Indic Varta

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In this beautiful piece, Srinath Mohandas explains the response of Krsna to Arjuna’s plight. He analyzes three perspectives to Arjuna’s reaction to the ongoing war. The one by Sanjaya, the one by Arjuna himself and the most important of all by none other than Krsna. He analyzes these perspectives to glean some wisdom for us in these times.

Krsna’s Opening Remarks in the Gita

It is significant and engrossing to study the opening remarks of Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad Gītā. He is silent for all the first chapter of the Gītā, except for a brief response to Arjuna’s instruction to place his chariot amid the two armies assembled at Kurukṣetra. Remember, Kṛṣṇa who vowed not to take weapons in the war had volunteered to be Arjuna’s charioteer for the dharma-yuddha (righteous war). However, for our purpose, we may skip this and go across to the second chapter, where in verses 2 and 3 we hear the first words spoken by Kṛṣṇa which are his quick response to all the talking that Arjuna does in Chapter 1. Interestingly, they are not warm, pleasant and courteous as one would expect from a philosopher-king expounding the philosophy of the Upaniṣad-s!

The Bhagavad Gītā is a dialogue between the Pāṇḍava prince Arjuna and his friend and mentor Kṛṣṇa on the battlefield of the epic Mahābhārata war. It covers a broad range of ethical, philosophical and spiritual issues and serves a timeless guide for the humankind to live a life of dynamism with absolute clarity and loftiness of purpose. It appears in the Bhīṣma Parva of the Mahābhārata and is styled as Sanjaya live-reporting to the blind monarch Dhritarāṣtra, sitting by his side at the Hastināpura, thanks to the divine vision bestowed upon him by sage Vyāsa, the author of the great epic. It contains 700 verses running to eighteen chapters.

Chapter 1 is titled as Arjuna-viṣāda-yoga, meaning Arjuna’s grief. Apart from the details of the war, it describes the moral dilemma and despair that Arjuna plunges into seeing his own teachers, grandsires, uncles, in-laws, children and other relatives arrayed on the battlefield, determined to fight each other to the end. He is convinced that his side champions the just cause (dharma) and that the war has been thrust upon them despite multiple attempts at peace including offers of compromise.

Yet he wonders if it is still worth a catastrophic war. Overwhelmed by emotions the great warrior tells Kṛṣṇa that he considers it better to be slayed in the battle, unresisting and unarmed, than fighting his own people, however adharmi-s (unrighteous) they are! He also shudders at the consequences the fratricidal war can bring upon the society. Thus, the first chapter leaves us with a picture of Arjuna broken and shattered, weapons put down and sank back on the chariot seat desperately looking at Kṛṣṇa for his counsel. It sets the context for the rest of the Gītā to unfold and also our topic at hand.

It is very interesting that the second chapter offers us three perspectives to Arjuna’s reaction. Sanjaya describes Arjuna as “overcome with pity” (kṛpayāviṣṭam). He calls him magnanimous, may be because he fancied a hope that Dhritarāṣtra would take the cue and call off the war at this last minute. Arjuna too portrays a similar picture of himself, as “overpowered by the taint of pity” (kārpaṇyadoṣa), however, acknowledges that he is confused as to what is the right thing to do at this point of time (dharmasammūḍhacetāḥ).

Kṛṣṇa on the other hand, understands the situation clearly but very differently. He is in fact, surprised to see Arjuna flabbergasted on the battlefield! He realises that Arjuna has fallen victim to the enormity of the situation and needs help to regain balance. But he has no kind words for Arjuna and addresses him with the following stinging reproachful words.

  • kaśmalam–deluded
  • anārya-juṣṭam– unbecoming of one sensitive to the higher calls of life, righteousness and nobility, both in thought and action
  • asvargyam– not deserving heaven (to champion righteousness till one drop dead is the duty of a Kṣtariya (warrior), in which case he makes himself deservingvīra-svarga, the heaven of the heroes
  • akīrti-karam– disgrace (to the illustrious family of warriors he belongs to)
  • klaibhyam– impotent (not being effective for the situation)
  • kudram-hdaya-daurbhalyam– mean weakness of heart

Nobody would have dared to address Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his time, this way. And therefore, each wordwould have fallen on him as whip lash, shaking him off the suicidal attitude that he has mistaken for compassion and kindness. Kṛṣṇa concludes the verse with a resounding call to stand up and discharge his duty selflessly as a Kṣtariya and a commander of his army.

Readers who are not familiar with the Mahābhārata may be unaware of the necessity and inevitability of the war and be surprised at Kṛṣṇa’s response. To them I urge to take up a dedicated study of the epic. While the chapter proceeds with Arjuna’s queries and Kṛṣṇa’s reply, let us pause and explore the key take-aways for us.

  1. No matter how complex the situation is, we cannot afford to be a victim of it. Rather, we should consciously strive to master it with a clear head and a pure heart. To feel and express complex emotions is the privilege of the humans. However, to be overwhelmed by them to the extent of being rendered useless at crucial moments of life is no virtue. It is in fact tragic and the result of the wrong attitudes and beliefs we carry.
  1. Compassion and kindness are noble emotions. However, the softer emotions of life cannot be used as an excuse to exempt oneself from the exercise of tough duties of life. No value is absolute. It is the very fact that multiple values need to be considered for the effective addressing of a situation that makes it complex. To be obsessive about one value and ignore every other is to the peril of oneself and others. We need to evaluate situations holistically and choose an appropriate action by applying the right values and logic.
  1. It is also important to have right discernment while applying values. For example, should one be kind and compassionate to injustice? That will be disastrous as it will only encourage injustice.

This calls for a clear understanding of Dharma – the right and wrong vis-à-vis our duties and responsibilities at any given point of time in life. Exactly why we must study the Bhagavad Gītā and other Adhyātma Śāstra-s from a competent ācārya representing a valid school of Vedantic thought.

Another interesting point is that it is not always the kind words of encouragement that one needs when faced with tough challenges of life. There are times when all of us need to be shaken with words and acts that appear harsh to break our delusional thinking and get us back on reality. Arjuna was fortunate to have Kṛṣṇa by his side. For rest of us the ācārya-s and Śāstra-s serve as the friend.

Now that we have discussed two verses and initiated into the study of the Bhagavad Gītā, let us take it forward with all eagerness!