3 Yogis Interpret The Gita
Revered by Emerson and Thoreau; endorsed by Gandhi as “his eternal mother;” the most widely read scripture in India, exalted as a love song to the ultimate truth—remains the subject of millennium-long debate over certain passages in the years since it has been published.
Right off the bat, confusion arises from Krishna’s advice to Arjuna.
Arjuna, frozen before a battle, surveys the scene with utter repulsion and dread. He expresses his desperation to Krishna, the god disguised as his charioteer, pleading for guidance. Arjuna’s concerns are completely understandable: he can’t possibly imagine a positive outcome to come from the destruction the battle will cause. Krishna’s surprising response? He must fulfill his duty as a warrior and fight.
“One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain...Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay?” (2:16-2:21).
This passage, where the ultimate proponent of ahisma seemingly advocates for war, is the subject of endless debate. So, I spoke with three NYC-based yoga teachers to find out: Why does Krishna tell the distraught warrior to fight in war? Is there truth to be gleaned from his words, even in modern times?
point, and avoiding all harm is impossible. In those cases, you must find a way to get to the other side with grace and the least harm possible.
“It’s a heightened situation, but Krishna is counseling Arjuna about that moment the greater good of your people comes,” Borrero says. “Everyone has those moments where they must take a stand. In our own way we all meet this battlefield where we’re forced to ask: what truly matters?”
Borrero stresses that the compassionate thing is not always the thing that doesn’t cause conflict. “Sometimes you have to make a choice that’s harmful to create the least harm,” Borrero says. She gives examples that strike true right away, such as accepting punishment for a cause you care about, or breaking someone’s heart that you love to cause the least total harm.
Keri Setaro, founder of yoga school TATTVA, believes the passage has a three-pronged meaning. Fresh off a recent stint in India studying the Gita, Setaro first interprets the passage as literal and describing the nature of being; you are not your body, it is your soul that is eternal. Setaro then addresses the stereotype that yogi’s are passive people. “You have to be a warrior and fight to walk the spiritual life,” she says. “Sometimes, you must actually take an aggressive action. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone.” Setaro believes it’s a fight to stay on the path, and a constant fight against the ego, mind and all the layers to reach your true Self. Therefore, Krishna is counseling Arjuna right off the bat that the path will not be easy.
Beyond that fact, Setaro believes Krishna’s instruction is representative of a symbolic fight between the layers of the Self, of fighting the ego in order to able to witness the Self (she emphasizes the capital S!).
Caitlin Lavelle a popular teacher at Om Factory, sees the real lessons coming from the experiences along the way in life, not the milestones themselves. To Lavelle, the passage seeks to guide humanity on releasing our emotional attachments to create sustainable joy and connections both within ourselves and with others. “It is the path to that point, not just the destination, that is beautiful in its humanity,” Lavelle says.
“We can lose sight of the big picture in our race to achieve one “fixed” goal and set forth the next one,” she explains, adding that she personally finds mantras of gratitude to be highly effective in releasing attachments that no longer serve her. She believes Krishna's responses continue to drive home the point that a life worth living is free of attachment to failure and success and is fully immersed in each moment.
To me, the beauty and genius of the Gita is the sheer diversity of inspiration that can be derived from the masterpiece.
-Illustration: Valeria Clark