Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1: The Despondency of Arjuna

"Dharma Kshetre Kuru Kshetre"
"On this Field of Dharma, on this Field of the Kurus...."

With that first line, begins the Bhagavad Gita. The blind King Dhritrashtra asks his minister Sanjaya to tell him what is occurring between his own sons and the sons of his dead brother Pandu, the Pandavas, on the field of Dharma and the field of the Kurus (his ancestors and lineage). The field of the battle is known as Kurukshetra as it belongs to the Kuru people, which both the Pandavas and Kauravas belong to. The more pertinent name of Dharma Kshetra is applied to this field at this time because this is the place that the olden code of Dharma battles with the new code of Dharma as put forth by Krishna. It is on this field that Dharma as righteousnes, law, justice and morality will play out.

One of the most perplexing and amorphous words in any language is the word Dharma. It has a wide range of meanings from natural law, positive law, morality, tradition, justice, righteousness, duty, religion and harmony. Those are its most used meanings. Dharma literally means "that which upholds or sustains". In the Gita, Krishna uses Dharma in nearly every conceivable sense of the word to fully flesh out the complexity of the human and even the divine existence. Dharma is the starting point and the ending point of the Gita, if not of all Hindu and Buddhist thought. As such, through out this series of posts I will keep referring back to this conception.

Duryodhana, the antagonist, approaches his teacher Dronacharya, who is also the commander in chief of the Kaurava army. He asks to describe the relative strength of his army and also the armies of the Pandavas. The mighty and vast armies of both sides are then described focusing on the greatest warriors on each side. The Pandavas have 7 massive regiments and the Kauravas have 11 massive regiments totaling nearly 4 million people. The Kauravas blow their conches and trumpets while beating their drums. The sound shakes the very ground. The Pandavas respond in kind but the sound of their divine conches appears to shatter the very firmaments of the earth and sky. At this point, lifts up his bow Gandiva, an indestructible celestial bow and then straps on his two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. He stands on his invincible chariot, a gift from the Devas or gods.

Arjuna looks at Krishna, his charioteer and then asks him to drive his chariot in between both armies so that he can fully grasp the logistics of both sides. Krishna without a word does so. He drives the golden chariot between both sides and stops. Arjuna then spends a few minutes looking between both sides. The desire for battle begins to slowly whittle away when he sees his brothers, uncles, friends, cousins, nephews, teachers and even his grandfather all aligned against each other. The inevitability of this war, if not all wars, dawns upon him. He will have to kill those he loves and cares about. Suddenly, it hits him, all war specifically this war will kill generations of people and kill people who have a connection with each other.

The sanskrit verses that follow and describe Arjuna's feelings are simply touching and absolutely humanizing but for the sake of brevity I will give a synopsis. Arjuna sees all his friends and relatives on both sides ready to fight and kill each other. A wave of compassion crashes into him and he comprehends the simple fact that here on this field all these ties of family, relations and friendship are tossed aside and replaced with a desire to kill. Years of love, emotions and experiences together suddenly become merely a pebble to step over. With that realization, the reality of heinous act of killing strikes his very core. The physical reactions begin first, his limbs start to quiver, his body trembles, his mouth dries up, the hair on his body stands up and the celestial Gandiva in his hand begins to slip from him grasp. His mind begins to spin and he loses his balance. Shock sets in and the fight is leaving him....

Arjuna explains a very ethical, compassionate and practical view. What good comes from killing those we care about even if we gain all of the universe, when those who we would like to share it with will die here too? Even if those who want to kill us are prompted by greed, why should we who know better also engage in killing? How can we happy in killing others especially our own family and friends just for land and rights? By killing people we destroy families leaving women and children alone. When families are destroy the foundations of society and tradition are corrupted leading to a cycle of pain and problems, not to mention sin attaching to those who kill, so why fight this war and kill? Why should we engage in the sinful act of killing so that we can claim our right to govern?

Arjuna ends by telling Krishna, "It is better that the Kauravas, the sons of my uncle Dhritrashtra, kill me unarmed and unresisting than me killing them and gaining the kingdom." He then throws down his bow and arrows, sitting down in his chariot.

The first chapter of the Gita is an important one because Arjuna presents to Krishna and us, all the human emotions and rationale that come with weight of killing and war. Arjuna, here is the everyman or woman. He connects to us as the reader or listener and explains our own qualms about the very act of killing. Why should we fight and kill another being especially those whom we love for something as intangible as a right or something as inconsequential as property? Arjuna captures the idea of a cycle of violence, to hurt or kill another will not no matter what lead to good results, the potential for more pain and problems grows. Furthermore, the individual who commits those acts becomes burdened with both the sin of the action and the psychological consequences. Arjuna, like most of us, is filled with compassion and restraint from harming those we are close to as the pain and loss from that is lifelong. He then resolves to not fight and allow himself to be killed if attacked. Thus ends Chapter 1 of the Gita and sets the scene for Krishna's response. Comments...?

1 comment:

Sreedevi said...


Enjoyed reading your first synopsis and look forward to reading more.