Then seeing Dhritarashtra’s ranks drawn up in battle array for the forthcoming clash of weapons, Arjuna took up his bow, and said unto Krishna: O Lord of the earth, drive my chariot to stand in the midst between the two armies, until I can behold these battle-hungry men arrayed here with whom I must fight in this conflict. I would behold those who are about to give battle, having assembled here wishing to do service in warfare for the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra. Thus addressed by Arjuna, Krishna brought the chief chariot to stand in the midst of the two armies. Thus facing Bhishma, Drona, and all the rulers of the earth, Krishna said: Behold, Arjuna, these Kurus assembled here. (1:20-25).
Authentic, traditional yoga is very serious and circumspect, and the intelligent yogi believes in the old adage: Look Before You Leap. 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
Arjuna saw standing there fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons as well as friends, fathers-in-law and companions in the two armies. In both of them he saw all who were relatives arrayed. Then filled with profound pity, desponding, he said:
O Krishna, seeing my own people standing near, desiring to fight, my limbs sink down, my mouth dries up, my body trembles, and my hair stands on end. My bow drops from my hand, my skin is burning, I am unable to stand; my mind is reeling.
Inauspicious omens I mark, and not good fortune do I foresee, if I should kill my own kinsmen in war. I do not desire victory, nor kingship and pleasures. What is kingship to us? What are enjoyments or even life? Those for whose sake we should desire kingship, enjoyments and pleasures, are arrayed in battle, abandoning their lives and riches: Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen, too. I do not desire to kill them who are about to kill–not even for the sovereignty of the three worlds; how then for the earth? What pleasure could the striking down of Dhritarashtra’s sons be to us? Having killed these aggressors, evil would thus cling to us.
Therefore we are not justified to kill the sons of Dhritarashtra, our own kinsmen. Indeed, having killed our own people, how could we be happy? Even if those whose thoughts are overpowered by greed do not see the wrong caused by the destruction of the family, and the crime of treachery to friends, why should we not know to turn back from this evil through discernment of the evil caused by the destruction of the family?
In the destruction of the family, the long-established family dharmas perish. When dharma perishes, adharma predominates in the entire family. From overpowering by adharma the women of the family are corrupted. When the women are corrupted, the intermixture of caste is born. Intermixture brings to hell the family destroyers and the family, too. Indeed their ancestors fall from heaven back to earthly rebirth, deprived of offerings of rice and water. By these wrongs of the family’s destroyers, producing intermixture of caste, caste dharmas and long-established family dharmas are obliterated. Those whose family dharmas have been obliterated dwell indefinitely in hell–thus have we heard repeatedly.
Ah! Alas! we are resolved to do great evil with our greed for royal pleasures, intent on killing our own people. If the armed sons of Dhritarashtra should kill me in battle, unresisting and unarmed, this would be a greater happiness for me.
Thus having spoken, Arjuna, in the battle which had already begun, sat down upon the chariot seat, throwing down both arrow and bow, with a heart overcome by sorrow (1:26-47).
This is long, but needs no comment. (We will be considering the subject of caste and caste-mixture later.) All we need understand is the great upset 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 a part of us 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 what 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–the awakening soul on occasion 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 dishonest “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. The Stoic, Epictetus, was once 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 led 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 who was thus overcome by pity, whose eyes were filled with tears, downcast and despairing, Krishna spoke these words
The Holy Lord said: Whence has come this faintheartedness of yours in the time of danger–ignoble, not leading to heaven, but to disgrace? At no time should you entertain such cowardice–it is unsuitable in you. Abandon this base faintheartedness and stand up.
Arjuna said: But how can I in battle fight with arrows against Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of reverence? Better that I eat the food of beggary in this world instead of my slaying these great and noble gurus. If I should kill them, desirous for gain, in truth here on earth I would enjoy pleasures stained with blood. We know not which is preferable: whether we should conquer them, or they should conquer us. The sons of Dhritarashtra stand facing us after slaying whom we would not wish to live. Weakness and pity overcome my being; with mind in confusion as to my duty, I supplicate you: Beyond doubt tell me which is preferable. I am your disciple; do you direct me. Truly, I see nothing that can remove this sorrow that dries up my senses, though I should attain on earth unrivalled and prosperous dominion, or even the sovereignty of the gods.
Sanjaya said: Thus having addressed Krishna, Arjuna said, “I shall not fight,” and became totally 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