In typical traditional pictures of the Gītā scene, Arjuna is shown with palms joined in reverence, looking at Kṛṣṇa in an attitude of devotion and faith. But this is not what is described by the Gītā itself, in which Arjuna shows from the very beginning that he does not really recognize Kṛṣṇa as a teacher or as a god. For a long time he has little confidence in what he is told. There is a series of indications, which can, however, easily be overlooked.
It is a great advantage to readers today that the doubts are brought out so clearly. There is a tendency to think: ‘Oh, in those times they had absolute faith in what they were told: of course that’s not true for us today.’ In ancient times there was just as much scepticism as today. Already in the time of the Buddha (fifth century BC) there were influential schools, with thousands of followers, who taught that religion was a confidence trick of priests. Some said further that there is no such thing as virtue or sin: ‘if a man slaughters hundreds of innocents, burns and pillages, he commits no sin: if he saves hundreds of lives and is compassionate to all, he attains no merit. Borrow money, and do as you like.’
Though Arjuna was a religious man, he was quite capable of thinking for himself, and so the Gītā text makes clear. The teaching begins in Chapter II, in response to an appeal by Arjuna:
II.6 We do not know which is worse for us, that we should conquer them, or they should conquer us;
If we killed these noble men who stand arrayed against us, we ourselves would not want to go on living.
7 My very soul is tortured by weakness of compassion, and I am bewildered as to what I ought to do;
Now tell me definitely which is the better course. I make myself your pupil: teach me.
This last is usually taken as establishing a guru-disciple relationship. (The traditional requirements of an offering, and doing some service, are assumed to be waived in a crisis, as indeed the texts allow.)
But Arjuna himself demonstrates, almost immediately, that this is far from the case. Having just now said: ‘Tell me what to do,’ he adds (verse 9): ‘I will not fight.’ As so often when spiritual advice has been sought, there is an unspoken assumption that it will, indeed must, confirm a decision already made. Arjuna’s physical condition shows that it is not a question of deciding at all; he cannot fight. His limbs collapse, his whole body shakes, he drops the bow; his skin burns, he cannot stand still, his eyes are blurred with tears. So in reality he wants approval for his decision based on his present condition.
In fact Kṛṣṇa does not at first give spiritual advice at all, but points out the disgrace of Arjuna’s not fighting after having boasted of what he will do. ‘Think of what they will say: how they will laugh! The great warrior running away!’ This is to test, for Arjuna himself, whether it is merely a momentary depression, such as all fighters feel at times, which can be dispelled by appealing to their ambition and honour. If Arjuna returns to fight on this basis, he will be like all the others: a loyal warrior, but not a yogin. Only when these worldly considerations (which are repeated two or three times) have no effect, does Kṛṣṇa begin the instruction on yoga, by declaring the final highest truth, the transcendental Self:
II.17 Know that that is indestructible by which all this is pervaded;
Nothing can destroy this imperishable One.
Arjujna hears this, but does not really believe it, as is shown by his question in IV.4, when Kṛṣṇa has just said that he declared this yoga at the beginning of creation. ‘That was long ago,’ objects Arjuna, ‘and you are here now: how can I make sense of this?’ In other words, he does not believe it. Kṛṣṇa has called him a ‘devotee’, but that devotion is still with reservations.
Sometimes they surface much later. In II.40 Kṛṣṇa has presented karma-yoga, with the encouraging words:
In this there is no loss of a start once made, nor does any reverse occur;
Even a little of this practice saves from great danger.
But in VI.37 Arjuna puts forward his doubt:
An unsuccessful striver whose mind, though endowed with faith, falls away from the practice without completing it – what happens to him?
Experienced teachers know the situation well: when a pupil for some reason does not want even to try, he says: What will happen if I fail?
Fallen from both, does he not perish like a wind-torn cloud,
Without any basis, gone astray on the path to Brahman?
Arjuna has not believed what was said: ‘In this there is no loss of a start once made, nor does any reverse occur.’ So Kṛṣṇa has to explain at length how the dynamic power of yogic efforts once made will finally carry their performer onward, even though he may temporarily resist.
Arjuna can express his incredulity quite bluntly. A little earlier in this same chapter VI, Kṛṣṇa has shown him how to meditate, but the pupil objects:
VI.34 I do not see how the meditation as you have described it can hold steady for long;
Mind is changeable, impulsive, powerful and obstinate;
To try to hold it would be like grasping the wind.
Kṛṣṇa indicates briefly what he will develop later: by laying down dynamic latent impressions through regular practice, and lessening the force of distractions by seeing clearly what they are, mind can be controlled.
Arjuna then moves at once to his second line of defence, mentioned above: ‘What happens if I fail?’
Sometimes Arjuna’s disbelief is shown by his total lack of reaction. For instance, in chapter X the Lord is giving special manifestations in which he is to be seen most easily, and he refers to the tribe of the Vṛṣṇis of which his present body as Vāsudeva is a member, and also to the group of five Pāṇḍava brothers, of which Arjuna is one. He declares:
X.37 Of the Vṛṣṇis I am Vāsudeva, of the Pāṇḍavas I am Dhanañjaya, and of the saints I am Vyāsa, of the sages I am Uśanas.
Arjuna’s nickname, as a master archer, was Dhanañjaya, ‘winner of gold prizes’. Here the Lord is saying: ‘I am you.’ It is like one of the Great Sayings of the Upaniṣad-s: ‘You are That.’ But Arjuna shows no reaction at all. It simply passes over him, like some poetical fancy. This is what Sankara refers to when commenting on X.20, where the Lord declares that he is the Self in the heart of every being. Śaṇkara points out that some cannot yet meditate on the Self. So for them the Lord gives external glories, such as ‘I am Vyāsa of the sages’, ‘Himālaya of mountains’, ‘OM in the Veda-s’.
There are the reverse cases where Arjuna thinks that he believes absolutely, but has unconscious reservations still to be brought out.
He says at the beginning of Chapter XI that having heard these statements of glory, he believes them absolutely and his delusion is gone. He does not know that the greatest ones – ‘I am the Self in the heart of all beings’ and ‘Of the Pāṇḍavas I am you’ – have completely escaped him. In the last third of the Gītā, Chapters XIII to XVIII, they will be presented in various ways so that they can be gradually accepted, and the limitations of individual self dissolved in the greatness of its true Self.
There are many other hints in the Gītā that Arjuna regards Kṛṣṇa as less than perfect. At the end of Chapter II he asks him about the one whose Knowledge is firm: ‘How does he speak, how does he sit, how does he walk?’ Similarly at the end of Chapter XIV he asks: ‘What are the marks of one who has transcended the guṇa-s? How does he behave?’ These are extraordinary questions to ask when he has a perfect example right in front of him of the perfections he is asking about. The Gītā mentions them to show that some passing shadowy hesitations and doubts can continue for a long time. It also shows that they are all finally dissolved into space.