By Visakha Devi Dasi
Like Arjuna, we have attachments, hopes, fears, guilt, and confusion. And a similar path to happiness.
Recently, in rereading the first chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, I felt something I hadn’t before – a surge of empathy for Arjuna in his plight. His problems were not unique to him. They were also my problems. And perhaps our problems.
For one, Arjuna’s material attachments were clouding his knowledge and ability to act. He revealed this when he said, “I am now unable to stand here any longer. I am forgetting myself and my mind is reeling. I see only causes of misfortune, O Krishna.” (Gita 1.30)
Second, due to his attachments, Arjuna was certain he wouldn’t get happiness or pleasure from doing what he was supposed to do – fight and win the war. Arjuna said, “What pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarashtra?” (Gita 1.31–35) In other words, the result of the pending battle would cause just the opposite of his desires.
Third, Arjuna feared the sinful reactions that would ensue if he won. In his words: “Sin will overcome us if we slay such aggressors.” (Gita 1.36) Killing his enemies, he foresaw, would result in his future suffering.
Furthermore, regardless of who won the war two dynasties were poised to destroy each other and Arjuna felt implicated in the horrors that would ensue. “With the destruction of dynasty, the eternal family tradition is vanquished, and thus the rest of the family becomes involved in irreligion.” ( Gita 1.39) With the patriarchs dead, young men and women survivors would become adrift and irreligious. Then pious family traditions would not be passed on to future generations, children would be neglected, and community projects and family welfare activities would stop. In other words, society would become chaotic.
Arjuna wanted to do the right thing and was trying to think through his options with logic, reason, and scriptural discernment, but despite his best intentions, he was hopelessly confused and distressed. He asked Krishna, “How can I counterattack in battle men who are worthy of my worship? It would be better to live by begging. I do not know which is better – conquering them or being conquered by them. If I killed them I should not care to live. I am confused about my duty and have lost my composure. Please instruct me.” (Gita 2.4–7, excerpts)
Arjuna’s situation was extreme, yet the material attachments, hopes for happiness, fears, guilt, and confusion he felt are feelings I and probably many of us experience and can relate to. In replying to Arjuna, Krishna gave him transformative knowledge that can forever uplift his consciousness and ours.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead’s Teachings
Krishna began by explaining that the soul is eternal, the body temporary. He said, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings.” (Gita 2.12) In other words, when the body dies, the soul does not die but transmigrates to another body.
Arjuna’s distress was due to his attachment to the perishable bodies of his friends and relatives. Krishna advised Arjuna to tolerate life’s inevitable distresses. He said, “O Arjuna, the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation.” ( Gita 2.15) We may think it easy to deal with happiness; distress is the problem. But in fact, if we’re elated by happiness, we will also be distraught by distress. Thus Krishna advises us to be equipoised in both. Later on in the Gita Krishna likened the body to a vehicle – it can transport us to our destination, our goal. And that goal should be spiritual, for we are spiritual beings. The soul is Krishna’s integral spiritual part; the body His external material energy.
Arjuna thought that by saving his family members from harm – that is, by not fighting – he was expressing his love for them. But Krishna didn’t agree. Krishna said, “The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is sure to come to an end; therefore, fight, O descendant of Bharata.” (Gita 2.18) In the ultimate issue, the body cannot be protected. Therefore, in Krishna’s estimation, Arjuna’s shirking his duty due to tender feelings for his relatives and friends was misdirected.
Also misdirected was Arjuna’s conviction that fighting would lead to his unhappiness. After advising Arjuna to be equipoised in material happiness and distress, Krishna argued that even from a material perspective, the perspective Arjuna was considering, fighting would bring him happiness: “Either you will be killed on the battlefield and attain the heavenly planets, or you will conquer and enjoy the earthly kingdom.” (Gita 2.37)
Arjuna thought that fighting would incur sinful reactions, but Krishna said the opposite was true: “If you do not perform your religious duty of fighting, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties.” (Gita 2.33) Moments later, Krishna reinforced this point: “Do thou fighting for the sake of fighting, without considering happiness or distress, loss or gain, victory or defeat – and by so doing you shall never incur sin.” ( Gita 2.38)
Arjuna foresaw havoc if society’s leaders were killed. Again, Krishna saw the opposite – that if Arjuna didn’t do his prescribed duty, others would follow his bad example and the fabric of society would crumble (Gita 3.23–24).
Finally, after explaining the intricacies of knowledge, duty, and action, Krishna decisively said, “O Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me, with full knowledge of Me, without desires for profit, with no claims to proprietorship, and free from lethargy, fight.” (Gita 3.30) And to reinforce His statement, Krishna repeated it a little later: “The doubts which have arisen in your heart out of ignorance should be slashed by the weapon of knowledge. Armed with yoga, O Arjuna, stand and fight.” (Gita 4.42) Krishna wanted to sweep away Arjuna’s confusion.
Fighting for the right cause was Arjuna’s personal dharma – his occupational duty – and there would be no sin incurred for him if he did this duty in the proper consciousness, that is, as a service to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Such selfless spiritual action would bring Arjuna the highest happiness and would, in the final issue, benefit his family and friends on both sides of the battle. Srila Prabhupada explains, “All the soldiers and persons on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra attained their original spiritual form like the Lord after their death because by the causeless mercy of the Lord they were able to see Him face to face on that occasion.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.39, Purport) Krishna only wants the highest good for everyone, and following His directives will bring about that end.
In my first readings of the Bhagavad-gita, I couldn’t see much relationship between Arjuna’s extreme plight and what I faced in my life. Now, however, I see that beyond the vastly differing circumstances, our underlying challenges are similar.
Like Arjuna, I am materially attached to my own body and those of my family and friends. Last year, for example, when my daughter was in extreme pain from gallstones, I suffered with her vicariously. The body can give us intense pain in ways we can’t expect or even imagine. We shouldn’t ignore that pain, pretending it doesn’t exist, or be callous to suffering. How then are we to deal with material bodily attachments and the pain too often associated with them?
With Krishna’s words in the Gita as our guide, we can begin by accepting this world as a place of misery where distresses will inevitably come, as will happiness. This is simple reality, not pessimism. Krishna said, “From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place.” (Gita 8.16)
With that understanding firmly in place, we tolerate. This point – tolerating – comes up repeatedly in Krishna’s teachings. One of His first instructions was “O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” (Gita 2.14)
Since pleasure and pain will come in this world regardless of what we do or don’t do, Krishna wants us to be detached from this world and neutral to its extremes. Srila Prabhupada explains: “Generally, when we get something desirable we are very happy, and when we get something undesirable we are distressed. But if we are actually in the spiritual position these things will not agitate us.” (Gita 13.8, Purport) Being detached and equipoised when we or our loved one is suffering is not easy. But just knowing that it is possible and desirable helps us become free of the happiness–distress continuum. Accessing that wealth of tolerance allows us to do our duty despite discomfort and suffering, and when we do our duty for Krishna we can advance spiritually.
Arjuna thought if he did what he was supposed to do, that is, if he won the war, he’d be miserable. Krishna corrected his thinking, putting Arjuna’s duty above his whims. Similarly, I know devotee college students who find the tomes they’re obliged to study insufferably tedious and seemingly irrelevant to their lives. They have a strong desire to leave their studies and follow their caprices. But if their sense of duty prevails and they continue their studies as a service to Krishna, their austerities can yield a transcendental result.
In Krishna’s words: “Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krishna and at the same time continue your prescribed duty of fighting. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.” (Gita 8.7) To deviate from our duty does not help us progress spiritually. As Arjuna shouldn’t shirk his duty, so we shouldn’t shirk ours. Prabhupada writes, “Discharging one’s specific duty in any field of action in accordance with the orders of higher authorities serves to elevate one to a higher status of life.” (Gita 2.31, Purport)
The path Krishna was illuminating – the dutiful toleration of pain and suffering – may appear dry and grim, but in fact, our ultimate duty, devotional service to Krishna, is the only path to lasting happiness. In Krishna’s words, devotional service is “joyfully performed” (Gita 9.2). Srila Prabhupada elaborates: “The process of devotional service is a very happy one (su-sukham). Why? Devotional service consists of shravanam kirtanam vishnoh, so one can simply hear the chanting of the glories of the Lord or can attend philosophical lectures on transcendental knowledge given by authorized acharyas. Simply by sitting, one can learn; then one can eat the remnants of the food offered to God, nice palatable dishes. In every state devotional service is joyful.” (Gita 9.2, Purport)
Far from being dry and grim, doing our duty as devotional service for the pleasure of Krishna brings the greatest fulfillment and happiness. Toward the end of Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna expressed this when he said, “The world becomes joyful upon hearing Your name.” (Gita 11.36) On the other hand, trying for happiness separate from Krishna leaves us confused and entrapped in this world of misery, which is what Arjuna was experiencing as the Gita opened.
Fear of the Future
Arjuna wanted to avoid the sinful reactions he foresaw in his future. But in reality, whatever our duty is, there will be some flaw in it, some unpleasant and seemingly sinful aspects to it. It’s not that we can drop our duty and think we can avoid those flaws and unpleasantries, because just as fire has smoke, so material activities are flawed. We can’t avoid those flaws by not doing anything, because by its nature the soul is active. As inactivity is contrary to our nature as spiritual beings, not only is it not feasible, but it’s also sinful.
Yet activity is also problematic. Srila Prabhupada writes, “In the business field, sometimes a merchant has to tell so many lies to make a profit. If he does not do so, there can be no profit. Sometimes a merchant says, ‘Oh, my dear customer, for you I am making no profit,’ but one should know that without profit the merchant cannot exist. Therefore it should be taken as a simple lie if a merchant says that he is not making a profit.” (Gita 18.47, Purport)
We have to do something in this material world, so we act according to our nature. But whatever it is we do, from the highest position to the lowest, there will be undesirable aspects to it. That’s unavoidable. So we continue acting, knowing that if we do our prescribed duty for Krishna’s pleasure, we will not incur any reactions. Krishna will absolve us of sin.
Prabhupada puts it this way: “One should not give up his natural occupation because there are some disturbing elements. Rather, one should be determined to serve the Supreme Lord by his occupational duty in Krishna consciousness. That is the perfectional point. When a particular type of occupation is performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord, all the defects in that particular occupation are purified. When the results of work are purified, when connected with devotional service, one becomes perfect in seeing the self within, and that is self-realization.” (Gita 18.48, Purport)
If Arjuna didn’t do his duty, he would be degraded due to doing the wrong activity. Our case is similar – if we act whimsically, imagining what our duty is and isn’t, it will reflect poorly on our consciousness and spiritual progress.
We can try to do our duty for Krishna, feel our affection for His devotees strengthened by our service, experience happiness through this selfless service, and understand it as a process for becoming purified and free of sinful reactions. But what if we foresee, as Arjuna did, future havoc in society as a result of our duty? Wouldn’t it be better to renounce such a duty?
In Arjuna’s case, no. He was Krishna’s instrument in ridding the world of immoral, burdensome people. In our case, it may be something to consider. Not long ago I met a brilliant young devotee who worked as a biochemist in the food industry. She was part of a team that was removing the chemical in potatoes that makes them darken after they’re cut. Industrialized food companies were intending to sell the peeled, washed, and cut potatoes in packages, much like the baby carrots that have long been available. I asked this devotee what effect eating those potatoes would have on consumers’ health, and she said that since they were removing a chemical instead of adding or altering chemicals, the federal government’s health department considered them safe. But, she said, no one actually knew how eating those altered potatoes would affect people’s health long term. She also said she was looking for different work, as she felt the work she was doing was unconscionable. I had to agree with her.
In today’s world there are many such jobs with questionable ramifications. As far as possible and practical, our work should be something we feel good about, something that will not harm the planet and the innocent living entities residing on it.
Although a heroic and powerful general, Arjuna was so bewildered by his conflicting considerations that he became incapacitated. This may seem like a weakness and disqualification, but actually Arjuna’s considering the pros and cons of his involvement in the battle was evidence of his divine qualities. That his enemies weren’t considering these pros and cons – the suffering that would ensue from their actions, the sinful reactions they might incur, and the ramifications in society – and that they were hellbent on fighting and weren’t bewildered are signs of their disqualifications to be leaders. Krishna wanted Arjuna to rid the world of them.
Given certain circumstances, confusion is a good sign. This world is filled with conflict and conflicting opinions, and those of us who want to act conscientiously, rather than solely for personal material profit, may find ourselves bewildered. We can take careful note of how Arjuna resolved his bewilderment: he approached a qualified person and sought guidance. We can do the same.
Prabhupada writes, “The Lord spoke Bhagavad-gita, and thereby Arjuna achieved self-realization, and even today anyone who follows the path of Arjuna can also attain the same benefit as Sri Arjuna. The scriptures are meant for this purpose.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.7.3, Purport) Arjuna’s path was to humbly serve and respect a bona fide spiritual master, inquire from him, and follow his instructions. In doing this Arjuna found the solace also available to us. Arjuna said, “O Krishna, I totally accept as truth all that You have told me.” (Gita 10.14) And later, after Krishna asked him, “O Arjuna, have you heard this with an attentive mind? And are your ignorance and illusions now dispelled?” (Gita 18.72) Arjuna’s answer reveals his clarity of mind and intention: “My dear Krishna, O infallible one, my illusion is now gone. I have regained my memory by Your mercy. I am now firm and free from doubt and am prepared to act according to Your instructions.” (Gita 18.73)
Similar clarity is available to us if we follow Arjuna’s path.
Although the concept of duty plays an important role in Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad-gita, it may not be a concept we know much about or are attracted to. Yet the inescapable fact is that human life comes with duties: for example, our responsibilities to our children, the work we must do to survive in this world, and our expressions of gratitude to our many benefactors. With our life comes responsibility, and responsibility entails duty.
What Arjuna confronted on the battlefield and we also sometimes confront is unpalatable duty – duty contrary to our desires and perhaps our sense of righteousness. Through the beautiful verses of the Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna and all willing listeners that we should not do anything – either good or bad – on our own account, but must do everything on behalf of Him, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “Duties must be carried out, with dependence on Krishna, because that is the constitutional position of the living entity. The living entity cannot be happy independent of the cooperation of the Supreme Lord, because the eternal constitutional position of the living entity is to become subordinate to the desires of the Lord.” (Gita 3.30, Purport)
We carry out our duty remembering that Krishna – not us – is the enjoyer of the results of our activity. Krishna told Arjuna and through him all of us, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action.” (Gita 2.47) And later: “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me.” (Gita 9.27).
In other words, we are meant to do our duty for Krishna. Our first and foremost duty is to serve Him. To this end, we hear about Him. After hearing, we naturally want to speak about His qualities and activities, and from those sincere practices we remember Krishna’s transcendental nature. By our hearing about Him, speaking about Him, and remembering Him, our activities become more and more spiritualized and we increasingly feel Krishna’s presence in our lives. Our material attachments wane along with our feelings of fear, guilt, and confusion. Our path becomes clear.
In the final verse of the Gita, the narrator, Sanjaya, said, “Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality.” (Gita 18.78) Srila Prabhupada explains that if we properly use our minute independence, we will act for Krishna’s pleasure and come under His divine protection. Then all our miseries will cease, and we will attain our “normal condition in the pleasure-giving potency” (Gita 18.78, Purport).
We will be completely and lastingly happy.