April 17, The Gita, A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture by Irina N. Gajjar
Commentary and Chapter 1, Arjun’s Sadness
Chapter 1 of the Gita concludes with the doubt Arjun expresses to Lord Krishna, a doubt that distresses Arjun and fills him with sadness. It gives rise to questions regarding the human condition, our relationship with God, the nature of wisdom, and other issues. Later we will see how the Gita addresses these overlapping themes some of which predominate in certain chapters, pop up in different contexts and intertwine with related questions explored elsewhere in this scripture.
But as the Gita is placed in the Mahabharata, the great epic describing the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas and the subsequent war, the first chapter opens on the battlefield. We get a vivid picture of the armies and their leaders assembled on the field of Kurukshetra. Sanjay, the blind old King Dritarashtra’s charioteer, is the narrator who describes the scene to the King and to us all.
Kurukshetra is a city named after the legendary King Kuru, ancestor of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Its battlefield is also known as Dharmakshetra, the place of Dharma [duty and righteousness in Hinduism] or the Holy City. We can see that the symbolism of these names resonates in the minds and consciousness of most Hindus.
On this battlefield of duty, warriors on both sides are eager to fight. Prince Duryodhana, Dritarashtra’s son, is prepared to lead the Kauravas and the heroic Arjun along with his mighty brother Bhim -considered to have the strength of ten thousand elephants- are prepared to lead the Pandavas. The glorious uncle Bhishma, son of a king and the river goddess Ganga, roared like a lion to cheer Duryodhana on. Conches, drums and trumpets blared. Brave warriors stand ready. Lord Krishna’s army assists the Kauravas and Lord Krishna himself, as Arjun’s charioteer, guides the Pandavas.
At this moment, Arjun hesitates. Facing his relatives and elders, he doubts the merit of fighting. He feels sorry and dejected. His legs shake, his mouth is dry, his hair stands on end, his bow falls from his hand, his skin burns and his mind spins. In this state, he cannot bring himself to himself to stand up. He cannot see any purpose in pursuing this war. He believes that even victory would not vindicate the evil of killing. He asks Lord Krishna, “What is the use of killing my relations in battle? I do not want victory or a kingdom or pleasures. What use are three things? How can we ever be happy again after killing our own relations?” He thinks it would be better to die than to kill and that killing is sinful. He believes that nothing but destruction will lay in the wake of this battle, regardless of the outcome.
Sanjay relates all this to King Dritarashtra telling him that Arjun, his mind full of sorrow, put down his weapons, and sat sadly in the corner of his chariot.
Thus Chapter 1 ends, preparing us for Chapter 2 in which Lord Krishna answers Arjun specifically and introduces the immediate themes that arise from Arjun’s doubts. Actually, the entire Gita addresses these doubts and further matters that develop from them. In Chapter 2 we begin to explore the richness and the simple complexity of God’s teachings. While the terms simple and complexity may appear to be contradictory, they are not. The teachings are profound and complex as they pertain to our lives and behaviors, but the Lord’s explanation is clear and easy to grasp, so it makes them simple.
Before leaving you to the text of Chapter 1, I would like to explain why I interchanged the words Lord Krishna and God in this introduction. God is a broad idea, defined and envisioned somewhat differently by believers of many religions including Hinduism and even by agnostics and atheists. Overall, believers generally view God as the eternal and loving [though sometimes avenging] Creator of the universe or multiverses and/or as the Great Spirit and/or the supreme being empowered to protect and guide His creation. Some of us also attribute inexplicable events, or events we do not understand to God. Such power interacts with the free will He bestows upon beings so, in my view, God cannot be held responsible for everything.
Lord Krishna is God, but He is not as vague as God undefined. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu who in turn is part of the Holy Trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. These functions represent the reality of cosmic functions that support existence and embody the three essential aspects of the single God who appears in many avatars or manifestations. Thus, Hinduism is clearly a monotheistic faith, though one that encompasses all aspects of human thought and imagination. Note that references to gods and goddesses (lower case) do not refer to God or to the Lord, but rather to semi divine beings worshipped for their God like qualities. These are not One and they are not absolute.
Chapter 1: Arjun’s Sadness
King Dritarashtra asked Sanjay: Oh Sanjay, what did my sons, the Kauravas, the sons of my brother Pandu, the Pandavas, do standing on the holy field of Kurukshetra all ready and anxious to fight each other?
Sanjay answered: When the Pandavas’ army was all ready, your son, Prince Duryodhana, saw them and said: The mighty army of the Pandavas is prepared! It is strong. But in our own army there are heroes just as brave as the Pandavas. Our own heroes are just as strong as Bhim and Arjun. Our army is unconquerable.
Then the glorious old uncle Bhishma roared like a lion and blew on his conch to cheer Prince Duryodhana on.
The conches, drums and trumpets blared forth and there was a great noise.
The Arjun of the Pandavas blew on his heavenly conch in reply. Arjun sat in a glorious chariot pulled by white horses. Lord Krishna himself was Arjun’s charioteer.
Lord Krishna also blew a conch; Bhim did too. King Yudishtir, Nakul, and Sahadev all blew their conches as well.
And there was a terrible sound echoing through the heaven and earth and it tore the hearts of Dritarashtra’s sons, the Kauravas, and made them afraid.
At this moment, Arjun, Pandu’s son, lifted up his bow and spoke to Lord Krishna, saying:
Lord Krishna, place my chariot between the two armies. Keep it there until I have seen all the warriors and decided against whom to fight.
Then Sanjay continued: Arjun saw both armies. He saw in both armies his uncles and teachers and cousins and brothers and sons and grandsons and friends. Seeing all his relations ready to fight him, he felt very sorry and sad.
In his sadness, Arjun said to Lord Krishna: Oh Krishna, I see my relations here ready to fight and my legs shake. My mouth is dry. My hair is standing on end. My bow is dropping out of my hand. My skin is burning. My mind is spinning. I cannot stand up.
And I cannot see any use in this war. What is the use of killing my relatives in battle?
Oh Krishna, I do not want victory, or a kingdom or pleasures. What use are these things?
Oh Krishna, I do not want to kill my relatives even though they may kill me.
Oh Krishna, what joy can there be in killing Dhritarashtra’s sons? They are my family. Only sin can come to us for killing. It is wrong to kill Kauravas. They are cousins. How can we ever be happy again after killing our own relations?
Even if they do not understand this, we do. We know that it is a sin to kill our own family. Our family will be ruined. Our women will become bad. Our caste will become mixed. Our race will be destroyed. It would be better for me if I let Dhritarashtra’s son kill me.
Sanjay said: Arjun spoke those words on the battlefield. His mind was full of sorrow. He put down his bow and arrows and sat down sadly in the back corner of his chariot.
This excerpt is from The Gita, by Irina Gajjar. You can buy the book on Amazon.com.