Gita at Easter

Cambridge, MA. As you know by now, the Bhagavad Gita is a complex, multi-level text that explores the nature of self, the world, action, and God, and proposes as its ideal — or one of its ideals — detached action, playing one’s role in the world, without care for personal benefit or fear of personal loss. For many, this works at the level of a robust, active devotion: do all for God, for Krsna, and all will work out. Thus, in the frame story of the Gita, the warrior Arjuna has been suddenly overwhelmed by the prospect of the civil war that looms – he is poised in the middle of the battlefield, in conversation with Krishna, his charioteer — and refuses to fight. The Gita is the teaching that helps him to find himself, to do his duty without hesitation or doubt. Krsna’s teaching is punctuated with appeals to Arjuna to rise up:

Don’t be a coward, Arjuna — this is not suitable for you! Get rid of this wretched weakness of heart and rise up! (2.3)

If you are killed, you will go to heaven; if you win, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore rise up, Arjuna, firmly committed to this battle. (2.37)

Therefore, with the sword of knowledge cut through this doubt arising in ignorance and standing in your heart. Become focused, and rise up, Arjuna! (4.42)

Therefore, rise up, choose glory, defeat your enemies, enjoy a prosperous kingdom. They have all already been slain by me, you are simply the instrument of my will. (11.33) 

But the teaching can be just words on the page. The Gita has its real point less in what Krsna says than in how Arjuna finds himself again, and rises up, to return to life’s battles, to do his duty in accord with the word spoken to him. At last, after the final and summary teaching of the 18th chapter, Arjuna replies:

My confusion is banished, my wits restored, by your grace, unfailing lord. I am steady now, my doubts gone. I will act according to your word. (18.73)

Nice, but what, you may be asking, has this to do with Easter? The Resurrection is — like the Crucifixion — unique, not simply a perennial wisdom told in every tradition. But as I pointed out a week ago, even if the event is unique, we are not. We are lost, we struggle to find our way and overcome our doubts; we live in fear and either despair (and hide in their rooms, like the apostles), or want (like the women) to return to where we once had certainty, rather than facing what lies before us.

While the lovely stories of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus rightly occupy much of our attention, it is perfectly appropriate that this year’s Gospel for Easter is the very end of Mark, unadorned by all the additions accruing to it in the early Church:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ (16.1-7)

Had it ended this way, it would be only a bit odd for Easter – no sudden appearance, no encounter on the road. But the final, omitted last verse of the Gospel makes things all the more peculiar:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (16.8)

Mark seems to have left it there. The question hangs in the air: What will these women do? They are not found Jesus where they expected to find him. The heavenly messenger did not console them but confused and terrified them. Overawed, in terror, afraid, they flee — and worst of all, they are silent and say nothing. Mission abandoned, just as it starts. Nothing more is said in the Gospel according to Mark.

These women are, in other words, much like Arjuna, sunken in doubt and confusion, unable to act. As in the Gita, the solution is not simply the Lord’s words, the good news — they have all the words and wisdom they need — but how these women receive it, hear it, understand it, let it sink it, choosing or not to let it change them and send them, no longer afraid, on mission.

The Gita ends with Arjuna saying that he will return to the work given him. Mark seems to be saying: Well, what happened to these women? As if to add: You know what happened — you are in the very Church, after all, that preserved this Gospel. If you want to know what happened next, he is suggesting, look to your community, look into yourself, and figure out how the confused, fearful, and depressed, rise up to speak the Word given to them. It is here, not in the book but in life, that the Story concludes.

At Easter 2015, we too are being challenged to rise up: to believe, even if we’ve seen nothing, had no apparitions, and perhaps find ourselves less certain than we were at Lent’s beginning. By taking the Word to heart, we can come out the other side of our fears and doubts, depression and despair, and do what we are called to do. Or not.

The Gita helps us to realize the remarkable event of resurrection: the miracle, today, our own rising up.

The Gita in Lent: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.