“Then Arjuna, having seen the sons of Dhritarashtra drawn up in battle array, raised his bow as the clash of weapons began. Arjuna then spoke these words to Krishna: O Lord of the earth, cause my chariot to stand in the middle between the two armies, Imperishable One, until I behold these warriors, battle-hungry and arrayed. With whom must I fight in undertaking this battle! I behold those who are about to give battle, having come together here, wishing to do service in warfare for the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra. Thus Krishna was addressed by Arjuna, O Dhritarasthra, having caused the chief chariot to stand in the middle between the two armies. Before the eyes of Bhishma and Drona and all these rulers of the earth, Arjuna said: Behold these Kurus assembled” (1:20-25).
In contrast to the “Come One, Come All” quick-sale approach of modern Pop Yoga in which “Yoga Is For Everyone,” real (traditional) yoga is very serious and circumspect, and the intelligent yogi believes in the old adage “Look Before You Leap.” (At the beginning of the yoga boom of the sixties I outlined a book to be called Is Yoga For You? but never wrote beyond a few pages because I realized that nobody really wanted to know the truth about it.) Jesus put it this way: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:28-31). Vyasa felt the same way.
There is an interesting detail here. Sanjaya, the narrator of the Gita, calls Dhritarashtra “Lord of the Earth,” and Arjuna gives Krishna the same title–at least in the English translation. But in Sanskrit two different words are used. Sanjaya calls Dhritarashtra Prithivipate: Lord of the Earth, of prithvi, the earth element, the principle of non-sentient material existence. Krishna, though, is called Mahipate: Lord of the Earth (mahi) in the sense of the intelligent world of sentient beings. It is the difference between marble and a marble statue. One is mere matter, the other an expression of intelligence and artistry–even genius.
What Arjuna saw, and his reaction
“Arjuna saw standing there fathers, then grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brother, sons, grandsons, friends as well. Arjuna saw fathers-in-law, companions, in the two armies, and contemplated all his kinsmen, arrayed. Filled with infinite pity, despondent, he said this:
“Having seen my own people, Krishna, desiring to fight, approaching, my limbs sink down, my mouth dries up, my body trembles, and my hair stands on end. Gandiva [his bow] falls from my hand, my skin burns, I am unable to remain as I am, and my mind seems to ramble. I perceive inauspicious omens, O Krishna, and I foresee misfortune in destroying my own people in battle. I do not desire victory, Krishna, nor kingship nor pleasures.
“What is kingship to us, Krishna? What are enjoyments, even life? Those for whose sake we desire kingship, enjoyments, and pleasures, they are arrayed here in battle, abandoning their lives and riches. Teachers, fathers, sons, and also grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen. I do not desire to kill them who are bent on killing, Krishna, even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, how much less then for the earth? What joy would it be for us to strike down the sons of Dhritarashtra, O Krishna? Evil thus would cling to us, having killed these aggressors. Therefore we are not justified in killing the sons of Dhritarashtra, our own kinsmen. How, having killed our own people, could we be happy, Krishna?
“Even if those whose thoughts are overpowered by greed do not perceive the wrong caused by the destruction of the family, and the crime of treachery to friends, why should we not know enough to turn back from this evil, through discernment of the wrong caused by the destruction of the family, O Krishna? In the destruction of the family, the ancient family laws vanish; when the law has perished, lawlessness overpowers the entire family also. Because of the ascendency of lawlessness, Krishna, the family women are corrupted; when women are corrupted, O Krishna, the intermixture of caste is born. Intermixture bring to hell the family destroyers and the family, too; the ancestors of these indeed fall, deprived of offerings of rice and water. By these wrongs of the family destroyers, producing intermixture of caste, caste duties are abolished, and eternal family laws also. Men whose family laws have been obliterated, O Krishna, dwell indefinitely in hell, thus we have heard repeatedly.
“Ah! Alas! We are resolved to do a great evil, which is to be intent on killing our own people, through greed for royal pleasures. If the armed sons of Dhritarashtra should kill me in battle while I was unresisting and unarmed, this would be a greater happiness for me. Thus having spoken on the battlefield, Arjuna sat down upon the seat of the chariot, throwing down both arrow and bow, with a heart overcome by sorrow” (1:26-47).
This is long, but needs no comment. All we need understand is the profound mental agitation of Arjuna. It is the symbolism that matters. As already said, when we take stock of the inner conflict, we identify with both sides. Thinking that if they are dissolved or destroyed “we” will cease to exist, we are appalled and feel that our very existence is threatened. Then, like all human beings who do not like the truth when they see or hear it, we become “confused” and try to avoid the unpleasant prospect. Bitter as death seems the inner battle, so we shrink from it and desperately try to find a way out.
So does Arjuna. In a lengthy and impassioned monologue he has presented to Krishna his “confusion,” which is really a plea to inaction, to avoidance of conflict, thinking that such a negative condition is peace, whereas peace is a positive state, not the mere absence of unrest and conflict. It is also reached only through unrest and conflict, however little we like the fact.
Running away from spiritual obligation–and therefore spiritual life itself–is a common activity of the awakening soul, which brings all its ingenuity to bear on justification of such avoidance. Arjuna veils his aversion with words of compassion for others, when in actuality he is the sole object of his “compassion.” He simply does not wish to see others suffer because that will make him suffer–and feel guilty for their suffering. Krishna makes this clear to him. In chapter eleven of his Moral Discourses, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, is visited by a man who told him that he loved his daughter so much he had run from the house rather than see her suffering from illness. Carefully, gently yet firmly, Epictetus leads him to understand that it was his self-love that motivated him, not love for his child. It is the same with us; ego-involvement–addiction, actually–grips us, and we are the only ones who can free ourselves from it; and battle is the only means.
“Sanjaya said: To him thus overcome by pity, despairing, whose eyes were filled with tears and downcast, Krishna spoke these words.
“The Blessed Lord said: Whence has this timidity of yours come to you in time of danger? It is not acceptable in you, does not lead to heaven, and causes disgrace. Do not become a coward. This is not suitable to you. Abandoning base faintheartedness, stand up!
“Arjuna said: How can I kill in battle Bhishma and Drona, O Krishna? How can I fight with arrows against these two venerable men, O Krishna? Indeed, instead of slaying these noble gurus it would be preferable to live on alms here on earth; having slain the gurus, with desire for worldly gain, I would enjoy here on earth delights smeared with blood. And this we do not know: which for us is preferable, whether we should conquer them or they should conquer us. The sons of Dhritarashtra, having killed whom we would not with to live, are standing before us.
“My own being is overcome by pity and weakness. My mind is confused as to my duty. I ask you which is preferable, for certain? Tell that to me, your pupil. Correct me, I beg you. Indeed, I do not see what will dispel this sorrow of mind which dries up my senses, even if I should obtain on earth unrivaled and prosperous royal power, or even the sovereignty of the gods.
“Sanjaya said: Thus having addressed Krishna, Arjuna said, I shall not fight, and having spoken he became silent” (2:1-9).
Hopefully we all sympathize with Arjuna and see his perspective which certainly seems to be that of dharma. Nevertheless, note that Arjuna at the end of his words asks Krishna to remove his error–if such it is. This shows his humility, in contrast to the arrogance and swaggering of Duryodhana. Therefore he merits the alleviation he pleads for. Even the wisest are conscious that they can be wrong.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Smile of Krishna
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.
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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary