I have finally begun reading the Bhagavad Gita, at the age of 36. I’ve known about it for years, of course, but instead chose to read works from the western canon—Shakespeare, Donne, Swift, with an occasional helping of Stephen King. I’ve always believed that certain books find me when I most need them—I read Siddhartha during the summer of my junior year in high school, after a less-than-stellar performance in trigonometry that I thought had ruined my chances of getting into a decent college. Siddhartha’s spiritual quest helped me put my own problems in perspective, and reminded me that an Ivy League education wasn’t the full purpose of my life. I read Middlemarch when I was pregnant with my daughter during a horrible, lonely, seemingly unendurable pregnancy, and in need of the drama and psychological complexity richly available in Eliot’s great novel. Though the Gita would have been a comfort to me in the trenches of adolescent awkwardness or during the stressful four months in 2001 when I was saddled with the dual tasks of studying for the bar exam and planning my wedding, it is motherhood that presents me with the ideal context for exploring the wisdom of the song-poem. Indeed, as the mother of three children under the age of five, I am constantly given opportunities to practice the Gita’s many teachings.
From my undoubtedly layperson perspective, (helpfully informed by Eknath Easwaran’s translation and commentary), much of the Gita seems devoted to the regulation, even annihilation, of the ego as a way to discipline the mind, and ultimately, experience peace and oneness with God. As chapter 2, verse 71 instructs, “They are forever free who break away from the ego-cage of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ to be united with the Lord of Love.” My daily life presents me with countless moments in which I am afforded opportunities to confront my own ego in my role as a mother.
Just the other day, for example, I learned that a four-year-old friend of my twin sons was able to write the entire alphabet and even a few words. My boys, though loving and silly and creative, show only a negligible interest in writing their alphabet. After the sobering realization that other kids their age were already putting words down on paper, I pledged to teach them how to write as well.
After dinner that night, I gave them each a pencil and carefully instructed them on the rudiments of writing: how to hold the pencil correctly, how the letter “A” looks a lot like a triangle, how to keep the paper from sliding around. My sons went to the task with some initial zeal but, within two minutes, deemed this writing stuff “too hard” and proceeded to draw fanciful scribbles of robots and trains instead.
I briefly thought about giving them a serious speech about the necessity of hard work and persistence and the sorts of advice I used to grudgingly countenance when I was a kid, until I remembered the Gita. How much of this endeavor was about teaching my sons their letters for the love of learning, and how much of this exercise was about competition and comparison? My desire for my children to keep up with thier peers answered the question well enough. As the Gitawisely asserts, “They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life, and who never compete. They are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them” (4:22). Choosing to compare my sons, each with their unique talents and flaws, to other children only caused suffering to me, and only made me feel less content about the wondrous blessings I have as a mother.
The Greek philosopher Philo is credited with having written, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The Gita, a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, occurs on the eve of a great battle as well; perhaps in recognition that we are all fighting battles every day. The daily battles in which I engage bear scant resemblance to the glorious and sweeping clashes we may watch in movies or read about in epics.
They are subtler and, alas, more numerous: Do I donate money to this cause or rationalize that we are on a strict budget? Do I give money to this homeless person or reason that he won’t spend it well? Do I let this motorist cut ahead of me on the road during rush hour? Do I allow my worries about paying for college in 12 years diminish my joy of living the life I have right now? Do I ask my children to fulfill my own competitive desires? These are questions, of course, but they are also battles—my ego and selfishness versus my recognition of a greater purpose.
It is remarkable to think that people hundreds of years ago were able to identify the ego as the timeless and central problem of the human condition. Hundreds of years ago, competition may have revolved around rice production or marriage prospects (and, I suppose, in some communities it still does), but for all our technology and success as a community and species, we are still predisposed to believing that we are separate, disconnected, and therefore necessarily selfish creatures. I try my best to remind myself that we, in fact, are not. And following another teaching of the Gita, I try not to judge myself too harshly for my daily and inevitable errors: “On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will yield protection from the greatest fear” (2:40).
So I leave my boys to their crayons and art work and clear some space on the refrigerator for their newest artistic contributions. And then I remember to be thankful for all the people in my life, whether they can write the alphabet or not.
Samantha Rajaram is a mother, lawyer, and part-time English professor living in Menlo Park, CA. The Dhammapada is next on her reading list.