One of my first memories of picking up The Bhagavad Gita happens to be what I learned in Stephen Mitchell's prologue to the sacred text itself. In it, he mentions that Gandhi considered this epic poem to be "my mother...my eternal mother."
But as a rebellious teenager, I scoffed at this: I would sooner eat the paperback edition I was reading than ask my own mother (despite being a meditation and dharma teacher) for spiritual wisdom!
My first few attempts at reading The Gita were a massive turn-off. I had a strong aversion to being told what to do and how to live, especially from a man's perspective. But with maturity and deeper exploration, I buddied up to its words of wisdom on life’s most pressing questions: Who am I? How should I live? What is my purpose? How can I be free?
Rather than Gandhi’s own relationship to the text, however, my decades-long connection to The Bhagavad Gita has been more like my relationship with my best friend. Like a sidekick who has your back no matter what, wants the best for you, and gives you tough love when you need it, I’ve turned to The Gita’s teachings time and time again to bail me out of trouble, talk me off the metaphorical ledge, and dole out non-judgmental advice through life’s ups and downs.
The Bhagavad Gita is an epic poem told through an intimate dialogue between a warrior named Arjuna and his chummy mentor, Krishna. Set on a battlefield, an epic family feud erupts and Arjuna has a crisis of faith as he realizes he must destroy his own relatives (spoiler alert: this is a metaphor for the forces of good and evil). Throughout the text, he turns to Krishna to help him shed light on the right action to take.
In Chapter 6, Verse 5, Krishna serves up some tough love to Arjuna:
"Uplift yourself by yourself, do not deprecate yourself. For only you are your only friend, and only you are your own foe.”
Just like a pep talk from a trusted best friend, we’re urged to take personal responsibility to live in alignment with our highest Self - instead of bowing to false idols of fear, anger, and destructive patterns.
This dialogue is also a metaphor for the conversations that take place between the Ego and the Self within our daily human lives. Arjuna symbolizes the Ego and Krishna the Self. In this way, these teachings become relevant in every moment of our lives when we are called to make challenging decisions. As many of us know, there can be no fiercer battle than the one within. We do have to fight, the question is, how? The teachings in The Gita are ultimately an encouragement of befriending ourselves, discovering who we are and our purpose, or dharma, through practice.
Here are some key slokas, or verses, that deepened my connection to the text, my practice, and self:
In chapter 6, Arjuna asks Krishna about taming his meandering mind, calling it “...restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly it must be as hard to master as the wind.” Without skipping a beat Krishna responds, “You are right, the mind is hard to master but with consistent practice and detachment, it can be reached in the end. Yoga is indeed hard!”
This thoughtful encouragement has been essential to me and my relationships with my friends and teachers who have validated my struggles in my life and on my spiritual path without brushing off my apprehension, or feeding me platitudes. This acknowledgment has served as the greatest inspiration for how I teach, from my own lived experience on the cosmic battlefield! There has been no greater gift than being able to hold space for others to undergo their greatest challenges and support their process through encouraging a devoted practice and sacred surrender.
In the final chapter, Arjuna is about to follow Krishna’s advice to go into battle. Krishna counsels him, “Better to live one’s own dharma imperfectly than to master the dharma of another perfectly, which will bring about great suffering.”
I find these teachings especially poignant now as we are all called to practice svadhyaya, or self-study, to understand how we individually play a role in systems of inequity. The Gita calls on us to look at ourselves honestly so that we don’t shrink back from our duties, responsibilities, and calling to act. Like my own bestie of thirty-seven years, the spiritual text calls me out on my BS, which is a relationship I can trust. It doesn’t placate me with platitudes or bypass challenging feelings and conversations. And it illuminates for me how to navigate my battles in especially challenging times.
My dog-eared copy has been by my side offering counsel especially in the past few years as I’ve experienced heavy grief - from the pandemic’s impact on my studio, to the passing of my beloved sister. The book’s messages provide comfort in reminding me of who I am, not what I do or what I have, as I lost so much. The Gita sheds beautiful light even on death itself as I strengthened my connection to my soul no matter what the external situation. It’s encouraged me to stand up and fight against injustice with my head held high, aligned with my deepest integrity:
"Just as, in the body, the Self passes through childhood, youth, and old age, so after death it passes to another body.
Physical sensations, cold and heat, pleasure and pain, are transient: they come and go; so bear them patiently.
The sharpest sword will not pierce it, the hottest flame will not singe it; water will not make it moist; wind will not cause it to wither.
It cannot be pierced or singed, moistened or withered; it is vast, perfect, and all pervading, calm, immovable, timeless.
If you understand it this way, you have no need for your sorrow."
So grab your copy of The Bhagavad Gita and let’s step bravely onto the cosmic battlefield of daily life where the eternal battle for authenticity and justice continues. And with this bestie by our side, let’s commit to fighting for the light.