California, USA — Thursday, June 30th

All in the game

The Bhagavad Gita — a conversation between Krishna (God) and His friend, Arjuna — takes place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, just before the beginning of a great fratricidal war. After surveying his army and the army of the 'enemy' in Chapter One, Arjuna is so overwhelmed at the prospect of having to kill his own relatives that he throws down his weapons and tells Krishna: "I will not fight."

In the remaining seventeen chapters of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tries to spur His friend into action, to persuade him to fight. Why does Krishna want Arjuna to participate in such a ghastly war: to kill his cousin-brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and the great teachers and patriarchs of the Kuru dynasty? And isn't Arjuna justified in refusing to destroy the Kaurava clan, on the grounds of compassion?

Krishna begins by explaining the nature of the soul. Although ostensibly speaking to Arjuna, Krishna is really speaking to us: trying to get us to understand that this material world is only a simulation of reality, and what we typically think of as ourselves (the body, mind, and intellect) is merely a false ego — an 'avatar' (persona) that the soul must assume in order to participate in this virtual reality.

When we read Krishna's instructions to Arjuna at the beginning of the second chapter of Bhagavad Gita, if we think of this material world as the virtual environment of an online, multiplayer role-playing game (World of Warcraft) or a social network game (FarmVille on Facebook), and our bodies as the avatar (digital representation of ourselves) in that alternate reality, it may help us to understand Arjuna's dilemma a bit better, and perhaps make Krishna's discourse on the nature of reality a little more meaningful to us in this modern day and age.

(Even if you don't play computer games, you're online now, so I presume you are at least familiar with the icons that identify other users on instant messaging or web forums, right? Same thing :)

So when Krishna smiles and begins to instruct His grief-stricken friend after Arjuna emphatically refuses to fight, think of the conversation as going something like this:

The Supreme Lord said,

2:11  O Arjuna, you are lamenting for that which is unworthy of grief, yet speaking words of wisdom. The wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.

You speak like a computer nerd, but betray your ignorance by grieving for your opponents in this computer game. The warriors on this battlefield are not real. They are digital characters — just like your character, Arjuna — so why do you feel sorry for them?

All your so-called relatives are just role-players; you are only related to them through your affiliation with the various clans and guilds in the simulated environment of this game, so why mourn for them? Why pretend to know about computers, then get upset when some pixels that you interacted with briefly — the online avatars of your fellow role-players — disappear from your screen?

2:12  Never was there a time when you, all these kings, or I did not exist. Just as we exist in the present, so have we existed in the past, and shall continue to exist in the future.

The players do not die in this game; only their alter egos (avatars) do. All these players that you are now competing against or cooperating with have played computer games before, and will continue to play this and/or similar computer games in the future, in new roles, with different avatars.

2:13  As the living being passes through the bodily changes of childhood, youth and old age, it similarly passes into another body at death. The wise are not deluded by this change.

Just as you (sitting at your keyboard) played the role of a warrior, paladin, or mage in this game, you get to play the part of another character when your avatar is slain. Savvy computer users do not confuse the role-player with his or her avatar.

2:14  Happiness and distress are temporary; like winter and summer, they come and go. They arise from sense perception, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.

Because you identify with the role you are playing, sometimes you are up, and sometimes you are down. Ignore these fluctuations in fortune and continue with the game.

2:15  O noblest of men, the wise person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for immortality.

If you persevere through both the easy and the more difficult stages of the game, you will eventually beat the Boss — and perhaps even be immortalized in the 'high score' list!

2:16  That which is unreal (our bodies and this world) has no permanent existence; that which is real (the soul) exists eternally, without change. This is the conclusion of the seers of the truth, who have studied the nature of both.

Avatars (and the virtual environment in which they exist) are not permanent. The avatars' owners, however, are constant: they do not change like their avatars. So conclude the programmers, who know the difference between computer users and their avatars.

2:17  Know that the soul, by which the entire body is pervaded, is indestructible. No one can destroy the imperishable soul.

The player who animates the game character (avatar) cannot be killed by any other player in the game.

2:18  The soul is eternal, indestructible and immeasurable. Only these physical bodies are subject to destruction. Therefore fight, O Arjuna.

The players themselves cannot be killed; only their avatars are destroyed in combat, so don't be concerned — fight!

2:19  Those who think the living being slays, and those who think it is slain, are ignorant of the true nature of the soul, for the soul neither slays nor is slain.

Those who think that any player kills or is killed, are ignorant of the mechanics of the game; no player actually dies in this simulation.

2:20  The soul is neither born nor dies; it has not been nor will it be created because it is unborn and eternal. It is ever-youthful, yet ancient. It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.

No player is born or killed in this virtual environment; they are not created in the game because they exist in the present, outside the game world. They do not die when their avatar is destroyed.

2:21  O Arjuna, knowing that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn and unchanging, how can a person kill or cause anyone to be killed?

If you know that no player can be killed, how can you kill anybody?

2:22  As a person adopts new garments, discarding those that are old and worn out, the soul similarly adopts new bodies, abandoning those that are old and useless.

Just as a person swaps old clothes for new, a player abandons an avatar when it is killed or becomes too old and weak, and begins the game afresh, in another role, with a brand new avatar.

And so on... you get the idea. (Continue reading like this.)

When you think about what Krishna is saying about this world, its inhabitants, and the nature of the soul in terms of something that you can understand and can relate to (like a computer role-playing game), you almost have to start feeling sorry for Arjuna... How can he be such a doofus? :)  How can he not understand that this world is only a simulation of reality, a virtual reality? Why does he think it is real?

And yet we behave just like the naïve Arjuna: we react to this material world, this imitation of reality, the same way that he does. We think that we are related to, and grieve for, our family members; we think that when our bodies die, we die...

Of course, Arjuna is not really that dumb! He is an enlightened soul (surayah) briefly bewildered (muhyanti) by Krishna as a pretext for the Lord to recite His Lyrical Poem, to sing His Divine Song (Bhagavad Gita), for the eternal benefit of future generations.

So read Bhagavad Gita again. Don't think that it is irrelevant in the 21st century because it is ancient history: a five-thousand-year-old talk between Krishna and Arjuna. Understand it for what it is: a living conversation that you can have, right now, with God.

Read it again, for the first time, and be amazed!

Tags: Virtual Reality

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Layout by iMonk — June 30th, 2011.