A Fresh Look at the Bhagavad Gita

What use would a 21st century runner find in a 2,000-year old Hindu text?

In search of inspiration, I was recently reading the 19th century American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, interested in their ideas about nature and self-reliance.  To my surprise, I discovered they were both fans of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture which I had read in college but largely forgotten.

After reading the Bhagavad Gita once again, I found its ideas intriguing, consistent with some of my ideas about training, and quite powerful:  learn to still your mind, it advises, and you will discover that misery is unnecessary and action is effortless.

I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

By way of background, the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord”) consists of a dialogue between the Indian warrior Arjuna and his chariot driver, who is actually Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu.  Arjuna is preparing for battle against his kinsmen, and while his cause is righteous, he cannot bring himself to attack family and friends.  Krishna advises him of his duty as a warrior and then explains more broadly the Hindu concept of enlightenment and the paths to achieve that state.

krishna-instructs-arjuna-375x500 (1)
Krishna advising Arjuna

In reading the Bhagavad Gita for the second time in thirty years, I found that one of the major themes in the text is the importance of “renouncing the fruits of action”:

The ignorant work for their own profit.  The wise work for the welfare of the world, without a thought for themselves.

Back in my college days, I had been quick to dismiss this as the kind of do-gooder message one hears from religious figures and politicians.  After all, I had learned in economics class that people are rational and self-interested, which matched what I saw around me.  But this time around, it seemed to me the Bhagavad Gita wasn’t promoting altruism, so much as it was advocating a strategy for avoiding misery:

Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.

Or put differently, people who pin their hopes on certain outcomes risk disappointment — and from this risk, anxiety seeps into life, disturbing the sense of inner tranquility.  This anxiety is inescapable, because the world is complex, uncertain, and risky:

For those who lack resolution, the decisions of life are many-branched and endless

In pointing out that life’s decisions are “many-branched and endless,” the Bhagavad Gita is making a sophisticated point that anticipates a premise of modern computational theory:  many problems are “intractable,” meaning they can never be solved.

Consider the game of chess.  You might think by now that a super-computer like IBM’s Deep Blue could solve an entire game of chess from start to finish.  But this is not possible, because there are more end-points in a single game of chess than there are sub-atomic particles in the universe, meaning you could never build a big enough computer.

Now consider the real-world problems we face in life, involving relationships, family, careers, politics, the economy.  These problems are vastly more complex than any board game.  All our big and important questions are “intractable.”

But that doesn’t mean people don’t try.  “The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent,” Arjuna complains to Krishna; “trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind!”  In other words, people drive themselves into desperation by trying to solve problems that have no answers.

Krishna counsels Arjuna to “strive to still your thoughts” through the practice of meditation:

Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self….Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within, train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.

Running is a discipline that shares certain aspects of meditation.  Runners must manage the discomfort associated with extreme or sustained effort, without letting the fear of this discomfort derail them from their goals.  As internationally-acclaimed novelist and runner Haruki Murakami explains in his memoirs, part of the key to moving forward during a marathon or ultra-marathon is learning “not to think.”

Gita
Source:  Rishi Online

Renouncing the fruits of action doesn’t mean that if you won a race, you’d have to give away the prize.  Rather the idea is to tie happiness to management of your inner self, rather than to outcomes outside your control.  That would mean toeing the starting line determined to run your best, but able to live with the results regardless of your finishing time.  The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius made a similar point, when he wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

And just to be clear, renouncing the fruits of action does not mean renouncing action:

He who shirks action does not attain freedom; no-one can gain perfection from abstaining from work.  Indeed, there is no-one who rests for even an instant; every creature is driven to action by his own nature.

That every creature is “driven to action by his own nature” is an interesting idea, as it suggests that action is a natural part of life.  It implies that even when at rest we’re still moving.   The Bhagavad Gita then makes what seems like the opposite point regarding the wise:

Their security is unaffected by the results of their action; even while acting, they really do nothing at all.

Is this a contradiction? If every creature is “driven to action,” then how could the wise “do nothing at all”?  This riddle needs some explaining:

The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same.

That knowledge and action are the same is a powerful concept, because it implies that the sensation of effort is ephemeral.  It reminds me of the advice that race car driving coach Ross Bentley offers to up-and-coming drivers:  “Race cars are way too fast to drive at the conscious, trying level. They must be driven at the subconscious level, with the conscious mind observing and being aware.”  While I haven’t raced cars, Bentley’s advice inspired me to experiment at the local running track with a workout of  400-meter repeats.  Instead of consciously trying to run fast, I focused on letting my body run fast.  My times improved.

When the mind is quiet, then knowledge should direct action, without the interference of anxiety, doubt, fear — symptoms of a mind spinning out of control as it grapples with the unsolvable — or of excessive conscious effort.

Towards the end of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna summarizes his message for Arjuna:

Calmness, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and purity:  these are the disciplines of the mind.

After reflection, I’ve tried to put some of the Bhagavad Gita’s ideas to work in my life, in very simple ways.  For example, when taking the subway home, instead of fretting at delays, now I let myself relax.  Similarly, when running at the track, I used to count down the laps, anxious to complete the workout, but now I focus on pace, breathing, form, and try to be comfortable with the here and now.  When working with others, especially when they have different points of view, I try to imagine the best outcome for the group, rather than getting caught up in personal reactions to other people’s agendas, which lie well outside my control.

Have you read the Bhagavad-Gita?  What did you think?

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.

— Henry David Thoreau

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A Fresh Look at the Bhagavad Gita

7 thoughts on “A Fresh Look at the Bhagavad Gita

  1. I am still a student at this yet would like to answer the question on how could the wise do nothing at all when driven to act…wise are the realized soul who have attained the knowledge of being himself when his body acts according to the trigunas(tamas,rajas,satvika) and the indriyas(karmendriya &gyanendriyas & Mind). In short, he see inaction in action..he does not think himself to be the body that house him nor the mind which directs his body. He has realised himself to be that supreme soul ..the soul which is beyond time and space, constant and does Nothing when the body acts. So the wise stand unaffected by any actions 🙂

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