Sutra Study: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1

I’ve decided to start a series on the Bhagavad Gita, as a few of my fellow YTT graduates and I are meeting every week to discuss a chapter at a time. What you see here is my interpretation based on various translations as well as discussions amongst fellow teachers. If you are interested in reading the Bhagavad Gita for yourself please read a basic translation before engaging in any commentary, as the translations, commentaries, and interpretations are all heavily biased, including what I present here. I try to present a wide interpretation, but because of the tradition of yoga I practice (see, Hatha Yoga: A Modern Approach to Liberation) which is based on the tantric tradition, my interpretation will be skewed in that direction. This may change over time, but for now this is what you can expect.

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient text that is a part of the much larger epic, Mahabharata. They were written or composed by the Sage Ved Vyasa. The exact date of their creation is unknown, but we suspect it was between the fifth and second centuries BCE. The Gita tells of the story of the Kurus (sons of Dhritharashtra) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) who are fighting for the rightful kingship of their land. The whole backstory is held in the Mahabharata, but basically they are cousins who are fighting because the Kurus have taken over the kingdom, when the Pandavas are the rightful heirs. The Gita takes place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, which is a place you can still go visit in India. Take a look at the family tree in the image below, click on it to enlarge:

Kuru Family Line

Both Pandu and Dhritharashtra are the sons of Vyasa, making them brothers. They ruled the Kuru kingdom together until Pandu left to find spirituality living as a forest-dweller. Dhritharasthra has been blind since birth, and represents the aspect of mind which perceives only through the senses. He has 102 children, so I did not list them all in the image. The primary son we are concerned with is Duryodhana, who is the antagonist of the Gita. The protagonist is Arjuna, son of Pandu. Though he isn’t the eldest (the rightful heir being Yudhishtira, son of Pandu), he is the strongest as he is a demigod so he is leading the Pandava army. I won’t go into the reason for this, as it will become a huge topic, and is included in the Mahabharata, not the Gita. In the image I’ve included brackets beside each name. This is because, according to some commentators, each identity in the Gita represents an aspect of mind. (If you’d like to see a glossary of the characters in the Gita, please click here.)

What? Yeah, the Gita is a wonderful story teaching morals and rightful action, but it is also one big metaphor for our inner worlds. The whole first chapter can be seen as a basic understanding of meditation, if you choose to take it that way.

So, the Gita contains 700 verses in 18 chapters. The first chapter contains only 46 verses. This is what we will explore today. If you’d like to see a verse-by-verse commentary, I suggest this one. Or, if you’d like to read the first chapter in poetry form (no comments), go here.

We are introduced to the format of the story in Ch1. Verse 1, when the King, Dhritharashtra, asks his advisor Sanjaya to tell him how the battle between his sons and the sons of Pandu turned out. Some translations will ask “how is the battle going?”, present tense, while others will say, “how did the battle go?”, past tense. It is past tense since “only from the outcome of a course of action can it be known with any certainty whether the action was justified or not.” (Swami Kriyananda, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita) Sanjaya, to help explain this dialogue, represents introspection, and he has the ability to see things at a great distance. Him and the King are not at the site of the battle, but are commenting from afar. Sanjaya, advising the blind king, narrates the whole story.

Verses 2-11 introduce the warriors of the armies. Remember earlier how I said that each identity represents an aspect of the mind? Let me list a few of the most important examples. The four main characters of this story are Krishna, Arjuna, Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra. Krishna is an avatar of God (otherwise known as the incarnation of Vishnu), as the divine takes different names in all it’s various forms and actions. Arjuna is self-control. Sanjaya is introspection, and Dhritarashtra is spiritual blindness. Dhristarashtra’s son, Duryodhana is Kind Material Desire. Bhisma, their grandfather and the elder fighting on the Kuru side, is ego. The others whom were named on the Kuru side are Drona (habit), Kama (attachment), Drupada (extreme dispassion), and Dhristadyumna (calm inner light). This may make more sense as we go on. Needless to say, the names are listed for a reason (not all of which I know).

Backstory: Krishna is fighting on the Pandu side. But why?, you may ask. The Kuru brothers are greedy and want all the land to themselves. The Pandu’s tried to strike a deal, saying that the Kuru’s can have the kingdom, they just want one small village each. The Kuru brothers denied this request, which started the war. Krishna, in this form, is related to this family line and grew up with them. He has control of a large and powerful army. The cousins (Arjuna and Duryodhana), each controlling their own armies, approached Krishna to ask him to fight for them. Since they came at the same time, Krishna gave them a choice: he would personally fight on one side while his army would fight on the other. Arjuna, being close friends with Krishna, asked Krishna to fight with him. Duryodhana, being obsessed with material things, was quite pleased that he got the whole army. Through this, Krishna became Arjuna’s charioteer. 

In verse 12, Bhisma (being ego) blows his conchshell (representing breath) in support of Dhuryodhana. This shows a surrendering of ego to the breath, which is an admission of defeat for the Kuru side. This symbolism informed Dhuryodhana that he had no chance of winning. In verse 13, all other instruments were blown on the Kuru side.

Verse 14 we switch over to the Pandava side, where Krishna and Arjuna blow their “transcendental” conchshells, indicating victory as Arjuna is self-control and the conchshell is breath, so rather than surrendering to the breath (like Bhisma) he is controlling it. Also, he has the divine on his side, so that’s a bonus. In Verse 15 Krishna is called “Hrsikesa” as he is the owner of all senses. “Here on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra the Lord directly controls the transcendental senses of Arjuna, and thus His particular name of Hrishikesha.” (Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

Verses 16-18 have Sanjaya listing off the names of the different conchshells fighting on the side of Arjuna, showing that they are all famous conchshells unlike the ones fighting for the King’s son. Indirectly, Sanjaya is warning Dhritarashtra that he should not put any faith in his son winning this battle. Verse 19 describes how powerful and fearless the vibrations of the Pandu brother’s conchshells were, causing the hearts of the sons of Dhritarashtra to shatter. This can mean so many things, but the most obvious representation this could stand for is chanting in the name of the Lord. In yoga practice, we often partake in chants for different purposes, sending vibrations throughout our bodies or out into the world. In so doing, we are “shattering” our perception of self, of individuality, and can feel part of something larger (divine).

In Verse 20, Arjuna, “whose flag bears the monkey emblem”, raises his bow and addresses Krishna, his charioteer. First of all, the bow represents the human spine. The spine is where the energy/Kundalini rises to unite either at the heart or crown, depending on your belief, which causes awakening. The monkey is a symbol of restlessness, so by raising the monkey emblem we can assume that “Arjuna has brought his restless mind under control, and is able to commune consciously with [Krishna].” (Swami Kriyananda, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita) Verse 21-23 has Arjuna ask Krishna to pull the chariot between the two armies so he can see who it is he has to fight, and who has chosen the other side. We must understand here that because of alliances, obligations and dharma, many of the people fighting for Duryodhana did not have a choice.

Verse 24 shows Sanjaya telling Dhritharashtra that Krishna (being called Gudakesha) obeyed, drawing the chariot through the midst of the armies. Gudaka means sleep or ignorance, so Krishna being called Gudakesha shows that Arjuna was able to conquer both these things because of having Krishna on his side. Verse 25 has Krishna called Hrsikesa once again as he calls on Arjuna to view all the Kurus who were assembled. Krishna knows everything, so can understand the hesitation in Arjuna’s mind.

Verse 26 describes Arjuna seeing his fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, friends, father-in-law and well-wishers. In verse 27-29 Arjuna is overwhelmed with sorrow and compassion, detailing how his body is trembling, his hair standing on end, his mouth drying up, his bow is slipping from his hand and his skin is burning up. There are two reasons one would have this kind of reaction, (1) great spiritual ecstasy, or (2) great fear of material conditions. Arjuna is experiencing the latter for fear of death of his friends and family, which is reiterated in verses 30 and 31 with Arjuna admitting that he is forgetting himself, his mind reeling. He sees only evil. This is teaching us that men who are only interested in material things and outcomes don’t see the effects in the bigger picture (Supreme Self). He sees only unhappiness in this battle, even if he wins he would not be happy. Krishna knows better, as he is out to save spirituality and religion and knows that the Kuru brothers will not allow these to prosper, so sees the necessity of this battle to destroy material wants.

In verse 31, Arjuna says, “I do not see how any good can come of this battle with my own kinsmen, nor can I, my dear Krishna, desire any subsequent victory, kingdom, or happiness.” Still stuck on material conditions, Arjuna forgets his dharma of being a ksatriya (warrior) and needing a kingdom for his subsistence, and that his only chance to fulfil his dharma is by winning this battle. Verses 32-35 have Arjuna addressing Krishna as Govinda, the object of all pleasures for cows and the senses. He asks what avail would kingdoms be (or happiness or life itself) when all those for whom we wish to share them with are arrayed on this battlefield. “I am not prepared to fight with them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth.”

Tangent: the three worlds refer to the trailokya, or the three planes of existence. These consist of: (1) karmaloka, the world of desire, populated by hell beings, hungry ghosts (preta), animals, ghosts, humans and lower demigods. (2) rupaloka, the world of form, populated by those in deep meditation (jnana-dwelling gods), and possible rebirth destination for those well-practiced jnana yogis. (3) arupaloka, world of formlessness, heaven, possible rebirth destination for practitioners of the four formlessness stages. These could be viewed, in a non-religious sense, as earth/solidity, atmosphere/ether/mind, and space/essence.

In the culture of this time, there were considered six aggressors who, if killed, no sin (karma) would be incurred. These are: one who gives poison, one who sets fire to the house, one who attacks with deadly weapons, one who plunders riches, one who occupies anthers land, and one who kidnaps a wife. In verse 36Arjuna worries about incurring sin as he would not kill “proper aggressors”. He asks Krishna what he would gain. In verses 37 and 38, Arjuna is reminded that as a ksatriya/warrior he is bound to fight when challenged. Though if the effect is not good, no one can be bound. He asks that with knowledge of this sin, how can he proceed? In verse 39, Arjuna declares that elder family members shalt not be slain or else the descendants will have irreligious ways. Verse 40 and 41 continues: “without religion, women will stray and create unwanted and unlearned children. When there is increase in unwanted population, the lineage cannot be cleaned.” What is meant by “cannot be cleaned” is a tradition of giving offerings to ancestors to release them from the ghostly realms, which is taught to learned children. Verse 42 continues: “this will ultimately lead to the downfall of entire kingdoms.” The layout of society through purushartha, the four aims of life, namely: dharma (duty or responsibility), artha (means/knowledge or wealth/material), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation) leads to ultimate salvation, which will be destroyed if the Kuru brothers prevail. Arjuna worries in verse 43 that those who destroy family traditions will always dwell in hell. In verse 44 Arjuna says, “Alas, how strange is is that we are preparing to commit greatly sinful acts, driven by the desire to enjoy royal happiness.” Calling on the morality of ahimsa/non-violence, Arjuna tries to justify his unwillingness to proceed. This is reiterated in verse 45 when Arjuna declares his wish to be killed unarmed and unresisting rather than fight his friends and family. In verse 46 he casts aside his bow and arrows, sat on his chariot, overwhelmed with grief.

Symbolically, the chariot represents the human body, the horses representing the five senses. By casting aside his bow (symbolically, the erectness of the spinal column) and sitting on the chariot, he shows that he can no longer hold a meditative pose, i.e. he is no longer in the frame of mind to commune with the divine, he’s back to restless (monkey) mind.

If you’d like to take this in a more psychological sense, the final verse of this chapter reads, “How can I fight these people, all of them dear to me? Even if they desire to slay me, I cannot commit the great sin of fighting against them.” This shows his hesitation to let go of clinging to aspects of self. If we view this chapter as a discussion on meditation, when the meditator starts to see the goings-on of his mind he sees that there are opposing forces, the good and the bad, the spiritual and the material. By drawing the chariot between the two, Arjuna is setting himself up to be the witness to these trains of thought rather than be involved in either. The meditator, when first seated, is typically overwhelmed with grief and concern, “How can I let go of all these negative thoughts and habits?” Arjuna’s actions may represent him experiencing the same thing.

In this chapter, we already see the three paths to liberation appearing: karma yoga (following your duty or dharma to the best of your ability), jnana yoga (meditation) and bhakti yoga (devotion or surrender to Krishna).

Perhaps you can start to see how “Krishna turns a righteous outward cause, … 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 total liberation. Krishna himself makes clear the allegorical nature of this timeless dialogue with Arjuna. In a later chapter of the Gita he states, ‘This body is the battlefield.'” (Swami Kriyananda, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita)

One of the other graduates took the best thing from this, when it comes to teaching. She said, “when you are warming up your students in class, you are preparing them for an inner battle of consciousness.” Yes–I couldn’t have said it better myself!


3 thoughts on “Sutra Study: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Character Representation in Bhagavad Gita | Engaging Tapas

  2. Pingback: Sutra Study: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4 Verses 1-23 | Engaging Tapas

  3. Pingback: Sutra Study: Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4 Verse 1-23 | Chraeloos

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