“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bhagavad-gita, 2.11)
The Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God sung by Lord Krishna Himself, opens with many profundities, words of wisdom not found in any other text, spiritual or otherwise. Since the shlokas are concise and to the point, the words themselves can be picked apart and misunderstood when the proper context and ultimate conclusion are removed from the picture. Of the many issues addressed by Krishna to His dear friend, cousin and disciple Arjuna, the point about lamenting neither for the living nor the dead is an obvious candidate for being misunderstood in opposing extremes. One side will criticize Krishna for such a statement, for He is essentially advising Arjuna to not worry about the deaths of others and to become callous to the needs and suffering of those in trouble. The opposing side will laud Krishna for His statement, taking His words to mean that one must turn into a robot and not harbor any emotions towards anyone else if they are to make advancement in spiritual life. If terrible suffering is witnessed, like that resulting from a horrible national tragedy, the yogi is supposed to remain level-headed and realize that the mass deaths are due simply to the karma of the effected individuals. From Arjuna’s behavior that followed the profound teachings given to him in the Gita, we can learn the true meaning behind the instruction of not lamenting for the living or the dead. When understood in the proper context, the straightened path can always be found and tread with confidence.
From the esoteric point of view, Lord Krishna’s statement is one based on sound Vedic wisdom and perceptible evidence. The first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists of the Vedic school, those students interested in learning about the truths of life from the recorded teachings and wisdom found in the ancient scriptures of India, is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am a spirit soul”. This instruction is a prerequisite, the foundational understanding of spiritual life, for further education to continue because the animalistic tendencies adopted from the time of birth cause a false identification to be formed with the body. The outer covering certainly is our temporary dwelling during our time on earth, but eventually it must be discarded, just as it was assumed. Throughout the development, maintenance and decay of the body, the individual autonomous entity remains the same in quality. Thus the soul is the true basis for identity, and since the spiritual spark is above all the temporary losses and gains of material life, it is known as truth, or Brahman.
Not only is one individual soul Brahman, but so are all the souls in existence. Indeed, every form of life, any object acknowledged to have autonomous growth, has a soul in it. Though the workings of the bodies may not be uniform, with some forms being larger and more powerful than others, the natures of the souls do not vary in the slightest. All souls are equal; hence making the first Vedic instruction one that creates universal brotherhood applicable to not only our fellow man, but to all species.
If all souls are equal, why are there any variations in species? Though we are Brahman, due to our marginal position in respect to the larger picture of spiritual life, we have a choice as to whether we want to associate with the manifested world or the unmanifested. The unmanifested is described as such based on the viewpoint of the entity residing in the temporary world. The spiritual realm, though not material, is surely manifested, but in a different way. The material land, the area we presently occupy, is visibly manifested, but temporary at the same time. There was a point in time for its creation, a period of time for its maintenance, and some future date for its total destruction. The spiritual land, though manifested in its own right, never goes through any destruction; hence there is also no creation.
As spirit souls, we are the same in quality as all the residents and objects of the spiritual world, the land where the Supreme Personality of Godhead perpetually resides. But due to our marginal position, we have free will and independence in relation to which realm we choose to call home. Goswami Tulsidas, the revered Vaishnava poet, mentions the importance of understanding the marginal position by addressing in his poetry the individual who is wholly focused on studying Brahman, or the unmanifested aspect of the Supreme Truth. Understanding Brahman is very difficult when the living entity doesn’t know what maya, or material nature, and the individual soul are. Tulsidas advises that instead of trying to understand the spiritual world through one’s own efforts, which requires knowledge of pure spirit, maya and the living entity’s position as being in between, it would be better to simply chant the name of the Supreme Lord, Shri Rama, and develop the same knowledge that way. Indeed, this is the recommended method of knowledge gathering for the fallen souls of the present age. By regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, one can gradually realize their marginal position and the option that is always open to them of returning to the spiritual world. Rama is another form of Krishna and also a word that describes the Absolute Truth’s ability to give transcendental pleasure.
When the pure soul chooses in favor of maya, they then voluntarily put themselves under the jurisdiction of the laws of karma, which are essentially the rules that are set in place to govern cause and effect. Every activity that leads to the further development of a material body, either in the present life or in a future one, is considered karma. All the good times and bad that we see for ourselves and others is due to karma. Even the different species, which are simply varying combinations of the three modes of material nature, goodness, passion and ignorance, are crafted based on fruitive activity and desire. One who has a sincere wish to have unlimited sex life and unending intoxication is given the form of a monkey or a dog. One who wants to eat stool and roll around in filth is given the body of a pig. The human species is considered the most advanced because man is capable of understanding its marginal position and taking the necessary steps to choose eternal spiritual life instead of a temporary material existence.
This brings us back to the instructions kindly provided by Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Arjuna, the leading fighter for the Pandava side, was ready to battle the massive opposing army known as the Kurus. Since he was a warrior by trade, it was Arjuna’s duty to protect the interests of the innocent and to punish those who had transgressed the rules of morality. The Kurus, led by Duryodhana, had unjustly usurped control over a kingdom that rightly belonged to the Pandavas, the family of Arjuna. The aim of all Vedic instruction is to get one to choose spiritual life in lieu of the attachment to maya that has steadily increased in strength over many lifetimes on earth. When the body is discarded at the time of death, the primary desires of the individual soul are measured, and based on these wishes and the results of work previously performed a new material body is crafted for the next life. The time of death essentially marks the moment when the choice of the marginal entity is recorded. One who has altered their consciousness to the point that they are always thinking of God and service to Him will naturally choose the “unmanifested” spiritual world while quitting their body. But one who has failed to elevate their level of thought through sound logical reasoning and steady practice of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, will likely choose maya again.
Arjuna, though in the company of Krishna, the Supreme Knowledgeable, gave way to lamentation and grief as soon as the war was about to start. Asking Krishna to place the chariot in the middle of the battlefield, Arjuna surveyed the situation and decided that he didn’t want to enjoy a kingdom that would be secured through the deaths of his close friends, family and teachers fighting for the other side. On the surface, this would appear to be a very compassionate stance, one that should be lauded. After all, the spoils of a kingdom are tied directly to maya, or illusory enjoyment. A wise man, knowing that all living entities are Brahman, would have no desire to kill anyone else, especially over something as trivial as control over a kingdom.
Arjuna thought he was speaking learned words and taking a stand backed by virtue by putting forth his argument in favor of abandoning the fight, but Krishna, as the original spiritual master, was there to cut his words borne of maya apart. Lord Krishna, the sweet and magnificent ruler of all the universes, reminded Arjuna that since the soul is eternal and undying, there is no need to pity anyone else. A wise person doesn’t lament for the living or the dead because in both states the soul remains completely alive. Since all such temporary positions are due to karma, the fate of the fighters for the Kuru side, including those relatives of Arjuna, was already determined by the divine forces who manage the results of action, or karma-phala. Even if Arjuna were to lay down his weapons, the other side would still lose, as defeat was destined for them. Arjuna, by wanting to drop his bow and arrows, was thinking he would be praised for his nonviolent efforts, but Krishna reminded him that for a warrior, there is only shame that comes from abandoning a fight, especially one that is grounded in religious principles, i.e. in line with one’s prescribed duties. If Arjuna didn’t protect dharma and the rule of law, who would? Whether the Kurus lived or didn’t live, whether Arjuna enjoyed an opulent kingdom or lived in the forest, it was still his duty to stand up and fight against forces which had done wrong.
For one who isn’t familiar with the events that led to the Bharata War, or one who takes each word of the Bhagavad-gita literally without understanding the proper context, Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna could give the impression of cold-heartedness, where the aspiring transcendentalist is taught to become dead inside and not lament or rejoice over any occasion. But when evaluating Krishna’s specific instruction relating to not lamenting for the living or the dead, the key is to understand the feelings and the desires that led to Arjuna’s judgment. One who is in perfect God consciousness always remains tied to the path of dharma, which is completely connected with the spiritual world. The marginal entity who chooses maya essentially turns their back on what they originally know to be righteous principles, practices which will lead to the spiritual land. Whatever emotions or effects cause one to choose maya over Krishna are what need to be analyzed and fixed. In Arjuna’s case, his grief and lamentation over the potential deaths of his family members was leading him to the path of maya. In reality, Arjuna is an eternal companion of Krishna’s, so he can never be the victim of maya’s influences, but to kindly teach future generations the essence of Vedic philosophy, Arjuna worked under the yogamaya potency of Krishna and became temporarily distracted by grief and lamentation.
When the pain brought on by ignorance and association with the temporary outward body results in a loss of rationale and forgetfulness of the proper train of thought, a reminder of the eternal nature of the soul and the need for detachment must be present. Bouts with lamentation, elation and grief will always be there, even for one who is eternally liberated. The difference is that the mental suffering of a devotee is only temporary, never causing deviation from the path of devotional service, whereas the anguish of a materially conscious individual causes them further harm down the road. Indeed, Arjuna would later on grieve greatly when his son Abhimanyu would be killed on the battlefield. After all, who wouldn’t be saddened over their son’s death? Arjuna had been taught not to lament for the living or the dead, so did he violate this principle by bewailing the death of his son? Again, the key was his subsequent behavior. How did his lamentation affect him? In both cases, prior to the Bharata war and after his son’s death, Arjuna’s behavior did not change, as he continued to fight for victory. He never deviated from the duty that was assigned to him. He always remained in Krishna’s association, following the Lord’s every word and not incurring any sin in the process.
“Lord Krishna is the self-sufficient Supreme Personality of Godhead, yet because He was playing the role of a human being, He became very depressed for a moment, as if He had actually lost His father. But at the next moment He could understand that the arrest and killing of His father were demonstrations of the mystic powers which Shalva had learned from the demon Maya.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 22)
Lamenting over bad fortune and the pain of others is certainly natural. Lord Krishna, during a battle with a demon named Shalva once lamented so greatly that others are still puzzled about His behavior to this day. Shalva created an illusion where Krishna’s father, Vasudeva, was shown to be brutally killed. Though it was a demon’s trick, Krishna still lamented greatly for a moment. Vasudeva was His dear father after all, so why would Krishna act unaffected upon seeing such a horrible scene? This shows just how much the Lord loves His associates and devotees. For them He will show more concern and caring than any other person has ever exhibited on this earth. But Krishna did not deviate from the task at hand, as He regained His composure and then ultimately killed Shalva in a fair fight.
When one grieves for the dead or for those who are suffering greatly and then subsequently tries to alleviate the situation by taking hold of maya, then surely their behavior is not laudable. For instance, if we see a tragedy caused by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami that takes many lives and leaves others stranded in desperation, it is natural to feel pity and concern. Yet if the spiritualist trained in understanding the differences between maya and spirit and the workings of karma somehow thinks that they can stop all suffering through some personal material endeavor, then their grief has led them astray. If an individual takes up a cause to help the poor and the downtrodden through only monetary efforts or the lobbying of government, the results may bring about temporary relief, but the aid does nothing to further the victims’ chances at spiritual success. Moreover, the helping individual has fallen off the path of bhakti by taking to worldly activities borne of lamentation and grief. Their consciousness will be wholly altered in the wrong direction, leaving the soul no other choice but to remain attached to maya again in the next life.
Shri Hanuman, the faithful servant of Lord Rama, faced many obstacles in the execution of his assigned tasks that constituted his service to God. On several occasions he felt overwhelmed and overburdened with fear of failure, but he nevertheless continued in his mission. Vasishtha, the venerable rishi of the Vedic tradition, once suffered the tragedy of seeing all one hundred of his children die in one day. Yet he was so tolerant that he later forgave the perpetrator, a king who had been cursed three different ways and was possessed by Rakshasas. Lord Rama, when separated from His beloved wife Sita Devi during their time on earth, gave way to extreme grief and sadness. Still, He always remained committed to dharma just to set an example for the rest of us.
With any instruction provided by Krishna and the great acharyas who are ever devoted to Him, the key to understanding the philosophical points is to juxtapose them with the ultimate conclusion of full and complete surrender unto the Supreme Lord. Those who lament for the living or the dead and then take shelter of maya and the mental outlook that through fruitive activity suffering can end will have a difficult time fully surrendering unto God and ultimately choosing the spiritual world at the end of life. On the other hand, one who is wholly committed to bhakti can always see the spirit soul within every life form and thus appreciate the magnanimity of the Supreme Lord and His offer of salvation and eternal freedom in the spiritual world that always remains on the table. Through the good times and the bad, through grief, anger, lamentation and elation, the devotee always remains fixed in service to the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore whatever pain they feel during their journey through life never affects their mental outlook for the worse.