“Life offers no fiercer battle than this war within.”
— Eknath Easwaran
What separates warriors from savages? What can we learn from people who dedicated their entire lives to fighting? Were they seeking something bigger or just being mindlessly violent?
If there has ever been a constant in my life, that constant has been battles.
Whether it was on top of tatami during martial arts practices, the struggle to do one extra rep when working out or even to get up when not feeling like it. I’ve been fighting ever since I was born, and chances are you have too.
And the least we should do, when in a battle, is to behave like a warrior.
For millennia, human beings have been practicing and training to achieve mastery in whatever they do. We’ve seen a fair share of battles and wars on this Earth, and the winner isn’t always determined by who has the most advanced armor or technology. It especially wasn’t the case before firearms were invented. When the fights happened face to face, when there was an equal chance of cutting and being cut.
During those times, the most successful warrior cultures developed their own ways to lead their lives. We’ve heard of the rigorous training in Sparta, the samurai discipline, the Macedonian unity, the viking’s devotion to spirituality and wisdom… There is a lot to be learned from strategies employed in war (more on that in a future article), but for this series, we’ll explore how they lived in their daily lives and how they faced their battles. Not on the battlefield, but within.
This article is an introduction to a theme that will be recurring in the following months in the website. I’ll be going deeper into different traditions and ways the warrior mindset has been approached throughout history.
To start off exploring the way of the warrior there’s nothing better than turning out sights to the East, most specifically to India, and one of the world’s most important texts: The Bhagavad Gita.
What is the Bhagavad Gita?
The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu manuscript set in the narrative of the Mahabharata, believed by some historians to have been based on actual events that culminated in a war taking place around 1000 B.C. The narrative, together with ten other Upanishads (Hindu sacred texts), was chosen by Shankara when selecting the sources of Hinduism.
The narrative revolves around a conversation between Arjuna and Sri Krishna. When Arjuna sees his enemies and realizes that they aren’t foreign, but instead his relatives, teachers, and friends, he turns to Krishna, asking the God what to do and the narrative is developed with their dialogue.
The Bhagavad Gita was supposedly written at a time when karma yoga (the yoga of action) wasn’t seen with the best of eyes. When people didn’t believe that it was possible or even that it made sense to unite action with wisdom, that the pursuit of wisdom had nothing to do with fighting and leading an active life. The manuscript then sets out to disprove that, advocating for a life of “selfless action” and saying that we “have the right to the work, but not to the fruits of the work,” meaning that every activity we engage in should be done for its own sake, and not for the end result.
I’ve already briefly touched on how we should lead our work in my “Work Intentionally” post, but if we are to transpose it to this context, the argument is made that, although it might be possible to attain “spiritual enlightenment” through meditation in the mountains in Tibet, this is just not an option (much less a priority) for most people (it certainly isn’t for me). The case, however, is made for living each second as if we were one of those monks in those mountains. For us to be completely aware of each and every thing we do and dedicate ourselves fully to it. To pursue perfection in all areas of our lives, knowing it’s asymptote and we’ll never get there.
The Bhagavad Gita is a manual for action. An outline of principles we should have when living our lives.
The Battles We Face
Several interpretations of the text have been made (and I encourage you to read and come up with your own), but the most widely accepted one is that Arjuna represents the capital-S Self; what is noble. And his enemies are his flaws and vices, what he must fight and defeat in the battlefield to emerge as a king.
He can’t hesitate, he can’t second question that. Even though they are parts of him, important parts at that, they aren’t doing him any good and he has to fight, and to defeat them.
Most of us will never see a battlefield. Most of us will never have to lead an army to battle or even to be in a street fight during our lives. Our battles are different in nature, they’re internal. The opponents aren’t trying to physically cut us with a sword, they’re telling us that “it’s okay if you don’t go running today,” that “there’s no problem to stay in your comfort zone,” and many other things that stop us from being the men and women we aim to be.
I mentioned at the start that one of the types of battles I’ve faced was during martial arts practices. Even those battles were, for me, internal battles. Even if all I’m focused on is landing that blow, that is still a battle I’m fighting against myself, and I have yet to meet a martial artist (in the truest sense of the word) who would disagree with me on that.
As I’m worried about landing a blow, as that’s all that’s going through my mind—not the problems I have at home, not what I’ll make for dinner, not whatever tasks I have to do as soon as I leave the dojo—I’m fighting against myself with the help of my opponent. I’m facing my fears, my hesitancies, my doubts, my thoughtlessness, my lethargy. I’m forcing myself to stay in the moment, stand straight and look for an opening, and not slouch and give in to my internal enemies. In doing that, I would lose the battles, internal as well as external, in a millisecond.
Fights like that can be abstracted into other contexts. In the same way that we can’t hesitate, have the obligation to stand straight and not let our minds wander during a fight, we shouldn’t let our minds wander while doing meaningful work. Of course the consequences won’t be as severe, but they should be respected in the same way. We might not get physically hurt, but we might taint our reputation, lose out on coming opportunities or even lose our jobs.
As Krishna says in the second chapter:
“For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil. The warrior confronted with such a war should be pleased, Arjuna, for it comes as an open gate to heaven. But if you do not participate in this battle against evil, you will incur sin, violating your dharma and your honor.”
Of course that “war against evil” means the war against what is baser in our natures. And by neglecting this battle, by refusing to kill our baser selves, we violate our dharma (what is right; destiny) and honor. We do ourselves a disservice by not becoming the best version of ourselves we can. We are neglecting to live our lives properly when we bow our heads and go about our day normally instead of trying to do one extra set, when we snooze our alarms instead of getting up immediately, when we wear creased clothes because we can’t be bothered to iron them.
Finding our Truth
“It’s better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.” (3:35)
A fundamental struggle in everyone’s lives is in finding their path. In knowing what they value as true and how to get to what we truly want. It’s safe to say that everyone in this world has the ultimate goal of finding happiness, whatever that means to them. Whether happiness is in working 9-5 and going home to their spouse and children, having their own apartment and living alone, working 80 hours every week toward something meaningful, or renouncing all material possessions to live in a temple.
And how many stories have we seen of people who had successful career but renounced them to move to a cabin in the woods? How many people gave up on successful jobs to try their luck in a new city doing what they “really wanted to?” What Krishna is saying is that we should live in accordance to what truly pulls and inspires us, because even if we end up struggling for years or even decades in such a situation, we’ll be happier than succeeding in something we don’t exactly want to do.
Warriors need to know they’re fighting for the right reasons to even want to fight at all. Warriors have to feel deep within them that their cause is right and just and that they stand for what is good. They wouldn’t put their lives in line if it weren’t the case.
In the same vein, whenever we set out to do anything, it has to be the right thing for us. In an ideal world we would be willing to risk our lives for the privilege of doing each and every thing we do. If we aren’t willing to do just that, we might want to reconsider how we spend our time and if we’re truly following what matters the most.
Are we doing ourselves a disservice by working the field we are? Do we have more to offer than what we’re currently doing? What do we live for? What would we die for?
Answering those questions might help us pin down where the battle is for us. It won’t be pretty and we’ll struggle, but it will be worth it. I frequently think back to what the author Steven Pressfield calls the “Resistance,” constantly trying to identify where I find it in my life and knowing I should be doing it no matter what. That’s where the battle is for me, and every day I find myself not fighting it is a day I lost.
Where is the Resistance in your life?
What can the Bhagavad Gita teach us?
Regardless of which religion we may follow, there’s something to be learned from each of them. We don’t need to convert ourselves to Hinduism to see that there’s value in such texts. Wisdom hasn’t been held by one single culture or people and after they left us, we lost everything. By diversifying what we read and research, we can find gems like this one.
The Bhagavad Gita doesn’t advocate for violence, much less for war, and I hope this article made that clear. When setting out to live like a warrior, we aren’t training for battle (although martial arts are never bad, but more on that later) and looking for opportunities to get into fights. We’re looking for ways to improve ourselves and become the best people we can.
The way of the warrior is nothing more than a road of self improvement. A road that will get us closer and closer to that mastery we so desire. Being a warrior is walking with an open chest toward the enemy, it’s not being afraid to die for our brothers in arms, it’s looking up when the situation seems dire, being thankful we have the opportunity to go through such a challenge and fighting even harder to stay alive.
And even if we can’t do those things in a battlefield, we can all stand straight and look ahead when walking down the street, we can all make our work our legacies, we can all welcome challenges and obstacles, and we can all fight whatever stands in our way to become better people. We don’t need swords or guns to fight the war within us, we just need to respect our enemies without letting them scare us. We need to be willing to let go of things that might be dear to us but are ultimately holding us back.
As for how we can identify what we should let go of, that’s up to each of us individually. The Resistance often helps.
I recommend picking up Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita to read.
Other posts in this series: