In this article, Sri Swami Satchidananda gives us an overview of the “backstory” that sets the stage for one of Yoga’s great, foundational texts, the Bhagavad Gita.
My Master, Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, said this about the greatness of the Gita:
“The Gita expounds very lucidly the fundamentals of Yoga philosophy. It is a great source of wisdom. It is a great guide, a supreme teacher, an inexhaustible spiritual treasure. It is a fountain of bliss, an ocean of knowledge. It is full of divine splendor and grandeur.”
Before we go into the text of the Gita itself, it’s good to know the circumstances under which this sacred scripture was given. The Gita is a dialogue between Arjuna, a great warrior-king, and the supreme Lord, incarnated as Sri Krishna. To know who Arjuna and Krishna were, we need a little history of the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic in which the Gita is found.
The story is this: There were two brothers—the blind Dhritarashtra and the fair-skinned Pandu—ruling a kingdom in ancient India, or Bharatavarsha as it was called in those days. King Dhritarashtra married Gandhari, and King Pandu married Kunti and Madri. Because Pandu was cursed, he couldn’t have children. But by the grace of God he was given five sons through God’s representatives. (This is explained through another wonderful story in the Mahabharata.) The blind Dhritarashtra had one hundred sons. Duryodhana was the name of his first son.
King Pandu didn’t live long. His sons—called the Pandavas—were taken into Dhritarashtra’s family and lived with their one hundred cousins, the Kauravas. Remember, we have five Pandavas and one hundred Kauravas. They grew up together; but because of the bravery and intelligence of the Pandavas, terrible jealousy arose in the Kauravas. Because of this constant dispute the Pandavas decided to live apart from the Kauravas, and the country was partitioned. The Pandavas ruled their section very well. Due to their wisdom and valor, their country grew so much and became so influential that the Pandavas were able to conduct a great ritual called the Rajasuya Yajnam, or Ruler of the Earth ceremony.
Great power was required to perform this ceremony, and only those who had no enemies could do it. It worked like this: the king of a country let loose a beautiful horse to roam wherever it wanted while the king and other friendly warriors followed it. If anybody stopped the horse from grazing or tried to control its movement, the king would fight with that person. This yajnam was a way of proving that there was no one powerful enough to challenge that king. The Pandavas had that much status; there were no enemies strong enough to challenge them.
This great Rajasuya Yajnam fueled the jealousy already in the hearts of the Kauravas. So Duryodhana, with the help of his cunning uncle Sakuni, plotted the destruction of the Pandavas. With the help of his uncle, Duryodhana invited the eldest Pandava brother, Yudhishthira, to a game of dice and defeated him through trickery and cheating. Yudhishthira lost all his wealth, possessions and kingdom. He lost everything—even Draupadi, his wife. It was a shameful moment for all the Pandavas. But they accepted the conditions of their defeat.
The Pandavas, including Draupadi, agreed to go into the forest and live there for twelve years, after which time they were to live incognito for another year, untraced by the Kauravas. If by any chance they were seen and recognized during the final year, they would have to return to the forest for another twelve years. Meanwhile, the Kauravas would rule all the land. If the Pandavas could fulfill the conditions, it was agreed that they would get back their share of the kingdom after those thirteen years.
Though they had a very hard time, the Pandavas did succeed in fulfilling all the conditions. With God’s help, which came as the result of their faith and devotion, they completed all thirteen years. Then they returned and said, “We’ve fulfilled all the conditions. Please give us our kingdom back.”
Duryodhana flatly refused. “No,” he said, “I won’t give you even as much land as can be covered by the point of a needle!” Those were his exact words. What a generous heart! “If you want anything,” he added, “I’ll have to fight for it.”
Then the Pandavas’ mother, Kunti, advised her sons, “Don’t be fools, you should wage war against them. You have a just claim.” And of course, Lord Krishna also inspired them in a way by saying, “You are virtuous people and the law of righteousness is on your side. You have a duty to do it. The Kauravas aren’t fit to rule the country, You’re the righteous ones. You must save all the people from these villains, even by fighting if necessary.” That is the background situation that created the war.
Both sides wanted the help of Lord Krishna. So one day both Arjuna and Duryodhana decided, independently of course, to seek Krishna’s help. Knowing they were coming, Krishna went into his bedroom and pretended to be sleeping. He did that purposely. (Krishna is usually very playful!) Before he reclined, he set a very comfortable chair just behind the head of his couch. Then he lay down and pretended to sleep.
Duryodhana arrived just before Arjuna. They met in the lobby adjoining Krishna’s apartments and then entered. Duryodhana went straight to the chair behind Krishna’s head and sat down waiting for Krishna to awaken. Arjuna walked in and, being a good devotee, went near Lord Krishna’s feet and stood there waiting patiently.
That’s an old Indian custom. No younger brother will sit before an older one, let alone before his father, mother, uncle or other older relatives. Even if he’s only a year younger, he won’t sit in front of his brother unless invited to do so. It’s not out of fear; it’s a way to show respect. Even today, this is still done in some places. Y)U never lose anything by showing your respect. Now you will see what Arjuna gained through his respect.
He stood there patiently. After a few minutes, Krishna’s “sleep” was over. What do you see first if you wake up and just open your eyes? The one standing by your feet.
“Hello, Arjuna,” Lord Krishna said, “When did you come? Have you been standing there long? Why don’t you sit?”
“No, I’m happy to stand, Sir.”
Then Krishna turned and saw Duryodhana. “Hello, Duryodhana, you’re also here. That’s fine. When did you come?”
“I came here first to ask your help. You should give preference to the one who comes first.”
Krishna looked at Arjuna, who nodded, as if to say he also had come for the Lord’s help.
Then Krishna spoke: “Duryodhana, I believe you when you say you came first, but I was sleeping when you both came* As I awoke my eyes fell first on Arjuna. You came first, but I saw him first. Therefore, I should help you both.
“To be neutral and impartial I’ll give each something. I’ll divide my energy into two portions. One of you can have my entire army. The other can have just me—unarmed, and I won’t fight. Now you have the choice before you.
“As you know, the younger of two should be allowed to choose first. Now Arjuna, think well before you make your choice.”
Duryodhana was thinking, “Oh God, don’t let him ask for the army!”
“Without you, Sir,” said Arjuna, “what can I do with your army? It’s enough just to have you.” And he fell at the feet of Lord Krishna.
“You get what you want,” said Krishna.
“That’s fine with me.” Duryodhana was so relieved. “What am I going to do with you? I want your entire army, your power!”
“Okay, you get what you want and he gets what he wants. Good!”
After Duryodhana left, Krishna said to Arjuna, “You only got me. I won’t use even a sword or a bow. I’ll be simply empty-handed. What can I do?”
Arjuna laughed: “Do you think I don’t know who you are, my Lord? Sir, I’ve been waiting for just such an opportunity as this. If I enter the field of battle with you as my charioteer, the world will see virtue established. Please drive my chariot. Take the reins.”
That’s how the supreme Lord Krishna became the charioteer of the warrior, Arjuna.
Even after this, Krishna went to see Duryodhana and say, “There is still time; can’t we settle this peacefully?” But Duryodhana had plotted again. Before Krishna came, Duryodhana had a beautiful throne built for him as if he were receiving Krishna with honors. But the throne was set on small reeds, with a huge pit below. Duryodhana was foolish enough to think he could destroy the Lord himself. Krishna came in—of course knowing everything—and sat down on the throne. When it broke, he remained seated in mid-air over the pit.
Then he said, I’m sorry to see that nothing can help you now. You have decided to destroy yourselves.” He returned to the Pandavas, and everything was prepared for the war.
Finally, both armies were arrayed opposite one another on a large field called Kurukshetra. At this point, Arjuna wanted to look more closely at the people he was about to fight. He already knew them. Still he said, “Let me just have a look. Krishna, please drive my chariot into the middle of the battlefield.” It is here that the Bhagavad Gita begins.
But before we go into it, here’s an important point about the Gita, The entire dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, and the war itself can be seen as allegory. The historic Kurukshetra battlefield is symbolic of the human frame. Life centered in the body is a kind of warfare. The Pandavas and Kauravas are parallel to the good and bad human tendencies. The bad tendencies are the Kauravas—naturally in the majority. And why are they considered bad? Because they’re born of a “blind” father, which is ignorance. You may remember that Dhritarashtra was blind, while his brother Pandu is said to be white-skinned. This isn’t a reference to his race. The word pandu means white, which represents sattva, purity and tranquility. The five sons of Pandu are the products of tranquility and represent the virtuous human qualities.
There is a constant struggle between the good and bad, but both must get their energy from the supreme God or the Atman, the inner consciousness. Without the Atman or Self, even the bad qualities couldn’t do anything. Lord Krishna represents the Atman. The good qualities always seek the guidance of the inner consciousness, the Atman, or Krishna; whereas other tendencies seek the help of the senses and physical forces—Krishna’s army.
So this Kurukshetra battle didn’t happen just once some thousands of years ago. It’s constantly happening. It’s within each of us. If the good tendencies will allow their conscience to guide them, they can have the grace and friendship of the Lord, and they can win the battle of life.
On yet another level, the war chariot is the body; the five beautiful horses are the five senses; and the reins that control the horses are the buddhi or intellect. If that intellect, the discriminative faculty, is in the hands of the conscience, which is God in you, then your chariot runs well. If the soul or desirous mind sits behind and simply follows what the conscience says, it will be always successful. That’s the allegorical meaning behind the Gita.
For Sri Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, read, The Living Gita.