“The real import of the scriptures is revealed to one who has unflinching faith in both the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the spiritual master.” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 6.23)
In America, for middle and junior high school students the portion of English class focusing on Shakespearean literature is not eagerly anticipated. Reading about romance, family infighting, political struggles and other compelling issues in life isn’t a big deal, as these already form the backbone of the majority of storylines for motion pictures and novels. The difficulty with learning Shakespeare is in the language used, for many of the works are poems fit to a certain standard. To adjust to rhyme and meter, normal sentences get rearranged into verses that aren’t as easy to understand. The classroom studies the literature in depth, uncovering the real meanings to the verses. One can even become a scholar in Shakespeare’s works if they so desire. If in-depth study is required for just reading literature authored by one man, why should it be absent when the focus shifts to literature that is so old that no one can date it? The sacred Vedic teachings are meant to be studied for a lifetime, something not understood by just picking up a book and reading it. The bona fide spiritual master incorporates the necessary context into his translations and commentaries, and even then one must read the works repeatedly and practice the underlying principles to understand the meanings.
As the ancient scriptures of India are composed mostly in the Sanskrit language and its derivatives, it’s difficult to gain much insight by just picking up an old work and reading it. Finding the original Sanskrit versions of these works is also difficult. In days past, copies were made by hand, with the interested readers meticulously writing down the many verses onto leaf pages and then storing them safely within temples. Because of the austerity in production, man was more prone to remembering the many important verses, reciting them when necessary.
Advancements in production mechanisms brought books written in many different languages. Today, if I want to learn about the Vedas – which include their original hymns, the Mahabharata, the many Puranas, and the Ramayana – why not pick up a translation of one of these works if they are available? Surely by reading a translation I can get a firm grasp of what the texts are about, no? This is actually not the case. The translations can be written in perfect English that leaves no ambiguity whatsoever, but the context is not accounted for, as time and circumstance have changed since the work’s composition. In each and every verse there is so much to be understood from the background.
The treatise on Vedic philosophy that has the best combination of brevity and completeness is the Bhagavad-gita. In this work Lord Krishna, the speaker and de facto teacher, states that the spirit soul is the essence of identity and that it does not take birth or die. In addition, full-scale reincarnation takes place just like the regular changing of the personal body. Similar to how garments are put on and then taken off, the spirit soul accepts bodies for activity and then discards them when they are no longer useful.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.20)
The statements about the soul and reincarnation form some of the more straightforward verses from the Gita, but there is still some context to be understood, some background information not available to those who only read the verses. For starters, what is the makeup of the soul? What is the purpose to activity if the soul just lives forever anyway? Why even teach anyone about these things when it seems like the position of neutrality is there by default? Whether I know that the soul is eternal or not doesn’t change the fact that my soul will live on, so why did Krishna even present this information?
The purpose to Krishna’s direction at that specific time was to remove the hesitancy to fight within Arjuna, who was the leading warrior for the Pandava side, which had the rightful claim to the kingdom in Hastinapura. Arjuna’s cousins led by Duryodhana had unjustly usurped control for themselves. This led to a war to settle the score. Arjuna did not want to fight because he didn’t think victory to gain the kingdom was worth the cost of the lives of his friends and family members fighting for the opposing side. Krishna’s presentation was meant to dispel his mental illusion, to let Arjuna know that killing isn’t really killing when done under proper direction. The soul lives on, so there is no need to worry about the person’s existence after death. We also shouldn’t worry too much about where they were prior to birth.
Taking the translations of these verses on the surface, it seems like the Gita is more or less a pep talk on the importance of fighting ahead, going for what you want without fear. Follow your heart and don’t be attached to the results of action. Work in a detached manner so that you can succeed in life. Indeed, this is how trained professionals behave when facing adversity. If they were to get discouraged over every little setback, they would never be able to continue on with their occupational duties. Therefore Krishna’s discussion with Arjuna is one where a hesitant, yet fully capable fighter is afraid to move on and needs some cajoling.
But the Gita has a lot more context than this. Going ahead with one’s tasks in a fearless manner is certainly helpful, but how does one determine what the proper task is? Should I make up my own desires and follow through on them without fear? What if my desire is to steal from others? Should I go into home after home and rummage through people’s things without worrying about the consequences? After all, if my soul is eternal, what difference does it make whether or not I follow piety?
The context of the Gita, which is understood by those who study it under the direction of a bona fide spiritual master, is found in the speaker itself. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the leader of all leaders, the greatest and original teacher. He is the very same God that the world worships, denies or ignores. Krishna is the form and name that paints the empty canvas that is man’s general conception of a supreme controller. Krishna and His position are what give the Gita its teeth; the real meaning to the verses. This fact is revealed in the Gita itself, but should one focus only on certain verses and topics, that lesson will pass them by.
The living being is assigned occupational duties based on the qualities of the body type assumed. Following these duties gradually purifies consciousness to the point that the constitutional position is reached. In that position one only follows Krishna’s direction; therefore they are no longer bound by duty or action. The soul who is in complete knowledge basks in the sweetness of Krishna’s association. As this is the summit of existence, the devotee has nothing left to do, nor do they suffer the future negative reactions of skipping prescribed work.
“A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.18)
Arjuna was in Krishna’s association and after he received instruction from the Lord it seemed like he fell into the category of not being obliged to work. He was now knowledgeable of the soul, material nature, and the temporary nature of fruitive results. Armed with transcendental knowledge, he had nothing to do, yet in the end he followed Krishna’s direction and fought ahead. In this way we see that the position of neutrality is reached regardless; whether one is pious or impious. Instead of choosing the impious route on a whim, the truly wise follow Krishna’s order, for that keeps them in the Lord’s company. In Arjuna’s case, the wise instruction was provided by the Lord Himself. This is the real message of the Gita; to follow God’s orders, which are given either directly or through a representative who follows in the same mood of devotion as Arjuna.
Further context for the Gita is provided by the vast Vedic literature, which is so expansive that it cannot possibly all be absorbed in one lifetime. Krishna previously appeared on earth as the warrior prince named Lord Rama, whose life and pastimes are described in the lengthy Sanskrit poem called the Ramayana. Krishna’s activities and incidents relating to appearances are described in many Vedic texts, including the Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Familiarity with these works lends further credence to the words the Lord puts forth in the Gita, which is just one small chapter within the lengthy Mahabharata.
With Shakespeare the language is difficult to understand, as are the meanings to the verses. One who studies Shakespearean literature under someone else who studied it previously can gain a higher understanding of the works. In a similar manner, the only way to truly understand the Vedas and their purpose is to take instruction from someone who loves Krishna just as much as Arjuna does. The Gita broadcasts no other message except the supremacy of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Every other piece of information is meant to get the listener to eventually reach that position of devotion. The many cogent points of fact are like beautiful pearls, which are each valuable in their own right. But when they are connected on the string that is Krishna, the pearls become a beautiful necklace that has an infinitely greater value.
The bona fide spiritual master incorporates the necessary context into his translations and commentaries. That these works would be valuable and presented from a position of higher intelligence shouldn’t be very difficult to understand. The first time we read or study something, we obviously don’t know much about it. But if we spend our life dedicated to learning about, honoring and becoming immersed in the particular subject matter, we will come from a much better position later on when presenting and discussing the information with others. The guru lives devotional service by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and using the spiritual television within the mind that comes from thinking about Krishna’s activities, qualities and overall glories.
With a perfectly situated consciousness, explaining the scriptures becomes very easy for the guru, so much so that he can pick out one verse from the many works describing Krishna and go on discussing it for days on end, finding new ways to present the same conclusion of devotion to God that is untainted by any desires for fruitive gain, mental speculation or mystic perfection. The Vedas are from such an ancient time that it is nice to pick up a translation and read some of the verses, but if we follow only this method, we could read the same works over and over again and never gain any real insight.
If, for instance, a verse makes reference to Prahlada Maharaja being saved or Draupadi being rescued by Krishna’s intervention, what is the reader going to know? What if a passing reference is made to the 8,400,000 different species or the fact that Ajamila was saved by reciting the name of Narayana? These statements have specific context, information that can be found elsewhere in the Vedas. Even if we were to find the specific verses mentioning these incidents and read the translations, we still wouldn’t fully understand. He who follows the bhakti discipline under the authorized guidelines, however, can fully appreciate the brilliance of these statements and even invoke the incidents when appropriate.
In the modern age, the greatest exponent of bhakti-yoga is His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. His many books are full of context and proper commentary, so much so that one can reach full enlightenment by consulting only his writings over and over again. The reading can be coupled with the regular chanting of the holy names. The ideal daily regimen is to recite the maha-mantra for sixteen rounds on a set of japa beads and simultaneously avoid the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex. These are lofty goals, but one who remains in the company of sadhu, shastra and guru can advance towards the highest platform of consciousness. The more bhakti is practiced, the more Krishna is revealed to the devotee. And the more one knows Krishna, the more they will relish topics discussing Him, which is the purpose of the Vedas to begin with.
To understand old literature a tough task,
Thus even for Shakespeare we require a class.
The poems are just English words after all,
So understanding them shouldn’t be order tall.
Context is wherein lies the distinction,
To gain that one requires proper instruction.
In same way Vedas are profound in each verse,
Learn of pearls of wisdom through books immerse.
Yet context is what really counts in texts like Gita,
Learn real message of divine love from guru and shastra.