Arjuna reinforces his refusal to fight in the Bhagavad Gita

The Smile
Arjuna reinforces his refusal, or rather inability, to fight by gilding it with moral sentiments. He presents himself as seeing things from a higher standpoint; from that elevation, he condemns what he had till now wanted to do, but suddenly finds he does not want to do. He had been enthusiastic about the righteousness of the battle, and boasted about what he would do in it. In reliance on his skill and bravery, others had joined his side. Compassion for the members of his family on the other side had not worried him then, any more than it worries his brother Bhīma now. But here he is:

I.38 Even if they, blinded as they are by greed, do not see
The sin of conflict within the family
And the crime of striking at a friend,

39 Yet we should know enough to draw back from this wickedness,
When we see what a sin it is to destroy a family.

And further:

I.46 That I should drop my weapons and be killed on the battlefield, unresisting, by the armed foe,
Surely that is the better course for me.

Then he makes his appeal:

II.7 I feel sick at the pity of it, bewildered as to what is right to do;
I ask you: which is better? Tell me clearly.
I make myself your pupil; teach me.

How spiritual it seems! But in fact it is not Arjuna’s real conviction; it is an excuse for getting out of fulfilling his promises to fight for justice. Kṙṣṅa listens to it not with due solemnity, but with a little smile. He points out the inconsistency of what Arjuna is saying with what he is actually feeling and doing:

II.11 You are full of pity for people who need no pity at all, and yet you are mouthing words of wisdom.
Those who have wisdom do not pity either the living or the dead.

Arjuna’s words are indeed words of wisdom. They will be echoed in later parts of the Gītā itself. For instance when teaching the high path of knowledge, XIII.7 gives ahiṃsā, harmlessness, as the third of the great qualities to be practised. Nor does Śankara qualify the word when he explains it in his Gītā commentary: ‘It means doing no injury to any living being.’ This is what Arjuna claims to have realized.

But it is not his inner conviction. If it were his inner conviction, he would be wise, and he would not be disturbed by anything that happened.

Those sages who see Brahman everywhere and always are not upset by the changes of the world. They may take part in them, as players take part in a game. In that case, like good sportsmen they try hard, but without being disturbed by the fortunes of the game. On the other hand, sages sometimes set an example to the world by demonstrating absolute pacifism. If they have adopted this role, to them the one who kills and the one who is killed are, so to say, like the right and left hands of the Lord. That, however, is not the role to which Arjuna has committed himself by his actions of the past and his promises for the future. For him now to quote the words of such sages is only self- deception, for he does not in fact feel them. (Kṙṇṣa will point this out again at the end of the Gītā in XVIII.59: ‘If from self-will you resolve not to fight, vain is this resolve: your nature will compel you to fight.’)

The Lord listens to Arjuna’s self-justifications with a half-smile, as grown-ups listen to children talking about things they do not really understand. Boy Scouts may talk about war, and little girls about married life; sometimes what they say is quite sensible, because it is what they have overheard from adults talking. But in fact they know nothing about it.

A clever child who wants to get out of studying grammar can quote some great orator, famous for telling phrases which become bywords in the language: ‘When I am speaking, I never think about framing sentences. That would be an obstacle. I simply express what has to be expressed.’ Again, a child music student, to escape from practising scales, may cite some famous virtuoso: ‘My playing has nothing to do with notes. Notes get in the way. When I play, I have forgotten all about them.’

The novices quote these great ones earnestly. It would be wrong to study grammar: it is an obstacle. It is wrong to practise scales: they get in the way.

The teacher listens to all this with a half-smile, just like the little smile with which the Lord listens to Arjuna’s wise words. Then comes the explanation, patient and tolerant: when you are an orator, when you are a virtuoso, when you are a sage – these quoted words will have some meaning. But not till then. In the meantime, you have to learn your grammar, practise your scales, or perform Karma Yoga in devotion and detachment. Admittedly these things are not yet oratory, not yet music, not yet God-realization. But they will lead you there. And then you will realize in yourself the true meaning of what you have been quoting, and you will be able to choose freely what you do.

Krsna has the right to tell Arjuna to do his duty and fight. He himself has volunteered to be Arjuna’s charioteer, but not a combatant. The charioteer is more exposed than the warrior in the chariot. Krsna foresees that he will himself be seriously wounded. Nor has a non- combatant the fury of battle to sustain him, which in the case of active fighters often brings insensitivity to wounds.

As for the injunction of ahimsâ or harmlessness, on the ordinary level there were exceptions: warriors were to fight in a battle, or to protect the weak, but not for personal reasons. The higher level has to be attained by yoga practice: it is not enough simply to subscribe to it, as Arjuna is finding out. It is given in II.19:

Who believes him a slayer, and who thinks him slain,
Both these understand not: he slays not, nor is he slain

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