Arjuna’s doubts about Krishna’s teachings

In typical traditional pictures of the Gita scene, Arjuna is shown with palms joined in reverence, looking at Krishna in an attitude of devotion and faith. Such pictures give rise to the idea:
`In those early days they had simple faith. But modern man has a critical attitude.’ Simple faith, however, is not what is portrayed in the Gita itself. Arjuna shows from the very beginning that he does not have unwavering faith in Krishna 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, some subtle and some very open, which are often overlooked.

It is a great advantage to readers today that the doubts are brought out so clearly. In ancient times there was just as much scepticism as today. Already by the time of the Buddha (5th Century B.C.) there were influential schools, with thousands of followers, who taught that religion was a confidence trick of priests. Some said further that there are no such things as virtue or sin. If a man (they declared) 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 (they recommended), and do as you like.

Arjuna was a religious man, but quite capable of thinking for himself. He was not afraid to speak out his doubts bluntly, as the Gita text makes clear. On one of these occasions, Shankara adds that here Arjuna is speaking for pupils in the future, in whom the same doubts will arise. This is an important point to remember: what are thought of as modern criticisms and scepticism are anticipated in the Gita dialogue itself.

The teaching begins in Chapter II, in response to an appeal by Arjuna:

We do not know which is worse, that we should conquer them, or they should conquer us;
If we kill these noble men who stand arrayed against us, we ourselves would not want to go on living.
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 can be 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 Krishna 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 Krishna begin the instruction on yoga, by declaring the final highest truth, the transcendental Self:

`Know that that is indestructible by which all this is pervaded;
nothing can destroy this imperishable One.’ (11.17)

Arjuna hears this, but does not really believe it, as is shown by his question in IV, when Krishna 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. Krishna has called him a `devotee’, but that devotion has some reservations.

Other reservations surface later. In 11.40 Krishna 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 a doubt about it: `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 to try, he says `What will happen if I fail? T ‘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 Krishna 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, Krishna has shown him how to meditate, but the pupil objects: `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 clutching at the wind.’
Krishna indicated 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 his disbelief is shown by his total lack of reaction. For instance, in Chapter X the Lord is listing some special manifestations in which he is to be seen most easily. He refers to the Vrishni tribe of which his present body as Vasudeva is a member, and then to the group of five Pandava brothers, of which Arjuna is one. He declares: `Of the Vrishnis I am Vasudeva, of the Pandavas I am Dhananjaya, and of the saints I am Vyasa, of the sages I am Ushanas’.
Arjuna’s nickname, as a master archer, was Dhananjaya `winner of gold prizes’.

Here the Lord is saying: `I am you.’

It is like one of the Great Sayings of the Upanishads:
`You are That.’

But Arjuna shows no reaction at all. It simply passes over him, like some poetical fancy. This is what Shankara refers to when commenting on X.20, where the Lord declares that he is the Self in the heart of every being. Shankara points out that some cannot yet meditate on the Self. So for them the Lord gives external glories, such as `I am Vyasa of the sages’, ‘Himalaya of mountains’, `OM in the Vedas’.

There are the reverse cases where Arjuna thinks that he believes absolutely, but has unconscious reservations still to be dissolved.

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 Pandavas I am you’

-have completely passed over him.

In the last third of the Gita, Chapters XIII and XVIII, they will be presented in various ways so that they can gradually be accepted, and the limitations of individual self dissolved in the greatness of its true universal Self.
There are many other hints in the Gita that Arjuna regards Krishna as less than divine. Krishna himself says that he is not outstanding as a human being, for `Fools despise me, clad as I am in human form.’ (IX 11) Facing the universal form of the Lord in Chapter XI, Arjuna apologizes for having used familiar terms like the bare name Krishna, or friend. He has also been using them in the Gita dialogue up to this point. This shows that he felt no particular awe. It is true that there is a reference to a four-armed form of Krishna, but Shankara explains this as armed with the weapons discus and mace, and conch and lotus. After the overwhelming manifestation of Chapter XI, the Lord resumes a human form, says the Gita. A literally four-armed form would not be human, though to a devotee the symbols might well be apparent.

There are other interesting points in the dialogue. For instance, 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 gunas?’
`How does he behave?’

These would be extraordinary questions to ask if he recognized that he had a perfect example right in front of him of the perfections he is asking about.

The Gita mentions them to show that some passing shadowy hesitations and doubts can continue for a long time. And as Shankara says, it also gives a hint to disciples in the future that the waverings and uncertainties, which look so solid, are all finally dissolved into space.

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