Living Gita: 13: Arjuna's Emotional Hijack

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Arjuna seeing all the relatives gathered there was overcome by great compassion and said, “Seeing my kinsmen standing here eager for battle, my limbs are failing me, Krishna. My mouth is dry, my body is shivering and my hair is standing on end. The gandiva is slipping from my hand, my skin is burning, my head is reeling and I am unable even to stand steady.” BG 1.27-30

Kamboji is a brilliant Malayalam movie based on a widely published real incident that happened in Kerala in my younger days. It is the story of a man named Kunjunnni besotted with the highly sophisticated performing art kathakali which takes years of training to master. Kathakali is what Kunjunni lives for, all his dreams are about it. He has seen the great masters of the art performing and what he wants to become is what they are.

At a rather advanced age to learn kathakali, he comes to the guru he adores most and begins studying under him in his small school in a remote village. He is soon recognized as highly talented and almost fully accomplished in the art. A loving father-son relationship soon develops between the guru and his disciple. After some time the aged guru hands over the kathakali school to Kunjunni and goes away. Kunjunni is given a place to stay in the large house of the family that owns the school and soon their daughter Uma, herself an accomplished dancer, and Kunjunni develop love for each other.

The ugly face of jealousy now enters the picture and the village prostitute is bribed to accuse Kunjunni of making her pregnant. Without allowing him to say a word in his defense, he is asked to leave the school and go away immediately. It is the girl of the house who asks him to leave, her parents being away, thus bringing to an instant end his dream of becoming a great kathakali artiste and teacher as well as living the rest of his life with the girl as his wife. He rushes to his teacher – but the teacher too drives him away accusing him of shaming him. All these things happen in the first half of a single night, driving Kunjunni insane with pain and loss. In a state of fuming rage, Kunjunnni goes to the home of the prostitute and stabs her to death.

What happened to Kunjunni that night is what is called an emotional hijack. Under normal circumstances Kaunjunni wouldn’t harm an insect, but under the impact of the emotional hijack he brutally kills a woman.

Modern psychology speaks of emotional hijacks as states in which we are completely taken over by our emotions, our thinking and reason are suspended, our intelligence itself is blocked by the amygdala glands in our brain and we either go wild and do the craziest things or collapse helplessly under the burden of our emotions, paralyzed, unable to stand on our legs, our body drained of all energy, our mind losing all clarity.

It is Daniel Goleman, famous for his masterly books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence who coined the term amygdala hijack. As Goleman explains, even though evolution has taken us a long way ahead, we still retain within our brain the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of nuclei, one in each of our brains, the left and the right. The amygdala is essentially a survival tool and what it does is to instantly respond to threats. Thinking takes time, assessing a threatening situation takes time but the amygdala that functions based on memories, instincts and impulses does not. The amygdala is fast, really fast, whereas our intelligence is not.

For instance, if we are driving on a fast road and all on a sudden another driver cuts in from a side road, our response to it has to be instant. If it is left to the intelligence to take a decision and then respond, it would try to assess the distance between the two vehicles, their speeds and so on. But the amygdala gives the order for instant action and your foot goes up from the accelerator and comes down on the break without any loss of time.

However, this system designed for instant action has its weaknesses too. Since actions are taken before thorough assessments are made, they can often be wrong. Also, the amygdala does not differentiate between real threats and imagined threats. The amygdala reads a threat to the body or life and a threat to the ego – an emotional threat – the same. And, unless we are in control, guided by the amygdala we react the same way to a physical threat and an emotional threat. We experience increased heart rate and blood pressure, our breathing becomes quicker, faster and shallower, our body begins to shake, we sweat, our thinking brain is shut off and we respond to the situation with an instant and intense unconscious reaction produced by our emotional brain, sometimes frightening ourselves as in the case of Kunjunni.


We saw how what Arjuna sees and what Duryodhana sees are very different, though they are looking at the same thing. To the power-intoxicated, war mongering Duryodhana the people assembled in the battlefield are fierce warriors whereas to Arjuna they are grandfathers, fathers, sons, uncles, nephews, brothers, gurus and so on, all his own people. And his limbs suddenly fail him, his mouth dries up, his body trembles, his hairs stand on end, his grip on his bow goes lose, his skin burns all over and his mind reels. He is unable even to stand, let alone fight. All these are typical signs of an emotional hijack.

The Mahabharata speaks of several emotional hijacks. Later, during the war, when Abhimanyu is killed, for instance, such is Arjuna’s pain in spite of all Krishna’s teachings that undergoes another emotional hijack. On another occasion during the war Yudhishthira, defeated and humiliated by Karna, experiences an emotional hijack. He loses all control over himself and insults Arjuna’s prowess in war and his celestial bow gandiva leading to Arjuna taking a vow to kill him.

A young man was once sent to me by his father who had attended one my emotional intelligence workshops for corporate executives. The son used to work for a multinational company and was under tremendous pressure to perform for a boss obsessed with deadlines and constantly growing targets. Over time unable to manage his work stress, the young man developed low blood sugar, a physical condition ideal for emotional hijacks, and in that condition losing control over his emotions he exploded at his boss, shouting at him, abusing him and publicly humiliating him, which cost him his job. His father wanted me to help him master his emotions so that such situations did not arise in the future.


One of the greatest lessons the Bhagavad Gita teaches us is samatvam, remaining balanced under all circumstances. Again and again, throughout his teachings, Krishna stresses the importance of samatvam and asks Arjuna to remain balanced in victory and failure, praise and censure, gain and loss, while dealing with enemies and friends. In spite of what the situation is and who you are dealing with, remaining mentally balanced is absolutely essential. A warrior who is intimidated by the situation and loses his mental balance has no chance of victory, whether he is in a real battlefield or in a corporate one.

For success in any endeavour, we need what Krishna calls vyavasayatmika buddhi, mind that is resolute and one pointed. And that is possible only if our minds are steady and undisturbed by thoughts of success and failure, or any distracting thoughts for that matter, while engaged in doing something. That is why Krishna asks us to remain unaffected by thoughts of victory and failure while engaged in action.

Krishna does not mean pleasure and pain are the same, gain and loss are the same. What he means is none of these should make us lose our balance of mind. We have to remain unperturbed, collected and composed, fully in control, while we are acting if we are to succeed.

Which does not mean we should not celebrate when victory comes. The Mahabharata shows us Krishna celebrating joyously victories, for instance after Karna used on Ghatotkacha his all powerful, never failing shakti called Vaijayanti given to him by Indra. The shakti could be used only once, Karna had been keeping it for use against Arjuna, and Krishna was happy beyond words it had been used against Ghatotkcha and Arjuna was safe from it, which called for celebration.

Krishna makes the importance of remaining balanced and not getting carried by our emotions absolutely clear repeatedly throughout the Gita. In spite of that, unless we have an open mind it is easy to misunderstand him. I remember an occasion when I was explaining to a large group of senior business school students the importance of remaining sama in all circumstances using a verse from the Gita when one of the students objected and asked me rather aggressively how we could deal with enemies and friends the same. She asserted she would never do that, she was going to deal with friends the way friends should be dealt with, and with enemies the way enemies should be dealt with.

Well, the Gita does not ask us to deal with enemies and friends the same. For instance, Krishna certainly does not want Arjuna to treat the warriors on his side and the warriors on the enemy side the same. You should stand with the people on your side and support them; and with those on the enemy side, you should fight. What Krishna says is that you should do this with a balanced mind, with a calm mind, centered and focused, without letting your emotions carry you away, without giving your emotions a free reign to take your decisions for you.

An HR manager, for instance, will have to take tough decisions against a corrupt person, whatever his feelings for him. To fail to do so will be to fail as a responsible manager. A person who is habitually unpunctual, who is lazy, who consistently shirks his responsibilities, will have to be dealt with as he deserves in spite of the fact that he may be your friend or nephew and you love him. But you should do it with a calm mind, and not in anger or vengefulness. That is what samata or samatvam means.

We are familiar with the story of how Krishna killed his cousin Shishupala. Right from the beginning Shishupala was abusive of Krishna and Krishna quietly endured it all, never reacting. He had promised Shishupala’s mother, who was Krishna’s aunt, that he would not do anything against her son until he crossed a hundred occasions of insulting him. There were numerous occasions that called for punitive action by Krishna but it was only when he went beyond all limits during Yudhishthira’s rajasuya sacrifice that Krishna acted against him, reminding him that he has crossed the limit of one hundred instnces. Before doing so, Krishna had warned him again and again. That is samatvam.


In the battlefield of life, we all need control over our mind, control over our emotions, and should be able to resist the tendency of emotions to hijack us. Emotions are like the horses that pull the chariot of our life, and we should keep our mastery over them unless we are to end up in the nearest gutter or in a hospital.

Meditation is a powerful way of developing control over the mind and not letting our emotions hijack us. Practicing mindfulness while engaged in all kinds of activities like having a cup of coffee, taking a walk, trying to solve a tough problem, having a conversation with someone, or, to use some traditional examples, mowing the garden, splitting wood, or pulling up water from a well, helps us develop mastery over the mind. The Shiva Sutras, a book of Kashmir Shaivism frequently considered to be among the most advanced books on meditation and spirituality, asks as to be constantly mindful.

Regular practice of deep breathing can be very helpful. The first thing an emotional hijack affects is our breathing – it becomes rapid and shallow. So if we can keep breathing deeply – breathe abdominally, allowing our abdomen to expand and shrink as we breathe in and out, and not from the chest by holding our stomach tight – it will be of immense help. No emotional hijack is possible so long as our breathing is abdominal.

Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit is an unforgettable reminder to us for what happens when we are emotionally hijacked. He was on a hunting trip chasing a deer, was tired, hungry and drained of all energy. The deer had disappeared and seeing a rishi sitting in meditation nearby, he asks him if he had seen it. Unknown to Parikshit, the rishi, Shamika by name, was observing mauna, a vow of silence, and does not respond to the king’s repeated questions. Losing control over himself, Parikshit does the unthinkable: he picks up a dead snake he finds nearby and drapes it around the rishi’s neck, something no sane man would do, something unimaginable in a Bharata king, unless he had lost all control over his emotions, unless, to use the modern expression, he had been emotionally hijacked. When the rishi’s son Shringi later learns about the incident nd curses Parikshit to die within seven days. And that is how Parikshit loses his life.

One of the most brilliant examples for a woman who amazes us with her self-mastery is Draupadi in the dice hall of Hastinapura during what is perhaps the most shameful incident in all of Indian history. Wagered and lost by her husband in the game he was playing with Duryodhana, this magnificent woman is brought dragged into the dice hall by her hair from the women’s quarters of the palace by Dusshasana. There Karna calls her a prostitute for living with five men. Duryodhana calls her a slave and revealing his naked left thigh asks her to come and sit on it as though she was a common whore, while her husbands remain helpless spectators to the whole monstrous incident. On the orders of Karna, Dusshasana tries to disrobe her in that assembly of men that included her husbands, their cousins, her father-in-law, men like grandsire Bhishma and guru Drona and scores of other kings come to watch the dice game. And all this happens when she was in her monthly period and as custom required in those days was wearing a single piece of cloth that had become bloodstained. In spite of all this, she retains mastery over her emotions and has the presence of mind to ask if she had really become a slave to Duryodhana since her husband had already lost himself when he wagered her.

Not once does she allow her emotions to hijack her throughout the whole incident. When her appeals to the elders in the assembly fail, she prays to Krishna for help and is miraculously saved. Following the miracle and the terrible omens that began appearing everywhere, a terrified Dhritarashtra begs her for forgiveness. He then asks her to ask for boons and she asks for just two boons, first that Yudhishthira be freed from slavery and then that her other husbands who had also become slaves in the dice game be released from slavery and given their weapons and chariots. Asked to ask for still more boons, this woman, dignity personified, says no, saying a kshatrani is entitled to ask for only two boons and she has already asked for them. And then she adds calmly that if her husbands are freed and have their weapons with them, then she does not need anything else, giving us goosebumps as we read of it after five thousand years, making us to want to stand up and clap for her from across five millennia.

Krishna teaches Arjuna throughout the Bhagavad Gita the importance of such self-mastery. He teaches him through the words of his divine song how to develop such self-mastery even in the middle of the most challenging situations. Through Arjuna, he teaches us how to fight the battles of our life without surrendering to feverishness, in full mastery of ourselves, without allowing emotional hijacks to overpower us – so that victory and glory are ours.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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