In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is a warrior general who is about to give the signal for the beginning of a great battle. The forces of justice, of which side he is one of the main supports, are against forces of oppression who are nevertheless assisted by some great and noble men, bound by their vowed loyalty to the King. When they took the oath of loyalty the king had been a virtuous man, but his tyrannical son had effective control so these loyal men still felt bound by their pledge.
So Dharmas, the right courses of conduct, can conflict. Arjuna has committed himself to this battle and others have come in reliance on his promise. Suddenly, when he looks at the opposing sides, sees how many of his friends, revered seniors and teachers are among those who will almost certainly be killed, he loses his resolution. He suddenly thinks, “Isn’t it wrong to kill? Wouldn’t it be better if I just renounced fighting and became an unresisting monk, perhaps killed on the battlefield. Or walk off and live by begging? In fact, anything rather than be engaged in this sinful slaughter.” He appeals for help to his charioteer who is in fact an Avatar, the god Krishna, and the teaching that Krishna finally gives him constitutes the text called the Bhagavad Gita.
The main three points of the Gita’s instruction given to Arjuna are:
(1) learn to be independent of the events of the world, not rejoicing when they go your way, not cast down, frustrated and crushed when they go against you – become independent.
(2) Practice meditation on God, practice samadhi.
(3) Perform your duty but be independent of the results. There are other places in the Gita that say that one should perform those right actions with full enthusiasm but surrendering the results of them to the Lord, making no claim on those results.
Arjuna accepts this, or seems to accept it, and at the very end of the Gita the Lord says, “Well you have heard the truth. You were committed to fight but then you decided it was unspiritual to do so. Now do as you like. Still, if you decide not to fight, as matter of fact your nature as a warrior will force you to fight. You may think you could walk away from the battlefield but the moment you see your brothers wounded, rage will overcome you and you will dash back into the battle. You will fight.”
Where is Arjuna’s choice? He has been told, “Do as you like”, implying a choice. Now he is told whatever you decide to do you will fight, your nature as a warrior will make you fight. So where is the choice? Why does the Lord say, “Do as you like”? Why doesn’t he just say that Arjuna will fight, compelled by his nature?
This is a vivid example from the battlefield but it applies to us in daily life. Am I compelled by my nature to do this or that or the other? Is it really, “You can’t go against nature”? These things are of vital importance to us in daily life. Have we got choice or not? Now just to bring this into focus, hear an example from an entirely western tradition. It’s from one of Leibniz’s dialogues:
In ancient Rome, Sextus Tarquinius is a young man who has the chance of becoming king. And Jove, a God in heaven, remarks, “Yes he will become King, he will be a tyrant, the Romans will rise in rebellion and they will throw him out. Then he will gather an army and they will attack Rome. Horatius will defend the bridge gallantly and help to repel the attack. Thus will Sextus fail and die in disgrace.”
Sextus comes to hear of this prophesy by Jove and he gets an audience with him. He says, “Am I free to choose whether to be king or not?” Jove says, “Yes, you are free to choose.” Sextus replies,
“But I am not free to chose; you have already said what is going to happen, that I am going to be King, a tyrant King, that the Romans will expel me but I shall try to get back, and I will lose and die in disgrace. You have already bound me.” And Jove says “No you have choice,” But Sextus says again, “No I haven’t got choice; you have already said what is going to happen. How can I have choice?”
This seems a dilemma but here is Leibniz’s solution: Jove says to him, “Well, all right, don’t become King. Give up your claim to the throne, retire to your estate in the country. You will dig there, find a treasure which will make you a very rich man, you will be able to do great good to the whole area and you will die honoured and revered. Choose, then I will arrange it.” Sextus thinks, and then says, “No, I will be king but I will be a righteous king. I don’t have to be a tyrant. I will be a real king.” So Jove says, “Well, you have chosen, have you not?”
Sextus is installed as king and though he wants to be righteous in fact he becomes tyrannical. And what happens? The Romans expel him, he tries to get back and he dies in disgrace. Now did he or did he not have choice? He thought he had choice; he thought he had the choice of not becoming a tyrant king – he didn’t choose that – he chose to be a righteous king, but he didn’t know his own nature. Jove saw clearly that if he became King he would be intoxicated with power and he would become a tyrant. So because he didn’t know his own nature his apparent choice was really no choice at all.
Now going back to the Gita. To fight or not to fight? Choose. But your nature as a warrior will force you to fight. But there is a third alternative: if as you walk away you see your brothers wounded, you will charge back into battle and fight as a warrior impelled by fury. Instead you can fight as a yogi: calm, efficient as a warrior but not attached, not bound by the results, and worshipping with the living consciousness of the Lord in you all the time.
Arjuna decides to fight but not in fury. By learning to know and control his own nature he could fight as a yogi. So the conclusion from both the East and the West is that largely we are bound by our nature. But when we come to know what that nature is, we are no longer bound by it. In meditation we can come to see the nature not as ourselves but as an object, something connected to us but not as ourselves. Then we can have true freedom of choice, and only in that way can we become free.
Determinists say that you are bound by present events, by your nature and past events. This is largely true – until we come to locate by meditation an internal clarity which gives freedom.
Then we can have real choice.
© Trevor Leggett