Navigating the Battle of Life | An Excerpt from The Bhagavad Gita

A Fresh Translation

Bhagavad Gita

The Yoga of Arjuna's Crisis

No Life without Struggle

Dhritarāshtra asked: Sanjaya, what did my sons and the sons of Pāndu do, when they were gathered for the sake of fighting on the field of dharma, in the field of the Kurus?

Forces in the Battle of Life

Sanjaya said: Having seen the armies of the Pāndavas, Duryodhana approached his Teacher [Drona] and said, Behold, O Teacher, this vast army of the Pāndavas, arrayed by Drupada’s son, your gifted pupil.

Here are heroes, great archers, the equals of Bhīma and Arjuna in battle; Yuyudhāna, Virāta, and the great warrior Drupada; Dhrishtaketu, Chekitāna, and the valiant king of Kāshi; Purujit, and Kuntibhoja, and that bull among men, the king of the Shibis; the valorous Yudhāmanyu, the heroic Uttamaujas, the son of Subhadrā, and the sons of Draupadi, all mighty warriors.

Know also, O best among the twice-born, those who are distinguished amongst us. I shall name the leaders of my army for you: yourself, My Lord, and Bhīshma; Karna and Kripa, the winner of many battles; Ashvatthāmā, Vikarna, and the son of Somdatta. Many other heroes, with various weapons and arms, and skilled in battle are also there, ready to give up their lives for my sake. Guarded by Bhīshma, the strength of our army is without limit. But the strength of their army, under the protection of Bhīma, is limited. And so in all movements, stationed according to strategy, you and your men should all guard Bhīshma above all.

Then Bhīshma, the mighty and splendid grandsire, the eldest of the Kurus, thundered forth his lion’s roar and blew his conch, gladdening the heart of Duryodhana.

The Inner and Outer Battlefield

Conches and kettledrums, tabors, horns, cymbals and trumpets blared forth together making a tumultuous sound. Then in a great chariot yoked to white stallions,Mādhava [Krishna] and the son of Pāndu [Arjuna] blew their divine [divya] conches. Hrishikesha [Krishna] sounded Pānchajanya and Dhananjaya [Arjuna] sounded his Devadatta. Bhīma, wolf-belly, the man of terrible deeds, blew his great conch Paundra; the king Yu-dhishthira, the son of Kunti, blew Anantavijaya, Nakula and Sahadeva sounded Sughosha and Manipushpaka.

The king of Kāshi, the superb archer; and Shikhandi on his great chariot; Dhrishtadyumna; Vira-ta, the unconquered; Satyaki; Draupada and sons of Draupadi; and Subhadrā’s son, the mighty-armed, blew their conches on all sides, O Lord of earth. That tumultuous uproar re-echoing through the earth and the sky tore the hearts of Dhritarāshtra’s sons.

Then, as the clash of arms had begun, seeing the sons of Dhritarāshtra, the monkey-bannered Arjuna lifted up his bow and spoke to Krishna: O Unshaken One [achyuta], stay my chariot between the two armies so that I may see these people who long for battle and whom I have to meet in this game of war. I wish to see those who are gathered here ready to fight desiring to please the evil-minded [durbuddhi] son of Dhritarāshtra. Thus addressed by Arjuna, O Bhārata [Dhritarāshtra], Krishna brought the best of the chariots between the two armies in front of Bhīshma, Drona, and all the princes of the earth and said, Behold, O Son of Prithā [Arjuna], these assembled Kurus.

Arjuna’s Crisis

Then Arjuna saw uncles and grandfathers, teachers, cousins, sons and grandsons, comrades, fathers-in-law, and benefactors in the opposing armies. Seeing all those kinsmen, Arjuna was filled by great pity and spoke with sadness: Seeing my own people, set for battle, O Krishna, my limbs sink down, and my mouth becomes parched, my body shudders, and my hair stands on end. My bow falls from my hand, and my skin is burning. I cannot be still and my mind wanders. I perceive inauspicious omens, Krishna, and I foresee no good arising from the killing of kinsmen in battle. I do not desire victory, O Krishna, or sovereignty or pleasures. Of what use is kingdom to us, of what use enjoyment or even life? Those for whose sake we desire to win kingdom, possessions, and pleasures are gathered here for battle, ready to give up life and wealth: teachers, fathers, sons, as also grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen as well.

Even though they may kill us, I do not wish to kill them, O slayer of Madhu, not even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, much less for that of this earth. What joy will be ours, O Krishna, by slaying these sons of Dhritarāshtra? Evil alone would light upon us if we slay these aggressors. Therefore we should not kill these sons of Dhritarāshtra, our kinsmen. How can we be happy, O Krishna, by killing our own people? Although they, with their minds overcome by greed, see no evil in destroying the family or the crime in hostility to friends, why should we, O Krishna, who see the evil resulting from destruction of the family, not turn away from this sin?

Even though they may kill us, I do not wish to kill them.

With the destruction of the family, the eternal dharma of the family is destroyed; with the collapse of the dharma, disorder overwhelms the whole family. When disorder predominates, O Krishna, the women of the family go astray. When the women are corrupted, O Krishna, a mixture of castes results. This confusion leads the destroyers of the family and the family itself to hell; their ancestors fall, for they are deprived of offerings and oblations. When the destroyers of the family lead to the confusion of castes, the eternal dharma of the caste and that of the family are destroyed. Those whose family traditions are destroyed, O Krishna, are doomed to live perpetually in hell—thus have we heard.

Alas! in preparing to kill our kin out of greed for the pleasures of kingship we have set out to do a great evil. It would be better for me if the armed sons of Dhritarāshtra slay me unarmed and unresisting in the battle.

Having thus spoken on the battlefield, abandoning his bow and arrows, Arjuna sat down in the back of the chariot, his mind agitated by grief.

The Yoga of Awareness

An Inward Turn

Sanjaya said: Krishna, the Slayer of Madhu, spoke to Arjuna who was besieged by pity [kripā], whose eyes were full of tears, and whose heart was full of sorrow, O Arjuna, whence does this weakness come? It brings no glory, it is unbecoming to the noble and it does not lead to heaven. Yield not to unmanliness, son of Pritha; it is unworthy of you. Shake off this petty faint-heartedness, and arise, O Terror of the Enemies [Parantapa]!

Arjuna said, How, O Slayer of Madhu, O Slayer of Enemies, shall I fight in battle with arrows against Bhīshma and Drona who are worthy of respect? It is better to live in this world on alms than to slay these teachers of great nobility. If I slay these teachers all the pleasures I shall taste will be blood-stained. We do not know which is the better course for us—whether we should conquer them or they should conquer us. If we slay the sons of Dhritarāshtra who stand before us, we would not care to live.

My very being [svabhāva] is afflicted with the flaw of pity [kārpanyadosha] and weakness of spirit. My mind is confused about dharma. I ask you: tell me decisively which is better. I am your pupil for I have taken refuge in you; teach me. I do not see what would drive away this sorrow which parches my senses. Even winning a prosperous and unrivaled kingdom on earth, or even lordship over the gods, will not ease this sorrow.

Sanjaya spoke: Gudākesha [Arjuna], the Terror of his Enemies, having spoken thus to Govinda [Krishna], Lord of the Senses, added “I will not fight,” and then fell silent.

A Vaster Vision

O Dhritarāshtra! Krishna smiled and spoke to the desperate warrior there between the two armies. He said, You speak wise-seeming words, but you grieve for those you should not grieve for. The wise do not grieve for the dead or for the living.

There never was a time when I or you or these princes did not exist; nor will there ever be a time when we shall cease to be. As the incarnated being [dehī] in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so it passes on to another body. A sage is not bewildered by this. O Arjuna, the physical sensations, which cause cold and heat, pleasure and pain, come and go. They are transient; learn to endure them, O Bhārata [Arjuna]. O Best of Men, the wise to whom happiness and unhappiness are alike are not shaken by these; they are fit for eternal life [amritattva].

What is real cannot cease to be, and the unreal cannot come into being. The truth about both is seen by the seers. Know that which pervades all this is indestructible. No one can destroy the imperishable. Bodies of the incarnated Eternal can be destroyed, but the Eternal Itself is indestructible and immeasurable. Therefore fight, O Bhārata [Arjuna].”

Whoever thinks the Eternal One slays, or thinks of it as slain, lacks understanding. It neither slays nor is it slain. It is not born, nor does it die; having been, it will never cease to be. Unborn, eternal, everlasting this primal one is not slain when the body is slain. One who knows it to be indestructible, eternal, unborn, and imperishable, how can that person slay, O Pārtha [Arjuna], or cause anyone to be slain?

Just as a person discards worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so the dweller in the body discards worn-out bodies and takes on new ones. Weapons do not cut it, fire cannot burn it, water does not make it wet, nor does the wind dry it. It cannot be cut, it cannot be burned, it cannot be made wet or dry. It is eternal, all-pervading, permanent, immovable, and primordial. It is unmanifest, unthinkable, and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve.

What is real cannot cease to be, and the unreal cannot come into being.

Even if you think that it is born and dies repeatedly, even then, O mighty-armed, you should not grieve. Death is certain for one who is born, and rebirth is certain for one who dies. You should not grieve for what is inevitable. The beginnings of all beings are unmanifest, and they are unmanifest again in their end, O Arjuna; only their middle states are manifest. What is there to lament about this?

Rarely someone sees it, rarely someone speaks of it, and rarely someone hears of it; but even on hearing of it no one knows it. O Arjuna, the incarnated being in the body of every creature is eternal and indestructible. Therefore you should not grieve.

Considering your own dharma, you should not tremble, for there is no greater good for a warrior than a battle required by dharma. Happy are the warriors, O Arjuna, who encounter such a battle, as a gate of heaven open wide.

But if you will not wage this dharma war, you will abandon your own dharma and glory and incur sin. Besides, people will forever speak of your infamy, and for one who has been esteemed, disgrace is worse than death. The great warriors will think you deserted out of fear, and those who highly esteemed you will belittle you. Many unspeakable words will be spoken by your detractors slandering your strength. What is more painful than that?

If you are slain, you will win heaven; if you are victorious, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, O Arjuna, determined to fight! If you become impartial to joy and sorrow, gain and loss, winning and losing, and engage in this battle, you will not incur sin.

Buddhi Yoga

What has been declared to you, O Arjuna, is the theoretical wisdom; now listen to the yoga of awareness [buddhi yoga]. When you are disciplined with it, you will be free from the bondage of action [karmabandhana]. On this path no effort is lost and no harm occurs. Even a little practice of this dharma protects one from great danger. The awareness of the resolute has a unity, O Arjuna; the awareness of the irresolute is endlessly fragmented [bahushākhā]. 

O Arjuna, undiscerning people are satisfied with the letter of the scriptures [Vedas] and uttering flowery words while engaging in many rituals and rites for attaining selfish desires [kāmātman] and heaven, saying, “There is nothing else.” The fruit of these actions is rebirth. The awareness of those whose heart is carried away by words and who cling to pleasures and power is not established in contemplation [samādhi]. 

The scope of the scriptures [Vedas] is limited to the three gunas [strands of material causality]; but you, Arjuna, should transcend the three gunas. Free of opposites, constantly oriented to truth, without acquisitiveness, be self-possessed. All the scriptures [Vedas] have as much value for those who have spiritual discernment as the water in a well has when there is a flood of water on all sides. 

You have a right only to action, never to its fruit. Do not let your motive be the fruits of action, but do not be attached to inaction. O Dhananjaya [Arjuna], do your work established in yoga and abandon attachment. Be impartial to success or failure, for yoga is equanimity [samatvam]. 

Actions are far inferior to buddhi yoga, O Dhananjaya; seek refuge in awareness [buddhi]. Those who are motivated by results are pitiful. One who is in buddhi yoga leaves behind both good and evil deeds. Yoga is skill in action, therefore strive for yoga. 

The wise who renounce the results of their actions through buddhi yoga are freed from the compulsion of birth and attain the state that is free from sorrow. When your awareness is free from the tangle of delusion, then you will become indifferent to what has been said by the scriptures and what might be said. When your awareness, now perplexed by the scriptures, is steady and stable in contemplation [samādhi], then you will attain yoga.

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Ravi Ravindra, PhD, is an international speaker and the author of books on religion, science, and spirituality. A Canadian of Indian birth, he is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he served for many years as a professor in Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Physics. His spiritual search has immersed him in the teachings of Yoga, Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, and Christianity, as well as interreligious dialogue and the relationship between science and spirituality. Learn more.