The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency

Continuing in my trend of alternative takes on Hindu texts…
“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.” -(Chap 1 Verse 46)

“Arjuna that chastiser of enemies said: I shall not fight O Krishna, and became silent.” (Chap 2 verse 9)

"Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief."

“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.”

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

At the start of the Bhagvad Gita Arjuna is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he is reluctant to enter into a war which is likely to cost the lives of most of his family, friends, respected elders, along with at least 4 million of his own citizens. On the other hand he also has moral duties as a warrior, and as a righteous person. According to the traditional interpretation the dilemma is resolved when Arjunas objections are defeated by the Divine Krishna’s appeals to selfless dedication to duty, (and the revelation of his Universal Form and the mystic wisdom that comes with it).

Seen in another light, this is the story of a rational, nonviolent man who gets persuaded, and frightened into obeying the whims of a mystical and powerful supernatural entity— Krishna. As a result of listening to Krishna’s advice he goes to war resulting in millions of deaths including almost his entire family. Most tragically, Arjuna loses his beloved 15 year old son Abhimanyu, who he loved deeply. Arjuna’s eventual victory is pyrrhic. He gains a kingdom he didn’t want all that badly, and loses many human relationships which he valued highly. He gives up a higher value in favor of a lower value– a fruitless sacrifice. As such, in the later chapters of the Mahabharata there is very little celebration of the victory at Kurukshetra. Instead sorrow and despair dominate the psyches of Arjuna and all the Pandava brothers.

This interpretation makes chapter 1 of the Gita the most noteworthy (Chapters 2 and 3 also contain some gems, but Arjuna’s defiance tends to fizzle out as the text goes on). Most readers go into this chapter under the preconception that Arjuna is wrong. It is read mostly as a preface to Krishna’s later statements. I implore readers to take this chapter seriously, because in fact the objections which Arjuna raises here are never adequately addressed by Krishna.

Arjuna, while he still retains his nonviolent instincts presents his argument against going to war. Despite being overwhelmed by grief and distress he repeatedly states that the kingdom, divine reward, or happiness which would result from winning the battle are simply not worth the resulting deaths:

“O Krishna, of what value are kingdoms? What value is living for happiness if they for whom our kingdom, material pleasure, and happiness is desired: preceptors, fatherly elders, sons; and grandfatherly elders, maternal uncles, fathers in law, grandsons, brothers in law, and relatives are all present on this battle field ready to give up their kingdoms and very lives? O Krishna even if they want to take my life I do not wish to take their lives. O Krishna what to speak for the sake of the earth, even for the rulership of the three worlds; in exchange for slaying the sons of Dhrtarastra what happiness will be derived by us?” (Chap 1 verses 32-35)

“How by slaying our own kinsmen will we be happy?” (Chap 1 verse 36)

“Alas how strange it is that we have resolved to commit great sin. Just because of greed for royal luxuries we are prepared to slay our own kinsmen.” (Chap 1 verse 44)

“It is better to live in this world by begging, without slaying our great and elevated superiors; otherwise by slaying our superiors the wealth and pleasurable things we are bound to enjoy will be tainted by blood.” (Chap 2 verse 5)

“Even if the sons of Dhrtarastra armed with weapons in hand slay me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield that would be considered better for me.” (Chap 1 verse 45)

Arjuna seems relatively rational here. He engages in cost benefit analysis. He shows his preference for nonviolence over power, and family over material greed.

Krishna counters this with a blind appeal to duty but why should Arjuna adhere to his martial duty if there will be no perceptible gains to any party? According to Krishna doing one’s duty is inherently moral irrespective of the consequences so long as it is done with dedication to God. The idea that detachment from consequences is ideal becomes a persistent theme in the Gita. To be sure, selfless or detached action is useful in many avenues of life. But should we really ignore consequences when millions of lives are at stake?

Eventually Krishna reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna. In Chapter 11 verse 23 Arjuna says “O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”. After this frightening episode, Krishna’s suggestions become more forceful and sometimes take on the form of commands.

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

In the end, Arjuna succumbs to Krishna’s advice and fights. His teacher Drona, his son Abhimanyu, his grandfather Bhishma, his brother Karna, and innumerable others all die. After the battle, Arjuna repeatedly expresses remorse about his actions, and why wouldn’t he? Prior to the battle he made his preference for familial bonds over winning a kingdom perfectly clear. Yet, he followed Krishna’s advice to the letter for which he paid a heavy price.

How have so many thousands of years passed with nobody noticing that in this instance, Krishna gave profoundly poor advice? From a rights theorist perspective, Arjuna made the wrong choice because although he killed plenty of guilty people, innocents (i.e. draftees) also died. From a utilitarian perspective he made the wrong choice because he caused an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering and pain. From a rational egoist perspective he made the wrong choice because the decision did not serve his interests or advance his goals. Indeed, the only perspective from which Arjuna made the right choice is that of Bhagavad Gita devotionalist-duty ethics, whereby doing one’s duty as a devotional practice without thought for one’s own desires or the consequences of one’s actions overrides all other concerns.

The Gita can be read as the story of a peaceful rational man, reluctant to send 4 million men many of whom he loved to their deaths. However, this man lets his mind slip and allows himself to be persuaded and intimidated by a powerful and non-rational superhuman being. We should follow the path of Arjuna’s despondency and reject those who try to persuade us into committing acts of violence with irrational appeals to “duty” or “God”. When faced with evil consequences, we should take our reluctance seriously lest we end up like Arjuna, largely alone due to our own foolishness and in possession of a kingdom we never truly desired.

Follow up for those who think I’ve “missed the point.”

For those of you who say “but wait! The war was necessary and justified because Duryodhana was evil!”, please read the following in which I defend Duryodhana.

20 comments on “The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency

  1. Kaitoro says:

    I think you have completely missed the point. This is an inner battle.

  2. Vikie Singh says:

    by not fighting kauravas ..he would have allowed evil to remain as doubt many kauravas were good..bcoz of putra moh of dhiritihtra and duryodhana selfishness..war must be the only choice left..dont write utilatatrian perspective..and all…understand the whole situation at that time..

    • Maybe, but that doesn’t address the fundamental criticism: Was expunging the evil of the Kauravas worth the level of death and destruction which ensued? You’ll respond “don’t use utilitarianism.” Well, why not? The valuation of upholding dharma despite any and all material consequences needs to be justified.

      Furthermore (and I should probably write something separate on this) if we consistently apply Krishna’s own logic, the Kurukshetra war was unnecessary. This is because Krishna advocates violating specific “rules” of Dharma, in order to take outside context into consideration. In this case, it is ok to (for example) crush Duryodhana’s thighs (a violation of explicit Kshatriya dharma) in order to uphold justice. But by this logic, it should also b ok to not uphold justice if some outside consideration weighs heavily enough, for instance, killing millions of people.

      Thanks for your input!

  3. Vikie Singh says:

    when u read bhagvat gita,upanishads,indian philosophies..and what america and uk…thinks of that..even socrates ..statement about upanishads..u will come to know about ur immaturity..

    • Would Krishna sanction you calling someone immature on the internet because they disagree with your interpretation of his sermon?

      • So Kal says:

        Doubts are compared to demons, and Krishna often addresses Arjuna as ‘chastiser of the enemy’, so perhaps it is sanctioned by Him for a devotee to chastise one for allowing doubt to alloy their devotion to Krishna and His inconceivable wisdom.

        • Good point! Arjuna didn’t “chastise” the enemies with mere words. He conquered them by force of arms. Similarly, if I present “demons” to you in the form of doubts, it should behove you to conquer them by force of logic.

  4. So Kal says:

    Well, addressing your article, it is better for a kingdom to be comprised of a small number of pious persons, than a large number of impious people, because that way the kingdom will flourish more thoroughly. Dhritarashtra purportedly fathered 100 sons and 1 daughter, and Arjuna was quick to point out the repercussions of unwanted progeny. He was also weak-minded and overly attached to his sons, so if his bloodline were to have dominated the world there would be more adharma today than there currently is. To me it seems that it was for Earth’s welfare Kṛṣṇa asks Arjuna to fight, even though it’s fated to be ravaged by arishadvarga, in the course of time…

    • Hello So Kal, thanks for your comment.

      Do you think that this event literally happened in the way the Mahabharata describes? (if so, why?) If so, do you really think that one dynastic change in Iron age India dramatically altered world history? You could be right, in which case your argument would be justified, but how do you know this?

      If you don’t believe that this is literally true, then what textual evidence from the Mahabharata exists to show that Earth would descend into ruin if the Pandavas did not fight? And does this evidence contradict the positive portrayals of Duryodhana’s kingship and regime throughout the text, which I refer to in my defense of Duryodhana linked to at the bottom of this piece?

      Lastly, do you think that is is morally justified to kill someone on the basis that they associate themselves with an immoral regime, as this is evidence of their adharmic nature, and the probably adharmic nature of their progeny? If so, do you advocate the killing of all who currently are in the employ of unethical governments?

      Thanks for your comment

      • So Kal says:

        The reason I think that it did happen in the way the Mahabharata describes is because of the timeless transcendental knowledge Krishna offers to Arjuna, i.e. the Yoga system, and also because it seems clear to me that His words are not those of a mere mortal but are in fact divine. From what I’ve gathered (I have yet to read the Mahabharata in its entirety), the Pandavas went on to conquer a great many neighbouring kingdoms before journeying into the Himalayas to pass on to the next life, so definitely I think it dramatically altered world history.

        I think it is justified to engage in war with adharmic advocates if such persons stand in the way of establishing a regime based on dharmic principles. I personally believe in finding a diplomatic solution with utmost priority, but if this cannot be achieved then war is the only solution. I hope I’ve responded satisfactorily to your question.

        Thank you for the thought-provoking article and discussion.

        • Thank you as well for the discussion. I don’t know if that implies that you’d like to stop here? If so, feel no pressure to responding, because this has already been a fruitful exchange.

          Why does the fact that the Bhagavad Gita conveys knowledge of the transcendent (derived by the way, from older texts such as the Samkhya texts) make the entire Mahabharata a true narration of events? The Gita is just a very small portion of the whole text. Sanskrit scholars can detect many interpolations and accretions in the text, showing that it was written over time.

          You say that it is clear to YOU that his words are not of a mere mortal, they are divine. But Christians and Muslims see just as clearly that the words of Jesus and Muhammed are divine. Does that imply the historicity of the Bible and Quran? Why is your sense that Krishna’s words are divine more valid than Christians and Muslims? Furthermore, the Gita is a Smriti text, not a Sruti text, so even if Krishna’s words are divine, they are not directly revealed by Krishna, but rather are remembered by Vyasa, according to the myth. The question is then, how do we know that Vyasa’s memory is reliable? How do we know that the oral transmission of the text over centuries, and the writing of the text introduced no errors additions or inconsistencies, as Sanskrit scholars would in fact claim?

          I think it is very likely that the Mahabharata is based in historical truth, but to point to specific events, such as the Rajasuya sacrifice, as being true. This would imply that the Pandavas conquered a huge span of territory which is very unrealistic.

          But getting back to the philosophy— How do you know what is dharmic and adharmic? Based on what Krishna says? Then arent you saying its ok to make war on anyone who disagrees with Krishna? Duryodhana had a Dharma, as I detail in other articles on my website, one of which linked to at the bottom of this article. The two articles are called “Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate” and “Duryodhana II: Hated By the World.” His Dharma was to be a brave warrior, a conquering Kshatriya, who never gave up and who fought with courage to accrue as much power as possible. You might disagree with that Dharma, but to call it no Dharma is I think unjustified.

          Even so, assume that Duryodhana was adharmic. Is it always a good idea to engage in war with an adharmic person or nation? My argument here is that the consequences for war were too great, even if Duryodhana was adharmic. Do you think that the consequences do not matter if one is fighting adharma? To give a realistic example: Nuclear war. What if a Dharmic nation is attacked by an adharmic nation, and the only way in which the Dharmic nation can achieve victory is to commit a nuclear holocaust in which 98% of the world’s population is killed. Is that a good idea? Because that is not far from what happened in the Mahabharata.

      • So Kal says:

        No not at all, I just felt that I had addressed your questions as directly as I could and wasn’t sure if you would like to continue discussing this with me. Krishna’s transcendental knowledge such as his explanations of the modes of nature as well as the stages of yoga and his descriptions of the divine and demoniac qualities simply resonate with me as I read them and compel me to give credence to His claim that He is the almighty original source of everything.

        I am unaware of Muhammed’s legacy so cannot offer any opinion of him, but as a born Christian I do believe that Jesus was a divine figure. Not necessarily an avatar of the Supreme but some sort of important historical figure reborn like Ikshvaku or perhaps one of the sages. I am simply interested in religion and so have read the Gita; I am widely ignorant of the Smriti and Sruti, the Puranas and the Vedas. Vyasa, however, seems to have been born primarily to scribe this variegated scriptural knowledge, as well as to play a central role in the manifestation of the battle at Kurukshetra, so his legitimacy in providing an account of events is assured. Also, the life of Jesus is both well documented and acutely predicted, so the Bible has a certain amount of legitimacy, at least to me.

        As for Duryodhana’s spiritual composition, I have already explained that I am not well educated in his legacy so was probably over-simplifying his lack of Dharmic adherence, which was undoubtedly far less than my own. However, his dastardly tactic to send the Pandavas into exile through a rigged game of dice exposes to me the extent of his moral resolve, which falls short of heroes such as Yudhisthira and his brothers. Whether or not the war was justified is something I must admit beyond my comprehension, although it was prompted by Dhritarashtra’s obstinance in refusing to abdicate his interim sovereignty. Krishna seems to prioritize subsisting less than standing up for what is known to be right, regardless of the outcome. This is also very hard for me to contemplate, as I have a natural fear of destruction and generally concern myself with living comfortably more than tackling the iniquities of the world, although discovering the words of Krishna has caused me to begin reconsidering my values.

      • Paul says:

        Are you assuming that Kaurava’s army was unwilling to fight and therefore were victims of the war? Not true – they were very much part of the a-dharmic rule of Kauravas. So what is wrong in fighting against Hitler’s army? Was fighting world wars wrong because millions died? Here is quote from Gandhi “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look back upon the Act depriving the whole nation of arms as the blackest”. He also actively worked to enlist Indians in the British army to fight in various wars.
        Lastly – I and you are sitting safely and engaging in arm chair intellectual discussions while some one is protecting us by use of force from terrorists, criminals, invaders, etc.

  5. sai r.k says:

    So do u think pandavas will make history by choosing another cycle of 13 yrs in forest by abandoning war?do u think dhuryodhana is a bhuddhavatar who doesnt want war or krishnavatar is forcing war here?first of all who wanted war?it was only dhuryodhan.krishna in udyogparva clearly explained the side effects of war also proposed win/win situation with 5 villages(atleast pandavas are not outsiders,they are also kuru family members).but dhuryodhan ignored it and chose war on the strengths of maharathis.

    • To address your comments:

      The Pandavas probably wouldn’t have made history by abandoning the war, but I think it would have been justified on moral grounds to do so.

      I never said that Dhuryodhana didn’t want the war. He did. The question is whether or not Arjuna should have engaged him in the war.

      Krishna certainly forced the war here, as he convinces Arjuna to participate in it at the moment when he wanted to disengage.

      What makes you think that the Pandavas were Marathis? Kunti was a Yadava from Mathura, and Madri was from modern day Pakistani Punjab.


  6. kaichu says:

    U totally want to disagree with this epic story be it…. But you don’t have to force your thoughts & made up version of Mahabharata characters down others throat…. You are misguiding people especially the younger generations who already don’t know much about Mahabharata & reading all this it further creates doubt in their young minds… Tomorrow a kid will come up saying hey duryodhan was cool man he was righteous…. And if you so want to disrespect the religious beliefs of so many Hindus take a pick on Christianity & Islam too read their holy scriptures and point out things from there too…why just target one religion you can have the pleasure of mocking all religions together ohh queen gandhari of the present era!!!

    • 1) I’m not forcing anyone to read or believe what I write.

      2) Maybe you are misguiding the youth. Please debate or disprove me rather than just asserting that I am wrong.

      3) This is a blog about South Asia, not Christianity or Islam.

  7. ashaikh says:

    Bhagvad Gita is usless book. It was created to create Brahmin and Royal hegamony in India . No commmon man reads it and follow it. .Rresults after Gita was created are obvious. Indus Valley Civilization and scholership in India collepsed. The Bhagvan who instigated the war was left by powerless Pandava and the instigator was was killed by common man. (way to go Bhagvan)

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