Introduction to the Bhagavadgita: Part 2
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on March 17th, 1974)

The scene of the Bhagavadgita is not only a special kind of atmosphere but also a confluence of a special type of personalities. The atmosphere was tense, ridden over with anxiety and a kind of insecurity creeping into the veins of each and every person arrayed there for the great task before them. The future was not apparently in the hands of anyone.

We remain in a state of tension when the future is unknown to us. Though hope keeps us alive and active, our total ignorance of what is going to happen the very next moment keeps us anxious. It was a very complex situation involving various aspects of human nature and demanding of the personalities a very dexterous type of action.

Side by side with this atmosphere of a very complicated nature, we have very interesting personalities involved in this atmosphere of the great battle of the Mahabharata. As we observed last time, the whole scene was divided into two groups. On one side, King Dhritarashtra; and on the other side, Yudhisthira. On the one side, the force of the Kauravas; on the other side, the power of the Pandavas.

The context of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita is introduced into the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata with a super-normal introduction by the mighty brain of Vyasa, the author of the epic. The war was inevitable, unavoidable for reasons which were obvious, and the leading personality, the king of the land, was Dhritarashtra, but he was born blind. Vyasa came to the scene and spoke privately to King Dhritarashtra. “My dear friend, I foresee a great catastrophe for the nation. The time spirit itself seems to be working in a very peculiar manner. There seems to be something working behind the mighty efforts of human beings. Everyone has tried to avert this war, and all these attempts do not seem to have produced any effect. A wonderful scene is going to be displayed in the field of Kurukshetra. Dhritarashtra, do you want to see it? I will give you divine eyes. You shall have the vision to see what is happening with your own eyes. Do you want this?”

Dhritarashtra said, “Far from it. I cannot bear the sight of such an event where my own men will fly at the throats of each other. It would be enough or me, to my satisfaction, if a trustworthy report is conveyed to me as to what is happening. I do not want to see it myself.”

Then Vyasa blessed Sanjaya, the personal attendant of King Dhritarashtra, a friend and even a minister, we may say, with superphysical vision, indefatigability, and freedom from the harassment of hunger, thirst, and sleep, etc., the power to see things as they are actually happening at a given moment of time, the power to know even the thoughts of people, to understand even the feelings of men in the battlefield. Even if a person merely thought something, Sanjaya would know what he was thinking. Such was the blessing the great Vyasa bestowed upon Sanjaya, who was to be a faithful reporter of the event to King Dhritarashtra.

The war began. Several days passed. One day, Sanjaya came running and told Dhritarashtra, “Oh my King, Bhishma has fallen.”

“Oh, Bhishma has fallen! Please tell me from the very beginning what has happened, because if the grandsire falls, I don’t think we have any hope. He was not only our venerable grandsire, he was not merely a friend, philosopher and guide to us, but he was an invincible warrior. Not the world could stand before him. Such a person has fallen? What has happened? Right from the very beginning kindly let me hear from you, O Sanjaya, what these people did in that kshetra, in that sacred field of dharma, Dharmakshetra, also called Kurukshetra, sanctified by the great yajnas performed by King Kuru once upon a time. What did my people do there? What was it that transpired between my children, led by Duryodhana, and the children of Pandu?” Dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ, māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya (B.G. 1.1). With this, the great gospel of the Bhagavadgita commences.

In a sense, we may say that the Gita is a gospel of action, as many people seem to opine, but in a particular sense only, and not in every sense of the term. It is a gospel of action in a very special sense. A very profound significance of the word ‘action’ is involved in this definition when we say that the Bhagavadgita is a gospel of action. We shall slowly come to the point of what this action is and what it is not when we proceed further with our study of this eternal message of God to man.

Naturally, action is conducted in a field, or an atmosphere. There is a venue for activity, and as the very commencing words of the Gita tell us, this field was Dharmakshetra, the Kurukshetra. It is a field of action, righteous action. Historically and literally speaking, the place where this war of the Mahabharata took place was called Kurukshetra. Even now it is called Kurukshetra because it is said to have been sanctified by hundreds of sacred yajnas or sacrifices performed there by many sages of yore. Even celestials seem to have conducted yajnas there, performed penance, etc., and it is especially associated with the name of King Kuru of the Lunar race. Such was Kurukshetra, and such is Kurukshetra.

It is also called Dharmakshetra at the same time. It is a field of righteousness, virtue, and divine conduct. It is a very holy place. The query of King Dhritarashtra to Sanjaya was: “Having entered this field of the Kurus, which is manoeuvred, conducted, led and propelled by the force of dharma, which is vibrant in the whole atmosphere there, in that field of dharma, what could my children have done? Naturally they ought to have conducted themselves according to dharma, having gone there, to the field of dharma.”

Now, the whole dramatic scene opens with the entry of King Duryodhana, who was the de facto king because Dhritarashtra was blind and he was a ruler only from the point of view of law. Duryodhana pompously entered the field of this anxious situation, and in a language which is outwardly forceful and confident, he secretly expressed the hidden diffidence in his heart and the fear of what was ahead because he was not sure as to the strength of his own army, though he openly spoke that his army was far stronger than the army of the Pandavas. In number it was stronger. Eleven akshauhinis constituted the army of the Kauravas, and only seven formed the army of the Pandavas, so naturally we have to say that the Kaurava forces were larger; therefore, it should be more difficult to face them. But Duryodhana had his own feelings of doubt in his mind. In every task or situation in human life, it is not merely the number that counts. There are other factors involved.

There was a set of warriors with Duryodhana who were practically invincible. That was the courage of Duryodhana, and that was also what led him to the war. He depended wholeheartedly on a few personalities who were regarded at that time as impossible of approach in war, particularly Bhishma, Drona and Karna. They were the chief men on the Kaurava side. They were terrible persons who were masters of the art of fighting, and were so dexterous in war that millions could not face even one of them.

Therefore, Duryodhana confidently approached his master, Acharya Drona, and began to explain to him. “Great sire, look at this mighty army of ours. Look at this also, the army of the Pandavas on the other side. Rājā vacanam abravīt (B.G. 1.2) is what the Gita tells us. The king began to speak. It was not the disciple who spoke to Guru Drona, it was the ego that spoke. Duryodhana was made up of such a force of self-affirmation and self-assertion that it would be visible in every one of his words and actions. The king that this person Duryodhana was approached Acharya Drona, and began to describe the quantity and the quality of the armies of either side. His intention was to make clear the relative strength of the two forces.

This had already been done much earlier in the court of Duryodhana, and now he was doing it again. He was not sure, so he asked Bhishma. Even before people came to the field and arrayed themselves, one day Duryodhana approached the great grandsire Bhishma and said, “Master, what is your opinion about the relative merits and demerits of the two forces?”

Bhishma said, “Well, it is a very simple matter. You have a large army of eleven akshauhinis; the poor Pandavas have much less, only seven. But as you have put this question to me, there are certain things which I would like to tell you about the merits, or the relative strength, of the two armies. Strength does not depend only on number, O Duryodhana. Strength also depends upon moral force, righteousness that is behind the action and, ultimately, the factor of providence also comes, which, in my opinion, has been favouring the Pandavas all the time, for reasons which should be clear even to you. You may ask me what is my strength, on which perhaps you depend entirely. Yes, I am ready to lay my life for your sake. I have eaten your salt. But I will not kill even one of the Pandavas. They are dear to me, as you have been dear to me. Not one of the five brothers will be killed by me. Anybody else may face me and I will meet them, but if the brothers come and attack me, I will not kill them even if I can.”

This was very displeasing to Duryodhana. What is the good of this man? He is telling it now itself. He made a wry face, and went away from there. He did not want to hear anything further. He came again, and with the heart of a thief that he really was, spoke again his diffidence, his sorrow, his anxiety, to Bhishma. “Please tell me where we actually stand.”

Bhishma again said, “On the side of the Pandavas there is great enthusiasm, encouragement and support from forces which are not merely human. Superhuman forces seem to be favouring them.”

We read in the Aranya Parva of the Mahabharata how Arjuna performed tapas and could please even Mahadeva, Lord Siva, and he had obtained Pasupata from Lord Siva. He went to Indraloka and met all the celestials and received from them the boon, the blessing of all divine mystical weapons.

Bishma continued, “And above all, I have a great fear, Duryodhana, that as long as this Krishna is on the other side, it will be difficult for us to do anything.”

“Why?” Duryodhana asked. “Are you less in any way?”

“You will see it in due course. You yourself will see what is going to happen,” replied Bhima.

Drona also said, “I will not kill the Pandavas. They are my own children; they have been my disciples. Will I kill them?”

It was only Karna who said, “Don’t bother. Everything will be all right.”

Then there was a very heated conversation between Bhishma and Karna when Karna made the remark. “Don’t bother, we shall see to it.”  When Karna spoke like this, Bhishma stood up and could not bear this any more. He said, “Duryodhana, if you depend on braggarts of this kind, your life is going to end very shortly. I know this Karna from the very beginning. What strength as he got? You depend on him? If you want to survive, don’t listen to his words.”

He spoke this in the presence of Karna, in the court of the Kauravas. Karna got wrath and stood up and said, “As long as this wrinkled face is here, I will not come to this hall again, and I shall not come to the field as long as Bhishma is alive. He has insulted me publicly like this.” He walked away to his house and never came back afterwards.

These fights were going on even previously; it is not only these days that we see it. He called him a wrinkled face and went away, and you know the feeling of Duryodhana. What a pity! The war has not started, and the quarrel has taken place now itself in the house.

Karna stuck to his word. Until the fall of Bhishma on the tenth day, Karna did not come. “I will not come because you have made Bhishma the generalissimo. You have faith in him. All right, you manage. I shall see later on,” he said, and went.

The beginning of the Bhagavadgita is thus an atmosphere of tension, conflict, and a coming together of two apparently irreconcilable forces. Dhritarashtra appears in the very beginning of the Bhagavadgita. He was born blind, as I mentioned. Here, when we go into the significant profundity that seems to be hidden in the message of the Gita, we also see that here is a spiritual message for us behind the historical context. The field of the Mahabharata is not merely outside, it is also inside. The Mahabharata epic is a book of life as a whole; it is not merely a narrative of an event that took place. The narrative is only an occasion for Vyasa to interpret the philosophy of life. The entire philosophy and the psychology and the practical techniques of human conduct have all been beautifully incorporated into the verses of the Mahabharata by the mighty Vyasa.

The blind king Dhritarashtra had a proud son called Duryodhana. This is to speak historically as recorded in the Mahabharata. But the Mahabharata is not merely a history, it is also a psychology, and it is also a text of deep yogic mysticism. It is a magnificent record of a spiritual message to mankind. As we saw last time, it incorporates into its body the message of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Bhāratham panchamo veda: The Mahabharata is called the fifth Veda. Sometimes people have gone even to the extent of saying that the Mahabharata is weightier than even the four Vedas on account of its vastness and depth and the comprehensiveness of its approach.

Now, from another angle of vision, if we look into this context of the beginning of the Bhagavadgita gospel, we see Dhritarashtra speaking his conscience to Sanjaya, which represents the eye of wisdom, understanding and discrimination, together with the entry of the proud Duryodhana into the field of battle.

The pride of man is an outcome of his ignorance. We are not proud because of our knowledge. The epic very rightly portrays Dhritarashtra as born blind. From the very beginning, he could not see things. He could not know the truth of anything in the world; he could only listen to what was told to him. And he bred a hundred children led by the central principle of the ego, which would not listen to the advice of anyone. “What I say alone is right” or perhaps “might alone is right” was the doctrine of Duryodhana, the eldest son of the blind king Dhritarashtra, as avidya cannot beget anything other than ahamkara. Dhritarashtra represents avidya, closed eyes; he cannot see anything, from the very beginning itself. And what is avidya? To mistake the wrong for the right, which it was that Dhritarashtra did right from the very beginning. He was told what was the proper thing for him to do, and he seemed to have understood it, but finally he would again follow the old beaten track chalked out to him by his own son Duryodhana.

Avidya, or ignorance, is the mistaking of the transitory for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and the not-self for the Self, as we have a beautiful definition given in the sutra of Patanjali: anitya aśuci duḥkha anātmasu nitya śuci sukha ātma khyātiḥ avidyā (Y.S. 2.5). This is the meaning of ignorance. Ignorance does not necessarily mean the total oblivion of what is there. It is not like being fast asleep. Avidya, or ignorance, is a positive error of a palpable nature, and it is not merely a negativity or an absence of substance. It was not that Dhritarashtra did not know what was right, but he deliberately did what was wrong. This is the speciality of ajnana or avidya. We go out of the way to do the wrong thing, under the impression that we are doing the right thing.

Why does this impression arise in the mind? What makes us mistake that which is absolutely wrong for the right thing? It is because of a misdirection given from our own consciousness that is defiled by the encrustation of avidya.

The moment there is action on the part of avidya, ahamkara comes to the field and takes charge of the entire situation. When we commit one mistake, we go on committing several mistakes, one after the other. If we tell one lie, we have to tell several other lies to protect that lie; otherwise, it will be let out. The scene of avidya, which is the basic reason behind what we call the suffering of samsara, is invariably associated with egoistic conduct on the part of the individual.

For purposes of a practical study of the Bhagavadgita, we shall take into consideration the position of the human being in the structural pattern of the universe. These two sides of human nature represented by Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana create an imbroglio before every individual in the world. What we find in front of us every day is nothing but a complex situation, psychologically as well as socially. Samsara is a psychological and social complex. It is a Chakravyuha Fort, as we may call it in terms of the Mahabharata epic. It is a fortress built in such a way that we cannot gain entry into it easily. We have to pass through a very winding passage, and are likely to get lost in it in the middle. Such is the field of action; such is the arena of human activity, duty, conduct; such is this world.

The Mahabharata field is this world itself. That is the Dharmakshetra and the Kurukshetra. Here we have a field which requires a particular type of approach and conduct, where we cannot afford to make a mistake, where we are compelled to act, and yet compelled to act only in a particular manner. This is a great difficulty indeed before us. That we cannot abstain from action is something difficult even to understand, because we are forced by the circumstances into which we are born to act. But because we have to act, it does not mean that we can act as we like. There is another compulsion, restriction, upon our conduct. We have to act; act we must, but in a given manner alone. We have to move along the winding passages of the Chakravyuha Fort. If we do not enter it, we are not going to win the battle; but we also must have a knowledge of how to enter it, how to move through it, and how to fight there in the thick of the arena.

The world in which we are situated is as much a psychological complex as the whole history of the Mahabharata. We have Bhishma here, we have Drona here, we have Karna, we have Dhritarashtra, we have Duryodhana, we have Yudhisthira, we have all the blessed dramatis personae of the Mahabharata even today in this world, and all these are present as psychological functions in our own personality also, which is more important for us as sadhakas, students of yoga, than anything else. These forces are active inwardly in the individual, outwardly in the cosmos, and in our very presence as human society.

Now, the difficulty which Arjuna seems to have faced when he cast a glance over the army is our difficulty also. Generally, we are confident of some sort of success in our efforts; otherwise, we would not embark upon any kind of initiative at all. But when we actually take up the cudgels, as they say, gird up our loins, enter the field and look at the situation, we get flabbergasted. The world is not so simple as it appears. Our own friend is not so simple as he appears. We will see his true colours one day. And we ourselves are not what we appear to be. There are more things in heaven and on earth than our philosophy dreams of, as the poet put it. There are many secret things in nature and in human personality and society, many more things than we can see, than we can contemplate and envision with our empirical approach to things. The Bhagavadgita is placed in a historical context of the Mahabharata, but it draws into its bosom cosmical implications and it takes upon itself the task of solving the problem of human action and human duty.

It was a simple difficulty that arose in the mind of Arjuna, but that simple difficulty was the difficulty of mankind as a whole. It is my difficulty and it is your difficulty. It raised the question of human conduct in general. It was not merely a query regarding the particular attitude which Arjuna ought to have adopted at that particular moment of time. That context is only an accident, as it were, into which has been woven the very fabric of the entire structure of human life.

So when we study the Bhagavadgita, as I tried to point out last time, we have to be very broadminded and try as far as possible to dive into the many aspects which it seems to touch. We cannot follow the commentators or the doctrinaires or any kind of cult or creed. We cannot lean upon any type of philosophy or metaphysical preconception that may be in our minds, because as far as one can dispassionately see through the epic of the Mahabharata and the gospel of the Gita, it appears that the gospel of the epic and the Gita is meant for each and every person, and under each and every condition. It is not meant for you and me alone, but for all. It is not meant for only one type of psychological situation, but for all situations. Therefore, often we hear it said that all the shastras find their communion, as it were, in the scripture of the Bhagavadgita. It solves the moot question of human life. Whether Arjuna must fight or should not fight is a different question. That was only an outward appearance of an inward enigma of life as a whole – the great question mark of our relationship to the world itself. What is our duty in this world? This is what the Gita wants to tell us under the coverage of Arjuna’s psychological difficulty, Krishna’s exultation in the context of the war, etc.

Now, when we try to go a little deep into this question of our relevance to the teaching of the Gita, why should we study the Gita at all? What does it matter to us if we do not read it? It was meant only for Arjuna, and it had relevance only to that historical context of a war that took place several thousands of years ago, so why should we bother about it? The Mahabharata has relevance to us, and this was precisely the reason why Vyasa took the trouble of writing it.

Our conduct in life is determined by our philosophy of life. Everyone has a philosophy of his own or her own. The ultimate interpretation of the world which you carry in your mind is your philosophy. Everyone has some sort of an idea about the world, what sort of world this is, and our ultimate conviction about it is our philosophy. Sometimes we may be right, sometimes we may be wrong in our opinion. We become wrong, like Dhritarashtra’s conceptions of things, when we are unable to relate the various sides of this complex of the world in its outward as well as inward structure, and get misled by the affirmation of our personality, which is called the ego. That we do not understand things properly or cannot see things clearly is no doubt an accepted fact, but we make matters worse by affirming too much, beyond the limits of our own personality, thus abrogating the very possibility of there being values other than our own individuality.

The principle of the ego is that sort of self-affirmation which does not want to give credit to other values than those which it has foisted upon its own self, and subtly begins to work for its own comfort and perpetuity. The ego is not always open. It is possessed of an intelligence of its own, like the intelligence of a fox, to its own destruction. Even a thief is very intelligent; he is not a fool. Even a criminal or a delinquent is intelligent. Even a person under a spell of mental aberration has a peculiar sort of intelligence of his own under certain circumstances. Such a sort of intelligence is exhibited by the ego in its conduct in this world, and creates a mess of things.

The ego is one among the many units of self-affirmation in the world, because there are many egos. Every unit is a unit of self-affirmation or self-assertion, but the not recognising of the fact that there are other units of self-affirmation is the peculiarity of every ego. If we could accept with equal validity and confidence the existence of other egos also in the world, there would be no special type of affirmation on the part of our ego. But the peculiarity and the speciality of every ego is to set aside the values of other persons and things, and utilise in a very careful manner the functions of other individuals for its own satisfaction and success – or rather, to clinch the whole matter, we may say, to utilise the world as a means to an end, which is one’s own self. When we regard ourselves as an end in itself and the world as a means to it, we are typical egoists. These were the dictators of historical times; these were the tyrants of the past. This was also the philosophy of Duryodhana, of Ravana, of Hiranyakashipu, and of such persons.

The utilisation of the circumstances of the world and the conditions of other people and things for perpetuating and satisfying one’s own localised individuality or affirmation is ego; this is born of Dhritarashtra, who could not see things. The ego functions on account of not being able to see the truth of things. If the truths were to be laid bare before its eyes, it would be shocked. Its bliss is the bliss of ignorance.

The different chapters of the Bhagavadgita, eighteen in number, gradually take us stage by stage from the immediate context of the human situation to the ultimate goal which mankind has to attain. It starts with the most outward and externalised of facts, taking place in the astronomical universe, the universe of history, the world of human society, of public relation, of politics and sociological values. Vyasa has been very careful in starting from the very beginning itself so that we may not complain that something is not said there. From this geographical, social and political context we are taken into the psychological motive forces behind human action and the complexities that are involved in the hidden apartments of this situation, which appear simple enough from outside. We are really opening Pandora’s box when we try to study the world, because we do not know what is inside. It looks beautiful and very simple outside, but inside there is a terrible task for us when we lift the lid.

The various stages of the Bhagavadgita gospel in its eighteen chapters are really the eighteen stages of the soul’s contemplation on God. It is, therefore, a Brahma-vidya, and not merely a history in the ordinary sense of the term. It is the gospel of God to man. It was not one individual Krishna that spoke to another individual Arjuna. They were the occasions for the delivery of an eternal message for the world as a whole. The Absolute talks to the relative, God speaks to man, the Universal interprets the particular in a right manner, and it is this that the student of yoga also tries to perform in his daily meditations. The yoga meditation, the yoga practice, the technique of the inner life of man is portrayed in the chapters of the Bhagavadgita, which should actually be the pinpoint on which we have to concentrate when we, in ashrams especially, study the gospel.

The student of yoga is likely to make the mistake of imagining that he has already reached a higher stage, and he may ignore the demands of the lower stages. This is a very serious mistake, to be carefully avoided. It is not proper on the part of any student of yoga to imagine that he has reached a higher stage and therefore he can completely close his eyes to the laws operating in the lower fields of life. The Bhagavadgita tells us that there is no such thing as the higher and the lower in life. We have an integrated circumstance before us. We cannot say that the legs are below and the head is above, and therefore we can ignore the legs, though it is true that they are below in one sense. Our legs are supporting our whole body, though they are below.

There are people who think that the more apparently external aspects of spiritual practice, especially the ethical, the moral and the social, can be cut short and one can rise directly to a meditative pose. This is what the Bhagavadgita would stoutly refute, and by this refutation it brings home to our minds a new perspective of the meaning of yoga, gives us a new definition of yoga altogether different from what we must have heard in public and in the various textbooks. The yoga of the Bhagavadgita is a unique yoga by itself. We will not find it expounded in such a manner anywhere else. It will look after every need of ours, and for this purpose will not ignore any side of our nature. Sometimes, in modern times, people call this the yoga of synthesis or the synthesis of yoga – synthesis in the sense that it pays due attention to every existent fact, every operating force, and every type of relationship with which the human personality is connected with fact or reality. As psychologists and psychoanalysts tell us, tension is due to nonconformity with reality. When we cannot conform ourselves to fact or reality, we are in a state of tension, in a psychopathic condition, a state which is analysed psychoanalytically.

The reality which psychologists speak of, the fact with which they expect human nature to be in conformity, is first of all to be explained. What is meant by reality? What is meant by fact, with which we seem to be fighting, which we are opposing in our daily life, and which drives us back with its power? The Bhagavadgita is the philosophy of conformity to reality, and the non-conformity with it produced the doubt and difficulty with which the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita commences.