In the three decades that I’ve been studying the Bhagavad Gita, I’ve gone through a series of feelings for Arjuna, the Pandava hero and the student of Lord Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. They’ve ranged from annoyance, envy, and finally, respect for this great hero. The annoyance was at his weakness at the hour of need despite his years of training as a warrior, and the envy at the thought of not having my beloved Krishna as my teacher in the flesh. The respect came much later – after I had walked the spiritual path for some years and came to see why Arjuna, in his quest for Shreyas, is indeed a student worthy of being Krishna’s disciple.
Most commentators of the Gita feel that Arjuna’s grief and confusion in the first chapter are not worthy of much consideration and that the “real deal” begins when Lord Krishna begins speaking in 2:11. However, Arjuna’s predicament is worthy of contemplation for a serious student of the Gita. His confusion and grief give us important clues about our own psyche. Kurukshetra isn’t an ancient battlefield after all. It’s Dharmakshetra, the field of consciousness where dharma unfolds from moment-to-moment. Here, in this field, our inner conflicts play out in dramatic and colorful ways. Every choice we make, every word we utter, every thought and feeling we harbor, and every action we perform creates a cascade of events that have an impact on every being everywhere. Unknowingly, we perpetuate our own suffering and those of others… Until we arrive at a crisis, where such unknowingness no longer works and we are forced to take a long, hard look at what’s at stake in our Dharmakshetra.
The evolution of Arjuna’s grief is exquisite to behold. Before the war begins, he is fraught with righteous anger at being denied his rightful share of the kingdom. Prolonged diplomatic negotiations by Krishna and others have no impact on Duryodhana, the tyrant Kaurava prince whose envy of the Pandava brothers drives him to refuse to settle peacefully. He wants the great war; like each of us, his inner conflict is what he eventually manifests externally. While Arjuna and the other Pandavas aren’t bloodthirsty, they aren’t opposed to war either. They are seasoned and accomplished warriors. As dharma-abiding Kshatriya princes, they are willing to fight for what is rightfully theirs. And so, when the war is declared, they diligently prepare for it, gather their forces and their strategies, and assemble on the battlefield.
It’s not until this point that doubt begins to show up in Arjuna’s mind. He now realizes that Duryodhana and his brothers aren’t the only ones he’d have to fight. He has to fight (and be prepared to kill) those he loves as well. At the sight of his beloved family and friends, he breaks down. He now comes up with a whole host of justifications for not fighting, for all intents and purposes, giving Krishna a lesson on dharma (or so he thinks). When the energy behind these justifications begins to run out, he has a moment of clarity, where he says:
prcchami tvam dharma-sammudha-cetah
yac chreyah syan niscitam bruhi tan me
shishyas te ’ham sadhi mam tvam prapannam (2:7)
My mind (nature) is overpowered by poverty (of wisdom) and I’m unable to discern what my dharma is. I submit to you as my teacher. Please instruct me on Shreyas.
Awakening to Not Knowing
The above verse marks Arjuna’s turning point. Up until this point, he used his “bookish” knowledge of dharma as justifications for his not wanting to fight. Here, he realizes that when it comes down to it, he doesn’t really know what to do. His intellect is clouded by the very knowledge he had previously valued.
Quite often, I see patients in my clinic with particular problems related to lifestyle issues. They’re stressed out, overeating, overworking, not sleeping, smoking or drinking too much… Interestingly, these are the patients that have extensive knowledge about the impact of their lifestyle on their health. They frequently interrupt me when I start talking to demonstrate their impressive knowledge. “I know what you’re saying. I’ve read ten books on it.” And yet, they don’t know.
The knowledge hasn’t translated into knowing.
It hasn’t trickled down from the head to the heart.
The Shiva Sutras are a collection of 77 aphorisms attributed to the sage Vasugupta (9th century C.E.) and this text is foundational in the study of Non-dual Shaiva Tantra. It makes a startling declaration:
Jnanam bandhah (1.2)
Knowledge is bondage.
This aphorism is referring to ordinary knowledge, the kind that is obtained via association with the senses. It is the limited and differentiated knowledge that is acquired through learning. Our learning about dharma makes us knowledgeable of what dharma is, but doesn’t necessarily make us dharmic, just as knowledge of medicine doesn’t make me the science of medicine.
On the spiritual path, what we study and learn (the “bookish” knowledge referred to above) can become hindrances to knowing. Like any other conditioning, this spiritual conditioning simply creates the identity of a seeker without changing the paradigm that is required for awakening. Knowledge about liberation doesn’t liberate.
This is Arjuna’s predicament. He knows a lot about dharma. He has spent years with gurus, has traveled astral spaces, even to the heavens to meet his father, Indra (the leader of the Devas), has spent a lifetime honing his skills as a warrior, and has a highly developed intellect. Yet, here, at this turning point in the Gita, he realizes that none of that matters. He knows that he doesn’t know. Importantly, he knows that he lacks Shreyas.
Shreyas and Preyas
Shreyas comes from the root “shri,” which means auspiciousness, and also support. One way to look at Shreyas is “wanting the support of what is auspicious.”
Preyas has its root in the word “pri,” which means pleasing or gratifying. Preyas is that which is pleasant to the senses.
Shortly after Arjuna’s turning point, Krishna gives him a rundown of the cause of suffering.
maatraa-sparshaas tu kaunteya
taams titikshasva bhaarata
The contact of the senses with sense objects that result in experiences of hot/cold and pleasure/pain have a beginning and an end, O son of Kunti. They are impermanent. Endure them bravely, O descendent of Bharata.
When we take these experiences – which arise from the contact of the senses with sense objects and are impermanent – to define who we are, we are following the path of Preyas.
On a deeper level, even the acquisition of spiritual knowledge falls under Preyas. When the knowledge we acquire from books and teachings goes on to create a persona of a scholar that is gratifying for the ego, we remain under the grip of Preyas. The knowledge hasn’t trickled down from the head to the heart. Instead, it becomes a barrier to knowing.
Jnanam bandhah. Preyas is the barrier to Shreyas.
Arjuna’s admittance to not knowing is a hugely significant occurrence in the Gita. The teaching doesn’t even begin until then.
He has to want Shreyas.
We have to want Shreyas if we want Krishna as our divine teacher. And for this, we have to have the humility to surrender all that we know (or think we know). All the knowledge that we have gained has to be set aside.
This is the hallmark of Kundalini awakening. While energetics and fireworks and spontaneous movements can all happen, the most important development is the wanting of Shreyas. In this kind of wanting, the gratifications that are obtained through the subtle sense objects (the inner visions, sounds and so on) are surrendered. Attachment to these subtle senses keeps us on the path of Preyas.
We have to want Shreyas.
Shreyas is a steadfast devotion to bhavana, where we contemplate deeply on our own thoughts, emotions, and actions. In wanting Shreyas, Arjuna never once asks, “Hey, but what about Duryodhana? Shouldn’t he be changing his ways?” He remains committed to his own vision-correction, which is what the Gita is about. In our quest for Shreyas, we stop asking what anyone else should do. We focus entirely on correcting our own distorted vision. Even when engaged in social activism, we remain committed to fixing our own perceptions, not giving in to the dualities of good/bad that arise from Preyas.
This is the challenge that Arjuna is presented with. Krishna doesn’t counsel him the way we would’ve – by making the Kauravas “bad” and thus worthy of killing. His advice to Arjuna is to wake up to the higher truth of who he is. And so, this text is not really about selfless service as it is commonly thought of – it is about dharma, the way of being in alignment with the flow of Life.
How do we become aligned with dharma? By questing for Shreyas, as Arjuna does.
P.S: In my Shakti Rising Facebook Group, we are delving into the Bhagavad Gita through live videos, discussions and weekly practice prompts. Join us!
Image: Meditation Hall at Angkor Wat.