The Bhagavad Gita, Bagger Vance and Me

I I loved the movie. But I'd read and loved the book, The Legend of Bagger Vance long before the film came out. I recommend it all the time. It's a golf book, and a golf movie, on the surface. But it's really a life book, and a life movie. In the story, Bagger Vance is a mysterious caddy, who in reality just might be the latest reincarnation of Krishna, the god-like Hindu Ultimate, Master of all that is. In the guise of a seemingly simple servant, helping a talented golfer, who has lost his swing, to prepare for a big match, he guides and enlightens one man in an unforgettable way.

The Legend of Bagger Vance came to mind this week as I was reading the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu holy text, cover to cover, for the first time ever, on airplanes to New York City and back home. The now popular golfing tale, it turns out, is a sort of retelling of this great text. In the Bhagavad Gita, a great leader, Arjuna, is preparing for a battle he doesn't want to fight. He asks his Charioteer to drive him out to the middle of the field that stretches between the two armies about to clash, and surveying it all, loses all heart for the battle. He then asks his driver for advice. The driver gives him an ear full, and then a heart full, and finally a mystical vision, of Reality. The driver, it turns out, is the ideal philosopher, and in fact, Lord of all Creation, Krishna himself, incarnate and incognito.

Years ago, I was once at a dinner with a number of executives from a well known accounting and consulting firm. One of them said to me, "Tom, you travel the country and meet all sorts of people. Who are the great philosophers in America right now?" I replied, "You really want to know?" "Sure," she said. I just smiled really big. "OK. Some of the best philosophers in America right now are the towncar and limo drivers in big cities all over the country." My interrogator looked surprised. "Really? Why do you say that?" I took a sip of water and said, "These are people who see the human condition in all its extremes - at funerals, weddings, celebrations of all sorts, in preparation for stressful business meetings, on a "Girls' Night Out" and in all sorts of places. They drive celebrities, politicians, CEOs, and ordinary folks on extraordinary occasions. They are most often with people for at least thirty minutes, an hour, an entire evening, or even days at a time. They talk to their customers, they listen, they see the good, they endure the bad, and then they have time to think about what they've just experienced, as they wait at the airport for their next arrival. You wouldn't believe the number of drivers who have told me that they could write a book about human nature that most people would find it hard to believe."

So here I am, three years later, reading The Bhagavad Gita, and I discover that the whole book is a dialogue between a leader in the ancient world and - his driver. And I came to realize this on a trip whose high point for me, other than the two speeches that I had such fun giving, took place between Philadelphia and Manhattan in conversation with my driver. I could write a book about what I learned from my driver that day, but let me concentrate here on a few lessons from what Arjuna learned from his. I'll be quoting from the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with a few minor emendations of my own, in keeping with his own renderings. Numbers after lines of the poem refer to page numbers in this translation.

Arjuna is talking with his driver about his own hesitations concerning the upcoming battle. But the conversation soons turns to issues of life in general. The driver, Krishna, wants Arjuna to be the right sort of man, a man of action with the right attitudes. He says at one point:

Know what your duty is
and do it without hesitation. 53

There are two themes here. One involves a concentration on determining what is our distinctive duty, on what it is that we ourselves as individuals ought to do, given our talents, our skills, and our opportunities. In another place, Krishna says:

It is better to do your own duty
badly, than to perfectly do
another's; you are safe from harm
when you do what you should be doing. 68

We are most likely to encounter harm when we are doing what we should not be doing. And often this takes the form of trying to do what is more appropriate for someone else to do.

The second theme in this initial remark concerns confidence - doing our duty without hesitation. He adds later:

Ignorant men without faith
are easily mired in doubt;
they can never be truly happy
in this world or the world beyond.

Therefore, with the sword of wisdom
cut off this doubt in your heart;
follow the path of selfless
action; stand up, Arjuna! 79

Follow the path of selfless action. Here is a third theme, an idea implicit in Krishna's conception of duty, and one that becomes central in all of Krishna's remarks. He tells his friend Arjuna that we typically approach action in the wrong way. We are often too desirous, too self-seeking, and too emotionally needy for the results that we want when we act. Krishna then outlines a mindset that is rarely discussed and generally not understood by most people in the western world who aspire to any form of success or earthly greatness. It can even sound quite paradoxical at first. On the one hand, he advises us to concentrate on doing our duty, on doing what is right, and then he urges us to take up an attitude of emotional nonattachment to the results of our actions. He says:

The wise man lets go of all
results, whether good or bad,
and is focused on the action alone.
The path is skill in actions. 55

And, again:

The superior man is he
whose mind can control his senses;
with no attachment to results,
he engages in the path of action. 63

We are now such a results oriented world, it can seem like heresy of the highest sort to urge a general emotional nonattachment to results. But he hammers on this point throughout the Gita, in another place saying:

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits.
Act for action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction. 54

Wait a minute. We grow a tree to get the fruit. We perform an action to get the result. It can be easy to think that if Krishna is asking us to emotionally detach ourselves, our hopes and dreams, from the results of our actions, that he is, in effect, urging something that will encourage inaction. If we shouldn't care about results, why act at all? "Because it is right," we can imagine him saying. He clarifies here that his advice should not be taken to imply inaction.

But it is radical advice. Krishna wants us to first attain an emotional state of nonattachment. But he wants us to go even further and not even think about results as we act. He says:

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results,
open to success or failure.
This equanimity is the path. 55

A friend who taught jazz in high schools once told me that it was the most common thing in the world for him to sneak up outside a practice room and hear a student doing some incredible playing, on a saxophone or piano, or other instrument, and yet when the student became aware of the his presence outside the door, he would freeze up and instantly drop in performance level. The worst possible mindset for a public speaker, or actor, or athlete, is to fixate on how they're doing, from an external, monitoring point of view, and never get caught up in what they're doing. People too worried about success and failure are often, and ironically, more apt to fail than to succeed. If you think too much about what you'd like to see result from your actions, you paradoxically are less likely to get that result at all. But what's more important to Krishna is that if you are too results oriented, you just become the wrong sort of person - acquisitive, grasping, and greedy for what you want, rather than being open to what is best.

With all this in mind, Krishna gives Arjuna the concrete personal advice:

Indifferent to gain or loss,
to victory or defeat,
prepare yourself for battle
and do not succumb to sin. 53

He then adds this philosophical and psychological assurance:

On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow. 53

Emotional nonattachment to results is obviously a great coping mechanism. If you don't really feel a need for that new client or promotion, not getting it won't cause you the sorrow that it might otherwise bring into your life. But Krishna presents this path of nonattachment as something more than emotional self-defense. He says in another place:

Without concern for results,
perform the necessary action;
surrendering all attachments,
accomplish life's highest good. 65

Somehow, nonattachment is connected here with the greatest good to be experienced in life. What could that be? It seems to be a certain sort of freedom. Practicing nonattachment helps to rid us of our customary selfishness and broaden the scope of our intentions:

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world. 66

Freedom from selfishness is freedom of an important sort. Freeing ourselves from needing to succeed in everything we do is another important form of liberation. Krishna says:

This is how actions were done
by the ancient seekers of freedom;
follow their example: act,
surrendering the fruits of action. 74

Krishna reveals that the emotional attachment and neediness manifested by most people is a form of enslavement. He says:

The whole world becomes a slave
to its own activity, Arjuna;
if you want to be truly free,
perform all actions as worship. 63

He then says:

When a man has let go of attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship
and his actions all melt away. 76

This small passage is pregnant with meaning. When we give up an unhealthy emotional attachment to results in the world, we are free to reorient ourselves around God, or Ultimate Truth, and Ultimate Goodness rather than around the fleeting shadows of what we think ought to happen. All our strivings as results of our individual desires and intentions can then begin to melt away into a greater flow of engagement with God's will. Or as Baptists and Methodists say, "Let go and let God."

Krishna continues:

Whatever you do, Arjuna,
do it as an offering to me -
whatever you say or eat
or pray or enjoy or suffer. 118

Action as worship is always preferable to action as self-aggrandizement. He says:

The resolute in discipline surrender
results, and gain perfect peace;
the irresolute, attached to results,
are bound by everything they do. 83

Krishna then puts this worship motif into broader context, explaining:

I am the source of all things,
and all things emerge from me;
knowing this, wise men worship
by entering my state of being.

Thinking and speaking of me,
enlightening one another,
their lives surrendered to my care,
they are always serene and joyous. 123

He also says:

He who acts for my sake,
loving me, free of attachment,
with benevolence toward all beings,
will come to me in the end. 143

Let me just excerpt some passages depicting the ideal human being, from Krishna's point of view, the human being who follows this advice. He says:

The man of discipline who is able
to overcome, here on earth,
the turmoil of desire and anger -
that man is truly happy. 86

When a man has mastered himself,
he is perfectly at ease in cold,
in heat, in pleasure or pain,
in honor or in disgrace. 89

There are four kinds of virtuous men
who worship me, Arjuna: the man
in distress, the man who seeks power,
the man who seeks wisdom, and the sage.

Of these four, the sage is the most
praiseworthy; unattached, steadfast,
that man is supremely beloved
by me, as I am by him.

All these are noble minded,
but the sage is my very self;
calm, untroubled, he dwells
in the ultimate goal: in me. 102-103

Fearlessness, purity of heart,
persistence in the path of knowledge,
generosity, self-control,
nonviolence, gentleness, candor,

integrity, disengagement,
joy in the study of the scriptures,
compassion for all beings, modesty,
patience, a tranquil mind,

dignity, kindness, courage,
a benevolent, loving heart -
these are the qualities of men
born with divine traits, Arjuna. 169-170

How can we cultivate these qualities in our own lives? Arjuna's driver says:

Find a wise teacher, honor him,
ask him your quesitons, serve him;
someone who has seen the truth
will guide you on the path to wisdom. 78v

And as we ourselves move along that path, we become greater in spirit and move in turn into that leadership position of every teacher. Krishna says:

Whatever a great man does
ordinary people will do;
whatever standard he sets
everyone else will follow. 65

Not everything in The Bhagavad Gita resonates equally with me. Some of it is transcendent and deeply moving. Some of it strikes me as extreme, in much the same way as Epictetus comes across as both insightful at some times and over the top at others. For a parallel, see my interpretation of the stoics elsewhere on this site. I have just skimmed the surface of the Gita perspective on life in my excerpts and remarks here. But it should be enough to give you a flavor of this great ancient fount of wisdom and its applicability in our lives now.

We all need a Krishna, or a Bagger Vance, in our lives. Be on the lookout for yours, in even the most surprising places.

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