Bhagwad Gita and the lives of the Stoics


By Narayani Ganesh

Reading about the Stoics, the similarities struck me โ€“ with what Krishna spelt out in the Bhagwad Gita to Arjuna and the principles by which the Stoic philosophers lived and taught. When a despondent Arjuna hesitates to fight against his own kinsmen, Krishna reminds him that to a balanced person, this is a duty to be performed to uphold dharma. To become a sthitaprajna, an even-minded person, Arjuna would have to embrace qualities like titka, endurance and sama, equanimity.

In chapter two, verses 14-15, Krishna says to Arjuna that the senses contact objects which cause heat and cold, pleasure and pain that have beginning and end. These are all impermanent; they need to be endured bravely. Titka is endurance, something that the Stoics, starting from Zeno and Chrisippus right down to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius had all advocated and practised in their own lives. The Stoics, whether privileged or from humble backgrounds, led normal lives in the material world, while practising and promoting a philosophy steeped in endurance, frugality and equanimity.

The earliest Stoic, Zeno, who died 262 years before the coming of Christ, expressed the four virtues of Stoicism thus: courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Krishna explains to Arjuna that the one who remains unaffected by pleasure and pain, who regards them as the same, is a steady, balanced person, one who is full of sama. Such a one can be regarded as immortal because he is cognisant of the fact that the Self, the Absolute, is changeless, indestructible and eternal. The Self does not identify itself with the mortal body and through it, with the world outside. Therefore, it remains peaceful within.

Krishna tells Arjuna in verse 2:21 of the Gita that the extremely delicate aspect of the art of living is to play our part in the world as though it was a reality while never forgetting the ultimate reality, which appears, through our mistaken perception, as the world. He implies that to stay detached while carrying out oneโ€™s worldly duties is the essence of a person who has overcome ignorance.

Looking at Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra, one is reminded that many of the Stoics served in military campaigns. โ€œThey hung out in the marketplace. They too, fairly or unfairly, faced arrest,โ€ write the authors of a book that chronicles the lives of the Stoics that begins with the tragic sinking of Zenoโ€™s ship that brought him misfortune, egging him to turn to philosophy; Antipater the ethicist, Porcia the iron woman, Seneca the striver, and many other Stoics right up to Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king. Aurelius said, โ€œThere is no role so well-suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.โ€ Perhaps he implied the role of emperor; it could also mean that of a parent, spouse, one who has received bad news, one who is rich, one who has gone bankrupt and so on. Epictetus was in fact a slave who got free at the age of 30, when he chose to become a Stoic philosopher. One could daresay that a lot of Stoic philosophy echoes the Gita philosophy. (Inspired by โ€˜Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aureliusโ€™ by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Profile Books, Hachette). [email protected]

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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