From Selfishness to Selfless Love of God in Bhagavad-gita’s First Verse

By Swami B. A. Ashram

Most readers of Bhagavad-gita may be acquainted with the historic setting of the discourse. As the result of a life-long power struggle between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were all raised as brothers, we find ourselves on the brink of an enormous fratricidal war, as narrated in the great epic poem Mahabharata. Of the two sides, the Kauravas have fallen under the influence of personal ambition and have sought to usurp control of the kingdom from the pious, devotional Pandavas, who are Krsna’s cousins and personal friends. One of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna, whom Krsna has agreed to serve as his chariot driver, has asked Krsna to drive his chariot between the opposing armies just as the fighting is to begin, so he can see just who it is he must fight and ultimately kill. The first verse opens the Gita with the Kauravas’ father, the blind Dhrtarastra, asking the sage Sanjaya to tell him what is happening just at this moment.

dhrtarastra uvaca
dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre
samaveta yuyutsavah
mamakah pandavas caiva
kim akurvata sanjaya

Dhrtarastra said: What did my sons and the sons of Pandu do as they assembled at sacred Kuruksetra, eager to fight?

Many readers may be familiar with this verse; they may even have it memorized. I wonder, though, how many have considered the breadth of philosophy, particularly Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy, this verse suggests. Careful examination of this verse in three parts may yield profound philosophical implications, even show how it sets the tone for the entire Gita itself.

When we examine the first phrase, dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre, which comprises the verse’s first pada, or metrical foot, we find that it works brilliantly to create the setting for the conversation between Lord Krsna and his friend and devotee Arjuna, not just geographically, but metaphysically. Characterizing the battlefield with the phrase dharma-ksetre conveys considerable meaning. Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, for example, points out that dharma-ksetre indicates a place where religious rituals are performed. That is a significant point, he says, because here at Kuruksetra Krsna is present on Arjuna’s side as the armies prepare for battle. Moreover, the pious influence of the setting seems to augur ill for the prospects of Dhrtarastra’s sons, the Kauravas. Swami B. V. Tripurari, following other commentators, especially Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, points out that Dhrtarastra doubted that his sons would prevail in the impending war. But the pious nature of the field, he thought, perhaps a little too hopefully, might influence the virtuous Pandavas to desist from fighting, offering the Kauravas a victory by default.

Why, though, did that not turn out to be the case? Many Gaudiya commentators, including Visvanatha Cakravarti, Baladeva Vidyahusana, and Srila Prabhupada, point to another way the pious nature of this dharma-ksetre might have made Dhrtarastra uneasy. The image of a field, they point out, evokes the need to distinguish between the rice and the weeds, with the implication that the weeds will be pulled out, so the rice can thrive.

Dharma here may also foreshadow the range of the discussion about to take place between Arjuna and Krsna. As Swami Tripurari writes in his commentary, “Bhagavad-gita takes us on a religious and spiritual journey from selfishness to selflessness in love of God.” We’ll examine the depth of selfishness apparent here when we examine another phrase later in the verse. But one thing we know is that Krsna and Arjuna will discuss dharma from a number of angles, ranging from conventional concepts of dharma, such as karma kanda and varnasrama dharma, to the ultimate dharma, which is love of God, Krsna prema. So even here, in the first word of the Gita, we are given a glimpse of the Gita’s last word. As we may know, Krsna’s final instruction in Bhagavad-gita is to absolutely reject all conventional dharma and take exclusive shelter of Krsna:

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender to Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear. (18.66)

Here Krsna takes us to saranagati, the path of surrender, whose essence is complete dependence on the Lord. And it is with surrender that the Gita’s theological sequel, Srimad-Bhagavatam, begins. Its second verse defines those eligible for understanding the Bhagavatam as having already given up all lower, conventional forms of dharma:

Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. (1.1.2)

In its next chapter, the Bhagavatam tells us what dharma ultimately means, which is, as Swami Tripurari writes, “that by which God is pleased”:

O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead. (1.2.13)

And in that same chapter we find a little more about the nature of this ultimate dharma, or parah dharma:

The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self. (1.2.6)

Real dharma, then, is bhakti, devotion to Krsna, whose nature is that, because it has no cause other than itself, cannot be impeded by anything extraneous to itself.

So far we have examined just the first word in the Gita, only to discover that it takes to—and beyond—the last word in the Gita, to the realm of surrender, and from there to pure love of God. The second word in the verse, kuru-ksetre, not only precisely locates the dharma-ksetra geographically and evokes the ancient history of sacrifices on the site but alludes to a previous visit Krsna made there. That visit also locates Kuruksetra theologically by demonstrating the highest pitch of spiritual love. Swami Tripurari mentions this in commentary on the first verse, with reference to Jiva Goswami’s Krsna Sandarbha. We find this meeting described in Chapter 82 of the Bhagavatam’s 10th canto.

While living in Dvaraka Krsna arranged a meeting of his friends and families at Kuruksetra on the plea of observing an important solar eclipse. The real purpose, we read, was to give Krsna an opportunity to meet with the residents of Vrndavana, especially the gopis, to both showcase and heighten the intensity of their love for him. His exchanges with all the residents of Vrindavana are rich with rasa; his exchange with the gopis is particularly thick with love. In that exchange Krsna tells the gopis that, even though they blame him for the long years of separation, considering him ungrateful for their sacrifices, there is none to blame but the Supreme Lord, who brings living beings together then separates them. They reply that he himself that Supreme Personality of Godhead, to which he responds that, even so, their love is such a powerful force that it compels him to come to them, which should assure them that they will all be together permanently very soon.

Two verses in this chapter especially characterize the nature of Krsna’s conversation with the gopis. The first, spoken by Krsna, is Text 44:

“Rendering devotional service to Me qualifies any living being for eternal life. But by your good fortune you have developed a special loving attitude toward Me, by which you have obtained Me.”

Here Krsna hopes to point out, as he did in the rasa dance, that their love for him is of such a nature that it exceeds all other conceivable attainments, including all varieties of liberation, implying that they must take solace in that service itself.

The second verse, spoken by the gopis, is Text 48:

“Dear Lord, whose navel is just like a lotus flower, Your lotus feet are the only shelter for those who have fallen into the deep well of material existence. Your feet are worshiped and meditated upon by great mystic yogīs and highly learned philosophers. We wish that these lotus feet may also be awakened within our hearts, although we are only ordinary persons engaged in household affairs.”

Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura points out the facetious nature of the gopis’ apparently deferential response. The hidden meaning is that they can see through his deception, that they understand that they have already attained the fruits of all meditation, that they are not just rubes, simple village girls, who can easily have the wool pulled over their eyes, and that they have no desire other than to love Krsna in Vrindavana, as they had been accustomed to do in their youth.

Even a brief reading of this chapter may enhance our appreciation for the possibilities that lie in this first verse of the Gita. And we should also note that, according to our acaryas, this meeting between Krsna and the gopis of Vraja has a parallel in Caitanya lila, Lord Caitanya’s pastimes in Jagannatha Puri, which is a meeting of Vrindavana and Dvaraka. And the pitch of love is especially high during the Rathayatra festival.

If kuru-ksetre in this verse gives a glimpse of the pinnacle of spiritual love, the next phrase we examine may point to the depths of selfishness. Indeed, one of the causes of the impending war is the selfishness which Dhritarastra harbors in his heart. We see that selfish interest up close in the way Dhrtarastra’s question refers to the actors in the drama unfolding here: mamaka pandavas ca. Here he says there are two parties lining up on the battlefield, preparing to fight each other—his sons and Pandu’s sons. Those of us who are a little familiar with the history presented in Mahabharata know how Dhrtarastra’s sons, the Kauravas, have harassed the Pandavas throughout their lifetimes, including several attempts at murdering them, all in pursuit of personal ambition.

This party spirit may not seem to be particularly unusual in the annals of political intrigue, except that the two parties are the same family. One family has been cleaved by selfish ambition, which the scriptures characterize as ahamta (egotism) and mamata (possessiveness or attachment), into two antagonistic parties—Us and Them. As Srila Prabhupada writes in his puport, “Both the Pandavas and the sons of Dhrtarastra belong to the same family, but Dhrtarastra’s mind is disclosed herein. He deliberately claimed only his sons as Kurus, and he separated the sons of Pandu from the family heritage.” Pandu was Dhrtarastra’s brother, so the two parties here are cousins, and cousins who were raised practically as brothers, at that. But Dhrtarastra had long felt some resentment at losing what he thought was his birthright. And his son Duryodhana’s bitterness, so strong that it was downright evil, influenced him in such a way that he could not stop the impending war by any means, which doomed 640,000,000 warriors to die in about a week and a half.

Of course, we will learn in the Gita, and later in the Bhagavatam, that a natural solution to the problem of personal ambition, of ahamta and mamata, is to realize our actual identity, our purified, or spiritual ahamta, as eternal servants of the Godhead, and a corresponding purified sense of mamata, or possessiveness. As Srila Prabhupada sometimes says, Krsna consciousness, the comprehensive solution to all of life’s problems, means the sense that I am Krsna’s, and Krsna is mine. This is real ahamta and mamata. In other words, we may see attachment to Krsna as the root of bhakti. Considering this, we may find it useful to keep in mind the sixth verse of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s Siksastakamayi nanda-tanuja kinkaram—in which Mahaprabhu demonstrates the symptom of the stage of asakti, in which the devotee is attached to Krsna, the object of love, whereas in the previous stage, ruci, the devotee’s attachment is for the practices of bhakti.

And the last word of the Gita’s first verse provides the key for effecting this transformation from selfishness to selfless love. Sanjaya, whose very name is synonymous with victory, including victory over the dictates of the mind and senses, was a student of Vyasa. He served Dhrtarastra as his charioteer and advisor, and he used the divine vision (divyadrishti) granted by Vyasadeva to narrate for Dhrtarastra’s benefit the events of the war. Because of this, Sanjaya represents the principle of guru, whose direction serves as the catalyst that transforms ahamta and mamata from the toxic elements responsible for all our suffering to identification with divine service, which is the ultimate freedom.

If the Gita’s first verse can suggest such a rich trove of meaning, we can only imagine what we may find if we carefully examine the rest of its 700 verses, not to mention those of Srimad-Bhagavatam.

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8 Responses to From Selfishness to Selfless Love of God in Bhagavad-gita’s First Verse

  1. I hope my many questions will not be inopportune here. I’ll try to be concise.

    1. When Śrīla Vyāsadeva mentions that devotees are nirmatsarāṇāṁ (SB. 1.1.2), that devotees within varṇāśrama are engaged in hari-toṣaṇam (SB. 1.2.13) and that devotees are dedicated to the ahaituky-apratihatā service (SB. 1.2.6), does he refer to one and the same particular type of devotee on the spiritual ladder toward vraja-bhakti?

    2. How can a sādhaka adequately penetrate into the deep passionate tension that exists between the gopīs and Kṛṣṇa while assembled at Kurukṣetra? Because there is a maddening tension between the Govinda’s limitless offer of himself like aprakaṭa-kṛṣṇa (SB. 10.82.48) and the incommensurable desire of the gopīs for the prakaṭa-kṛṣṇa (SB. 10.82.44).

    3. Is it possible that the ethical contrast between Pāṇḍavas and Kurus has been as extreme as it seems? Wasn’t it that too much of the valuable rice that got lost in order to pull up the useless weed that surrounded it? After eighteen days of bloody war, in the Mahābhārata 9.1.33-34, Sañjaya tells us that only seven spikes of rice (Vāsudeva, Yudhiṣṭira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva y Sātiaki) and three spikes of weed (Kṛpa, Kṛtavarmā y Aśvatthāmā) were able to survive.

  2. (I apologize to all for the delay in posting this response. I thought I had submitted it when I saw Vayu’s questions. I found today, in going through open tabs, that I had not. These questions deserve prompt responses, and I’m embarrassed to have found that I hadn’t yet pressed the Submit button. My responses to the other questions will come more quickly.)

    Thank you for your questions, Vayu. I find them thought provoking. I’m going to address the last question first, mostly because it strikes me as the simplest at the moment. When you ask about the “ethical contrast” between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, I guess that you mean their conduct as rulers, and I think it’s a fair question. Externally there may not have been stark differences between the way the Pandavas and the Kauravas managed the kingdom. I don’t know of any history that show Duryodhana as despotic in the way we have seen in a number of recent leaders of unfortunate nations. I don’t remember reading that he neglected wells and roads, that he razed villages and slaughtered the residents for no apparent reason. And we can see some hint of nobility in his character in his loyalty to Karna.

    The difference in their character, as I hope to highlight in my analysis of this verse, is simply their essential character. Duryodhana’s selfishness poisoned his father, who actually knew better and who was also counseled by his saintly wife Gandhari. And that same selfishness gave Duhsasana license to insult Draupdi publicly. It is the Kauravas’ essential character that made them weeds, rather than stalks of rice, as we see in the commentaries to which I refer. We see that clearly in incident before the war when Duryodhana and Arjuna approached Krishna in Dvaraka, hoping to secure his help in the impending war. They found Krishna napping and approached his bed together, Duryodhana taking a seat near Krishna’s head, and Arjuna standing at Krishna’s lotus feet, his eyes wet with tears of love. When Krishna awoke, he first saw Arjuna at his feet and then, when he sat up, saw Duryodhana. Duryodhana argued that, because he had arrived first, Krishna should help him. Krishna countered that, true as that may be, he saw Arjuna first and offered to help both parties, with one party taking his army of million soldiers equal to him in prowess, and the other taking him as a noncombatant. Protocol dictating that he should offer first choice to the younger party, Krishna asked Arjuna which he wanted. Without batting an eye, Arjuna chose Krishna. Duryodhana was over the moon at getting Krishna’s army.

    So it’s the essential difference, that one party is constituted of devotees of Krishna, not some superficial measure of character, that has our commentators characterizing the Kauravas as weeds and the Pandavas as stalks of rice.

  3. Swami B. A. Ashram

    Vayu, I’m not clear about what you’re after in your first question when you ask, “[D]oes [Vyasa] refer to one and the same particular type of devotee on the spiritual ladder toward vraja-bhakti?” The Bhagavatam says in 1.1.2 that its intended audience is suddha bhakatas, those who have already rejected kaitava dharma. Only those who have such pure hearts can actually understand and appreciate its message. The First Canto’s second chapter very clearly makes the point that varnasrama is useless unless it is meant for satisfying Hari. Without that, it is simply a cheating process. And I just don’t know what you mean by “one and the same particular type of devotee on the spiritual ladder toward vraja-bhakti,” unless you mean those engaged in suddha bhakti as we see it defined throughout the Bhagavatam and in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu.

    It’s also not clear to me what you mean by a sadhaka’s being able to “adequately penetrate” the “deep, passionate tension” between Krishna and the gopis at Kruruksetra. The love between Krishna and the gopis is a great mystery, and sadhakas may hope to hear of it with open hearts from such a pure source that our hearts may be purified of material hankering, as we see in the benediction offered at the end of the narration of the rasa dance (SB 10.33.39). When our hearts are sufficiently purified by such faithful hearing (sraddhanvitah ‘nusrnuyat), we may attain pure devotion for the Lord (bhaktim param bhagavati) and thus be able to appreciate that tension according to our adhikara.

  4. Thank you for your deep patience and sincere teachings, Svāmī Aśrama.

    The passage from Mahābhārata (Udyoga-parva 5.7.1-36) is beautiful and appropriate for trying to note the contrast between the essential character of the Kurus and that of the Pāṇḍavas. But there is something confusing to me.

    Arjuna chooses a King who appaers to be completely useless for war; Duryodhana chooses the King’s army perfectly trained to fight. Arjuna seems able to perceive aspects of the dhīra-lalita nāyaka inside the majestic Kṛṣṇa of Dvārakā, that’s why he chooses the King with a tempered splendor (cf. Mbh. 5.7.32-34). Meanwhile, Duryodhana seems to perceive only the external magnificence surrounding the dhīra-praśānta nāyaka, that’s why he chooses the military strength of the King’s nārāyaṇa-senā. However, although the most important thing for a bhakta should be exclusive devotion to Krishna’s lotus feet and not attachment to his palatial parikaras, it is not in both cases about bhakti-yoga? Arjuna and Duryodhana are not equally devotees of Hari (cf. Mbh. 5.7.9-10)? Where lies the exact difference between weeds and rice?

    SB 1.1.2 seems to indicate an exclusive section of devotional society: śuddha-bhaktas in general (ruci, āsakti, bhāva and prema-bhaktas). SB. 1.2.6 seems to indicate the great potential of all humanity for become sādhakas in Adhokṣaja’s service—everyone can start like a śraddhā-bhakta under the highest ideal of ahaitukī-apratihata. SB. 1.2.13 reaffirms this very inclusive society dedicated to Hari’s pleasure because even the lowest śūdras have a dharma. From this perspective, how can a simple living entity like me who is faintly listening to Svami’s teachings (Tripurāri and Aśrama) try to penetrate adequately into the passionate tension between Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs at Kurukṣetra?

    • Swami B. A. Ashram

      I can respond briefly to some of what you bring up, Vayu. I don’t have a translation of Mahabharata available that I can use to address the specific Mb texts you refer to, but my understanding of the essential difference between Arjuna and Duryodhana, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and therefore, between weeds and rice in this context, is bhakti. Krishna is bhaktavatsala, inclined to favor his devotees. This is an ornament, not a fault, as discussed in a number of places by our acaryas.

      Regarding your assertion about SB 1.1.2, that it discusses suddha bhaktas, which means those in the higher stages of bhakti, my understanding is somewhat different. According to Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu, all those in pursuit of uttama bhakti, or suddha bhakti, including sadhakas, may be counted among suddha bhaktas. And, again, my sense of SB 1.2.13 is that the essence of all dharma, including varnashrama dharma, is bhakti. Without some bhakti, no dharma can succeed in satisfying anyone in a substantive way. And when bhakti is the focus of anyone’s pursuit of dharma, the fruit is spiritual, not material. This is the sense I get from my own spiritual master’s purport and Visvanath Cakravarti Thakura’s tika.

      And this also provides the key to any useful response to your ultimate question, about penetrating the love between Krishna and the gopis, or any of the residents of Vraja, for that matter. We have no hope of even appreciating that love without entering the hari-bhakta sanga you mention, without engaging ourselves progressively in the angas of bhakti. When we hear about the practice of bhakti from Prahlada Maharaja, we understand that it begins with hearing and chanting. So, rather than “faintly” hearing, I humbly suggest that you engage more ardently in hearing from advanced devotees and dedicate more energy each day to perfecting your chanting of the holy names. Rupa Goswami describes (and prescribes) 64 angas of sadhana bhakti in his Bhaktirasarmrta-sindhu, beginning with taking shelter of a qualified guru, accepting initiation and instruction from the guru, and serving he guru with confidence. And both he and Krishnadas Kaviraja Goswami affirm that, of those angas of bhakti, five are particularly efficacious: associating with devotees who are more advanced, who share our own mood, and who are affectionately disposed; chanting the holy names, especially in the association of suddha bhaktas; hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam and other literature composed to explain the glories of Bhagavan Sri Krishna; spending time in a holy place of pastimes, such as Mathura, Vrindavana, Mayapura, or Purusottama Ksetra; and worshiping the beautiful form of the Lord with love and faith. Absent these practices, any talk of the love between Krishna and the damsels of Vraja amounts to nothing more than trying to taste honey by licking the outside of a jar.

  5. The teachings of the medieval ācāryas seem to contain deeper meanings than those we usually taste like industrialized honey. Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura says that Krishna is a very conscientious dhānya-kṛt (seed grower); Kurukṣetra is his breeding ground and there he takes care of the seedlings of dharma and pulls out the grass of impurities (tṛṇa-viśeṣa). Duryodhana is portrayed as a hostile seed (dhānya-dveṣa), but throughout the Mahābhārata he has manifested many nuances of dharma/devotion. Then, how can a hostile seed germinate and sprouting devotional traits? The exact difference between what you consider “weeds and rice” can be very subtle.

    I’m not sure that Rūpa Gosvāmī expresses an extreme generalization about śuddha-bhakti; he likes the complex spiritual taxonomies. Although by the grace of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu there can be certain simultaneity between āmra-bīja and janmila-vṛkṣa (Cc. 1.17.80), normally there is a natural correlation and obvious differences between the practicing devotee and the perfected one. In our context, probably overestimate the Gauḍīya sādhya continues causing troubles in the psyche of sādhakas. On a sociological level, such troubles coming from the ὕβρις have been demonstrating their impact by the misbehavior of some “pure devotees”.

    Anyway, I accept your advice; at present my adhikāra is just suitable for wishing the shelter of the Nitāi’s lotus feet, respecting the valuable work of Vaiṣṇavas.

    Thank you for your answers, Svāmī. Kṛtāñjali.

  6. Swami B. A. Ashram

    Vayu, you wrote, “I’m not sure that Rūpa Gosvāmī expresses an extreme generalization about śuddha-bhakti; he likes the complex spiritual taxonomies.” I am sure that he does so in Brs. 1.1.11-12. The chapter addresses sāmānya-bhakti, bhakti in general, and these two verses constitute the definition of uttama or śuddha bhakti on which the entire work is built. Yes, Rupa does, as you say, extensively use taxonomy in Bhaktirasāmṛta-sindhu. But taxonomy, or classification, begins with the broader categories and examines the progressively finer categories within the broader classes.

  7. Yes, you’re right, Svāmī. Yet my approach is slightly different. Rūpa Gosvāmī called his first wave sāmānya-bhakti, but this is not strictly a saṅkṣepa or an aṅga-upāṅga abstract. Sāmānya-bhakti is a very creative construction of Rūpa, because it is more a kind of bhakti-māhātmya than a summary or description of a trunk with its branches (cf. Brs. 1.1.44). Rūpa clearly states that the objective of his first wave is just exposing the suṣṭhu vaiśiṣṭya or superior character of bhakti over jñāna, karma and other forms of yoga (Brs. 1.1.10-11). In order to do that, he takes the best (uttama) of each of the three very distinct and correlatives forms of bhakti-yoga. Uttama-bhakti is the collection of the best of the three forms of bhakti-yoga. The best of sādhana-bhakti are only kleśaghni and śubhada (Brs. 1.1.17). In Rupa’s pyramidal taxonomy, the base is sādhaka-bhaktas, the middle is bhāva-bhaktas and the top is prema-bhaktas. Śuddha-bhaktas are sudurlabha.

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