The Gita starts with Arjuna expressing his sorrows to Krishna. He mourns that he will have to fight against his family and friends. Arjuna is dejected and pours out all of his woes to his friend and mentor Krishna, who stays completely silent. After Arjuna has ranted for a while, Krishna begins to speak.
Krishna starts by telling Arjuna to stop wallowing in his self-pity and get back up to his standards. Krishna chides Arjuna that he is so far away from the path of liberation. What interests me in these words of Lord Krishna is his use of the phrase “path of liberation”. Why didn’t he use something like “your duty” or “your job”? Krishna could have said, “What has happened to you Arjuna, do your job!”.
However, Lord Krishna chose to say “path of liberation”, and I believe that this is him saying that doing your duty is the path to liberation. Liberation is achieved by fulfilling your purpose in the world, and there is no better way to do that than to perform your duty.
After all, what is the meaning of liberation? What is the point of life? The end goal of life is being happy and keeping others around you happy. If you perform your duty well, you will be satisfied. Therefore, people around would be pleased.
Krishna then explains about the soul. He says that the people around him (Arjuna, Arjuna’s brothers, Arjuna’s cousins, etc.) are just bodies that contain a soul. Krishna emphasizes that all living beings must go through the same phases of life: birth, life, death, and finally rebirth. The soul never changes, and the bodies are the ones that do. He tells Arjuna that everybody’s bodies must die one day, but the soul will never die. Therefore, death is an illusion as nobody dies, but they shed their bodies as if changing clothes.
Even after all of this, Arjuna is not satisfied, so Krishna tries out a new approach. He talks about enlightenment and liberation, saying that even some effort towards doing your duty well can go a long way on the path to enlightenment. He says that some people are interested in following the letter of the law and speaking flowery words.
Several people speak flowery words, and many of them are successful in the world as well. Lord Krishna is not telling us to be brutal and hurt people. He is saying that we should be able to back our words. For example, it is relatively easy to tell someone, “You are so much better than me at tennis!” However, to accept that they are genuinely better than you at tennis is difficult. Still, that never means that you should hurt anybody. If you want to tell your friend how bad they are at math, say something like, “You know, I think I saw you struggling at math yesterday. Do you need help?”
Krishna also mentions that the ultimate goal of life is to get past the three Gunas, the major qualities of a person: sattva, or peacefulness and kindness, rajas, or aggressiveness and activeness, and finally tamas, or laziness and a sleeping state. Now you might ask, “Why would you ever want to get beyond sattva? I get the other two, though.”
Hold your horses! Krishna doesn’t mean to stop developing these qualities and stymie your growth. He suggests that you should have the perfect combination of them, in which case you will be eternally blissful. That state is called turya (the fourth state in the Hindu scriptures). That is what the Buddha termed nirvana, and what the Hindus call moksha. This state is achieved by getting the good parts of all of these qualities, and then maintaining them forever.
The better part of rajas is the activeness. That is the fuel that allows you to live your life. Without it, you wouldn’t be anything more than a vegetable. Tamas enables you to rest. Without it, you would be a zombie eternally. Do you remember the state that you feel when you are on your computer for way too long? Imagine that, but forever. That would be the state that you would be in without tamas. Tamas has a good side to it too!
Long story short, Krishna is telling us that everything is just a soul in a body. He also says that we should get past the three qualities mentioned in the scriptures and not speak false words. We will now expand upon these ideas in future chapters.