July 23, 2012 § 7 Comments
I am the ritual and the worship
the medicine and the mantra
the butter burnt in the fire
and I am the flames that consume it –
Bhagavad Gita 9.16, Translated by Stephen Mitchell
I first tried reading the Bhagavad Gita in high school. It was an old Penguin edition from the late 1960s and I couldn’t get through even two pages of the introduction. It was so disappointing to me that I couldn’t understand it. I had just finished reading Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which served as my introduction to eastern philosophies, and I was enamoured with Seymour Glass and even more so with his brother Buddy. I had an idea that the Gita held secrets or answers or at least smarter questions.
When I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia, before we moved, I was desperately missing my yoga teacher training so I went back over the reading list Rolf gave us. On the list was Bhagavad Gita, A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Honestly, if it didn’t say “New Translation,” I wouldn’t have ordered it, and even when it came, I waited a few weeks to open it. And then one night, I skipped the introduction completely and dove into poetry so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
The story itself is simple. The Gita takes place on the battlefield at the beginning of a war between two clans in India a few thousand years ago. Arjuna is a warrior who has friends and teachers in both clans, and before the battle begins, he has his charioteer Krishna drive him out to the middle of the battlefield where he realizes the futility of such a war. In my mind I think of Kurukshetra as the Battle of Gettysburg – each side connected to the other – and of course, the ancient story symbolizes the war between our divine nature and our egos, our heads and our hearts, each of them both friends and enemies to the other.
Arjuna decides he is not going to fight in the war because it’s violent and wrong, and as a spiritual text, you would think this is where the story is going to go. But Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer – who also happens to be God (or the Divine) incarnate – tells Arjuna that he must fight and he launches into a long teaching about the nature of life and death, the inevitability of war, and the importance spiritual practice. Until I moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this element of the Bhagavad Gita baffled me.
I am the butter burnt in the fire and the flames that consume it. Those lines in the Gita, when Krishna tells Arjuna that the secret to life is Faith, bring me to my knees each time I see them. And yet, this spring, I still didn’t understand them. I still puzzled over the connection between Love and War. Why did the Gita take place on a battlefield? How could God be in both the butter and the flames that consumed it? In May, I still thought that God should pick a side.
When I first came to Jacksonville, I was appalled by this town. If it had a smell it would be hot asphalt and cigarettes. If it had a color it would be a bruise, the blood-red of the Marine flag and the indigo of the ocean, the blue-black of the daily thunderstorms and the angry orange of the sun as it rises each morning, the heat both searing and liquid, like something squeezed from a bottle.
But slowly, the color began to subtly change and shift: I began to see the white undersides of the storm clouds, I detected the silver scent of ocean in the air and the yellow stretch of languor in the heat. I took the boys to a park one day where grass-colored dragonflies the size of candy bars flitted around us. I discovered a tiny red market where the owner sold me fresh-caught scallops and called me “Sugar.” When I went into Barnes and Noble one day, a young Marine held the door open. “After you Ma’am,” he said. We sat near each other in the cafe, both of us on laptops, and soon, four other young Marines gathered in front of him and started talking quietly. I looked up at one point, surprised to see them standing the way children do around someone with a new toy. They were so young still, like puppies with oddly shaven heads.
“So how are they treating y’all?” the boy who opened the door for me asked them.
“Well, OK I guess,” said one of the newcomers.
“I’d have to say pretty good,” said another. “Except we have to listen to the speeches they give all the eighteen year olds about how we shouldn’t buy a BMW on a Private’s pay.”
As I listened, I learned the oldest among them was twenty-one, that a few of them were probably going overseas soon, that another one was having an elective surgery next week, the announcing of which made the rest of them stand quietly for a few moments.
There is a butt-naked quality to Jacksonville that is both exhilarating and terrifying, appalling and refreshing. I have seen mothers smack their children in the grocery store and have seen Marines riding high up in Humvees wave at my boys. One day at the beach we almost left because the cigarette smoke was so thick and on another day, while I was swimming in the warm waves, five dolphins popped up so close to me I could have touched them. I was mesmerized by their bright, clicking conversations, their small neat teeth, the speed with which they whipped and rolled under the waves.
The other day, driving behind a car with a bumper sticker like the one in the photo, I felt myself melt and soften into the sadness and salt of this town. I surely felt God – or whatever you might call It – while I was swimming with dolphins, but I felt it just as surely when I was sitting in front of those young soldiers in the bookstore, when I saw that mother hit her child, when I turn on the news and hear Syria, Aurora, Famine, Flood. I certainly don’t understand the Bhagavad Gita, but I do understand a bit better now that love doesn’t pick sides, that sometimes there is no side.
Kindness and hatred, faith and fear are so entwined with each other, each choice so near to the other that it can leave you breathless at times. But even in the darkest moments love is there, always, melting in the fire, willing itself to be consumed. It hovers over our heads like the black and gold butterflies here, like the heavy bodies of the MV-22 Ospreys, which lift up and into the sky, going off wherever it is they are going to go, doing whatever it is they are going to do.