Arjuna, overcome with anguish at the prospect of killing in battle those he loved and was obligated to respect, presented to Krishna his reasons for refusing to fight. Hearing Arjuna’s words:
To him who thus was despondent in the midst of the two armies, smiling, Krishna spoke these words: (2:10).
The smile of Krishna
The smile of Krishna is extremely significant, and we must be grateful to the sage Vyasa for including this detail that carries a momentous message.
Why did Krishna smile, considering how grief-filled Arjuna was, and how impassioned he had been in his insistence that to fight would be the greatest of evils–in contradiction to the urging and advice of Krishna? Arjuna was both sad and rebellious. Yet Krishna smiled. The word in the Gita is prahasann, which means to smile before laughing. (Sargeant renders it: “beginning to laugh.”) So it is not some weak smile, nor a condescending or sarcastic grimace, but a very positive sign of impending mirth. How is this? Krishna smiled for several reasons.
- He was showing to Arjuna that he was not condemning him, that his words had in no way offended or angered him, that he could feel confident of Krishna’s love and regard for him.
- He was showing to Arjuna that he understood his feelings and his reasoning.
He was showing to Arjuna that all our little teapot tempests that we exaggerate and make into life-and-earth-shattering concerns and agonies are nothing to cause confusion, anxiety, anger, or grief, but rather are fever-dreams that will vanish the moment we rise to higher consciousness and behold them with the perspective of the divine spirit that is our true nature.
This reminds me of an incident in the life of Sri Anandamayi Ma. A man came to see her, overwhelmed with grief at the recent death of his wife. “Ma will understand my suffering,” he said to himself, “she will realize the extent of my sorrow.” But the moment he entered the room, Ma began laughing merrily, looking at him all the while. “Ma!” he protested, “Seeing how unhappy I am, how can you laugh like that?” “Baba,” Ma replied, “there is now one less obstacle between you and God!” I have witnessed similar incidents with Ma in which her laughter instantly healed the sorrow or anxiety of those who came to her for sympathy. Krishna is going to dispel the sadness and bewilderment of Arjuna in the same way.
- He was showing Arjuna that his words meant nothing–that he was going to fight anyway, because Arjuna’s kshatriya nature would impel him to do so, whatever he might think he thought. Further, in Krishna’s perspective the battle was over and done; there was no question as to Arjuna’s participation or the outcome: “These have already been struck down by me; be merely an instrument. [Only those] already killed by me, do you kill. Do not hesitate” (11:33-34).
- He was showing Arjuna that nothing can change the state of divine consciousness, that the myth of a Pleased/Displeased God is a foolish fable. God is always God, and we are always ourselves. That is how God sees it–and so should we. Nothing we can say, think, or do can possibly change God in any way. If God could be angered or gladdened by us, he would be as ignorant, changeable, and subject to suffering as we are. In fact, we would have more control over him than he has over us, as we are continually ignoring him and being indifferent to him. Our changeability is a myth, too, for all change takes place only in the delusive wrappings (prakriti, shakti) of our unchanging spirit (atma, purusha). Therefore, no matter what we think we do, God knows we have done nothing. Swami Prabhavananda’s very interpretive translation says it very well: “You dream you are the doer, you dream that action is done, you dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance, it is the world’s delusion that gives you these dreams” (Bhagavad Gita 5:14). Whatever our foolish antics, God smiles, knowing our eternal destiny within him.
Right but wrong
Smiling, Lord Krishna says an unexpected thing to Arjuna in response to his fervent disquisition on how he both should not and could not engage in battle on the field of Kurukshetra:
The Holy Lord said: You have been mourning for those who should not be mourned for, though you speak words of wisdom. The wise mourn neither the living or the dead (2:11).
When I was a novice in a Greek Orthodox monastery which placed great emphasis on the mystical approach to Christianity and on meditation (Hesychia) particularly, one of the prime inspirations was Saint Gregory Palamas, a great mystic and author on the subject of interior prayer. When looking through the original Greek texts of the collection of spiritual writings known as the Philokalia, I came across a writing of Saint Gregory that had some diagrams. Not knowing any but the most elementary Greek (little more than the alphabet), I took the volume to a Greek-speaking monk and asked what the article as about. To my amazement he told me that it was an explanation of how the world was flat and how completely irrational and baseless it was to say the world was spherical! (Why such a subject would be treated in a collection of mystical writings was not explained to me.) Now, Saint Gregory possessed a brilliant intellect and his arguments were thoroughly logical–but he was wrong.
Later on I decided to read the complete writings of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest mystics of the early Christian Church. I was not disappointed, for his words are truly inspired and his insights invaluable. But then I came up against a real surprise. His brother, Saint Basil the Great, gave a series of discourses on the days of creation, but died before he could give the final sermon. So Saint Gregory decided to complete the work by writing an article on the final day of creation. In the article he discusses the human anatomy and for some reason presents a lengthy and complicated explanation of why and how human beings sneeze. The explanation is ingenious and equally erroneous, not to say genuinely funny. Again, the words were very logical, quite reasonable, but utterly mistaken to the point of silliness. And in both instances both the Gregories’ sincerity and conviction counted for absolutely nothing. Wrong is wrong.
One of the funniest “wrongs” of a spiritual figure was the outlawing of hurdy-gurdies by one of the Popes in the Middle Ages. This was based on the fact that the hurdy-gurdy was the instrument played by wandering beggars, and wherever the beggars went the plague broke out. Not knowing about germs, the Pope concluded that hurdy-gurdy music caused the plague! Reason led to folly.
Millennia before the Gregories, Arjuna looked out at the battlefield, and seeing those he loved and even revered was overwhelmed with the enormity of killing them, and expressed his feelings to Krishna, as we have just seen in the previous article.
Krishna’s reaction to this impassioned speech was to smile and say: “Your words are wise, Arjuna, but you are wrong.” He then explained very fully just why Arjuna’s conclusions were mistaken, and we will be looking at his explanations later, but for now it will be beneficial for us to pursue this matter of being wrong even when we seem to be right.
The fundamental problem is the character of the mind itself. It is intended as a link between the witness-consciousness that is our pure spirit and the outer world that is really only a dream in the mind of God and our minds, for we are co-dreamers with God, dreamers within the Great Dream of creation and evolution.
God and his creation are a bit like Moliere and his plays. Backstage he wrote out in large script the basics of the plot and the actors went onstage and improvised their lines and actions within Moliere’s parameters. After many performances the words were written down and Moliere has received all the credit for their improvisation. In the same way God has set the boundaries and the basic scenario of evolution in consciousness. We then ad-lib our way through the whole thing until we develop the good sense to listen to those who have already trodden the way and given instructions on the right way to go about it. Part of this good sense is the awareness that we rarely know what we are doing or see anything correctly or fully–for that is the nature of the mind: distortion and incompleteness.
Yet the mind is part of our equipment for evolution, so what shall we do? Clarify and correct it: put Humpty Dumpty together. And that can be done by meditation. For Krishna is going to tell Arjuna: “The yoga-yoked sage quickly attains Brahman,” and “He should practice yoga for the purpose of self-purification” (5:6; 6:12).
In the purity of mind produced by meditation, intuition comes to the fore, replacing discursive (and consequently tangled) thought, thus making the mind an instrument of perception rather than an interference in perception. For our thoughts are mostly static and distortion. In time through the effect of meditation we no longer think–we know. Therefore: “With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (8:8).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Birth and Death–The Great Illusions