On This Path, Effort: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in Quarantine

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This article by Jonathan Clark

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A pichhvai of the Vraj Parikrama (19th c.)


On This Path, Effort: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in Quarantine

“On this path effort never goes to waste,
and there is no failure. Even a little effort
toward spiritual awareness will protect you
from the greatest fear.”
— Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 2:40, translated by Eknath Easwaran

For myself and many people reading this, the lockdown continues into its second full month. And while June is promising to see life return to something more familiar with shelter-at-home orders easing or being entirely replaced by voluntary social distancing, from the capsule of quarantine, thirty one days seems like a very long time.

At first, quarantine had a certain excitement. The news feed was apocalyptic. We reached out to our loved ones. We reconnected with far flung friends over video chat. We were all drinking at night and catching up on movies and reading. We made resolutions. We set ourselves to the task of cooking great meals, investing time in long neglected hobbies, and enrolled on unemployment insurance. There was terror but also the opportunity for the ultimate staycation. There was purpose to our isolation and a cultural sense that what we were doing was important.

But time moved on. The excesses of drink and streaming video began to weigh on our days. The confusion of at home work spaces and workout spaces and needing alone time from our families while desperately needing social interaction all bubbled and boiled like a slow cook witches brew. And at some point, the shared energy of it all seemed to break down. The news became a rolling, desensitizing mantra of COVID-19 — devoted more to the personalities of the daily press conferences than the pandemic itself.

Quarantine changed from an act of isolated solidarity to prison time.

The days grew impossibly long while the weeks withered into passing moments. Time turning inside out. How can seven eternities add up to the blink of an eye?

The fantasy of time turned into a gray bog. What good is time to read without the enthusiasm to understand? Where is the pleasure in drink when it is the only pleasure? Where is the solace in solitude when it comes from confinement?

It became time, in other words, to reorient, to refresh, to regain footing. It was time to read the Bhagavad Gita.

A scene from the Mahabharata: Arjuna requests instruction from Krishna and receives the Bhagavat Gita

We Are All Arjuna Now

The Bhagavad Gita comes to us from the Hindu tradition, as one tale from the Mahabharata. Written somewhere between three and five hundred years before the birth of Christ by the sage Vyasa, it stands as one of humanity’s greatest religious and literary texts.

The story is a simple one. Arjuna is a military leader who is set for battle, but the other side is partly composed of his own kin as his family is locked in a war of succession for the throne. Horrified at the idea of murdering people he loves and respects, he shrinks from his task. He speaks to his charioteer Krishna.

“… O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious
to fight, [29] and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is
dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on
end. [30] My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has
slipped from my hand...”
— Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita 1:28 to 30, translated by Eknath Easwaran

It is time, then, for the charioteer Krishna to tell Arjuna about the secrets of life and eventually reveal himself as the physical embodiment of the great Vishnu, maintainer of the universe, as the physical embodiment of the highest god, the totality of divinity. In that hour of doubt, the greatest Krishna — “the silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise” (10:38) — explains to Arjuna the way to eternal peace.

The book is slim and light, but every passage is weighted with lifetimes of spiritual insight. It is the kind of book that changes every time you read it, because as you change and develop so too does your ability to understand the full meaning of the verses.

I am not here advocating that the reader of this essay takes up the Bhagavad Gita as the sole window into enlightenment, or that they should believe every metaphysical assertion that it, well, asserts. But I am advocating that this book, while always a worthy place to take one’s spiritual path, is particularly helpful in the current crisis.

We are facing an odious duty. We are not set to enter battle against family, but we are having to renounce. And this renunciation makes defining our lives difficult. As the lockdowns drag on, it pulls away energy, creativity, and joy. It blurs all lines and makes our plans so very dim, almost black. The light in the basement room where we keep thoughts of our future has gone out.

Our will to act is threatened. We are Arjuna. We always have been but especially now.

Krishna and Balarama Play with Gopas, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana (1550)

The Active Path to Freedom

Krishna outlines two paths. These paths lead out of the eternal recurrence of life, which is to say toward peace and freedom from perpetual rebirth into suffering. While you are impermanent and have a birth date and death date, with a finite number of days between, there is a soul inside of you that continues through many lives, yearning for rest and a return to the source. Again, you may or may not believe this, but if you allow yourself to look through this lens, if only temporarily, it can reveal things that you hadn’t seen before.

It allows you to consider your life as a small part in a journey of a greater being. Your struggles, though immediate and devastating as they might be to you in the moment, are but a few lessons among countless lessons. Your responsibility is to that greater being, the atman. You must strive to send it on to a life at least a little closer to enlightenment. And there are two paths to do this.

The two paths are the active (karma yoga) and the contemplative (jnana yoga). The active path is the one most common, and Krishna recommends it above the other. Even without such recommendation, most of us cannot conceive of a life dedicated solely to spiritual contemplation, and so karma yoga is the one that remains for us to follow.

Krishna describes karma yoga, a life of action, to Arjuna and lays out principles that can be followed to make sure that our action is to the benefit of our spiritual selves, our atman, as well as all others.

Aspirants to Krishna are told to partake in selfless service, which was created alongside humanity. Selfless service is done for the sake of others and always without attachment to result.

“The awakened sages call a person wise when all
his undertakings are free from anxiety about results;
all his selfish desires have been consumed in the
fire of knowledge.”
— Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 4:19, translated by Eknath Easwaran

Inside a culture built around the outcome of labor, it can be hard to hear this message. I write this essay now in order for others to read it, but Krishna would say to write it so that others may be served while holding no attachment to whether it is read or not, whether it leads to any benefit. If we do things for selfless purposes and without clinging to results, our actions are clear. Our action is then toward the good, toward peace.

And in my own experiences, action done without concern for results and in selfless service, is conveniently the most enjoyable way to accomplish something. If you write a novel for the sole purpose of having completed it, you will miss all the pleasure of creation along the way. If it is not worth pursuing now, whether the novel is published or not, then it is a bad course of action. You can not control if the novel is published, and even if it is, you will spend much more time writing the novel than you will being thrilled at its release. Thrills are short lived, and we tend to look for the next one more quickly than we anticipate.

We should strive to always act in service, for the simple yet profound joy of doing something that helps others.

Bhagavad Gita Illustration (1800)

Quarantine Blues and the Stakes of Inaction

To help clarify the meaning of karma yoga, Krishna describes the differences between action and inaction. Yes, you can act in a bad way, but inaction is something much more insidious.

“One who shirks action does not attain freedom; no
one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.
[5] Indeed, there is no one who rests for even an instant;
all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.”
— Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 3:4 to 5, translated by Eknath Easwaran

There is no true inaction, and so allowing inactivity to take over, you hand over control of your action. This touches on one of the great risks of quarantine for those of us who find ourselves underemployed or unemployed due to the virus. We suffer from inaction. It isn’t that we spend our days truly doing nothing, it’s that we spend our days outside of purposeful, positive action. Even those who still work, with a few exceptions, find themselves doing less with their days.

Inaction has its own inertia. In quarantine, what at first appeared as liberated free time became oceans of hours to drown in. We do less than ever, and it exhausts us.

As the weeks and months pass, the effect sets deeper and deeper roots.

And so we have to combat inaction. With what? Action, of course. And not just any action. We must commit ourselves to selfless service free from any clinging to result.

What does that mean in quarantine? It’s easy to say we have to choose action, but this seems like a hollow pronouncement. What exactly should we do? There’s nothing to do, that’s the problem. And even when there is, we don’t feel like doing anything anymore, what with all the previous inaction.

Maybe we could abandon the active path of karma yoga and follow the path of jnana yoga, pursuing spiritual wisdom. But this extreme renunciation and discipline of the mind isn’t exactly a supine art. Nor is it something one can pick up and set down at a whim. The quarantine will lift, the vaccines will roll out, social distancing will end, and we will return to a life that makes jnana yoga once again impossible.

And even if we decided to, it is no less difficult than action. Lethargy, it turns out, does not only make action difficult — it makes contemplation nearly impossible. Physically, a half hour meditation is one of the easiest things the body can be trained to do. Mentally, five minutes of meditation is excruciating without energy.

The answer to all this lethargy is obviously to do more physically and mentally, but it is cold comfort to someone in the grips of it because if things were as simple as just getting up and doing something, you wouldn’t be lethargic in the first place.

The imperative of your immortal atman that has experienced many lives, yours being only one of many, creates a mindset that can help. But that requires more than passing flirtation with the belief to have any authority inside of you. And the kind of belief necessary for the doctrine to motivate you isn’t something you can will yourself to do.

So we must overcome lethargy, and we are stuck because motivation both cures lethargy and is prohibited by it.

Let’s draw out a little further the medical metaphor of a cure. Say you are dying of a disease. There is a cure that you can drink, but the disease has shut your throat. How then do you save yourself? It appears there are two options. Find temporary treatment that opens the throat or find a new route of administration.

Sri Krishna preaching Gita Upadesh to Arjun (1875)

Eluding the Dilemma

Lethargy might then be conquered not by moving into action, but focusing on what Krishna calls the “action in inaction.”

“The wise see that there is action in the
midst of inaction and inaction in the midst
of action. Their consciousness is unified, and
every act is done with complete awareness.”
— Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 4:18, translated by Eknath Easwaran

Lethargy does not prevent every tiny action. You might still make food, eat food, drink water, sleep, walk the dog, and all the other things that must be done. But you are not aware of these things as meaningful action.

Perhaps hiding inside each of these is a tiny opening. Perhaps there is a way to focus on these in a state of selfless service without clinging to the result and so overcome lethargy and achieving a state of karma yoga.

If you are in quarantine with others, perhaps you can make food while focused on feeding them, involving yourself as much as you can in the cooking. If you are in quarantine alone and have friends who are also, perhaps you can regularly call them with the intent to serve them some comfort in conversation. If you have a dog, perhaps you can turn the daily walk into an act of service, taking extra care to give the dog the best walk that you can.

As these accumulate, perhaps the mindset will shift. Perhaps you will log the “action in the midst of inaction” as action itself and so become accustomed to action. 

This is both a new route of administration and a small palliative to let in the big cure.

But it’s all just a pretty thought unless it works.

Maharaja Mahatab Chand Bahadur’s Death of Krishna (1820-1879)

A Journey of Gathering Pearls

At one point, Krishna reveals his godly splendour to Arjuna, convincing him once and for all that he is the full expression of the source of all things and the final authority on wisdom. The overwhelming display can not be argued with. It simply is true, and so Arjuna accepts this.

With spiritual searching, we are not likely to witness such things. With the exception of psychedelics or an ecstatic epileptic seizure, we don’t get to see Krishna in all his glory, at least not directly. We can read it in a book, but there are so many books. So many gods. So many one true ways.

Wisdom comes not from believing this book or that book, but by trying to live out the wisdom that is shared with you. And as a practice proves its worth, your belief in it is not blind or naive. Just as you take the color of your front door as unambiguously true, so will you take a spiritual practice that has proven itself through direct experience.

Life then becomes this great experiment. You gather the things that look to have value, test them, and learn whether they are pearl or plastic.

It feels like the wisdom of Krishna must face the same test. We carry out Krishna’s advice and see its effects. Quarantine is a space for us to explore the spiritual dimension, find what is true and what is not, arriving back into ordinary time a transformed person.

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