This song is an antidote for:

  • Cowardice
  • Unwillingness
  • Reluctance
  • Aversion
  • Fearfulness
  • Discouragement
  • Cynicism
  • Purposelessness

Listen to the song (download mp3):

Bonus Track (download mp3): 

Watch the session with Satyaki:

From A Tale of Songs, by Swami Kriyananda:

I didn’t write this song with any particular people in mind. It was written about all those who believe in, and adhere to, lofty principles. The “foe” described here is delusion itself. The “warriors” are those true devotees who struggle steadfastly to destroy their own ignorance. Battles fought by people seeking worldly gain shall inevitably, in the end, bring only disappointment.

Brave were the people who lived in these hills.
Brave the great warriors who confronted the foe.
To defend what is holy, to defend what is true:
Our Lord on mankind did this duty bestow.

Glad all our children who people these hills,
glad in the vision their hearts understand.
What became of past struggles? Now the records are still,
but courage still lingers, giving strength to the land.

Men hunger for riches, for power, and for fame;
by favor they think they will grow.
The battles they fight, the victories they win
Are never the vict’ries they know!

Brave were the people who lived in these hills.
Brave, the great warriors who confronted the foe.
To defend what is holy, to defend what is true:
Our Lord on mankind did this duty bestow.

The land itself holds the vibrations of those who have lived in it. Hence the importance of pilgrimage. The tombs of great saints, for instance, emanate lasting blessings. By contrast, the Cairo museum in Egypt emanates the curse of black magic. I have known girls, especially, who are as yet immature emotionally, to be profoundly affected by that influence, and to suffer for years because of it.

When you travel anywhere as a tourist, gaze not only on the sights, but try to feel the vibrations of the people who once lived there.

A Mayan friend of mine spent a night in an ancient mayan temple. He told me he had a very vivid dream that night—to him, it was more than a dream—in which ancient Mayans entered and left the temple as though they were living there today.

The song as an antidote (Satyaki’s comments):

Brave Were the People is quite an amazing song and one, I think, that would lend itself well to dramatization or a music video. To explore the song, then, let me do it in the context of such a dramatization!

Imagine yourself in a quiet scene in a comfortable home library. You’re sitting in a recliner, legs up, perhaps a warm cup of tea on the side table and a soft reading light illuminating a book of history. It is a history of some “important” event, perhaps a great battle, the founding of a country, a great social movement—anything that stands in marked contrast to the seemingly mundane world of our everyday lives.

As we hear on the Mystic Harp 2 instrumental arrangement, and as it’s often performed, Brave Were the People, begins with a soloist slowly singing the first verse. Picture yourself reading some history as these words are sung, as if you’re reflecting on the historical events:

Brave were the people who lived in these hills.
Brave the great warriors who confronted the foe.

Clearly, we have the feeling during this slow segment of looking back on history, looking back on the greatness of those who, as the song says, “confronted the foe.” And there’s perhaps a little doubt in our self-reflection: would we have done the same had we been involved that that time? Would we have come up to fulfill the great dharma that was being asked of us?

To defend what is holy, to defend what is true:
Our Lord on mankind did this duty bestow.

We’re not so sure. In a way, we hesitate to face such examples—or we at least want to keep them resigned to history—because they offer a challenge. They force us to make a decision in our own hearts about where we stand and whether we would accept the duty even if it means loss of life and limb. Perhaps we even sigh to ourselves with the thought, “Oh, I could never have done that! Who am I to claim any importance on the great stage of history?”

But then comes a challenge from deep within ourselves: why not? What is it that you’re alive for? How did the great men and women of history become great? Something stirs in the soul, an energy of divine heroism—and the guitar and/or harp strumming becomes stronger and stronger, building in energy in the third chakra.

Imagine, too, that the pages of the book you’re reading begin to glow, becoming brighter and brighter as the energy builds, almost blinding you as the radiance bursts out to envelop you! And then, in the moment of the aggressive glissando, you’re pulled into the book, into the history itself—like the scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, if you’re familiar with that movie, when the same thing happens with Harry Potter while he reads a magic diary.

Suddenly, the history comes alive! Not in the pages of a dusty book, but in the living present. As the fullness of the piece expands (whether on instruments or choir), you find yourself in the heart of the action, in the heart of the great battle itself as we hear the first verse again:

Brave were the people who lived in these hills.
Brave the great warriors who confronted the foe.
To defend what is holy, to defend what is true:
Our Lord on mankind did this duty bestow.

The strumming build-up and the glissando had brought energy into the third chakra to activate its inherent power. Joining the battle, we feel the strength of the warriors—all the men and women who fought and endured to defend the Truth, to defend what is holy, to given themselves completely into dharmic action. In this, we understand: we feel that when the time comes, of course we’ll stand up for what we believe! This is the call of the soul in every age, to be brave, to give ourselves into a greater reality.

In this context—let’s put a pause on our music video for the moment—I’ve reflected on what it must have felt like during great conflicts of history like World War II, the American Civil War, and the Battle of Kurukshetra. I think that the soldiers involved understood—felt in the depths of their souls, really—that they were participating in something much bigger than themselves, and even much bigger than the battle at hand. They understood, I think, that they were participating in a kind of a cosmic event, and that to die as a willing participant was a much higher dharma than to try to protect one’s own life. Such a feeling would, I believe, inspire the kind of self-sacrifice that we see in events such as the Battle of Gettysburg or the invasion of Europe on D-Day. One would understand that such battles need to be fought, and that they need willing self-sacrifice.

I believe that this feeling also applies to people on both sides of a conflict, regardless of how history judges their respective values (which is always from the perspective of the victor!). Were all the soldiers of the pro-slavery Southern army in the American Civil War inherently evil because we, today, judge slavery as evil? I don’t believe that most of them would identify themselves as such—they were rather fighting for a way of life that was all they knew, a way of life that involved everyone and everything they loved, and that in their own minds, made perfect sense. On another level, perhaps they also understood that they needed to give energy to the side they were one, if for no other reason than to inspire the other side to give equal energy so that a greater clarity could emerge.

Similarly, I have to think that a fair number of German soldiers in World War II were not inherently evil at heart, for the fact of the matter is that they were largely unaware of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Because of state-controlled media and propaganda, and no access to any alternate information like we enjoy today, they were given only a single narrative. Everything around them showed a nation that had pulled itself up from the shameful ashes of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. Their national and thus personal pride had been restored, and then in that context they were carefully fed a litany of lies about how that new sense of worthiness was being threatened. Without any contrary information, then, which we enjoy in retrospect, many people gladly stepped up to defend the fatherland from those perceived threats, even at the cost of their lives.

As a result, soldiers of both armies were fully committed to their cause, even believing that God was on their side![1] In this way, all such soldiers were acting dharmically, because the real dharma is to sacrifice the ego into something greater. I have to believe, then, that such acts of willing sacrifice accrued very good karma for their souls.

Indeed, Yogananda said that in the movies, it’s necessary to have a villain to help the audience love the hero. The same is true of history: to help humanity learn to love the Truth, great battles must be fought between the Light and the Darkness, and someone needs to play the role of villain! In this context I think of the story of the Ramayana, with the great villain, Ravana, posing challenge to the hero, Rama. It’s said that Ravana, in a previous incarnation, was given the choice of living ten incarnations loving God before achieving final liberation, or only one incarnation hating God. As a true devotee, a lover of God, Ravana chose the latter because it would mean union with the Beloved all the sooner! Thus, he took on the role of villain to help create the great epic of the Ramayana, that has served as inspiration for hundreds of generations. (The story also serves to illustrate that one-pointed concentration on God, in the form of Rama in the story, is a sure path to liberation, regardless of how that concentration manifests.)

In Brave Were the People, then, this powerful first verse really reminds us of the importance of dharmic action, which is action that leads to salvation. In so many cases, it’s not so much the cause for which you’re fighting, but the fact that you sacrifice the ego for the sake of that cause.

In fact, that’s what happens in the next verse of the song, which brings energy up to the heart chakra. Imagine again, in our music video, that you’ve been witnessing the intense action on the battlefield, but then it all disappears and you then see the long-standing repercussions of that dharmic action, vibrations that infuse not only the site of the battle (which you can often feel when visiting a place like Gettysburg, which I visited recently), but bless the region, the state, and even the country and the world:

Glad all our children who people these hills.
Glad in the vision their hearts understand.
What became of past struggles? Now the records are still,
But courage still lingers giving strength to the land.

There’s quite a lot going on in this verse! First of all, “children” refers to generations of descendants, to all those who come after us. They are the ones who get to enjoy—that is, to be glad in—the fruits of our dharmic actions today, especially as many individuals in the battles of the present will perish.

Those who come after also enjoy “the vision their hearts understand,” which is a poetic way of describing the deep gratitude that remains long after the battle. It’s why every country has holidays of remembrance, not for the great events of the past, but for the sacrifice of those who fought.[2] That vision—that understanding of the heart—is again gratitude, not for the outcome of past events, as the lyrics, say, but for the courage that “still lingers, giving strength to the land.” That is, we don’t so much remember the specific deeds as we inherit the strength and courage expressed through those deeds. That courage, again, infuses the site of the event, the region, the state, and the nation. I would think that even in some cases with significance for all of humanity, those blessings infuse the whole world.

This second verse, then, has shifted us from being immersed in a battle or a struggle to a retrospective or historical view, indeed, the view from a higher perspective. In the third verse, during which the energy moves up to the expansiveness of the throat chakra, we even go so far as to observe the vast panorama of history across many such events. And what do we see? We observe the common tendencies of humankind:

Men hunger for riches, for power and for fame
By favor they think they will grow.

And we begin to realize a deeper truth:

The battles they fight, the vict’ries they win,
Are never the vict’ries they know….

In making these observations, we can see that true “victory” in life, true victory for the soul, lies not in those things that people normally seek to somehow make themselves “immortal”: power, fame, riches, technological progress, and so forth. Even seeking to do “important” things in life doesn’t necessarily produce the results that everyone seeks in the depths of their soul: true happiness. As we learn in yoga, with the principle of nishkam karma, that how you perform an action—the consciousness with which you perform it—is much more important than the result. That is, it’s the consciousness, like the dharma of the battlefield, rather than the victory or defeat itself, that produces the strong vibrations that bless the land.

In our world today, we certainly see many examples of people who seek power, riches, fame, and “immortality” of some kind, and are yet not any closer to happiness when they started. They might achieve “victories” of sorts—getting elected to a high office (perhaps doing so dishonestly), acquiring great wealth, extending their lifespan, and so on, but, as the song says, these are hollow victories that matter little to the world or anyone else in the long run.

In the spine, the verse helps to purify the desires of the heart, desires for power, riches, fame, etc. And then we go through the verse again, which serves to challenge and purify the ego at the medulla, for desires can arise from both the heart and the ego. That allows the energy to flow upwards to the spiritual eye.

From this perspective of higher consciousness, having seen the great panorama of history and what really matters, we’re brought back to the present, back to our recliner with our history book. We hear the first verse in the song again, but this time it’s no longer dusty history or something merely intellectual: it’s a message for us, now. We are all engaged in battles every day: the battle against negative thoughts, negative emotions, selfishness, contractiveness, and all the other forces of delusion. This, as Yogananda describes in his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, is the real battle of Kurukshetra.

Be brave, the song is telling us! Be dharmic! Show valor! Stand up for what’s right, what’s necessary, what you must do, and do it—it’s why you’re here! Be not a coward. Be not unwilling. Fight the battles that are right in front of you! Don’t think that you have to do something “important” on the pages of history: what matters most are those battles you must fight in your own self, the battle of Kurukshetra that’s alive and well in every human being.

In other words, Brave Were the People is not necessarily a call to engage in outward issues, like fighting for social justice or action on climate change. That may be your dharma, certainly, but it might also be your dharma to run a small business, to raise children, to tend a garden, or even to bless the world with the depth of your meditations. Instead, it’s saying that whatever your dharma may be, put your energy into it, keep your consciousness high, and Lo! Generations to come—your children and the land—will be blessed!

We can see, then, that Brave Were the People easily counters a variety of emotions related to cowardice and unwillingness, including reluctance, aversion, fearfulness, and discouragement. I successfully sang this song to my young son, for example, when teaching him how to make turns on more difficult ski slopes. Because he’s naturally very cautious, making such turns was certainly a challenge, and we did have a few tears along the way. But with the encouragement, and spirit of this song, and the assurance that he could just make a turn and deliberately fall down, we got over that bump quite quickly.

Another type of discouragement is that which arises not from failure itself, but from the inability to see purpose or meaning in one’s actions. Such a consciousness of cynicism and purposelessness asks, “Why should I even bother? My actions won’t really make any difference in the world!” The blindness here comes from defining words like “difference” and “world” too broadly—if you think only in terms of, say, ending hunger for millions of people, then you’re very likely setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you define those terms on a smaller scale, then you can most definitely find a place you can have meaningful impact: solving hunger for a single person is very meaningful to that person! In fact, what the song is really telling us, more than anything, is a fundamental spiritual truth: if all your actions do is make a meaningful change in yourself, to lift your consciousness even a little ways toward God, then those actions are meaningful. As the song says, again, “But courage,” that is, the vibrations of positive consciousness, “still linger, giving strength to the land.” If, in that courage, you can also instill courage and other positive qualities in others, all the better, but truly, your first responsibility is what’s going on in your own heart and mind, because it’s from there that meaningful outward action truly begins.

“But isn’t this just a kind of selfishness?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t I be putting the needs of others ahead of my own?” Yes, that’s true, but without allowing God to flow through us, what is it we really have to give others? As Swami Kriyananda wrote in A Place Called Ananda:

An essential key to right living is to be guided by that which increases one’s sense of inner freedom. In this freedom, moreover, there should be a sense of expansive happiness. Does this teaching seem self-centered? I’m not speaking of selfishness. Selfishness is the complete opposite of centeredness in the divine Self. Yogananda praised “divine selfishness” as a key to right, spiritual action. Always, he said, we should ask, “What can I gain, spiritually, from this situation?” For without inner development, what have we to give anyone? We are responsible above all for ourselves. This means among other things being responsible for our own reactions to life. If those reactions give us no inner happiness, it is a sure sign that they are misguided, and will be of no use to us.

Keeping watch over those reactions, like I said earlier, is really the battle that we face every day, a battle that, like this song says, needs to be met with bravery and this sense of expansive, transcendent meaning. By so living, then may we be sung of in the future as those warriors who confronted the foes of negativity and cynicism, of anger and selfishness, of all the forces of darkness—the Kauravas in the battle of Kurukshetra—that seek to bring us and the whole of the world down. May we defend what is holy and true—higher consciousness—for that is our first duty to God.

Footnotes:

[1] Although the right question to ask, as proposed by Rev. Jim Wallis in God’s Politics, is rather, “Are we on God’s side?”. [Return]

[2] In 2016, I had the opportunity to be present—quite by accident—for the grand Remembrance Day procession in London, which was begun after World War I, or The Great War, to honor veterans. It was very inspiring to see both the soldiers (the eldest of which were involved in World War II) and the deep gratitude of those in attendance. [Return]