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“Lord of Discipline” says Arjuna to Krishna in the Tenth Teaching of The Bhagavad-Gita, “how can I know you as I meditate on you?” This is a paradoxical question. It would seem the only way to “know” Krishna would be to “meditate” on him. This is even truer for the reader who, by reading, is mediating on Krishna and who, by meditating, is trying to come to terms with his divinity. Inverting the question makes for a more sensible inquiry, at least on the surface: “Krishna,” says my hypothetical convert, “how could a man come to know you if he does not meditate on you?” Merely by posing his strange question, Arjuna suggests that, indeed, there is some way to find Krishna without meditating on him. And further, that meditating on him is, somehow, an impediment to knowing him.
If meditation impedes knowledge, then a profounder paradox is raised for the Bhagavad-Gita as a whole. It becomes impossible to understand the story of Krishna and Arjuna simply by virtue of the fact that one is reading it. The work prohibits a knowledge of the work. Or, if Arjuna’s question is interpreted as meaning how can he know Krishna at the same time as he is meditating on him, and if perhaps his investment in meditation will at some later time yield the divine knowledge he seeks, then at the very least the reader is deemed incapable of understanding Krishna while he is in the process reading.
For Arjuna as for the reader, contemplation (or “meditation”) is both necessary and unethical. It is contemplation that allows for an understanding of Krishna. But while one is engaged in contemplating Krishna, one cannot act out one’s dharma, which is defined in the Bhagavad-Gita as to “perform necessary actions.” Therefore contemplation, a form of inaction, precludes one from implementing Krishna’s central teaching.
This chicken-and-egg problem runs through the Bhagavad-Gita, and begs the question: What is the value of contemplation? Krishna makes clear that Arjuna must not retreat from battle. But in revealing the infinite glories of his divine nature to Arjuna’s eyes, he rewards the “coward” for his “petty weakness.” He rewards Arjuna for merely contemplating his dharma, and in a sense rewards him for defaulting on it. To use a modern term, the Gita very much “problematizes” contemplation.
Asking his question of Krishna, Arjuna addresses him as the “Lord of Discipline.” Arjuna learned the meaning of “discipline” (or yoga) in the Sixth Teaching, in which Krishna said:
Know that discipline, Arjuna,
Is what men call renunciation;
Nno man is disciplined
Without renouncing willful intent.
A few stanzas later, Arjuna sums up the lesson, saying, “You define this discipline / by equanimity.” Thus when Arjuna asks Krishna, “How can I know you as meditate on you,” he is asking it of one who is the Lord of equanimity himself, the very nexus of renunciation, who fills the void that is left when all has been renounced.
“Discipline” has a second meaning. Towards the end of the Second Teaching on “Spiritual Discipline,” Krishna says,
Disciplined by understanding,
One abandons both good and evil deeds;
So arm yourself for discipline-
Discipline is skill in actions.
The idea of “abandon[ing] good and evil deeds,” is the same as the equanimity alluded to above. But the idea of “arm[ing] yourself for discipline” introduces the connection between discipline and action (an action which is, in this case, fundamentally violent: “arm yourself”). “Discipline is skill,” or exactitude, “in actions.”
A full definition of discipline encompasses both renunciation (or equanimity) and action. The seeming contradiction between renunciation and action is easily reconciled:
Always perform with detachment
Any action you must do;
Performing action with detachment
One achieves supreme good.
Understanding “detachment” here as equanimity, the idea of “discipline” becomes clear: it means both the renunciation of the “fruit” of action and the studied practice of performing a necessary action.
If Krishna is “Lord of Discipline” it cannot mean merely that he is capable of achieving his own standard. It means, rather, that as god he is the entity to whom “discipline” should be consecrated, like any other sacrifice one makes. As Barbara Stoller puts it in her glossary, discipline is “the yoking of oneself to Krishna’s divine purpose.” Rephrasing Arjuna’s question in light of this definition, it reads something like: “Lord of renunciation and pure action, how can I know you while I am engaged in contemplating you, which shows that I have neither renounced my attachments nor am acting purely?” It is no wonder that Krishna never answers the question; phrased as such it cannot be answered.
To further unpack Arjuna’s impossible question requires an examination of “knowing.” Miller defines “knowledge” in such an ambiguous and general way that the concept barely retains any meaning. She writes that it is, “a nonconceptual, spiritual knowledge of transcendental reality.” Her definition even uses the word “knowledge” to define “knowledge,” which makes one wonder what exactly a “nonconceptual spiritual knowledge of transcendental reality,” could possibly refer to, besides itself.
In the Fourth Teaching of Miller’s translation, Krishna seems to posit an equally obscure definition, if one chooses to call it a definition at all, of knowledge:
Faithful, intent, his senses
Subdued, he gains knowledge;
He soon finds perfect peace.
Knowledge is the state one arrives at once one has gained knowledge. Knowledge is initially gained by being “faithful, intent,” and having “senses subdued.” Perfect knowledge is implicitly equated with “perfect peace.” To “know” Krishna is therefore, in essence, to have perfect peace. This is because knowing Krishna would mean that one would necessarily have perfect knowledge, since Krishna is “the source of everything, / everything proceeds from [him].”
Arjuna’s question now reads like this: “Lord of pure action, how can I attain perfect peace as I meditate on you?” What Arjuna must mean by “meditate” is to struggle with the questions that Krishna raises. To struggle with such questions means that Arjuna cannot have attained perfect peace, as he is struggling. The answer, then, is a categorical no. Arjuna cannot attain perfect peace while he is struggling with such notions as perfect peace.
It may seem as if this is the point with which this paper began. But teasing out the exact meaning of the question’s words serves to raise the issue of the relationship between action and peace, or action and knowledge. This is most clearly the central issue that the author of The Bhagavad-Gita wishes to address. It is the question that Arjuna faces most directly and distinctly. Arjuna is stuck in between two armies, in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Krishna slowly reveals to him the nature of god and truth and duty for the express purpose of motivating Arjuna to fight-for the right reasons. Arjuna must come to “know” those reasons-the truth-in order to “act.” But if one “knows,” it has been shown that one is in a “perfect peace.” If one is in a state of perfect peace, how can one go off and fight a battle? Peace would seem to be opposed to battle. Of course, Krishna dispels with this false dichotomy in Teaching after Teaching, perhaps most eloquently in the Fourth Teaching:
A man who sees inaction in action
And action in inaction
Has understanding among men,
Disciplined in all action he performs.
Arjuna, who eventually sees “action in inaction”-might he, by learning from Krishna, be said to engaged in a sort of inaction of action? Sitting there, against his dharma, defaulting on his most important duty, and listening quietly in awe to the god from whom everything proceeds and through which everything is disposed-this is the epitome of inaction, meditation, contemplation. Yet might this inaction be counted as action, inasmuch as it eventually leads to it?
This kind of easy resolution to the question Arjuna poses, that I keep returning to, and that Krishna never answers, is suggested only by what the text seems to want to convey. Certainly it would be convenient if there were an analogy to be drawn between inaction/action and meditation/knowledge. But there seems to be little textual support for the claim. In fact, there is one stanza which directly refutes the easy resolution I just attempted:
But men intent on me
Renounce all actions
And worship me, meditating
With singular discipline.
“Meditating” here, once again, leads to a renunciation of “all actions,” including those actions which are mandated by one’s dharma. Again, the question of whether or not Arjuna can attain the supreme state of being by meditating on Krishna seems resilient to the kind of answer that the text requires in order to justify the text’s own existence.
One textual clue, however, does come at the end. Sanjaya, the secondary who theoretically witnessed the events of The Bhagavad-Gita and shares them with the reader, says at the end:
Where Krishna is lord of discipline
And Arjuna is the archer
There do fortune, victory, abundance
And morality exist, so I think.
What is so striking about this closing stanza is the phrase “so I think.” It opens up the possibility that the author of The Bhagavad-Gita did not expect to wholly convert the reader in a single reading, even though Arjuna is converted over its course. It allows for subjective readings of the text, as “I think” implies that people are entitled to disagree. And as each reader has a subjective reading of the text, he is actually incapable of perceiving Krishna as Krishna actually is. Only Arjuna can, because Arjuna could see Krishna. Seeing is, perhaps, more real than meditating.
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