The Prevailing Spirit of Our Time

We can see in the evolution of human civilisation and culture that each age has its own prevailing “time spirit” or dharma. Dharma is a difficult concept to translate from the Sanskrit, but it essentially means the inborn “duty” or “right path” for an individual (or a society). This “right path” will change from time to time as humanity moves into a new phase of its development.

Sri Aurobindo outlines the spirit of our times. While he wrote this in the early years of the 20th Century, it is clear that the description remains very much in order still today: “The modern mind is just now the European mind, such as it has become after having abandoned not only the philosophic idealism of the highest Graeco-Roman culture from which it started, but the Christian devotionalism of the Middle Ages; these it has replaced or transmuted into a practical idealism and social, patriotic and philanthropic devotion. It has got rid of God or kept Him only for Sunday use and erected in His place man as its deity and society as its visible idol. At its best it is practical, ethical, social, pragmatic, altruistic, humanitarian.”

He continues: “…the modern mind has exiled from its practical motive-power the two essential things, God or the Eternal and spirituality or the God-state, which are the master conceptions of the Gita. It lives in humanity only, and the Gita would have us live in God, though for the world in God; in its life, heart and intellect only, and the Gita would have us live in the spirit; in the mutable Being who is “all creatures”, and the Gita would have us live also in the Immutable and the Supreme; in the changing march of Time, and the Gita would have us live in the Eternal.”

Arjuna’s task, as outlined by the divine Teacher, is to set a high standard by acting according to the best lights of the age he lives in, but to do so from an inner knowledge and conscious understanding rather than a mechanical following of the outer rule. Our task is the same.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 28-29,

Avoiding Narrow or Partisan Interpretations of the Gita

The Bhagavad Gita represents a complex and many-sided teaching. Because it contains so many diverse threads and themes, it is possible to latch onto one of them and attempt to make it the focus or dominant teaching. Such a position, however, does not do justice to the integrated and comprehensive approach of the Gita itself. It is therefore important to realize that at each stage, as we review the Gita’s various elements, that they are “parts of a whole” and not a self-standing single dominant theme.

There are those who have interpreted the Gita to be a teaching of “renunciation” of life, others who hold it up as the ultimate doctrine of “works in the world”. Some look upon it as a song of devotion, while others find in it the doctrines of philosophy and the ultimate expression of the yoga of knowledge. It is a testament to the holistic approach taken by the Gita that each one can find in it the apparently opposite teachings!

Sri Aurobindo reminds us of the big picture that integrates all of the subordinate threads so that as we enter into the details we do not lose sight of the whole. The Gita is a spiritual teaching of enormous scope and not a weapon in a polemical battle of adherents of one philosophical or religious bent or another. The Bhagavad Gita is far more than any of its parts, or even the sum of its parts.

“That which the Gita teaches is not a human, but a divine action; not the performance of social duties, but the abandonment of all other standards of duty or conduct for a self-less performance of the divine will working through our nature; not social service, but the action of the Best, the God-possessed, the Master-men done impersonally for the sake of the world and as a sacrifice to Him who stands behind man and Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 26-28,