Among the religious texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is the most revered one. Literally presented as the word of God, the Bhagavad Gita enjoys a stature similar to the Bible or the Koran. Like all scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita also can be read, not merely as an act of devotion, but as a philosophical discourse as well. It presents a philosophical stance in understanding the world, which forms (for those from India) the basic and fundamental assumptions in dealing with life, and the unknowable reality around them. In fact, it is more than just assumptions and hypotheses; it is the basis of commonsense handed down from generation to generation. It is the foundations of intellect, which form the instinctive and emotional understanding of reality that is assimilated before logic and cannot be touched or analyzed with rationality. They are the mythos that trump logos every time.
But what are these foundational assumptions? Since I presented them as the “mythos” that came from grandma’s tales and folk songs, and since I am from India, I only need to look within myself and list my own pre-intellectual notions. So, here is what I understand to be the philosophical stance put forth in the Bhagavad Gita.
- Every living being has a soul, which is indestructible and the “real” thing. The body is something that the soul wears like an attire. Death is no big deal, it is just the event at which the soul decides to discard the decaying body.
- Universe also has a soul, which is the big soul (as opposed to the little souls that inhabit living organisms). This universal soul, to all indents and purposes, is God.
- The little souls and the big soul are not really distinct. The little ones are like droplets and the big soul the ocean.
- Salvation is when the little soul merges with the soul of the universe, when the little droplet returns to the ocean. It is the state of being one with everything, and is a state of eternal bliss.
- But salvation is not easily attained. Most little souls are doomed to go through the cycle of life and death countless times, through the process of reincarnation.
- Life is not a welcome form of being, salvation is.
- Paths to salvation are
- Taking care of your duties
- Pious and ritualistic practices
- Intellectual understanding of the monism of reality
- The notion of “duties” is a bit murky. It boils down to a circular definition of morality, respect for elders etc. But it is generally taken to be something that everybody knows or should know.
- Intertwined with this picture is the notion of two separate realms of reality — the absolute and unknowable reality on the one hand, and the perceptual and sensed one on the other. For my own reasons, I’m absolutely in awe of this notion.
This is a beautiful picture of the way the world is, what we are made up of, our spiritual self etc. Of course, it is all presented as the word of God, and is not open to any kind of intellectual or rational discussion. In my intellectual moments, I don’t believe in soul. I believe my sense of selfhood, self-awareness, consciousness, mind etc. are all an epiphenomenon, a tag-along to the physical body that is really the only me. But then, mythos exist beyond intellect, and in my irrational moments, I find myself wanting to believe that there is something more to it all. That these moments I lived through, the things I have known and done, and the memories I have created all have a substantiality beyond an epiphenomenon; that they won’t just disappear like tears in rain. Sadly, my rationality always wins.