Often called the Hindu Bible, the Gita has been the source of inspiration to many influential thinkers including Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung. Gandhi was never without a copy of the Gita and it is rumored that he started each day brushing his teeth and reading the Gita at the same time. Mahatma Gandhi expressed his love for the Gita in these words:
“When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies – and my life has been full of external tragedies – and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavad-Gita”
Before we discuss the essence of the Gita, it is interesting to me that as a child attending the temple or Hindu camps, no one ever mentioned this book. At these summer camps, I learned to memorize various prayers that I did not really understand but never had a single discussion on this story. I am quite sure that I would not have grasped the significance of the Gita had I attempted to read it as a child but a simplified overview of the story and a few key themes would have been interesting to learn. The following is my attempt at this type of overview and I do not claim to either possess extensive knowledge of the Gita or present a complete summary of the Gita in this book. As always, I invite you to read the original text along with some excellent interpretations.
The story takes place on a battlefield before the start of the Kurukshetra war and consists of conversations between the Warrior Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, the supreme manifestation of the Lord Himself. The war is between two groups of closely related cousin families who are fighting for control of the Kingdom and our protagonist Arjuna is hesitating before waging battle against his own cousins and uncles. The Gita, for me, is the quintessential moral text in that Arjuna is facing two “right vs. right” decisions. Should he carry out his individual duty and avoid bloodshed against his own friends and family or should he carry out his sacred duty as a warrior and fight for his just cause? We would expect God, in this case Lord Krishna disguised as the charioteer, to convince Arjuna not to kill his own family. Krishna, however, offers different advice and describes the path that each of us can follow by living in harmony with universal laws and order as we seek to live our highest truths. Krishna begins the discussion by reminding Arjuna that the Eternal Self never perishes. All of us occupy a physical vessel or body which is temporary but the essence of our being, our soul is eternal.
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bhagavad Gita 2.20)
Now the concept of reincarnation is beyond the scope of this book but we can understand how this concept of an everlasting nature of being may provide liberation in our current life. One of the problems in Western society is the finite nature of life, the fixed amount of time that we all have as we rush to accumulate in order to be happy. If our Eternal self or soul continues on after we die, whether it is thru our kids, our service and impact to others or as part the Universe/Nature, we lose the sense of urgency to hurry up and live quickly before time runs out. As Krishna states, this belief in our eternal soul provides freedom for us to act in accordance with our sacred duty.
Concept #1: Find your dharma
The word Dharma is one of my favorites and comes from the Sanskrit dhri which means “to hold, to support or bear”. The word has many meanings but “sacred duty” or highest purpose is a very useful translation for the individual. On a larger scale, the scholar Eknath Easwaran defines dharma as “the essential order of things, an integrity and harmony in the Universe and the affairs of life that cannot be disturbed without courting chaos. Thus it means rightness, justice, goodness, purpose rather than chance.” Krishna reminds Arjuna that as a warrior prince and soldier, his dharma is to fight for justice and protect the Kingdom. His place in the Universe is dependent upon his ability to carry out this duty. Krishna goes on to state that everyone will die or be born but to relinquish your sacred duty is a fate worse than death for the honorable man. Lord Krishna concludes this brief reference to dharma as one’s personal duty by saying, “Now if you do not execute this battle, then having given up your personal dharma and reputation, you shall incur sin.” (Bg. 2.33)
We can apply this concept of individual purpose or sacred duty to our own lives. We all have a need to find our reason for being alive. Abraham Maslow states that “Your life’s work is to find your life’s work”. What is your dharma? Are you living your own dharma or following someone else’s path? Krishna has some advice for us:
“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma. But competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.”
It is important to note that your dharma can and should change over the course of your life. My dharma has ranged from a high school and college student, karate instructor, radiology resident/fellow, attending radiologist, husband, father and student/author. As a student in high school and college, I was focused on working to maintain good grades while trying to figure out my path in life. I discovered martial arts almost by accident and became obsessed with training and competing for a period of 7 years while rising to a brown belt instructor level. As the next phase in my life began in medical school, I was immersed in obtaining the knowledge required to graduate from medical school and enter the competitive field of radiology. While in residency, my main purpose was to learn as much radiology as possible including spending countless hours on various research projects that were exciting to me. As I began my career as an attending radiologist, my interest shifted from the content of radiology to the business of radiology. I began to study the non-clinical aspects of medicine including financial analytics, hospital/physician contracts, and physician performance management. In my current position, I am involved with developing a new model of radiology care delivery that transitions radiologists from passive consumers of imaging revenue to active imaging consultants and patient advocates. My highest purpose in life, however, has nothing to do with radiology or money or other external indicators of success. My dharma is to create a close-knit family unit filled with love, optimism, gratitude, resilience, purpose and service. In other words, my reason for living is to achieve a state of eudaimonia for all of us.
Stephen Cope states that “Dharma is born mysteriously out of the intersection between The Gift and The Times. Dharma is a response to the urgent – though often hidden – need of the moment. Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. It tears at our hearts. Others don’t see it or don’t care. But we feel it. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.”
It is not enough to find our own dharma or highest purpose for living; we must carry out our dharma to the best of our abilities which brings us to the second major concept.
Concept #2: Do it Fully
Whether your dharma is that of a parent, a physician, or a janitor, you must carry out your work with complete effort and deliberate practice. This concept of focus and absolute commitment are consistent themes found in Hinduism, Stoicism and Buddhism. Malcolm Gladwell describes the importance of deliberate practice in his book “Outliers” in which he argues that success is less about individual genius and more related to circumstances that provide opportunity for an enormous amount of effort. He applies the “10,000 hour rule” to the Beatles who performed live in Hamburg German over 1200 times over a four year period. It was during this intensive period of “work” that the group developed their talents and found their unique sound. Gladwell also describes Bill Gates fulfilling the 10,000 hour rule by having access to a high school computer at the age of 13 and being able to spend 10,000 hours programming on it. The deliberate practice on a specific task (with the desire to improve) for 20 hours per week for 10 years is the key to success in any field. It is not enough to simply put in the time without the aim to get better. So what are you doing “full out”? If your dharma is a teacher, are you engaging in deliberate practice with a desire for constant improvement or are you simply counting the days until summer vacation? If your dharma is a physician, are you spending deliberate effort in trying to be the best physician that you can be for the sake of your patients and community or are you “burned out” and on autopilot for the money? If your dharma is a parent, are you learning and practicing evidence based strategies to raise honest, responsible, resilient and compassionate kids or are you simply rushing them from one activity to another to avoid feeling left behind from what others are doing?
I feel that time is too precious and life too fleeting to engage in activities to which we are not fully committed. So please spend some time thinking about your dharma or sacred duty at this point in your life. Once you discover this highest purpose, focus on it. Live it. Breathe it. Do it Fully!
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Concept #3: Let Go of the Results
The third concept that Krishna teaches Arjuna is to let go of the results of his actions and turn it over to me (God). Once you have identified your dharma (in Arjuna’s case as a warrior soldier) and performed your dharma fully (fight to the best of your abilities), then you must let go of the fruits of your labor.
Krishna states “You should never engage in action for sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat”. This concept of detachment from results of our actions is also a very common theme among the stoic philosophers and has had a powerful effect on my approach to life. I found that the more I pursued activities simply for the process of completing something that I felt was important, the more successful I became in achieving favorable outcomes. One example of this concept in action is at work. Instead of focusing on gaining more hospital contracts (very important for a venture backed company) or garnering more respect in the radiology community (important for the ego), I shifted my focus toward creating an exceptionally innovative and radiology friendly group. This type of practice environment allows us to develop a new breed of radiologists; ones that are service oriented, hardworking team players instead of product (report) focused, and entitled lone wolves only out for themselves. This shift in my attention to the process of creating what I believe is needed rather than on external results often beyond my control has provided some liberation and increased enjoyment in my day to day work. It has also, not surprisingly, resulted in more growth and accolades for our company.
So to summarize Krishna, figure out what you were put on this earth to do, put all of your efforts into doing it and let go of the results. These three steps have the power to change many lives if implemented correctly. As I have found, however, many of these principles are often very simple and profound but difficult to put into practice. It takes time and effort to discovering one’s dharma. It is much easier to float thru life on whatever path you happen to be on. Deliberate practice and carrying out one’s duties to the best of their ability requires discipline and perseverance. Perhaps the most difficult of the steps is the letting go of the results. How do you tell your son who has just struck out with bases loaded at a baseball game to let go of the results? Or tell your daughter who studied hard for a test but still did not receive an ‘A’ not to worry about the result? I have found that the results are important only in the sense that they can provide feedback on areas that may require more deliberate practice or a new approach to the practice.
The pursuit of human flourishing was (and still is) the ultimate goal for human life. As the Gita teaches us, this state of eudaimonia can be achieved by identifying and embracing our duty in life, performing this duty with our highest character and best effort without attachment to the results or other external events beyond our control. This will be our contribution to the larger universe – whether that is God, Nature or Cosmic order – and will provide each of us with a life well lived.