The Yoga of Existential Anxiety

The Gita takes place in the field of Kurukshetra, also called Dharmakshetra (the battlefield of action). As the battle is about to begin, Arjuna–who belongs to the warrior caste–asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna, to move the chariot to a place where he can gaze at the entire army. He sees many men who–although corrupt and intent on killing him–are still family members and people whom he respects. He knows that if he does not battle, he will die by their hands, but is overtaken with suffering and confusion at this crucial moment, and takes refuge in Sri Krishna, asking him to dispel his doubts and confusion.

Arjuna’s Depression

File:Krishna tells Gota to Arjuna.jpg

Most chapters in the Gita are named after a kind of yoga. The first chapter has sometimes been known as “the yoga of Arjuna’s depression or despondence”. This seems strange, to consider confusion and depression a yoga. Existential confusion is the beginning of all philosophy and a unique opportunity for learning. This angst leads to questioning, which potentially leads to life changes, and to moral and philosophical development.

Every human has his or her own distinct battle of Kurukshetra: the moment of greatest hesitation, of questioning one’s entire value system and one’s place in the world. Arjuna’s own anxiety and existential crisis concerns his duties, his job, which he experiences as lacking meaning and as filled with absurdity. People will suffer through anything as long as they find meaning in it. It’s hard not to sympathize with him! We are reminded of Philodemus’ designation of politics and warfare as among the two careers that are most poisonous to a life of pleasure–both of which Arjuna pursued.

In BG 1:31-34, we sense what Nietzsche might call a lack of vitality when he says: “I crave not triumph, kingdom or pleasures“. Arjuna questions the teaching of ahimsa (non-violence), and whether it would be better to renounce it all and leave the world, becoming a monk. In BG 1:37, Arjuna asks: “How can we be happy killing our kindred?”, yet in the following verses (38-39) we see that the enemy is treacherous and that this is a kill-or-be-killed situation, and again in BG 2:6, so that the events in the Gita are about survival. In BG 1:46, we read that Arjuna would prefer to die rather than fight and kill family members, and be entangled in that drama and in the karma–as he believed this would affect his future incarnations–and in verse 47, he gives up and lays down his weapon. It seems like Arjuna is growing a conscience, and experiencing guilt (BG 2:5). Is this not good?

As we will see in the yoga of action, Krishna will advice Arjuna to slay his enemies in self-defense. This will remind us a bit of Muhammad’s teachings, and perhaps even of Odin’s religion, with their promises of a special place in paradise for fighters. Because I already expressed criticism of this before, I will refer my readers to the Qur’an blog series, but I feel it’s fair to also add context here. Krishna had previously had to kill his own uncle, King Kamsa, who had been a tyrant and repeatedly tried to murder Krishna and his siblings in order to avert a prophecy he heard from a fortune-teller that Krishna would kill and replace him. When Krishna was born, his father Vasudeva had to cross the Yamuna river and hide the infant from his uncle. The legend is highly suggestive of Herodes’ attempt to kill baby Jesus, and his murder of other infants. It is possible that this legend traveled via the Silk Road, and via the Greek speaking world, after Alexander the Great opened the path to India, and may have influenced the Gospel legend.

Here, I’m curious to ask if it is proper to think of life as a battle? This is the metaphor presented in the Gita. It seems to be a nod to Social Darwinism and Darwinism in general–as seen in nature–, and to how bacteria and germs in our food and in our environment are constantly trying to kill us. We can also think of psychological stresses, which are no less lethal.

Taking Refuge in a Mentor or Guru

Teach me, guide me, make me what you will. My soul is in your hand.  – Theon, addressing Epicurus in A Few Days in Athens

When Krishna characterizes Arjuna’s pity and sympathy (BG 2:7) as weak, Arjuna is bewildered and says: “Teach me, you are my refuge!”. It is here that Krishna moves from being a friend to embodying the archetype of the higher self, or mentor. He also takes on the role of a meaning-endowing shaman, the person through which a mortal is helped to weave meaning into his life. And Lord Krishna, in this role, says: “Arise!”

Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy. – BG 2:3

In BG 2:10 we see that Krishna is addressed as Lord of the senses, a sensual God, and in BG 2:58 we see that a yogi’s senses must be under sway, that he must exhibit steadiness of mind. Krishna as charioteer is a metaphor for Krishna as role model for how to gain control over one’s self, one’s emotions, one’s senses and faculties so that they serve us, rather than we serve them.

The Gita on Nobility

Krishna saw tears in Arjuna’s eyes, and asked him: “Where does this un-Aryan despondency come from?” (BG 2:1-2). Arjuna was an Aryan warrior shortly after the arrival of Aryan tribes into Northern India. We see an appeal by Krishna to Arjuna’s nobility, aristocracy, and higher caste. It is here that we learn that we are about to hear an aristocratic Gospel for a higher class of men. Here, this higher man ideal is conflated with an aristocratic style of man who will attain “heaven”, or higher rebirth, if he fulfils his duty as a warrior.

Today many re-interpret the castes as being true to one’s bodily nature or one’s inherent tendencies, and many re-interpret the Gita by saying we must act according to our nature. But back then, caste was inherited and a warrior’s duty was righteous battle (BG 2:31). Arjuna is told that he must not oscillate, and that–as is the case with Odinism and Islam–fighters who die in battle go to heaven (BG 2:32). In verse 33, Krishna tells Arjuna that it is sinful not to fight like a coward, and in verses 34-36 he appeals to his sense of honor, his need to leave a memory and a name (a theme from warrior religion that we also see in the Havamal). So that–although Hinduism today is known for its doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence–at its inception, not unlike in Islam, tribalism and peer pressure to fight made their way into scripture.

The appeal to nobility turns into a sermon against the disintegration of the family, warning of a decline in dharma (religion, or righteousness), the abandoning of ancestor reverence and family traditions, and women becoming corrupt and contaminating their caste with unwanted children (BG 1:39-44). This must be understood within its original context of strict caste separation. In the Gita, it is said that those “rootless” souls who adulterate their blood will “go to hell forever“–which, in Hinduism, means lower rebirth. One note of interest here is that the Epicurean feast of the 20th included offerings to the ancestors, so that the preservation of family traditions was also a concern among Epicureans even if the rationale was different.

Armies in Battle

At this point, Krishna and Arjuna behold the two armies ready for battle, and the names are given for some of the more prominent warriors on both sides of the battle. The exegetic commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda interprets the names of the characters mentioned as qualities or powers of the soul: virtues and vices.

Each of them, as they are named, blows their own conch-shell (1:12-19). This call to arms is a call to affirm their own (mutually contradictory) self-interests. In Hinduism, this also represents how the tendencies or powers that they embody manifest into matter–since sound, voice, or vibration, are symbols of the holy OM syllable of creation and manifestation into matter. And so the content of the unanalyzed inner character finds manifestation in outer life, and creates conflict.

The moment of our greatest existential crisis is when the various parts of our nature, our habits, and our history, clash with each other and confuse us. We’d like to think we are simple beings with simple tendencies, but we are not. Humans are a mess of conflicting drives, desires, and intentions. Many parts of us “think” subconsciously that they’re doing something good for us, performing some service for us, but are really jeopardizing our best interests.

Perhaps our history and our bad association in the past taught us to avoid certain people, or to not give away trust easily–and perhaps this is still having unnecessary detrimental effects in our inter-personal or business relations. Perhaps our levels of acceptable risk, our habits, or our long-held opinions, need to be reassessed in light of new circumstances. In all cases, a person who is going through a depression or a crisis should introspect, and clearly identify and name the enemies of the soul that are attacking.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Vatican Saying 46

At the conclusion of the Bhagavad Gita (18:73), Arjuna once again finds firmness and steadfastness, and no longer has any doubt. I find it useful to contrast these two states because, regardless of what metaphor we use to weave meaning into our lives and to get us through our existential angst, it is generally the case that the hesitant, doubtful, confused, depressed soul is less mature than the steadfast, firm, clear, happy, resolute soul.

I wish here to call the attention to the therapeutic use of philosophy in the Gita. The allegorical understanding of the Gita is almost always preferred to the literal interpretation. Perhaps Krishna represents the philosopher friend who assists the less experienced philosopher in arising and fighting his own battle of Kurukshetra, providing education, ethical guidance, and also moral encouragement.


How the Modern World Makes Us Mentally Ill

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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