A Study of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Background of the Bhagavadgita

Dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ, māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya (Gita 1.1). This is the first verse of the Bhagavadgita. It is a query raised by King Dhritarashtra to his counsellor, Sanjaya: “When the Pandavas and the Kauravas were arrayed in the field for a battle, what actually happened? How did they get on among themselves?”

This world, this field of universal conflict, may also be considered as Dharmakshetra and Kurukshetra at the same time. The field of the Mahabharata war was the geographical location called Kurukshetra – a place of pilgrimage even now, which you can visit whenever you have time. It is also designated in this verse as Dharmakshetra because it is said that in this particular holy spot many yajnas or sacrifices were performed by rishis of yore; therefore, the place has the blessedness of being charged with the atmosphere of sanctity generated by sacrifices – yajnas performed even by gods themselves, as the tradition goes.

This world in which we are living is also, simultaneously, a Dharmakshetra and a Kurukshetra. Commentators on the Bhagavadgita referring to this particular verse make out that Kurukshetra may also mean ‘a field of activity, being busy’, and Dharmakshetra may mean ‘a field of righteousness’. This world – which is also a field of conflict in many a way, as I tried to point out in the previous discourse – is indeed busy with the process of the evolution of the created beings on Earth. Everything is busy; all are active. From the minutest particle of the mineral world right up to the human level, you will find everything is busy doing something. Even the galaxies and the systems above in the skies are not static entities. Everything moving in a state of flux is this world. Momentary is the appearance of anything, at any time. As it is well said, you cannot touch the same water of the river in two consecutive seconds. The river flows. You are not now what you were a few minutes before; and in the future, a few minutes later, you shall not be what you are now. Everything is hurrying forward like the carriages of a railway train. So the world, this entire creation, is one of intense activity, movement, restlessness, transitoriness, fluxation, a hurrying onward.

It is also, at the same time, a field of virtue and goodness, of righteousness of the law. This activity of the world is not a haphazard movement in any direction whatsoever. It is a well-organised movement. It is a systematised activity, which means to say, it is conditioned by a law that is directing it. Though endless is the variety of activity that is going on everywhere in this world, this endlessness is rooted basically in a single orderliness. It is not that anything is going anywhere, in any direction whatsoever. There is a methodology in the universal activity. This method is the law, so-called.

On the one hand, therefore, you are intensely active; on the other hand, your activity is guided by a principle. The guiding principle is the dharma, the righteousness mentioned here, and the activity is that in which you are engaged. That which subjects you under a compulsion of activity to do something or other every day is the Kurukshetra aspect of this world – the karma field, as it is called. But all the multitudinousness of your activity is finally determined by a principle, and everyone who is busy in this world knows that it is this principle that guides them.

You are busy and active because there is something that you wish to achieve through that activity. The achievement is a future occurrence. A thing that has not taken place, and is yet to be, is the futurity of the expectation through the activity that is a present involvement. That a future, which is only an expectation that is hoped for, is connected with the present, which is the actual activity, would indicate that there is a law that connects the present with the future. Though every bit of time process is disconnected, as it were – the past has gone, the future has not yet come, and the present is like a hair’s breadth of indescribable duration – notwithstanding this fact, there is a connection between the past, the present and the future. The memory of the past, the involvement in the present, and the expectation of the future are a total occurrence in the psyche of the individual. If you cannot expect anything which is not yet to be – if the future has no connection with the present, and something which you are expecting many years ahead is not related to the present activity – that expectation would be a futile exercise. “I shall reap a harvest of satisfaction twenty years afterwards.” With that hope, you plant a little tendril or sow a seed in the garden. The connection of the present activity with the future expectation is a part of the law. And there is actually a single law operating in the whole world. Its manifestations are several, but its root is single.

Dharma, the principle of righteousness or justice, is what we may consider as the law of integration of things – the cohesion of factors – bringing together discreet particulars and creating a meaning between items which are apparently not related to each other. Several things in this world do not appear to be connected to one another; but there is a connection between what happens on this planet Earth and the distant stars. It brings about an inner correlation between the apparently remote principle or entity with the location of your own self.

In this field, which is therefore the world of action and the world of righteousness, two forces are arrayed for the achievement of an expected result. The principle of battle and war is the breaking down of the present circumstance and the creation of a new condition altogether. What is now has to be broken down, it has to be effaced completely, and what is not now should be generated by the very action of the effacement of the present. War is a destruction of what is at present, with the expectation of something that will be created in the future. With this expectation it is that the Pandavas and the Kauravas armed themselves in the field of Kurukshetra.

The word used by Dhritarashtra is also significant: “My people.” This is the word that he used first: māmakāḥ; pāṇḍavāś caiva: and the sons of Pandu. “What did my people and the sons of Pandu do in the field of Kurukshetra, having arrayed themselves for battle?” There is a marked difference between how we evaluate things related to ourselves and things which we consider as not related to ourselves: “My people are the group headed by Duryodhana. The sons of Pandu belong to Pandu only; they are not mine.”

This world is constituted of two things: what is mine and what is not mine. The whole battle is just between these two forces: mine and not mine. Don’t you think that the world is made up of only these two things? Is there anything else in this world? “This is my house, these are my relations, this is my family, this is my property, this is my village, this is my hutment, this is my country. That is not mine.” Sometimes parents tell little children, “Your neighbour is your enemy; don’t go to that house.” So children are initiated at the very outset as to how to think in terms of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’.

You have to put on a dual attitude in your daily life in respect of what is yours and what is not yours. It does not mean that you are involved only in what is yours. You are also daily involved in things which are not yours. The world is not compartmentalised in such a marked way that you can completely be free from relation with what is not yours. Wherever you are, even in a motorbus or a railway train, you will find what is not yours and perhaps what is yours.

Inasmuch as what is yours and what is not yours is to be found everywhere, you have to put on an attitude of adjustment daily, right from the beginning of the day. You place yourselves in a state of tension because of this dual principle that seems to be confronting you. You arm yourselves psychologically when you enter an office, go for a meeting, enter a parliament house or work in a factory. Psychologically, you are at drawn swords for every kind of eventuality, a psychological war that may be created on account of the circumstance of there being in that field of work two principles operating: that which is yours and that which is not yours.

When you go to work in a factory or an office, you will find certain peculiar conditions prevailing which you cannot regard as yours, or as palatable to you. You would like to shunt them off and push them out, show them a stepmotherly treatment, or wish that they would not be there at all. And there are other circumstances in the very same place which you would eagerly like to have, or wish they would continue for as long as possible. But whatever be your wish and your attempt to adjust yourself to these circumstances, you are in a state of tension. You will never find in this world only that which is not yours, nor will you find only things which are yours. They will all be mixed up. Even under your nose just at this moment you will find there are two factors operating: that which you would like to have and that which you would not like to have; something pleases you and something displeases you. So pleasure and pain, love and hatred, like and dislike condition our very existence.

The king uttered these words, perhaps not knowing their implication. He was blind, physically as well as mentally. He could not see things because he was born blind, but he could not understand things properly because he was intellectually ignorant. This question was raised before Sanjaya, the counsellor, the minister of Dhritarashtra, and this question is raised before every one of us in this world of action, which is the world of righteousness.

The Bhagavadgita in its entirety, in all its eighteen chapters, may be said to be telling you nothing but this much: how you can blend action with the principle of righteousness in a state of harmony. Act you must. You cannot escape from the performance of the deed. Some kind of engagement is always there, and no one can be free from doing something. The Gita will tell you that even when you are apparently doing nothing, you are engaged in that particular action of doing nothing. Therefore, not doing anything is an impossibility.

Now, the question of doing or not doing is not an easy state of affairs. It was not possible even for a wise, very cultured individual such as Arjuna to make a decision as to what is to be done and what is not to be done. He did not know exactly what was before him. Many a time we do things under the impression that those things are expected of us, but the consequences are not always before our eyes. We are blinded, to some extent, as regards the results that follow from our action. It is the expectation of the Gita that your deeds, your expectations, your performances, the works that you do, should be guided by a central principle. What that central principle is will be told to you gradually during the course of the discourse. There is a gradational ascent of the teaching which culminates later on at a point when you will be face to face with the most stimulating fact that nothing can be done unless it is cosmically involved.

This world of righteousness and action, Dharmakshetra and Kurukshetra, is the field where the Pandavas and the Kauravas girt up their loins for the Mahabharata war, as it is called. You perhaps know the background of the story of the Mahabharata. There were, in ancient times, certain ruling princes, cousin brothers, usually called the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were brothers. Because Dhritarashtra was blind, he was not considered fit to rule the kingdom. Pandu was to rule. But as fate would have it, Pandu died prematurely and Dhritarashtra had to be installed as king though he was blind and otherwise unfit. The children of Pandu were called the Pandavas. Dhritarashtra therefore, being the king, found himself practically unable to handle the affairs of the state, and the powers virtually went to the hand of his eldest son, Duryodhana. The eldest of the Pandavas was Yudhishthira, and his brothers were Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva; they were five in number. The sons of Dhritarashtra were one hundred, and he had a daughter also, making one hundred and one.

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.