The aim of Krishna’s discourse was to attempt to give purpose and context to the lives of people like Arjun. The attempt was both adroit and Herculean; adroit because an armada of approaches were employed without scattering the focus of the exercise; and Herculean because the task was nothing less than to salvage for the individual a framework for existence, which would perhaps render palatable—or even help transcend—the essential meaninglessness of his life.
Krishna’s first task was to devalue the human condition in its empirical attributes by postulating the infinitude of its essential and non-empirical attribute. It was an efficacious methodology, not because it was startlingly original, but because the basic Vedantic logic was put forward with refreshing clarity and as a pragmatic response to a specific existential situation. Arjun could not comprehend an imperative for action in a phenomenal world that was stubbornly inexplicable. The Gita partially conceded his point. The world as perceived prima facie was indeed finite, transient and bereft of ultimate value.
The body would wither away; friends and relatives were equally perishable; material wealth was ephemeral; the whole network of mortal life, unanchored to any larger, enduring reality was a fleeting ripple in an endless sea of subsistence, and hence meaningless. But, said Krishna, there is, behind the bewildering futility of manifest phenomenon, something else which transcends empirical limitations. This is the self, the soul, the essential being, Atman, the Supreme Spirit, the Brahman—call it what you will. The body may suffer birth and death, but this Self is never born and does not die. It is indestructible, eternal, unchanging, immovable, indefinable, unseen and omnipresent. Arjun’s despondence at the pointlessness of endeavour in the human realm had validity but only in a constricted frame of reference. By these terms of reference, he, as a mere individual, was an infinitesimal irrelevance in an existence galactic in its aimlessness. But if he could be persuaded that, unknown to himself, his essential self, was inherently transcendent over the incomprehensible dross of his perceived existence, then a first step towards the reclamation of purpose in life could be made.
A second step directly related to the first was the assertion that this essential self was, even at the individual level, beyond the clutches of mortality. It is mentioned in the Gita:
Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die—for life and death shall pass away.
Because we all have been for all time: I, and thou, and those kings of men. And we all shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever. As the Spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and old age, the Spirit wanders on to a new body: of this the sage has no doubts. He is never born, and he never dies. He is in Eternity: he is for evermore. Never-born and eternal, beyond times gone or to come, he does not die when the body dies.
The finality of death renders redundant mortal activity. The thread of life hangs in perpetual dread of the severance of death. Why? What for? To what purpose?—these are the questions which chip away the individual’s sense of belief in his own being, when confronted by his irrevocable vulnerability in the face of death. The assertion, therefore, that mortal death is not the final chapter and that each particular soul on its way to salvation will reincarnate itself in another body, provides a continuum of perspective that at once imbues with value and meaning the scope of endeavour in this life. It gives to our otherwise puny and insignificant lives a larger canvas. The stage of our human here-and-now endeavours acquires a wider perspective. Our actions acquire intrinsic value for their quality will determine the journey that our soul will take in more lives to come. Our karmas in this life will be responsible for the fruits we get in the next. Our actions are thus not forlornly adrift in isolation. At once, we become part of a greater destiny, and the inert vacuum of purpose afflicting our lives is set aside by the breadth of this new vision. Life then becomes not a one-act, vaudeville show abruptly terminated by death, but a more serious business, with questions of purpose and meaning linked to a continuum governed by its own mortality—defying the dynamics of cause and effect.