By Sushim Mukerji
What is the one quality in character that towers above all other qualities? Gita answers unequivocally; it is fearlessness. Gita teaches that? We were led to believe that Gita eulogizes dispassion (Vairagya) and renunciation (Tyaga). Gita does eulogize dispassion and renunciation, but they are byproducts of an attitude; it is the steel in the character.
In the sixteenth chapter of the Gita, in order to differentiate between divine and demonic nature, the Lord sets down divine characteristics in a neat order. They are fearlessness, humbleness, nonviolence, austerity, truthfulness, charity, fortitude and many others. Fearlessness has been upheld as the first quality ahead of other universally acclaimed qualities.
It is not easy to understand why fearlessness has been so affirmatively identified as the foremost divine quality, particularly during a sermon for spiritual awakening. It was not easy even for the Lord to convince Arjun about its importance. The opening scene of 2nd chapter of Gita shows that Arjun, the greatest warrior under the sun, was a broken man unable to take a stand in the battlefield. The Lord rebuked Arjun sternly, commanded him to forsake faint heartedness, and asked him to commence the epic battle promptly. Arjun was so overcome with sadness that the Lord’s exhortation failed to make a dent on his depression.
Gita is a treatise on complex human behavior. Arjun did not want to fight. He was fearful of the consequences of the ensuing battle. First he said that it was a sin to fight against one’s own family elders and definitely a sin to kill one’s own kin. Then he said that if he fights he would be the cause of death of countless men. Death of so many men would create multitudes of widows and orphans who would be victims of immoral elements of the society. He even raised the issue of religious traditions reserved for departed ancestors. Men in a family are traditionally entrusted with performance of yearly religious observances for departed ancestors (Vatsarik Shraddha). With multitudes of men about to die in the ensuing great battle, how many men would be left to maintain religious traditions in the society? Arjun did not want to be an accomplice for the destruction of families and religious traditions.
Arjun’s arguments against the battle were convincing indeed. His arguments would resonate with family values and humanitarian ethics cherished by the humanity. Here lies the uniqueness of Gita. When Arjun was crying his heart out in the first chapter of Gita in the name of preserving commonsense ethics for family and society, The Lord kept quiet. When the Lord finally talked (starting Chapter 2 of Gita) He did not respond to any of Arjun’s heart rending humanitarian reasoning. Does it mean that the Lord in Gita is unconcerned about family values, insensitive to human emotions? Does it mean the Lord is aloof to human misery? Does it mean that the Lord is so unforgiving to the (devious) Kaurava brothers that He wishes the epic battle to commence anyway regardless of bloodbath of others? Where do His ethics lie?
Gita is not about family values as popularly understood. What the society understands about family values are what keeps the family together, at least for the moment. Everybody understands the importance of Family First motto and proudly defends it. Certain facts on preserving family should, however, be understood. To keep the family together people for generations have resorted to honor, reason and affection, and also connivance, flattery, deals, selfishness, suppression of truth, blaming the innocent and ignoring the guilt. At the base of such complex practices is fearfulness- fear of losing something; it could be loss of honor, loss of security, loss of wealth, loss of affection. But no one wants to admit his inner fear; they cloak their fear with something noble to appear righteous and honorable to others.
Arjun, the great warrior, gazing the huge army arrayed against him lost nerve. Many of his enemies were his close relatives and friends. He could not remain objective anymore. He was fearful of the outcome of the war, perhaps even for the safety of himself and his own brothers, and was unable to carry his duty as the General-in-Chief of the Pandavas. However, he could not show his fear publicly. Instead he resorted to a show of high mindedness with a display of reasoning, decency and philanthropy. To top it all, he believed in the magnanimity of his own reasoning. The Lord understood it.
To get Arjun out of this sorry predicament, the Lord first used harsh words. He called him impotent. He called him coward unworthy of his lineage (Gita Chapter 2, Sloka 2, 3). Nothing worked. Then the Lord smiled indulgingly, like a parent does when a child throws tantrum. And the real Gita started in earnest (from Sloka 11 of Chapter 2).
Arjun was afraid that he would be the cause of death of his kin. As a first lesson the Lord said there is no reason for grief because no one is leaving the scene (by dying). Why. Anything that came into existence, such as the human body, has to go through changes, decay, and finally go out of perceptible existence. But the Self (Atma) of a person always remains intact; it never changes; it never dies. Arjun would never be the cause of death of anyone.
Later (Chapter 4, Sloka 10) the Lord stated that the ones who get the privilege of realizing Him are the ones who gave up attachment (for worldly matters), fear and anger (Vita-raga-bhaya-krodha).This is where we learnt that fear has no spiritual value. Practicing honesty because of fear! Observing religious rites because of fear! The Lord attaches no value to it. Finally on Chapter 16 on the very first verse, He arranged all the divine qualities one after another, putting fearlessness on the very top position. Only when a person is fearless, can he afford to be non-violent, can he afford to be benevolent, can he afford to be humble, can he afford to be honest, without being hypocritical. Only a fearless person can afford to practice Vivek (faculty of discrimination- right vs wrong- permanent vs impermanent- real vs unreal) and Vairagya (dispassion- unattached/objective- not loveless aloofness), the prized qualities that must be practiced for a direct knowledge of the Self (Atma). Swami Vivekananda said repeatedly that a sanyasi (monk) has to be fearless.
On the secular side of life, a fearless person has nothing to hide. If he is unfit to do a job he freely admits it, and recommends it to others without malice or shame. If he is the only person who could do the job he just does it promptly without putting any show. He could be a Chapekar brother or a Khudiram or a Bhagat Singh who could offer his life fearlessly for a cause worth dying for, or he could be a young Gandhi refusing to correct his mistake surreptitiously just to look good in front of a school inspector because he could not spell the word Kettle correctly, or he could be a young Washington admitting freely to his father that it was indeed he who wrongfully cut father’s cherry tree and would readily accept the consequences.
During our pujas we recite prayers to “Shantakaram” (The Lord who is Serene), and invoke Him as “Bhava-bhaya- haram” – the One who takes away Fear. There. During the course of pujas we are reminded that if you pray, pray for removing your fear. Fear distorts our judgment and value system. Once fearlessness (A-bhayam) becomes the dictum of life rest of the noble qualities appear naturally. This is Gita’s teaching.