[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of eighteen essays on the chapters of Bhagavad-gita.]
“Lord Krsna drew the fine chariot up in the midst of the armies of both parties”
Bhagavad-gita has sometimes been called the perfect theistic science. Actually Bhagavad-gita means “Song of God,” but because it is a song sung by the Supreme Himself, it is also a science. There are many scriptures in the world, and as St. Paul said, “All scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable…” But that does not mean that there is not variation in scriptures. Some scripture is spoken by holy men or prophets, some is spoken by confidential agents, and some is spoken by God’s son; therefore in the Christian Bible we will sometimes see that the words of Lord Jesus Christ are marked in red just to emphasize their importance.
Because this Gita or Song is coming directly from the Father, it has the greatest potency. In Bhagavad-gita, the words are actually the very words of the Father, Lord Sri Krsna. Secondly, Gita is the perfect theistic science because of the audience. Two factors are always important in any transcendental transmission: the speaker and the audience. In this case, the audience is Arjuna, Krsna’s intimate friend and pure devotee. So since the speaker is perfect and the hearer is perfect, we can readily understand that the transmission is also perfect. Therefore we can expect to find in Gita the epitome of all scripture, and that is factually the case—whatever we find in some other scripture, we also find explained in Gita. Factually, of course, Arjuna is not in need of any teaching. Being and eternal associate of the Lord and a pure devotee, he is always in full knowledge. But for the sake of the conditioned souls who are in need of a perfect transmission, the Lord has chosen Arjuna to receive this message on the basis of that one qualification—”you are My devotee and My friend.” (Gita, 4.3)
It is as if the Lord is purposely clouding the mind of Arjuna so that he will ask the questions which all beclouded living entities wish to ask. By Arjuna’s asking questions for the benefit of all living entities, the Supreme Lord can give the answers that will save all His children and bring them back to their eternal position, back to home, back to Godhead. So two aspects of Gita are to be considered: one, Krsna, the Supreme Lord is speaking, and two, Arjuna, for the benefit of the conditioned soul, is hearing.
The way in which Arjuna understood Gita provides the standard for our understanding. Arjuna was actually present before the Lord, and his understanding is stated to have been correct. So if we can arrive at the same understanding that Arjuna had, we are assured of the same result, as if we were standing personally before Krsna. In fact, we will be standing personally before the Lord, for that is the nature of this supreme spiritual science: one who actually understands it comes into Krsna’s presence—not in some theoretical sense, but actually, practically.
The First Chapter of the Gita is devoted to setting the scene. But this “setting the scene” is not peripheral to the meaning of the Gita. When one deals with transcendental literature, it must be understood that each and every word is transcendental and therefore absolute or infinite. As such, the whole import of the Gita can be understood at any point if we but try to understand in the perfect disciplic succession coming down from Arjuna. From the very first verse, the whole nature of the conflicts can be understood: Dhrtarastra said to Sanjaya, “After assembling in the place of pilgrimage at Kuruksetra, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do, being desirous to fight?” (Gita, 1.1) First we may note that the question arises from the blind Dhrtarastra. Dhrtarastra is blind not merely physically, but spiritually; therefore he is full of perplexities. And the person he is addressing, Sanjaya, is the only person who can provide the answer. Sanjaya, as a bona fide disciple of Vyasa, has special vision, which alone can enlighten the blind. Unfortunately, Dhrtarastra does not ask a very profound question, or one that is ultimately very important. Instead, he is content to know the outcome of the battle at Kuruksetra. Materially minded men, even though in the presence of one who can bestow all transcendental knowledge, are content to know something in relation with this perishable body: either how to eat better, or sleep better, or defend better, or mate better. So Dhrtarastra is enquiring about Kuruksetra because the battle affects his sons. It is specifically mentioned that Kuruksetra is a holy place, a place of pilgrimage, and therefore the effect of such a sanctified place is troublesome to the old man. He has some suspicion that it may work against his sons—all of whom are equally blind spiritually—to the advantage of the righteous Pandavas. How would the battle come out? That was Dhrtarastra’s only concern. This is further borne out in the next verses, where it is revealed that his sons have only this concern as well. They are looking over their forces and the forces of the opposition, trying to make some comparative estimate. They are calculating who has more strength, but from the way they calculate we can understand their true position. Calculation is all right—that is wise but how to calculate: that is the question.
So in the tenth verse, Duryodhana makes his estimate: “Our strength is immeasurable, and we are perfectly protected by Grandfather Bhisma, whereas the strength of the Pandavas, carefully protected by Bhima, is limited.” These adjectives “immeasurable” and “limited” are very important. Like Mr. Worldly-minded, Duryodhana thinks that the outcome will be determined by the size of the forces involved. He sees that he has more men, a more experienced general, a superior phalanx arrangement, and greater military advisors. All these material calculations tell him “we will win,” and so he is boasting that “our forces are immeasurable,” whereas the Pandavas appear to him to be “limited.” Even before the Battle of Kuruksetra, this shortsighted materialistic vision of Duryodhana was revealed when he was given the choice of having Lord Krsna’s soldiers or Krsna Himself on his side. Krsna had promised to give one side only Himself and the other side His thousands of men, horses and equipment. Duryodhana quickly grabbed the many men, but Arjuna, for the Pandavas, desired only to have Lord Krsna drive his chariot. When the two sides, the Kurus and the Pandavas, approached Lord Krsna for help, Duryodhana, counting numbers, said, “Give me Your forces,” but the Pandavas, knowing Lord Krsna to be the Supreme Person, said “Please be with us Yourself.” So from the very beginning here we see that the atheists have no understanding of the person Krsna; they are more interested in His energy, or what He possesses and what He can bestow, than in Krsna Himself. But Arjuna knows Krsna, and he wants Him to be his chariot driver as well as his Lord and master.
All this is more elaborately explained in the accounts of the blowing of the trumpets, bugles and conchshells. “After that, the conchshells, bugles, trumpets and horns all suddenly vibrated simultaneously, and the sound was tumultuous. On the other side, both Lord Krsna and Arjuna … sounded their transcendental conchshells.” (Gita, 1.13-14) Again the same type of calculation is there: the Kurus’ battle cry is tumultuous, physically it is overwhelming, materially it is deafening. But that is all. And on the other side there is simply the word “transcendental.” Transcendental means that it has all of the potency of Krsna. Krsna is all powerful, and anything that He touches or is associated with is all powerful. Where Krsna is, the goddess of fortune is. So how can there be any hope of victory for the merely “tumultuous”? And actually this is so, for we read in verse nineteen, “The blowing of all these different conchshells became uproarious, and, vibrating both in the sky and on the earth, it shattered the hearts of the sons of Dhrtarastra.” There is no indication that the tumultuous sound of the Kurus’ disheartened the Pandavas, but it is very clearly stated that the “transcendental” sound of the conchshells shattered the hearts of the sons of Dhrtarastra.
As indicated in the very first verse, it is the characteristic of materialistic men to be always fearful, to be always in a state of uncertainty. “Oh, how will it come out?” But that is not true with Krsna’s devotee, for the devotee who has Krsna by his side knows that Krsna is in control. “What does it matter whether the battle is successful or not? I am merely fighting by Krsna’s side.” For him there is no fear; he is residing with the Lord, who is the dispeller of all inauspiciousness. Certainly one who has taken shelter of the feet of Lord Sri Krsna has nothing to fear. Whereas the Kurus have put their faith in military might, the Pandava devotees have put their faith in the Personality of Godhead. This is the real import of the first half of the First Chapter of Bhagavad-gita.
As long as such confidence remains in the heart of a devotee, there is never any problem. But in the second half of the First Chapter, we find the difficulty that arises when the devotee seeks to emulate the practices of the atheist. For our benefit, a cloud of doubt begins to arise in Arjuna’s mind. Therefore he tells Krsna, “Please place my chariot between the two armies so that I may see who is present here, who is desirous of fighting…”
(Gita, 1:21-22) Now Arjuna is making the same mistake that Dhrtarastra made, namely forgetting who is present before him, in this case, driving his very chariot. Arjuna is thinking, “Let me calculate. Let me see who is here. Let me use my eyes to see what is going on. Let me judge for myself.” Then we can see that a whole string of perplexities follow, for after seeing all his friends and relatives assembled there for battle, he became overwhelmed with compassion and said: “My dear Krsna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me with such fighting spirit, the limbs of my body are quivering and my mouth is drying up.” (Gita, 1.29) Actually this kind of compassion is very nice, and it is one of the qualities of a devotee.
The scriptures say that a devotee who has genuine faith in the Lord has all the good qualities to be found in the demigods, but a nondevotee has no good qualification, no matter how materially advanced he may be either through education or culture. But we shall see that Lord Krsna says that Arjuna’s compassion is misguided; it is misdirected because it is not under the control of the Supreme. There is nothing wrong with any emotion (what to speak of compassion) if it is directed toward Krsna, or in Krsna’s service. But no matter how fine the emotion or how elevated the sentiment, if it is not in the service of Krsna, then it is merely sense gratification—useless, if not harmful. Therefore we find that Arjuna’s compassion was not in the service of Krsna, and consequently its result was not good: his body began to tremble, his hair began to stand on end, he could no longer hold his bow Gandiva, and he said, “I am forgetting myself, and my mind is reeling. I foresee only evil, O killer of the Kesi demon.” (Gita, 1.31) By material calculation there could be only evil from such a situation, that is correct, but notice the pronoun: “I foresee.” And in the next verse: “I do not see how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in this battle.” (Gita, 1.32) And again, “Nor can I, my dear Krsna, desire any consequent victory, kingdom, or happiness.” (1.32) This whole calculation is based on “I.” And what “I” is that? It is the “I” of the senses devoid of the consciousness that Hrsikesa, or Krsna, is the proprietor of the senses. Without knowing that one’s self-interest is Krsna, the conditioned soul is attracted by the bodily relationships of this “I.” And in such a condition, Arjuna could no longer remember his duty; nor could he remember his relationship to Lord Krsna.
If Arjuna had just remembered, “Oh, my dear friend Krsna is driving my chariot. Let Him take control. Let me simply be His servant,” then there would have been no such question or doubt arising in his mind. Krsna is actually driving Arjuna’s chariot, and yet because of his forgetfulness, Arjuna is questioning Him: “What will happen if I commit this sin? Surely I will go to hell.”
There is a story that once Lord Krsna had a headache, and He proclaimed that nothing would cure it save the dust from a devotee’s foot. So Narada was dispatched to find some dust, and he immediately went to some of the great demigods like Brahma, Siva, Indra, etc., but none would oblige him. They pleaded, “Oh, what would happen to me? What a great offense to put the dust of one’s foot on the head of the Almighty Lord.” So no one would give him any dust. Finally he went to the gopis, who, when they heard of Krsna’s plight and His request, said, “Here, take this!” and immediately produced some dust from their feet. He asked them if they were not afraid of going to hell for this act, and they replied, “We’ll go to hell. That’s all right. But please take this to Krsna right away.” That is the position of a devotee—he cares neither for heaven nor hell, simply the pleasure of Krsna. “Whatever Krsna wants is what I want.” That is devotion. But when we forget, then we must make so many material calculations, just like Dhrtarastra, who wants to count his forces. He wants to see whether they’re lined up properly; he is calculating the sound, “Oh, it is tumultuous!” But what about Krsna? The devotee only thinks about what Krsna wants. We will see, at the end of Bhagavad-gita, that this is the understanding that Arjuna reawakens to: “My dear Krsna, O infallible one, my illusion is now gone. I have regained my memory by Your mercy, and now I am fixed without any doubt, prepared to act according to Your instructions.” (Bg 18.73) When we have reawakened to that platform, that Krsna is our Lord, that Krsna knows everything, that whatever Krsna wants, that we will do—then there is no more calculation, there is no more uncertainty, there is no more hesitancy to act for the Supreme. That is Krsna consciousness.