Living Gita: 32: The Self neither Slays nor is Slain

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Those who have seen the truth know this: the unreal has no existence, and the real can never cease to exist. Understand that that by which all this is pervaded is indestructible; no one can cause the destruction of that imperishable. The wise say that bodies come to an end but the embodied self that is beyond the grasp of the mind is deathless and eternal. Fight therefore, Arjuna, fight! He who thinks of the self as the slayer and he who thinks of it as the slain, neither of them truly understands. For the self neither slays nor is slain. 2.16-19


“Fight, Arjuna, fight!” [yuddhyasva bhaarata] is something we will hear again and again in the Gita from Krishna. Krishna is keen that Arjuna should fight the war for the good of the world; for the sake of dharma now that all efforts for avoiding the war have failed. He had tried with Duryodhana sama [negotiations as equals], dana [give and take], bheda [dividing the enemies] and all of them had failed and now the only path open was that of danda – the path of force, fighting it out. And since the cause is so important – survival of dharma, ending the unethical ways of the rulers of the day and reestablishing righteous ways among them – he is ready even for that.

For Krishna the Mahabharata war was of course so that the Pandavas got their kingdom back from Duryodhana, but that was not just because they were his friends but because they were righteous people. Krishna’s main purpose was establishing dharma in this our land then known as Bharatavarsha – the land that consisted of all of modern India and much more, spreading right from the Himalayas in the north to modern Kanyakumari in the south and from Gandhara [modern Afghanistan] and Bahlika [ancient Bactria] in the west to Brahmadesha, modern Myanmar, in the east.

And for that eliminating Duryodhana was essential. Duryodhana was evil right from the beginning. His basic hunger was for power – and he would go to any length to appease that hunger. He would poison his enemies, set fire to their house, and would do anything else necessary to destroy them. Politicians all over the world today are known for their power hunger – and he was a representative of such people. Perhaps this is the reason why the epic tells us Duryodhana was an incarnation of the Age of Kali. No ethics, no morals, no values stood in his pursuit of power.

Yatha raja tatha pratha, said ancient Indian wisdom: As the king, so the people. Modern leadership studies tell us people model their behaviour after their heroes. The Gita too says: “yad yad aacharati shreshthah, tat tad eva itaro janah. sa yat pramaanam kurute lokah tad anuvartate.” “Whatever a great man does, that is what others do. Whatever he considers as the ideal, the others follow.” So if the king does not walk the path of values, the people will not either. And when neither the king nor the common people follow the path of dharma, the entire country will plunge into abysses of darkness.

Dharma is what makes life worth living, dharma is what sustains life and society, dharma is what helps joyfulness flower in life. So dharma has to be sustained and if for that no other path is available, then the wicked king himself has to be eliminated.

This was Krishna’s mission throughout his life, what he kept doing right from his years. He was only around thirteen when he eliminated his own uncle Kamsa, the wicked king of Mathura who had grabbed power by throwing his own father Ugrasena into the dungeons. If men who should model righteous ways of living themselves tend to follow corrupt ways, common men and women would follow them and dharma will have no place in the world. So dharma had to be protected – dharma which protected people if it was protected, as the epic puts it: dharmo rakshati rakshitah.

In the Mahabharata, as is well known, Yudhishthira represents dharma and Duryodhana adharma. When Duryodhana says he will not give Yudhishthira as much land as the tip of a needle, he was in effect saying dharma will not get so much land in his kingdom as the tip of a needle. That is why it become necessary for Krishna to eliminate him – if a war is the only means through which it can be done, then through it.

In the Gita Krishna makes crystal clear what he is: God himself, incarnated to eliminate adharma and to reestablish dharma. He declares to Arjuna in thrilling words that has kept all of this land spellbound for millennia:

yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya glaanir bhavati bhaarata
abhyutthaanam adharmasya tadaa'tmaanam srijaamyaham
paritraanaaya saadhoonaam vinaashaaya cha dushkritam
dharma samsthaapanaarthaaya sambhavaami yuge yuge
BG 4.7-8

Whenever there is a decline of dharma and rise of dharma,
then I create myself. For the protection of the good,
for the destruction of the evil, and for the establishment
of righteousness, I take birth age after age.

When Krishna says he comes down to the earth, takes an avatara, he does not mean just those few avataras our ancient scriptures mention, like Narasimha, Parasurama, Rama and so on. As Krishna himself tells Uttanka in the Mahabharata, incarnations are endless. In fact whenever someone fights against adharma and tries to establish dharma, the divine is working through him.

Speaking of India’s recent history, there was a time when our land had sunk into pathetic darkness and at that time our society threw up masters like Raja Rammohan Roy. One of the evil social customs of the day was sati in which widows were forced to enter the funeral pyres of their husbands and ‘accompany them into other worlds’. The society in those days did not approve of remarriage, even when young girls were married off before the age of puberty to old dying men and these men died soon after the marriage. The only options available to these teenage widows were either to become ‘satis’ or to live lives of complete self denial as widows the rest of their lives, saying no to all that made life good. Rammohan Roy fought against both of these evil customs.

A little later came Swami Vivekananda who lived and fought to restore the self confidence of our youth at a time when that had taken a plunge into bottomless worlds. Later during our freedom struggle masters like Mahatma Gandhi came up whose successful battle against the empire in which the sun never set not only ended our slavery to the British but also freed every nation on the earth from the colonial yoke. The inspiration of Gandhiji put an end to centuries of atrocities on enslaved populations all over the world by their ruthless colonial masters, whether it was the insane cruelties of the Spanish in Latin America, atrocities by the likes of King Leopold in Belgian Congo and elsewhere in Africa, colonial atrocities of the British and the French throughout the world.

All such leaders have the divine with them when they battle against adharma and try to reestablish dharma. The divine manifests in them.

Modern literature and cinema, today’s mirrors of the society, tell us countless stories of battles against adharma by modern heroes and heroines, both historical and fictional. The Hollywood movie Erin Brockovich brilliantly starred by Julia Roberts tells us the story of the real life Erin Brockovich, ‘an American legal clerk, consumer advocate, and environmental activist, who, despite her lack of education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993” as Wikipedia describes her.

Numberless movies have been made in different Indian language cinemas on the theme of battles against one form of evil or the other. The vigilante movies are a class of movies that tell stories of battles against evil – whether it is evil that is widespread in the medical and pharmaceutical world, the horrid evil of women trafficking, bureaucratic corruption, corruption in the world business and industry, political coruption or any other form of corruption. Na maanushaad param dharmah, said the Mahabharata: there is no dharma higher than maanusha, the good of all. The highest dharma is the good of all and all that is against the common good is adharma. All that benefits a few but harms others is adharma.

Krishna’s message is clear: dharma is what sustains the individual, the society and the world and anything that destroys dharma has to be destroyed. And Krishna assures all: na hi kalyaanakrt kaschid durgatim taata gachchhati, those who do good never come to evil ends. What Krishna is doing here is assuring everyone who fights against adharma that he is with him or her.

Therefore fight fearlessly, says Krishna. Tasmad uttishtha kaunteya yuddhaaya krtanischayah: Therefore, Arjuna, decide to fight and stand up.

Awaken the will to fight. For dharma.

However, Krishna wants us to make sure that we are battling for the common good, dharma. And Krishna wants us to be calm, poised, centered and focused in these battles. He wants us to fight these battles without feverishness and with our mind focused on our ultimate goal: inner purification. Purifying the outer society is also a path to inner purification. It can become our yoga – the yoga of action, karma yoga.

When Krishna asks us to fight our battles for inner purification, he is asking us to become yogis in the battlefield for dharma. And he assures Arjuna, and through Arjuna us, that battling for dharma in the spirit of yoga, you shall not incur sin: naivam paapam avaapsyasi.

Because he wants us to be fearless as we fight these battles. The path of spirituality is the path of fearlessness, of abhayam. Where there is fear, there is no spirituality and where there is spirituality, there is no fear.


Man’s greatest fear is of death. And yet when we look into the Mahabharata War at the opening of which the Gita came into existence, what meets our eyes is a strange sight: The warriors in general show no fear of death. They rush into the battlefield as though intoxicated by death. And when they meet their death, they embrace it as though they are embracing their beloveds in bed.

To the warriors of the epic, battles were peak experiences, accompanied by rapturous ecstasies. They lived for such experiences and when an opportunity arose they accepted the challenge exultantly, entered the battle ecstatically and fought as though in throes of joy. Death was but a small price they paid for such ecstatic experiences. It was something before which they did not flinch, something they even courted as desirable. They considered death in bed surrounded by relatives and friends a matter of shame. Glorious was the death one achieved in the battlefield. To slaughter the enemy ruthlessly in honourable battle was noble indeed in their eyes. And to be pierced by a hundred arrows in every limb, to have one’s head chopped off with a single stroke of the enemy’s sword or a well-shot arrow was equally noble. And equally desirable.

Warriors in the Mahabharata came to the battlefield dressed in their best, as though for a festive occasion. For instance, as they begin their march, the mood in the army of Shalya, one of the first to start their journey to join the war, is one of celebration. They have their weapons with them, of course. But they also wear wonderful clothes and lovely necklaces and other beautiful ornaments. All the other alankaras are on, too. It is indeed a festive occasion!

There is a general air of festivity, of celebration, of sports, even to the fiercest of battles. Bheeshma in the middle of a terrifying battle is several times described as ‘as though playing’ – kreedanniva. Once the Mahabharata says that he looked as though he was dancing in the battlefield – nrittyanniva – and at that time he was engaged in one of the fiercest encounters in the eighteen-day war! And it is not just individual soldiers that dances, but whole armies do so, too: “The two armies, as they advanced to meet each other, seemed to dance,” says the epic.

As we read the epic we realize that death did not matter to them. They embraced it with the same eagerness with which they embraced life. And death too welcomed them with the same warmth and passion as they had found in the arms of life. They had lived as masters of the Earth and in dying, they were only resting on her breast. Describing the death of Shalya, Sanjaya tells the blind king: “Stretching his arms, the ruler of the Madras fell down on the Earth, with face directed towards king Yudhishthira the just, like a tall banner erected to honour Indra falling down on the ground. Like a dear wife advancing to receive her dear lord about to fall on her breast, the Earth then seemed, from affection, to rise a little for receiving that bull among men as he fell down with mangled limbs bathed in blood. The invincible Shalya, having long enjoyed the Earth like a dear wife, now seemed to sleep on her breast, embracing her with all his limbs.”

We often get the feeling that the kings and warriors who came to fight came not caring much for the cause for which they fought. What mattered was the battle itself. They enjoyed a battle and they did not want to be left out. The Mahabharata war was the most glorious event in a long, long time, and they wanted to be part of it and celebrate it. Who would want to miss the greatest mela on earth? Did it really matter on whose side they fought, so long as they fought?

Shalya is Madri’s brother and so he is the uncle of the Pandavas. He is invited by the Pandavas to join their side and fight for them. He begins his journey towards them along with his maharathi sons and a vast army. However, Duryodhana goes forward and meets them on the way, offering his splendid hospitality. Pleased by his hospitality, Shalya decides to join the Kauravas! Which does not make him an enemy of the Pandavas, though. He visits them, too, affectionately and gives them his blessings! Eventually towards the end of the war, after the death of Karna, Shalya becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. He had started out to fight against them!

Relationships did count. But the battle was bigger than all relationships. As the epic says, “There the son recognized not the sire, the sire not the son of his loins, the brother not his brother, the nephew not his uncle, the friend not the friend.” They just fought.

Rukmi, Rukmini’s brother and Krishna’s brother-in-law, first approached the Pandavas – Krishna was there and so charged up was Rukmi that he was willing to forget the old enmity between them and begin with him on a new footing, while also finding glory in the battle. He had come with a full akshauhini just as Shalya had. But he committed the faux pas of telling Arjuna, in the presence of his brothers, Krishna and other kings, that if he, Arjuna, was afraid, he was there to help him in the war. Smiling, Arjuna replied that he was born in the line of the Kurus, was the son of Pandu, was a disciple of Drona, had Krishna as his helper and had the Gandiva in his hand – how could he then say he was afraid? He told Rukmi he was free to stay or go, as he pleased. An insulted Rukmi departed with his akshauhini and approached Duryodhana and repeated his words there. Duryodhana did not consider himself any more scared than Arjuna was, of course! And Rukmi returned to his kingdom. The Mahabharata specially mentions that Rukmi and Balarama were the only two great warriors to keep away from the war.

Truly, what counted was that you fought – not for whom or for what cause you fought in the sacrifice called war – the rana-yajna. Many who fought on the Kaurava side were very close to the Pandavas and some who fought for the Pandavas, close to the Kauravas.

Of course, how you fought counted. How valiantly you fought, how fearlessly you fought, how skillfully you fought, how heroically you fought, how recklessly you fought – these counted. You had to laugh at death. See beauty in flowing red blood. See beauty in the writhing of severed arms. See beauty in the tumbling down of brave heads. The most savage battle should delight you, should enthrall you. Then you are a true Kshatriya, true blue blood.

Why is this so? The mystery is solved when we her Krishna’s words in the Gita: “The unreal has no real existence. And the real never ceases to really exist. No one can cause the destruction of the imperishable. Only the bodies that are the temporary homes of the deathless die. Ya enam vetti hantaaram, yashchainam manyate hatam, ubhau tau na vijaaneeto, naayam hanti na hanyate: He who understands this [the indwelling spirit] to be the slayer and he who sees this as the slain, neither of them knows right. For what lives in the body neither kills nor is killed.”

The secret of the festivity and the celebration of the warriors of the Mahabharata is that they knew they are immortal, deathless, death is just another passage, as the passage from childhood to youth and youth to old age.

Everything Krishna teaches in the Gita is not knew, much of it was common knowledge in his days. For we are talking of India, of the land of the Upanishads – and the Upanishads had declared thousands of years before Krishna that man is deathless. One of the groups of mantras that took me to the gurukula in my youth to live there as an inmate for several years and study sitting at the feet of my gurus is from the Taittiriya Upanishad. The mantras say: bheeshaasmaad vaatah pavate, bheeshodeti sooryah; bheeshaasmaad agnishchendrash cha, mrtyur dhaavati panchama it. What these mantras say is that we are that out of fear for which the wind blows, out of fear of which the sun rises every day, out of fear for which the fire burns and Indra performs his duties, out of fear for which death stalks the world!

The Upanishad is talking about what I truly am. I am that out of fear for which death stalks the world! How can I then be afraid of death? That was the attitude of the Mahabharata warrior towards death.

Man who covers under the fear of death is very different from man unafraid of death. And Krishna wants to take his friend Arjuna into those worlds where the fear of death does not exist. And through the bahaana of Arjuna, Krishna wants to take each and every one of us into those worlds where we do not fear death and if anything, death fears us.


What Arjuna has to do in the war is to slaughter his enemies who are fighting for adharma in the battlefield and that is what Krishna is asking Arjuna to do. He is not asking his friend to mindlessly kill innocent people, as a terrorist does. The Mahabharata war is a declared war between two armies, fought based on conditions both parties agreed to, for a cause for which no other option was available. Just as for us today the military option is the last option, for the Pandavas too the war had become the last option. But in spite of that, the highly sensitive Arjuna still cannot make up his mind to do that because among the people to be killed in battle are his grandfather and his guru and many other dear and near ones. So Krishna tells him some high truths, some ultimate truths, truths that are very difficult to accept, truths we would like to ignore, close our eyes to in the belief that if we close our eyes to them, those truths will cease to exist, cease to be true. But are true all the same: they have been ‘seen’ by tens of thousands of yogis. Krishna tells Arjuna those who have seen the truth know this: the unreal has no existence, and the real can never cease to exist. The body is perishable and the spirit cannot be touched by time, cannot be touched by death. We are imperishable souls living in perishable bodies. And that soul neither slays nor can be slain.

The soul does not say because it neither does anything nor causes others to do anything: naiva kurvan na kaarayan – neither doing anything nor causing anything being done. It is akarta, abhokta. In the language of India’s highest wisdom, it is the non-doer behind all doings, the non-actor behind all actions, and the non-enjoyer behind all enjoying. Even the shadow of death cannot fall on it.  So, Krishna wants Arjuna to go ahead and play role in this grand cosmic drama that is being unfolded before his eyes, whether he likes it or not. From the standpoint of the cosmic drama, from the stand point of samashti karma, from the standpoint of God, from the standpoint of Krishna, the people standing in the battlefield are already dead: mayaivete nihataa poorvam ava [Gita 11.33]. All Arjuna has to do is to become an instrument in the hands of that cosmic power: nimittamatram bhava savyasachin.

Here are the powerful words of Krishna, the knower of past, present and future, the knower of everything, the cause behind all that happens, from whom arises the universe, in whom exists the universe, and unto whom the universe will go back at the time of dissolution, declaring that cosmic truth: “Verily by me have they already been slain; you be a mere instrument, Arjuna! Do slay Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Karna and other great warriors who have already been slain by Me and gain glory!”


Sometimes we have to accept the inevitable and do what we have no choice but to do. In such cases the best we can do is to do what Existence wants us to do and offer our work at the feet of the Divinity accepting the results as his grace, his prasada.

This is equally true about our personal life as a member of our family or the community and about our professional life in the business or corporate world.

But we must make sure that we are not putting the blame for doing what we want to do, what our egos want us to do, on powers beyond us.

That is why Krishna concluded his teachings of the Gita by saying this knowledge is rajavidya and rajaguhyam, the highest knowledge and the highest secret and should never be given to those who have not performed austerities, those who have no devotion in the Supreme, those who are willing to sit at the feet of the guru and serve him, and those who are closed to higher truths and consider the life of the word as the beginning and the end of everything.

idam te na atapaskaaya na abhaktaaya kadaachana
na cha ashushrooshave vaachyam na cha maam yo'bhyasooyati.
BG 18.67

The wisdom that Krishna teaches Arjuna through the Gita is no ordinary knowledge and should be given only to those who are ready for it.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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Views: 3464      Comments: 2

Comment Thank you, Raja Ram Thakur ji! I appreciate your taking out the time to write those words. You are very kind!

Satya Chaitanya
14-Sep-2020 10:31 AM

Comment Sir, you write on the theme that touch upon human values. We learn how to carry ourselves in this battle field, fearless and with total submission to the will of God.

Raja Ram Thakur
13-Sep-2020 05:47 AM

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