Bad vegetarian food at the boarding house sent Mohandas out into the streets of London in search of something better. The young law student found a vegetarian restaurant nearby, and it soon became a regular haunt. There he met a group of Theosophists, Yanks and Brits passionate about the world’s wisdom traditions. They invited him to join their study of the Bhagavad Gita. Even though he was born and raised in India, he had never really paid much attention the Gita. Mohandas K. Gandhi had to journey all the way to London to discover his own spiritual roots.
The Bhagavad Gita would become Gandhi’s most beloved book. He carried chapter two in his pocket and read it every morning, along with the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. The words of Krishna and Jesus formed Gandhi’s blueprint for how to bridge the gulf between the inner and outer life. Should spirituality be a refuge from the field of action, or a stance to take in it?
For Gandhi, a life-long commitment to social justice was born on the metaphorical battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita. In this 2,000 year old text, our hero Arjuna leads an army poised on the edge of battle. Across the field he sees the other army arrayed. He unburdens his heart to his friend and chariot driver Krishna. "Killing is a sin," he says. "I can’t do it." Arjuna collapses in moral paralysis.
Krishna spends the rest of the book encouraging Arjuna to take action, in the process revealing that he is no mere mortal, but an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Krishna speaks with divine authority, and Arjuna has to listen.
On a literal level it seems that Krishna is authorizing violence. But Gandhi interprets the Bhagavad Gita metaphorically – the real battle is waged within each of us. Arjuna’s battlefield symbolizes the field of action in which all of us make the difficult decisions of our lives. If you take action, one set of consequences unfold. If you do not take action, another set of consequences unfold. There is no escape from action. The only freedom we have is the freedom to shape our actions consciously, compassionately, and without self-centeredness. It is not our enemies we must kill; it is our ignorance, ego-attachment, and delusion. We must slash our attachments to self-obsession with the willingness of a warrior.
As Krishna reminds Arjuna, we are at core imperishable spiritual beings, identical with the ground of being itself. Outer forms come and go, but our essence is timeless – it simply is. Therefore, why worry? As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not be anxious.” Is God in charge, or not?
Our role in this messy life is simply to show up and do the work that is ours to do, without attachment to outcomes or ego-expectations. When we perform our duty, Krishna says, Brahman works through us – we become instruments of the divine. When we renounce attachment and act in the consciousness of service, we are free. This, for Gandhi, is how we are to tackle the social justice work of our times: without rancor, without attachment to specific outcomes, and relaxed in the conviction that even a little spiritual progress is enough. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King reminded us, “but it bends toward justice.” And as Gandhi taught, if our means are pure, the ends will take care of themselves. It is not body force or violence that accomplishes our goals, but soul force. When we show up as the consciousness of loving-kindness and cultivate the courage to speak truth to power, while harming no one but ourselves, we have the best shot at co-creating a world that works for everyone. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “There is no way to peace – peace is the way.” Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek are not just inspiring ideals – Gandhi showed us that they are the foundation of pragmatic political action. Soul force knows no limitations, no barriers, and no bounds.
[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]