By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 25, 2011
Chapter 25 The War Inside Ourselves
The Bhagavad-Gita is the great warrior epic of India. For thousands of years, Indian caste structure has been dominated by two elite social orders—the Brahmins (poets and holy men) and the Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles).
The Bhagavad-Gita is the story of the great warrior Arjuna, who receives spiritual instruction from his charioteer, who happens to be Krishna—i.e., God in human form.
Krishna instructs Arjuna to slay his enemies without mercy. The warrior-god points across the battlefield to knights and archers and spearmen whom Arjuna knows personally and feels deep affection for—and commands him to kill them all. But here’s the interesting part:
The names of these enemy warriors, in Sanskrit, can be read two ways. They can be simply names. Or they can represent inner crimes or personal vices, such as greed, jealousy, selfishness, the capacity to play our friends false or to act without compassion toward those who love us.
In other words, our warrior Arjuna is being instructed to slay the enemies inside himself.
Human history, anthropologists say, can be divided into three stages—savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Warrior codes arose during the period known as High Barbarism. Many noble cultures fall under this category, from Native American tribes to Cyrus’s Persians to the Greeks and Trojans made immortal in Homer’s Iliad. The Warrior Ethos’s origins are primitive. Its genesis lies in the eye-for-an-eye ethic of humanity’s most ancient and primordial epochs.
The Bhagavad-Gita changes this. It takes the Warrior Ethos and elevates it to a loftier and nobler plane—the plane of the individual’s inner life, to his struggle to align himself with his own higher nature.
Chapter 26 The Lord of Discipline
In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna is commanded to slay the “foes” that constitute his own baser being. That is, to eradicate those vices and inner demons that would sabotage his path to becoming his best and highest self.
How is Arjuna instructed to do this? By the practice of self-discipline. In other words, by the interior exercise of his exterior Warrior Ethos.
Arjuna’s divine instructor (one of whose titles in Sanskrit is “Lord of Discipline”) charges his disciple to:
Fix your mind upon its object.
Hold to this, unswerving,
Disowning fear and hope,
Advance only upon this goal.
Here is the Warrior Ethos directed inward, employing the same virtues used to overcome external enemies—courage, patience, will, selflessness, the capacity to endure adversity—but enlisting these qualities now in the cause of the inner struggle for integrity, maturity and the honorable life.
Chapter 27 A Rite of Passage
Why do young men and women in a free society enlist in the military? The act seems to defy common sense. Why volunteer for low pay, lame haircuts and the chance to be killed—particularly in a society that rewards such behavior with little of more substance than a “Thank you for your service” or a yellow ribbon on a bumper sticker? Why do it? Why sign up?
One answer may be that the young man or woman is seeking a rite of passage.
When we enlist in the Army or the Marine Corps, we’re looking for a passage to manhood or womanhood. We have examined our lives in the civilian world and concluded, perhaps, that something’s missing. Do we lack self-discipline? Self-confidence? Do we feel stuck? Are we heading in the wrong direction?
We want action. We seek to test ourselves. We want friends—real friends, who will put themselves on the line for us—and we want to do the same for them. We’re seeking some force that will hurl us out of our going-nowhere lives and into the real world, into genuine hazard and risk.
We want to be part of something greater than ourselves, something we can be proud of. And we want to come out of the process as different (and better) people than we were when we went in. We want to be men, not boys. We want to be women, not girls.
We want a rite of passage. We want to grow up.
One way to do that is to go to war. Young men have been undergoing that ordeal of initiation for ten thousand years. This passage is into and through what the great psychologist Carl Jung called “the Warrior Archetype.”
[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]