The Gita in Lent VI
Cambridge, MA. As a comparative theologian, I can affirm that Holy Week is incomparable. The last days of Jesus, his last supper and his passion and death, can be revered as without any exact parallel in other religious traditions.
So it may seem that here finally we will need to leave behind the Bhagavad Gita, which we have visited over and again during Lent. (Find here last week's reflection, and at its end, to the prior ones.) But this is not the case, for even if the scene Christians contemplate this week is beyond compare, we ourselves still struggle to make sense of what we see; and to see and make sense, we must know who we are, seeing ourselves with a detached gaze. Jesus is in a certain sense incomparable; we are not. And so, even this week the Gita still instructs us.
How? I will return to the issue several times in the days to come, but let’s begin with the famous analysis, in Gita 3, of the downfall people suffer due to desire, a craving in the wrong direction for the wrong things that, when frustrated, flames up in anger and violence. Near the end of Chapter 3, Arjuna asks Krishna,
But by whom is a person impelled, even though unwilling, and, as it were, constrained by force, to commit sin? (3.36; adapted from the old Talang translation)
Krishna in turn traces the downward spiral, stating the root cause of our troubles is
desire, it is anger, born from the quality of passion; it is very ravenous, very sinful. Know that this is your foe in this world. (3.37)
Desire, it seems — as the first chapters of the Gita keep telling us — is a craving that diverts our attention from the simpler, interior goods that satisfy us spiritually. As a supplementary reading in the critical edition of the epic adds, “This is the subtle supreme foe of embodied beings caught in their senses. It persists, seated in what seems to be a web of pleasure, deluding (everyone), Arjuna. Made of desire, anger, this foe is terrible…” (Feuerstein translation, Shambala 2011, slightly adapted.)
Desire shrouds us and blinds us, so that we cannot see our way, nor even see who we are, ourselves:
As fire is enveloped by smoke, a mirror by dust, the fœtus by the womb, so is this enveloped by desire. (3.38)
Krishna therefore appeals to Arjuna:
Arjuna, first restrain your senses, then cast off this sinful thing which destroys knowledge and experience. It has been said, ‘Great are the senses, greater than the senses is the mind, greater than the mind is the understanding. What is greater than the understanding is this (foe).’ (3.41-42)
Strong, sharp action has to be taken, not strking out at others, but in cutting through the enemy within:
Knowing this which is higher than the understanding, and restraining yourself by yourself, Arjuna, destroy this unmanageable foe in the shape of desire. (3.43)
Why is desire anger? It seems that when we cannot get what we want, it seems, desire turns into anger; when we do get what we want and see how foolish we were, desire turns into anger.
Krishna is offering a strong and simple analysis (so simple of course as to require further analysis, in light of many other Gita passages) of what drives us off course, into a downward spiral.
In turn, the Gita then offers a way — just one way, but a real way — to read the Passion narratives, to discern what’s wrong with the leaders, the soldiers, the rulers, the apostles, and the crowds, that so suddenly, completely, they forget who Jesus is, so that all they want is his death. His goodness and truth expose and shame their desire; shamed, thwarted, their desire flares up in anger, erupting in ugly violence. The exultation and triumph of Palm Sunday are suddenly forgotten, and so too what it means to be God’s people awaiting God’s joyful arrival. They can no longer see who he is, or who they themselves truly are. So they kill the one who showed them their better selves.
As I said at the start, the Passion and Death of Christ are incomparable events, at the heart of Christian faith. But I suggest that the Gita’s wise words – on our loss of self-knowledge, our wrong-headed lurching in the wrong direction, our anger – can shed light on how it was — and is — that people just like us can do terrible things, such as killing the Christ.