Living Gita: 06: Arjuna Between the Two Armies

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Then, O Lord of the earth, seeing Duryodhana's men in position and the armies about to clash, Arjuna, raising his bow, told Krishna, “O Krishna, take my chariot between the two armies. I want to see the warriors I am about to fight. I want to have a look at those gathered here for battle, wishing to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra. BG 1.20-23

Arjuna already knows who the main warriors on his side and on the enemy side are. But in spite of that he wants to have a look at them before the battle begins.

Arjuna could not have meant that he wants to have a look at the hundreds of thousands of ordinary soldiers gathered in the battlefield. Obviously, if he meant to assess his chances of victory and the magnitude of the challenge, he must have meant the leading warriors on the enemy side. And who are they? Karna will not be fighting so long as Bhishma stands in the battlefield, so Arjuna couldn’t have meant him. Could he have meant Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana, Dusshasana, Shalya, Bhoorishrava and so on? But he does not have to take a good look at any of them – they are his grand uncle, his gurus, his uncle, cousins and so on. He knows them only too well. Still he says he wants to take a good look at them: “I want to have a look at those gathered here for battle, wishing to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra.” Why does he say so?

A lot of the time in our life, particularly on momentous occasions crucial for us, for others or for the world in general, words come out of us in spite of ourselves, we do certain things not originating in us but happening through us, for which we are just instruments, just nimittas.

Ancient Indian literature talks of several such incidents. In the Ramayana we have the example of Kaikeyi who loved Rama more than her own son Bharata but in a weak moment, under the influence of the jealousy and intolerance incited by Manthara, asks Dasharatha to exile Rama to the forest for fourteen years and in his place crown Bharata as the yuvaraja of Ayodhya. Kaikeyi’s action here is completely uncharacteristic of her. Reading the original Ramayana of Valmiki, we find that Kaikeyi is a loving, generous, talented, highly competent person untouched by cunning and other evils of the world – in fact, there is no one like her in the Ramayana, she is so beautiful as a person. Nothing she had done before that or anything she does subsequently explains her stubborn demand in those moments. Various Ramayana traditions explain her behavior in those moments as Goddess Saraswati sitting on her tongue and saying through her the words she speaks so that the purpose of the gods, the slaying of Ravana, could be achieved. Kaikeyi here is just a nimitta for the purposes of the gods.

In the Mahabharata itself we have the story of close friends Devayani and Sharmishtha, one the daughter of Guru Shukracharya who was the priest and advisor of the Asura king Vrishaparva and the other Vrishaparva’s daughter. The two girls go out to bathe and sport in a nearby river and enter the water after leaving their clothes on the bank. When they come out later, their clothes have been mixed up and Sharmishtha by mistake wears Devayani’s clothes. In the social order of the day the position of the guru and the brahmana was far above that of the king and socially Devayani, Shukra’s daughter was much superior to Sharmishtha, the princess. When Devayani angrily asks Sharmishtha why she wore her clothes, the princess arrogantly tells the guru’s daughter that she had no right to protest, after all she was the daughter of a man living on her father’s wealth. For her act of wearing Devayani’s clothes, and much more for her haughty words, Sharmishtha had to live her entire remaining life as Devayani’s slave. The consequences of this incident are far reaching and become the crux of several incidents in Indian mytho-history, including why the Yadavas [Krishna is a Yadava.] came to be considered of lower caste status than kshatriyas who they originally were.

The epic tells us the whole incident was orchestrated in the world of the gods. It was Indra who commanded the wind god Vayu to blow and mix up the clothes, thus confusing Sharmishtha and making her pick up and wear Devayani’s clothes. Sharmishtha and Devayani are mere tools for their purposes.

Sometimes we all become helpless tools in the hands of daiva, the samashti. That is what is happening here, which is one way understanding Arjuna’s demand to Krishna to take his chariot between the two armies standing ready to pounce upon each other. Had he not asked Krishna to do that, the momentous event of the birth of the Gita, the scripture that has guided vast chunks of humanity over millennia, would not have happened.

Sometimes the samashti, or God if you will, makes us do strange deeds and say strange things that puzzle us later. We wonder why we said or did such those things. All of us experience moments when events happen through us, we say things that are not spoken by us but through us, for which we are mere nimittas.

A few days ago the city in which I live celebrated Khatu Shyam Mahotsav, the festival of Khatu Shyam, also known as Barbarika, the son of Ghatotkacha and his wife Maurvi. In folk imagination, Barbarika was the fiercest of all warriors in the Mahabharata. He was sacrificed by Krishna before the Mahabharata war begins, with a blessing given to him that his head would, as he wanted, remain on a peepal tree in the Kurukshetra battlefield and witness the whole war. According to folk traditions, again, after the war was over an argument broke out among the Pandava brothers as to who among them should be given maximum credit for the victory and each of the five brothers claimed that honour. Krishna took all the brothers to the peepal tree and asked Khatu Shyam to tell them who among the brothers should be credited for the victory. Barbarika laughs and says during the entire war he saw only one thing: Krishna’s Sudharshana chopping off the heads of all the warriors and Draupadi drinking up all the blood.

According to this legend, the war was actually fought by the two did not actively participate in it: Krishna and Draupadi. All the others were nothing but instruments in their hands, or let’s say, instruments in the hands of the power that uses all of us for its purposes.

The Unknown makes us tools in its hands for the purposes of the samashti.


The Unknown works in mysterious ways.

I spent the summer months of 1979 in Uttar Kashi, staying in Tapovan Kuti, the ashram in which my param guru Swami Tapovanam used to live. One day hearing that the Mahamandaleshwar from Rishikesh had come to the nearby Kailas Ashram and was giving a lecture there, I went to listen to him. The Mahamandaleshwar was an engaging story teller and told us a beautiful story about a passenger in a bus on a Himalayan road.

From the moment this passenger got into the bus, the other passengers noticed strange, inexplicable things happening. Once they saw a tree just falling across the mountain road ahead of them, making further journey impossible until it had been removed and the road cleared. Another time the engine heated up and had to be cooled before the journey could continue. A third time the driver felt unwell and had to rest. On mystery filled mountain roads where danger lurks at every turning, people tend to be superstitious, as it happens whenever we feel in the presence of powers greater than ourselves over which we have no hold. Soon a whisper started making rounds among the passengers of the bus – it’s all because of the new passenger, before he boarded the bus everything was fine, now nothing seems to be all right.

Two more incidents, and the passengers started demanding loudly – the new passenger had to get down from the bus. It was because of him all these bad events were happening. They started threatening the driver too, saying that they wouldn’t allow the bus to proceed unless the passenger was sent out of the bus.

Eventually that is what was done. And after the passenger was forcibly disboarded on the lonely mountain road, the bus had travelled not more than five minutes more when all on a sudden the old bridge on which they were started loudly cracking and violently shaking. And then, before the driver or the passengers could realize what was happening, the bridge collapsed under them and the entire bus plunged into the deep gorge beneath, killing everyone on board.

The Mahamandaleshwar concluded the story saying all the passengers on board were destined to die, except the new passenger. It was destiny that made the passengers vociferously demand that the new passenger be thrown out of the bus, he said, so that the accident could take place.

We do not do everything that happens through us. We become the corridor for much that the samashti does for its own purposes. We tend to take pride in those actions and incidents if they are good, and feel guilty when they are bad. Wisdom is neither taking pride for the good things that happen through us and nor feeling guilty about the bad things that happen through us.

Which does not absolve us from responsibilities for the actions originate in our ego. We must pay the price for such actions, says the Indian tradition: avashyam anubhoktavyam kritam karma shubhaashubham. naabhuktam ksheeyate karma kalpakotishatairapi. “We must experience the results of actions we have done, both good and bad. Even after endless years our karmas are not exhausted unless they are lived.”

Later in the Gita Krishna asks Arjuna to fight the entire battle without ego. In verse 30, Chapter 3 of the Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna: “Surrendering all your actions to me, with your mind rooted in the self, without any selfish motivation, without the sense of ownership and without feverishness, fight!”

mayi sarvaani karmaani sannyasya-adhyaatma-chetasa
niraasheer nirmamo bhutva yudhyasva vigata-jvarah

This is one of the central verses that summarises of the philosophy of action Krishna teaches in the Gita.

Actions happen through us whether we like it or not. But by letting our ego come in between, we can disturb their free flow. The wisdom of the Gita asks us not to let our ego come in the way of this flow of the will of the samashti and to become free paths for actions originating in the samashti. That is what Krishna means when he asks Arjuna to become a mere instrument in the hands of God: nimittamaatram bhava savyasaachin.

Interestingly, modern neurobiology and performance psychology tell us that in our moments of the highest performance excellence, we are without our ego, we transcend the ego. In fact modern performance psychology insists: without ego transcendence high excellence is just not possible. And once the ego is transcended, whatever we do will have the stamp of excellence. Ego transcendence is the basic requirement for excellence in action.

Ego transcendence is also the secret of all creativity. Our most creative ideas come to us in moments when we temporarily go beyond the ego. Ego transcendence is the secret of intuition. All scientific discoveries and all technological inventions are made by us in those moments when we are without the ego. So is all great art, all great music, dance, literature and everything else that is beautiful in the world. Which is why master artistes often say they did not produce their work, it just came out of them mysteriously.

When Arjuna asks Krishna to take his chariot between the two vast armies, the samashti is acting through him so that the Bhagavad Gita could be born. Arjuna of course does not understand this, but Krishna does. I am sure Krishna’s enchanting smile must have appeared on his face as he obeyed his friend Arjuna’s ‘command’!

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