The Bhagavad Gita and Fighting for Love
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | December 15, 2023
Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about holiday stress, family, conflict, and self-regulation through yoga. Which reminds me of my protracted ambivalence about the Bhagavad Gīta. Sometimes I wonder if Vyasa had a big, noisy, combative family and wrote the Gita as his way of processing it – “I’ll create a fantasy novel and kill them all off in my imagination…”
Maybe he foresaw the Bhagavad Gīta as a spiritual manual for dealing with your family during the holidays 😬.
I’ve read several versions and commentaries of the Bhagavad Gīta and two versions of the Mahābhārata (my fave is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s creative retelling in The Palace of Illusions). Reading the Mahābhārata gave me more context for the Bhagavad Gīta, which is a relatively small didactic text sandwiched in the middle of the massive epic.
I understand that the Mahābhārata is a mythic – full of metaphor, lessons, wisdom and deep meaning – but, on the surface, it’s about a war between an extended family. It’s a timeless issue – families trying to cope with each other – why else would tv shows like Succession still be so popular?
Both times I read the Mahābhārata I came away with the feeling that the whole thing was a colossal waste of time – I mean, couldn’t you all just chill out? Get some mediation? Compromise a bit? A part of me wants Krishna to play his magic flute, fix everything, and prevent the war. Instead everyone dies.
The story is bursting with moral ambiguity and conflicting perspective and it’s never entirely obvious who’s right. The Pandava brothers are technically not the sons of the heir to the throne, Pandu, who was cursed with the inability to bear children (his wives pray to the gods and subsequently produce 5 sons). But Pandu’s excessively fertile younger brother Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who has 100 sons, is considered unfit to rule because he’s blind and so his children’s inheritance is also questionable.
Then there’s the whole rigged game of dice thing where the Pandavas lose the kingdom due to their eldest brother’s gambling issues. As pay back they have to forage in the forest dressed in bark for 12 years. When they emerge, they want their kingdom back. (Really? Even after 12 years of itchy bark you still can’t let it go?)
Krishna tries to negotiate a solution and fails.
Arjuna is compelled to kill the people he loves and respects.
Panchali gets a nasty case of PTSD.
Victory ultimately lands with those who are most ardently devoted to Krishna. But that doesn’t really make sense either since just about everyone loves Krishna – even Gandhara, the mother of all the 100 slaughtered brothers, is enamored.
I resonate with Yogananda’s interpretation of the Mahābhārata as a metaphor for the internal fight up through the chakras and our mental/emotional issues towards self-realization (I think it’s in God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita). And wouldn’t life be pleasant if the only war that human beings ever had to fight was the internal one? Against our own demons? Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew how to keep our swords in our pants?
I once met a yogic monk in India who smiled all the time. I asked him why he was so happy. He said, “I am happy outside because I’m always fighting myself inside.”
I wonder if one reading of the Mahābhārata is the metaphor for the inevitability of having to deal with war on all levels – between countries, within countries, between families, within families, and of course within ourselves. As the current wars rage and devastate it’s easy to dissolve into cynicism. Haven’t we learned anything yet? Why do we still engage in senseless, barbaric, unnecessary, horrible violence? War is not animalistic, it’s much worse.
Perhaps it’s our family conflicts, microcosms of larger conflict, that teach us how to withstand and navigate the larger wars. Perhaps families are the kuru, the practice battlefield for learning to fight – to fight for, and to fight against.
Once I asked a friend who had recently lost an adult son with a disability how she was doing. She said, “I miss him. I loved being his mother. He taught me how to fight.” She explained that she learned how to fight for him to get the services he needed and in that process, she learned how to wield her own power.
In families (when we can stand to) we learn to disagree, argue, debate, stick up for ourselves, stick up for others, compromise, not compromise, stand up, sit down, give, and take. And hopefully we also learn self-restraint. Hopefully we learn about fighting and resolving without violence.
My prayer this holiday season is for humanity to outgrow its dysfunctional bloodlust. I wish that we could learn to internalize the fight, like the yogic monk I met. I wish that we would learn to fight only cognitively, in ways that celebrate difference, not traumatize entire cultures and generations. I wish that we would learn to access the deeper meaning of the Bhagavad Gīta – because in the end, when you get down to the bare bones meaning of existence, the lasting victories can only ever be the internal ones.
Please check out my mini course, Visioning a Bright New Year: A Guided Journey.