Lessons from Arjuna
I’m turning 61 in a week and like many of my peers near the same age, I am contemplating retiring. I wonder if I should stop teaching completely or fade slowly, taking a few years to taper off directing programs. I wonder if I can choose to transition away from teaching, or if a health condition or life event will make the decision for me. It is a big decision, and I’m doing what I imagine most of us do when preparing for a change. I imagine that I’m on the far side of the decision, and I look to see if I would be happy with what I decided. I will be sitting at my desk, working on a program outline and I will think, ‘How would I feel if I did not have this project?’ Would I be relieved and fall easily into another activity like taking a hike or reading a book, or would I feel as if I was falling into a bottomless abyss? Would I be happy to let the work go, or would I feel useless or trapped? In one of my pondering sessions a few days ago, I started to think about Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata.
There are hundreds of stories about Arjuna in the Mahabharata. And he plays a great variety of roles, usually wrestling with some ethical or life dilemma while providing us a spiritual seeker and role model. There are lots of stories, each with different answers, and I have picked a couple to explore here. My explorations and conclusions are valid but there are stories with different outcomes; you could easily pick your own answer and work backwards.
How to Work
There is a scene in the Mahabharata where Arjuna and his four brothers are receiving an archery lesson from their teacher Drona. With all of his students standing in line, Drona calls the oldest student, Yudhishthir to the front. Drona has placed a bird made of straw in the top of a near-by tree. He tells Yudhishthir to aim his arrow at the bird. Yudhishthir kneels and draws his bow. Drona asks him, “What do you see?” Yudhishthir replies, “I see the straw bird, the branch and the tree, the leaves moving and other birds.” Drona angrily shouts, “Get back in line!” Drona then calls Arjuna’s brother Bhima and asks him to aim an arrow at the bird. He then asks him what he sees. Bhima replies, “I see the bird, the sky, I see you and my brothers….” Drona cuts him off and shouts for him to get back in line. Finally, Drona calls for Arjuna to take aim. Drona asks him, “What do you see?” Arjuna replies, “I see the bird.” Drona then asks, “What else do you see?” “Nothing,” Arjuna replies. “Are you sure?” Drona asks. Arjuna replies, “I see only the bird–no wait, I see only the eye of the bird.”
Arjuna is a member of the warrior caste. I remember the few times I have been on an army base or in a police station, our modern equivalents of warrior caste hangouts. There is a seriousness in these environments. Not much happens there that is frivolous and everything is on some level a risk. There is an awareness here that peace or stability can be easily lost, and that awareness is not ignored as it can be in many other environments.
I interpret this to mean that we should focus strongly on those actions that are in alignment with our purpose and not be distracted by things unconnected from that purpose. There are several times in the text where Arjuna has to fight against an overwhelming number of opponents. We see him waver in the Bhagavad Gita, but he always rises to the occasion and fights as any knight, samurai or anyone else living by a warrior code would do. He fights as if the fight is the only thing in the world that matters. As yogis we live by values connected to spirit and purpose. We might each express them differently, but it is getting on the mat and doing our practice that defines us.
How to End Work
The Bhagavad Gita is based on the Sankhya philosophy. From this viewpoint the soul is a small portion of an over-soul that is eternal and pure. Our actions can sully the mind and ego but can never reach the soul. The soul is incapable of carrying thoughts and memories–these are held in the mind until we die. In describing the dying process, Sankhya teachers sometimes refer to how we feel when we wake up from a dream. As soon as we wake up we quickly see the dream as an illusion and feel little responsibility for the actions and feelings we held while in it. We walk away from the dream to be fully with what is before us.
Arjuna is taught to enter the battle and fight as if it was the only thing that mattered, but if he is killed he is to immediately drop the fight as if it had no importance at all. Anyone who has read the Bhagavad Gita may remember that Arjuna’s fear in taking on the fight is not his death, it is that he will lose his relatives. He will lose his relationships to people and things outside himself.
Most ghost stories are based on someone having such a strong experience in life of love, hate or some other emotion that their soul cannot let go. They continue to struggle with the situation after death.
What would it mean to be as focused on our goals as Arjuna was as a warrior, and be able to drop them completely upon dying, or any other way of leaving something behind and moving on? It would take a very special way of being and living. At the end of the Mahabharata epic, Arjuna and his brothers are climbing a mountain. One by one they die and are left behind by the others. The oldest brother Yudhishthir, alone reaches the top of the mountain without dying and is carried by a celestial chariot to heaven. When he arrives in heaven he sees that a big party is happening and all the soldiers who died in the battle are celebrating together. They have left the battle and all animosity behind and are celebrating their unity. Yudhishthir, who has not died, is in a world of duality and is very upset that soldiers who fought on the other side are celebrating with his soldiers who were, in his eyes, wrongly killed. He is upset even after the situation is explained to him, and has to go down into the underworld and experience a kind of death before he can let the battle go.
When we practice a pranayama or posture we are taught to be present to it as if it was the most important thing in the whole world. And then we leave it behind and move on to the next posture, practicing it wholeheartedly without looking back to the one before. I believe this is one of the most valuable lessons in yoga: to be fully present in what we are doing, but to leave it fully behind when we it is time to move on.
To be a yogi is to embrace the eternal part of us, but we find our eternal self by being present to the little things in our lives that take effort to see. We may language it differently and practice it in a variety of ways, but what makes us yogis is being present with what we find on the mat, experiencing it fully, and then moving on to the next experience.