Appreciating the Significance of the Opening of the Bhagavad Gita

by Steven F. Walker

Some canonical sacred texts open with a real bang, such as: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Gospel of John); “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void” (Book of Genesis); or “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy!”, which are Koranic verses that are chanted by Moslems every day at their prayers. And there is, of course, that divine work of music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, that opens memorably with “ta ta ta TAH—ta ta ta TAH!” But not so the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, in the course of working together to produce their stirringly poetic and now very popular translation of the text, Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda decided to leave out the first section of the opening (I.2-20) entirely, preferring instead to provide the following prosaic summary in parentheses:

In the following verses, Sanjaya describes how Duryodhana, seeing the opposing army of Pandavas in array, went to Drona, his teacher, and expressed his fear that their own was the weaker of the two, although numerically larger. He named the leading warriors on either side. (Bhagavad Gita: the Song of God, tr. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood [New York: Signet, 2002], p. 30)

When, as a beginning student of Sanskrit I first read this long list of the names “of the leading warriors on either side,” it was with a sense of dismay and disappointment, and such is the experience, I imagine, of many beginning Sanskrit students who, enthralled with the idea of crawling slowly through a masterpiece of world spirituality couched in an epic style of Sanskrit not too difficult for neophytes to read with relative ease, suddenly fall instead on this utterly boring list of names! Isherwood and Prabhavananda comment on it dryly: “this is one of the catalogue passages to be found in nearly all epics. It need not be translated in full.” And their “need not be translated in full” is a bit of a euphemism, since they in fact don’t translate it at all! Not to mention the fact that they have little or nothing to say about Duryodhana’s actual words to his teacher Drona. They do mention, however, that “in order to raise Duryodhana’s failing courage, Bhisma, the commander-in-chief, sounded his conch-shell horn,” suggesting the possible humor of the fact that “this was ill-advised—for the enemy chieftains [the Pandavas] immediately blew their horns in reply, and made much more noise.” But they fail to mention that all these horns have names; the poor beginning Sanskrit student has to slog through another list (I.13-19)—shorter, it is true—not only of warrior names, but also of conch-shell horn names! It is perhaps to the translators’ credit that they mercifully spare their readers this boring passage.

Arjuna   Bali, Indonesia

Arjuna — Bali, Indonesia

But after all this, finally the good part seems to be beginning (I.20-22)—the part we have been waiting for—when Arjuna famously asks his friend and charioteer Krishna to drive his chariot into the middle of the battlefield, so that he can see clearly the prominent members of the opposing side; this is a section that Isherwood and Prabhavananda translate completely. Unfortunately, for the reader expecting some meaty spiritual matters to be discussed, at the sight of his revered teachers and relatives arrayed on the other side of the battlefield, Arjuna is quickly thrown into a fit of nervous depression, and his long rant (I.31-46) is full of fairly nitpicking objections to fighting (no rice balls for the souls of departed ancestors, for instance) or hysterical proclamations of self-sacrificial zeal (he would rather die himself than kill his relatives). All this tries the reader’s patience once again, who must wait for the last verse of the first chapter for the sacred drama to begin in earnest, at the moment when Arjuna drops his bow and arrow, slumps down onto the seat of his chariot (I.47), and finally shuts up. Now Krishna can finally get a word in edgewise, and the Gita—but only at the opening of second chapter—finally takes off, when the saucy divine charioteer calls Arjuna an effeminate eunuch, tells him to stand up and be a man, and begins to teach him the yoga of selfless action—at last!

One might question Isherwood and Prabhavananda’s decision to omit a large part of the opening section of the Gita from their translation; the Gita is, after all, a canonical text, and it can be argued that, warts and all, it deserves consideration and translation as a complete and full entity. (On the other hand, it is also tempting to say that maybe they should have left out even more!) To argue in their favor, one could opine that is not surprising that the numerous Gita commentators, ancient and modern, have had little if nothing to say about the whole first chapter. For instance, Radhakrishnan’s classical modern commentary merely references the various warrior names as they appear in verses 2-19, and understandably says nothing about the names of the conch-shell horns! Classical Vedantic commentators had shown little interest in all this as well. Swami Ranganathananda’s recently published three volumes of lectures on the Gita (Universal Message of the Bhagavad Gita: An Exposition of the Gita in the Light of Modern Thought and Modern Needs [Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2000]) has, for its detailed commentary, very little to say about this opening section. Of course, the Gita’s opening section is more epic than didactic, and the reader who comes to it expecting uplifting spiritual teaching, and finds apparently run-of-the-mill epic storytelling instead, is understandably disappointed. Still, what a shame—the reader may seem justified in concluding—that the Gita has to taxi so long on the runway before it finally takes off.

But I think there is a way for the reader, in spite of first impressions, to come to a genuine and unexpected appreciation of the opening section of the Gita, and it is, as I shall argue, by appreciating it as a wonderful transitioning sequence from the epic narrative of the Mahabharata, in which the Gita was in all likelihood originally inserted and embedded (see my earlier set of articles in American Vedantist.14.1 and 2), to the spiritual discourses that form the bulk of the Gita. This opening section can be appreciated as something quite inspired in its own way and as something significantly related to the later concerns of the Gita as a work of sacred philosophy. Let us then make an attempt to revision the opening section of the Gita from this perspective.

The first thing that Sanjaya reports to the blind king Dhritarashtra is the little speech which Duryodhana, the Kaurava king, makes to his teacher Drona. Now it is important to remember that Duryodhana is throughout most of the Mahabharata a thoroughly unpleasant character, possibly even psychopathic—a man whom his own father Dhritarashtra has described a short while before the Gita begins as durbuddhi or “wicked-spirited.” So it is not surprising to find that Duryodhana is speaking in character at the opening of the Gita, as shown in his little speech to Drona. Thus, although he is speaking to his presumably revered teacher, he does not let Drona get a word in edgewise. He is in fact not listening to his teacher or in any way soliciting his advice, because he feels that he already has devised his own successful strategy for victory at Kurukshetra, which consists in protecting his general Bhisma from attack at all cost.

This may sound like a good plan. But—ironically—the preceding scene of the Mahabharata has already shown that Duryodhana’s vaunted strategy will be a colossal failure. The bard Sanjaya, gifted with divine sight and able to see what will happen in the course of the approaching battle, has already prophesized, to King Dhritarashtra’s great dismay, that the death of Bhisma will occur on the tenth day. Furthermore, it is obviously disrespectful for Duryodhana to speak so boldly to his teacher, without letting him get a word in edgewise, and without pausing to ask for his advice or at least for his approval of his grand stratagem. But Duryodhana is simply speaking and acting in character as an egomaniac and a bluffer. In naming the chief Pandava warriors, he fails to mention Krishna—a strange omission—but he tactlessly points out that the Pandava army is commanded by Drona’s own esteemed pupil Dhristadyumna—as if his anxiety about the upcoming battle’s outcome were somehow Drona’s fault! He asserts with vainglorious self-congratulation that all the great warriors on his own side are eager to lay down their lives out of devotion to him, when in fact we know that many of them were simply greedy and had been bought off with gold. And when he names the leading warriors on his side, he mentions not only Bhisma (soon to die, as we already know) but also Drona’s own son Ashwathamam, who those familiar with the plot of the Mahabharata know will later in the battle be killed by Arjuna through a devious stratagem; the alert reader will thus catch the tragic irony in both cases. Thus Duryodhana’s words are not only disrespectful and vainglorious, but also fraught with tragic irony. Finally, it turns out that Duryodhana, for all his bravado, is in a rather depressed mood; the text indicates, as Isherwood and Prabhavananda point out, that Bhisma suddenly blows his conch-shell horn “in order to raise Duryodhana’s failing courage” (I.12). Thus behind Duryodhana’s self-aggrandizing bluster lies a curiously depressive lack of self-confidence.

Isherwood and Prabhavananda continue to summarize the Gita’s opening section, taking note of the great din (tumula—a Sanskrit word cognate with the English “tumult”) caused by the blowing of conch-shell horns, for the great warriors’ weapons and even their horns have personal names, and readers (except those spared by the omission of this passage by Isherwood and Prabhavananda in their translation) have to suffer through another “catalogue passage” of a rather bizarre sort. But is there in the listing of the names of the conch-shell horns perhaps a bit of humor? I think there is. The warriors are a quirky and to some degree self-deluded bunch; they believe in the warrior ethics’ dream of glorious victory or glorious death in battle as the best thing around. So they love to blow their own horns. However, the text of the Gita is rapidly moving towards a scene in which Krishna will be trying to convince Arjuna that self-vanquishing yoga, and not warrior self-glorification, is the highest goal. So perhaps the great warriors need to blow off steam before that momentous thematic shift can occur. Thus there is a kind of humor here, and there is also a sense of great contrast between the great tumult of the battle horns and the pregnant silence that will fall after Arjuna unexpectedly throws down his bow and says “I will not fight.”

At first, however, Arjuna enters the scene as an epic hero, when he is described as “lifting his bow” in good epic fashion, while he orders his charioteer Krishna to steer his chariot into the space between the two armies in order, before the actual melee and mayhem begin, to take a boldly contemptuous look at those on the other side who in their greed and folly have wrongfully resolved to do a favor to the evil-spirited [durbuddhi again] Duryodhana (I.20-23). But his moment of warrior bravado does not last long; by the end of the first chapter he will be throwing down his bow and arrows, slumping down into his chariot seat, and declaring that he has decided not to fight. But Arjuna’s depressed silence at this most dramatic moment is in fact preceded by a tediously verbose rant (I.28-46), in which he declares that it is more than he can stand to face, fight and possibly kill his relatives and teachers on the other side. What is strange is how, in this awkwardly manic speech to Krishna, Arjuna is remarkably reminiscent of Duryodhana addressing Drona. Both heroes—the “wicked-spirited” Kaurava as well as the noble Pandava—show disrespect for their teacher in similar ways. They give their teachers no chance to reply or to give advice, since they have already resolved on courses of action on their own—for Duryodhana to have Bhisma protected at all cost, and for Arjuna to decide not to fight. And yet these are very important decisions, which they do not even bother to present to their teachers for discussion and possible criticism. In other words, the noble Arjuna is strangely mirroring the evil-spirited Duryodhana in two significant ways. His decision not to fight is just as peremptory as Duryodhana’s declaration of a battle strategy, and each warrior brooks no comment from the teacher they are talking at rather than talking with. In addition, their manic verbosity leads in both cases to a depressive mood.

Painting—Krishna and Arjuna, by Swami Tadatmananda

Painting—Krishna and Arjuna, by Swami Tadatmananda—courtesy Vedanta Society of Southern California

This strange parallelism between the scene between Duryodhana and a silent—or silenced—Drona and the one between Arjuna and a silent—or silenced—Krishna, can thus be said to provide a wonderful transition between the corrupt world of what the eminent translator and critic P. Lal calls a “doomsday epic” in which “right and wrong are bewilderingly mixed” (An Introduction to Vyasa’s Mahabharata [2005], pp. 13-14) and a spiritual discourse designed to show a path that leads beyond the dualities of right and wrong, of gain and loss, and of life and death. The Gita’s opening chapter sets up a negative model of the teacher/student relationship for Duryodhana and Drona as well as for Arjuna and Krishna, but for the latter this negative paradigm will be overturned at the beginning of the second chapter, when Krishna begins his great Socratic questioning of Arjuna, and slowly leads his student in a direction that will resolve his intellectual doubts and heal his both depressed and fevered mind.

We can now conclude that, since the Gita was in all likelihood inserted into the preexisting text of the Mahabharata, it could not have started off with a bang as a spiritual discourse as though nothing had happened before; it had first to carefully take its place in the sequence of events of the preexisting Mahabharata. It had to take account of the already established epic context into which it was designed to be embedded—just before the great battle at Kurukshetra is about to begin—and so the opening section of the Gita was appropriately conceived of as a transitional epic scene. But it is a scene which announces the remaining sections of the Gita in terms of a significant thematic contrast between a disrespectful relationship with a teacher exemplified by Duryodhana but also initially by Arjuna, and a fully articulated respectful but free relationship as it develops between Arjuna and Krishna in the course of the Gita. It also shows how the depression of one hero, Duryodhana, is based on an unconscious premonition that in the course of the doomsday battle both his general Bhisma and his teacher Drona will be killed, and it establishes an initial parallel with the depression of another hero, Arjuna, who refuses to fight because he also foresees nothing but disaster. But Arjuna’s depression, by contrast, will in fact turn out to be the prelude to a spiritual transformation in which the fear of doomsday is transcended and the victorious eternal life of the spirit is affirmed.

STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston and New York for nearly forty years. He teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University.

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