top of page
  • Amit Majmudar

The Gita According to Marcus Aurelius

Amit Majmudar


1.


Among the Quadi, on the river Gran. Both the Meditations and the Gita offer a statement of place. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, this comes at the start of Book II. In the case of the Gita, it’s the very first line: On that field of Dharma, Kurukshetra, where the two branches of the warring Kuru family have mustered, wanting war.


Neither Arjuna nor Marcus wanted to fight the wars that duty bound them to fight. “Kurukshetra” is literally “Kuru Field”—the Sanskrit phrase is a tight parallelism, dharmakshetre kurukshetre—and “Kuru” is the ancestral family name of both sides in the Mahabharata war. Marcus Aurelius found himself far afield “among the Quadi,” fighting them in the Marcomannic Wars, one of many engagements on the bloody borders of the Empire he inherited. The heading places him in Slovakia, near the river Hron, a tributary of the Danube. The Gita and the Meditations are both books of religious philosophy created in wartime. Both books are flecked with blood reluctantly shed. Both offer the mind a sanctuary from violence that reconciles the mind to violence.


2.


The first book of the Meditations is a litany of the people for whom Marcus Aurelius is thankful. “From my grandfather Verus, nobility of character and evenness of temper.” Marcus goes on to mention his biological and adoptive fathers, his mother, his great-grandfather, his friends, and his tutors. He thinks back to what each person taught him.


The Gita sets the scene in its first book with a similar litany. Arjuna, after having his friend and charioteer Krishna park between the opposing armies, surveys them. The epithet used to refer to Arjuna—“Partha,” literally, Pritha’s son—makes a point of referring to his mother.


Pritha’s son could see them there: Fathers and grandfathers, Teachers, uncles, brothers, Sons, grandsons, friends as well, Fathers-in-law, kindhearted Friends in both the armies, All his relatives in close order.

The mood of each litany is different—Marcus’s, reverent and loving; Arjuna’s, loving but full of despair at having to fight them.


The parallelism is uncanny, but it makes sense that both military contemplatives should focus on family, since it’s the yearning for home and family that afflicts soldiers most poignantly, from the Mahabharata War to modern deployments. Remembering loved ones on the eve of battle has made soldiers, for centuries, wonder at the absurdity, and the absurd necessity, of what they were about to do.


In ancient Rome, that emotion gave rise to the imperial Meditations; in ancient India, to the raja guhya, the “royal secret,” of the Gita.


3.


The school of philosophy that strengthened Marcus Aurelius has become a word in fairly common use today. Someone who is “stoic,” according to Merriam-Webster, “accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” Notice this emphasizes an exterior display of equanimity. The dictionary adds, “apparently or professedly indifferent to pleasure or pain.”


Yet the ancient Stoic school did not focus on helping its adherents keep a “stiff upper lip.” The point of Stoicism, as Marcus Aurelius practiced it, was to learn to overcome the response to “what happens.” The lack of display was secondary, a side effect. So Marcus does not exhort himself to conceal his reactions to misfortune; his self-exhortation is for a deeper resilience.


Be like the headland, with wave after wave breaking against it, which yet stands firm and sees the boiling waters round it fall to rest. “Unfortunate am I that this has befallen me.” No, quite the contrary: “Fortunate am I, that when such a thing has befallen me, I remain undisturbed, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of what is to come.” For such a thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have remained undisturbed in the face of such a blow.


In the Gita, Krishna describes for Arjuna an image of the warrior-yogi, an ideal toward which to aspire. He calls this the stitha-prajna, the “steady mystic.” It is a portrait Marcus Aurelius would recognize.


In unhappiness, his mind unworried, In happiness, his longings gone, His passion, fear, and anger vanished, Vision steady: He is called a sage. Unattached on all sides, neither Celebrating what he gets nor hating it, This or that, lucky or unlucky: His mysticism stands fast. When he draws the senses In from what they’re sensing, All together, just like tortoise limbs, His mysticism stands fast.

Marcus Aurelius exhorted himself to attain that desireless state. “Blot out imagination,” he wrote, presumably meaning idle fantasies for sex or fame or victory. “Put a curb on impulse; quench desire; ensure that your ruling centre remains under its own control.” The “ruling centre” corresponds to the Gita’s “self” or atman.


Wherever it may wander off (This skittery, unsteady mind!) From there he ought to draw it back And lead it to the master atman.

The indifference to pain and pleasure—and indeed all pairs of opposites—is another quality of the yogi. It is not an “apparent or professed indifference” but an indifference that results from inward transformation. Krishna holds such a transcendent stoic dear:


The same in honor and dishonor, In heat and cold and pain and pleasure The same, free of attachment, Alike when praised or censured, silent, Content with anything at all, at home Anywhere, steady-minded: Such a man, Full of devotion, is dear to me.

Marcus Aurelius, as an Emperor no doubt surrounded by flatterers, knew the importance of being “alike when praised or censured.” A passage in Book 4 of the Meditations could be glossing that line of the Gita.


Everything that is in any way beautiful is beautiful of itself and complete in itself, and praise has no part in it; for nothing comes to be better or worse for being praised…. As for what is truly beautiful, has it need of anything beyond? Surely not, any more than law does, or truth, or benevolence, or modesty. Which of these is beautiful because it is praised, or becomes any less so if it is criticized? Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?


4.


In his litany of beautiful things, Marcus Aurelius mentions a sword in the same breath as a blossom.


“Among the Quadi, on the river Gran” is the only reference to the barbarian tribes that Marcus Aurelius fought. Nowhere do we find assertions that the barbarians are despicable and deserve to have their way of life destroyed. There are no rants against the Quadi, no lurid accounts of Quadi evil that justify their subjugation. Marcus fought the Quadi without demonizing them.


The Mahabharata war centered on two rival sets of cousins, the five Pandavas and the hundred Kauravas. Arjuna is a Pandava, and Krishna is his mentor. After vowing not to take up arms in the war, Krishna serves as Arjuna’s charioteer. In the Gita, Krishna never launches into a tirade against the Kauravas. He never says a word against them. “Infidels,” “pagans,” “heathen,” “savages”: The Gita is missing these words. It is a rare scripture without an outgroup. Arjuna fought the Kauravas without demonizing them.


How did Marcus Aurelius end up by a tributary of the Danube, anyway? What was he doing out there? He was not fighting a war of expansion. He had inherited an empire with farflung limits, and the Quadi invaded across the eastern border. Marcus considered it his duty—his dharma as emperor—to preserve the empire and preserve the area under Roman law. Judging from his Meditations, he harbored no hatred toward the barbarians. Nor did he have to gin up hatred or experience bloodlust to carry out his martial duty. Marcus himself was fully aware of his dual nature, his dual allegiance: “As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe; so what brings benefits to these is the sole good for me.”


There was no room in his mind for mere hatred. Defending the Empire entrusted to him had nothing to do with eradicating the Quadi; wishing to do the former did not mean he wished to do the latter. And indeed, long after he passed away, the Quadi would triumph, crossing the Gran along with the Huns. The Quadi even became kings, far to the west, in a post-Roman Iberia they never imagined.


After the war on Kurukshetra, Vyasa, the poet who would go on to compose the epic, arrived to comfort the survivors. According to the poem, Vyasa waded into the river beside which they were performing the funeral rites. Submerging himself, he projected, in the mist above the river, a moving image of all the war dead. Enemies who killed each other mingled and reconciled.


Now all…met together, free from anger and jealousy and sin…. They were all now as cheerful-hearted as the gods in heaven. Son met with father and mother, wife with husband, brother with brother and friend with friend…. Through the seer’s [Vyasa’s] grace other kshatriyas too, their anger gone forever, gave up their enmities and made friends.

5.


The Meditations, though illuminating, are not “original.” Marcus Aurelius thanks his tutors and elders early on and repeats well-established Stoic ideas that he almost certainly learned from those tutors and elders. His work is not the source code for Stoic philosophy but a distillation of it.


That description holds true of the Gita as well, though few commentators on the Gita emphasize this aspect. Krishna doesn’t just paraphrase the Upanishads, he quotes them. By some estimates, the Upanishads antedate the Gita’s composition by about five or six hundred years. The same number of centuries separate Marcus Aurelius from Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium.


A full-scale concordance between the Gita and its predecessors in the Sanskrit tradition would require a separate essay, if not a book. A few striking examples stand out. The Gita’s most surreal philosophical image comes in the twelfth chapter, which describes a massive, sacred fig tree, inverted so that its roots are in the sky and its branches touch the ground below. This appears in the Katha Upanishad. The same Upanishad informs Krishna’s “stoic” approach to killing in battle.


Someone who imagines this [the self] a killer, Someone who believes that this is killed— Neither of them knows This cannot kill and cannot be killed.

Krishna quotes one of the earliest Upanishads, the Isha Upanishad, for his idea on the unity of all life: “The self in every creature, / Every creature in the self.” Compare the Isha Upanishad: “All beings in the self / And the self in all beings.” This idea—the interpenetration of being—leads naturally to the reconciliation with war, the idea that “This cannot kill and cannot be killed.” Both armies partake in one, indestructible Being.


The serenely embattled Marcus Aurelius describes this idea in Book Seven, and his Greek prose could serve as a commentary on the Sanskrit verses quoted above. “All things are interwoven, and the bond that unites them is sacred, and hardly anything is alien to any other thing, for they have been ranged together and jointly ordered to form a common universe. For there is one universe made up of all that is, and one god who pervades all things….”


One god who pervades all things. Krishna, in the Gita, speaks in its voice: “I am seated in the hearts of everyone.”


6.


The Gita, over the centuries, has come to dominate the crowded field of Hindu scriptures. That is why the Gita’s quotations from the Upanishads are better known, today, as quotes from the Gita.


There are many reasons for this: its musical nature (“gita” means “song”), its setting within a civilization-defining epic, and its association with the figure of Krishna, who dominates the crowded field of Hindu divinities. The Gita’s dramatic, human emotions have made its philosophy seem vivid and applicable. Krishna’s teaching of equanimity comes as a response to Arjuna’s messy anxiety. But above all, there is an intimate feel to the teaching. It is not a sermon to a crowd, and it is not the advice of a distant guru. For all Krishna’s talk of detachment, his talk with Arjuna is intimate, exclusive. Krishna refers to his wisdom as a “secret,” and he does so again toward his last verses in the last chapter.


I’ve explained to you a knowledge More secret than the Secret. Mull this over, the whole of it. Do what you want to do…. Hear me out again. My highest word, The secret of all secrets: I love you. Fiercely. That is why I speak, to do you good.

This is a dialogue between two best friends. We get to listen in.


Just as the Gita is the best known expression of Hindu philosophy, Marcus Aurelius’s book is perhaps the best known articulation of ancient Stoic thought. The reasons for its success are similar, too—among them, dramatic moment and force of personality. The Gita starts with an iconic image of Arjuna having a nervous breakdown on the battlefield. In the background of the Meditations, we see an Emperor forced by his duty—his dharma—out of the philosopher’s quietude and into the clash of arms. Written at Carnuntum, runs the subheading of Book III. Carnuntum was a Roman legionary fortress in modern-day Austria. Two hundred years after Marcus Aurelius lived there, the Quadi finally destroyed it.


The Meditations, like the Gita, gains from a feeling of intimacy. Yet the Gita—a work of verse, with occasional stretches in which Arjuna’s question sets up Krishna’s answer—has a composed, public-facing aspect. With Marcus Aurelius, we get the sense he really has written notes to himself, not meant for other people. Unlike Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic, written with the intention of having them circulate publicly, Marcus’s meditations are sometimes cryptic, elliptical, scattered. This seems to prove their private nature. If he wanted the world to see them, he never got around to preparing them for publication. “Upright, not set upright,” runs the entirety of one entry. In a short stretch of Book 7, he jots down the stray lines from Euripides that he has in his head.


Arjuna has a therapist, military adviser, best friend, and guru in Krishna. In Marcus’s life, all those roles are played by Marcus. His “ruling centre” talks him through his reluctance to enter the fray. We get to listen in.


The idle pageantry of a procession, plays on a stage, flocks and herds, the clashing of spears, a bone tossed to puppies, a scrap of bread cast into a fishpond, the wretched labours (sic) of overladen ants, the scurrying of startled mice, puppets pulled about on their strings. You must take your place, then, in the midst of all this, with a good grace and without assuming a scornful air; and yet, at the same time, keep in mind that a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he has set his heart on.


The Gita shares this imperative, urging the warrior yogi to focus on his war-work, but always with his heart set on a higher devotion, and on the highest goal, nirvana. “So, unattached forever, / Do the work that must be done.”


7.


Inevitably, a battlefield philosophy downgrades the body. The body is precious to common men and cowards, not to warriors and men of wisdom. Krishna exhorts Arjuna toward yogic transcendence of heat and cold, of pleasure and pain. They are merely physical stimuli.


Casting off his worn-out clothes, A man takes hold of others. That Is how the self, embodied, casts off worn-out Bodies, moving on with new ones. This is what the weapons do not cut. This is what the fire does not burn. This is what the water does not wet, Nor does the storm wind make it wither.

Marcus Aurelius makes an entire meditation out of a single image. It combines religion, reverence, and physical transience all in one; the cremation pyres of Homeric heroes and Roman emperors are burning in the background: “Many grains of incense cast on the same altar; one falls earlier, another later, it makes no difference at all.”


It is easy to imagine that insight coming to him after a close call, maybe after witnessing an adjutant knocked off his horse. Those falling grains of incense are men falling in battle.


8.


Did Marcus Aurelius read the Gita? Thomas McEvilley, in The Shape of Ancient Thought, maps the diffusion of ideas from east to west and west to east, often through the intermediary of the Persian court, at other times through merchants, soldiers, and vagabond thinkers. An account exists of Socrates encountering a wandering Indian wise man; Upanishadic ideas have left traces in Plato, and Neoplatonism is sometimes indistinguishable from Vedanta. The Indian epic Ramayana is even older than the Mahabharata, but both epics contain references to “Yavanas,” whom we know as “Ionians.” Ancient Eurasia was thoroughly interconnected, particularly after Alexander reached India; sure enough, Stoicism was a Hellenistic school of thought, founded almost immediately after contact with India picked up.


The evidence of interchange is not just textual and intellectual. Profiles of Nero and Caligula show up on coins excavated in Tamil Nadu; Pompeii revealed a statuette of Lakshmi. The mythologies harmonize, too. Kama and Eros, both Gods of love, are winged youths who carry bows. Achilles and Arjuna, before the wars that made them famous, both spent time in hiding, dressed as women in foreign courts. Coincidence is the least satisfying explanation.


Even though the Gita was around for centuries before Marcus’s day, it is almost certain he never read it or learned of what was in it. The Gita attained its modern-day fame over time; unlike the Qur’an or the Gospels, it was not foundational, but rather part of a dynasty of texts. The Gita’s reputation in the 2nd century C.E. was not nearly what it is today.


If the poet of the Gita and the author of the Meditations never read each other, that only makes the harmonic between these works more significant. Faced with the same problem, they reached the same solution. The two wartime philosophies are identical for the same reason independent geometers arrive at the same value for pi.


9.


A martial code, by shaping conduct, shapes the mind. Self-restraint, so important to both Sanskrit and Stoic thought, brought peace to the mind through a perpetual war footing, desires and attachments strictly rationed. The Gita and the Meditations are books in which that “war footing” ceased to be an abstraction. Violence and transcendence were forced into the same place and time. They are not the only examples. Samurai codes like the Bushido Shoshinsu included directives about keeping death in mind. Mishima’s Sun and Steel laid out the philosophy that culminated in his attempt at a coup d’etat; he wore a military tunic on the day he committed seppuku. Elsewhere, such ascetic ideas did not take literary expression. What set apart Sparta as a city was Sparta’s idea of citizenship; Sparta was a poem, and every male Spartan adhered to its meter. In the Higgins boats that landed at Normandy rode philosophers who never wrote a word; self-sacrifice was their hypothesis and risk their proof. 9,386 crosses mark the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer: Quod erat demonstrandum.


Understanding the transience of things need not render us passive or otherworldly. In the Gita as in the Meditations, that understanding is the basis of worldly action. The two books force us to expand our mental image of the contemplative. It is not always a bespectacled professor in a university office, not always a shaven-headed monk in a robe. A philosopher can be a charioteer on a dusty plain, whispering to a sobbing archer the way he whispered to his horses. A philosopher can be an Emperor, his fingers stained with fresh ink, buckling on his armor in a farflung hostile forest, among the Quadi, on the river Gran.


 

Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist who lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is the author of four poetry collections, four novels, an anthology of political poetry, and a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. Two novels are forthcoming in India in 2022: a historical novel entitled The Map and the Scissors, and a novel for young readers, Heroes the Color of Dust. His version of the Mahabharata in three volumes is also forthcoming in India. A memoir, Twin A, is forthcoming in the United States in 2022. He is currently co-creating a graphic novel/web comic, The Kali Yuga Chronicles. Visit www.amitmajmudar.com for more details.

Current Issue

bottom of page