I’ve written often about the Bhagavad Gita and as perplexing as the explicit philosophical content of the work can be, Krishna’s more emotional admonition and disapprobation of Arjuna in the opening verses still gives me plenty to think about. I’m currently teaching the Gita in our on-line course but, truth to tell, I have taught this work at least once a year for the past twenty-five. In a three-hour lecture I’ve been known not to get much past chapter two. I won’t here either. Apologies for that in advance yo.
If you’re not familiar, the story goes something like this: the great warrior Arjuna orders his charioteer Krishna to place them between the two opposing armies. Krishna is many things to Arjuna: he is his bard and confidante as subordinate charioteer (the word suta means both in Sanskrit), he is his best friend, his brother-in-law and so the beloved uncle protector of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. (Arjuna is married to Krishna’s baby sister. Wow, is that another story.) Eventually, Arjuna asks Krishna to be his teacher. They have an intimacy in conversation that reveals how friends can act with one another: with deep concern, stark candor in private, and a willingness to speak and to be heard.
Arjuna begins confident of his actions asking to see the ones he is about to engage in battle. But that confrontation creates something unexpected for Arjuna and for us, since we have rarely witnessed either hesitation or disobedience in Arjuna’s character. Arjuna received the charge to lead the battle and accepted it. He had his chance earlier at the ritual call to the yoke to make a different choice and to go home instead of lead and fight. Arjuna is decisive by temperament, he is more than an attentive and focused student, he is accomplished in his efforts, and vain in ways that both serve and occlude his self-awareness.
His hesitation is grounded in conscience; his argument advances then to suggest that Krishna, like any reasonable person, would agree with him. (“…how can we fail to know enough to turn away from such a crime?... (1.39). Don’t we all do this? Believe that when we’re sure we’re right, everyone we love and respect must see things the same way? Arjuna is making a good case, a serious one, fully cognizant of the abomination that is war, for the degradation of society that follows from the compromise of one’s values when the world presents choices that are as confounding as they are inevitable. We all must act from the heart, from conscience drawn to the deepest sense of self (and this is much of what Krishna will teach him as the Gita unfolds) but we act because we must. There is no recourse to retire or renounce if we answer the call to the yoke in this world.
This moment of arresting contemplation, this outpouring of feeling and reasoning, all of these teachings are within this pause and that too is an action with consequences for the moment and the future. What Arjuna chooses matters: it will shape the course of history. What Krishna enjoins upon him is that he must listen to more than himself. Krishna means to influence, to use the powers of persuasion with all his powers of connection to mind and heart because this is what friends do and, if you take the sublime message of the Gita to heart, then this is what the divine does when appearing human. Krishna is not afraid to insult his friend or lay claim upon his identity. Krishna has a bias and expresses it plainly, adamantly, without any constraint upon his honest understanding. Near the conclusion of the Gita Krishna also makes clear that Arjuna’s choice is his own even when karma’s inevitabilities are brought into the equation. Fate, which is karma-past, and destiny, which is karma-future, is not solely determinative of our choices. “Reflect upon this knowledge I have offered for your consideration…this mystery of mysteries, in its entirety and then do as you are pleased to do.” (18.63) We are free beings, Krishna tells us, no matter how we are shaped by society, by the forces of Nature, or by the processes of karma in the cycles of samsara.
Krishna’s reply to Arjuna’s call for withdrawal from the battle is equally famous for its stance on compassion for the family members whose actions are being held to accounts. He replies, “You sorrow for those who warrant no such sorrow, and yet you speak to sage issues.” Krishna affirms Arjuna’s considerations, grouping him with the sage’s concerns, and as the text unfolds places these considerations in light of his teaching about the immortal soul, the powers of karma, and the rest. But the tone of Krishna’s admonition has relentless momentum even as he speaks to sage issues and it’s that tone, that understanding of compassion that I focus on here.
In a word, it’s worth considering that Krishna doesn’t merely argue his friend’s views are specious reasoning. He makes a deeper implication: that formulating our best understandings without being open to persuasion, even when that process is unappealing or results in disagreement, leaves one far too right and too little attentive to the perils of listening only to one’s own voice. Of course, Krishna is telling Arjuna what to do because Arjuna has asked for his counsel: “Pray tell me for sure, please guide me, your student who seeks your help…” (2.7) And he is telling him to make up his own mind. But more than anything, I think, he is telling him not to do anything in isolation, alone, by only going inside for the answer. He wants Arjuna to be in conversation, not only following his innermost self when such a strategy for counsel and understanding would leave him separate from a larger conversation. Such a self-inquiry, one that reaches to the heart of self, discovers others are there with you, at the core, in conversation. In short, we are never really the sole proprietors of our truths. Our understandings of truth require each other in some more complex arrangement of connection to what we all share in embodied experiences. This is a messy business, this being human, perhaps constantly discomforting and often confusing. Welcoming our selves to the process of yoking, to yoga, means that values and principles are brought into this often-conflicted realm of choices. Don’t give up; don’t think you can just walk away. That’s the yoga that accepts the gift of our common human endeavor.
Krishna never doubts that Arjuna is being authentic and sincere. But he will not allow him to decouple words and actions because the first dynamic of authenticity is this: Is what we say, what we do? Then we must listen further because there is invariably another voice and we need to learn how to value counsel. There’s no doubt that we value some counsel more. Not to value or devalue the persons who offer it but rather to know that arguments of mind and heart yoke us rather than bind us. We are free to create those options and grateful for friends who are willing to challenge us to rise to the occasion of our hard-won evaluations. That’s how it goes in life. To say there is no judgment is to make a judgment. There are consequences to our choices, this is a point to which Krishna returns relentlessly. Then we will find ourselves in this place where we are lucky to have such friends who will confront us. And we will also become a reflection of the company we mean to keep because that is our tacit message to the world: this is where I am. Arjuna is not alone here because we are never alone in the implications of our choices. When we are truly alone that may be the very definition of human delusion.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Krishna’s use of the word “kripa” in these passages, a word that suggests feelings of compassion, pity, and empathy for the pain or experience of another. In these passages are unfinished contemplations on the meaning of compassion and its expression as an empowerment of life’s choices and our decision-making process. I say these contemplations are unfinished because I think they mean to be. I think we’re not supposed to be clear. We’re supposed to go deeper and choose on the basis of what we know and feel. We’re required to do everything we can to understand as much as possible, then choose, then act.
Krishna’s forgiveness of those who have caused this debacle isn’t being withheld but rather expressed as an unwillingness to enable or support their actions: these antagonists, their Kaurava cousins, are willing to bring ruin upon far more than themselves and have refused further conversation. What makes for villains in this story isn’t only their absence of honesty though their credibility is more than suspect; it’s their pathology, a complicity in destruction that will allow the world burn so that they might assert the prerogative of their sole executive power to choose the fate of others. And Krishna’s compassion is not, I think, only unconditional. The realities we need experience as unconditional and conditional are different from one another, but they are also inseparable. Krishna will not decouple the concerns he has for immortal truths from his insistence that all experiences of real value take the form of powers we express in the world. If we are, as it were, quick to forgive, we may forget that forgiveness is meant to be healing rather than merely comforting to the both parties. Put another way, compassion becomes healing when it does the uncomfortable work of serious reflection and prompts that process in others as well. Healing is often, perhaps even most of the time, a discomforting business and it is to this process he calls his friend Arjuna. We, of course, are every character in this story, not just the ones we prefer.