Living Gita: 09: Gudakesha

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Sanjaya said: O Bharata, thus told by Gudakesha, Hrishikesha took the magnificent chariot between the two armies and stopping it facing Bhishma and Drona and other kings said,“Arjuna, see the assembled Kurus.”

Sanjaya calls Arjuna Gudakesha here. Gudakesha literally means isha of gudaka, conqueror of sleep. Amarakosha, the ancient Sanskrit thesaurus, says: nidraa gudaaka samproktaa – sleep is called gudaaka. According to the tradition of the Puranas, it was Shiva who first referred to him by this name because he did tapas to please the Lord and to get the Pashupata weapon from him on the Indrakila Mountain without sleeping. Another meaning of the word gudakesha is with curly hair, guda meaning kutila, curled and kesha meaning hair. I like better the meaning ‘conqueror of sleep’ that describes Arjuna as the warrior ascetic who meditated on Shiva without sleep – vinidrena.

The word gudaka also stands for other things closely related to sleep, such as lethargy, dullness, inertia, lack of energy, apathy and so on – all of which are qualities associated with tamas, one of the three gunas. The Arjuna we see in the Mahabharata is the opposite of what these mental and physical qualities describe. There is very little tamas in him. He is always full of energy, zeal, passion and drive. He is a typical kshatriya – his dominant guna being rajas, with sattva as his secondary guna and tamas as the third guna.

[There is nothing in existence that is not made of these three gunas, except the purusha, the indwelling soul. na tad asti prithivyaam vaa divi deveshu vaa punah
sattvam prakritijair muktam yad ebhih syaat tribhir gunaih
. BH 18.40]

Arjuna is an outstanding example for excellence in his chosen area. This would not have been possible unless he was a conqueror of dullness, lethargy and other negative qualities that the word gudaka stands for.

In Zen, we speak about shoshin, the Zen mind, described as the beginner’s mind or the child’s mind, speaking of which the famous modern teacher of Zen,Shunryu Suzuki in a celebrated statement says:”In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, few.”

A person with shoshin sees things with an open mind and fresh eyes, as a beginner does. Such a person is full of intelligence, creativity, resourcefulness, childlikeness, spontaneity, authenticity and autonomy. His mind is full of receptivity, curiosity, resilience, perseverance, freedom, newness and other similar qualities.

From what we learn about Arjuna from the Mahabharata, he clearly had a Zen mind that leads to excellence. One of the definitions of yoga that Krishna gives in the Gita is: yogah karmasu kaushalam. The word kaushalam is a variation of the word kushalata, expertise or excellence, and the complete definition means yoga is excellence in action. If Arjuna was the best archer of the day, perhaps the best archer in the history of India barring Rama whose name Krishna takes in the Vibhooti Yoga of the Gita as the best bowman ever – raamah shastrabhrtaam varah – he should have had the qualities of shoshin, the Zen mind.


Gudakesha in this sense is someone with a Zen mind, or in Indian terms, the yogic mind. One of the ways of practicing yoga that India has always recommended and the Bhagavad Gita itself recommends is focusing on the now, focusing on whatever you are doing at the moment. Arjuna definitely did that.

Arjuna’s focus on what he is doing at the moment is legendary. In a story practically every Indian child grows up with is that of Arjuna’s focus on what he is doing at the moment. The story tells us of Acharya Drona arranging a test for his students sometime towards the end of their studies. The acharya had a wooden bird secretly made up on a tree. One day he takes all his students there and beginning with Yudhishthira, the eldest, calls one student at a time and asks him to take aim at the bird. When Yudhishthira has taken his aim, Drona asks him if he can see the neck of the bird, which he had been asked to aim at and Yudhishthira answers, “Yes, Acharya, I can.”

The acharya then asks him if he can see the whole bird and Yudhishthira says again, “Yes, Acharya, I can.” Then the acharya asks if he can see the branch on which the bird is perched, and then if he can see the whole tree and then if he can see the other students and if he can see all of these at the same time – the whole bird, the branch, the whole tree, the other students, all. “Yes, Acharya, I can,” says Yudhishthira. All the time, without Yudhishthira knowing it, Drona’s face is growing darker and darker. Finally the acharya asks, “Can you see me too, with all these?” And Yudhishthira answers, “Yes, Acharya, I can.” It is then Drona explodes in anger, “Drop the bow and get away! Apasarpa! You can’t hit it! Naitat shakyam tvayaa veddhum!

The acharya gives this test to all the other princes and all of them fail in satisfying him. It is only then he calls Arjuna who picks up the bow, takes aim at the neck of the bird and stands ready. “Can you see the neck of the bird?” Drona now asks Arjuna and he says, “Yes, Acharya, I can.” “The whole bird,” asks the acharya and Arjuna answers, “No, Acharya. Just the neck of the bird.” For the first time a smile appears on the face of Drona. He says, “Let go of the arrow.” And the next instant the head of the wooden bird falls on the ground with a thud, neatly chopped by Arjuna’s arrow.

Arjuna knew how to focus on the now, focus on whatever he was doing at the moment, focus on one thing at a time, whether it was the neck of the bird, his studies, his life’s goal of becoming the best archer in the world, or getting the Pashupata astra from Lord Shiva and other divine weapons from the gods, or learning dance and music from the gandharva Chitraratha because he had conquered lethargy, dullness, inertia, lack of energy, apathy and so on. 


Speaking of gudaka in the specific sense of sleep, not only did Arjuna conquer sleep as an ascetic meditating on Shiva on Mount Indrakila but also as a student. Not content with practicing during the day as the other students of Acharya Drona did, he continued his practices in the night too, due to his commitment to learning.

The Mahabharata tells us that once Guru Drona instructed the gurukula cook not to serve any meal to Arjuna in the dark. When we read that, we wonder why the acharya would say something like that to his cook but his crooked reason becomes clear as the story progresses.

One day while Arjuna was having his supper, a strong wind came and the lamps were blown out. Arjuna continued eating in the dark. That night what the acharya had feared happened. At midnight, he was woken up from sleep by the loud, booming sound of the bow string being released. Coming out, the acharya saw that Arjuna was practicing shooting in the dark.

From his eating in the dark, young Arjuna had deduced that just as he can eat in the dark, he can also shoot in the dark, without seeing the target. And he was already a master of sleep, so he was practicing and mastering at night the new insight he had gained in the evening!

The reason why Drona had told his cook not to serve a meal to Arjuna – specifically and only to Arjuna – in the dark now becomes clear. It was precisely to prevent this eventuality that with a cunning mind the acharya had given that instruction. Until that day Drona did not want Arjuna to excel in archery or to become his best student. It was his own son Ashwatthama that the acharya wanted to become his best student.

But now Drona, inspired by Arjuna’s commitment and dedication to learning, shows the nobility to appreciate what Arjuna was and hugging him promise that he will now see that Arjuna becomes his best student. 


Of course, conquering sleep does not mean not sleeping at all. Sleep is perhaps man’s greatest blessing, the relaxer, the healer, the restorer, the rejuvenator. It is the greatest therapy in existence. It is the ultimate performance enhancer, the reason why our grandparents advised us to get a good night’s sleep before exams. Innumerable people have gone to bed with problems they are not able to solve in their minds and woken up with clear solutions. As someone put it, a culture of working until we are fatigued and then working through that fatigue are stealing one of our most vital natural health resources. The largest number of accidents on the road or in workplaces happens because people are sleep deprived.

Lack of sleep means poor intelligence, poor memory, poor creativity, greater edginess, increased impulsiveness, poor judgment, poor digestion, greater stress, increased hostility levels, inability to trust resulting poor interpersonal relations and a hundred other negative conditions. After even a short nap you feel mentally clearer, sharper and more alert. Which is the reason why many leading organizations today provide for their workers a nap pod, as Google does.

That Arjuna was a master of sleep does not mean he did not sleep. What he had done could be to enter deep states of sleep quickly by training himself to relax deeply. Perhaps he had also learnt to take quick refreshing naps – shwana nidra – every now and then.

Sleep deprivation is one the greatest tortures known to man.

There used to be an ascetic in the city where I have been living for the last several decades. People claimed that he did not sleep for fourteen years. He used to walk up and down day and night between two parallel pipes some twelve feet long. Krishna makes it clear in the Gita that yoga is not for such people. He teaches that yoga is not for those who go to the extremes in anything. He says:

na atyashnatastu yogo'sti na chaikaantam anashnatah
na chaati swapnasheelasya jaagrato naiva cha arjuna
// BG 6.16 //

Verily Arjuna, yoga is not for him who eats too much nor is it for him who eats not at all. It is not for him who sleeps too much nor for him who always remains awake.

This mastery over sleep – again not denial of sleep, but mastery over it – was always recommended highly for students. A famous ancient Sanskrit verse says:

kaakacheshtaa bakadhyaanam shwaananidraa tathaiva cha
alpaahaaree grihatyaagee vidyaarthee pancha-lakshanam

The endless curiosity and alertness of the crow, the deep focus of the stork, the short sleep of the dog, eating less and abandoning home – these are the five signs of a good student. Abandoning home here refers to students leaving their homes and going to gurukulas or ashrams, as they did in old times.

Mastery over sleep is a requirement today more than at any other time in the past. I have taught in three of the top business schools in the country. In these schools we had students not just from India, but from all over the world. When I was teaching a course in one of these business schools, we had in it students from some thirty different countries of the world. Such was the nature of their studies that they had to be masters of sleep. It is a requirement in today’s business schools and much more so in today’s corporate world where each one of them is expected to work endless hours in challenging conditions, switch tasks all the time, attend endless meetings that go on and on, and yet remain fresh throughout.

Sleep is an absolute necessity of the body and particularly of the brain and for that reason it is dangerous to deprive the body of sleep. Sleep does three things mainly: relax and rest the body, release healing hormones and growth hormones and strengthen immunity, and make possible the process we know as dreaming. It is an absolute necessity of the brain that we move from the beta state, in which most of us adults spend much of our waking time, to the alpha and theta states, if not to the delta state every day at least for some time. Prolonged deprivation of the experience of these deeply relaxed states makes us dysfunctional.

Deep meditation can enrich our sleep. Deep meditation does all that sleep does – relax and rest the body, release healing and growth hormones, strengthen immunity, and make something akin to dream possible through the images and memories that pass through the quiet mind. So one way of achieving mastery over sleep is to supplement it with deep meditation. You achieve greater strength and orderliness in brain functioning, greater cardiovascular efficiency, respiratory efficiency, neuromuscular efficiency, and stability of the autonomic nervous system and enhanced overall performance through deep meditation.

We must remember that according to the Mahabharata Arjuna was the yogi Nara reborn as a Pandava.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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