Which People are “Ours,” or Our “Own Men” [or Family]?
(this blog is recorded on the full page: quick time player needed)
I was listening to a lecture by my guru, Shrila Prabhupada, on the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and I wanted to share some of his points, my reflections on them, and other related ideas. Sometimes this chapter is skipped over, or we recommend newcomers begin reading the second chapter, since that seems to be where the real spiritual philosophy of the soul begins. Besides (we may think), the first chapter has so many difficult to pronounce names of people we don’t know anything about, speaks of foreign social customs, and begs the question of how a spiritual book takes place on a battlefield. However understandable such a perspective might be, it misses the important concepts and teachings of this chapter, which are fundamental to understanding the whole book. Although some prep time is required to help a person navigate this chapter, it is well worth the time.
The book is based on solving Arjuna’s (and all thoughtful people’s) dilemma regarding life, death, family, suffering, and duty. We are given the whole problem of material existence in the first verse, and later verses spoken by Arjuna. These verses speak about “my” and “our” in terms of those one favors or wants to protect, based on family, bodily relations. King Dhṛtarāṣṭra was affectionate to his own sons, or as he says, “mamakah” -- my party (sons), whom he differentiated from the sons of Pandu, or the Pandavas like Arjuna. On the basis of his bodily attachment to his sons, or seeing through his “skin disease” lens, he and his sons committed so many atrocities against the Pandavas, seeing them as “other”. This finally culminated in the great battle of Kurukshetra which is the background of the Gita. In later verses Arjuna, after taking note of the opposing army which was composed of many of his kinsman, relatives and teachers was unable to execute his duty, thinking of the death of those dear to him. He saw them as “his own men” or family (sva-janam – kinsmen] and thus couldn’t imagine living in their absence.
After speaking about Arjuna’s confusion, Prabhupada raises the question, “Who are really our ‘own men’?” Although we all have important family responsibilities, it is important to keep in mind that we are all part of the greater family of God. As souls we are related to the same Father, or Source, and thus we are spiritual family beyond our skin type, or bodily dress. Part of the process of spiritual enlightenment—which means waking up to our real, eternal identity—is to understand that while covered by a temporary body, we are the animating principle, or everlasting soul. Material vision divides people on the basis of their body and mind, whereas spiritual knowledge and its realization unite everyone by showing our divine commonality and spiritual, everlasting connection. Without spiritual understanding we will always revert back to “own-menship” (a word Prabhupada coined), or evaluating people or things in relationship to our physical relationships or location—my wife, my husband, my children, species, gender, house, team, college, country, planet, etc. My, my, my! Where we find our “mys” we find our material identity, or “I”, which means our material attachments. Such attachments bind us to persons, places, and things, which perpetuates continuing in the cycle of reincarnation, or birth after birth in various temporary bodies.
The fact that Arjuna is both praised and criticized for his not wanting to fight the battle can be confusing and requires explanation. Generally, his reluctance to fight is spoken about as simply due to his materially attached vision of who he thought his family was. He didn’t want them killed, since he couldn’t imagine being happy without sharing his life with such well-wishers and close family. His attitude demonstrates how material attachment brings one distress or suffering and can cloud one’s understanding of spiritual truth and duty. On the other hand, his reluctance to see anyone killed, even the opposing party—however justified his cause—shows his natural compassion and humility as a devotee. He was pious and well versed in dharma (religious codes), and was astute enough in his apparent impasse (which caused his reluctance to fight), to understand that there was no material solution. He had to take the matter before a qualified spiritual person or guru, who in this case was Krishna, or God Himself, to solve his bewilderment. In some editions of this chapter it is referred to as the “Yoga of Despair,” since his despair is so essential to the speaking of the Truths of the Bhagavad Gita. For all of us, overcoming our despair, intense sadness, suffering, or depression, can hold the key to our progressive life and spiritual awakening. Life is full of clues, if we are educated spiritually.
We learn from Arjuna’s example that every soul has the necessity of accepting a guru, if they want to make a comprehensive solution to the real problems of life—of birth, death, old age, and disease. These four items are the summary of our material entanglement and are unnatural for the eternal soul. We all want life to be joyful and permanent, but by nature it is problematic and tenuous. To facilitate our awakening we need to be spiritually educated through studying and applying the wisdom of the Gita, as well as having a process of purification. Purification means to cleanse the dust from our heart (compared to a mirror) so we can see our real self and God. Chanting the maha-mantra (the Hare Krishna mantra), and engaging in the process of bhakti yoga, are especially recommended in this age as the topmost yoga and meditation. Their practice will help us connect to our divine happy life—a life of giving, loving, and celebration in relationship to the service of Krishna. When we see, and gradually realize our family members and all living beings as the family of Krishna, this changes everything. Krishna is within everyone’s heart, and is the basis of all things.