Published on December 21st, 2023 | by Harmonist staff8
From Selfishness to Selfless Love of God in Bhagavad-gītā’s First Verse
By Swāmī B. A. Āśrama
Most readers of Bhagavad-gītā 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 Pāṇḍavas 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 Mahābhārata. 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 Pāṇḍavas, who are Kṛṣṇa’s cousins and personal friends. One of the Pāṇḍava brothers, Arjuna, whom Kṛṣṇa has agreed to serve as his chariot driver, has asked Kṛṣṇa 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 Gītā with the Kauravas’ father, the blind Dhṛtarāṣṭra, asking the sage Sañjaya to tell him what is happening just at this moment.
dharma-kṣetre kuru-kṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya
Dhṛtarāṣṭra said: What did my sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu do as they assembled at sacred Kurukṣetra, eager to fight?Bhagavad-gītā 1.1
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 Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava 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 Gītā itself.
When we examine the first phrase, dharma-kṣetre kuru-kṣetre, 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 Kṛṣṇa and his friend and devotee Arjuna, not just geographically, but metaphysically. Characterizing the battlefield with the phrase dharma-kṣetre conveys considerable meaning. Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, for example, points out that dharma-kṣetre indicates a place where religious rituals are performed. That is a significant point, he says, because here at Kurukṣetra, Kṛṣṇa 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 Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons, the Kauravas. Swāmī B. V. Tripurāri, following other commentators, especially Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, points out that Dhṛtarāṣṭra 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 Pāṇḍavas to desist from fighting, offering the Kauravas a victory by default.
Why, though, did that not turn out to be the case? Many Gauḍīya commentators, including Viśvanātha Cakravartī, Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, and Śrīla Prabhupāda, point to another way the pious nature of this dharma-kṣetre might have made Dhṛtarāṣṭra 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 Kṛṣṇa. As Swāmī Tripurāri writes in his commentary, “Bhagavad-gītā 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 Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna will discuss dharma from a number of angles, ranging from conventional concepts of dharma, such as karma-kāṇḍa and varṇāśrama-dharma, to the ultimate dharma, which is love of God, Kṛṣṇa prema. So even here, in the first word of the Gītā, we are given a glimpse of the Gītā’s last word. As we may know, Kṛṣṇa’s final instruction in Bhagavad-gītā is to absolutely reject all conventional dharma and take exclusive shelter of Kṛṣṇa:
Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender to Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.Bhagavad-gītā 18.66
Here Kṛṣṇa takes us to śaraṇāgati, the path of surrender, whose essence is complete dependence on the Lord. And it is with surrender that the Gītā’s theological sequel, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, begins. Its second verse defines those eligible for understanding the Bhāgavatam 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.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.1.2
In its next chapter, the Bhāgavatam tells us what dharma ultimately means, which is, as Swāmī Tripurāri 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.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.13
And in that same chapter we find a little more about the nature of this ultimate dharma, or paraḥ 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.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.6
Real dharma, then, is bhakti, devotion to Kṛṣṇa, 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 Gītā, only to discover that it takes to—and beyond—the last word in the Gītā, to the realm of surrender, and from there to pure love of God. The second word in the verse, kuru-kṣetre, not only precisely locates the dharma-kṣetre geographically and evokes the ancient history of sacrifices on the site but alludes to a previous visit Kṛṣṇa made there. That visit also locates Kurukṣetra theologically by demonstrating the highest pitch of spiritual love. Swāmī Tripurāri mentions this in his commentary on the first verse, with reference to Jīva Gosvāmī’s Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha. We find this meeting described in chapter 82 of the Bhāgavatam’s 10th canto.
While living in Dvārakā, Kṛṣṇa arranged a meeting of his friends and families at Kurukṣetra on the plea of observing an important solar eclipse. The real purpose, we read, was to give Kṛṣṇa an opportunity to meet with the residents of Vṛndāvana, especially the gopīs, 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 gopīs is particularly thick with love. In that exchange, Kṛṣṇa tells the gopīs 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 Kṛṣṇa’s conversation with the gopīs. The first, spoken by Kṛṣṇa, 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.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.82.44
Here Kṛṣṇa 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 gopīs, 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.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.82.48
Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura points out the facetious nature of the gopīs’ 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 Kṛṣṇa in Vṛīndavana, 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 Gītā. And we should also note that, according to our ācāryas, this meeting between Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs of Vraja has a parallel in Caitanya līlā, Lord Caitanya’s pastimes in Jagannātha Purī, which is a meeting of Vṛīndavana and Dvārakā. And the pitch of love is especially high during the Ratha-yātrā festival.
If kuru-kṣetre 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 that Dhṛtarāṣṭra harbors in his heart. We see that selfish interest up close in the way Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s question refers to the actors in the drama unfolding here: māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś ca. Here he says there are two parties lining up on the battlefield, preparing to fight each other—his sons and Pāṇḍu’s sons. Those of us who are a little familiar with the history presented in Mahābhārata know how Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons, the Kauravas, have harassed the Pāṇḍavas 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 ahaṃtā (egotism) and mamatā (possessiveness or attachment), into two antagonistic parties—Us and Them. As Śrīla Prabhupāda writes in his purport, “Both the Pāṇḍavas and the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra belong to the same family, but Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s mind is disclosed herein. He deliberately claimed only his sons as Kurus, and he separated the sons of Pāṇḍu from the family heritage.” Pāṇḍu was Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s brother, so the two parties here are cousins and cousins who were raised practically as brothers, at that. But Dhṛtarāṣṭra 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 Gītā, and later in the Bhāgavatam, that a natural solution to the problem of personal ambition, of ahaṃtā and mamatā, is to realize our actual identity, our purified, or spiritual ahaṃtā, as eternal servants of the Godhead, and a corresponding purified sense of mamatā, or possessiveness. As Śrīla Prabhupāda sometimes says, Kṛṣṇa consciousness, the comprehensive solution to all of life’s problems, means the sense that I am Kṛṣṇa’s, and Kṛṣṇa is mine. This is real ahaṃtā and mamatā. In other words, we may see attachment to Kṛṣṇa as the root of bhakti. Considering this, we may find it useful to keep in mind the sixth verse of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s Śikṣāṣṭakam—ayi nanda-tanuja kiṅkaraṁ—in which Mahāprabhu demonstrates the symptom of the stage of āsakti, in which the devotee is attached to Kṛṣṇa, 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 Gītā‘s first verse provides the key for effecting this transformation from selfishness to selfless love. Sañjaya, whose very name is synonymous with victory, including victory over the dictates of the mind and senses, was a student of Vyāsa. He served Dhṛtarāṣṭra as his charioteer and advisor, and he used the divine vision (divya-dṛṣṭi) granted by Vyāsadeva to narrate for Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s benefit the events of the war. Because of this, Sañjaya represents the principle of guru, whose direction serves as the catalyst that transforms ahaṃtā and mamatā from the toxic elements responsible for all our suffering to identification with divine service, which is the ultimate freedom.
If the Gītā’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 Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.