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Arjuna said: How can I engage in battle with Bhishma and Drona shooting arrows at them, Krishna? They are worthy of my worship! It is better to live in this world living on alms than to slay these revered elders. The pleasures I shall have after slaying them would be stained with their blood! I hardly know what’s better – whether to conquer them or to be conquered by them. Those who are standing before us are the Dhartarashtras, after killing whom we do not even wish to live.
I am completely confused about what is right and what is wrong. My mind is overpowered by weakness. Tell me Krishna what is good for me! I am your disciple. I take refuge in you. Teach me, please!
I don’t see that the grief that is burning up my senses would be quenched even if I obtain the unrivalled kingdom – or lordship over the gods themselves. BG 2.4-8
Krishna’s attack on Arjuna in the previous two verses was truly hurting. His words fell on his friend with the force of merciless whiplashes. He calls Arjuna’s behaviour unbecoming of noble men, cowardliness, contemptible weakness of the heart and so on. Krishna also speaks of the ill fame that will come to Arjuna through his behaviour. For a warrior of the Mahabharata world, fame was of extreme importance and ill fame a great horror. Later, as his teachings begin, Krishna would again speak of censure of people if Arjuna did not fight. He rhetorically ask Arjuna what could be sadder than that.
Another thing warriors looked forward to was veera-swarga, the heaven of the heroes – and Krishna tells Arjuna that his behaviour would deny him that too. Kshatriyas in those days rushed into the battlefield with the same enthusiasm with which they would go to their new brides. To them, death was a glorious bride waiting for them with open arms. The Mahabharata repeatedly describes warriors entering deep states of ecstasy in the throes of death, for they knew they were going to heaven. And to be denied heaven was indeed the ultimate tragedy. That is how Ashwatthama is cursed by Krishna – he was cursed to wander the earth, denied of heaven, denied further gati, onward journey, his body full of sores and diseases, for thousands of years.
We can practically see Arjuna squirming under Krishna’s lash. We can see his flesh burning, his heart bleeding and his soul scorching under Krishna’s attack.
What we hear when Arjuna responds to Krishna is not the voice of a fearless hero, but the pathetic voice of a man who finds no way out of the sad situation he is in. He cannot fight the battle, and at the same time, he cannot give it up. Duryodhana has been making the brothers and their mother run for their very life for years, hiding in jungles among ferocious animals and rakshasas, subsisting on what the forest could provide. And what was done to Draupadi is unforgivable – no man who does not wreck vengeance for what was done to her in the dice hall has a right to call himself her husband, or even a man! Nothing like what was done to her there has ever been done to a queen – or even to a common woman – in the entire past of India. Perhaps Krishna had this in mind when he called Arjuna a eunuch for wanting to run away from the battle. Had what was done to Draupadi been done to one of Krishna’s wives, say to Rukmini, Krishna would never have tolerated it, conditions of the dice game or not.
Let’s have a look at Krishna’s words to the Pandavas and to Draupadi when he meets them in the forest soon after the disgraceful dice game. Krishna tells them that he was not in Dwaraka when the dice game took place and therefore he did not know about it. Had he known of it in advance, the evil that befell the Pandavas would not have happened. He wouldn’t have allowed the game to take place at all. He would have come to Hastinapura even if he was not invited, he says, and pleaded with Dhritarashtra not to permit the game, explaining to him the many evils of dice. He would have taken the help of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Bahlika and stopped it. And if he did not listen to him, if Duryodhana did not listen to him, says Krishna, he would have compelled him by force. And Krishna does not stop there. He says if the so called friends of Duryodhana had supported him, then he would have slain the entire lot of the gamblers en masse!
The avatara has no softness for adharma. The very purpose of the incarnation is to end adharma and he would stop at nothing in destroying adharma. Krishna is very clear that the dice match was evil and if gentle ways did not work, if persuasion did not work, he would not have hesitated to kill Duryodhana and every single one of his supporters!
That is Krishna!
And he is speaking of the adharma done to Yudhishthira and his brothers by deceitfully snatching away their kingdom and all their wealth and enslaving them. And he is speaking of the still greater evil of what was done to Draupadi at the end of the game - bringing her into the royal assembly full of relatives and guests dragged by her hair from the inner apartments of the palace where she was in seclusion wearing a single piece of cloth as custom required of a woman in those days during her monthly period.
Krishna would not tolerate injustice to anyone. Still less would he tolerate injustice done to a woman. And that too to Draupadi – the only woman in the entire Mahabharata world who had the right to call him her friend, her sakha.
Some Mahabharata traditions speak of Draupadi as Krishna’s twin soul, born for the same purpose for which Krishna took incarnation. Some Mahabharata traditions speak of th entire Kurukshetra war being fought just by two people – Krishna and Draupadi. In the Rajasthani tradition of Khatu Shyam alias Barbarika, this son of Ghatotkacha witnesses from atop a hillock the entire Mahabharata war and later reports that he saw only one thing: Krishna’s Sudarshana slaughtering all the warriors in the battlefield and Draupadi turning herself into Kali and drinking up all the blood. Such was Krishna’s relationship with Draupadi.
Slaughtering the Kauravas would have given Krishna only pleasure.
It was a man’s duty in the Mahabharata society to avenge insult and humiliation to his wife, just as it is expected of any man of honour anywhere in the world even today. It was Arjuna’s duty to win back his lost kingdom to establish the rule of righteousness there, the philosophy of power for the good of the people there, to end the philosophy of power as an end in itself. It was also equally his duty to avenge his wife’s unparalleled humiliation in the royal assembly not only before her husbands and their cousins and in-laws, but also kings invited from all parts of the land. It is from that responsibility that Arjuna is running away calling the Kauravas his own people, killing whom he does not want to live. What else could Krishna have called him but a eunuch, the worst word for a man who fails in his manly duties in that society?
Krishna chooses his words so that Arjuna really smarts under his attack.
Krishna wants Arjuna to enter the dark night of the soul.
The dark night of the soul is usually understood as the darkness before spiritual awakening. Many religious traditions speak of it. In the Ishavasya Upanishad we hear the rishi crying out in agony:
The face of the truth is covered by a golden disk.
O Pushan, God of Light, do you remove that,
so that I may see the face of Truth and Dharma!
But a dark night can also be the beginning of a journey. Many are the souls who have taken the first step into the world of spirituality following such darkness. And that is why Krishna is pushing his friend, his companion across lifetimes, into utter darkness so that seeing no other way out, he would surrender to Krishna.
That surrender, as we saw earlier, is an absolute necessity for the spiritual journey. Spiritual traditions across the world insist that that surrender has to be total and complete. In spirituality there is no half you and half God. It is all God.
There is a beautiful story told about what happened when Dusshasana tried to disrobe Draupadi in the dice hall of Hastinapura. The story says that Draupadi for a long time kept calling out to Krishna to save her honour, all the while trying to save what was left of her honour by holding on to the single piece of cloth that covered her, clutching it to her chest with one hand while raising the other hand up and begging Krishna to help her. But so long as she did that, says the story, no help came from Krishna. Eventually in utter despair, she abandoned all attempts to save her honour by herself and leaving her cloth and raising both her arms up calls for Krishna’s help. It is only then help came from Krishna.
There is nothing called half surrender. You either surrender or you don’t surrender.
In spirituality holding yourself back from surrendering, remaining responsible to yourself rather than giving yourself over to your guru is like a man travelling by train, his suitcase still on his dead. It does not serve any purpose. It is just a burden on himself. In fact, it is worse than that. It is like being in a boat that is moored to a tree on the bank and rowing it with the hope of reaching your destination.
In our previous essay we say how Mojud completely surrenders to Khidr. When he is asked to leave his job and meet Khidr near the river after three days, Mojoud does not ask any questions, he just does what Khidr asks him to do. There, near the river Khidr asks him to jump into the river and Mojud obeys him instantly without asking a single question even though he did not know swimming. Every time Khidr asks him to do something, Mojud just does that, no matter how strange his order is.
When Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen, came to his master Hung Jun, the young man was sent into the monastery kitchen to pound paddy – hence his later name as Paddy Pounder. Hui Neng obeys his master totally though he gets no chance to study like the other four hundred and ninety-nine other disciples. That total obedience opens the door for him and eventually when time came to select his successor, it was Hui Neng whom Hung Jun selected. Though he hadn’t studied anything, he was the master’s greatest disciple.
When Satyakama Jabali came to his master as a young student, the master sends him into the forest with his cows and Satyakama obeys the master’s command without questioning. His surrender to the master, opens the gates for him and eventually it is Jabali that becomes the greatest of all his master’s students. He becomes greater than his master, a great rishi in his own right whose suktas are part of the Rig Veda.
Surrender makes the impossible possible. We are all familiar with the story of Ekalavya’s surrender to his master Drona which makes him such a brilliant archer even without the teacher’s training that he becomes a threat to Arjuna’s position as the master’s greatest disciple.
A story about Bhagavan Shankaracharya’s disciple Padmapada tells us that when the master called him from the other bank of the river he just got up and walked across the river and wherever he placed his foot on water, a lotus came up to support it – hence the name Padmapada, Lotus Feet.
It is this total surrender that you find in the cowherd women of Vrindavana. In the final teaching fo the Gita, Krishna asks us to abandon everything else and to take refuge in him: sarva-dharmaan parityajya maam ekam sharanam vraja. The gopis of Vrindavana are the best examples for this surrender. As Krishna plays on his flute on the bank of the Yamuna on the night of Sharat Poornima, the gopis leave everything and run to him. The Bhagavata talks of how some of them were serving meals to their husbands, some others feeding their babies, some taking their back or cooking a meal, some dressing after their bath, some boiling milk in the kitchen – but all of them leave everything the very instant they hear the music of Krishna and rush to him as they are. Their husbands raise their eyebrows puzzled – they do not understand the women’s behaviour nor do they hear Krishna’s music. They hadn’t surrendered to Krishna as the women had done.
There are certain things that could be experience only through surrender.
There is a Sufi story about a deaf man watching people dancing ecstatically in the town square. He sees them gyrating their bodies, twisting and turning around, cavorting and jumping up into the air and doing all kinds of things with great joy in their eyes, but he does not understand why. And then one day he starts hearing and hears for the first time the music that was sending the people in to the ecstatic dance and he understands.
Surrender helps us hear the divine music. It removes what is discordant in us, removes all our sharp edges and makes our flow with the current easy – we become like the smooth stone in the bed of the Ganga in the plains, each of which was once a hard, shapeless stone up on the mountains.
The Padma Purana tells us a precious story about Arjuna and Krishna. The Purana says that once Arjuna and Krishna were sitting on the banks of the Yamuna when Arjuna asks him a series of questions about Krishna’s raasa with the gopikas – the cowherd women of Vrindavana. Arjuna wants to know who they really are, the nature of their sports with Krishna, where exactly they sport with Krishna and so on. The questions are ultimately about what Krishna really is and what the true nature of the raasa is.
There are two different types of questions that people generally ask their gurus – questions are crystal clear and questions that are vague, confused, messy, not clearly expressed, questions that speak about something when what the questioner wants to know is something else. Clear questions are asked by questioners who are not sincere, questioners who want to test their masters, questions to which they usually know the answer, questions that are merely cerebral and not existential. To such questioners the questioning is no more than an intellectual game. The other questions, the ones that are messy and confused are usually questions and convey the chaos in the mind of the questioner. They are frequently not just an intellectual game with the teacher, but questions that are vital for the questioner. They are not really seeking answers to their questions – they are seeking inner clarity.
Arjuna’s question here is of the second kind. What he wants to know is the true nature of Krishna, the true nature of union with Krishna, the true nature of the highest spiritual experience. He wants to know what sayujya with Krishna means, what the union of the individual soul with the cosmic soul feels like, what it means to lose your identity completely and merge with Krishna – a merger that yoga calls Samadhi, Zen calls satori and kensho, the Buddha called nirvana.
And as with any wise master, Krishna’s answer is not to the questions Arjuna asks, but to the unasked question behind his words. Krishna tells him that the only way to understand what he wants to know is to become a woman. To know him as he truly is, Krishna says, he has to become a woman. No man can understand him, says Krishna, only women can. The Krishna experience is not for men, but only for women. In Krishna’s own words from the Padma Purana:
tat sthaanam vallabhaas ta me vihaaras taadrsho mama
api praanasamaanaanaam satyam pumsaam agocarah [Pad. Pu. 5.70.7]
“That dimension of mine, those darlings and those revelries of mine are truly beyond the perceptions of men, even if they are as dear to me as my life breath.”
Arjuna is as dear to Krishna as his life breath. But still he is not capable of understanding the secret of Krishna’s raasa with the gopikas. Only a woman can understand that.
In the language of spirituality, the masculine is the symbol of rigidity, inflexibility, the need to conquer and dominate others, the need to control others, the need to be in control of oneself, not yielding, not letting go. Whereas the feminine is the symbol of flexibility, receptiveness, emptiness, openness, acceptance, yielding, surrending, flowing with the current and so on. The masculine in the language of spirituality is the symbol of ego-assertiveness and the feminine the willingness to surrender the ego.
When Krishna says you have to be a woman, what Krishna means is that you should be willing to surrender your ego before him, you should be open to him, receptive to him, ready to float with him. And that is a difficult task for Arjuna, particularly because he is Krishna’s friend and his brother-in-law and both of them are the same age. They used to have fun together, play together, and now suddenly surrendering to him is not easy. Surrender to someone like Krishna? Well, that is tough for him – surrendering to someone like Vyasa or Bhishma or one of the rishis would have been easy. So Krishna asks him to go to the Himalayas and worship Goddess Lalita Tripurasundari there, and with her blessings get himself transferred to a woman. And that is precisely what Arjuna does, as narrated in detail in my article Arjuna Becomes a Woman: A Transgender Tale from Padma Purana.
With the blessings of the tantric goddess, Arjuna has a gender transformation in the truest sense, a spiritual gender transformation, which is what Krishna wants, though the Purana tells us the story as though it is of a physical gender transformation, because it does not make much difference whether you are physically a male or a female, what matters is your spiritual gender.
Arjuna comes back to Krishna as Arjuni – a beautiful woman and it is as a woman that he experiences Krishna in his true nature – as the self of the universe, as the unborn and undying, as the bliss that passes understanding, as ananda-ghana, ananda solidified, as prajnana-ghana, consciousness solidified, as sat-chid-ananda, existence- consciousness-bliss. He experiences the bliss that even great ascetics do not experiences and is easily available to every gopi in Vrindavana.
India recognized a long ago that in KIrishna’s world, in the spiritual world, there can be no men, only women can be. Men in spirituality stand for beings with ego and will, and women stand for surrender and openness. It is in that surrender and openness that the highest flowers.
Spirituality cannot be conquered, you have to surrender to it. Spirituality is like the bride in the swayamvara – you cannot choose her, she has to choose you. If you carry her against her wishes, tragedy follows, as it followed Bhishma when he carried away the three Kashi princesses from their swayamvara hall. India tells the stories of hundreds of asuras and rakshasas who tried to take the spiritual world by storm, every single one of them ending in tragedy. Bhasmasura and Ravana are perhaps the best examples for this.
The power you need, the strength you need, the courage you need in spirituality is a different kind of power: the strength to let go of yourself, the power to surrender, to courage to sacrifice your ego. Spirituality is not for teak woods that stand against the wind resisting it, but for the bamboos that yield to the wind and dance with it.
India developed a spiritual path known as the sakhi smapradaya – the sakhi tradition, in which men lived as women, as Krishna’s women friends. They dressed like women, moved like women, spoke like women, and lived the life of women in all respects in their male bodies. Sri Ramakrishna, the great master from Kolkata, one of the greatest saints India has known in centuries, lived for a while practicing sakhi sampradaya and it yielded him powerful experiences.
Ahankara, the ego, is the greatest enemy of spirituality. It is in fact the only enemy. When ahankara – the notional ‘I” – disappears, what is left is the real I, our real self, sat-chid-ananda. Once surrender takes place, there will be no Arjuna and Krishna as separate individuals, the two will be one, whether you call him by the name Arjuna or Krishna. After the river surrenders to the ocean, it is no more separate from the ocean, but is the ocean itself.
But all this happens only if you surrender to the divine, to the high, and that is exactly what Arjuna does here when he says shishyaste’ham, I am your disciple. Whether Arjuna knows it at this stage or not, accepting Krishna as his guru, surrendering to him, is the greatest incident in Arjuna’s life.
The seventh verse of the second chapter of the Gita is momentous in its implications. The Gita truly begins with it.
Just one more thing. It is not only in spirituality that surrender is important. In today’s world we are ashamed of the word surrender, we cannot surrender to anyone. But without the attitude of shraddha towards one’s teacher; which is what makes surrender possible in an educational institute; personal transformations are not possible – and the purpose of education is not just acquiring knowledge but this transformation. In the ancient Indian tradition we called an educated man dwija – meaning twice born, or born again. It is shraddha that makes this birth possible.
Even in the corporate world, in the mentor-mentee relationship, one needs to have shraddha in the mentor for true transformation to take place.
With shraddha magic happens.
That is why India said shraddhavaan labhate jnaanam – the one with shraddha gets jnana. Jnana is not just knowledge but awakening, transformation, a new birth.
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