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COVID-19 and The Bhagavad Gita

With the knowledge of Bhagavad Gīta in mind, let us bravely make our way through the Kurukṣetra of this pandemic and emerge victorious not only against the virus, but also against our unsteady mind.


COVID-19 and The Bhagavad-Gīta

When I heard the news that my younger uncle’s mother-in-law and my grandfather have left their bodies hours apart due to COVID, I was left in shock. Three days later my older uncle abruptly left his body. Four days after him, my grandmother left her body. Admitted to the hospital around the same time, each did not know that the other had passed away. As we received each piece of news around 3AM EST, our family fell into a deep state of grief and depression. Completely helpless, there were no words to explain this suffering – the loss of four lives all in one week. Even today, it is mentally difficult to grasp what transpired. All I can still think of was how gentle these beings were. This was my mother’s family. The fact that she couldn’t be there in person to bid them goodbye left her devastated. 

When the dust settled and reality set in, I could feel the absence of our loved ones in our lives; I no longer have grandparents to play chess with or share life’s celebrations. I found myself fighting a battle within – my heart and mind were trying to find answers to some fundamental questions: what is the nature of this world? If someone leaves their body, are they really gone? What is death? Where do we go from here? As my heart plunged into grief, all I could do was ask questions. When my heart regained its strength and the mind regained its capacity to contemplate the answers to these questions, I found that it is tragedies like these that are the real teaching moments in life.

I took this tragedy as an opportunity to really dive into Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa’s dialogue with Arjuna in the Gīta. In moments of joy and sorrow, I have always found refuge in the Bhagavad-Gīta. I found a few verses on the nature of the body, the soul, and the mind that slowly lifted me out of my sorrow. As I have found comfort in these verses below, I hope they come to your aid in your time of need as well. 

The Body and The Soul

In Chapter 2 verses 13 and 22, Kṛṣṇa talks about the nature of body (deha) and soul (dehī). The key teaching here is that when a loved one leaves their body, they are no longer confined to the limitations of their body and this world. No longer bound by a physical barrier, they remain with us at all times. As all material objects in this world are reduced to ashes at one point or another, so is the body. Our body and the bodies of those we grow attached to and possess with intensity as our own will come to an end. But it is important to understand that while the material body is lost, the soul is not. The soul only possesses a body for a finite amount of time after which it journeys on to its next destination – be it another body or absorption back to the unchanging Reality. The soul experiences the world through the body; it experiences both pain and pleasure, and when the body can no longer function due to the conditions of this world, the soul leaves. Whether or not we believe in rebirth or reincarnation, which is what this verse indicates, take your life as it is in this very moment. We know our body changes in various ways depending on the input we give it through our senses – from birth to youth, middle, and old age, to death. Yet, do we not perceive that there is an unchanging Reality, an immortal being, within us that experiences this world? 

In Chapter 2 verses 23 and 24, we learn about the unalterable (sthāṇuḥ), immutable (achalaḥ), and primordial (sanātanaḥ) nature of the soul. While the bodies of our loved ones are reduced to ashes, their soul is not (nainaṁ dahati pāvakaḥ). The soul is neither destroyed nor subject to any destructive force like the wind (mārutaḥ); it is not impacted in any way by the elements of this world. In other words, the body is mortal, but there exists within the encased body an immortal being within all of us, including the loved ones we lost in this world. That immortal Reality continues to exist without the body and is utterly unaffected by the world. We can then take comfort in knowing that all beings have within them this unchanging Reality, and it is to that unchanging Reality that we bow down to when we approach each being when we are alive. Realizing this Reality is within all beings and knowing that the physical bodies of those beings are finite, we develop a sense of higher love, reverence, and deeper appreciation for all living beings. With this knowledge, we can arrive at a state where we no longer grieve over our lost ones because they continue to exist in their immortal form. They are more liberated than we are because of this. Thus, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna repeatedly to remain steady in this wisdom.

Death and Rebirth

In Chapter 2 verse 27 we learn death is inevitable so is rebirth. We often talk about rebirth but we seldom examine critically the nature of death. We accumulate, consume, and discard as if we are going to live forever, and we cause harm to many beings along the way. But we do not take a second to grasp the impermanence of this world. Death seldom comes up as a topic of discussion. Now Kṛṣṇa gives us an opportunity to examine it very closely. Although we do not know how or where we will be reborn, consider death in this life here and now because it is certain – it is coming for you, for me, and all those we love. We can choose to ignore death and confront it at an uncertain time in our lives when we (our minds) are utterly unprepared to face it, or we can decide to accept, understand, and embrace it here and now. When we know we cannot overcome death, we learn to accept and embrace it. When we embrace it, we start looking within, and deeply look within others as well. It is only then that we really start living and treat others with respect.

If death is certain for us, what should the mind do now so that at the actual moment of death we are in a state of ease and peace? Here lies a profound insight: we can use our lives to prepare our minds for death. When death arrives, our minds can whole-heartedly be ready to accept it because we have prepared the mind to meet that moment. No one had expected COVID to happen the way it did; I certainly did not expect my family to pass the way they did. Naturally then knowing death is certain, this moment or next, we must strive to attain a peace of mind.

Mind: Friend or Foe?

How do we attain peace of mind? Consider Chapter 6 verse 6. When tragedy strikes, our mind experiences a variety of emotions. One moment it is in deep sorrow. The next, anger at God, at the circumstances, and at the utter helplessness of the situation. Does the relentless acquisition of wealth and power bring back a lost life? So how do we make use of a difficult moment to turn a turbulent mind around? At the core of the mind is a thought. These thoughts can benefit us or they can harm us. The question is, how prepared is your mind to face a difficult situation?

In a tragedy like this, lots of exchanges take place. Some of these exchanges are unpleasant and cause great pain. We do not take a moment and give ourselves the time and space to say, “the mind is grieving, it cannot make sense of the situation, let me give it some time to settle down before it says something or makes me do something harmful.” Once this settling down of the mind happens and it regains its composure, the mind then has the potential to become our friend and work for our benefit. Each thought can be controlled and turned to benefit us. Naturally the mind will react to moments of tragedy in terrible ways, but with each tragedy the mind, with careful choices and efforts, can be prepared to bring about a deep friendship. This wisdom may then heal us and help others too. In this way, we may move from one difficulty to the next established in steady wisdom where the mind becomes our friend rather than our enemy.

So what is the point of suffering? Is suffering an opportunity to transform the mind? What active steps can we take to turn the mind into our friend and rise above this world of pain and pleasure? It is clear that an innate characteristic of this existence is suffering – dukkham. The circumstances leading to the death of my family members during COVID made this very clear. Now what causes suffering? Take my grandparents. I was extremely close and attached to them. When they ceased to exist in this world, all I was left with was suffering. No doubt we must let our hearts weep because they are tender enough to feel pain and compassion, but we must also be established in knowledge. This experience has taught me that attachment results in suffering. 

Towards Mental Equanimity

Now, how can we put an end to this suffering? Consider Chapter 2 verses 54, 55, and 56. The primary teaching here is to attain a mental state of steady intellect or equanimity (sthitaprajña)See also 12-18 and 19. Arjuna asks Kṛṣṇa about the characteristics of those established in such a mental state. How do they talk? Sit? Walk? Kṛṣṇa answers that when, through constant effort and deliberate choices, cravings or selfish desires (kāmān) come to end, that person is said to have attained a mental state of steady intellect or equanimity. Such a person whose mind was previously affected by pain or pleasure, praise or insult, heat or cold, now having perceived the immortal soul within, becomes unaffected and transformed.

To become free from selfish desires or cravings requires constant effort. We can slowly use every moment to overcome the agitations of the mind by adopting a certain path. Based on our mental proclivity, we may adopt Karma mārga, a path where each action is performed without attachment to the results - ultimately culminating in work solely for loka-saṅgraham3.20-21 and 3.25. We may adopt the path of Bhakti mārga, a path of loving devotion towards any personal deity - ultimately culminating in complete surrender (sharanagati). We may adopt the Jñāna-mārga, a path of contemplation and self-inquiry - ultimately culminating in the realization of true Knowledge. Then there is the path of Dhyāna, where the mind remains on an object of meditation, be it “OM,” a deity of your choice, or the formless unchanging Reality – whatever is easier for our mind - ultimately attaining the state of absorption (Samādhī). These are a few paths Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa advises Arjuna. These paths help the material being, full of selfish desires, turn into a spiritual being, completely selfless in thought, word, and deed. The ordinary mind is then transformed into a Divine mind free from sorrow (ātyantika-duḥkha-nivṛtti). The finite, mortal being then slowly perceives oneself to be an infinite, immortal being and attains the ultimate state of peace and bliss. This is one way to put an end to our suffering.

In conclusion, Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa, step by step, reveals this knowledge to Arjuna and convinces him to fight and do his duty. He tells Arjuna that he has nothing to fear because nothing is lost in this world. He stresses the point that every being has a spark of the Divine within them, and just because the body is lost, it does not mean that the Divinity that resides within each is lost. He helps Arjuna arrive at a mental state of steady intellect or equanimity where the mind is firmly established in this knowledge. In many ways, we are all Arjuna. With this knowledge in mind, let us bravely make our way through the Kurukṣetra of this pandemic and emerge victorious not only against the virus, but also against our unsteady mind. As Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa says towards the end of the Gīta, yathechchhasi tathā kuru – ponder over this [knowledge], and then do as you wish. 18-63.

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