The Bhagavad Gita is succinctly summarized at the end of each chapter as “a dialog between Arjuna and Krishna, which is the essence of the Upanishads, whose subject matter is both the knowledge of Brahman and yoga.” From this condensed description, we are able to extract that the Bhagavad Gita is about a great warrior prince named Arjuna, who is committed to an epic battle he’s unable to fight due to what he perceives as an impossible moral choice. Being debilitated by the emotional weight of his predicament, Arjuna has a nervous breakdown on the front line next to his friend and charioteer, Krishna. Unbeknownst to Arjuna, Krishna encompasses the knowledge needed for Arjuna to overcome his grief, and therefore, follow through with his duty. As the narrative develops, the divine Krishna reveals the knowledge to Arjuna in a way that not only teaches Arjuna how to vanquish his sorrow and continue with the battle, but also discloses to him, the essence of the ancient wisdom teachings (Upanishads). Krishna, who in the Gita personifies God, achieves this by teaching Arjuna of the absolute reality (Brahman) and the means to realizing it (yoga).
Our first impression of the Gita might be that of a somewhat difficult-to-follow dialog between two noble warriors, complete with some great wisdom quotes. However, the Gita has a value that is often lost by commentators who mistakingly focus on only one or two aspects of it, whether that be discipline, devotion or Self-knowledge. The real value of the Gita is experienced when its combined themes are seen as a comprehensive resource for helping to get through life’s challenges—because getting through life’s difficulties doesn’t necessitate just one or two aspects of the Gita, it involves all of them.
We find a clue to the Gita’s main message written in the second chapter where the distraught Arjuna expresses his anguish and Krishna accepts the role as his guru. After patiently listening to Arjuna’s arguments for renouncing the battle, Krishna responds at the opportune moment by saying:
Although you speak words of wisdom, you grieve for those who needn’t be grieved for. The wise grieve neither for the living or for the dead. (2.11)
With this single verse, Krishna hints to Arjuna (and to the rest of us) that what we are missing is a key piece of information—knowledge that has the potential to free us from whatever painful difficulty we currently find ourselves in (and in the case of Arjuna, it’s a big one).
The compiler of the Gita, attributed to the poet-seer, Vyasa, has put Arjuna, the Pandava warrior prince, in what appears to be an almost impossible situation. The details leading up to the battle at Kurukshetra are described in full detail in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, for which the Bhagavad Gita is a small but significant part. In the Mahabharata, the Gita serves as a sort of quiet contemplation before the brutal violence of a lengthy, bloody war where millions will die. What’s important to know is that the battle is a dharmayuddha, a righteous war between the heroic Pandavas and the villainous Kauravas in order to uphold dharma—which can be defined, in this case, as the universal moral laws that keep civilization in balance. Scripture states that a dharmayuddha is a legitimate use of violence and does not go against the very dharma it proposes to defend (as Arjuna forgets when he becomes confused upon seeing friends and family standing with the enemy).
On the Kaurava’s side there is the main antagonist, Duryodhana who represents the unprincipled nature of man, displaying such unbecoming traits as thievery, jealousy, arrogance and deceit. Running up to the beginning of the battle, Duryodhana and his brothers exhibit ruthless and cruel behavior against their cousins, the Pandavas, in order to humiliate them and gain complete control of the partitioned kingdom of Hastinapura. Due to protocol and certain agreements made by his relatives and teachers with Duryodhana, Arjuna finds himself having to do battle with a limited army and against those very people he most cares about.
In the overall context of the Gita, the details leading up to the war aren’t as important as to how it sets the stage for a unique student-teacher dialog in which Arjuna finds himself not only fighting a battle with outside forces, but with forces within that obscure the truth. Krishna must help Arjuna move beyond the doubts and delusions that overpower his will to fight so that he may lead the Pandava army in restoring society’s balance.
Although it’s believed the Gita was originally written for householders as a compendium of the Upanishads, its verses still exhibit profound insight into the nature of existence and that which causes us anxiety—our suffering born of confusion. What the Gita indirectly demonstrates is the means for pursuing the truth even while in the midst of life’s challenges. After all, Arjuna is hardly a renunciate. He’s a crowned prince with extensive military training and responsibilities, not to mention a family honor to preserve. Although at this exact moment in the narrative he would prefer to walk away from the battle and retreat to a quiet life of contemplation as a sadhu, Krishna won’t have it. In this way, the battlefield upon which Arjuna finds himself is representative of our own struggle to make sense of experience in spite of the many duties and outside pressures that (more often than not) have us wanting to step out.
The Bhagavad Gita is an allegory that uses the backdrop of an epic battle, to communicate the message that there is a way out of our suffering. Thus, apart from whether or not such a battle ever occurred, the point of the drama is to present an extreme portrayal of our own internal struggle. Arjuna is experiencing great adversity and it is Krishna’s role as his charioteer to help him get through it—both literally and philosophically. In the end, Krishna (in spite of his divine nature) can’t make Arjuna pick up his weapon and defend dharma. Krishna can only give to Arjuna the knowledge needed to get through his quandary.
For many of us, life is perceived as an immense challenge—a sort of on-going crisis we must follow through with. Life can be either a blessing or a curse depending on how one manages it. If you don’t have the right knowledge you may still get through it with only a few scratches and bruises—but there’s no guarantee, and there will be suffering. You will suffer because a life misunderstood is certain to disappoint, over and over again. While pain is inevitable, suffering is manageable given the proper knowledge and the will to apply it. Our suffering will always be measurable to the degree to which we understand our experience. To put it more succinctly, what we don’t understand regarding our own experience, hurts. Ignorance is painful, which is why Vedanta argues that our problem isn’t an external one, it’s an internal one.
Everyday, like Arjuna, we fight the silent battle against that which obscures the truth and projects the false. Without the right knowledge we are gluttons for punishment on life’s treadmill. Arjuna must pick up his weapon and do what must be done, not just for his own honor and to uphold dharma, but in order to no longer be bound by the ignorance which keeps him in the dark, confused and unsettled. This is the real battle that Arjuna and each one of us must eventually face, and it’s the primary focus of the Gita.
As an aside, in a world where literal interpretation of scripture is often used to justify hatred and violence, it should be noted that the Gita’s war setting isn’t about guiltless killing or doing what one wants because in the end, “nothing matters.“ The Gita’s message isn’t nihilistic. The gravity of Arjuna’s predicament is only used as a literary vehicle to awaken our protagonist to the truth about his (and our own) suffering. Fortunately for Arjuna, he has at his side, the “guru of all gurus” to show him the way during his greatest time of need. Beyond Arjuna’s personal objective to escape from his state of confusion, his duty as chief warrior is to destroy the immoral adharmic forces that are undermining the kingdom’s unity.
Vedanta teaches that dharma is never absolute and is best applied intelligently on a situation-by-situation basis. Where violence may be perceived as evil in one situation, it may be justified in another (see World War II). In Arjuna’s case, even though he is utterly opposed to killing his relatives and teachers that out of loyalty to the kingdom have taken sides with the evil Kauravas, he eventually sees with the help of Krishna that it is his role to fight, defeat and punish the wrongdoers. So although the potential for violence continues within the broader storyline of the Mahabharata and helps set the stage for the teachings of the Gita, in no way does it promote a senseless and blind destruction of one’s adversaries. Throughout the Gita, the message is that Arjuna is fighting a righteous war, both without—but more importantly—within.