The Bhagavad Gita
A Walkthrough for Westerners
By Jack Hawley
New World Library Copyright © 2001 Jack Hawley, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
(Arjuna Vishada Yoga
"Why should I wage a bloody war? ... Death would be better for me!"
1 His unseeing eyes blinked several times as he spoke to his minister Sanjaya. The blind old king, Dhritarashtra, fidgeted and cleared his throat. "Tell me, Sanjaya, what is happening on the holy plain where the mighty armies of my son, Duryodhana, and the armies of his cousin Arjuna are gathered to fight?"
The old man knew that his son Duryodhana's decision to go to war was wrong. He knew that the young king's judgment was clouded over by his jealous hate for his cousin. The old man had felt pangs of conscience but had said nothing when his son cheated Arjuna's family out of their rightful kingdom and then denied their requests for even a trifling parcel of the land that was rightfully theirs. The old man had maintained his curious silence when his son mortified Arjuna's wife and the whole family in public by having a henchman attempt to strip her of her clothes. He didn't condemn his son's heinous attempt to assassinate Arjuna's entire family. Nor did the old man try to change his son's mind when the young king sneered at all the recent peace overtures from Arjuna's family.
Indeed, the old man was so caught up in his mindless support of his son that neither ethical nor spiritual feelings could find their way into his heart. All good judgment had been lost. An unfair and ill-conceived war was about to erupt, and though he was the only person who could at this point avert the disastrous slaughter, he had no mind to do so.
2 The minister Sanjaya, because of his honest character, had been granted temporary yogic powers to see and hear what was occurring on the distant battlefield. (Sanjaya's name means "victorious over the self.") With a steady voice he replied to the old king's question: "Your son, King Duryodhana, is now viewing for the first time Prince Arjuna's opposing army all drawn up and ready to fight. It is obviously more formidable than Duryodhana had expected and he seems a bit anxious. Your son turns to his own forces as if looking for something or someone. Almost childlike in his manner, he finds Drona, his old archery teacher, in the crowd and moves quickly to him."
Sanjaya paused and leaned toward the old man, "Why is your son running to his former teacher? Perhaps his confidence wanes, or his conscience bothers him."
3 The old king didn't immediately react to this, which to Sanjaya showed that the old man's spirits were as sinister as his son's. Sanjaya continued his description of the distant scene: "Your son, almost flinging his words at his venerable teacher, says, 'Well, Drona, take a look at the army marshaled by your talented disciple, Arjuna. Why did you accept him as your pupil and teach him the arts of war?' The question carries a taunt, implying that Drona had made a mistake years ago in tutoring this prince who is now the enemy."
Sanjaya shook his head, "No one should ever speak to his teacher this way; it reveals your son's nervousness."
4-6 Without waiting for the old king's reactions, Sanjaya continued his account: "Your son is now mentioning the names, one by one, of the noted leaders of Arjuna's opposing army, some of whom were also Drona's students. He is too carefully enunciating each name, which is an indirect but rather obvious censuring of his ex-master for the opposition's great strength.
7-8 "But now your son realizes that he has overstepped his bounds and switches to listing the leaders on his own side. He puts the teacher Drona at the top of his list, clearly a patronizing gesture. As your son continues speaking, the generals standing close by appear uncomfortable with the too careful way he is voicing their names."
9-10 Sanjaya waited a moment, as though continuing to watch the far-off scene, and then resumed his account. "Sensing his generals' discomfort, your son abruptly stops. 'But we have many heroes on our side,' he says, 'and they're ready to lay down their lives for me!' But again his words don't fit his demeanor. There's a forced bravado in his voice; it's not clear whether he's putting down his own army or the opposition's. It's as though your son is unwittingly spelling ruin to himself and our forces even as he attempts to put weakness on the enemy.
11 "He tries to rectify this, and blurts an order to his generals, 'Go, assume your positions,' he says and then adds, 'But at all costs protect Field Marshal Bhishma.' His words and manner again reveal doubts, as if he does not trust his own generals. Or perhaps his concern about protecting Bhishma, the venerable old man both sides call 'grandfather,' is a grasp at a semblance of righteousness for his own side."
12 Sanjaya stopped talking as he watched the events unfold on the distant battlefield, and then resumed his narration: "Now, Bhishma, as if trying to cheer your son and rescue the deteriorating situation, is suddenly roaring like a lion and blowing his conch, indicating that the battle has begun!
13 "All the armies standing behind him have suddenly come to life, blaring forth their conches, kettle drums, cymbals, cow-horns, and trumpets. It's a loud, tumultuous noise.
14-15 "Now the opposition, led by Prince Arjuna and his lifelong friend Krishna, are answering this deafening roar with long, wailing blasts on their own conches.
16-18 "This incites all their forces to join in trumpeting and pounding drums — a noise that fills earth and sky with reverberations. The tumult seems even greater than that of the army of your son, although Arjuna's army is smaller.
19 "Like thunder, the noise of the opposition seems to 19 tear through the hearts of your son's armies. It's as if the respective clamors of the two sides echoes the relative justness of their causes. The opposition's greater commotion seems to abnormally penetrate the hearts and consciences of your forces."
Arjuna Loses His Resolve
20-23 The old blind king squirmed in his seat, but ever-honest Sanjaya ignored it, and continued his commentary. "Your son's blood enemy Prince Arjuna, aware that the fighting is about to begin, lifts his bow and speaks with an obvious — perhaps too obvious — zeal. 'Krishna,' Arjuna says, 'place my chariot between the two armies! I want to view those who come here daring to fight for the evil-minded Duryodhana.'
24-25 "Everyone on both sides watches as Krishna drives Arjuna's splendid war chariot onto the open field between the two armies and positions it in front of the opposing generals. 'Behold the gathered foes,' Krishna says with an edge in his voice.
26-28 "Arjuna now looks long at both armies, staring especially at his paternal uncles, teachers, cousins, and various benefactors, friends, and comrades on both sides. As his eyes fall on those who are now his enemies, his attitude seems to waver and he appears confused. He begins to speak to Krishna but the words get caught in his throat. The prince collects himself and again begins, 'Seeing my kinsmen gathered here ready to fight,' he says, 'all of a sudden I am overwhelmed by my emotions.
29-30 "'My arms and legs feel heavy, Krishna. My mouth is dry and my hair stands on end — and my body is shaking. See!' Arjuna holds out his hand and even he is surprised at the forcefulness of his tremors. He clears his throat and continues, 'I can hardly hold my bow. My skin burns all over. My mind whirls. I can barely stand up. What is happening to me?'"
31-32 With this indication of Arjuna's weakness, a slight smile formed on the old king's face. Sanjaya noticed it and continued his account. "Arjuna takes a deep breath and speaks, 'I see bad omens for our side, Krishna. I can't see any good coming from slaying my relatives. This is unlike our earlier days of glory, Krishna, old friend. Now I don't desire victory, or a kingdom, or pleasures. Of what use are they? Of what use is life, Krishna?
33-35 "'It is for the sake of the people on our side — our own teachers, relatives, and allies — that we seek the pleasures of victory and kingdom. Here they are in battle gear ready to give up their property and even their lives. It's all so useless, Krishna. Even though these enemies want to kill me, I don't want to kill them — not even for the kingship of the whole world or even the heavens. If these great prizes hold no interest for me, why should I wage a bloody war for this paltry kingdom?
36-37 "'I would be forever ashamed, Krishna, if I were to kill my kith and kin. I could never find any satisfaction in such slaughter. Though their bows are drawn to kill, to slay these people would be a sin. So what if they're evil? They're my relatives. How could I ever again be happy?
38-39 "'I know they are overcome with greed. And I know they are blind to the evil in all their treachery. But does that justify my being blind too?
40-41 "'Old friend,' Arjuna continues to Krishna, 'when a family declines, its traditions are destroyed, and the entire family loses its sense of oneness. Without unity, the women get corrupted, and with the decline of women the world is plunged into chaos.
42-45 "'Social turmoil is hell, Krishna, for the family, for the destroyers of the family, and for the whole society. It is said that those who destroy family unity have to live in hell. Ah! And yet here am I, goaded by greed, ready to kill my own kinsmen!
46 "'Krishna, if those same relations attack me and kill me, unresisting and unarmed on this battlefield, so be it. Death would be better for me!'"
47 At those final, labored words of Arjuna, Sanjaya stopped his commentary for a moment and then told the blind old king what he saw. "Now, the great warrior Prince Arjuna, overcome by anguish in the middle of the battlefield, slumps to his chariot seat and flings his bow and arrows to the floor of the chariot."
THE PATH OF KNOWLEDGE
"... the cessation of your pain and sorrow will depend on how well you overcome your ignorance of your True Self that lives within you."
1 Arjuna's eyes were burning with tears of compassion and confusion. The blind old king was rejoicing, thinking an easy victory was at hand. Sanjaya continued his straightforward report of the distant battlefield:
2 As Krishna watches the once-brave warrior prince plunge into pitiable weakness His normally soft eyes become steely, and He speaks. "Arjuna, where does all this despair come from? This egoistic self-indulgence at a time of crisis is shameful and unworthy of you. You are a highly evolved, cultured man who is supposed to live a truth-based life, a life of dharma. And yet your confused mind is unbalanced and would not know truth if it hit you over the head.
3 "I know you are astounded at My lack of commiseration, but you must not yield to this feebleness! Truth and right can never be obtained by the weak. You are a great warrior, a proven winner. Cast off this faintheartedness. Stand up, O scorcher of enemies!"
4-5 Arjuna interrupts: "I can't believe you're telling me to fight!" He shakes his head as though trying to clear his mind. Krishna sits quietly. Arjuna breathes deeply and blurts, "How?" The word hangs in the air between them. "How?" he repeats, "How can I not be weak, Krishna? For me to attack Bhishma, who has been like a grandfather to me, and assault my beloved former teacher Drona, would be wrong! I should revere these elders, not shoot at them. I don't want a blood-smeared victory.
6 "If I kill them, I would not care to live, Krishna. It would be better to be killed myself. Ah," he mutters ruefully, "I don't know which way to turn. Either way, winning or losing this battle, I lose."
Arjuna Becomes the Disciple, Krishna the Divine Teacher
7-8 "I'm utterly confused," Arjuna continues, "as to what is my duty. I can't think of any remedy for this awful grief that has dried up my energy, Krishna. If I were to gain great wealth and power, what would that prove? I'm asking you to help me, not to just tell me to go out and fight. I beg you to tell me what I should do. I am your pupil; be my teacher, my guru.I take refuge in you and surrender to you. Please instruct me, beloved Krishna, show me the way."
9 The great warrior-prince, who has never known retreat, slips deeper into his dark dejection. He mumbles, "I shall not fight," and becomes silent.
10 Now that Arjuna has submitted himself as a pupil, Krishna transforms into His true role as the Divine Teacher. He tightens the reins in His hand, looks long into the crestfallen warrior's eyes, and begins to speak.
11 "You may grieve sincerely, Arjuna, but it is without cause. Your words may seem wise, but the truly wise one grieves neither for the living nor the dead!
12 "There has never been a time when I, or you, or any of these kings and soldiers here did not exist — and there will never be a time when we cease to exist. Physical bodies appear and disappear, but not the Atma (the soul, the life force) that lives within them.
13 "This life force comes and dwells in a body for a while. While therein, it experiences infancy, childhood, youth, and old age, and then, upon death, passes eventually to a new body. Changes such as death pertain to the body, not the Atma. The wise person does not get caught up in the delusion that he or she is this body, Arjuna. This delusion is the very definition of ego.
14 "Arjuna, the contact of bodily senses with objects and attractions in the world creates feelings like sorrow or happiness, and sensations like heat or cold. But these are impermanent, transitory, coming and going like passing clouds. Just endure them patiently and bravely; learn to be unaffected by them.
15 "The serene person, unaffected by these worldly feelings and sensations, is the same in pain and pleasure, and does not allow him- or herself to get disturbed or sidetracked. This is the person fit for immortality. Realize this and assert your strength, Arjuna. Do not identify your True Self merely with your mortal body.
16 "Real, as used in spirituality, means that which is eternal, never changing, indestructible. This is the very definition of 'Reality.' That which is Real never ceases to be. Anything that is impermanent, even if it lasts a very long time and seems durable, eventually changes and thus does not have true Reality. The wise ones understand the difference between the Real and the not-Real. When you fully understand this profound fact, you will have attained the zenith of all knowledge.
"One's body, according to this logic, is not Real. And yet, there is something that dwells within the body that is Real: the Atma — which is existence itself; awareness, pure consciousness.
17 "Get to know this Reality. It pervades the entire cosmos and is unchanging and indestructible. No power can affect it. No one can change the changeless.
"This Atma, Arjuna, is like space or sky. Clouds appear in the sky but their presence does not cause the sky to grow apart to make room for them. In the same manner, the Atma (the True Self Within) remains ever itself. Things of the material universe come and go, appear and disappear, but the Atma never changes.
18 "Only the body is mortal. Only the body will come to an end. But the Atma, which is the True Self Within, is immortal, and will never come to an end. So fight, O Warrior!
19 "You talk about killing or being killed; know that the body may be killed but the indwelling Reality (the Atma)can never be. To say that one person slays and the other is slain may be correct from a physical worldly standpoint, but it is not the Reality of the matter.
20 "The Atma, this Real us, was never born, nor will it ever die. In fact, this eternal Reality within is never destroyed; it never undergoes any changes. When your ego takes over and you erroneously identify your self with the body, you feel that physical death is death to the self, and that is frightening. But the Self (Atma) can never be 'killed.' When the body is slain the Atma remains unaffected.
21 "The one who understands this hard-to-grasp principle of Atma — the True Self Within that is eternal, indestructible, and changeless — realizes that at this level of comprehension there is no 'slaying' and no 'causing another to slay.'
22 "As a person sheds a worn-out garment, the dweller within the body casts aside its time-worn human frame and dons a new one.
23-24 "The Indweller — the Self, Atma — remains unaffected by all worldly changes. It is not wounded by weapons, burned by fire, dried out by wind, or wet by water. This indwelling Self is all-pervading (which means it is everywhere). It is also eternal and changeless because it is beyond the worldly dimension of time — time has no access to it.
"Arjuna, the cessation of your present pain and sorrow will depend on how well you overcome your ignorance of your True Self that lives within you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Bhagavad Gita by Jack Hawley. Copyright © 2001 Jack Hawley, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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