force called karma, consisting of the residues of actions committed within the past life and influencing the subsequent life.” The Gita qualifies this belief by asserting that action without desire for the fruits of action (nishkama karma) leaves the soul unstained by such karmic residues.

Now Arjuna wants to know how to cultivate the self-mastery needed to act without desire for the fruits of action. Krishna offers a number of yogic approaches, or disciplines, which subsequent commentators of the Gita have culled into three main branches, or marga (paths). Doniger states, “The other, related idea is that the path of devotion (bhakti) to a god is superior to the paths of action (karma yoga) and meditation (jnana yoga) that had produced a tension between householders (or warriors), engaged on the path of action, and renouncers (or philosophers), on the path of meditation, disengaged from action. Bhakti was a new way to reconcile them.”

The overarching prescription of bhakti yoga, a vital relationship between devotee and divinity, harmonizes the various approaches to yoga, presenting us with a hierarchy of practice, rather than limiting us to one or another method. This hierarchy also frees us from the hand wringing to which Arjuna succumbed when faced with a seemingly irreconcilable situation. Krishna privileges bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, because all thought (jnana yoga) and action (karma yoga) can be re-authored in our lives as a devotional offering. Krishna endorses all three paths, invoking a big-picture unity of the various methods by which to attain moksha. In revealing his Absolute divinity to Arjuna, we see the Godhead as both transcendent and immanent, reciprocating love, which is a landmark break from the more transcendent characterization of the Absolute of the earlier Upanisads.

Although it is an inroad to yogic discipline, it is simply not enough to give up the fairly superficial identities of caste and kin and “being good,” although in the moment even this sacrifice is unpalatable to Arjuna, until Krishna has shown him more. Eventually Arjuna will be asked to give up even his attachment to form itself (for more on this, look for my Embodied Philosophy piece in a few weeks about why God is scary), which may be why Krishna offers Arjuna the antinomian and ultimate teaching that supreme devotion alone is enough to attain moksha (18.62-66).

On the ultimate scale, Krishna teaches Arjuna experientially that in order to honor creation, he must also honor destruction in equal part. Talk about uneasy tension! Luckily for our protagonist, as for all of us, Krishna works patiently, teaching us to release layers of habit and form in infinite iterations and with manifold lessons until we finally get it, if we ever get it. (Personally, I think it’s OK if the “getting it” takes forever—that is my karma yoga practice.)

When Arjuna accepts and embodies Krishna’s words, his doubts resolved, he picks up the bow he has thrown down, the soldiers on the field let out a roar, and the war begins. There’s precise yogic symbolism in his being an archer, the one-pointedness of his arrow aimed with the clarity of his sattvic intention, the outcome literally and figuratively out of his hands once the arrow is loosed and the battle begun. Whatever karma it is that brought you to this point, it is now your dharma to confront it head-on, through selfless action, and with equanimity as to the results of that action. Per Ram Dass, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan character describes the warrior as the perfect karma yogi:

A warrior is a hunter. He calculates everything. That’s control. But once his calculations are over, he acts, he lets go, and he survives in the best of all possible fashions. The mood of a warrior calls for control over himself, and at the same time it calls for abandoning himself.

If the absolute is immanent, then we too, as a piece of the absolute, dedicated to the absolute, can achieve liberation in meeting the demands of life as it appears in society. Each method of yoga, each way of yoking oneself to the Godhead, has the power to liberate us. Rather than renouncing action to gain access to liberation, the very actions of our lives, offered in practice, become that access instead.

When our actions in the world arise less from attachment, and more out of the simple law of things, we are focused and present on the tasks at hand. Cultivating presence of mind in the tasks at hand make sense, because without the massive scope afforded to Krishna, the representative of the Absolute, without the ability to step back and see the entirety of our karmic patterns, how can we expect a certain outcome? And how can we expect to complete the task at hand with the fullness of our attention if we’re stuck in anticipating the outcome?

We now have a numbers of different paths by which to become completely involved, while selfless and unattached. In this way, quotidian life becomes spiritual practice. This is the tension of practice, the doing while remaining unattached to doing, engaged in the world while simultaneously free from it.

Whatever our method or discipline, whatever style of yoking, or yoga, we choose, we rest in the uneasy tension of doing/non-doing. Despite being a text for renunciant’s, Yoga Sutra 1.12 describes a similar detachment in the act of practice, which leads to the quieting of the mind, fostering presence:

abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ 
the quieting of the mind occurs by means of practice and non-attachment

The non-renunciant conception of moksha allows for a kind of populism, such that everyone, all castes, even women, may attain moksha, previously only reserved for austere renunciants, Jain and Buddhist seekers, and the Brahmin caste (IX.32). As Sargeant explains, “In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation.” It is the synthesis of devotion, knowledge, and action without desire that is Krishna’s salvific prescription for Arjuna’s crisis.

It is also the confluence of approaches to our own liberation, our own path to the oceanic freedom of moksha. It is not a place outside of ourselves, but rather it is a state of being we uncover that has been within us all along. It is a way of changing our relationship to the stuff of our lives.

Just as many tributaries unify as the ocean, so too are there many yogas that bring us closer to discovering one moksha.