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Right action for you depends on your conditioning || Acharya Prashant, on Bhagvad Gita (2020)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
20 min
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स्वधर्ममपि चावेक्ष्य न विकम्पितुमर्हसि ।।

धर्म्याद्धि युद्धाच्छ्रेयोऽन्यत्क्षत्रियस्य न विद्यते ।। 2.31 ।।

swa-dharmam api chāvekṣhya na vikampitum arhasi

dharmyāddhi yuddhāch chhreyo ’nyat kṣhatriyasya na vidyate

Even considering your own duty you should not waver (from the fight). Since there is nothing else better for a kshatriya than a righteous battle.

~Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 31

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Question: After explaining to Arjuna that he shouldn’t grieve for the embodied beings in verse 31 of the 2nd Chapter of Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna says, “Even considering your own duty, you shouldn’t waver. Since there is nothing else better for a Kshatriya than a righteous battle.”

Being born into a Kshatriya clan, fighting represents Arjuna’s conditioning and training, and what he has become good at. Is there any role of conditioning in discovering one's duty or one's swadharma? Is adhering to one's swadharma the same as liberation?

Acharya Prashant (AP) : You see, Liberation is Dharma. To move to the point where one stands liberated alone is Dharma. But when we define ‘dharma’ this way, then we are talking of only one point, the point to which you have to reach. Right? We are calling that as the point of liberation. But nobody stands at a position called ‘no position’. We all stand somewhere, and wherever we stand, that point is actually a point of conditioning. Had we not been standing somewhere, there was no need to travel to be liberated.

You could consider the point of liberation as the origin (0,0), basic x-y coordinates. Thinking of graph paper, right? Can you see that? So liberation is at (0,0) origin. You have to go back to the very origin, where everything comes from. But where are you currently located? You are located somewhere. You have some coordinates (x,y), or if you take three dimensions, then (x,y,z). How many various kinds of coordinates are possible? Infinite. The (x,y,z) combo can take infinite values, infinite distinct values. Correct? Wherever you are currently located, from there you have to come to the origin. So, coming to the origin is Dharma, but Swadharma is coming to the origin from where you are. Therefore, each person, each (x,y,z) will have his own particular path to come to the origin. And that’s why it is called Swadharma, not just Dharma.

Swadharma means your Dharma.

Swadharma is not really different from Dharma, but Dharma merely says, “Come to the origin.” Dharma says, “Come to the origin, become zero. Come to the point where everything is dissolved, nothing exists; come to zero.” Dharma merely says that.

Swadharma clarifies things a little more. Swadharma says, “Yes, you have to come to zero, but you have to come from (4,5,8) (x,y,z).” So now things stand more cleared. So, from (4,5,8) you have to come to zero, and now you can find out a route. Obviously, the shortest route is the straight line. But maybe the configurations, the situations stand in such a way that a straight line is not even possible, so you figure out some other route, whatever it is. The thing is that now you know that you have to move from (4,5,8) to (0,0,0).

Arjuna too stands somewhere. Had Arjuna not been standing somewhere, then Arjuna would have been standing at (0,0,0); then there would have been no need for any Krishna or any Gita as Arjuna is already at the origin. But Arjuna is standing somewhere else. Where is Arjuna standing? Arjuna is standing where his body and the norms, and situations and the customs, and the conditioning of his time has made him stand.

So, Arjuna is standing at some particular place. Krishna has to take that particular place into account. Otherwise, he would just be talking theory that would not be of much use to Arjuna. So, Krishna not merely talks of Liberation, Krishna not merely talks of Freedom, he also keeps referring to Arjuna's Kshatriya clan. Because if you are really interested in covering a distance, you must know both the ends. Krishna must talk of the origin (0,0,0), and Krishna must also equally, seriously talk of (4,5,8) which is Arjuna's configuration at that point, Arjuna's coordinates. That’s why he repeatedly refers to Arjuna's Kshatriya caste.

Now, let’s say, Krishna is talking to somebody belonging to the other varnas. He would be advising everybody, irrespective of whether he is a Kshatriya, or a Vaishya, or a Brahmin, or a Shudra, to go to (0,0,0). But all would be advised to go to (0,0,0) starting from where they actually and practically are situated.

If you are standing at (4,5,8), you can't be told the same route that was told to someone who was standing at (2,3,11). If that route is suggested to you, you will never reach (0,0,0); you will fail, totally fail. So, now when he is talking to Arjuna, he is saying, “You see, over the passage of time in the game of Prakriti, in the entire play of Maya, you have become a Kshatriya’.

Now, all that is just a superficial thing. The entire Varna system has no depth; it is just a superficial arrangement made by man himself. But whatever it is, the thing is that it is taken as an identity statement by somebody like Arjuna—in fact, by all who were present at that time. They take their Varna identity as important.

So, now, since they take it as important, Krishna tells them that according to your Varna identity which is according to your present coordinates, this is how you should move to (0,0,0); you have to fight. If a Brahmin is there on the same battlefield, Krishna would advise him to resist the Kauravas, but in some way that is most suited to the Brahmin's own conditioning. If he tells the Brahmin to pick up the bow and arrow, or mace, and start fighting Duryodhana, then the war is lost already. So, the Brahmin will have to fight Duryodhana, no doubt, but in the way of the Brahmin.

The Vaishya and the Shudra too will have to fight Duryodhana, but in their own respective ways. What is important is, when you reach (0,0,0), then the Kshatriya is no more a Kshatriya; he comes to learn that all this varna and caste thing is some kind of a manmade joke. But when will he learn that? Standing at (2,4,8)? Standing at (2,4,8), he is taking his caste very seriously. He says, “I am a Kshatriya.” When will he be able to doubtlessly and convincingly say, “I am not a Kshatriya. I am not even a body; how can I be a Kshatriya?” When will he be able to say that? Only when he reaches (0,0,0). But to reach (0,0,0), he has to start from being a Kshatriya.

So, even to come to the point where Arjuna is no more a Kshatriya, he has to start from a point where he is indeed a Kshatriya. In a way, Krishna is using the Varna of Arjuna to bring him to a point where he is liberated from the Varna system altogether. But even to liberate him of his class or caste or conditioning, he has to start from where he actually and practically is standing right now. So, Krishna is doing something very wise and very practical at the same time.

When you come to that origin point, there is no difference between a Brahmin, a Vaishya, a Shudra, a Kshatriya, anybody; there is no difference between a man and a woman; there is no difference at all. Differences cease to exist. But in this world that we see all around us, first of all, there are physical differences of age, of gender, of race, and then there are social differences; caste, creed, ethnicity, nationality, religion; we live in a world of differences.

Even to bring someone to a point where he would be liberated of differences, you have to see what his current configuration is. If you are not mindful of his current configuration, then your attempts to help him will fail.

And Krishna is not someone who is going to fail, so he repeatedly reminds Arjuna that he is a Kshatriya. His identity is repeatedly evoked: “Arjuna, you are a Kshatriya and the Kshatriya must fight.”

Now both the things are at play here: Dharma, and Swadharma.

In what does Dharma lie? Dharma lies in fighting Duryodhana.

In what does Swadharma lie? Swadharma lies in fighting Duryodhana like a Kshatriya.

Let’s say, if a Brahmin was present at the battlefield, dharma would remain the same for Arjuna and that Brahmin. Dharma is to fight Duryodhana, because Duryodhana is representing adharma. So, Dharma is to fight Duryodhana, but Swadharma will be different. Arjuna’s swadharma will be to fight Duryodhana like a warrior, and the Brahmin's swadharma will be to fight Duryodhana like a scholar.

So, Dharma is the same for everybody, but Swadharma varies according to the kind of personality you have taken. According to your physical, social, temporal conditions, swadharma varies, but remember that Swadharma can never be in contradiction of Dharma; Swadharma will always be something within the ambit of Dharma.

Dharma is: fight Duryodhana. Swadharma is: fight Duryodhana with bows and arrows.

Why with bows and arrows? “Because, Arjuna, that's all you can do. What else will you do? Over the last 45 years, Arjuna, if there is one thing that you have learned—and there is only one thing that you have learned—is to fight. There is only one thing you have continuously practiced, which is your bow and arrow. So now that you have to fight Duryodhana, what other method or weapon do you have? You have only one excellence; there is only one thing that you know. There is only one way in which you can fight Duryodhana, which is your Kshatriya way, because there is no other way that you know. So, fight Duryodhana in your own way—that is Swadharma.”

Fighting Duryodhana is Dharma. Fight Duryodhana in the way you can, that is Swadharma.

अकीर्तिं चापि भूतानि कथयिष्यन्ति तेऽव्ययाम् ।।

सम्भावितस्य चाकीर्ति र्मरणादतिरिच्यते ।। 34 ।।

akīrtiṁ chāpi bhūtāni kathayiṣhyanti te ’vyayām

sambhāvitasya chākīrtir maraṇād atirichyate

People will also speak of your unending infamy. And to an honored person infamy is worse than death.

~Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 34

Q2: In verse 34 of chapter 2, Shri Krishna says to Arjuna, “People will also speak of your unending infamy and to an honored person infamy is worse than death.”

(Quoting from ŚrīRāmacaritamānasa)

हानि लाभ जीवन मरण। यश अपयश विधि हाथ।।

Haani laabh jeevan maran, yash apyash vidhi haath

“Loss-profit, life-death, glory-infamy all in the hands of destiny.”

At the time of King Dasharatha’s death, Guru Vashishtha says, “Loss-profit, life-death, glory-infamy all in the hands of destiny.” The two contexts are different. In the first, a warrior is being urged to act, and the second is on the occasion of the death of a king. But it makes me wonder about the connection of infamy with one’s actions. Does a righteous action need to be influenced by how the world will perceive it?

Also, when Krishna is urging Arjuna to remain equanimous in pleasure and pain, and life and death, then why does he ask Arjuna to consider infamy as worse than death, when such a consideration might disturb his equanimity?

AP: So, first of all, what is Shri Krishna doing? I suppose we have already answered it in the previous question. On the battlefield, the forces of darkness have to be fought. If Duryodhana occupies power, it is not going to be good for Hastinapur and the adjoining states, probably the larger part of the entire subcontinent. At least all the states that come within the influence of Duryodhana’s power will have to suffer.

Duryodhana has repeatedly displayed his proclivity towards injustice, corruption, fame, lustfulness, treachery, many kinds of evil. He is not at all an eligible candidate to occupy the throne, and that is the reason Shri Krishna is siding with the Pandavas. It is not about ensuring that one party gets its rightful claim on the throne. The issue is wider; it is about the entire population. Remember that Mahabharata is not an age of democracy. The king used to have unlimited authority. He was supposed to be a representative of God, and all that he did or said had to be respected, obeyed. In such situations, the personal disposition of the king towards Dharma, towards justice was very critical in determining the welfare or the disaster of an entire population. Give the population the right kind of king, and you have one kind of result, and give the population an evil king, and you have a totally different, disastrous result.

So, the question of who will be the king was a very crucial question in determining the very fate of Bharat. Therefore, sides had to be taken; therefore, Krishna had to really stand with and behind Pandavas to ensure that they win. Therein lay Dharma; fight Duryodhana. He is the mascot of evil right now. But who will fight Duryodhana? Arjuna. Is Arjuna a liberated person? No. Arjuna is very much a product of his time. Arjuna very much believes in his Varna or Caste identity very strongly. Arjuna is someone who is quite strongly attached to his family members; familial bonds matter a lot to him.

The Gita opens with the sight of Arjuna shivering, and trembling, and feverish, and refusing to pick up the Gandiva, because he cannot. He says he does not have enough power in his hands at the moment to even pick up his weapon. That is his state. Does it look like a state of some perfect person? No, not at all. Over his entire lifetime Arjuna had displayed normal human tendencies. Obviously he was a good human being, he had to be; he had befriended Krishna, he tolerated a lot. He was often seen fighting for the right cause, defending the right kind of people, but still he was more or less an ordinary mortal.

Now, such an ordinary mortal, let’s say a little better than ordinary, such a person needs to be roped in to fight against Duryodhana. Merely telling him that fighting Duryodhana is important for the welfare of entire North India would be no good. Those kinds of dharmic invocations would not matter so much to Arjuna. Arjuna is riled in his own inner battles, attachments, old memories, bonds of blood, such things. If Krishna were to just tell him, “Arjuna, fighting Duryodhana and killing him is important to uphold Dharma,” Arjuna would not fight. Arjuna is not Krishna; Arjuna is not perfect. Family matters are very significant to Arjuna: he cannot forget the insult meted out to Draupadi; he cannot forget that once he used to play in the lap of Bhishma. These kind of things, they are what are important and material to Arjuna. How do you just tell Arjuna, “Arjuna, get up and fight! We are crusading for dharma, no less!”? Arjuna would not budge. So, knowing very well what kind of a person Arjuna is, Krishna is telling those things to Arjuna that matter to him.

What matters to him? One of the things that matter to him is fame. So Krishna tells him, “You run away from the battle and you will be earning a lot of infamy!” Now, that matters to Arjuna. “That’s true, I cannot run away! I will be dishonored! Fine.” Tell Arjuna, “If you run away, it will be defeat of Dharma,” such argument will fall flat. Tell Arjuna, “If you run away, it will be your personal dishonor!”; this argument will work because Arjuna is Arjuna, a normal mortal being.

That however does not mean that fame is in reality something very important. That does not mean that fame has some kind of an absolute significance in spirituality. No, not at all. In fact, look at the danger. Krishna is using Arjuna’s predisposition towards fame to make him fight a war. It is just that the person right now advising Arjuna is Krishna. He will use Arjuna’s weakness to guide Arjuna towards a right thing. But what if it were not Krishna but somebody else, and that somebody else knew very well that Arjuna has a very high consideration for fame? Then he could say to Arjuna, “Arjuna, you lose your fame if you fight against your brothers and uncles and teachers and grandfathers; you lose your fame!” And Arjuna, fame conscious as he is, would be fooled into quitting the battle because of the fame issue. It is just that right now Arjuna is in the hands of Krishna—luckily in the hands of Krishna—so Krishna, even though he is using Arjuna’s weakness, he is using Arjuna’s weakness for the right cause. But what if by way of chance Arjuna were to fall in the hands of somebody like Shakuni? Then Shakuni would capitalize all of Arjuna’s weakness to turn Arjuna against Dharma.

So, you must understand that it is not at all right to harbor any such weaknesses. And having a soft spot for fame, being very-very desirous for name and honor, is a big weakness. Arjuna just somehow luckily is getting away with it; not everybody is going to be so lucky. Your hunger for fame will be used by the forces of mischief, to turn you to all the wrong directions. So don’t wait for that to happen.

You will not always be so lucky or so very discreet that your companion would be a Krishna. More often than not, your companions will be of the mischievous and unworthy kind, and they will use all your frailties, all your weaknesses against you and against Dharma. Don’t let that happen. Get rid of your weaknesses before they are exploited by cunning people.

Then, the first part of the question, the connection of infamy with one’s actions. The questioner is asking, “Does a righteous action need to be influenced by how the world will perceive of it?”

You see, it doesn’t need to be, but that’s the way we are. We are so thoroughly influenced by the world. While we are deciding about anything, whether or not to do it, the factor of honor, of fame, of perception, of social regard always somehow seeps into the equation. And many a times the question of fame and honor very strongly disbalances the equation; your decision totally changes. You might be making the right decision, but the factor of infamy starts weighing upon your mind, and then you flip; the decision changes.

The one who gives the opinion of others a lot of weightage, will obviously not be able to give the highest weightage to the Truth. Therefore, if you are really someone who aspires to live truthfully, if you are someone who doesn’t want to live blindly, semiconscious, then you have to be someone who has a healthy disregard towards the opinions of others. That doesn’t mean that you must not hear others out, or consult others; rather, that means that even if you are listening to others, your objective is not to gain something in the eyes of that person; your objective is to gain the Truth.

You could be listening to your neighbor for two reasons. One: if you listen to your neighbor, your neighbor will feel happy; if you listen to your neighbor, your neighbor will start thinking good things about you. That could be one reason. The other reason is, you are listening to uncover the Truth. And to uncover the Truth you are prepared to listen to anybody, but only to uncover the Truth. Otherwise people have no value.

And it is a very strong condition.

Let people have value in your life only in context of the Truth they bring to your life. Otherwise, what is the value of a body? Nothing. If there is someone who brings, really brings Truth to your life, he is someone to be listened to; heed his advice. And if there are people who are very full of their opinions and are very desirous of advising you, but their advice brings no Truth to your life, there is no need to waste your time listening to them.

So, do interact with others, do take feedback from others, do hear people out, do engage in meaningful conversations, but the objective has to be very clear—the objective must always be Truth; not the aggrandization of your ego; not the gratification of the other’s ego.

No petty objective should be there.

YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/2T28h0IL0Ng

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