Nara, Nārāyaṇa, and the Bhagavad Gita
Probably one of the most revered, loved and worshiped god among Hindus is the 8th son of Vasudeva, the 8th Avatara of Vishnu and the reincarnation of Rishi Nārāyaṇa, who, along with Nara is supposed to be engaged in meditation in the area where the temple of Badri Vishal is located. Interestingly, while many other forms and deities are representative powers of various other-worldly ideas, or specific aspects of the world of duality, or supernal glories of a world of mystical and occult reality, or just a release into the life-denying reality of Moksha, Nara and Nārāyaṇa are supposed to be a Divine pair meditating on, well, dharma.
While the popular conception remains that Krshna was an incarnation of Vishnu, who in his past life was Rama, it may be argued in a sense that the avesha of the Avatara came to the son of Dasaratha, thus marking his avartaratwa, for a purpose suited to his life and times, and the same avaratatwa leaves him before his physical demise, and again incarnates on earth in the form of Krshna. This theological fix also helps us understand how both Parashurama and Rama – two Vishnu Avatar-s – could co-exit, and not only coexist but also meet, where the Shakti of the former gets transferred to the later and with it the avataratwa too. Thus, Krshna can be called more appropriately the next Avatara rather than a typical reincarnation of Rama as we understand the term generally. Interestingly, Buddhist tales believe that Rama reincarnated as Buddha in a family of Kshatriya-s of the Shakya lineage, who trace their origins to the Ikshvaku dynasty.
Krshna and Arjuna, on the other hand, were reincarnations of the Rishi-s who meditate eternally on the flow of Dharma. In fact, the connection is made clear in various places in the text of the Mahabharata itself, including where Shiva tells Arjuna that in his past birth, he was the Rishi Nara, or in the verse that is traditionally recited before every section of the Mahabharata or the Srimadbhagwatam:
नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरोत्तमम् |
देवीं सरस्वतीं व्यासं ततो जयमुदीरयेत् |
Reverence to Nārāyaṇa, to Nara and the Narottamam (ref to Rishis Nara and Nārāyaṇa), to devi Saraswati and to Sri Vyasadeva.
The Bhagwatam informs us that Lord Vishnu incarnated as Rsi-s Nārāyaṇa and Nara, who are constantly engaged in meditation at Badrikashram. From the Mahabharata itself, we get the story of the Asura king Dambodbhava, who, overcome by pride as his name seems to suggest, decided to challenge the meditating Nara and Nārāyaṇa to a battle. He went to Badrikasharam in the Himalaya-s looking for a fight, because he had by then defeated every manner of being from human to godly to demonic. He had believed himself invincible when some high-souled Brahmin informed him that the two young-looking rishis in Badrikasharama are the truly invincible ones. Unless they can be defeated, one cannot declare himself to be the greatest warrior. So he came and called out for a fight. The Rishis refused, saying this is no place for wrath and covetousness or even weapons. But, adamantly Dambodbhava kept insisting that they give him what he so deeply desires. Finally, Nara gets up from his seat of meditation and says, okay, get your troops and fight, I shall ensure that your eagerness for battle is forever curbed. Thus saying, the incarnation of the Supreme Vishnu, Nara, picked up a blade of kusha grass and using mantra-s released it towards the charging army and by some miraculous power that weapon of grass destroyed everything. Dambodbhava now suitably humbled falls on the feet of Nara and Nārāyaṇa, his desire for battle wiped away, asking them for blessings. Eventually from this story in the Purana-s, we get an extended version where Dambodbhava is supposed to have worshiped Lord Surya for immortality, but that being an impossible boon, ended up with the gift of a 1000 kavacha-s, armours, with very stringent and peculiar conditions required to break them if an enemy were so inclined. Needless to say he used this special power to destroy and curb all beings until Nara and Nārāyaṇa challenged him to a battle. But this was a unique battle, where, in order to satisfy the conditions of the boon, one among the pair would meditate in Badrikasharam, while the other would fight Sahasrakavacha as Dambodbhava become known after the boon, and then the next one of the pair would sit in meditation while the other fought the asura. While Dambodbhava was initially amused because he soon realized that the two actually form an inseparable combination and the spiritual power and devotion of one would supplant the strength of the other. In this way 999 of his kavacha-s were destroyed until finally the last one was left when the cycle of creation came to an end. This fight, however continued in the next cycle where Dambodbhava incarnated into two beings – Duryodhana and Karna, while Nara and Nārāyaṇa came as Partha and Parthasarathy, thus eventually completing their unfinished work.
There is another legend associated with the incarnation of Nara-nārāyaṇa where Lord Shiva, in order to demonstrate the supreme state of the two Rishi-s, hurled his devastating Pashupatastra at them and the weapon lost its power before it reached their ambience. This, said Shiva, happened because of the unshakeable depth of their meditation, which cannot be penetrated even by Divine weapons.
The birth of Urvashi too is linked to to these Rishi-Avataras of Vishnu. Indra sends a host of apsara-s with the intention of disturbing their meditation, as he so often does in the Puranic stories. But Nārāyaṇa merely pats his own thigh and produces another apsara who is so beautiful that she puts to shame the women sent by Indra. This apsara became known as Urvasi, as uru in Sanskrit means thigh, being created from the thigh of Nārāyaṇa.
Thus, it was these same Rishis, who incarnated as one of the greatest pairs in our itihasa-s to re-establish dharma and leave an effect so profound that millenniums later we still adore their colloquy that transpired in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
The Uniqueness of the Gita
Given this background it is not surprising that Sri Krshna chooses Arjuna as the one Pandava to whom he reveals the knowledge of the Gita. There have been many commentaries on the Gita by various learned people, so interested readers can always check. But at least there are a few things in the discourse of the Gita, which can be called its own unique contribution to the Hindu spiritual thought. The Gita as a text does not reject anything outright, not at least the prevalent ideas of that era, but rather includes them, moulds them and gives a fresh new perspective to the same. For example, it is traditionally understood that a student must always unquestioningly follow, revere his teachers or mentors. But the Gita takes this accepted paradigm and almost overturns it. Arjuna, we find proffering argument after argument as to why it is a grave sin to fight against relatives, and family, and Gurus –
गुरूनहत्वा हि महानुभावान्
श्रेयो भोक्तुं भैक्ष्यमपीह लोके ।
Better to live in this world even on alms than to slay these high-souled Gurus
For Drona was Arjuna’s astra-guru, Kripa his Kulaguru, Bhisma a Guru-like grandfather, etc. – and what great calamity will befall future generations, if the war takes place. Krshna, of course, brushes aside all such emotional/ethical counterpoints, and enters a rich dialogue integrating various spiritual paths and highlighting the absolute importance of following ones swadharma, not only arguing the point, but even stressing in Chapter 18 that he, Arjuna, will be driven to act as the warrior he is by the very force of his own nature, and that his current dithering is delusional.
स्वभावजेन कौन्तेय निबद्धः स्वेन कर्मणा ।
कर्तुं नेच्छसि यन्मोहात्करिष्यस्यवशोपि तत् ॥
Under illusion you are now declining to act according to My direction. But, compelled by your own nature, you will act all the same, O son of Kunti.
But, he must do so with detachment, such that no sin clings to the soul, even if it were a terrible act of slaying ones preceptors, as the circumstances demand. For dharma of an individual trumps over all interpersonal or societal equations, if progress is the aim of the jiva. Naturally, given the setting, it is but expected that the Gita defines and stresses the need for action as appropriate and consummate with the environment and the arrangement of Guna-s in the mind-body of the individual, and his aptitude, for that sets the swabhava, and this in turn leads to that most powerful and relevant term that the Lord stresses so sumptuously during his discourse: swadharma.
स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ॥
Better to die following ones swadharma than to follow someone else’s dharma which is dangerous
Thus the point being driven home seems to be that one’s duty has to be done. There is no escaping from it. But if one is worried about accruing sin, or karma as we call it today, then do it with detachment and as an offering to the Lord, but action is inescapable.
Of course, the term swadharma has been interpreted variedly by learned commentators, but the most general thrust from a direct reading of the text seems to suggest a more broad dictum, a duty that is individualistic and a function of ones swabhava, as per an individual’s judgment of dharma. It is interesting also to note that the Gita builds the arguments from swadharma, and eventually comes to the charama-sloka– sarva dharma parityajya – drop ALL dharma and come to the One Reality/Isvara/Bhagavan. Thus, without starting our individual journeys from swadharma, there is no way that we will have the scope to enter into and truly experience Sanatana Dharma – the Eternal Dharma, the one that our Rishis followed.
But this trajectory of dharma, or yoga of karma, is not the only unique idea in the Gita. The second most brilliant idea is that of the Purushottama. While the Upanishadic ideas have the story of the two birds on a tree, one eating and enjoying, while the other stoically watching, the Gita uses a similar imagery to describe the two status of the Purusha in man and then goes onto add a third important condition – the purushottamah, that is even greater than the kshara and akshara purusha, where the Divine experience is both static and dynamic. This is an important point because in the later day Yogic discourses across various paths in India, an entry into Samadhi and staying there as far as possible has been given a greater premium than anything else. But the beatific depths of Samadhi is still static. What happens when one is in the midst of intense activity of daily life? Bhagavan says in the Gita, even in that condition of utmost activity must one experience that intense otherworldly spirituality. That is the completeness of the path, the status of the Purushottamah. Needless to say anyone who has tried some spiritual practices and sadhana will know exactly how difficult it is to experience the quietude of Samadhi in a comfortable sitting condition without any external interference, what then to speak of experiencing it while remaining immersed in daily normal activity? That is exactly the high station that the Gita speaks of, which the Lord explains to Arjuna, and which unfortunately we have largely disregarded as a Nation in our pursuit of otherworldly transcendence.
What about Moksha? We have categorized the 4 purusharthas and made dharma look like an alternative to Moksha. But if swadharma is so central to human life, and the realization of Sanatana Dharma in the charama sloka is the ultimate destination, how can liberation be bereft of dharma, ever? Moreover Moksha as an escape from rebirth is an idea which the Gita explains in the middle, but does not make it the final clinching advice for Arjuna. The Gita of course is too vast and liberal in its approach to make any hard dictums. It takes all ideas, categorizes them, transforms their innate meanings, and then chooses the best for the student. But aren’t there other spiritual stations which are prized too, apart from the escape to Moksha? We find terms like nimitta-matra, brahma-nirvana, Atmarati, etc. each referring to specific states of realization. Can the simplistic English word enlightenment capture the nuances and variations in the actual states of consciousness addressed by these terms? By oversimplification, an unfortunate characteristics of our ever-rushing age, we have reduced a complex journey to mentally digestible tidbits used for polemics or propaganda, and thus made a “khidchi” of things. Note also that the Gita never speaks of Nirvana, it only says Brahma-nirvana. Are these two the same? If not, what differences and why? Literally the word nirvāṇa indicates a sort of blow out or extinguishment. While Brahma-nirvana is a blowing out *into the Brahman*. The difference is vital and consistent with the philosophy of the earliest Upanishad-s and the Gita. Not an escape into nescience, but a release from our normal existence into the Brahman, which is non-different in effect from the ultimate advice that Krshna gives to Arjuna – sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ. And then in that liberated state one must carry on ones duty as Arjuna proceeds to slay his enemies in the battlefield.
Such and many other interesting philosophical/spiritual questions can pop up for a discerning reader, who is free from agenda and hurry. More importantly, the conditions under which the Gita was given are still relevant to us, not only because the war happened in the sandhi between Dwapara and Kali yuga and is therefore closer to our times, but also because each one today is in the middle of his own personal Kurukshetra, looking for someone to provide the best guidelines on which we must shape our lives and actions, figuring out our personal dharma and following the same without fear, shame, aversion or prejudice.
It is no wonder therefore that the Rishis Nara and Nārāyaṇa, who are supposed to be eternally engaged in meditation on Sanatana Dharma, incarnated to provide us with this ultimate text of dharma and adhyatma, and explain to us in theory as well as in practice that the former is merely a step towards the later, that without swadharma, there can never be any Sanatana Dharma.
यत्र योगेश्वर: कृष्णो यत्र पार्थो धनुर्धर: |
तत्र श्रीर्विजयो भूतिध्रुवा नीतिर्मतिर्मम ||
Wherever there is Shree Krishna, the Lord of all Yoga, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be unending opulence, victory, prosperity, and righteousness. Of this, I am certain.