Sri Gita’s First Chapter: Introduction or Conclusion?
Published on April 7th, 2010 | by Harmonist staff4
Sometimes it is thought that the first chapter of the Bhagavad-gita is inconsequential: “What pertinence do the names of so many characters and bugles have to one of the deepest, most revered philosophical texts in the world?” Thus on its face, this first of eighteen chapters seems auxiliary, as if perhaps it would be best returned to the Bhisma-parva, leaving the Gita to be the essential spiritual treatise that so many look to it to be.
At the same time, intuition moves us to suspect that chapter one’s status as such is not without reason, and perhaps there is indeed more meaning to be drawn out than a superficial reading reveals.
The first less-than-overt layer of meaning can be found in the concealed speech of the Gita’s characters, beginning with the second verse, wherein Sanjaya alludes to both the superiority of the Pandavas and the silver-tongued nature of Duryodhona’s speech to Drona that is about to follow. As foreshadowed, Duryodhona’s nine verses relating various warriors’ presence at the battle is indeed laden with covert meaning and ulterior motives, demonstrating from the outset of the Gita the wrong way to approach one’s guru and spiritual life. While these hidden meanings are interesting and significant in their own regard, they do not carry with them the spiritual weight that is the Bhagavad-gita’s hallmark, thus we are compelled to dig deeper.
The classic title of the first chapter, used by Sridhara Swami and many others, is Yoga of Despair (Visada-yoga), for it is Arjuna’s despair in the final portion of the chapter that carries the most weight, both in terms of the chapter’s substance and the reader’s identification with Arjuna, for just as Arjuna approaches Krishna burdened by desire-born despair, so too do we approach the Gita.
Arjuna’s despair surfaces when he sees all those with whom he must contend and particularly Bhisma and Drona, his grandfather and military guru, respectively. Arjuna is no ordinary warrior; son of Indra himself, riding a chariot given to him by Agni and equipped with his Gandiva bow, Arjuna’s extraordinary material qualifications and dharmic character distinguish him from many other great personalities.
That being said, when faced with the impending demise of his very sense of self formed through his identification with relationships and people that will inevitably die, Arjuna does what all of us do: he despairs, followed closely by an elaborate and (in Arjuna’s case) fairly well-reasoned process justifying his attachments. In three five-verse sections beginning from verse 31, Arjuna objects to the battle on the grounds of the undesirability of the fruits of such a fratricidal war, the disgrace that such a battle would bring, and the various forms of dharmic degradation that would ensue.
Bolstered in his resistance by his own arguments, Arjuna then casts aside his bow in overwhelming grief, ironically discarding the very identity that he seeks to maintain. Such is life: we can willingly surrender our identity in pursuit of an enduring one or we can have it forcibly ripped from us—but as long as it is rooted in material designations, we cannot keep it. While this is an unpalatable truth, it should jolt us enough that we become open, as Arjuna does early in chapter 2, to help from beyond ourselves. After all, it is in seeking out and submitting to guidance that our visada becomes visada-yoga and the process of spiritual life begins.
Chapter one ends with Arjuna overcome by despair, but chapter one also reveals that Arjuna’s victory over his internal demons is inevitable. Concealed almost exactly in the middle of the chapter, Arjuna asks partha-sarathi Krishna to pull his chariot in between the armies so that he may see who has come for battle. This act, Arjuna’s directing the Supreme Godhead to do his bidding, reveals Arjuna’s elevated status as a devotee and also Krishna’s most endearing characteristic: he subordinates himself to his devotee’s love. This truth alone, tucked away in the introductory chapter of the Gita, takes one far beyond what many consider to be the entire scope of the text. It is the mental image of Arjuna’s directive (senayor ubhayor madhye ratham sthapaya ‘me ‘cyuta)1 that daily caused the illiterate South Indian brahmana of Gaura lila to experience ecstasy. And seeing the degree to which the brahmana relished the mental image of Krishna driving Arjuna’s chariot, Mahaprabhu told the brahmana that he was a true knower of the Gita. Thus Krishna himself, in the mood of his own devotee, has declared that this verse properly understood represents the essence of this sacred text.
While Krishna’s assuming the role of his friend’s charioteer is the heart of the Gita in a general sense, Gaudiya acaryas have penetrated even deeper into the first chapter and exposed the very heart of Krishna. What to speak of the first chapter, this treasure lies in the very first verse! Dhrtarastra, curious as to what is taking place on the battlefield, asks Sanjaya about his sons and, conversely, the sons of Pandu, alluding to the very basis of material life: the notion that material objects and bodies are ours; we are their owner, father, mother, teacher, and so many other designations.
But while inquiring from Sanjaya about the fate of what amounts to his own identity (in the form of his sons), Dhrtarastra refers to Kuruksetra alternately as Dharmaksetra, the field of dharma, referring to the well-known fact that Kuruksetra is a holy place. Parasurama performed sacrifices there, as did Vasudeva during the solar eclipse, when he and the other residents of Dvaraka gathered there some fifty years before. At that time Nanda Maharaja and all the residents of Vrindavan came as well. The Srimad-Bhagavatam narrates this reunion:
After an emotional and joyous reunion with Nanda and Yasoda, Krishna met with the gopis in a secluded location. Embracing each one, he then tried to pacify their disdainful feelings by reflecting on their long separation with a philosophical eye. The gopis, being unimpressed by Krishna’s philosophical discourse, forced him to concede that their special type of love had conquered him. He was, and always is, theirs alone.
Thus it is here, in the very first verse of the Gita, that we find the entire scope of spiritual life. From Dhrtarastra’s unflattering sense of ownership of that which is important to him, to the gopi’s transcendental, uncalculated ownership of svayam Bhagavan and, moreover, his own admission of such. Krishna driving Arjuna’s chariot is indeed a wondrous thing, but how much more so is Radha’s driving Krishna mad in love (radhikara preme ama karaya unmatta).2
Far from inconsequential, the first chapter of the Bhagavad-gita sheds light on both the method of spiritual life (in the form of Arjuna’s growing dissatisfaction with material prospects) and the goal (Krishna’s subordination to his devotees in general, and the Vraja-vasis and gopis in particular). Without understanding and experiencing the former, our reading of the Gita will be merely intellectual and we will remain far from the ecstasy glimpsed in the very first verse of this most important scripture.