The Bhagavad-Gita begins with the preparation of battle between the two opposing sides: on the left stands the collected armies of the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra and on the right lie the soldiers of the Pandava brothers. Warring relatives feuding over the right to govern the land of Kurukshetra, both forces stand poised and ready to slaughter one another. The warrior Arjuna, leader of the Pandava armies, readies himself as his charioteer, the god Krishna, steers toward the opposition when the armies are ready to attack. Arjuna stops Krishna short before the two sides clash together.
Hesitation and pity creeps into Arjuna’s heart as he surveys his family and relatives on the other side; he loses his will to win at the cost of the lives he still loves. As Arjuna sets down his bow and prepares for his own death, the god Krishna begins his council with Arjuna, where Krishna uses various ideas on action, self-knowledge, and discipline to reveal to Arjuna the freedom to be attained from the suffering of man once Arjuna finds his devotion to Krishna. Before Krishna begins his teachings, Arjuna analyzes his emotions and describes to Krishna the way his heart feels. “Krishna, I seek no victory, or kingship or pleasures” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 25). Arjuna admits that he stands to gain nothing of real worth from the war. He knows he cannot consciously triumph over family for his own wealth and glory. “We [Pandava brothers] sought kingships, delights, and pleasures for the sake of those assembled to abandon their lives and fortunes in battle” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 25). Arjuna continues on to state that once the family is destroyed and family duty is lost, only chaos is left to overcome what remains.
He goes so far as to describe how chaos swells to corrupt even the women in the families, creating disorder in society. Arjuna tells Krishna that the punishment for men who undermine the duties of the family are destined for a place in hell. Finally, Arjuna asks Krishna which is right: the tie to sacred duty or reason? Krishna begins his explanation by stating that all life on earth is indestructible. “Never have I not existed, nor you, nor these kings; and never in the future shall we cease to exist” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 31). Because life has always been, reasons Krishna, then how can man kill or be killed when there is no end to the self? Also, Krishna tells Arjuna that his emotions of sorrow and pity are fleeting, and that endurance is all that is necessary to outlast the temporary thoughts. “If you fail to wage this war of sacred duty, you will abandon your own duty and fame only to gain evil” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 34). Krishna reinforces the idea of dharma, reminding Arjuna of the consequences faced when one does not fulfill the duty set before him. “Your own duty done imperfectly is better than another man’s done well. It is better to die in one’s own duty, another man’s duty is perilous” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 46). Doing one’s job poorly is preferable to doing another’s well. Even if talents lie in a different area, the duty one is assigned to is the responsibility of the individual.
Failure of Arjuna to abide by his duty would have a profound effect on his worldly life as well. Enemies would slander Arjuna and companions would lose faith and respect in the man they once held in such high favor. If Arjuna loses his life, then he gains heaven and if he wins then he gains the earth; thus there is no need for Arjuna to fear for his own fate. To complete his sacred duty, Arjuna must perform the necessary actions for the duty to be achieved. “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action; avoid attractions to the fruits and attachment to inaction!” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 36). In the third teaching, the abstinence from action fails because one cannot merely reject one’s actions and find success. Inaction threatens the well-being of the physical body, warns Krishna. Discovered through techniques like yoga and inner reflection, action allows the freedom of the self to be found and attained. Once Arjuna loses desire in the consequences of his actions, then a new kind of discipline can be realized. Understanding, rated superior to action by the god Krishna, provides the necessary tools to perform the skills needed to execute the action. Krishna warns Arjuna that this understanding can be lost once man begins a downward process by lusting after pleasurable objects which creates desire, and from desire anger is born, from anger arises confusion, from confusion comes memory loss, and from this the loss of understanding, signaling the ruin of man. Krishna blames Arjuna’s current emotions on worldly desires, and encourages Arjuna to seek a detachment from these worldly ties, so that the duty may be completed and Arjuna will achieve his release from human suffering. The discussion of passion in the fourteenth teaching illustrates one of many inconsistencies in Krishna’s argument. “Know that passion is emotional, born of craving and attachment, it binds the embodied self with attachment to action” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 122). Previously, Krishna counseled that a strong detachment from action, as well as from the fruits of action, is necessary for the success of the endeavor. In a sense, Krishna says that passion creates the drive and will needed to accomplish an action.
“When passion increases, Arjuna, greed and activity, involvement in actions, disquiet, and longing arise” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 122). Exactly what merits the longing remains to be seen; Krishna gives the impression that this craving may deal with the fruits of action, a clear contradiction to Krishna’s past words. In this sense, Krishna describes a unit of the three qualities that bind man to the self. Including passion, lucidity, and dark inertia, these qualities (while being praised by Krishna) must be transcended for the achievement of liberation. To receive all knowledge of the cosmos and the self, Arjuna learns of Krishna himself. Krishna describes himself as having eight aspects: earth, fire, water, wind, space, mind, understanding, and individuality. These are his more worldly factors labeled as his lower nature. His upper nature is Krishna’s ability to sustain the universe, and be the source of all in existence. The three qualities of nature arise from him, as well as the beneficial aspects of strength without desire and desire without imposing on the duty all man must possess. “The disciplined man of knowledge is set apart by his singular devotion; I am dear to the man of knowledge, and he is dear to me” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 73). To Krishna, the man of wisdom and knowledge goes hand in hand with the man who has complete devotion to the god. Krishna likens the man of knowledge to himself, saying “…self-disciplined, he holds me to be the highest way” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 73), once again establishing the need for complete submission. Knowledge, while seen as a way to achieve freedom, requires enough discipline to be able to fully devote oneself to the god Krishna. It is through devotion, Krishna reveals, that man can truly achieve freedom from life and death. “By devotion alone can I, as I really am, be known and seen and entered into, Arjuna” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 108). In his teaching on devotion, Krishna tells Arjuna to “renounce all actions to me” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 112) In the fifth teaching, Krishna calls for the release from attachment and the fruit of the action, saying that once this occurs, then joy is found in the detached individual. Yet, freedom can not be achieved through renunciation alone; it is action with discipline that is essential for the success of the enlightened.
As Krishna continues his discourse, he begins to talk about the divine and demonic qualities inherent in all of man. “All creatures in the world are either divine or demonic;” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 133). Apparently, all creatures are naturally good or evil. “…do not despair, Arjuna, you were born with the divine” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 133). Born with the quality of good or evil, the individual is fated to be what is in his nature. If it is his duty to be evil, then it is at evil that the man will succeed. Krishna states that living in evil leads to the bondage of the self in worldly things. Unable to free himself, the demonic man is forced to repeat the cycle of life and death in an everlasting pattern as Krishna casts each evil man back into demonic wombs. Krishna also identifies the evil man as a slave to his own desires. Controlled and dictated by futile efforts, “they hoard wealth in stealthy ways to satisfy their desires” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 134). The god also warns against three gates of hell: desire, anger, and greed. The renunciation of these allows for the release of the self. In the seventeenth teaching, Krishna discusses the differences in the nature of man. As stated before, these three aspects (also thought of as aspects of faith) are lucidity, passion, and dark inertia. The lucid man sacrifices to the gods, eats of the rich and savory foods, and sacrifices with all the traditions met. The man of passion sacrifices to the spirits and demons, eats harsh and bitter food that cause suffering, and sacrifices only to gain. The man of dark inertia sacrifices to the dead and ghosts, eats food that has long spoiled, and sacrifices void of faith or any real emotion. Into one of these three types fits every human on earth. Krishna praises the lucid while warning of the passionate and the darkly inert. The discussion comes to a close when Krishna begins to summarize and conclude the points he has already mentioned.
He specifies the difference between “renunciation” and “relinquishment”. Renunciation is the refusal of action grounded in desire, while relinquishment is the rejection of the fruit of action. In death, the relinquishing of the fruits allows the self to lose all ties to the body and the desires that go with it. Krishna reminds him that resistance to his duty, that is, refusal to go into battle is futile because Arjuna’s nature compels him to it. Krishna spurns Arjuna to go against his will and do what his heart forbids. Arjuna learns to take refuge in Krishna and to commit fully to him. Krishna vows that Arjuna will be received to him in good time. “Arjuna, have you listened with you full powers of reason? Has the delusion of ignorance now been destroyed?” “Krishna, my delusion is destroyed, and by your grace I have regained memory; I stand here, my doubt dispelled, ready to act on your words.” (The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 153) Thus Arjuna, through his discourse with the god Krishna, accepted his duty with devotion and learned how to overcome his desire, while freeing himself from all worldly suffering.
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