Though seemingly lacking in philosophy, Chapter 1 of the Bhagavad-gita helps clarify the book’s relevance to our lives.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
The absence of philosophy in the opening chapter of the Bhagavad-gita is more than compensated for by its vivid description of the context – a context that makes the subsequent philosophy relevant, even riveting.

The First Chapter at a Glance

In the Bhagavad-gita’s first chapter, after Dhritarashtra asks about the events happening on the battlefield (1.1), Sanjaya responds by describing how Duryodhana assesses the strengths of the two assembled armies (1.2–11). Then Bhishma blows his conchshell (1.12), signifying the start of the war, and all the Kauravas follow suit (1.13). From the other side, the Pandavas respond by blowing their conchshells (1.14–19).

When the war is thus set to start, Arjuna makes a surprising request to Krishna: take my chariot to the middle of the battlefield (1.21–23). Krishna obliges (1.24) and urges Arjuna to behold the Kauravas, headed by Bhishma and Drona (1.25). Arjuna sees relatives on both sides and becomes overwhelmed (1.26–27). Dreading the toll the impending war will take, he articulates several reservations about fighting (1.28–45) and finally casts aside his bow (1.46).

The Bhagavad-gita is widely known as a book of profound philosophy. Yet it begins with an entire chapter devoted to historical content. Considering that chapter unimportant, many readers skip it and start with the second chapter. Even some modern Gita commentators succumb to this tendency of downplaying the first chapter.

Given that the Gita is not a large book – all its Sanskrit verses could fit in the front and back pages of the New York Times – why does it spend an entire chapter on history? Because that chapter is crucial for establishing the context in which its central message is delivered.

To understand why the Gita’s first chapter matters, consider five reasons.

  1. Quandary addressed: When our inner map fails

Our life is shaped significantly by our decisions. And we face the greatest decision-making challenges amid situations wherein we just can’t figure out what to do. The Gita’s first chapter illustrates how Arjuna finds himself in such a quandary. He is torn between his duty to dynasty (kula-dharma) and his duty to society (kshatriya-dharma): should he protect his relatives even when they were aggressors, or should he protect society from those aggressors? Being unable to decide, he feels overwhelmed (1.30).

To better understand Arjuna’s predicament, let’s consider a map metaphor. Suppose I’m driving on an important journey using a digital map, but suddenly my map stops working. That will leave me disoriented. Similar was Arjuna’s disorientation – except that it arose from a failure of not an outer map, but his inner map.

We all have an inner map that guides us during our life journey. Even if we haven’t consciously contemplated the existence of such a map, it still subconsciously shapes our choices. That map comprises the values we hold sacred and the purposes we consider important. Suppose we are presented with an opportunity to invest in a project that promises large returns but also involves huge risks. If we value adventure more than security, the investment choice gets the green light on our inner map; otherwise, it gets the red light.

But what if the inner map lights for both choices? Suppose a judge has to adjudicate a case where her son is charged with a crime. As she values both her family and her job, she will feel torn. Suppose further that she has no option of recusing herself. While such a scenario is unrealistic in real-life jurisprudence, we can still use this hypothetical example to sense the immense emotional turmoil of a judge put in that situation Similar was the turmoil that engulfed Arjuna in the Gita’s first chapter.

When we face such disorientation, what can we do? We may take it as a personal failure of our character – that would leave us demoralized, helpless, paralyzed. Instead, we can try to see the situation as a functional failure of our map, not a personal failure.

Because our map is inside us and has been created by us consciously or unconsciously, it’s not easy to look at it instead of looking with it. Nonetheless, that inner map is ultimately just like any other outer creation of ours; it’s not us. If we wrote or painted or composed something that turned out to be faulty, we would be distressed. But we wouldn’t see that flaw as a final negative verdict on our basic self-worth. By such a thought exercise, if we can see disorienting experiences dispassionately they can become opportunities to better align our inner map with reality. The Bhagavad-gita is a time-honored guidebook that delineates the contours of reality – both material and spiritual – thereby equipping us to revise and refine our inner map. And the Gita demonstrates such a realignment in Arjuna; after hearing the Gita, he became calm, clear, and confident (18.73).

  1. Universality made accessible: Blending the specific and the universal

In the Gita’s first chapter (1.32–35), Arjuna confronts a specific question: are possessions acquired at the cost of relationships worth the price? And the Gita uses that specific question as a launching pad for addressing a universal question: what really matters in life?

In adopting this approach, the Gita harnesses a basic truth of human psychology: we learn best by an expert combination of the specific and the universal. Specifics catch our attention, as when novels paint a vivid picture of places, peoples, or predicaments. But such specifics may do nothing more than captivate and titillate; particulars described in fictional or historical texts may be too different from our circumstances to be relevant. If those particulars are to help us learn anything tangible, they need to be placed in a broader framework that highlights their relevance.

When a book rises from its particular situations to broader principles that address universal human concerns, readers can better understand how those same principles apply to them. However, if those principles are presented without adequately specific examples, they may seem too abstract to comprehend or even focus on. That’s why effective teaching requires a judicious balance between the specific and the universal.

The Gita presents such a balance: it begins with a fascinating specific situation, wherein a warrior about to fight a major war suffers an emotional and ethical breakdown. The Gita’s first chapter describes a particular place, person, and predicament, thus commanding attention. Even if the characters’ names are unfamiliar, readers can still be intrigued by the overall setting. Once they invest their attention in reading further, they are led to broader questions in the Gita: Are we duty-bound to protect our relatives even if they are unrighteous or downright vicious? When is a righteous war worth the toll it takes? Or most universally: how do we decide what is dharma, the right thing to do?

By starting with a specific situation in its first chapter, the Gita captures attention; by progressing to universal human concerns in its subsequent chapters, it maintains relevance.

  1. Emergency tackled: When we feel that we have no time to think

The Bhagavad-gita’s first chapter describes an emergency situation: a battlefield where two huge armies are assembled, ready to fight.

Amid emergencies, we need to act not just immediately, but also intelligently – that is, in ways that make things better, not worse. In some emergencies, what will make things better is clear: when a fire breaks out, we need to find a fire extinguisher. But we live in a complex world, wherein some emergencies can’t be addressed by any obvious measures. Or worse still, the obvious measures may end up making things worse, not better.

Suppose a severely sick person is brought into the emergency unit of a hospital. The doctor on duty will naturally want to help that person, but suppose the patient’s sickness eludes the doctor’s diagnosis. Then the doctor needs to consult a more experienced doctor. Or suppose the diagnosis seems straightforward initially, but soon the patient starts exhibiting symptoms contrary to the initial diagnosis – that too should give the doctor pause.

In the Gita’s first chapter, Arjuna gets a similar cause to pause. When he sees the sheer scale of the impending destruction in the fratricidal war, his response changes from fighting to freezing (1.45); he is too heroic to even consider the third typical response: fleeing. Despite that initial paralysis, the same thoughtfulness that has rendered Arjuna physically inactive makes him philosophically receptive – he seeks an answer to one of life’s big questions (2.7): what is the right thing to do? The Gita demonstrates Arjuna’s exemplary readiness to patiently and attentively hear a philosophical answer on a battlefield; thus it inspires us all to be similarly contemplative whenever necessary, even amid emergencies.

  1. Sorrow channeled: When loss of purpose prompts spiritual enquiry

The Gita’s first chapter provides the setting for demonstrating one of life’s most sorrowful losses: loss of purpose. While Arjuna’s lack of purpose is hinted at in the first chapter (1.30), he makes it explicit in the second chapter. He asserts the pointlessness of all the options before him (2.6) and the pointlessness of even the conventional conception of success for a kshatriya: sovereignty in this world or prosperity in the next (2.8). And when all the doors around him get closed, he looks up – he becomes spiritually inquisitive and receives the Gita’s wisdom.

Loss and the resulting sorrow are unpalatable yet unavoidable experiences during our life journey. When we lose something desirable, that’s distressing; when something we had desired, sought, and gotten turns out to be far below our expectations, that’s even more distressing; when our experiences leave us so disoriented that we are no longer sure what is desirable, that’s most distressing. Thus, among all kinds of losses, the most unbearable is the loss of purpose.

When sorrow thus overwhelms us so much that none of the normal solutions seem workable, we become more open to exploring spiritual wisdom. Such wisdom focuses not simply on particular solutions, but on universal principles that also have specific applications for addressing current challenges. Analyzing these principles inevitably brings us to life’s spiritual dimension, wherein we anchor ourselves in timeless truths before we tackle contemporary issues. Thus the Gita provides a metaphysical foundation for the common idea that adversity opens the door to opportunity and even prosperity. The Gita’s message is meant to be not just philosophical (addressing the head’s questions), but also therapeutic (healing the heart’s sorrows). In fact, the Gita’s concluding prophecy (18.78) indicates such auspiciousness for Arjuna and for all Gita students.

  1. Thoughtfulness: What we think amid threats reveals the level of our consciousness

The Gita’s first chapter reveals Arjuna’s extraordinary thoughtfulness. Though the prospect of the impending war overwhelms him emotionally, not once does he express any fear of his own death. His neglecting the possibility of his own death is not because he is foolish or foolhardy; he is just concerned about other things that are more important for him. He expresses several concerns that include sin and its consequences (1.32–36); the destruction of the dynasty and the consequent devastation of society (1.39–45); and the ethical feasibility of fighting for a kingdom at such immense human cost (1.37–38).

That Arjuna is able to think of such concerns on a battlefield is remarkable. That he is able to articulate those concerns coherently is even more remarkable. That he is articulate while being so emotionally afflicted and ethically conflicted as to be unable to even hold on to his bow (1.29) is most remarkable. Here’s a metaphor to illustrate his caliber. Suppose the CEO of a company loses his job because his company goes bankrupt due to a recession. The CEO will naturally worry, but what does he worry about the most? His reputation? His family’s social standing? His employees’ livelihood? The bigger his primary concern, the higher his level of consciousness.

Pertinently, commentators assert that the Gita’s first chapter highlights Arjuna’s qualification for spiritual wisdom. His virtue of thoughtfulness made him capable of comprehending the Gita’s profound wisdom.

But wasn’t Arjuna’s reasoning in the first chapter wrong? Not exactly wrong; it was ill-informed and inadequately farsighted because it overlooked our essential spiritual identity and destiny. Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that he retained his basic reasoning ability even amid great duress. Once his thoughtfulness was grounded in and guided by the Gita’s wisdom, he became empowered to do his difficult duty with determination and devotion (18.73).

The more thoughtful we are, considering factors beyond our immediate or self-centered concerns, the better we can appreciate Gita wisdom.

Summing Up

To summarize, the importance of the Gita’s first chapter can be conveyed using the acronym QUEST.

  • Quandary: The Gita’s first chapter demonstrates how life’s quandaries can prompt us to revise our inner map by seeking spiritual wisdom
  • Universality: The first chapter provides a gripping specific setting as a launching pad for its discussion on universal principles of living.
  • Emergency: The first chapter sets the scene for demonstrating that no emergency need be given the right to steal our right to careful decision-making.
  • Sorrow: The first chapter highlights how sorrow, specifically the agony of loss of purpose, can be channeled to seek spiritual wisdom.
  • Thoughtfulness: By describing Arjuna’s thoughtful consideration of concerns far bigger than his personal safety, the Gita’s first chapter reveals his readiness for the Gita’s

Chaitanya Charana Dasa serves full time at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai. He is a BTG associate editor and the author of more than twenty-five books. He has two websites: and (the source for BTG’s “Q&A”).