The Songs of the Master
Oriental Department, September, November, 1896 & January, 1897
In the Bhagavad Gita, first translated and best known of all the Sacred Books of the East, there is much of profound value for all readers; and, besides this readily recognized worth, there is much of high historical and literary interest, which is very often passed over; there are, in every chapter, two or three verses which, if fully understood, would open up doors to the antiquities of India, in many departments of philosophy, religion, tradition. These things make up the atmosphere of the book. Seen without this atmosphere, the Bhagavad Gita has still a high and universal value; but seen with its atmosphere, its interest is doubled.
We hope to take up these passages we have spoken of, one by one; to show how they open doors into the world of long ago; and to make visible what may be seen through these doors. To begin with the title. It has been paraphrased in a dozen different ways, but every time one characteristic fact has been forgotten. In the original, the title is quite certainly in the plural, not the singular, pointing to the tradition that it contains a collection of Krishna’s teachings which, for artistic completeness, have been grouped together in a single work. Here is the complete title, according to the Indian tradition: The Blest Songs of the Master, the Secret Teachings, the Science of the Eternal, the Scripture of Union, the Conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Now it seems to us, and we shall in due course try to show why, that each of these titles, taken in reverse order, marks a stage in the growth of the book, which began as a record of the Conversation of Krishna the teacher with Arjuna, and ended as a perfect allegory of the mysteries. We shall point to the passages which show the lines of division between the various layers of the completed work and thus, after other passages already referred to, as of special interest, have been commented on, it will be found that a rich atmosphere surrounds the whole series of the Songs, and that, when this atmosphere is understood, the whole work will gain greatly in value and interest.
One of the most natural questions, which it occurs to every one to ask, on making the acquaintance of the Bhagavad Gita, is, where it comes from. The answer which one generally finds, in the introductions to our translations, is, that it is “an episode of the Mahabharata,” and sometimes we are further told that it is found in the Bhishma Parva. Now let us see what that answer means. Everybody knows that the Mahabharata is a huge epic poem, extending to something over two hundred thousand lines, and most people know that hardly more than a tenth of this vast bulk is concerned with the actual story of the Pandus and Kurus. The rest is made up of traditions, legends, sermons, and all kinds of picturesque details, dragged in without any particular reference to the actual course of the narrative, just as there are all kinds of diversions and episodes in the Arabian Nights. The story of Nala and Damayanti, for instance, is told to furnish a moral on the evils of gambling, and we have a brief narration of the wanderings of Rama and Sita, introduced on an equally slight pretext.
The whole great cycle of legends is divided into eighteen Parvas, or books; and the sixth of these, as being chiefly concerned with the death of Bhishma, is called the Bhishma Parva. This Bhishma was the uncle of the two brothers Dhritarashtra and Pandu; the former of whom was the father of the Kurus, the latter, the father of the Pandus. So that one may say that Bhishma was grand uncle to both sets of rival princes. There is an element of doubt about all these relationships, because princes were in the habit of coming somewhat irregularly into the world, and, when their ostensible parents were not to be revealed, they were discovered to be the children of various gods and goddesses. Princesses who happened to have sons born before their marriages, invariably accredited their parentage to the gods, or, sometimes, to celebrated saints. Finally, the mother of the Pandus was Krishna’s aunt; and thus the great teacher became involved in the fortunes of the war.
The story of the intrigues that led up to the war is too long to tell suffice it to say that Bhishma was to lead the Kurus, against Arjuna and the four other Pandus and their allies, including Krishna. The narrative of the battle, or rather, the series of battles that made up the great war, is told in rather an artificial way, though it was originally based on bardic traditions, of which we have already said something. Dhritarasthra, the father of the Kurus, was blind, and so took no part in the war, but stayed at home in his palace. His servant Sanjaya had received the gift of unlimited vision, and was thus able to watch the development of the battle and to record the conversations of the combatants, down to the most minute details, without leaving the side of the blind master.
In this way, he relates at very great length the first few days’ fighting, and the death of Bhishma. When Dhritarashtra hears that Bhishma has fallen, he exclaims, with tragic sorrow: “My heart must be of stone, for it breaks not on hearing of the death of Bhishma!” It is here that is recorded a wonderful astronomical occurrence which is relied on as fixing the date of the war: “The seven large planets, as they appeared in the firmament, all looked blazing like fire.” This conjunction of the five planets, the sun and moon, took place, it is calculated, just five thousand years ago. It is worth noting that, before his death, or rather, before receiving his mortal wound, he exclaims: “To die of sickness at home is a sin for a Kobaltriya. The death he meets in battle is his duty forever.” A sentiment like this is the motive of Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna, which we know under the title of the Bhagavad Gita. It is led up to in this way: After hearing of Bhishma’s death, Dhritarashtra asks his long-sighted servant Sanjaya which of the warriors first advanced to the battle? whose hearts were full of confidence? whose were overtaken by fear? Sanjaya replies, that both armies advanced full of courage, and begins to describe the movements of the charioteers, their banners and armor. Then Dhritarashtra asks the question which now forms the first two lines of the Bhagavad Gita, and Sanjaya replies.
Thus it will be seen that the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, at any rate, flows quite naturally from the preceding events, and the first chapter, with its martial pictures, is exactly in the spirit of much that has gone before. In the same way, after the eighteen chapters which make up the Bhagavad Gita are ended, the story goes on unbroken, and we are told that, when Arjuna, reassured by Krishna, once more took up his bow, the Pandus and their allies broke out in cries of exaltation, and blew a note of defiance on their sea-born conches. “And drums were beaten, and horns were blown, and the uproar was great.”
Thus the story of Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna was evidently, in the beginning, an organic part of the whole legend; what portions of the whole teaching have evidently been added, we shall have to consider, later on.
Very much has been written, well and wisely, concerning the inner meaning of the Master’s Songs, and the life of the warrior of the chariot, his mystic bow, and his divine companion. Yet it would seem that our first understanding should be that almost every event and instruction in these songs, and in the vaster cycle of verses where they find a place, is the echo and record of some actual occurrence, which happened among the sons of men, as wars and rumors of war happen today. We find some difficulty in gaining a true and vigorous grasp of these old happenings, since even what is most actual and earthly among them is always wrapped about in myth, as with a half-transparent veil, which gives us elusive glimpses, that confuse rather than reveal.
But these allegories are not very difficult to understand and unravel, and we cannot do better than illustrate this than by recounting some of the stories that are told of Arjuna, beginning with his miraculous birth. His mother, as we know, was Kunti, the wife of good King Pandu; but we are told that Arjuna and his brothers were sons of immortals, the father of Arjuna being Indra, king of the gods. Here is a myth to interpret, and the interpretation seems to be this: the “father” seems to be an old veil for a former birth; the “mother” for the “works accumulated” which give the new birth its form. Thus one of the just men made perfect who returns to the world is born miraculously of a “virgin mother,” and a “celestial father”; pure of works, that is, and from a past birth that had already reached divinity. This myth, then, of Arjuna’s sire being Indra, would mean that Arjuna had already been a king, a potent soul, born to sway the destinies of others. Here is the prophecy of Arjnna’s future greatness:
“As soon as the child was born, a voice bodiless, loud and deep as the thunder-clouds, filling the heavens, spoke clearly to Kunti, so that all who were in the dwelling heard it: ‘O Kunti; this son of thine will be equal in might to the War God, in valor to the great Transformer. Unconquerable as Indra himself, he will spread thy fame throughout the earth. As the god, the Pervader brought great joy to the All-Mother, so shall this son bring great joy to thee. Subduing the peoples of the south, the Kurus and many kings, he will uphold the greatness of the line of Kuru. This mighty hero, overcoming all the weaker kings of the land, and his brothers with him, will offer three great offerings. First of all men of valor, he will gain far-reaching fame. His heroism will gain the praise of the Transformer, the god of gods, who will give him a mighty celestial weapon. This thy son, mighty in arms, will slay also those dark powers whom they call the enemies of the gods. Weapons from heaven will he receive, and potent among men, restore the fallen glory of his race.’”
Thus the prophecy. It has been well fulfilled, for the name of Arjuna, long famous in his own land, has now been carried into the ends of the earth, five thousand years after the Mighty War of the sons of Bharata. He witnessed, and bore a mighty part in, such convulsions, wars, and race-renewals, as, perhaps, we are destined also to see, as the great time-circle brings in its revenges. From the ashes of the great war a new era arose, an era darkened by evil ambition in spiritual places. It may well be that now, in the fulness of time, that dark ambition to enslave the souls of men shall be cast down and overthrown. And with the name of Arjuna, known in every land, may once more be restored, after conflict and strife, the fallen glories of our race.
At the teaching of the youth, it is recorded that:
“in skill, and strength of arms, and perseverance, Arjuna surpassed all who learned with him. And the teacher of war, seeing that his pupil was greatly devoted to arms, summoned the cook, and thus secretly commanded him: ‘Never give Arjuna his food in the dark, nor let him know that I had ordered this!’ But after certain days, when Arjuna was eating, the wind rose fiercely, and the lamp was blown out. But Arjuna, undaunted, went on eating, in the darkness. And thereupon, noting this, and bethinking himself, the strong-armed son of Pandu set himself to practice with the bow, even in the night. And the teacher of warriors, hearing the twanging of his bowstring in the darkness, came to him, and folding him in his arms, spoke thus to him: ‘Verily, I shall teach thee that whereby there shall not be a bowman like unto thee, throughout the earth.’ Thereafter, the teacher of the warriors began to instruct Arjuna in the art of fighting on horseback, or mounted on an elephant, or in a chariot, or on foot. And the mighty warrior also taught Arjuna to fight with the mace, the sword, the lance, the spear, and the javelin. And he also taught him to fight with many weapons, and to meet many in the fight at once. And hearing the fame of his knowledge, kings and princes gathered together to the teacher of the warriors.”
Many other stories are told of Arjuna; of how a dark-skinned prince of the people of the hills shot better than he, and how the teacher, jealous for Arjuna’s honor, very treacherously persuaded the hill-man to cut off his right thumb, so that he should shoot no more; of how Arjuna excelled all the other pupils in shooting at a vulture on a tree, because the other pupils saw the vulture, the tree and the teacher, while Arjuna saw the vulture only, and of the vulture the head alone, and thou wholly intent on his aim, surpassed the others; of how his skill with the bow saved his warrior-teacher, who, bathing in the Ganges, had been seized by a crocodile. And they tell how, at a mighty contest of the princes, when the ladies of the court had assembled in the seats round the arena, decked with much gold and pearls, after songs and music had made all hearts glad, Arjuna entered in golden armor, his quiver full of arrows, shining like a cloud lit up at sunset. And Kunti, seeing the glory of her son, was moved to tears at the sight of him. And Arjuna, now in the chariot, now on the ground, shot well and skillfully, striking the swiftly moving iron boar, and sending thrice seven arrows into the hollow of a horn, swinging freely from a rope. And from these lesser conflicts grew in the end such jealousy and hate as afterwards rent the kingdom in two, and kindled the flame of the War of the sons of Bharata.