Krishna then has to go beyond the conventional argument of dharma to explain its underlying form, importance, and how one is only distracted from it by the gunas which contribute to false understanding and the acceptance of illusion. In one of the most famous passages of the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna:
Whether the slayer thinks he slays. Or the slain thinks he is slain, both are wrong. There is neither slayer nor slain.
The soul is immortal, Krishna is saying, and so death is only an illusion. Death is discarding a body that no longer functions but it has nothing to do with the Higher Self of an individual, the Atman, which is immortal and, once it has shed the body, will return to its eternal home through union with Brahman. One must break free of illusion to recognize the truth that all things observable and unobservable are actually Brahman – all of the people in the armies facing each other on the battlefield are Brahman – all of the people of the country – everyone, everywhere – is Brahman. One is free to pursue right action in life once one understands the essential unity of all things.
This recognition encourages detachment from the seeming consequences of one’s actions. One must realize, Krishna is saying, that engaging or refusing to engage in a certain course because one is focused on the probable outcome is to be blinded by illusion which will cause one to fail in performing their essential duty in life. One must detach one’s self from the consequences of one’s action and focus on what must be done, no matter how seemingly painful, in order to play the part one has been given in the Eternal Order of the universe.
In Arjuna’s case, refusing to fight is refusing to do his dharma which means not only evading his responsibilities but denying the truth of the nature of existence. The battle must be fought because all the overtures and attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have failed. Those involved have all made choices which have brought them to Kurukshetra and battle; there is no way, at this point, that Arjuna can do anything other than fight, even if he does not wish to. Once Arjuna realizes this, he is at peace with what he must do, and the battle commences.
This dramatic situation, of course, applies to anyone in the same situation facing some difficulty they would prefer to avoid. An audience is comforted by the Gita in that if Arjuna could recognize his dharma and kill his friends, relatives, and former teachers, then whatever one may be facing in one’s own life should be much easier to bear.
There are many other aspects to the Gita than just the importance of dharma. Krishna’s speeches throughout 18 chapters illustrate the nature of the Divine, Divine Love, how an individual should respond, and how the universe is ordered. At one point, Krishna – who is an avatar of the god Vishnu – reveals himself as Brahman itself thereby showing how all the many gods of Hinduism are also Brahman in varied forms. Krishna also discusses the so-called Caste System (the varnas) which allows each individual to perform his dharma without distraction. The four varnas are:
- Brahmana varna – highest caste, teachers, priests, intellectuals
- Kshatriya varna – warriors, police, protectors, guardians
- Vaishya varna – merchants, farmers, bankers, clerks
- Shudra varna – lowest caste, servants, laborers, unskilled workers
Below the Shudras are the untouchables known as the Dalits, those who exist outside of the caste system.
In the Gita, the varnas are explained as open to anyone. Anyone whose dharma it is to be a teacher should be a teacher, no matter what social class they are born into. This vision was transformed into a legalistic system by the Laws of Manu (the Manusmriti) written in the 2nd century BCE – 3rd century CE, under which one’s caste determined one’s occupation and social parameters, but this was not the original vision of the Gita.
The emphasis of the Gita on devotion, knowledge, and right action in understanding and drawing near to God would seem to preclude a legal caste system which confines one to the social class of his or her birth. The Laws of Manu, however, sidestep this criticism by claiming that the caste system is divinely ordained and part of Universal Order. One has been born to a certain caste because of the karma of a past life which must be dealt with in this life because it was neglected before.
As noted, the Gita would inspire the religious movements which would come to be known as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, all of which – to greater or lesser degrees – emphasize the importance of devotion to a personal God, Higher Power, or Greater Good as central to their vision. The Gita has since inspired many others besides the famous Hare Krishna movement of the present day through the compassion of its message of Universal Love, emphasis on personal responsibility to one’s self and others, and the underlying unity of all living things.
The differences people note in each other – as well as the seeming tragedy of loss and death – are recognized as illusions, the Gita says, once one has moved past the acceptance of appearance to an apprehension of reality-as-it-is. In the end, all are a part of the essence of the Universe and can only begin to work toward this realization by first recognizing it as the truth. Among Hindu texts, the Gita is the fullest expression of this concept of the means toward self-actualization and liberation which free the soul from the illusions which cause suffering and reward one with peace in this life and union with God after death.