The other day my father called to ask if I could locate a certain book. So I searched among those filling the bookcase which used to be his when he was married to my mother. He had been a student of Sanskrit in the years surrounding my birth - I'm talking the early 70's - and during this time had read and reread the Bhagavad Gita, that central text of Hinduism, both in English and Sanskrit. He would become a collector of various versions, having by the time of my younger brother's birth amassed some dozen or so copies.
The Gita's plot takes the form of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. Krishna, serving as Arjuna's charioteer, counsels the dismayed soldier, who is reluctant about entering the battle, since on one side he encounters his family, and on the other the men he considers his friends. Entering the fray on either side means slaying those he loves. Krishna preaches dispassionate action, and tells Arjuna to do his duty, which as a warrior is to fight, but to do so without mind to the fruits of his actions, i.e. the consequences. It doesn't matter who is victorious, says Krishna, because who you really are is deathless spirit, which survives the body's demise.
To paraphrase: "You are not born, nor do you die; nor having been, cease any more to be; unborn, perpetual, eternal and ancient, you are not slain when the body is slaughtered."
So Arjuna fights. This message was especially relevant to my father when he first read it, since at the time he was a successful attorney making a lot of money off of other people's problems. He then "became spiritual" and wished to renounce this profession and perhaps take up the hermit's ochre robe and retire to some desolate cave. But the Gita revealed to him that his duty was to ply his profession, and persist in the duties of householder. Luckily for his infant son, since otherwise I'd have been without a father. The message of the Gita is timeless. And indeed the battle around which the story centers, the Kurukshetra War, took place over 5000 years ago, almost before recorded history and therefore in a sense it is out of time.
"This dweller in the body of everyone is ever invulnerable," says Krishna. So, "taking as equal pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, gird yourself for the battle (of life)."
But I do think the application of this timeless truth needs to be reworked a bit for the current age. And why not? Holy personages adopt roles to suit the time and place of their birth. Christ lived among Jews, was a Jew himself, and yet he extended the traditional doctrine and widened its appeal, evolving it to suit the times, and from his words sprang a whole new religious system.
We live in an era in which Lord Krishna would not need to urge the individual to fight. Wars are all over the place. Before every sporting event we are thanking the military. Soldiers are often the ones singing our national anthem. Patriotism has become mingled with a fighting spirit. Billions of dollars goes to the defense budget, and in the opinion of many we are on the precipice of nuclear war. Do we really need to be urging people to fight? Perhaps what this age calls for is a cease fire. Let us desist from fighting and practice nonviolence. Practice Gandhi's ahimsa. Gandhi lived this message, and then was shot to death at point-blank range. God must really be a joker. Speaking of God, Gandhi purportedly died with God's name (Ram) on his lips. Good for him, since as is stated in the Gita: "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain." So he became God. Which he already was. Let's not overthink this.
Searching for the Annie Besant translation of the Gita as instructed, I came upon several other editions. And when I noted the names of the translators of these books I couldn't help but smile. There were two by Swami Prabhupada. One by Swami Chidbhavananda. Another by Swami Swarupananda. And another by Swami Chinmayananda. Let's not forget the version translated by Swami Prabhavananda. And the commentaries by Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, as well as numerous references by Yogananda. These are all assumed names. And I understand why the sages adopt new handles, which they do either at the insistence of their disciples or because it just feels right. Really it is to sever identity with the circumstances of one's birth, and the roles that follow one through life, of child, sibling - I would say parent, but more often than not these Godly-minded don't have kids.
Siddhartha became Buddha. Jesus became the Christ. Maruti Shivrampant Kambli became Nisargadatta Maharaj. Venkataraman Iyer became Ramana Maharshi. Steven Gray became Adyashanti. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass. And lest I be accused of chauvinism: Malti Shetty became Gurumayi.
For these individuals, and many many others, including thousands of monks, nuns and priests who are unknown to the public, and others who are (Mother Teresa was once Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu - try pronouncing that!) the name change served to remind others, perhaps even themselves, of their renunciation of the past and of the circumstances of their birth; that they had transcended traditional roles and became rooted in "invulnerable" spirit. It was a symbol of a spiritual rebirth. And this is one we all should take. Catholics already do, being baptized. Jews too, with their Mitzvahs.
For as Shankaracharya (nee Adi Shankara) writes: "Who is your wife and who is your son? This World is exceedingly strange. Whose child are you? Who are you? And Whence? Bethink yourself of the Truth, the Reality of this, O deluded one."
Human birth rightly viewed is a springboard to the divine. But too often we remain stuck and wallow in our messy humanity. One spiritual teacher (Sai Baba, formerly Sathya Narayana Raju) said there are four levels of consciousness. The demonic, the animal, the human, and the divine. The demon engages in hurtful acts for the sake of pleasure. The animal exists to gratify the senses. The human loves conditionally, in a "now what can you do for me" kind of way. Whereas the divine consciousness is characterized by unconditional love which flows freely, as from one's true nature. The divine is your birthright! If it helps to love all by changing your name so that you recognize everyone as your mother, child and sibling, then you are a recent addition to a list both lengthy and distinguished. So call me Swami Adamananda. If only I could say it with a straight face. Hell, not everyone changes his name. Mahatma Gandhi was after all born Mohandas Gandhi. So I'll just stick with Adam.
I never found dad's Gita. But it sure was worth the search.