by Swami Krishnananda
Right from the beginning of childhood there was a feud between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Kauravas constituted the children of Dhritarashtra; the Pandavas were these five brothers. Right from early childhood there was animosity on the part of the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana, in respect of the Pandavas. They tried their best to see that the Pandavas were annihilated. They poisoned them, tried to burn their house, drove them out, and many such things were done. Somehow or other, the Pandavas did not die; they survived. The Pandavas married Draupadi, the daughter of King Draupada, and it was at this time that the Kauravas learned that the Pandavas had not died. Though Duryodhana had hatched a plan to burn them alive in their house made of a combustible material, this plan somehow did not succeed. When Dhritarashtra came to know that the Pandavas were still alive, and Bhishma, the moral leader of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, also came to know of this fact, he ordered the invitation of the Pandavas and saw that they were installed in a proper place and had their own independent estate to rule – a place called Khandavprastha, which later on became known as Indraprastha.
It was in Indraprastha that Yudhishthira, virtually having been installed as an independent king, wished to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, which means to say that he expected the other rulers nearby to be vassals paying tribute to him, and he would be the emperor par excellence. Due to Yudhishthira’s reputation of goodness, virtue and greatness, all the kings participated in this sacrifice and offered tribute to him. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for this grand sacrifice, gold and silver flowed from all directions, and the wealth of Yudhishthira could not be counted.
This was enough for Duryodhana, who would not tolerate it any more. His heart started burning. “These fellows have come back, and now they are ruling the kingdom with so much pomp and glory.” Duryodhana hatched another plan, to play dice. In those days, kings used to play dice. It was a viciousness which crept into the royal palaces, and it was the ruin of even the Pandavas. This dice play took place twice. Firstly it ended in a tragic instance of the humiliation of the Pandavas and their king, after which, due to some good sense that arose in the mind of Dhritarashtra, he ordered that all that the Pandavas lost in the game should be handed back to them. “Let the past be past. Forgive and forget. Let the Pandavas go back. I honour them still. Go.”
This was again a blow to Duryodhana. “This old man has spoiled the entire thing; otherwise, they would have gone as paupers, having lost everything.” He had a second plan to play dice once again. This time it was not possible for Dhritarashtra to intervene in this matter because there was a condition, as a sting attached to this play, that anyone who was defeated in this game of dice would be exiled; for thirteen years they would live in the forest, and then live incognito somewhere for one year – fourteen years out. The idea was that in fourteen years they would perish in the forest and not come back at all.
So again the dice play was organised, and Dhritarashtra could not intervene. All kept quiet. For the second time, Yudhishthira was defeated. According to the stipulation, he had to be exiled; and they all went to the forest, losing everything. They were beggars. For thirteen years they suffered in the forest. But the Mahabharata epic tells us that the gods themselves came to their aid. Indra and Lord Siva bestowed blessings on the Pandavas, and Lord Sri Krishna went to console them and assure them of his support.
When they completed their thirteen years, and even the fourteenth year of incognito was ended, Sri Krishna came from Dvarka with his retinue and held an assembly in Viratnagar, saying that a messenger should be sent to the Kurus demanding the Pandavas’ share. A Brahmin was sent who was, of course, well versed in the art of speaking, but the Kurus humiliated him, shunted him out, and sent back no good message. On the other hand, they sent Sanjaya to vituperously and sarcastically speak to Yudhishthira: “You should not unnecessarily enter into conflict with the Kauravas. Conflict is not good. War is bad. You are going to gain nothing by this battle. Be satisfied with what you have.” The messenger was sent back with a counter-bolt by Sri Krishna, and another messenger was to be sent, more efficient than the Brahmin who was not competent enough to achieve anything.
Sri Krishna himself said, “I shall go.” Though it was not the pleasure of Yudhishthira that a person like Sri Krishna should go as a messenger, there was no alternative. Sri Krishna went and spoke, but all that he spoke fell on deaf ears. Duryodhana, against all principle of justice and fair play, denied even an inch of land to the Pandavas, and even wanted to hold the ambassador, Sri Krishna, tie him up and imprison him so that he could not go back and do anything good for the Pandavas. This plan also did not succeed. As Sri Krishna represented the cosmic Absolute, he showed his Vishvarupa, which stunned the whole audience; and speaking not a single word afterwards, he returned to the Pandavas saying that his embassy did not succeed, so war was the only alternative.
Now comes the context of the Bhagavadgita, which is on the very first day, when the forces on both sides were arrayed on the field of Kurukshetra. Arjuna, the leader of the Pandavas, having been placed in the midst of the two forces to survey who were there, saw something in front of him. This is the seed sown for the Bhagavadgita. The dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna was occasioned by this peculiar thing which Arjuna saw before him.
What did he see? He saw exactly what we see when we open our eyes and see the world – a dual, conflict-ridden feeling of love and hatred. He was there to see the end of all the Kurus, for which he had raised his Gandiva bow and arrows. He was not there to take pity on the Kauravas. An army does not enter the field of action to show mercy to the other side. That is not the purpose of engagement in war at all. It is not a place for pity, compassion, tender feelings. They are all abolished completely in a battlefield, and bitterness reigns supreme. “These ill-willed, wretched Kauravas, let me have a look at them!” thought Arjuna, who asked Sri Krishna, his charioteer, to place him in the midst of the army so that he may have a perfect survey of his opponents. But Arjuna did not see merely the opponents. He saw with his eyes the opposing army, but saw with his mind another thing altogether. He began to feel that they were Kurus, and not opposing forces. Paśyaitān samavetān kurūn (Gita 1.25), said Sri Krishna himself. I do not know why the word ‘Kuru’ was used by Sri Krishna when he referred to the opposing forces before Arjuna. That word was enough to catch fire.
“Kuru! They are my own people. I am also a member of the family of the Kurus. The great king Kuru was the grand ancestor of us all. The blood of the ancient master, the king Kuru, flows through our veins, the veins of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. We are blood relations, biologically bound up into a single family. Whom am I seeing in front of me? It is my grandsire, my beloved master, my loved one, the great Bhishma. Who do I see in front of me? My venerable teacher Drona, who has taught me archery; and if I know anything today, it is because of him. Am I against him? Is he against me? Am I to direct an arrow against Bhishma and Drona? What a sin! This is not for me. I put my bow down. Even if I am unarmed and the Kaurava forces attack me and I die, it is good for me. And if the war does not take place and I become a beggar asking for alms from people and live like a poor man, even that is blessedness. I shall not ask for even heaven if that is to be gained by bloodshed.” Saying this, Arjuna threw down his bow and arrow. Here is the entire picture of the First Chapter.
Both Duryodhana and Arjuna had gone to Krishna for help, wanting war to take place. They had been to Dvarka because they knew that Sri Krishna was a powerful person with a large army behind him, and both wanted assistance from this Yadava hero. One got the army, and the other got nothing except Sri Krishna himself alone, a single individual who said, “I shall do nothing. Whoever wants the army called Narayani Sena, which is invincible, can take it; and whoever wants me, unarmed and doing nothing, may take me.” Duryodhana did not want an unarmed individual who was only going to be a liability to him. He said, “I want the army.” Arjuna said, “I want you.” Anyway, the idea of war was in their minds even at the beginning. It is not that Arjuna suddenly changed his mind in the battlefield. Something psychologically unexpected took place. His emotions were stirred up by feelings connected with certain relationships which should not be the guiding principles in a battlefield.
Here is a briefly stated historical background of the commencement of the Bhagavadgita as located in the Mahabharata context. But it has also a spiritual connotation, and it is meant for each one of us. We take to spiritual life, the way of Yoga, by which we mean that we are after union with reality. What kind of reality? Each one of us has his own or her own concept of it. You leave your house or office, or whatever it is, and go to an ashram or a Yoga centre and say, “I shall learn the art of union with reality – Yoga practice.”
Firstly, the notion of reality is not clear in the mind. Whatever your consciousness encounters and believes to be real should be regarded as real for you. It is difficult to define what reality is. That which is subject to transmutation or change is not supposed to be absolutely real, but is perhaps relatively so. But as far as consciousness is concerned, it will certainly cling even to relative realities because though they are relative, for the time being they appear to be real. We see a continuity in the flow of a river, though we are told a thousand times that every minute new water is flowing; so is also the case with the burning of a flame in a lamp. Though everything is transitory and everything is moving and we are today totally different from what we were when we were little children – we have changed completely and are not static entities – yet we cling to our own selves as something which is relatively perceptible as a workable reality. So anything that consciousness accepts to be worthwhile, of some utility, will be regarded by it as real, and cannot be rejected. The world is unreal in some sense, but it is real in some other sense. Whatever be the sense in which it is real or unreal, that sense is important to us.
Now, we cannot mix up issues when we take to the path of spirituality, or Yoga. Communion with reality is the purpose of Yoga. The Bhagavadgita will try to disillusion the mind of Arjuna as to what is proper for him, because the propriety of a thing depends upon its relatedness to reality. A thing that is connected to unreal things, or phantoms, is not proper. That which is related to reality is proper. But what is reality? This was a confusing issue before Arjuna’s mind, and he fell down totally helpless psychologically, asking for redress of his woes: “I am here before you, Krishna, the great Master. I do not know what is good and proper for me.”
Thus the disciple approaches the Guru. He moves towards the Guru in a state of distress and confusion of mind, sometimes looking back at the world as being not so bad as he thought, and at other times feeling that the world is worth nothing – that it is a vale of tears. This circumstance caught hold of Arjuna; and with this, the First Chapter of the Gita closes.