It is worth examining the last verse of the Bhagavad Gita. The first word of this verse is “Yatra,” which means “where” or “the place where.” What is this place where this moment between Krishna and Arjuna takes place? The place is, as proclaimed by the first words of the first verse of the Gita, Dharmakshetra / Kurukshetra. Kurkshetra is the geographical appellation. Dharmakshetra has a deeper meaning. Dharmakshetra means the kshetra of Dharma or the field of Dharma. What does this mean?
The field of dharma here means the battlefield of life or living. In other words, the battlefield is the site where Dharma will be practiced at this moment. Too often nowadays, Hinduism is mistakenly reduced to something that sadhus or yogis practice, or to what takes place in a temple or in the puja room. But the real name for Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma—the dharma that is without beginning or end, the dharma that belongs to and for all times. This encompasses everything—all worlds, all facets of the world. Nowadays, the gems of Hinduism—yoga, meditation, ecstatic forms of kirtan—are being enthusiastically embraced by many, especially as part of the New Age movement. This is a good thing, but if such practices are divorced from Dharma, the practices will become distorted and corrupted, and the effects will diminish in effectiveness over time. To be authentic to Hinduism, we have to combine sadhana and dharma.
Dharma is multifaceted. It cannot simply be translated as duty. It encompasses a wide variety of roles that we as individuals play in our individual life, in our family life and social life; it is tailored to what would be appropriate to our age and stage in life, to the times and place in which we live, our socioeconomic role in society. Dharma is both inward looking and outward looking. It ensures harmony at all levels of society and provides a proper balance and order to the cosmos.
Nowadays, our tendency is to pick and choose that which makes us feel good in the moment and pursue that. But that by itself will not lead us towards spiritual enlightenment. Spirituality cannot be a mere form of escapism, a guise under which we can hide from the world. In the first part of the Gita, when Arjuna is lamenting and coming up with all these seemingly pious reasons to not fight the battle, Krishna immediately pierces through this posturing, telling Arjuna that these are flimsy excuses not worthy of him.
This wallowing in tamas and fatalism masquerading as spiritualism that Arjuna briefly displays has become endemic in Hindu society. In my own case, my guru made sure that I learned what my dharma is. For many years, when I would ask him what sadhana I should do, he would promptly say that my very first priority, beyond anything else, was to excel in my job as a tax lawyer at a Wall Street law firm.
This answer was anathema to me. In my ignorance, I saw my job as a hindrance to true spirituality. I wanted something more idealistic, more suitable for a yogic lifestyle. How could working until midnight, engaging in hard and sometimes confrontational negotiations, representing wealthy investment banks, making rich people and rich corporations richer, how could that be conducive to my spiritual progress? I did not appreciate that this was my dharma kshetra. I read the words of the Gita but did not apply them to my own life.
Left to my own devices, I would have done the bare minimum to get by in my work. But my guru wanted something more—he wanted me to truly do my best and not just go through the motions. It was very hard for me to do that, not simply out of laziness, but because the type of job I had required me to step out of my comfort zone and do things that did not rest comfortably with my psyche. I had to learn how to be assertive and sometimes confrontational in order to be effective. I had to learn how to not just do legal research and analysis but come up with solutions to problems and then implement them and figure out how to get other people to go along with me. I never became great at this and I probably never got to where my guru wanted me to reach, but I became better.
This was important for me, because similar to Arjuna, I needed to snap out of tamas into rajas. I needed to develop more of a Kshatriya mind set, even though that wasn’t naturally part of my psyche.
Learning these skills was as integral a part of my spiritual practice, if not more so, than whatever other puja or japa or bhajans or chanting I did in my puja room. My time at this law firm was as important to my spiritual progress as pilgrimages I made to the Himalayas and other famous temples in India.
The point of this is not to say that you should take up a job on Wall Street. The point is that Hinduism has a holistic and integrated approach to what is spiritual life and spiritual practice, which inextricably links our sadhana with our dharma. And that is what makes it Sanatana Dharma. When people say Hinduism is a way of life, what it means is that we are not defined by going to temples. Every moment in life is an opportunity for the practice of yoga, for performing karma yoga or bhakti yoga or jnana yoga or raja yoga; every activity of the day is sacred if we approach it the right way. And, through the Gita, Krishna teaches us to never forget that we are always in one kind of a dharma kshetra or another and that we must always uphold our dharma in every setting and in every moment of our lives.
There is one last thing I would like to say about Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield. At heart, I am a devotee, and there is one more way that I look upon Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield which is purely devotional. To me, that moment, when Arjuna says near the end of the Gita that he will pick up his bow and fight is the epitome of “active surrender” or saranagathi. True saranagathi or surrender cannot be born out of weakness, out of fear or despair—it comes from a place of strength, from an active choice to surrender. A great Buddhist master, Shifu Sheng-Yen, once said that with his disciples, he first had to make their ego (or small self) bigger before he could ask them to transcend and surrender their ego. Someone with low self-esteem is not in a position to surrender their ego.
So, the beautiful thing to me about that moment is that Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the world. His prowess with the bow is unchallenged and unparalleled. When someone that powerful and strong surrenders to Krishna, that is meaningful and beautiful.
True saranagathi is standing with a bow raised to my shoulder, and when Krishna whispers into my ears to release the arrows, I do so without hesitation, without doubt, secure in the conviction that I am following my dharma.
Again, this is not about taking up arms but about an attitude towards life.
The reward for that surrender, for saranagathi, is the most beautiful, most glorious, most sublime promise that is made by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita:
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaḿ śaraṇaḿ vraja|
ahaḿ tvāḿ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ||
Relinquishing all other dharmas, surrender to Me alone; I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions; do not despair.