Light and Darkness: Bhagavad Gita Chapters 16 and 17

On the Bhagavad Gita Chapters 16 and 17

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that the Supreme Being, Brahman, God, is the support and inner controller of all manifest beings, and is also the transcendent cause of all beings, and is yet also the ultimate Reality which has no connection with any cause and effect. The Gita shows how we may approach that Being, our true Self, intellectually, emotionally and practically, through reflection, loving identification and dedicated action.

After such subtle and sophisticated teachings, it comes as a challenge and surprise to find that towards the end, in the sixteenth and seventeenth of the Gita’s eighteen chapters, there are passages resembling the most direct and uncompromising kind of moral instruction.

The sixteenth chapter begins with a list of qualities that lead to inner illumination and well being, and those that have the opposite consequences.

Among the qualities to be cultivated are fearlessness, purity, steadfastness in knowledge and practice, charity, self-restraint, self-sacrifice, study, austerity, rectitude, harmlessness, truth-fulness, angerlessness, renunciation, serenity, non-calumny, compassion, control of inordinate desire, kindness, modesty, steadiness, vigour, patience, fortitude, cleanliness, absence of hate and conceit. The opposite begins with ostentation, arrogance, anger, insolence and ignorance.

We may find a long list of ‘‘dos and don’ts” unappealing. However there are valuable psychological insights to be found in this text. The next verse in chapter sixteen says that there are two kinds of beings in the world, which may be called the divine and the demonic: so far the divine has been described at length, and now the demonic is to be spoken of.

This teaching makes clear the true significance of our moods and behaviour. Small acts of kindness and goodwill, or of selfishness and ill-will, can mean the difference between a good day and a miserable one. And they add to the quality of our whole life, whether that life is essentially ‘divine’ or ‘demonic’, progressing towards inner freedom and illumination or psychological bondage. Profound philosophical insights are of little value if they are not reflected in the simplest of actions. Vitally, the divine and demonic natures are not fixed. At any one time we may be manifesting one or the other, ultimately helping or harming ourselves.

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This article is from the Spring 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.