The first chapter opens with the old blind king and father of the Kauravas, Dhritarashtra sitting in his palace in far-off Hastinapura asking the seer Sanjaya to give him a full account of events on the battlefield at Kurukshetra.
Dhritarashtra said: Sanjaya, what did the Pandavas and my people do when, wanting to fight, they assembled together on the holy plain of Kurukshetra? (1.1)
In spite of his sons having a clear advantage and the battle not having begun yet, Dhritarashtra already seems to have much interest in its development. Perhaps he feels some remorse for letting relations between kin arrive at such a critical point. From here on out, the entire dialog between Krishna and Arjuna is narrated by Sanjaya.
The start of the Gita sets the stage for the rest of the 700-verse narrative. In fact, the Gita mostly amounts to just one scene and a dialog between an officer and his chariot driver before the start of a great battle. All the characters and props mentioned in the first chapter simply serve as a backdrop to Arjuna’s grief and eventual understanding. Before the battle is to begin, Arjuna asks his driver, Krishna to place his great chariot in the open space between the two armies in order to get a better look at who he must contend with.
In a kingdom split between two fratricidal groups, Arjuna and his brothers, the Pandavas, have had years of trouble with the dominant Kauravas lead by their evil cousin, Duryodhana. The Pandavas’ list of grievances is long with their troubles beginning years before the battle, as told in the Mahabharata:
As a youth, Duryodhana hatches a plot to poison and drown Arjuna’s brother, Bhima.
Duryodhana participates in a plan along with his trickster uncle and mentor, Shakuni, to trap the five Pandava brothers and their mother in a burning house.
Duryodhana recruits his uncle again to help cheat the Pandavas in a game of dice that spells ruin for the five brothers.
After the eldest of the Pandava brothers, the righteous King Yudhishthira (also known as Dharmaputra) loses to Shakuni, Duryodhana humiliates the brothers by attempting to take the brothers’ wife, Draupadi, as his personal slave (in the Mahabharata, Draupadi has all five brothers as her husbands).
An agreement is made to play another game of dice, providing one more chance for the Pandavas to win back their share of the kingdom. Yudhishthira duly accepts—and loses, again. This loss sends the Pandava brothers and Draupadi into exile to live an austere life in the forest for twelve years and spend a thirteenth year in concealment doing menial work for a King Virata.
Upon their return to the kingdom, Duryodhana refuses to give back any of the promised Kuru kingdom to the Pandavas.
In short, Duryodhana is an atatayi—a criminal of heinous acts. In Sanskrit, an atatayi is one who carries out any of the six following wrongdoings: sets fire, poisons, attacks the unarmed with weapons, robs and plunders one’s wealth, takes one’s land, or takes one’s wife. In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is guilty of all six crimes. His characteristics are not unlike your modern-day despot ruled by ambition and desire for which history never seems to tire. Scripture says that if an adharmic person (one who goes against dharma) doesn’t change through conciliation, compensation, or logic, then the fourth step is punishment, which may only be given by a member of the warrior caste. Duryodhana’s misdeeds have been going on unabated for too long and something must finally be done about it. After much pleading and negotiation, war seems to be the only solution as Yudhishthira reluctantly asks his brothers to put together an army to defeat their cousins, the Kauravas.
The task is daunting. For starters, having relations with both sides of the family, Krishna agrees to be Arjuna’s charioteer on the condition that Duryodhana gets Krishna’s army. The Pandavas are able to raise an army of seven divisions, but the Kauravas raise an even larger force of eleven. Both armies recruit allies, kings and chieftains from areas near and far. But out of fear of repercussions from Duryodhana, outside support gathers in favor of the Kauravas. Those remaining, who led their lives according to dharma, take sides with the Pandavas. All together there are several million on the battlefield at Kurukshetra—a virtual sea of men, weapons, banners, chariots and elephants for as far as the eye can see.
But it isn’t the size of the Kaurava army that suddenly makes Arjuna feel weak and sickened. After all, Arjuna was not one to easily be made fearful. He was a well-trained military strategist and certainly knew how to fight when outnumbered. It was who Arjuna must destroy in order to win the battle that made him sit down in his chariot and drop his weapon in despair. From Arjuna’s vantage point, he could see the revered elder, Bhishma, who held Arjuna on his lap as a child; and his respected teacher, Drona who helped make Arjuna into one of the greatest archers in all of Bharata (ancient India). There were also his 100 cousins that although always having a mean streak for Arjuna and his brothers, were still of the same blood. Not to mention friends, acquaintances and the impoverished who were recruited to act as a human shield from Arjuna’s arrows and defend Duryodhana’s illegitimate rule. All of these men collected before Arjuna were dragged into battle due to Duryodhana’s scheming ways, various personal obligations, as well as a blind adherence to protocol.
At the sight of all his own relatives and teachers facing him in battle, Arjuna is weakened by sorrow and a feeling of overwhelming empathy. Compassion can be a useful emotion, but not during war when, after pursuing all other alternatives, the objective is to bring down the enemy. Thus, Arjuna’s compassion is misplaced and delusion has set in to cloud his mind.
Seeing his family and teachers on the opposing side, Arjuna quickly loses heart and wishes to renounce the battle. The great prince warrior pleads to Krishna that he would rather to be killed than to kill:
What sins await those who kill one’s own people just to enjoy the pleasures of the kingdom? Better it would be that the sons of Dhrtarashtra kill me, which I would surely welcome without any resistance. (1.45-46)
Like a wounded animal, Arjuna can’t see past his predicament and wants to lie down and die. The walls are quickly moving in and he sees no possible way out—and that’s the point! The author, Vyasa, has put our protagonist in a situation that couldn’t be any more frustrating. Like any of us grievously caught in maya’s trap, Arjuna sees no escape. He’s left totally debilitated and confused by his current situation and yet, he senses there is something he is not able to grasp. He’s looking for the solution that will set him free, but what is it? What is it that he’s not able to see? And for that matter, what is that we aren’t able to see?
Arjuna wants to rid his heart of sorrow once and for all. He’s stuck in samsara due the conflict between his duty and affections. Scripture states that because of our ignorance, suffering is common to all human beings. We become trapped in our suffering in little and big ways, over and over again due to our misinterpretation of reality. This, in turn, can either lead to inquiry or escape, and as beings with cunning intellects, escape can come in many forms. Our escape might be alcohol, drugs, sex, consumerism, media or any of the hundreds of ways we humans look for the exits, including the ultimate escape—death.
Samsara is the bondage we feel when we find ourselves dependent on outside objects for happiness. When we become attached to objects—including wealth, power and relationships—we lose our ability to discriminate. Arjuna’s attachment is to his kin standing on the other side. While it’s not hard to sympathize with Arjuna and feel his grief, Krishna will remind him that as a member of the warrior class, it’s his duty to fight adharmic forces and that no bad karma will be accrued as a result. Nevertheless, it’s a tough sell and Arjuna persists in bemoaning his situation.
Arjuna is showing the three classic symptoms of samsara: attachment (raga), sorrow (shoka) and delusion (moha). Chapter 2 describes in detail the process for how attachment leads to delusion, but for now we can say Arjuna’s misery is derived from his binding to certain people, making him confused and unable to tell the difference between what is dharmic and what is adharmic. Due to this confusion, Arjuna forgets his duty and loses the ability to use his intellect and think objectively. In Chapter 2 he admits his confusion about his duty, while deeply lamenting:
Indeed, even if I were to obtain the greatest and most prosperous kingdom on earth and power over all the heavens, this sorrow that dries up the senses I would still have. (2.8)
Arjuna has name, fame, power and more, and yet, he still can’t get around his sorrow. Even if he were to obtain the greatest kingdom on earth and have dominion over all the heavens “this sorrow that dries up the senses I would still have.” Which just goes to show what we already intuitively know—that human sorrow cannot be resolved by any of the things he has. In addition, it cannot be resolved by any of the myriad ways humans try to numb themselves and keep suffering at bay.
If we compare samsara to a disease, next, we must assume there’s a cure or a process for returning us to good health. Vedanta’s description of this process is similar to the kind of advice you might find if you were to attend a meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous. First, there’s the discovery of the problem or admitting that you have a problem. As Krishna stands by patiently listening, most of the chapter is dedicated to Arjuna admitting he has a problem and expressing all the ways in which his problems will seemingly increase if he follows through with his responsibility.
Second, is the discovery of helplessness. At the end of Chapter 1, Arjuna sits down in his chariot and casts his bow aside. By use of his body language alone, he shows Krishna he no longer has the will to fight. Arjuna is now in the thick of samsara, made helpless by maya’s powers of concealment and projection.
Third, there is surrender. In the second chapter Arjuna seeks refuge in Krishna as his teacher. Like Arjuna, we also need help because (1) ignorance is persistent (2) we can't see what we don't know and (3) the riddle of samsara is too hard to crack on our own.
The last stage of the process is taking the medication, for which Krishna uses the remaining seventeen chapters to explain in great detail, the discipline and knowledge required to gain freedom.
Arjuna needs to regain composure and as we will see in the next chapter, gaining back composure can never come by adding on more desire (for things to change) or fear (that they won’t change). Real composure can only be developed through an understanding of our experience. Because there is no end to samsara, there’s only getting out.