On the Misery of the Unbeliever


The Bhagavad Gita, like any text or doctrine rigorously indebted to the religious genre of literature, presents the (post)modern or skeptical reader with all the things that Krishna attributes to “cynical people:” perhaps nothing but misery or frustration (83.3). In the same sense, it is an awesome text due to its absoluteness. The word “metaphysics” in philosophy has recently come to designate a form of thought which perpetuates the belief in the necessary or absolute existence of any entity. Like every promotion of faith, the Bhagavad Gita formulates a clear-cut metaphysics that attempts to evaluate existence, nature, the universe, human life, etc. and asserts a pre-established sense to reality. The most obvious way to begin to ground a pre-given sense of reality is to assert an other-world concealed behind our everyday world. To respect its complexity, let’s assemble some of the axioms to Krishna’s metaphysical claims:

  1. The Atma (True Self), Brahman (God or Godhead) and Purusha (life force) necessarily exist (43.12).
  2. All beings are contingent upon God, who is absolute, and so if a being exists, it exists necessarily through God (53.18-19).
  3. Similarly, God splits into nature and spirit (Divinity), one being non-real, the other real, and God is not dependent upon nature (the non-real), but nature is dependent on God (70.12).
  4. Although God looks over nature, the latter operates by itself and is contingent upon karma (action), whereas God is divorced from all worldly action or karma itself.
  5. Therefore, God, Atma, and the Life Force are not natural, they are divine, or we could say that nature is God’s lower (non-real) nature, and divinity is its higher nature (16.26-27).
  6. All desire is worldly and linked to pleasure and pain. Therefore, the world does not guarantee any pleasure that is not overwhelmed by pain, or since the world does not offer a permanent feeling of pleasure (i.e. bliss) because of the prospect of death, then the belief in a realm beyond death and life becomes the most important goal (73.29).
  7. Since desire is bad because it entangles us in karma (non-reality), uncompromising duty is what is required. Insofar as man’s only real objective is union with God, duty not only refers to duty to authority or society, but more explicitly to rendering all works and all desires to God (in order to better realize our unity with God, etc.).
  8. Duty is the sign of our devotion to God which is necessary for our union with Him. In this sense, in order to attain true bliss and be “intoxicated” with God, we must cultivate the correct mental attitude, the “worshipful” attitude (54.21, 46.30).
  9. Finally, to indicate why the worshipful attitude is important, let’s examine a single passage: “This is a universal law, Arjuna. The sum total of all thoughts and feelings during the whole span of your life condense into a single state of mind at the time of your departure from the body. You assume a particular mental makeup at the instant of death. Whatever occupies your attention throughout life will inevitably be your consciousness at the moment you die—and to that realm of consciousness you will go…Any moment may be your last, so treat each as the last because your thought at that instant is the foundation on which your next birth is assembled” (77.6-7).
  10. The only thing remaining is to do God, be God, see God in all things, think God at all times, believe devoutly that we are One with God before and after death, and fear the worldly thoughts that continuously come to conceal such consciousness at any moment: Krishna asserts, “this is absolutely true; give up any doubts” (41.10).

This list seemed necessary in order to highlight some of the fundamental frameworks through which the Gita attempts to coax the reader throughout its argumentation. However, even the word “argument” would be very misplaced, because to want to argue with God, whether face to face on the battlefield or within our own minds, is to cut short any relevance any sort of argument could ever have. And Krishna/God makes abundantly clear that it does not matter which God or what kind of worshipful attitude we assume, only that we do assume such an attitude under pain of deciding against our union with reality, i.e. God. God may not roll dice, but one certainly does not roll the dice with God, let alone against him.

In essence, the crux of the metaphysical theory supporting this religious view of the world is to place a rather cumbersome and awkward responsibility on the part of all mankind, namely that we must deify ourselves simply through knowledge in God. Yet this knowledge is in fact faith, and this faith is in fact the very means through which society or the state, i.e. the political arrangements/powers that be, take on all their power. For to wonder at the fact that there is something rather than nothing can easily lead to a religious outlook; but it is only the next step to wonder at the fact that there is society rather than chaos, and from there to assert the necessity of an all-knowing, all-powerful Godhead.

When we are told that our bodies are merely instruments for God, then ipso facto they become plastic for social power, gearing up our bodies to lubricate the cogs which we have become in the social machine. If the world isn’t real, along with our actions and the karma that follows (except for the “mental attitude” that culminates our life), then it follows that society and political power aren’t real either. If we accept that society is a given and that no desire should or could change things, then we can do nothing but accept duty as a means of penance for the sin of being. Seeing all things in God and bowing to all things through God become the same thing.

Krishna asserts that the ignorant or the unbelievers are the cause of their own sorrow, that they cause themselves to be separated from God, and that they waste their lives. More importantly, they will never find bliss in a union with God. However, it remains valid that some would rather will their own sorrow than be beholden to a God who can do the same. Furthermore, we will find no bliss in God, and, more importantly, we certainly do not find happiness in the idea in the necessary existence of God (for this is the true issue at hand). The question is: by doing away with a doctrine based on a sanctimonious and metaphysical absolute need, do we cause our own downfall, or bring about our True-Self-overcoming? If the latter, then we must be able to show how the (non)-necessary (non)-existence of God would not bring about the destruction of the universe or humanity (32.22-24).

This entry was written by Taylor Adkins and published on Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 9:34 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “On the Misery of the Unbeliever

  1. You’re missing the best part:

    Arjuna: But I’ll be killing my homies?!

    Krishna: Chill, Arjuna. They’ll be reincarnated, for sure.

    Arjuna: It still sucks big time.

    Krishna: Life’s not fair, just do it already.

  2. Iit’s the yearning for awareness, for pure truth that moves me in the Gita. A yearning we see paradoxically in the lilting, light, haunting voice of Krishna.

    I remember there’s also a wonderful bit where the book itself seems to explode, as God shows his face to Arjuna…

    By the way, I like your turn at the end. How much Dionysus is there in Krishna? :)

  3. I think Krishna sort of comes across as impatient and condescending, but at the same time thoughtful and very much “if only I could show you how things really are” sort of a fellow. But then again you’re right he’s more of a destructive force of chaos without all the negativity of moralizing interpretation of destruction=evil/bad.

  4. The thing I find most contradictory is that god is supposedly made of stuff that isn’t real! I suppose the concept of epiphenomena comes into play there. But there is the constant paradox even so of looping around and using “reality” against the very perceptions that originally created it! Every illusion is real to the extent that it is an experience.

    I also find funny the idea that we are not allowed to want to do what is apparently a good thing, instead we must let ourselves be “required” to do it. I think this rejection of will/opinion for obedience, without ever combining the two, is what encourages repression in that philosophy.

  5. Josh–Where does the Bhagavadgita demand that we trade in desire to act for compulsion to act? Instead Krishna suggests that we let go of desire for the FRUITS of our acts and aim our desire the action itself. Not to say that this detachment from results is unproblematic, rather, to say that the unique conception of sacrifice introduced in the bhagavadgita cannot be reduced to a simple duality of desire versus destiny

  6. glenda gladheart on said:

    It is an eternal truth that separation from God is the most profound sorrow and when we are one with God we are full of joy no matter our trials. I enjoyed perusing your brilliant website and found it interesting and educational since this is not my usual sphere…so much truth floating around in every religion. Faith is the very power by which God governs the universe and I agree that to have faith in God is to trust that we can by keeping his commandments and being dutiful deify ourselves. I do think that lack of duty and faith brings about destruction of the purposes of our earth at least within the universe. We certainly can cause the downfall of our society through acting faithlessly and at the very least break ourselves against eternally significant edicts or commandments. (I don’t expect my old housewifely comments to be added but I wanted to make them anyway. Keep up the good work and be courageous and steadfast and live faithful to all truth yourselves for “man is that he might have joy”.)

  7. @Kate: I was re-analysing the summary, point 7 to be specific. I can see how such a philosophy could be resolved; focusing on a mode of life rather than just specific moments of “result”, because strictly speaking we cannot “do” results, only actions, and so our objectives must be centred on a pattern of action not a single thing, so as to recognise our existence as present tense continuous people. It reminds me of that proverb about vengeance; if you make yourself about ending anything (even ending a lack), when you do so your driving purpose is over, and you must either die or become a new person. I’ll never believe that desire is dodgy though, only that it must be appropriate to what it is directed at.

  8. Your opinions are interesting to say the least, and have compelled me to read other FO threads, but it seems your analysis here is clumsy and overly intellectual… Clumsy because you summarize, paraphrase, and quote the Gita so blunderingly I wonder whether you’ve ever even read it, and over-intellectual because your methods stab around at the ancient text’s (translated) meaning with the superficial assumption, brash compromise, and western-centric ideology of a stale New Critic. This is not to say your framework for discussion is uncommon or often disputed, but I thought I would disagree for a moment, as your language caught my eye somehow while I was looking for something else.

    Here are some Gita and spiritual-religious points of misunderstanding (you touch on) exceedingly prolific in western discourse:

    First and foremost, the Gita is a cultural-historical manifestation, a spiritual allegory wielding practical, thoughtful, and inspirational information, written in one of the hardest languages to make meaning from for western and modern thinkers. This said, The Gita is a blunt summary of a much larger series, from a much (much) longer story, the Mahabharata, one of the longest epic poems ever written. It is not a “promotion of faith,” but rather the story of an allegorical character on an allegorical quest for truth.

    In this sense it can be seen as somewhat formulaic; however, the Gita does not attempt to “evaluate existence, nature, the universe, hunan life,” or assert a “preestablished sense of reality,” and how you found “the misery of the unbeliever” to be an absolute topic in this text is quite hilarious precisely because the story ends absolutely affirming that all souls, whether “believers” or “unbelievers” at the moment, will obtain the same.

    Perhaps as ironic, your “list seemed necessary” to highlight ways in which the Gita “coaxes” readers reveals only your ability to coax perceptive readers of your misunderstanding of the Gita’s content and form. You point out that argument is fruitless, but fail to see it is so on terms of poetic reading in a story revealing technique(s) which feel beauty in suffering, truth beyond blindness, and happiness within. There is no “deification” in the Gita, only individualized realization, and any argument it suggests is not between the self and God, but between true self and the self of the ego.

    Your further explanation of faith, metaphysics, and absolutism only maintains your application of misguide assumption and preconceived irreverence. You manage to load three neutral terms with sufficient prejudice to point out something, but that you eventually work up to the obscure and possibly useless question of metaphysical independence perhaps inducing “True-Self-overcoming,” and if so, requiring secular universe/creation rationalizations, turns any remaining semblance of poignant insight or significant discussion into a bad version of a worn atheistic cliché.

    Regarding the Gita—faith is truth in experience, and metaphysic and absolute union a matter of personal faith, not a matter of doctrine, philosophy, religion, etc. “Ipso Facto” reading translated, archaic, heavily allegorical poetry with a post/modern and/or skeptical eye is simply in bad taste, and according to your own standards I believe.
    Regarding religion in general—the purpose of which is to encourage individual truth/self realization (relying only on cultural-socio-political circumstances as reference points to make universal truth, something quite unimaginable for most of us, personal, practical, and relevant enough to realize, usually bit by bit), and the “misery of the unbeliever” another secular concept loaded for religious and/or atheistic convenience. Misery is a personal, individualized reaction to one’s own self-reflection; the Gita, at least, encourages discrimination of the reaction and clarity of the reflection, not a declaration or sentence of judgment upon individual worth, belief, or happiness.

    Secular and spiritual techniques, like those taught explicitly (though for us, archaically) in the Gita, are embedded within most cultural and historical belief systems, whether religious doctrine, oral tradition, or philosophical forum posting. If all ethnocentricity could be put aside, one might coldly see equal meaning in most cultural recordings. But because it cannot be put aside, we must understand texts like the Gita both poetically (carefully) and compassionately (individually). Our depth of perception in such texts is reflective of our own depth in self realization.

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