Living Gita: 11: What Duryodhana Sees, What Arjuna Sees

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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.” Then Arjuna saw them standing there: fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law, friends, all. BG 1.24-27

One of the most dramatic moments in the entire Bhagavad Gita. Asked by Arjuna to take the chariot between the two armies, Krishna stops it facing Bhishma, Drona and other kings and tells Arjuna, “See the assembled Kurus.” And who does Arjuna who wanted to see with whom he has to fight the war see before him? Fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law and friends.

Our perceptions are conditioned by our biases. We saw how speaking to Drona Duryodhana describes the Pandava army as bhima-abhirakshitam, protected by Bhima. For Duryodhana, Bhima has always been the most important Pandava, not Arjuna. When as a child he wanted to get rid of the threat to his power from the Pandavas, it was Bhima he tried to eliminate by poisoning him at Pramanakoti. Similarly when Duryodhana looks at the two armies standing face to face, he sees only warriors there. On his own side, he sees Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Ashwatthama and so on and he describes them using the words sarva eva maharathah – all of them are maharathis. They are not his grandsire, his gurus and so on for Duryodhana, but just mighty warriors, because he understands only the language of power. To Duryodhana they are chess pieces in the game of power he is playing with the Pandavas. Like all power lovers, he believes in using people and loving power. He does not subscribe to the idea of loving people and using power for their good.

Duryodhana is a man obsessed with power, has been hankering after power all his life. When Krishna talks of peace in the Kuru assembly during his peace mission, Duryodhana refuses to listen to anything other than the language of power. He keeps asking Krishna: “...but who has more power? We or the Pandavas?” He wouldn’t share power at al – wouldn’t give the Pandavas even as much land as a needle tip.

All life is a power game for him and nothing matters other than power, just as to a man of sensuality, all life is about enjoying the pleasures of the body. He gives no more than token respect to grandsire Bhishma or guru Drona, because he believes he wields the power and they are bound to obey him.

In the Ghosha Yatra Parva of the Mahabharata, while the Pandavas are living in the jungle for twelve years, he goes there to show off his power and wealth. An army accompanies him, all the royal women are taken along, dressed in their best clothes and covered in ornaments, specifically to show Draupadi who is ‘dressed in bark clothes’. However, a quarrel erupts between his people and a group of gandharvas sporting in a lake in the jungle, a violent battle ensues, a beaten Karna runs away, and ordered by Yudhishthira, Arjuna goes there and saves him and his people from the gandharvas whose chief happens to be Arjuna’s friend. When Karna comes back later, after it is all over, a thoroughly shamed Duryodhana is sitting in prayopavesha, announcing a fast unto death, and Karna is able to persuade him to abandon his prayopavesha only by telling him Yudhishthira did no more than his duty by saving him – all subjects of a king are expected to do everything for him, it is their duty, the king does not have to be grateful to them for doing their duty, and therefore Duryodhana need not feel any shame for about being saved by Yudhishthira, so goes Karnas argument. It is this language of power that finally convinces Duryodhana to end his fasting unto death – that and the idea of a rajasooya sacrifice that would declare him the universal monarch, plus Karna’s promise to go on a digvijaya on his behalf, a mission of conquering all kings for him.

Why is Duryodhna so obsessed with power? Because born as the eldest son of the previous king, Vichitraveerya, his father who loved power had been denied power due to his blindness and he, Duryodhana, was born as the son of a man without power. Under different circumstances, Duryodhana would have inherited all the power of Hastinapura. Just as an orphan clings to relationships desperately because he has none, Duryodhana clings to power and he wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of his acquiring power. He literally believes in what Kanika told his father: Kill the person who stands in the way of your attaining goals even if he is your son, brother, father, or friend. Putro vaa yadi vaa bhraataa pitaa vaa yadi vaa suhrd, arthasya vighnam kurvaa?aa hantavyaa bhootivardhanai?,

We all hanker after what we do not have, hoping that if we get it, everything would be fine, we shall be feel happy and contented. Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winning American writer, wrote a novel based on this theme, her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a masterpiece of modern literature, in which the little black girl Pecola Breedlove living in abject poverty with her violent, constantly drunk father and her mother who hate each other and regularly get into violent fights, believes if only she had blue eyes everything would be fine. Every night when she goes to bed she fervently prays on her knees for blue eyes, hoping that then she would be loved by her parents, her parents would love each other and all life would be wonderful.

There is absolutely no doubt that we all need money, without money we will not have even the basic comforts, without wealth even spirituality will not be possible, inner peace cannot be there for you when your stomach is screaming for food. That is why Swami Vivekananda said that to the poor man God comes in the form of bread. While India maintained that obsession with anything would stand in the way of inner growth, including obsession with wealth, India never taught the philosophy that to be spiritual you have to be poor. India saw wealth as the most beautiful goddess and worshipped her through hymns like the Shri Sukta, a hymn that appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest surviving book of humanity, and is still ritually chanted by millions of Indians every day.

The poor believe they would be happy if they become wealthy like the rich; only the rich know that richness can give us all that money can buy but not happiness.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, belonging to the Shukla Yajur Veda, we have a brilliant conversation between the celebrated Vedic Sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. One day Yajnavaklya announces to his two wives Kalyani and Maitreyi that he is going to divide his wealth between them and going away in search of spiritual freedom. Kalyani accepts his decision but Maitreyi has several questions for him before she would say anything. She wants to know if the enormous wealth he is giving her would make her find happpiness. The conversation between the husband and wife, who herself later becomes one of India’s greatest sages ever, is one of the most blunt and forthright discussions on wealth, love, human relationships and several other subjects. Yajnavalkya tells her that it will not, her life would be like that of any rich man living in the middle of comforts.

What Yajnavalkya means is that wealth alone cannot give us happiness and contentment. While wealth is desirable, it is not in it that we would find happiness and contentment, which is true with success, fame and all other things that man seeks in the world.

In my younger days, I lived for several years in one of the most respected ashrams in the country. We had in the ashram with us either on short visits or living for months at a stretch corporate giants, chairmen and MDs of major government enterprises, national and international celebrities, people who owned entire blocks of major cities, founders of banks, bureaucrats at the highest levels of the government and so on, all in search of what power and position and wealth could not give them.

Ultimately all life is a search of ananda, which is to be found only within us. We are like the proverbial musk deer searching frantically everywhere for the fragrance the source of which is itself. Duryodhana believed it is power that would make him happy and the war that was being fought was also for him a means to find happiness and contentment through power, for which he did not mind sacrificing any number of lives. That so many people are willing to sacrifice their lives for him is also a matter of pride for him, as it would be for anyone for whom life is a power game. Their death is of concern with him.


When Arjuna looks to the two armies, the people he sees standing there are fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law and friends. But what Duryodhana sees when he looks around in the battlefield is maharathis everywhere: sarva eva maharathas. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Vikarna, Jayadratha, Saumadatti – they are all mighty warriors on his side, ready to lie down their lives for his sake. And on the other side he sees Bhima, Arjuna, Satyaki, Virata, Drupada, Abhimanyu, the sons of Draupadi, and so on – again, all of them great warriors.

The people standing there are the same, but for Duryodhana they are warriors and for Arjuna they are fathers and uncles and gurus and so on.

It is the same everywhere. A ‘manager’ looks at the people before him and he sees his workforce which is the reason why management experts like Tom Peters have to remind them “People are People.” Sometimes when certain teachers – certain teachers, not all – look at the young people in front of them they see not young people but students – students whose natural tendency is to be unruly and have to be dealt with an iron hand, who have to be taught discipline, whose minds have to be filled with ideas and information, who have to be taught to think the way they want them to think, who have to be taught not questioning but obedience. Sometimes when we look at people through certain lenses, we don’t see them as people but as something else.

When Hitler looked at the Jews, what he saw were not human beings of flesh and blood and feelings and emotions, but a race that had to be eliminated. And he systematically went about implementing his final solution for the Jewish problem. Six million Jews were sent into his extermination camps, there to be used as workers until their death by overwork, starvation, diseases, and all kinds of atrocities committed on them. People were asked to stand in lines and dig their own graves and when they finished, they were shot into the pits. The next line of Jews was asked to fill the pits and then dig their own graves, to be shot into them. Smoke from the chimneys where the bodies of people gassed to their death were burnt rose up into the air thicker than smoke from huge factory chimneys. Unspeakably cruel medical experiments were committed upon them by doctors like Josef Mengele. Because you do not see them as people but as members of a race human but inferior, who had to exterminated.

The same thing happened to black slaves in the United States too throughout the slavery centuries. People were bought and sold as though they were animals, they were made to work from dawn to dusk bound in chains and were tortured using instruments specifically invented for the purpose. They were starved and so cruelly whipped that they felt death was preferable. Toni Morrison herself was the granddaughter of a black slave in the United States. In her most famous book Beloved, we come across a mother who kills her own baby. She wanted to save it from her own fate which was a thousand times worse than death.

Duryodhana does not see people as people but as a means for his purposes – they were just warriors for him. Arjuna sees them as people – as fathers and sons, as uncles and nephews, as gurus and disciples, as brothers and friends.

The battle that happened 3102 years before the Common Era was a war between two sides, one of which saw people as people and the other, people as a means to achieve their goals. It is this war that Krishna tried his best to avoid, risking his life, stooping so low that future generations would call him a man without principles. But he did not mind it because for him his name, his ego, did not matter. What mattered was the good of the world, lokasangraha. For him, as for Arjuna, the war is the very last alternative. But for Duryodhana, it is a matter of his ego, his first choice, so that he can have absolute power. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for power.

It is this philosophy that Krishna wanted to destroy: the philosophy that people could be used as a means to your egoistic goals, that people are expendable.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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