Two themes in Bhagavad Gita that I found pertinent even in the context of modern age and valuable for a reader who may not even be from a Hindu religious tradition are: i) advocacy of the idea of detached action as opposed to inaction as a means to the goal of self-realization and ii) the importance of focusing and controlling mind to find oneself integrated and at peace. It is evident, as we shall also see shortly, that one may not be well-versed in Hindu theology, or may find it baffling to perceive metaphysical notions such as the all-pervasive Brahman or the mind-body duality; one may still find these themes applicable within one’s own contexts.
In contrast with Upanishads wherein the sages seemed to urge renunciation as a means to attain unity with Brahman, Krishna in Bhagavad Gita encourages action rather than inaction: “so perform action which is restrained, for this action is better than non-action; and even the working of your body would not succeed without action” (p. 38). Krishna suggests that action cannot be avoided and there is no possibility of life without it; however the action that he prescribes as correct is in line with one’s dharma and also “restrained” or “without clinging”: neither attached to the outcomes of the action nor directed to please ones sensual desires or ego. Gita appears to teach that such attitude can be developed through devotion to Brahman or Krishna (Brahman is Krishna’s “womb” (p. 155)) and transcending bodily concerns. Krishna discourages renunciation by implying that people may renounce out of confusion, pain, or fear (p. 186) which makes renunciation selfish or “based on desire” (p. 185). Acting without a desire or “giving up of all fruit of action is called letting go” (p. 185). This prescription of detached action makes it more practicable than renunciation because of the ever-present necessity of earning a livelihood. Moreover, in current age wherein most individuals oftentimes find themselves amidst aggressive competition and challenges, the idea of detached action whereby the individual cultivates the serene mindset through which he strives only to do well without either excessively obsessing about winning or attaching his self-worth to the result of his actions may be helpful in curbing the routine anxieties. Such attitude may bring a feeling of mental ‘liberation’ – even if not in the spiritual sense of the realization of an eternal divine acting through the person.
Krishna teaches the importance of self-discipline achieved through meditative exercises to attain not only union with Brahman but also an eternal state of bliss: “who is peaceful in mind, whose passions are calm without evil, of one being with Brahman, reaches the highest joy” (p. 77), and “for one whose thought does not ever go elsewhere, who eternally remembers me … who practices yoga… I am easy to find” (p. 96). In the modern age wherein technological inroads have deeply impacted the human mind, even my personal experience at meditating has more often than not been thwarted by multiple distractions, ever-present in the mind and oftentimes trivial, caused by electronic gadgets, social media notifications, information overload, insurmountably distracting thoughts, and concerns about important emails or deadlines to meet and so forth. These battles a modern person faces against the scattering influences that damage the unity of the mind were surprisingly voiced by Arjuna’s relatable concerns when he pointed out the difficulties in the way of focus caused by “the mind’s instability” and “the mind is ever straying, troubling, strong and unyielding; I think holding it back is as hard to bring about as holding back the wind” (p. 79), to which Krishna assures that “straying mind, without doubt, is hard to hold back – but by practice… it is held back… …it is possible to reach yoga for one whose self is reined in by striving in skilful ways” (p. 79-80). Thus Krishna assures, to Arjuna but also to a modern reader, that focus, elimination of distractions, and single-mindedness of meditation is possible by skill and perseverance. Even if not to realize union with Brahman, a modern person may find this assurance of successful meditation (by devoting thoughts to a single point of focus or any higher power) helpful in the interest of self-integration as well as a peaceful and focused mind.