The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: Chapter III
The story on which the Bhagavad Gita is based is a brief episode in the longest epic in the world, the Mahabharata. The Gita presents two main characters of that epic, Arjuna and Krishna, as they move between two great armies, ranged for battle on the field of Kurukshetra.
Arjuna symbolizes the devotee–the person, that is to say, who seeks divine salvation and union with God. Krishna symbolizes God Himself, the divine Self within every human being. Hence, in the Indian teachings, Self-realization is described as the true goal of all spiritual striving, whatever one’s religion. The two concepts, Self-realization and the knowledge of God, are synonymous.
In the story of the Mahabharata, Ajuna invites Krishna to be his charioteer. The Bhagavad Gita is the story of the dialogue which takes place as Krishna drives Arjuna in his chariot between the two armies, in response to Arjuna’s request to observe the two armies directly.
Arjuna, his brothers the Pandavas, and all the forces on their side symbolize the champions of virtue. The enemy are the Kauravas, cousins of the Pandavas, led by Duryodhana, who has usurped the throne. The confrontation is, as we have said, allegorical–a fact which is suggested by, among other things, Arjuna’s very request. He is the leading general of his army. Would the general of an army request something so apparently foolish as to be driven between the ranks of the opposing armies, so close to the enemy, and on the very eve of hostilities? Surely, in practical terms, his request was absurd!
As Krishna and Arjuna pass between the two hosts, Arjuna voices his doubts and the righteousness of the forthcoming war. “It would mean destroying my own kinsmen!” he exclaims. “How can I commit such a sin?” Krishna replies to this very understandable doubt, dispelling it. He then proceeds to expound the essence of the teaching of Sanaatan Dharma itself.
Obviously, this account is allegorical. The opposing armies represent the opposition within every unenlightened human being between his upward- and his downward-inclining tendencies. The upward tendencies are his good qualities; the downward ones are those which induce him to seek delusion, or evil. The war of Kurukshetra does not take place literally on any battlefield, though the field of Kurukshetra actually still exists in India. That historic site, and the story that grew out of the war, represent the eternal conflict within man himself.
At the same time, the truths propounded in the Gita are applicable at all levels of life: material, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Paramhansa Yogananda makes the point that every great scripture is multi-leveled, addressing human needs at every level from a standpoint of divine wisdom. Thus, Krishna’s teaching is also true in a literal sense, for it urges the need for courage in righteous warfare. For righteous causes do, of course, exist.
Krishna turns a righteous outward cause, however, into a description of the eternal conflict within all men between high aspiration and ego-indulgence. In a deeper sense, the war of Kurukshetra is the unending struggle in the mind between good and evil. Its end lies only in final liberation. Krishna himself makes clear the allegorical nature of his timeless dialogue with Arjuna. In a later chapter of the Gita he states, “This body is the battlefield.”
Arjuna, seeing the enemy up close, confronts the distressing fact that many of those he is about to fight are members of his own family! After all, the Pandavas grew up side by side with their cousins, the Kauravas. They studied under the same teacher, Dronacharya. As children, they played together, argued and squabbled together–after the manner of growing boys everywhere. The bonds they formed, though not all of them friendly, were nevertheless deep and strong.
The first chapter of the Gita is not, as most commentators have considered it, a mere description of the leading warriors on both sides of a coming conflict. They are opposing forces within human nature itself. Their very names, traced to their Sanskrit roots, become the names of psychological qualities.
Those opposing Arjuna, therefore, are his cousins, well known to him, even loved by him. The Mahabharata is the full story behind this impending war, telling how the material desires and the ambition of Arjuna’s oldest cousin, Duryodhana, head of the Kauravas, forced the conflict by refusing the Pandavas their throne, which was theirs by right. Now Arjuna, seeing these two related families geared up for mutual destruction, laments the need to fight at all. “Surely,” he cries out to Krishna, “it would be a sin to slay my own kith and kin! Would it not be more just for me to surrender our kingdom?”
The war is no mere conflict of ambition, however. It is described in the Mahabharata as the righteous war between good and evil. Were Duryodhana, who usurped the throne, to remain the king, the people would suffer under his unrighteous rule. The war of Kurukshetra, which is to begin on the morrow, will pit high principles against proud ambition, and sould-aspiration against qualities in human nature that keep the ego in bondage to delusion.
Krishna comforts Arjuna in his distress. Death itself, he assures him, would be preferable to a life spend in unrighteousness. At stake here is not mere physical life or death. Pitted against each other are the life of the spirit and the abandonment of those qualities which lead to soul-bliss. Death of the body, Krishna reminds Arjuna, is nothing: the mere doffing of a garment. It doesn’t affect a person’s consciousness, which continues throughout eternity. To reject spiritual death. “Fight!” Krishna urges his disciple. The war is not one of mortal, physical combat, but of courageous inner struggle toward the victory of soul principles over spiritual sloth and material ease. This is the first and central message of the Bhagavad Gita.
Krishna goes on to say that there are several paths to God, according, not to people’s beliefs, but to each person’s own temperament. He delineates the right attitudes for the devotee, the various delusions that can prevent him from finding God, and the way to overcome them. In one supreme chapter is explained, in a highly metaphorical manner, the supernal experience of God.
Although the battle setting is allegorical, the advice given in this scripture may be taken as valid for every level of life, including righteous warfare. A true scripture, Paramhansa Yogananda stated, addresses human needs in their entirety.
The story of the Mahabharatais also, in fact, historical, and although many of the characters in it are fictional, others actually lived on Earth. In historical fiction today it is common to include known historical figures, to lend verisimilitude to the story. Byasa (or Vyasa), the author of the Mahabharata, differed from this technique primarily in making his main characteristics in human nature. His main characters lived, as I say, historically. They include the Pandava brothers (Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahedeva), some of the Kauravas, and a number of others. The rest of the characters Byasa fictionalized, and presented episodes in their lives in such a way as to conform to the allegory he was weaving like a tapestry.
The over-all theme of this great epic is the soul’s first separation, aeons ago, from God: the soul’s long voyage through the barren land of delusion; and its final return, after countless trials and tribulations, to the Great Source of all life. This is the story through which every soul must pass, once it enters upon the outward path of life and once it chooses to follow the inward path of divine awakening.
The war of Kurukshetra describes the soul’s final struggle to become liberated from the clutches of maya, or delusion. The war itself, though also a historical event, illustrates the struggle with which every spiritual aspirant, sooner or later is faced.