A look at some quotes from classical Chinese literature that echo Bhagavad-gita values and are popular among Chinese people today.
By Nandimukhi Devi Dasi
Because certain values found in the Bhagavad-gita align well with traditional Chinese values, highlighting them may help spread Krishna’s teachings among the Chinese people today.

There are various perspectives on how to popularize and gain appreciation for the timeless wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita. A few years ago, some devotees considered the Bhagavad-gita from the viewpoint of six key values and principles that could be referenced in daily life and decision-making: sama-darshana (equal vision), iccha (choice), ahimsa (without harm), acharya (teaching by example), amanitva (humility), and priti (affection). (A related article, titled “Gita Values,” appeared in the December 2019 edition of Viplavah, a journal of the ISKCON Ministry of Education.*) These six Gita values can be found in many traditional and modern cultures, and could help connect the ancient Bhagavad-gita with a contemporary audience. This article revisits these six Gita values in connection with Chinese culture.

Chinese culture is one of the world’s oldest cultures, having accumulated an abundance of values, stories, and knowledge over thousands of years. China also has the biggest population in today’s world, almost one fifth of the global population. Chinese people and government are familiar with Chinese culture and largely identify with it. For members of ISKCON, an expanding worldwide organization, to communicate Krishna consciousness internationally and interculturally it is relevant to consider cultural differences; people could be more appreciative and open when the culture that is precious to them is acknowledged and respected.

Throughout history, numerous learned Chinese scrutinized the rise and fall of dynasties, historical events, natural phenomena, etc., trying to deduce unchanging causes of the vicissitude of success and failure, flourish and decay. Meanwhile, it is found in Chinese history and China today that values are usually preached on the basis of honoring ancestry, preeminent predecessors, and national identity. For a culture that is secularly oriented, advocating values that cultivate goodness is perhaps the highest social welfare activity. By bringing in the light of Bhagavad-gita, however, we can expect not only a more solid and enlivening motivation for people to honor their cultural values, but also a greater opportunity for them to reconnect with their original Krishna consciousness, which grants lasting meaning to their circumstantial activities.

Following are the six Gita values together with quotes, drawn from classical Chinese literatures, that echo the values and are popular among Chinese people today. In consideration of a global audience, quotes from modern spoken Chinese interpretations of the classical Chinese texts are presented in English. And Pinyin, a standard system of romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese, is used in place of Chinese characters. The four diacritics in Pinyin that denote tones are not included. Approximate dates of figures or literatures are provided for interested readers.

The first paragraph in each of the sections below is taken directly from the Viplavah article, written by Sesha Dasa, minister of ISKCON’s Ministry of Education.

Gita Value 1: sama-darshana (equal vision)

“The Gita’s idea of equal vision speaks of the equality of all living beings, where life is respected regardless of race, gender, caste, creed, or species. This rests on the understanding that the energy we call life is not a temporary material energy but an eternal spiritual energy. Thus Krishna says that the wise see a saint, a laborer, a dog, and an elephant with equal vision, and – while acknowledging their material differences – see real substance in their spiritual equality. This vision awards personhood to all, links everyone with God, and consequently with each other. It does not consider human dignity to be the natural basis of civilization, but instead the dignity of all life.”

The idea of sama-darshana is well conveyed by the Chinese idiom “Yi Shi Tong Ren.” The idiom originates from Han Yu’s article “Yuan Ren.” Han Yu (768–824 CE), a prominent author and official in the Tang Dynasty, advocated the Confucian theory of altruism. In “Yuan Ren” he discussed that the world is divided into three parts: the sky, the ground, and humans. The sky is situated above. The ground is situated below. Humans are situated in the middle. In the sky are the sun, moon, and stars. On the ground are grass, trees, mountains, and rivers. “Humans” includes civilized humans as well as barbarians, birds, and beasts. The sky is the master of the sun, moon, and stars. The ground is the master of grass, trees, mountains, and rivers. Civilized humans are the masters of barbarians, birds, and beasts. To be a worthy master, civilized humans should widely practice being altruistic to all, regardless of species and social positions. Therefore sages, especially, are benevolent and treat barbarians, birds, and beasts alike.

Gita Value 2: iccha (choice)

Iccha means desire. The Gita begins by Arjuna making a choice to seek guidance from his friend Krishna. Krishna concludes His Gita by recognizing that after offering His opinion Arjuna will do as Arjuna desires. Krishna has spoken to Arjuna openly, truthfully, and with affection. He has not been demanding or dogmatic. By leaving the choice to Arjuna, Krishna has acknowledged this freedom. Thus Arjuna can freely choose his relationship with Krishna, his service and responsibilities, and fight or flight on the battlefield. The Gita establishes that love depends on individual choice.”

In Chinese history there is also a capable man who used to live in seclusion yet chose to come out and committed himself to serving a master. Liu Bei was a warlord and the king of Shu Han state in the Three Kingdom Period. When he learned that Zhuge Liang (181–234 CE), who was then living in a secluded hermitage, was a man competent to help him establish and manage a kingdom, he went to visit him. He went there twice, only to find that Zhuge Liang was not at home. He went for a third time and finally met Zhuge Liang. Liu Bei’s sincerity touched Zhuge Liang, who then agreed to serve Liu Bei in his mission. Zhuge Liang mentioned the incident in his renowned article “Qian Chu Shi Biao”: “I was a laborer, plowing fields in Nanyang. I simply tried to sustain a life in the turmoil without any ambition for gaining fame among statesmen. The king [i.e., Liu Bei] did not consider me low-status, paid me personal visits three times in a row, and consulted me about the way of ruling the world. I cannot be more grateful, and thus promised the king to dedicate myself to his service.”

Gita Value 3: ahimsa (without harm)

Ahimsa means to act in a way that causes the least harm. In the Mahabharata Krishna says that all dharma, all good acts, are dependent on this one principle. The context of the Gita, a battlefield, helps us appreciate that ahimsa does not mean pacifism. Nevertheless, a life of ahimsa does include avoiding violence – the harm of offering cruel words, of making others’ lives distressed or confused, of withholding knowledge or insight, and of being neglectful of ourselves. In the Gita Krishna asks us to consider loka sangraha – the welfare of the world, and sarva-bhuta-hita – the welfare of all beings. Ahimsa encourages such a life dedicated to truth, dharma, and spirituality, allowing us to be better servants of God and the greater good.”

Chinese culture also advocates that one should do good to others and not harm. In Dao De Jing, a collection of the teachings of Lao Zi (571–471 BCE), it is said, “The foremost goodness is like water. Water benefits all instead of contending with them. Water stays at the lowest place, which everyone disdains. In this way it is in harmony with ‘Dao.’” In Meng Zi, a collection of the teachings of Mencius (372–289 BCE), it is said, “Imbibing the goodness in others is like doing good together with others. For a gentleman, the most important thing is to do good with others.”

The Chinese idiom “Fu Jing Qing Zui” expresses the value of considering the welfare of all people and the welfare of the world. “Fu Jing” means carrying thorny grass. “Qing Zui” means pleading guilty. The idiom originates from a historical incident: Lin Xiangru and Lian Po (327–243 BCE) were high-ranking officials of Zhao state in the Warring States Period. After Lin Xiangru had been promoted to a position higher than Lian Po’s, Lian Po was indignant and became hostile to Lin Xiangru. Lin Xiangru prioritized the safety and stability of Zhao state and tolerated Lian Po’s hostility at all times. Later, Lian Po realized his misbehavior. With a bundle of thorny grass on his back, he approached Lin Xiangru and begged forgiveness. The two then became close friends and served Zhao state cooperatively.

Gita Value 4: acharya (teaching by example)

“The word acharya means one who leads and teaches by example. The acharya, by behavior, shows what can be done, how we can live a full life with a minimum of possessions, how a dedicated life of service gladdens the heart, and how a spiritual life is a practical life. The acharyas inspire integrity and good character in others by the standards they set. Teaching by example is the essence of education; leading by example is the essence of government. Exemplifying one’s principles is the basis of dignity, respect, and trust.”

The value of teaching and leading by one’s example is familiar to Chinese culture. Several Chinese idioms convey this idea, including “Wei Ren Shi Biao,” “Yi Shen Zuo Ze,” and “Shen Ti Li Xing.” In Lun Yu, a collection of the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE), it is said, “If you have good conduct, even if you do not command orders people will implement them. If you do not have good conduct, even if you command orders people will not obey. . . . If you rectify your own behavior, what difficulty is there in managing others and the state’s affairs? If you cannot rectify your own behavior, how can you rectify others’ behavior?” In Shi Jing (1100–700 BCE), the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, a verse says that those who have exemplary conduct and deep learning are like towering mountains, and people appreciate and admire these qualities.

Gita Value 5: amanitva (humility)

“Humility in the Gita is a virtue which is seen in behavior but which rests on understanding. Humility is the quality of not being anxious to be honored by others. Humility aided Arjuna to understand himself and what he must do in the greater scheme of things. Humility is not weak. It nurtured Arjuna’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and courage. It allowed him to know, love, and serve God. It perfumes our communication, is the jewel of the broadminded, and is the key to a spiritual life. It is the most attractive quality we can possess.”

Humility perhaps is one of the most commonly reviewed values in Chinese culture. In Shang Shu (1000 BCE), one of the five classics of ancient Chinese literature, it is said, “Being complacent will do harm. Being humble will benefit.” In Zhou Yi (900 BCE), one of the oldest of the Chinese classics, sixty-four hexagrams are discussed. One of them is named “Qian,” a Chinese character that means humility. And all the explanatory verses of the hexagram indicate auspiciousness, which is rarely seen in the other sixty-three hexagrams. For instance, one verse states, “A humble gentleman is used for taking on important tasks. Auspicious.” Wang Yangming (1472–1529 CE), an important thinker and military general in the Ming Dynasty, wrote in his book Chuan Xi Lu, “Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Pride is the chief of all evils.” Chinese people also see humility in living beings other than humans. In a poem by Xu Tingyun (1095–1179 CE), the humility of bamboos is glorified: “Have character before emerging from the soil. Remain unassuming even after having reached the clouds.”

Gita Value 6: priti (affection)

“In the Gita Arjuna listens to all the advice given by Krishna and chooses His path because he wants to please Him. His relationship with Krishna is based on love, and Krishna has shared his knowledge with Arjuna because of this love. All of the principles we have mentioned are enriched by our ability to offer and receive affection. Love for God develops our kindness, our gratitude, and our concern. Our ability to be compassionate and tolerant is nourished by affection. Preaching is excellent when graced with a concern born of affection, and our affection for God should be apparent in all our dealings – as the quality of a rose is apparent by its scent.”

In Chinese culture the necessity of offering and receiving affection is emphasized. “Xian Huan Jie Cao,” for example, is a Chinese idiom that conveys this principle. “Xian Huan” refers to holding a jade ring in the mouth to repay a benefactor. “Jie Cao” refers to knotting grass into a rope to rescue a benefactor. The idiom indicates that we should always be grateful to others and never forget those who have helped and favored us. There is also a popular saying from a book titled Zhu Zi Jia Xun (seventeenth century CE) that says, “Grace as little as a drop of water should be repaid by a spring of water.” In a well-known poem, Meng Jiao (751–814 CE) expresses, “Children are like the tiny grass. Mother’s love is like the spring sunshine. How can children repay their mother for her love?”

Love for the Supreme is also found in classical Chinese culture. It is written in a poem in the collection titled Shi Jing, “The Supreme is great and brilliant, looks at the world with tremendous attention, monitors and observes the four directions of the sky and the ground, and recognizes suffering in people.” Su Shi (1037–1101 CE), a prominent scholar-official in the Song Dynasty, wrote in his article “Chi Bi Fu,” “Between the sky and the ground, everything has its owner and does not belong to me. Even if it is something minute, I would not take possession. Only the fresh breeze on the river and the bright moon seen between the mountains, when heard by the ear it becomes sound, and when encountered by the eye it becomes form. It is the inexhaustible treasure of the Creator, and is enjoyable for you and me.”

A Life of Values

To live by values and principles is not easy; it can be a form of austerity of the body, mind, and speech. Yet, as Lord Rishabhadeva taught, human life is meant for tapo divyam, austerity to realize the divine (Bhagavatam 5.5.1). With the help of intelligence and volition, a human has the capability to move towards a life of quality that contributes to society and purifies his or her existence. May this presentation of the six Gita values with parallel examples from Chinese culture help popularize Bhagavad-gita and increase the enthusiasm of the readers to live a life of values and principles pertaining to the attainment of pure devotional service.

*Originally published online, the article is no longer available.

Nandimukhi Devi Dasi (Yanying Wang), a disciple of His Holiness Romapada Swami, was born and raised in mainland China. She came to the U.S. by herself in August 2014 and later came across Krishna consciousness and devotees via a bhakti-yoga club at the George Washington University. She completed her graduate education in statistics in the U.S. She cares about the development of ISKCON in China and the spreading of Krishna consciousness worldwide.