01.  Introduction: Arjuna's Despondency

1. At The Heart Of The Mahabharata

  1. Dear brothers, from today I shall be talking to you about Shrimad Bhagavad-Gita. The bond between the Gita and me transcends reason. I have received more nourishment from the Gita than my body has from my mother’s milk. There is little place for ratiocination in a relationship of loving tenderness. Moving beyond the intellect, I therefore soar high in the vast expanse of the Gita on the twin wings of faith and experimentation. Most of the times I live in the ambience of the Gita. The Gita is my life-breath. I am as if afloat on the surface of this ocean of nectar when I am talking about the Gita with others, and when alone, I dive deep into this ocean and rest there. Henceforth, every Sunday, I shall be giving a talk on the teaching of the Gita, who is verily our mother.

  2. The Gita has been set in the Mahabharata. Standing in the middle of the great epic like a lighthouse, it illuminates the whole of the epic. Placed between six parvas (sections of the text) of the epic on one side and twelve on the other, its message is being unfolded in the middle of the battlefield with seven divisions of the Pandava army on one side and eleven divisions of the Kaurava army on the other.

  3. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are our national epics. The characters depicted therein have become an inseparable part of our lives. Since time immemorial, life in India has remained under the spell of the characters like Rama, Sita, Dharmaraj, Draupadi, Bhishma, Hanuman etc. The characters in other epics of the world have not become one with the lives of the people in this way. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are thus undoubtedly unique and wonderful works. The Ramayana is an endearing and enchanting ethical poem, while the Mahabharata is a comprehensive treatise on the working of society. In the Mahabharata Vyasa has, in one hundred thousand verses, sketched the lives, personalities and characters of innumerable individuals with consummate skill. The Mahabharata vividly brings out the fact that none but God is completely faultless and good, and also that none can be said to be evil personified. For instance, it points out faults even of moral giants like Bhishma and Dharmaraj, and virtues in the characters like Karna and Duryodhana, who had strayed from the path of righteousness. The Mahabharata tells us that human life is like a fabric woven with black and white threads—threads of good and evil. With perfect detachment Vyasa, the great sage, graphically depicts before us the complex reality of the vast web of worldly life. Because of Vyasa’s great literary skill in depicting life with detachment and high moral purpose the Mahabharata has become a veritable gold-mine. Everybody is free to explore it and take freely as much as he wants.

  4. Vyasa wrote such a great epic, but did he have something of his own to tell ?  Has he told his special message somewhere? Which is the place in the epic where we find him in a state of samadhi1? One comes across in the Mahabharata a vast number of dense thickets of philosophies and preachings, but has Vyasa given anywhere the essence of all those and presented the central message of the whole epic? Yes, he has. Vyasa has presented it in the form of the Gita. The Gita is his principal message and the repository of his wisdom. It is because of the Gita that the Lord has extolled him as the sage among the sages, as His own manifestation among the sages2. The Gita has been accorded the status of an Upanishad since ancient times. It is, in fact, the supreme Upanishad. Lord Krishna has as if distilled the essence of all the Upanishads and offered it in the form of the Gita to the whole world. Arjunas despondency provided only an occasion. Almost every idea and thought necessary for the blossoming of life can be found in the Gita. That is why the wise have rightly called it the encyclopedia of dharma.3 The Gita, although small in size, is the principal text of Hinduism.

  5. It is well-known that the Gita was told by Lord Krishna. Arjuna, the devotee who listened to this great teaching, became one with it, so much so that he too came to be called Krishna. Vyasa's empathy while narrating it earned him too the epithet Krishna’. Total identity was thus established between Krishna the teacher, Krishna the listener and Krishna the narrator. One who wants to go deep into the Gita should also have concentration of this kind and degree.

2. Arjuna’s Standpoint And Its Relation With The Genesis Of The Gita

  1. Many people feel that the Gita should be taken to begin with the Second Chapter. The actual teaching starts from the eleventh verse of the Second Chapter; so why not take it as the real beginning? A gentleman once argued that the Lord had called 'अ' (first letter of the Nagari alphabet) as His vibhuti (manifestation) among the letters of the alphabet4 and the eleventh verse begins with it; therefore, it should be taken as the beginning. That apart, it would be right in more than one sense to take this as the real beginning of the Gita. Nonetheless, the preceding introductory portion has a value of its own. Without it we would not have properly understood Arjuna’s standpoint and the genesis of the Gita.

  2. Many contend that Arjuna had reduced himself to the state of a eunuch and the Gita was preached to restore him to manhood and induce him to fight. In their view the Gita preaches not only karmayoga (the philosophy of action) but also yuddhayoga (the philosophy of war). But a little thinking will show the error in this view. Eighteen divisions of army were ready for battle. Can we say that the Lord, by making Arjuna  listen to the Gita, made him worthy to face that army in battle?  It was Arjuna who quailed; not the army. Was then the army braver than Arjuna? It is just inconceivable. It was not out of fear that Arjuna was shying away from the battle. He was a great warrior who had fought hundreds of battles. He had single-handedly routed Bhishma, Drona and Karna when they had invaded Virats kingdom. He was, in fact, known as one who knew no defeat; a man among men. Valour was in every drop of his blood. Krishna, in fact, did try to needle him by attributing impotence to him; but it proved to be off the mark. He had then to go deep into different aspects of the spiritual knowledge. It is thus clear that it is too simplistic to think that the aim of the Gita is to remove unmanliness.

  3. It is also said that the Gita is meant to make Arjuna willing to fight by removing his inclination towards non-violence. In my opinion this view also is not right. To understand this point, we have to examine Arjunas standpoint. The First Chapter and its extension in the Second are useful in this context.

  4. Arjuna had come to the battlefield with a firm resolve and a sense of duty. Being a kshatriya (member of the warrior varna5), fighting was in his blood. Every attempt to avoid war had failed. Even though the Pandavas had pitched their claims at the minimum and Krishna Himself had tried to mediate, all that had been in vain and war had become inevitable. In these circumstances, Arjuna had brought together many kings, made Krishna his charioteer, and is now on the battle-field. He asks Krishna with heroic ardour, Place my chariot between the two armies, so that I can have a look at the people who have assembled here to fight with me.  Krishna complies. Arjuna looks around.  And what does he see?  He finds his kith and kin, his near and dear ones arrayed on both the sides. He finds four generations of his own people intent on fighting to the finish. It is not that Arjuna had no idea of what he was going to see. But the actual sight, as is always the case, had a devastating impact. Seeing his kinsmen on the battlefield, Arjuna lost his nerve and deep anguish assailed his heart. In the past, he had slain innumerable warriors in many a battle, but he had never before felt so despondent, never had his bow Gandiva slipped from his hands, never had he trembled so, never had tears welled up in his eyes! Then, why all this was happening now? Was he coming to abhor violence like King Ashoka6?  Certainly not. It was nothing but attachment to his kith and kin. If those in front of him had not been his kinsmen, he would even now have felt no qualms in severing their heads and merrily tossing them around. But attachment to his kith and kin clouded his sense of duty, and then he started philosophising. When a man with a sense of duty is caught in delusion, he cannot face his naked lapse from duty. He tries to justify it by citing lofty principles. The same thing happened with Arjuna. He now started putting before Krishna, to convince him, the spacious argument that war in itself was sinful, that it would destroy the clan, eclipse dharma and lead to moral anarchy, scarcity and devastation, and bring many other disasters upon the society.

  5. I am reminded here of the story of a judge. He had sentenced to death hundreds of criminals. But one day, his own son was produced before him, accused of murder. His guilt was proved and the time came for the judge to pronounce the sentence. It is then that the judge hesitated, and started arguing, The death sentence is inhuman. It does not behove a man to inflict such a punishment. It destroys all hopes of reforming the guilty. One commits murder in a fit of passion. The moment of bloodthirsty madness then passes off. Still we coolly take him to the gallows and hang him to death. It is disgraceful to humanity. Such were the judges arguments. But, had his son not been there, he would have gone on sentencing people to death. His arguments lacked inner conviction; they were born out of attachment to his son.

  6. Arjuna’s condition was like that of the judge in this story. His arguments were not unsound. The world has witnessed precisely the same consequences of the First World War. But the point is that Arjuna was not voicing his own authentic conviction. His arguments were words seemingly wise, but not really so. Krishna realised this. He, therefore, paid no attention to Arjuna’s arguments and straightaway proceeded to dispel his delusion. Had Arjuna really become a votary of non-violence, he would not have been satisfied until his arguments had been convincingly answered. But the Gita nowhere deals with them, and yet, Arjuna was ultimately satisfied. This means that Arjuna had not really become a votary of non-violence. The intrinsic propensity to fight was still very much a part of his nature. War was for him his natural and inescapable duty. But he was trying to evade this duty under the spell of delusion. And it is this delusion that the Gita attacks most pointedly.

3. The Purpose Of The Gita: To Dispel Anti-Swadharma7 Delusion

  1. Arjuna was not only speaking the language of non-violence, he was also talking of sannyasa (renunciation of the world). He was saying that sannyasa was preferable to the blood-stained kshatradharma (duty of the Kshatriya). But was this his swadharma?  Was this in keeping with his nature?  He could easily have donned the garb of a recluse, but how could he have acquired the mentality of a recluse?  Had he gone to the forest to live the life of a recluse he would have started killing the deer there. The Lord tells him plainly, O Arjuna!  You are saying that you would not fight. This is an illusion. Your nature, which has been formed through all these years, will compel you to fight.

  2. Arjuna is finding his swadharma devoid of merit. But even if it is so perceived, one has to find fulfillment through its practice only. There can be no pride attached to any particular swadharma. This is the maxim of development. Swadharma is not something that is to be adopted because it is perceived to be great or noble; nor is it to be cast off because it appears base. Swadharma is neither great nor small; it is equal to our measure. It is that which fits us the best.  श्रेयान् स्वधर्मो विगुणः  (Ones own dharma, even if it is devoid of merit is the best for oneself.),8 the Gita says. The word dharma here does not mean a religion like Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. Every individual, in fact, has his own distinct dharma. Two hundred individuals sitting in front of me here have two hundred different dharmas. Even my own dharma today is not what it was ten years ago, and it will not be the same in ten years time. As ones mind grows and develops through reflection and experience, the old dharma gets shed and one acquires new dharma. One should not do anything in this matter obstinately.

  3. It is not good for me to adopt another’s dharma, however superior it may appear to be. I like sunlight. It helps my growth. I worship the sun. But my rightful place is here on this earth. If I leave the earth and try to get close to the sun, I would be burnt to ashes. Compared to the sun, the earth may appear worthless; it may not be self-luminous, still I should strive for self-development by staying on the earth, which is my rightful place, so long as I lack the capacity to stand the sun’s powerful blaze. If someone were to say to a fish, “Milk is more luxurious than water. Come and swim in the milk”, will it accept?  It can survive in water only; in milk it will die.

  4. Anothers dharma is not to be adopted even if it appears easier. Quite often, the apparent easiness is deceptive. If someone is unable to look after his family properly and gets fed up, renounces the world and becomes a sannyasi, it would be sheer hypocrisy and such renunciation would also prove to be burdensome. His passions will reassert themselves at the slightest opportunity. Even if he goes to the forest, he would build a hut for himself, then he would put up a fence to protect it; and in the course of time, his involvement in worldly affairs will increase with a vengeance. On the other hand, there is nothing difficult in sannyasa if one’s mind is truly detached. Indeed, there are many sayings in the Smritis9 to this effect. It is the disposition of ones mind that matters. It is that which decides ones dharma. The question is not whether it is high or low, easy or difficult; what is important is that the inner growth must be real and fulfillment genuine.

  5. But the devout ask, If sannyasa is always unquestionably superior to the way of fighting, then why did the Lord not make Arjuna a true sannyasi?  Was this impossible for Him?  Certainly not. But, would it have done any credit to Arjuna?  It would have offered no scope for Arjuna to exert himself and excel in his efforts. The Lord gives us freedom. Let everybody make efforts in his own way. Therein lies the charm. A child enjoys sketching figures with his own hands; he does not like anybody else holding his hands for this purpose. If a teacher just goes on rapidly solving all the mathematical problems himself for the students, how would their intellect develop?  The teachers and the parents should only guide them. God guides us from within. He does nothing more than that. There is no charm in God shaping us like a potter. We are not earthen wares; we are beings full of consciousness.

  6. From all this discussion, you must have grasped that the purpose of the Gita is to remove the delusion that stands between us and our swadharma.  Arjuna was confused about his dharma. He was gripped by a delusion concerning his swadharma. He himself admits it when Krishna castigates him. The Gita’s main task is to remove that delusion, that attachment. The Lord asked Arjuna at the end of the Gita, O Arjuna!  Has your delusion gone now?  And Arjuna replied, Yes, Lord. The delusion has gone. I have realised what my swadharma is.Thus, taking into consideration both the beginning and the end of the Gita, it is clear that the removal of delusion is its central message. This is the purpose of the Gita, as well as of the whole of the Mahabharata. Vyasa had said, right at the beginning of the Mahabharata, that he was lighting this lamp of history to dispel delusions in the minds of the people.

4. Honesty And Straightforwardness Make One Worthy Of The Gita's Message

  1. This introduction to Arjunas condition helps us greatly in understanding the rest of the Gita. We should be grateful for this. It also helps us in another way. It reveals Arjunas straightforwardness and honesty. The word Arjuna, in fact, means one who is honest and straightforward in nature. He candidly told Krishna all that he felt and thought, hid nothing from Him and ultimately surrendered to Him totally. In fact, he was already His devotee. When he made Krishna his charioteer and entrusted to Him the reins of his horses, he had got ready to give into His hands the reins of his mind also. Let us do likewise. Let us not think that, unlike Arjuna, we do not have Krishna to guide us. Let us not get caught in the fallacy that Krishna was a historical person. Everybody has Krishna residing in his heart as the indwelling Self. He is nearer to us than the nearest. Let us bare our heart, with all its impurities and weaknesses, before Him and say, O Lord! I take refuge in you. You are my sole guide, my master. Show me the right path and I shall follow it.  If we do so,  Arjuna’s charioteer will be our charioteer too. We shall hear the Gita from His own lips and He will lead us to victory.


References :

  1. Samadhi here means a state in which the mind is intensely concentrated and is in tune with the divine consciousness.  This is the sense in which the term has been used in Chap. 2.15 as well.  The word is used in a different sense in Chap. 9.2

  2. 'Of the sages, I am Vyasa'Gita, 10.37

  3. Dharma is normally translated as 'religion', but is a much wider concept.  Dharma is that which holds and supports everything in the world.  Its meaning includes right conduct and duties that become obligatory to a man because of his nature and station.

  4. Gita, 10.33

  5. According to the Hindu scriptures, society is divided into four divisions or varnas: Brahmin (teachers, priests, intellectuals), Kshatriya (warriors, kings), Vaishyas (those engaged in trading, farming, animal husbandry) and Shudras (artisans and those doing menial work).

  6. King Ashoka turned away from violence, disgusted by the ghastly sights in the successful war against the kingdom of Kalinga.  He then embraced Buddhism, the religion of nonviolence, and spent his remaining life in propagating it. 

  7. 'Swadharma' can be translated as one's natural duty dictated by one's natural state of being, one's true self and one's station in life.

  8. Gita, 3.35

  9. Smritis are compendiums of rules about individual and social behaviour and social relationships.