The Fundamental Role of Discipline in the Bhagavad Gita’s Moral Teachings
The Bhagavad Gita presents a unique system of moral teachings that characterized the “…sociopolitical and religious reality of South Asia…” in early first century AD (Flood, Martin, pg. xiii). It involves an interaction between two characters: Arjuna, a powerful warrior, and Krishna, a supreme deity who acts in human form. Arjuna faces a challenging dilemma when he perceives that his duty as a warrior will eventually lead him to slay his kinsmen who fight for his enemies. Krishna uses this conflict to remind Arjuna of the importance of fulfilling his prescribed duty, also referred to as his dharma. The idea of dharma is a foundational aspect of Krishna’s teaching throughout the Bhagavad Gita. A person’s dharma dictates the way they must act and varies depending on their social class. It is not limited to mere completion of responsibilities but rather extends to the individual’s mindset and intentions as they act upon their tasks. To achieve the highest form of dharma, the individual must focus on action alone without becoming attached to its consequences or results. Krishna emphasizes this teaching by encouraging Arjuna to disregard the impending deaths of his kinsmen and to concentrate on his job as a warrior. The ultimate goals of fulfilling dharma without attachment include a deep relationship with Krishna and eternal purification. As Krishna states, “One who, in acting, consecrates / all of his actions to Brahman / shed of attachments, is unstained / like a lotus leaf by water” (5.10). While dharma is the ideal of human behavior, it cannot be achieved without the consistent exercise of discipline. As a fundamental element of the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings, discipline involves both physical action and mental detachment from action’s results as a means of achieving liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.
The practice of discipline begins with physical action. As demonstrated by Krishna’s dilemma, a person’s dharma may include tasks that they find challenging to complete. It is in these situations that discipline is paramount, driving the individual to prioritize their duty over their emotions. They must accomplish their tasks regardless of their feelings. In addition, discipline in action is a defining quality of one’s daily behavior. Krishna outlines a model for disciplined behavior throughout the Bhagavad Gita. According to his teaching, a disciplined person is “…solitary, lightly eating / controlled in body, speech and mind, / meditating, doing yoga, / finding refuge in dispassion…” (18.87). As they practice these things, they achieve the highest form of discipline by dissolving all attachment to their actions’ effects. This is defined as “…karma yoga: the practice of detached action rooted in virtue in which the results of that action are surrendered to God” (Flood, Martin, xii). Based on this reasoning, an individual’s actions serve as a means of glorifying Krishna and fulfilling dharma, rather than achieving a goal. Acting according to the practice of discipline plays a crucial role in this process. As Krishna tells Arjuna “One disciplined by higher mind / here casts off good and bad actions; / therefore, be yoked to discipline; / discipline is skill in actions” (2.50). Man learns this skill by consciously practicing action without thought for attachment and by fighting against his natural tendency to derive motivation from external results. Krishna continues to reiterate the importance of discipline in action throughout the text, stating that “…he whose mind controls his senses, / who undertakes the discipline / of action by the action-organs, without attachment, is renowned” (3.7). In this manner, discipline acts as the virtue that leads man to a purified form of physical action. Therefore, as man practices it through action, he is able to more fully detach from his work’s consequences and legitimately fulfill his dharma.
In addition to physical action, discipline extends to the activity of the mind. Krishna acknowledges the steady stream of thoughts that compete for man’s attention. However, he teaches that these distractions must be ignored because they often lead to attachment to action. Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains that the mind is often a wild scene where a person’s perceptions of their external reality challenge their core convictions. If discipline is employed, then these perceptions will be subdued and redirected in a positive manner. Krishna explains the practice of mental discipline by counseling Arjuna that, “When, unvexed by revelation / your higher mind is motionless / and stands fixed in meditation / then you will attain discipline” (2.53). Discipline, for the purpose of gaining wisdom, is practiced by keeping one’s mind in a harmonious state of equilibrium where these perceptions have no effect on mental processes. This discipline is not man’s natural predisposition and thus requires concerted practice. As Krishna states, “…having utterly restrained / the many senses by the mind, / Gradually let him find rest, / his intellect under control, / his mind established in the Self, / not thinking about anything” (6.24-25). He emphasizes yoga as the best form of mental exercise in which man consciously works to focus his thoughts on a single point. By using discipline to train his mind, man draws closer to Krishna and learns to absolve all attachment from his works. Mental discipline complements physical discipline, and both depend upon the other in order for man to advance in his process toward eternal purification.
Discipline of the body and mind yields eternal rewards despite the obstacles that oppose it. The first benefit is the ability to know Krishna more deeply and to establish a stronger bond with him. By learning to exist with a steady mind detached from action, a person shifts the focus of their desires and decisions toward Krishna. This leads to discipline’s second reward: advancement in the process of eternal purification. This process occurs through the cycle of reincarnation where man dies and is reborn until he reaches a state of perfection. Discipline is the key to liberation from this cycle because, as Krishna states, “…having freed oneself from ego, / force, pride, anger, lust and grasping, / serene and without selfishness, / one is fit for the absolute” (18.53). Through a perfected practice of discipline, a person advances toward a state of unchanging existence. This in turn grants them the reward of experiencing Krishna more completely. Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, “Liberation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara)…” defines the ultimate goal of existence: to assume an absolute, rather than transient, state of being (Flood, Martin, xviii). This goal is only accomplished through discipline of the mind and body. The two primary rewards of discipline, union with Krishna and absolute existence, form the pinnacle of man’s life. Thus, the value of these rewards merit the effort one must exercise to attain them.
An argument may arise that perfect discipline in unattainable in the context of day-to-day reality. In their occupations and relationships, people face situations that may cause them to feel “…anger, fear, and passions…” (2.56). These emotions are the obstacles that Krishna deems as detrimental to the practice of discipline. Many individuals appear to be trapped in a dilemma: avoid these feelings or fulfill their dharma which may cause these emotions to arise. Because everyone’s dharma differs, not all people are granted the luxury of the yogi lifestyle, one in which duty includes secluded meditation and constant prayer to Krishna. In contrast, a majority of people are called to more common occupations as peasants, warriors or merchants. In these roles, emotions often run high: the peasant feels frustration over his servitude, the warrior experiences the passion of battle, the merchant becomes excited after making a hefty profit. In light of the correlation between these occupations and emotions, the discipline that Krishna commands may seem unrealistic.
However, Krishna refutes this argument by stating that the differing natures of people’s duties are not preventative to the practice of discipline. As he teaches, “By worshiping with one’s own actions, the Origin of all Beings by whom the cosmos is pervaded, perfection is achieved by man” (18.46). He recognizes the differences that arise as certain classes act according to their dharma. Discipline, as he explains, can still be practiced in these situations if a person surrenders his actions as a form of worship. Krishna illustrates this through several examples. In the case of the peasants, he teaches that they may exercise discipline in the midst of their “Plowing, trade, and cattle-herdings…” by releasing their connection to their work and replacing it with a mindset of worship toward him (18.44). This applies to other classes of people, including the warriors who must use their “Valor, majesty, firmness…and lordliness…” to glorify Krishna rather than themselves (18.43). In the midst of action, Krishna commands his followers to work with their minds fixed upon him while absent from attachment to consequences. In this manner, they master perfect discipline and advance toward absolute purification.
Demonstrated throughout the Bhagavad Gita, discipline is a fundamental element of Krishna’s teachings on how his followers must think and act throughout their lives. The practice of this virtue involves both the external action of the body and the inner thought processes of the mind as man accomplishes his dharma. Krishna teaches this through the counsel he offers to Arjuna as he faces his battlefield dilemma. In the midst of a tumultuous world, the obstacles to maintaining discipline are high, including the forces of emotion, passion and tension. Nonetheless, regardless of a person’s position in life, discipline can always be practiced by absolving all attachment to action and using it as a means of glorifying Krishna. Through discipline, man is released from reincarnation and enters into eternal union with Krishna. This virtue leads to the greatest of all rewards. As Krisha teaches, one “whose senses, mind and intellect / are firmly fixed upon release / shed of desire, fear and rage / will soon attain bliss forever” (6.28).
Flood, Gavin, and Charles Martin. “Introduction.” The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. Norton Critical Edition. Trans. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin. New York: Norton, 2015. vii-xviii. Print.
The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. Norton Critical Edition. Trans. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin. New York: Norton, 2015. Print.
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