The Gita in Lent II
Cambridge, MA. In promising to offer more or less weekly reflections on “the Bhagavad Gita in Lent,” I had imagined staying with chapter 2, which I sampled briefly in my first entry earlier in the week; I am sure I will return to it. But it is also valuable to stay closer to the rhythms of Lent, and more particularly, to the Sunday readings (Year B). How can we read the Gita on Sundays?
Consider this week, the Second Sunday of Lent, with its two fearsome mountains: Abraham goes to the mountain with Isaac, ready to sacrifice his son at God’s frightening command:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:1-6; NRSV)
In the Gospel, Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and is transfigured before them:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9.2-8; NRSV)
We are given then an ascent into a blinding darkness, and an ascent into a blinding light — both ascents fall into the mystery of God, at the fragile borderline between earth and heaven, life and death, death and what we do not know, beyond death. Abraham, already shown to be a man of faith, is tested further, even to a scandalous level; the three apostles, still early in their learning the ways of the Master, have no idea what is going on, either on the mountain, or in coming down from it; yet they will remember this moment, a manifestation of who Jesus is, suddenly and in the midst of the “ordinary flow” of his ministry; and Jesus himself hears and sees too clearly, in that light, his own coming death. We, in Lent, are asked to be ready at least to climb these same mountains — remembering, recollecting our darkest and brightest encounters with God, and readying our souls, should we be called to such encounters once again. Yet how can we relate to such rare and overwhelming scenes?
This is where the Gita comes in, to help us rethink what such scenes are telling us. Of course, there is no mountain here: Krishna’s teaching takes place on what is presumably a level field, ideal for a staged battle. Yet Arjuna, the warrior who faces a spiritual crisis just as the battle is to begin is entering deeper and deeper into the mystery of his own self, the changing, unreliable, and violent world of ours, and what Krishna, whom he thought he knew, is really like. At every level, the mystery of living and dying, living across the abyss of death is impressed upon Arjuna. Twice in the Gita, the drama diverges from instructive words, Krishna’s teaching, to existential scenes closer in feel to those of Genesis and Mark.
In chapter 1, Arjuna is horrified by where his duty might lead him, the slaughter of his teachers and kin, his triumph by way of a bloody war, or death in that same war — he faces the horror at the core of the warrior’s destiny, his duty as a warrior. Using here (for copyright reasons the old Talang translation, free online):
Seeing these kinsmen, O Krishna! standing (here) desirous to engage in battle, my limbs droop down; my mouth is quite dried up; a tremor comes on my body; and my hairs stand on end; the Gandiva (bow) slips from my hand; my skin burns intensely. I am unable, too, to stand up; my mind whirls round, as it were; O Keshava! I see adverse omens; and I do not perceive any good (to accrue) after killing (my) kinsmen in the battle. I do not wish for victory, O Krishna! nor sovereignty, nor pleasures: what is sovereignty to us, O Govinda! what enjoyments, and even life? Even those, for whose sake we desire sovereignty, enjoyments, and pleasures, are standing here for battle, abandoning life and wealth-preceptors, fathers, sons as well as grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, as also (other) relatives. These I do not wish to kill, though they kill (me), O destroyer of Madhu! even for the sake of sovereignty over the three worlds, how much less then for this earth (alone)? (Gita 1:28-35)
Everything in the Gita follows from his vulnerability at this opening moment.
In chapter 11, Arjuna is shocked again, but only after asking to see Krishna as he truly is:
O highest lord! what you have said about yourself is so. I wish, O best of beings! to see your divine form. If, O lord! you think that it is possible for me to look upon it, then, O lord of the possessors of mystic power! show your inexhaustible form to me. (Gita 11:3-4)
The vision begins mildly enough, but soons overwhelms Arjuna, who cannot bear to see his Lord face to face. He prays:
Seeing your mighty form, with many mouths and eyes, with many arms, thighs, and feet, with many stomachs, and fearful with many jaws, all people, and I likewise, are much alarmed, O you of mighty arms! Seeing you, O Vishnu! touching the skies, radiant, possessed of many hues, with a gaping mouth, and with large blazing eyes, I am much alarmed in my inmost self, and feel no courage, no tranquility. And seeing your mouths terrible by the jaws, and resembling the fire of destruction, I cannot recognise the (various) directions, I feel no comfort. Be gracious, O lord of gods! who pervadest the universe. And all these sons of Dhritarashtra, together with all the bands of kings, and Bhishma and Drona, and this charioteer's son likewise, together with our principal warriors also, are rapidly entering your mouths, fearful and horrific by (reason of your) jaws. And some with their heads smashed are seen (to be) stuck in the spaces between the teeth. As the many rapid currents of a river's waters run towards the sea alone, so do these heroes of the human world enter your mouths blazing all round. As butterflies, with increased velocity, enter a blazing fire to their destruction, so too do these people enter your mouths with increased velocity (only) to their destruction. Swallowing all these people, you are licking them over and over again from all sides, with your blazing mouths. Your fierce splendours, O Vishnu! filling the whole universe with (their) effulgence, are heating it. Tell me who you are in this fierce form. Salutations be to thee, O chief of the gods! Be gracious. I wish to know you, the primeval, one, for I do not understand your actions. (Gita 11:23-31)
Krishna responds by a still starker revelation of his divine identity, all contained within him:
I am death [death], the destroyer of the worlds, fully developed, and I am now active about the overthrow of the worlds. Even without you, the warriors standing in the adverse hosts, shall all cease to be. Therefore, be up, obtain glory, and vanquishing (your) foes, enjoy a prosperous kingdom. All these have been already killed by me. Be only the instrument, O Savyasacin! Drona, and Bhishma, and Jayadratha, and Karna, and likewise other valiant warriors also, whom I have killed, do you kill. Be not alarmed. Do fight. And in the battle you will conquer your foes. (Gita 11:32-34)
Of course, as last week, much more needs to be said about these scenes, how life and death, killing and being killed are presented and interpreted in Genesis, in Mark, in the Gita. If you’ve never read the Gita, you need to read more of it than given here! And throughout these readings, ethical issues abound, and the images of God in all three readings are puzzling. And we must ask: what do the rawest and most frightening experiences have to do with growing spiritually, as we are called to do in Lent?
Certainly, we learn that such growth is not necessarily tame and reassuring: the word, vision, call of God can ask of us more than we can possibly give or even comprehend: we fail, faint, collapse, seem to die in the dark and the light, that God might lead us beyond our capacities. Or least we need to be ready to be an Abraham or a Peter — or an Arjuna.
And so there is a wilder kind of piety put before us in Genesis and Mark, the risk of a very dangerous Lent indeed. Holiness is not for the timid. If the Gita – study Chapter 11 in particular – helps us to feel anew the unsettling power of these Sunday readings, our Lent, with the Gita, will be progressing nicely.