Why atheists can learn from The Bhagavad Gita
How an ancient Indian text offers lessons for the battlefield of life
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the oldest and most sacred texts of all religions. The title of this epic tale translates roughly in English to “Song of the Spirit” or “Song of the Divine”. It tells the tale of a dialogue between Krishna (who acts as an avatar for “the preserver” of the Universe Lord Vishnu) and Arjuna, a warrior-cum-disciple. Famously set on a battlefield — seen as an allegory for the “battlefield of life” — for years, scholars have debated over its’ interpretation. Even pacifists such as Mahatma Gandhi have, despite it’s theme being focused on war, found ways to interpret the Gita as a text that promotes nonviolence; a term he referred to as Satyagraha.
The influence of the text, including in Judeo-Christian societies, is massive. Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th Century German philosopher, was known to frequently read both the Gita and another somewhat more abstract, famous Hindu text the Upanishads — the latter of which he called “the production of the highest human wisdom”. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the nuclear bomb, found the Gita to be a useful heuristic to base his life upon, famously borrowing a line from it upon the detonation of the first nuclear bomb:
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Discovering The Gita
My own personal discovery of the Gita came, somewhat like Schopenhauer, as an Agnostic-Atheist with a penchant for Buddhism. The appeal for Buddhism was that it didn’t focus on worshipping any deity in the sky — a belief I’d spent my life trying to distance myself from — and seemed, at least initially, somewhat less metaphysical than other religions. I didn’t buy into their doctrine on karma or reincarnation (I still don’t), but The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths on suffering and why we suffer, after going through much suffering myself, greatly resonated with me.
Being a big fan of atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and to a lesser extent Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett, it’s a wonder why the Gita ever seriously appealed to me. I’d just finished spending the year teaching English in Taiwan; the place where Zen Buddhism became a big interest of mine. I’d also just finished reading Hitchens’ “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, appropriately, and somewhat ironically, lent to me by an Austrian Buddhist monk. I found the book to be typical of Hitchens: dry, witty, erudite, and incredulous.
I was busy making plans to travel around South Asia, with the end goal being a trip to India. I went to a bookstore in Taipei before my flight and serendipitously stumbled across Barbera Stoler Miller’s translation of The Gita; an essential for any trip to India, I thought.
Life lessons from The Gita
After leaving Taiwan, I found myself at a secular Vipassana 10-day meditation retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One rule, asides from having to spend the entirety of the retreat in silence, was that we couldn’t bring in any books to read. Feeling slightly rebellious, and due to it being one of the smaller books I’d purchased in Taipei, I smuggled in the Gita.
After painstakingly trying to read the somewhat esoteric and not particularly insightful first few verses, I proceeded to the Second Chapter – which really serves as a great summary for the whole book. I distinctly remember a verse Krishna states to Arjuna jumping out of the page to me, which I’ve memorised to this day:
II, 47: “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action, avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction! Perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success- this equanimity is called discipline.”
However one chooses to interpret this particular verse is entirely up to them. For me, it resonated purely due to my constant focus on goals rather than the path leading to the goal: the product rather than the process. Within this passage I realised my own constant struggle through focusing largely on end goals, for which I had no idea what the outcomes would be, and learned to turn my attention instead to focusing solely on the actions themselves.
XV, 5: “Free from pride, lack of discrimination, those who have conquered the error of attachment, focused always on the Self, having completely turned away from desires, freed from the dualities called pleasure and suffering, the undeluded reach the undecaying, eternal Truth.”
The term “Self” is used here to refer to our non-egoic “higher Self”. I interpret this as meaning that by turning within to who we really are beyond our human conditioning, to our primordial awareness, we overcome the burdens of life such as suffering, and turn away from corporeal pleasures and desires which give us only fleeting experiences rather than true, lasting happiness.
XIII, 27: “(S)he who sees the Self, residing equally in all beings — the imperishable among the perishable — sees clearly.”
A powerful quote that reminds us all not of our differences, but of our innate sameness. Seeing that same unconditioned “Self” or “awareness” within us all allows us to see beyond apparent differences such as race, gender, nationality —something that many would do well to take heed of in a society with an ever-increasing amount of xenophobia. It also suggests, without any spooky implications of past lives or reincarnation, that whilst our material bodies may be “perishable”, there are fundamental non-material qualities amongst us that are wholly “imperishable”.
V, 26: “The pure calm of infinity exists for the ascetic who disarms desire and anger, controls reason, and knows the Self.
Shortly followed by…
V, 28: “Truly free is the sage who controls her senses, mind, and understanding, who focuses on freedom and dispels desire, fear, and anger.”
We could all do with a little control over our emotions from time to time. Fear isn’t used here to imply that we should dispel our evolutionarily encoded fears — like preventing ourselves from stepping off cliffs. It implies that we should dispel less useful, perhaps less rational fears, such as ones we’ve carried over from childhood that no longer serve us, or a fear that migrants are going to come and take our jobs away from us. Calmness is a virtue, and thus one who masters their own emotions and reason can truly appreciate its “infinity”, fully knowing their true, higher “Self”.
The Atheist’s Dilemma
A disbelief in creationism or religious idolatry should not detract from an atheist’s interest or appreciation for the wisdom of the Gita. I no longer consider myself as atheist, or even agnostic (although I’m certainly closer to the latter). I lost convinction in my atheism in favour of realising I could never begin to understand or know the meaning of the cosmos. But I also fail to consider myself as Hindu, or Buddhist, or a believer. Instead, all I can admit is that “I don’t know”. It is this great “not knowing” which any true skeptic, or believer, should be willing to put their hands up, in awe, and admit.
Hitchens and the likes tore down my perception of religious institutions. I peeked and saw the man pulling the strings behind the curtains, à la The Wizard of Oz. I agree with Hitchens that religion really does “poison everything”, to quote the title of his book; just how many more wars must be committed in the name of God? Books like Zen at War demonstrate that even so-called “peaceful” religions such as Buddhism have had countless wars held in their name, and have frequently had their doctrines twisted to suit political agendas. Religion, well and truly, has failed.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Truth comes not from any external religion or creed, but from what one realises through deeply and thoroughly examining themselves and their relationship with the world. The Indian yogis and the author(s) of the Gita stumbled across these truths many thousands of years ago. The fact that there are still lessons to be learned from them in the 21st Century shows that they were prescient.
This symbolic tale of duty, attachments, and discipline – themes which are all expounded upon in its’ chapters – demonstrates timeless nuggets of wisdom that can be appreciated by anyone, irrespective of religion. If Secular humanism, for example, is a model that atheists can appreciate based on its moral values, then I feel the Gita can serve a great purpose in helping secular society live up to those values; regardless of it’s perceived religious status. It has inspired nonbelievers such as Schopenhauer, and it continues to inspire many more to this day.
The Battlefield of Life
The Gita can make as useful a companion for any appreciator of wisdom traditions or life philosophies as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, or the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. One need not be religious or spiritually inclined to appreciate any of these books inasmuch as one needs be an atheist to appreciate Sam Harris or Hitchens. Why I think it’s important for how we live our lives, however, is for the same reason as Oppenheimer did: the wisdom contained within it is timeless, and applicable to any epoch.
Contemporary, secular society could still benefit greatly from the messages held within it’s pages, and should not disregard a text geared towards helping people wake up to their true, unconditioned nature and purpose simply by virtue of it being considered a “religious” text. The “battlefield of life” and it’s myriad struggles is ceaseless and applies to us all. It is for this reason that the Gita is a staple in my own life; a trusted, valuable source and friend I turn to frequently. I strongly hope and believe it can continue to do the same for many others to come.
P.S. I strongly recommend translations by Swami Sivananda, Swami Gambhirananda, and Barbera Stoler Miller.