(Sri Krishna instructs Arjuna on the battlefield, as described in the Bhagavad Gita.)

Is it possible to live without war? We can’t really live without fighting. What do you do when you eat? Are you not at war with your food? You chew everything and then when it goes down in your digestive system and gets churned up and digested there is another kind of war. Even when you inhale, you are in a war with the living organisms that go through the air into your lungs. This kind of war goes on continuously and the same thing is going on in the mind. There is always the conflict between your higher nature and your lower nature. One says to do this and another says, no don’t do it. Your higher Self wants to go to a spiritual talk, your lower self will tell you go to the cinema. There is always an internal fight in the physical, mental, emotional, and even intellectual areas.

The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture, talks about a war between the good qualities and bad qualities that exist within us. There are the desirable and the undesirable qualities and the desirable qualities are very few, but there are hundreds of undesirable qualities. That’s why, in this timeless story, on one side there is a family (of one hundred brothers who are not very good, but on the other side there only five brothers who are full of virtue.

There’s always some sort of fight in life, and if you take the side of the good people or of the good thoughts, you win. If the side of the bad people or the negative thoughts is taken, they will win and the life becomes a hell.

That is exactly what the Bhagavad Gita is about. It is a sort of instruction from Sri Krishna—who is the neutral advisor—to Arjuna, one of the five good brothers. Arjuna has become depressed and confused about his role as a warrior. Sri Krishna tells him that he must fight in this war to protect the people from an unjust army that is trying to take over the country. He must stop the undesirable people who symbolize the undesirable qualities in the mind, or the lower self. Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that he should not allow the opposing army to continue their atrocities. It is his responsibility as a kshatriya (a member of the ruling and warrior class) to protect the innocent people and save the country from being taken over by evil forces. A kshatriya is like a king who protects the righteous and controls the unrighteous people.

The opposing army was comprised of very bad people and so Arjuna came forward to fight. But when he saw that some of his own friends and family had made a big mistake and had taken sides with these evil people, he temporarily forgot all the terrible things they were doing; he only saw the blood relationships that he had with some of them. It is  something like a judge, knowing fully well that a criminal has committed the crime, getting ready to pass judgment. Then, at that very moment, somebody tells him that the criminal is one of the judge’s distant cousins. So the judge becomes confused doesn’t want to pass judgment on a blood relative and tries to find some loopholes to acquit the person.

That is the situation here and Arjuna asks Krishna, “What is this? I’m surprised that you are asking me to kill all these people.” He gives Krishna all kinds of arguments. “You, of all people, who follow ahimsa (non-injury), should not ask me to fight.  When all the men are destroyed, what will happen to the women? This will disturb the whole culture; it will bring even more calamities.” Arjuna brings all kinds of reasonable arguments, no doubt. They all sound good, but they’re all based on attachment because he is seeing his own kith and kin. That is why this beginning chapter is called, “The Despondency of Arjuna.” Krishna just listens to all the arguments. Arjuna says again and again, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know what to do!” When you get confused like that, you are trying to escape and run away, Escapism is not spirituality. Spirituality is not for the cowards.

Krishna tries to pull Arjuna out of his escapist mentality. So, he literally calls him a coward. He tells Arjuna that his arguments are all sound—nothing but sound! Then, in a way, Arjuna realizes, Yes, I was trying to find excuses. I really don’t know what to do and am puzzled. So, he just dropped his bow and arrow and prostrated at Krishna’s feet declaring, “I really don’t know; please just tell me what to do and I will do it.”

It’s similar to trying to drive a car, but when you think of the clutch, you forget the pedal. When you think of the pedal, you forget the brake. There is no coordination and the car cannot be safely driven. So, you tell somebody else who you trust, “Come on, you take the wheel and drive me wherever you want.” That’s how Arjuna literally surrenders himself. He is saying, I am your disciple, instruct me. Until that point, he just considered Krishna a friend. But when everything had failed, it was a different story. At that point Sri Krishna starts talking about the inner truth: the Atman, or the Self. What is the Self? Can anybody kill the Self? No, the Self is immortal. Even if the body is destroyed, the life still exists; it’s not something that you can destroy even if you want to. Then Krishna addresses the issue on the level of the little self, or ego, that lives in a world of duality. He speaks about one’s duty in the world.

In the phenomenal world, we all have certain duties to fulfil and that is called,  svadharma. He tells Arjuna that he has been assigned the duty to protect the righteous, the ignorant, and the innocent people. And in this respect, he introduces the meaning of Karma Yoga. Even though you are doing this or that, you are not doing it for your sake, you are doing it as an agent. You have to do it. It is for that purpose you have been created. So, he tells Arjuna that it’s not for his sake he is doing anything or for Krishna’s sake, but it is for the sake of everybody else that certain things have to be done.

A sculptor might want to make a sculpture of a deity out of a very large stone. But the stone is too big, so the sculptor breaks it into halves, picking up one half and shapes. After chiselling, and rubbing, and filing, the deity is finished and placed on a pedestal. The other half of the stone is used as a step to stand on. Both are stones, is it not? Which is high? Which is low? Which is wanted? Which is not wanted? Without the so-called “lowly” stone, the other stone cannot be reached. Without one, the other cannot be used. So, the deity stone and the stepping stone are both necessary for service. They have each have their own unique place and neither stone is higher or lower than the other.

Likewise, everybody, and everything in this world is necessarily created for a certain purpose, and we are all fulfilling the common purpose. If there is a common purpose, and we are all fulfilling that purpose, which work is wanted and needed and which is not wanted or needed? There’s no question: It’s all for the common good. If you think of that when you do your activities, then whatever you are doing you become an instrument in the hands of that cosmic force, for a cosmic purpose. All your actions automatically become Karma Yoga because they are not yours anymore. One piece of metal with lots of lines and a rough surface is called a file. Another piece of iron is used to make the file sharp so that it can cut something. So which piece of iron is great here? You don’t even look at the very rough piece of iron, you don’t even feel like touching it. It’s so rough, but you need that file to make this other one sharp. In the same way, every sort of activity is necessary. That is why Sri Krishna speaks to Arjuna about Karma Yoga. Sri Krishna explains, “I am behind everything. I am the cosmic intelligence, the cosmic consciousness. I am working through you.” It is the same cosmic consciousness that functions through everything, even in an atom. Without that consciousness, you are not you, he is not he, she’s not she, this is not this.

So, doing whatever you do as an instrument is  Karma Yoga. Do it with the spirit of renunciation. In one chapter of the Gita Krishna explains how every sort of thinking and acting can be done as Yoga. He bisects and dissects everything that exists, piece by piece to ultimately say that everything is an instrument of the divine. Each individual may appear separate, but ultimately, everything and everyone is a tool in the hands of the divine. Behind all the names and forms, there is one Truth. That is why we say that Truth is One, but there are many paths to that Truth.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda