Spirituality is not the process of going idle. And, no other text does justice to this point like Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā.
Lord Kṛṣṇa calls for spiritual fight, tasmād-yuddhyasva bhārata. [Bhārata! Therefore, fight!] The knower of dharma does not abandon everything and retire to the forest. Dharma is not for the faint-hearted. One does not engage in dharma to discover some new peace or tranquility. I want to be peaceful. I need something to work for me. Let me try dharma. – this is not the right approach to dharma. Dharma does bring peace, it does create a better world. But, one must not cling to these rewards selfishly. By doing so, one loses those rewards.
As a world, we have numbed ourselves to the problems that take place in front of our eyes. Those who desire material rewards go on executing their project of seeking at any cost. Those of us who desire spiritual well-being worry about our own peace, our own dharma. We want to find a way to escape the suffering of the world, to remove ourselves from the turmoil.
The legend-maker Vyāsa beautifully converts a story of war into a story of the inner dynamics of human existence. In this, he paints the mindset of two types of people: Duryodhana and Arjuna. The former seeks to solve his problems by amassing wealth at any cost, by causing pain to others. He is greedy and his father (moral guide) has gone blind to his transgressions. He has come unhinged from his being and is unmindful of the impact of his actions. On the other side is Arjuna, who is spiritually oriented.
In the Mahābhārata, there comes a stage when both Duryodhana and Arjuna decide to seek help in their fight. Both approach Kṛṣṇa at exactly the same time. Kṛṣṇa announces that He Himself will not fight but will only aid them in one of two ways: (1) He will provide His huge army and resources to one of the sides (2) He will give Himself to the other side but only in a non-combat role. He asks the cousins to choose. Duryodhana chooses the military might of Kṛṣṇa while Arjuna chooses Kṛṣṇa Himself. The message of the story is that while one prefers materialistic defenses, the other takes a spiritual route and wants to remain connected with the Self.
The war that Duryodhana and Arjuna wage is the war we wage everyday in our lives. It is the perpetual conflict and trouble of existence. The greedy and unmindful would like to win at any cost and gain victory. But, the spiritually oriented, like Arjuna, prefer to retire to obscurity. Faced with the challenge of the world, Arjuna prefers to leave it. Kṛṣṇa chides him, These opponents will call you a coward! Powerful unmindful people take the note of reconciliation and understanding adopted by the wise as weakness, and inflicting more pain. They would attribute their success to their immense abilities and the failure of others to their impotence. Even death is better than being shamed by the wicked! Kṛṣṇa tries to play the mind of Arjuna with first-order arguments before delving into the depths of spiritual life. It is an important spiritual practice not to be judgmental. But, one has to recognize problems where they are. It is not okay to walk by non-judgmentally whren violence is wrought, when there are those suffering in pain in front of our eyes.
William Wordsworth reveals to us a very high ideal,
Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.
It does not take a great genius to dismiss this ideal as exaggerated or impractical. It takes a genius to realize the ideal to whatever extent possible and to awaken the world to its collective suffering.
It is tempting to let it all go and retire, to avoid contact with a troublesome world, to worry only about oneself, to have lofty internal goals. It would be nice to avoid conflict. But, the dynamics of the world do not lend themselves to this expectation.
The pain of a spiritual person is immense. It is a pain to watch before one’s eyes, the lives of people, who have the opportunity for a better life, ruin themselves in the so-called pursuit of happiness. It is a pain to watch innocent children being introduced to the world with images of strife in an environment that treats violence as normal.
The solution to this problem is not to avoid seeing it, but to try and transform it. Success is not guaranteed. Kṛṣṇa says, You may win, or you may lose. But, what does it matter to a spiritual person like you? With equanimity, finding contentment only in the Self, face up to your challenge.
We like the simple assurances of law or of common-place religion that announce, The righteous will survive and triumph. The wicked will be destroyed. But, we all know deep down that real life is more complicated than that. The teaching of Kṛṣṇa is not a shortcut to success or happiness.
What is the use of trying to transform oneself and the world if victory is not guaranteed? Why not give ourselves to the hopelessness of the world and become party to avarice? Or, why not remain noble but remain out of touch with the world, letting it hurtle to its doom?
Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, Only by acts of sacrifice, Arjuna, is this world sustained. Hence, do not cease to engage in such action.
It is not by acts of seeking, of aggrandizing ourselves that we make the world a better place. It is a convenient lie we tell ourselves while we weep in the depths of our own hearts. It is by true acts of sacrifice that the world transforms. Sacrifice is sacred action. It is the art of acting without greed, without perpetual seeking, with dedication, with love. For one who has gained the Self, what higher reward lies to be gained through action, what greater treasure is risked being lost?
No, no. It is not courageous to steal, to hurt, to shoot, to abuse, to make wealth for oneself, to succeed by twisting the law. These are the acts of profound cowardice, of extreme anxiety, of constant fear, of obsessive need to avoid any form of defeat.
Kṛṣṇa states this clearly, One, who consumes for oneself, only consumes grave sin.
It is in sacrifice that we work with attention, and in closeness to nature. By being close to nature and in harmony with her, we receive her boons. Through enlightened action, we again transform her boons in ways that find harmony with her. This is a perpetual cycle without which the world will not sustain.
While inner transformation is the first and last step of spiritual progress, it has no value without external transformation. What is the use of a light that shines alone in a closed room. It takes courage to invite all the troubles of the world into oneself, feel them and transform them without letting them distort oneself. Nay, it is the final act in courage. Good people are nice, but they fulfill their presence when they are also courageous.