In the Bhagavad Gita, just before a great battle with his own family, Arjuna has a conversation with Lord Krishna. Arjuna is lamenting that he is at war with his cousins, that he faces a battle with people he has loved, and feels like giving up. Krishna tells him that as long as he is following the right principles, “No effort is wasted, and there is no failure” (2:49).
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I hear many of my friends who are seeking peace and justice lament that the world seems to be falling apart. They talk about being at war with their own families. They see how our politics have moved closer to fascism. Our economy more closely resembles the Gilded Age. They see that our civic religion simply justifies the state’s most awful abuses of power. It is hard to believe that “no effort is wasted, and there is no failure.” Many of us feel defeated already.
Part of this is because we believe the lie that the healing of the planet and our species depends upon us, and that we are not up to the task, or that we have already failed. I believe all of our great spiritual traditions teach us otherwise.
In the book of Exodus, God has a plan for what the Hebrews need to do to escape slavery. God does not tell them to take up arms—if they do, they will lose. God does not tell them to stage a teach in. God does not tell them to win the hearts of minds of their oppressors by building relationships and making persuasive arguments.
God tells them to throw a party.
Have a feast, God says. Only keep your shoes on and keep your walking stick in your hand.
What if the greatest acts of resistance to tyranny were about coming together and celebrating life? What if it was about feeding each other and telling our stories around a table?
Then, after God springs them from captivity, they find themselves trapped between a sea and an advancing army. God says, “This is actually why I brought you out here. Y’all are my bait, and also my witnesses. You don’t even need to fight. Just watch.”
God then proceeds to demonstrate the useless power of armored chariots against the sea.
Freeing them from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches involves teaching them with a demonstration. God turns the power of nature against the machinery of the state. “The domination of the oppressors is unsustainable,” God seems to say. “Their wealth and war machines will not save them, nor will you be under their power. Do not put your faith in such things.”
I do not always feel hopeful about the future, and am grateful when someone shares an encouraging word. These typically say to keep your eyes elsewhere. Don’t look at power or victory the way the world does. Two examples I’ve read recently speak hope to people who are tired, traumatized, and fearful. The first is titled Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. The other, written over a year ago, is an op-ed by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times titled We Are Not the Resistance. Whether you are a religious reader or not, I think these articles speak to a spirituality of grassroots activism.
“By practicing [these principles] you can break through the bonds of karma. On this path, no effort goes to waste, and there is no failure” (BG 2:49).
“The Lord will fight for you today; you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).
No, it does not mean sit back and take it easy. It is not a promise that the work will not be hard, scary, painful, or sad. It does not mean give it all up to “thoughts and prayers.” No Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian who knows the mystics of their traditions will tell you that.
What they will tell you, Arjuna, is that divine revelation comes to you in the chariot before a great battle—when you realize both how pointless and how necessary the fight is. These mystics will tell you that sometimes God brings you out of slavery and places you between a sea and a hard place, or helps you leap from the pan into the fire—just so you can see more clearly that this isn’t just about you. It is about all of us.
Most of us in the west misunderstand the concept of karma. Karma is not about getting what you deserve. It’s about letting go of the concept of deserving. None of us deserves either the good or the bad, so we should act without attachment, plant seeds without the assurance that we will see the trees grow, “cast our bread upon the waters” and trust that even if we do not see the good in this life, that there will be good that manifests itself.
I find it fascinating that our religious traditions tell us that what is working among us does want witnesses. The Great Mystery knows that we are forgetful, fearful, and frail. She knows that the act of throwing a party, of setting a table in the presence of our enemies, of celebrating our liberation before it ever happens, of acting without knowing the future is both an act of defiance and of faith. It reminds us that we are not alone, that no effort is wasted, and when we learn to be truly still and at peace in the face of the advancing enemy, we will know the power of God. That is victory.