July 2009


The Bhagavad-gita or ‘Song of God’ is over 5,000 years old. It is the sacred conversation between Arjuna and Krishna and it is situated in the middle of the epic Mahabharata. Though universal in its application, the Gita is often referred to as “the Bible of the Hindus.”

There is a beautiful quote by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, Srila Prabhupada’s guru, in this regard: ‘Srimad Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam are the crest jewels of all scriptures, they are as great and as worthy of taking shelter of as Krsna, and they are transcendental manifestations of sri-krsna-kirtana‘ (Caitanya Bhagavata, Adi Lila 12.72). It is said that there are two kinds of topics dealing with Lord Krishna – krishna-katha. One, is Lord Krsna’s direct instructions, as given in the Gita; and, the other is topics about Lord Krishna, as narrated in Srimad Bhagavatam.

I also found this beautiful passage in Srila Prabhupada’s Renunciation Through Wisdom: ‘The promulgation of the Bhagavad-gita’s knowledge on a world-wide scale will establish a foundation upon which the edifice of the science of love of God will be constructed. This edifice will be the repository of the sublime treasure of devotional service as taught by Lord Caitanya in Kali-yuga, and it will serve as a shining monument to the transcendental endeavors of the Lord’s pure devotees.’

Bhagavad-gita As It Is, as opposed to ‘As You Like’.

Prabhupada said the process of Krishna consciousness is ‘Simple for the simple and complicated for the complicated.’ I have also read in Prabhupada’s Caitanya Caritamrita that ‘Krishna consciousness is easy, but difficult in application.’

Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the author of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita is ‘As it is presented in disciplic succession’; not, ‘As you like.’ Accepting the Gita through a bona fide disciplic succession of acaryas, or spiritual masters, ensures the authenticity of the text. Prabhupada also writes in Gita, ‘Bhagavad-gita accepted as it is in disciplic succession, is a great boon to humanity at large. But, if it is accepted as a treatise of mental speculations, it is simply a waste of time.’

The Purpose of the Gita

In his introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Prabhupada writes, ‘Just what is the Bhagavad-gita? The purpose of Bhagavad-gita is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence.’ We have already mentioned the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam are complimentary. How does the Bhagavad-gita bring us from the darkness, or ignorance, of material existence? The Bhagavad-gita teaches us how to surrender to Lord Krishna. The Srimad Bhagavatam, or ‘Beautiful book of Lord Krishna’, teaches us how to act once we are on the platform of surrender. Sometimes Prabhupada refers to the Gita as the undergraduate study of spiritual life; and Bhagavatam as the postgraduate study.

Sometimes there is a misconception amongst devotees that the Bhagavad-gita is a beginner’s book. One of the great Vaishnava scholars, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur, said the following about the Bhagavad-gita: ‘Just like a person at sea, I was skimming the surface of the water. As I entered the ocean of the Bhagavad-gita, I realized there are many wonderful jewels in that ocean.’ In his lectures on the Nectar of Devotion in Mumbai, in 1972, Srila Prabhupada said that reading the Bhagavad-gita is as good as associating with Lord Krishna. Krishna is the Supreme Lord and anything related to Him is Absolute. That includes His name, His form, His pastimes, His qualities and His instructions.

The 5 Principle Subject-matters of Bhagavad Gita

The five principle subject-matters of Bhagavad-gita are nature (prakriti), time (kala), the jiva, the isvara and karma. Of these – prakriti, kala, the jiva, and the isvara are eternal. Karma is temporary.

Arjuna and the Jackal

Gour Govinda Maharaja relates a nice story in the book Mathura Meets Vrindavan. Arjuna has a very intimate relationship with Krishna. Krishna refers to him as bhakto ‘si me, priyo ‘si me and sakha ‘si me: ‘Because you are My dear friend, I am giving you this most confidential instruction.’

One day, after the Pandavas had defeated the Kauravas in the Battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna was riding on his chariot with his friend, Sri Krishna. They were riding through some gardens by the bank of the Yamuna. Arjuna had, however, developed some pride: ‘I am very wise. Krishna personally imparted this gita-jnana (wisdom of the Gita) to me.’ He had developed some pride in his heart.

Krishna, being the Supersoul in the hearts of all living beings, understood that Arjuna had developed some pride. Krishna will not tolerate pride in the heart of His devotee. If he detects that his devotee has developed pride, He smashes that devotee’s pride. That is His mercy.

As they were passing the Yamuna, they noticed a jackal moving around. Out of pride, Arjuna made some derogatory remarks: ‘That jackal is a great fool. He is moving around that dead body, simply sniffing, but not eating it. If some dogs come now, he will run away. He is a fool, bereft of knowledge.’ Krishna stopped the chariot and summoned the jackal. The jackal came. Krishna asked the jackal, ‘O jambuka (jackal), the body of this dead human is your food. Why are you circling this body and not eating it?’ The jackal replied, ‘O my Lord, You are all-knowing. What shall I say? Even though this is my food, I still have some discrimination over what I eat and won’t eat.’ Krishna said, ‘You have some discrimination?’ The jackal replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘What is that’, asked Lord Krishna. The jackal said, ‘Since You are asking, my Lord, I will answer. From the smell of his legs, I can tell if this human being ever walked to Jagannath Puri Dhama, Vrindavan or Mayapur. By smelling his hands, I can tell if this person ever offered puja, worship, to Sri Bhagavan or not. From smelling his eyes, I can tell whether or not this person ever saw a sadhu or the Deity in the Temple. By smelling his head, I can understand if this person ever bowed down to a Vaishnava or Deity. By smelling his ears, I can tell if he ever heard krishna-katha. It is by scent that I can tell all of these things. If he has not performed any of these activities, I won’t eat such impure food. And, if one or more of his limbs – a hand, a leg, or an ear – has performed some devotional act, then I will eat only that portion.’ The jackal then said, ‘My Lord, I am in the body of a beast. My consciousness is very covered. I cannot perform any dharma. The only piety I can perform is by eating.’

Lord Krishna said to the jackal, ‘O jambuka, all glories to you. You are My devotee.’ On hearing these words, Arjuna was amazed. ‘This jackal has such knowledge. I was thinking myself to be a great jnani and a great bhakta, but this jackal is greater than I am!

In this way, Krishna smashed Arjuna’s pride because Arjuna is his dear devotee.


Smuts Hall, UCT Cape Town, South Africa, 1992

I lived at Smuts Hall Mens Residence, on UCT Campus, from 1990 to 1992. In 1992, my youngest sister, Paula, had returned from an exchange in Reunion and had presented me with a bottle of coffee liqueur as a gift.

I wanted to be a new Romantic poet or alternative rock star. My heroes said it all: Ian Curtis, Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron, Jim Morrison, Yukio Mishima. They had one thing in common – they died young.

One morning, in the mood of Jim Morrison, I swigged back half the bottle of that sickly sweet brew, grabbed my notebooks and made may way for the Robert Leslie Social Sciences Building for my Jurisprudence lecture. I took my place near the front of the Ampitheatre next to my good friend Charles Havemann. Charles said, ‘Hey, Mike, have you been drinking? Your breath stinksl! It’s only ten-o-clock in the morning! Are you crazy?’ I suppose I was being rebellious. This was the first time I had ever gotten drunk during lectures.

I had been questioning the order-of-things, especially law and it’s application in society. I remember reading the following in Yukio Mishima’s novel, Runaway Horses: ‘He suddenly remembered that in his youth…the European philosophy of natural law had lost its appeal for him, and he had been much attracted by the ancient Indian Laws of Manu, whose provisions extended to reincarnation. Something had already taken root in his heart then. A law whose nature was not to impose order upon chaos but to point to the principles that lay within chaos and so give form to a legal code, just as the surface of water caught the reflected image of the moon – such a law could well have sprung from a source more profound than the European worship of reason that undergirded natural law‘.

My life would never be the same again. I was not only prompted to question my ethics; the book had made me question my entire existence. I looked for a copy of theLaws of Manu in the UCT Law Library. No luck. Maybe Alfred Cockerel, my Jurisprudence lecturer, would know something about them.

He had been lecturing to us on the origins of law. In one of his classes he had made a statement to the effect that all thought, the basis of Law, extended as far as Aristotle. There was no mention of India or the Far East. And I, being the questioner of the status quo that I was, found this hard to swallow. Yukio Mishima’s book had also made me think a little about the chauvinism of the West. What we called ‘The World’ was, in effect, Europe and America. What about India? What about Japan? And what about China?

I remember sitting near the front of the lecture theatre with Charles and, in my drunken state, asking the lecturer, ‘What about the Laws of Manu?’ He replied, ‘What are the Laws of Manu?’ I replied, ‘The Laws of Manu are the Ancient Laws of India.’ He said that he didn’t know anything about them, ‘Maybe the Religious Studies Department can help you.’ I was bitterly disappointed. It was then that I learnt that having an Oxford Law degree did not necessarily mean a broad vision of things. I even entertained the idea of learning Sanskrit, so I could translate the Laws of Manu into English.

At that time, I never thought I would become a Hare Krishna monk. I find the whole episode quite bizarre. That I would be asking my law lecturer about the Laws of Manu in an intoxicated state at 10am in the morning. I am happy to say that my life has changed a lot since then.