Spiritual aspect of martial arts - Krishna counsels Prince Arjuna

Dec 4, 2009, 2:19 PM |

As an avid student of both philosophy and martial arts, I was delighted recently to discovered on youtube, a snippet of my old favourite – where my two loves merge in Peter Brooks rendition of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is a Sanskrit epic of ancient India and a very important text of Hinduism. It tells of a war between two families of royal cousins, known as the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas were endowed with righteousness, self-control and nobility. On the other hand, the Kauravas were cruel, unrighteous, unscrupulous, greedy, and lustful.

The most celebrated part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita which begins before the start of the climatic Battle of Kurukshetra. The Pandava prince Arjuna filled with doubt as to using his martial skills to kill. He is also reluctant to act, as his enemies are his own relatives, beloved friends, and revered teachers. So he turns to his charioteer and guide, Krishna for advice.

Krishna ( who is actually the Supreme Being in disguise ) counsels Arjuna on the greater idea of “dharma” – the universal harmony and duty. He adds that any 'death' on the battlefield would involve only the shedding of the body, but the soul ( Atman ) is permanent. Arjuna's hesitation stems from his lack of right understanding of the 'nature of things,' His fear and hesitation become impediments to the proper balancing of the universal dharmic order. Krishna warns, however, that without action, the cosmos would fall out of order and truth would be obscured.

Fundamentally, the Bhagavad Gita proposes that true enlightenment comes from growing beyond identification with the temporal ego, the 'False Self', the ephemeral world, so that one identifies with the truth of the immortal self, the absolute soul ( Atman ).

Krishna does not propose that the physical world must be forgotten or neglected. Indeed, it is quite the opposite: one's life on earth must be lived in accordance with greater laws and truths, one must embrace one's temporal duties whilst remaining mindful of a more timeless reality. Such a life would naturally lead towards stability, happiness and ultimately, enlightenment.

One interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is as "an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, man's higher impulses struggling against evil."

Personally, I see the comparability of the Bhagavad Gita and the martial arts we practise. I believe the martial arts practised in the true way has a spiritual dimension – reminding us of a universal condition of Life. And that condition is struggle. It applies to humans, it applies to all living things – great and small.

We struggle for survival and continuity - food, clothing, warmth, shelter, protection, reproduction. We struggle for love, acceptance, belonging. We struggle for status and recognition. And lastly, we struggle for self-realisation and perfection.

This is why Krishna tells Arjuna that he must act. Without action, there is no struggle. And with no struggle, all is lost – we might as well die.

Conflict is a byproduct of struggle. If there is no conflict, there wouldn’t be a struggle. For example, can you imagine salmon jumping straight onto our dinner plates ? Conflict arises because we struggle to get the salmon onto our dinner plate ( figuratively speaking, of course ) whilst the salmon struggles to get away !

Martial arts recognise this conflict and struggle inherent in Life – and give us the opportunity to learn how to manage this conflict ( and the emotional and psychological states that goes with it ) in a safe and controlled environment.

Krishna advises that we should act but not reflect on the fruit of our action. Obviously he is not saying that we should be acting out our urges for e.g. committing arson and not reflecting on the consequences of arson. He is referring to giving our honest best efforts – and not worrying about the consequences, for e.g. winning or losing. But whether we win or lose, we must act. For without action, there is only one result – and that is loss. This is why the samurai of old Japan acts with detachment – he cuts with his sword, not thinking whether he lives or dies in the struggle. It is no surprise that the Zen Buddhism that conditions them mentally to be so has its roots in ancient India.

Spiritually speaking, I see martial arts as a mirror. Our pursuit of the martial arts is like holding a mirror to our face. It reveals to us ourselves - throwing back to us the image of ourselves. For e.g. :

• Why am I always nervous sparring with one particular person at the dojang ? Is it because he is strong and I am weak ? Where is his strength – and how do I counter it ? Where is my weakness – and how do I mitigate it ?

• Why am I always forgetting this pattern ? Why am I always doing it sloppily ? Didn’t someone say “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly” What does this say about me ?

• Why am I not teaching others ? Am I selfish ? Or is it a waste of time ?

But then the journey to self-discovery on begins with contemplation and the willingness to question oneself.