By Laura A. Roser
The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Sanskrit scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It tells the story of a warrior—prince Arjuna—who must decide whether or not to go to war with his cousins to gain rulership over the kingdom. His cause is just, but Isn’t it a sin to wage war upon your honorable, good-hearted relatives? he wonders. Not to mention the disruption and violence war would bring to the people in the kingdom. Maybe he should just step back and let peace prevail. Is that what the gods would want? He has no idea.
So, he seeks the counsel of Krishna, his charioteer and the god of compassion, tenderness, and love. Krishna advises Arjuna that he should “fulfill his Kshatriya (warrior) duty to uphold the Dharma.” Dharma (in Indian religion) is the eternal and inherent nature of reality, regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order.
Dharma can mean following the laws of the universe, social or religious rules, or one’s own purpose in a certain role. In Arjuna’s case, that role is to be a warrior who fights for what is right and just.
The reason I love the Bhagavad Gita so much is that it explores a very real dilemma that all of us face at many junctures in our lives: how do you make the right decision when your alternatives have moral conflicts?
In Arjuna’s case, much of it comes down to motivations. He has to truly ask himself if he is motivated by justice? — doing what’s right. Or is he motivated by greed? — gaining control of the kingdom through force to attain power and riches. Is he motivated by honor or is he motivated by fear of the battle? Of course, fear and greed are not the right path, but justice and honor are.
Most of our important choices are just like that. They are internal conflicts, not apparent ones. They are conflicts between important values — even if we don’t realize our choices involve conflicts like these. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that we have control of our choices, but given the difficulty we have of understanding our own motivations, we often make deep existential choices thoughtlessly.
Arjun, however, is not turning a blind eye and making a snap decision without much thought. He takes the conflict very seriously. That’s why he’s a model for us. The Bhagavad Gita is about us. Arjun’s choice is our choice. His terror isn’t the fear of battle; it’s the fear of doing what’s wrong, the unwillingness to commit sin. It’s a noble sort of terror.
This paralysis, it turns out, arises from Arjun taking too personal of a view. Here’s what Krishna advises:
When senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure of pain. These experiences are fleeting; they come and go. Bear them patiently, Arjuna. Those who are not affected by these changes, who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality.
“The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal … The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle.”
In other words, if you want to choose a meaningful path — the right path — choose what endures. Fleeting emotions, temporary conditions, hot and cold, and even death are inconsequential. What matters is following eternal values and honorably fulfilling your role. Often acting honorably requires detaching from the ego-centric view so that we can gain perspective of the larger picture. He advises Arjun not to despair over the deaths this battle would cause. Afterall, everyone dies at some point. The higher moral choice is fighting for the eternal value of justice.
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Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the #1 authority in meaning legacy planning. For more information about meaning legacy planning services, visit www.paragonroad.com.