The Need for a Kshatriya Mindset

The Mahabharata War 

But then something happens—the revelation of the Bhagavad Gita—that turns this sweet friendship into something different and deeper, something extraordinary, a communion between the Divine and the human that is every bit as intimate and loving as the exchanges between Sri Krishna and the gopis, just expressed and manifested in a very different way. 

Imagine you are Arjuna.  The battle, the great war, for which you have been preparing your entire life, which you dreamt of all those cold nights sleeping on the forest floor while in exile, for which you went to Swarga itself to retrieve the necessary weapons, is about to commence.  The armies are arrayed against each other in intricate arrangement.

The air is rent by the sound of the holiest and most powerful of conches being sounded in unison with bugles, trumpets, kettle drums and cow horns.  Then, for a few moments, everything is still and silent, before the tempest of the bloodbath begins.  You are on the chariot, and your mouth turns dry.  It is not fear of war, for you have fought so many times, against even more powerful foes.  But this is something different, something truly terrible and awesome.  Your eyes fall upon Sri Krishna, your dearest friend, your charioteer, the one who never fails to bring you comfort and succor.  All of the millions of pairs of eyes of the humans and beasts assembled on this great field are turned towards you.  You look at Sri Krishna, and ask Him to bring you to the middle of the battlefield, between the front lines of the two armies so that you may look upon those whom you are about to fight.

He does so, and in the opposing army, you see your uncles, your cousins, those you grew up with, those you have loved, and so many strangers whom you have never met before.  You know so many of them will die at your hand.  And suddenly, for the first time in your life, your courage deserts you, you lose your nerve.  You begin trembling in despair and a sudden fear that you have never known.  You turn to Krishna, and you begin to lament as you would to a friend, a confidante.

You say that you do not want any of this, you cannot bear to kill these people, that nothing good can come of it for anyone.  You say, O Janardana, although these men, their hearts overtaken by greed, see no fault in killing one's family or quarreling with friends, why should we, who can see the crime in destroying a family, engage in these acts of sin?  Better for me if they, weapons in hand, were to kill me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield.  You go on like this for a while before finally casting aside your bow and arrows and collapsing on the chariot, overwhelmed by grief.

Sri Krishna looks upon you with such soft eyes, such compassion, and you wait for the balm of His comfort and consolation.  So it is all the more a shock, a bucket of cold water poured over you, when He speaks such hard words, berating you as a coward, as unmanly.  His words pierce you like arrows.  He says, “Yield not to unmanliness, Arjuna; this does not befit you.  Shaking off this weakness of the heart, arise, O scorcher of enemies.”

You begin to ask questions.  He answers rapid-fire and expounds the most beautiful, the most sublime philosophy, beyond anything you had ever conceived.  When philosophy no longer works, He shows you His universal form and you are awed and struck speechless.  You cannot bear the sight for too long; this form that is majestic and terrible, beautiful and horrifying all at the same time.  You beg Him to come back to the form in which you have always known Him and He does so.  Sometimes He is gentle with you, and sometimes He castigates you like a father would a misbehaving son.

It is not a smooth exchange.  You have so many questions, so many doubts, and His words are like quicksilver, hard to catch, even harder to hold onto.  Like this it goes on for what seems to you to be an endless stretch of time, but in reality, it lasts for less than a few hours.  Finally, He says to you, “Thus, has this wisdom, more profound than all profundities, been imparted to you by Me; deeply pondering over it, now do as you like.”  (BG 18:63)

You look upon Him, at He who was once your charioteer, your friend, but who is now something more.  He is your master, your Lord, and you His devotee.  This moment, too, this feeling may not last, but it is here now.  You say something that will become one of the most famous lines of the Gita itself, that will be repeated with reverence by millions of people aspiring towards the same devotion and surrender you feel at this moment.  You say, “Naṣṭo mohaḥ smṛtir labdhā; tvat-prasādān mayācyuta; sthito 'smi gata-sandehaḥ kariṣye vacanaḿ tava” (Sri Krishna, by Your grace, my delusion has been destroyed and I have gained wisdom.  I am free of all doubt.  I shall do as you have instructed.) (BG 18: 73)

This feeling that Arjuna experiences at this moment does not last very long.  After the war has ended, he confesses to Sri Krishna that he has forgotten what He taught him when He espoused the Gita to him.  Sri Krishna sternly tells him that the Gita was spoken from a very high state of absorption and that it would be impossible for Him to repeat the Gita again.  But, out of compassion, He proceeds to give him a summary of what He had said in the Bhagavad Gita.  This is the famous Anu Gita.  The lesson here is that even though Arjuna lapses again and again, it does not matter—you do not have to be perfect in order to have a moment of perfection.  Increasing the frequency of such perfect moments is the work of sadhana or spiritual practice. 

What this dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna, this discourse, has given birth to will become the most renowned philosophical tract and spiritual discourse in the world – the Bhagavad Gita.  More specifically, what transpires is so sublime, so powerful and inspiring, that it causes Sanjaya, the other most famous charioteer of the Mahabharata, to utter the famous concluding verse of the Bhagavad Gita:

“Yatra yogeśvaraḥ kṛṣṇo yatra pārtho dhanur-dharaḥ
tatra śrīr vijayo bhūtir dhruvā nītir matir mama”

(Wherever there is Bhagavan Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, and wherever there is Arjuna, the wielder of the Gandiva bow, goodness, victory, glory and unfailing righteousness will surely be there: such is my conviction.) (Bhagavad Gita (“BG”) 18:78)

Dharma for This Age

As discussed earlier, Sri Krishna violated (and instructed others to violate) many of the norms of warfare in order to win the war.  Nowadays, a number of modernists largely brainwashed by Abrahamic categorical concepts of right and wrong are uncomfortable with the Krishna of the Mahabharata.  They try to whitewash Him by disparaging His actions but proclaiming that it was justified in this one special case because the war of the Mahabharata was somehow a special war, a just war, a war that had to be waged and won for the welfare of humanity.  And therefore, while Sri Krishna’s actions viewed in isolation, according to these people, would be reprehensible, it can be excused in this instance as a special case because of the importance of this particular war.  They miss the fundamental ethos of the forest religions out of India, which have always been grounded in a constantly mutating situational ethic which nevertheless is grounded in a higher eternal principle of truth.  This was not about the ends justifying the means but about acting in accordance with Dharma, which is based on a subtle and intricate framework of situational ethics.  This is why Sanatana Dharma ever changes but at its core never changes and the ever changing is never different from the never changing.

If you think about it, what was the Mahabharata war really all about?  It was a dispute over a measly bit of land between rival sets of cousins.  Through a complicated network of alliances and other rivalries, just about every kingdom in Bharatavarsha (at the time geographically much, much larger than the current India / Pakistan / Bangladesh) became involved.  It became a war of huge proportions, but it was triggered by one small intra-family dispute.  It is rather similar to World War I, which was also catalyzed by a petty dispute but then pulled in all the nations of Europe through various alliances and concern about imbalances in power on a continental and global scale.

We rightfully think of the Pandavas today as heroes.  And so perhaps it seems to make sense that a whole nation should come together to wage war on their behalf.  But in their times, the Pandavas were not great heroes.  They were misfits of shadowy parentage; pariahs who were alternately exiled and in hiding for long stretches of years; five brothers who brought disgrace and dishonor upon themselves by gambling away their wife to their enemy and allowing her to be disrobed, manhandled and shamed before the entire court.  Nor was Duryodhana an altogether terrible villain.  He was an administrator without peer and Hastinapur his capital was eulogized for being a well-administered kingdom.  (By the way, Lanka, the capital of Ravana, was similarly eulogized).  Duryodhana was widely and justly regarded as a competent and fair king.  Balarama, Sri Krishna’s elder brother, actually favored Duryodhana and his brothers over the Pandavas in the great war.

Still, Sri Krishna orchestrated this war and made sure that it was fought and won by the Pandavas.  Surely, He did not come to Earth just to help five misfit brothers reclaim their kingdom and dispatch some other demons on the side.  No, there is something much deeper than that.  The Mahabharata is all about wheels within wheels in terms of lessons to be learned as to how to live an ethical and principled life under complex circumstances—not too different from the complexity of life situations that many of us are facing or will be facing in the near future.  Through this seemingly simplistic war over a bit of land, something much greater was happening, something that was necessary for the overall harmony of the universe and the smooth turning of the wheels of time.  An age was coming to an end and a new age about to begin—the Dvapara Yuga was drawing to an end and it was time for the advent of the Kali Yuga, the 4th Age of the Universe.  The Kali Yuga is the lowest of the four yugas in the cycle of time in Hinduism—it is an age of increasing darkness and disorder.  It was time for the great heroes of the earlier era to pass from this world and leave the world to the humans of diminished faculties and energies.  A very large part of Sri Krishna’s role was to usher in this new age of increased degradation in the most harmonious way possible and, in the process, to teach us how to live and make spiritual progress in this new world. 

It was also a pointed lesson to us that in this age of tamas (one of the three gunas, the main characteristics of which are sluggishness, darkness and ignorance), we must always be vigilant against the tamas that creeps up within us, that deludes us into inaction and apathy.

Sri Krishna comes to us in a world that is increasingly gray rather than black and white, as the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) sometimes rather simplistically portray it to be.  Arjuna’s lament at the beginning of the Gita finds resonance within us.  It is a difficult task that has been laid upon his shoulders.  And this is part of what Sri Krishna wants to show us, that in our times, things become more complicated, and thus what is right and what is wrong is harder to discern.  Our world is not as simple as it once was.  Our roles and responsibilities are not as prescribed.  Arjuna always knew he was a Kshatriya—but we live in a world of multiple identities.  Still, Sri Krishna’s lesson to us is that a clear path of dharma can be revealed to us when we follow the principles of the Gita. 

It is also a powerful reminder that we must always fight for what is right, even when the stakes are seemingly minimal.  Perhaps the Pandavas and their armies thought they were only fighting for a little piece of land, but in reality, their war gave us the Bhagavad Gita, the instruction manual of Dharma and sadhana for our times, and enabled the smooth passing of one yuga into another. 

Similarly, in our own lives, we may think that what we do or do not do is of little consequence.  But in life, it is not what we do that matters but how we do what we do that matters.  We may not always understand the larger purpose of what we are doing, but there is a bigger purpose to everything that simply has not yet been revealed to us.  But when we do our dharma, we can have faith that this is contributing to the overall harmony of the universe.     

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