The Bhagavad Gita and The Stoics: 5 Key Timeless Lessons They Both Teach

This is a guest post by Monil Shah who has previously written the popular posts “5 Ways to Practice Goodness Today” and “Four Productivity Principles From The Stoics You Can Use Today” 

A couple of days before Christmas, my grandmother passed away. For most of us in the family, it was a shock. The doctors, after all (literally on the day before she died), told us that everything is okay. That it’s just psychological and there’s nothing to worry about.

Sadly, none of us would ever know what it really was.

Now, the religion I’m from (Hinduism) instructs us to do a couple of things after someone passes away, one of which includes having a maharaj (guru/priest) recite what happens to the soul after it leaves the body. I’ve never really been religious, however, during that time, sitting for an hour and half for three days and hearing that story helped me find some peace.

And hey, maybe none of it is true. Technically, there’s no way to prove it. However, if It takes fiction to help sooth the pain in our hearts then what’s wrong with it?

So, I asked him for the source of his story and he directed me to The Bhagavad Gita.

When I started with The Gita, everything seemed pretty controversial. For example, in the preface of the book, the author of the version I read insists on a condition to its readers that, above everything, to fully grasp the contents of this book, one needs to submit to Krishna and believe that he is the true God. As much as I wanted to keep it aside, I kept going in the hopes that something in this seven hundred page book would be useful to our lives.

Mind you, I’m someone who considers himself “spiritual, not religious”, and, just like other rationalists, believe that humans developed through evolution, not God. That said, however, as I kept going, I started spotting some concepts that are taught in the Stoic school as well.

Now, despite your religion, whether or not you “submit to Krishna”, here are some useful lessons from both of these schools that we can use to make our lives better:

#1 Process > Results

“You only have the right to act. At the same time, you do not have the right to the fruits of actions. You should not act out of motivation for the fruits of actions, and you should never be inactive at any time.” Krishna (2:47)

“Enjoyment means doing as much of what your nature requires as you can. And you can do that anywhere. Keep in mind the ease with which logos is carried through all things. That’s all you need.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book 10)

It’s rather unfortunate how we work, not for working, but for that bonus, or that paid vacation. In the data driven world today, we want to emphasize results. In the modern concept, if we haven’t achieved anything, have we even done any work?

Unfortunately, that ideology has many consequences. For one, it fails to consider that there are many factors outside of our control that can affect an outcome. It doesn’t matter how many times you request your team developer to start making that prototype, you cannot, in the hopes of sanity, control other people.

Additionally, luck, as much as we hate it, always plays a hand in some way.

The point isn’t to dwell on these things and complain about how unfair life is. Everybody knows that. Instead, it’s to rationalize the one thing that is in our control in almost everything we do: the process. Therefore, we should focus on the process, work for it and (if possible), fall in love with it.

The rest, as Marcus advises, “take it as it comes”.

#2 Duty

“It is better to perform one’s own predetermined duty, even if one performs that duty imperfectly, than perform the duty of another. When one performs his own predetermined duty in accordance with one’s nature, one does not incur any sin” – Krishna (18:47)

“Whatever anyone does or says, I’m bound to the good. Whatever anyone does or says, I must be what I am and show my true colors” – Marcus Aurelius

Peeking into someone else’s life has never been easier. We spend most of our mornings (wasting precious time) on Instagram, extending our deep curiosity about what is everyone achieving and where we are, as compared to them.

All the while forgetting that time can be used to engage in our duty. To do what we’ve been made to do.

Duty to who?

Hierocles’ concentric circles can be used as a template. First and foremost, the self (mind and body). Then: our family, our fellow citizens, our countrymen and eventually, the whole mankind.

Start with the first circle and ask yourself: What do you owe your mind and body? Are you getting enough physical exercise? Do you read? Meditate?

If you follow that trend, eventually, you will see that your duty, at the end of the day, is to be a good human being. To do what’s right. To use your crafts (whatever they may be) and change lives.

#3 Control the Uncontrollable Emotions

”Arjuna, everything comes and goes in life. Happiness and unhappiness are temporary experiences that rise from sense perception. Heat and cold, pleasure and pain, will come and go. They never last forever. So, do not get attached to them. We have no control over them” -Krishna (2:14)

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own” – Epictetus

Events in our lives trigger emotions: someone insults us and we can’t help but feel like saying something back to them, or even punch them, a stranger on facebook disagrees about an article and we want to prove them that they’re wrong.

Most of the time, we don’t even know why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. And that is exactly what these two schools of thought are try to teach us that these emotions are not in our control and two, they come and go. They’re not, fortunately, permanent.

Why are they not in our control? Well, Daniel Goldman’s work teaches us that our emotional lives are largely governed by the way we experienced our childhood. That constant insecurity we show to our partner could be because you had a parent who abandoned you.

In other words, the emotions that erupt are due to our psychological history, which has been rooted since we were too little to know anything.

That said, however, what is in our control is how we control our emotions. Do we lash out at our colleague or write down what we’re feeling? Do we leave our partners with the rationale that “they just don’t get us”, or, do we realize that maybe, in a very real sense, we should spend some more time ‘“getting ourselves”, attaining some self knowledge?

Emotions are not permanent. They do, however, give us a good opportunity to understand ourselves. That is, of course, if we take a step back and see why we behave the way we do—through journaling, psychotherapy, or just speaking to a close friend.

#4 The Mind Can be Our Worst Enemy or Our Best Friend

“One who can control the mind and attain tranquility, to that man heat and cold, pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor are the same” Krishna (6:7)

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

This one shouldn’t be a surprise. For most part, we’re all quite aware that if we take care of our minds, it can and in fact will, take care of us.

The real question, however, is how? How do we take care of our minds? Living in a world where it’s so easy to get distracted and loose focus, how do we stay in the ship despite the storm?

Western and eastern philosophy, both, gives us some ideas. First and foremost, practicing meditation everyday can be a powerful way to look at our distractions. The point here isn’t to “get rid of thoughts”, in fact, its to, see everything as what it is—not to be a more calmer or wiser person, but to just be.

That entails acknowledging everything we feel and think, with compassion and curiosity, and leaving no room for judgement. Its not good or bad. That thought you had about insulting your friend after what she did to you isn’t bad, its just a thought. Meditation makes us realize something essential that—despite what the French philosopher Descartes said—we are not our thoughts.

Another powerful way of keeping our minds sane is to practice journaling. Marcus Aurelius did not intend to write a book for others, it was a journal for himself. Seneca adored journaling in the evenings, he would examine his day before going to bed and once even commented on how “the sleep which follows this self-examination” , was particularly sweet. Thus, by writing down what we’re struggling with and looking at it with curiosity, we can try and find some sanity.

The beautiful thing about this exercise is that there is no one way to do it. You can fill in prompts (The Daily Stoic Journal or The School of Life’s Philosophical meditation questions) or just write down your thoughts in your notebook.

Do either or both, the point is to make our minds our friend so we can treat ourselves with compassion and self-love.

#5 Grievance

“For the soul (Atman) there is neither birth nor death any time. The soul is unborn, eternal, everlasting, and primeval. The soul is not slain when the body is slain.” Krishna (2:20)

“It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.” — Seneca

There are times when I still remember her beautiful face, how she helped me pick out a good shirt to wear,  how she saved pretty little boxes for us, in an attempt to stay with the latest fashion.

That said, there are things losing someone can teach you.

One,  you can be snapped off any second. As Marcus Aurelius said, remember, you could leave life right now. Let that decide how you think or act.

Second, it doesn’t matter who you are, when death visits you, you will be turned into ashes. My grandmother loved possessing items—from old time antiques to expensive jewelries and garments. But, when it was her time, none of that mattered. I still remember visiting the cemetery and burning her body. At the end, we’re all going to be dust. So, remember your mortality. Stay good, humble, and detach yourself from stuff.

For that, and everything else, I will never forget her.

***

We can see how the Gita and the Stoics can teach us how and why process should be valued over results, the importance of performing one’s duty without any attachment to the results, how our emotions can be a guide to attaining self-knowledge, how the simple act of sitting in silence can help us calm our minds, and what grievance can teach us about living a better life.

Which one of these lessons are you going to use today?