Yoga on the Battlefield: Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita
Contrary to popular belief, yoga can be done without ever doing a yoga pose. And, you can be very adept at doing yoga poses without ever really doing the practice of yoga. How can this be? As Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhaghavad Gita, the practice of yoga is aimed at ending human suffering. In yoga, modalities such as meditation, breath work, and devotional practices, are part of the methodology used to achieve and maintain a state of illuminated calm within the context of ones life, regardless of what the outside world looks like at the moment. As we take a brief look the Bhaghavad Gita, we are reminded that yoga is so much more than learning how to do poses. Although we need the poses in our day and age to combat toxins and stress, environmentally as well as spiritually, there is so much more to the picture. We need breath work, meditation, and perhaps some devotional practices to help us perceive the world through a clearer, more stable mind.
Yoga on the Battlefield
The Bhagavad Gita is the story of a moment in time that brings the main character, Arjuna, to a yogic awakening. Perhaps the first ever depiction of yoga being instructed in world literature, the Gita is a 700 verse, Hindu scripture that is part of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, (chapters 25-42 of the 6th book). The Mahabharata tells much of the back-story about the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who grew up together in the same palace, but became enemies over the ownership of their kingdom.
The story opens on the battlefield with both families prepped for battle. The battle horns are blown, and just as it is about to begin, Arjuna falls into a dark, faithless state of mind. He asks his chariot driver, The Lord Krishna, to take him into the middle of the battlefield so that he can look into the eyes of those he is about to fight. He weakens: fighting is bad enough, he tells Krishna, but in a war such as this, fighting his own family, how can anyone win? What can the benefit be of following through with this battle when killing his loved ones will only bring him a life of regret: no kingdom is worth this particular type of bloodshed. He throws down his swords and refuses to fight.
The beloved Lord Krishna begins the instruction of yoga right then and there. Although Arjuna is deeply resistant, Krishna explains to him that he is in the throws of illusion brought on by the three forces of nature called ‘the gunas’. His sadness is not who he is, this battle is not what he thinks it is, and, if he doesn’t fight it, he will end up causing more suffering than if he does fight. He explains that he must fulfill his duties as a warrior, and he teaches Arjuna how to perform his duties by embodying the teachings of yoga.
The concepts of Dharma, Karma, Samsara, Meditation, Renunciation, Devotion, and an explanation of the three gunas, are some of the most valued themes that Krishna teaches to Arjuna. All culminating into the main message, that is basically this: life (the gunas), will always ‘pull’ on us; we all have a battle to fight. Yoga, defined by Krishna as ‘skill in action’, is the tool that enables us to make choices about how we will be in this world, how we will treat ourselves and others, and what we can do that benefits the whole, rather than the individual.
All of us has some of each of these Gunas in our make-up. These three qualities are: Rajas (fire), Tamas (earth) and Sattva (air/ether).
Rajas is related to movement, light, heat, and burning. When it is pulling on us, it has a negative effect, and becomes more like rage, hyper activity, inability to calm oneself, and a lack of concentration. Tamas has the qualities of inertia, non-movement, darkness, dullness, heaviness, depression, and sloth. Sattva is the Guna that is related to spaciousness, steadiness, and sweetness. People who are born with more of this guna will be naturally patient; they will be prone to seek spiritual teachings and practices. If this pulls too much on them, they actually become ruled by attachment, unable to ride the waves of ups and downs so easily.
Krishna teaches Arjuna that his despondency is really just the pull of the gunas. As long as we are in physical form, we will all have to do battle with the pull of the three Gunas.
‘Now Arjuna, I will tell you
about the three kinds of happiness.
The happiness which comes from long practice,
Which leads to the end of suffering
Which at first is like poison, but at last
like nectar – this kind of happiness,
arising from the serenity
of one’s own mind, is called sattvic.
Rajasic happiness comes
From contact between the senses
And their objects, and is at first
Like nectar, but at last like poison.
Happiness is called tamasic
When it is self-deluding
From beginning to end, and arises
From sleep, indolence, and dullness’
‘No being on earth, Arjuna,
or among the blithe gods in heaven
is free from the conditioning
of these three Nature-born gunas’ (18.36-40)
However, when we do yoga, we are able, through the practice, to balance these pulls and to use them skillfully to perform our own, ‘nature-born’, dharma. If we are in balance, we can succeed. Balance comes from practice, and practice gives us perspective. It is easier to be less attached to the pulling of life’s pleasures and pains when the mind is soothed with yoga.
Arjuna asks, what if a man fails at this? What if he cannot do his own dharma skillfully? What if he cannot do this yoga perfectly?
‘A man finds success by worshiping
with his own right actions the One
from whom all actions arise
and by whom the world is pervaded.
It is better to do your own duty
Badly than to perfectly do
Another’s; when you do your duty,
You are naturally free from sin.
No one should relinquish his duty,
Even though it is flawed;
All actions are enveloped by flaws
As fire is enveloped by smoke’ (18.46-48)
Trusting the Truth
Arjuna presses on; it seems there is nothing that Krishna can teach him or tell him that will soothe his angst. Arjuna’s dilemma is quite dyer: full of fear and crippled with sadness Arjuna does not have a lot of options; kill or be killed, fight or be disgraced, or, fulfill his Dharma and trust Krishna. We have all been here, faced with a critical turning point in our lives, on the brink of destruction or spiritual evolution. It takes a lot of guts, I believe, to truly do the practice of yoga.
Krishna tries to convince him that his situation is a blessing:
‘Blessed are warriors who are given
the chance of a battle like this,
which calls them to do what is right
and opens the gates of heaven’ (2.32)
‘If you are killed, you gain heaven;
(if you) triumph, you gain the earth.
Therefore stand up, Arjuna;
Steady your mind to fight’ (2.37)
And Arjuna, in his unstable state, can’t even imagine being able to move forward. He is weak with fear, saddened by the state of affairs in his life and completely disillusioned with the role that he has to play in it all. Krishna assures him:
‘On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow’ (2.40)
This is one of most uplifting texts in all of world literature to be sure. It is the literal description of what it would be like to have a conversation with God at one’s darkest hour. In fact, in chapter 11, Krishna reveals himself fully to Arjuna by giving him the ability to see him in his God-like form. The text is beautiful, but in the long run, Arjuna asks Krishna to return him to the world he knows, because after hanging out in the heavenly realm with Krishna, be yearns to be back in the familiar sphere of the earth. In essence, he is not stable enough, nor does he have enough yoga practice in his body and mind, to stay in that state of illumination with Krishna indefinitely.
After the revealing, Arjuna has a little more faith. He gets it that yoga could work, and in the end, he moves forward to fight his battle. But he does it having seen the truth, the ultimate Reality, the face of God, The Lord Krishna.
We are seduced by the horrors in the world, everything points to some sort of unspoken scream that says, ‘the world is getting crazier, it is frightening, I must flee, I cannot win this battle’ Krishna’s teaching is that the one who does yoga wins. Meditation, and devoting all of one’s actions to the Divine are the tools of yoga that solve the angst of an aching soul. Practice creates a steady mind, a steady mind creates illuminated thoughts, pure thoughts create the right kind of action, no matter what it is that is in front of you to do.
Poses, Breath, Meditation and Devotion
As mentioned, in our day and age, we need all of it, poses, breath, meditation, and devotional practices. Although the poses are such a small part of a huge picture that constitutes yoga, the poses, if done with care, will help to create more steadiness in the mind and strengthen the body for sitting in meditation.
Here are some recommendations: if you have a hard time practicing yoga, keep in mind that it isn’t all about the poses. You can gear your practice towards meditation instead of focusing on the poses. In other words, you can do the poses to prepare for some breathing and meditation, making the breath and meditation the main course. Find something that will draw you into the practice daily, try creating an Alter, or a sacred space in your home, where you can go each day and do your yoga. Clear a space, put items in the space that have meaning to you and feel heart warming. (Candles are always good.) Even if it is just for five minutes, it’s a huge help to do this.
Here is a short practice that will help with getting to meditation. It can be shortened or lengthened, but I would urge you to do three poses at the very least. Also, try to do some focused breath work, and sitting. Remember, there is no wasted effort!
- Down Dog
- Side Angle Pose
- Down Dog
- Childs pose
- Seated forward bend
- Seated twist
The Breath Practice:
Alternate nostril breathing. Start by using your right hand to block the right nostril, which you inhale through the left. Hold both closed, then, exhale through the right. Inhale through the right, hold both closed, then exhale through the left. Do three rounds.
Sit with a straight spine, you can use a chair. Watch the breath entering and leaving the body. Try to do 10 minutes to start with, then increase up to 20.
References: Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell