"It is better to do your own duty
badly, then to perfectly do
another's; you are safe from harm
when you do what you should be doing."
Those fateful words, a message to us all, begin this first of two posts on the Bhagavad Gita and Stephen Cope's The Great Work of Your Life. My exposure to the Bhagavad Gita comes via Stephen Mitchell's translation, a recommendation that several years ago came by way of Tim Ferriss' podcast. It is of course no substitute for the actual book and some have been quick to point out that this is just a translation and not the source.
It is what I have at hand though and when read with Stephen Cope's book provides a deeply engaging look at how we should be envisioning and living our lives. Believed to have been written in the second century BCE, the book continues to inspire to this day. Cope's book outlines some of the famous individuals in history who have been inspired by the works including Thoreau, Emerson, Jung, and Gandhi to name but a few.
Like many of the great books of humanity, the Gita is something that will read differently to everyone. This post does no justice to a book I've only read once (and assuredly requires multiple visits) but at the same time will perhaps expose others to it.
As that opening quote suggests, one of the key takeaways is that we must find ourselves first, be confident in how we proceed in the world, and be true to who we are. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a prince caught in the middle of two warring factions, seeing the hopelessness of it all. Krishna, appearing as a charioteer, describes the way of the world and the place that all people have within it. A place that we all share that should fundamentally be based on selfless action.
"You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits.
Act for the action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction."
Cope does an excellent job diving into the truths of these words. We are often caught clinging to results in everything. To be wealthy, to be successful. We tend not to focus on the purity of the action itself. In a way, creativity can be guided along this path as well. Do you create for the sake of creating or are you in it for something else? It is of course not an easy path to take. In today's day and age, we are bombarded with messages that run counter to this idea. We idolize those who are successful in the form of many guises. Capitalism runs on the notion that if you work hard enough you will reap the rewards; the idea to work/create simply for the sake of it seems to be lost.
Is this an outdated idea then? Are we really to believe that someone can sit down with the Gita and take these ideas to heart?
I don't think it's outdated but rather something we all can strive towards. Something we can lay down in the back of our mind as we make decisions every day on what we want to do with our life. Echos of Buddhism reverberate in the Gita with the idea that we must work to abandon our desires and what we cling to:
"Abandoning all desires,
acting without craving, free
from all thoughts of "I" and "mine,"
that man finds utter peace."
Buddhism recognizes that craving and clinging ultimately lead to suffering as outlined in the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth outlines the anxieties and stresses we encounter when trying to hold onto things as they are constantly changing. Our desire for stability leads us away from peace.
The Gita is a book written for everyone. Easily accessible and interpreted as one pleases. The messages are universal which is both a pro and con. On the positive side, you can read through this book at your own pace and interpret it as necessary for your point in life. As a con, it can feel difficult to interpret what the implications actually are. How does one abandon all desires? In my next post, I will dive into Stephen Cope's book and hopefully close the loop. Through interpreting the Gita, it also provides the "how" while sharing stories from many individuals in history inspired by the book.