October 31

The Choice

 October 31

In the previous post, we understood the context of the Bhagavad Gita and how we find ourselves on the battlefield of Kurukshetra..

Now let us delve deeper into Krishna’s entry into the war, and the deeper symbolic significance of Arjuna’s choice.

Hindu dharma contains teachings on reality and the nature of existence that are described in apparently disparate ways, from the poignant non-dual (Advaita) discourses of the Upanishads to the stories and narratives of the Puranas, and a host of teachings panning the entire spectrum of philosophies. However, these seemingly contradictory teachings have one common symbolic story – from the undifferentiated consciousness (Brahman, explained in later posts in detail) arise the creator (Lord Brahma), sustainer (Lord Vishnu) and the destroyer (Lord Shiva). For many reasons not elaborated here, Vishnu and Shiva are venerated in mythology much more than Brahma. Both Vishnu and Shiva take many avatars to appear on Earth and other planets/universes to affect changes needed in the ongoing continuity of creation across multiple cycles of time. At the end of a set time cycle (consisting of millions of years), all of creation collapses back into undifferentiated consciousness, the cosmos and its individual constituents going back to their “seed” forms. That state remains beyond space and time. When creation springs forth, the cycle begins again, marking the beginning of time and space.. And so it goes..

Krishna is the most well-known avatar of Lord Vishnu. In the Gita and elsewhere, the Lord declares emphatically that he will incarnate whenever there is a collective descent into adharma (opposite of dharma) to restore the balance of the Universe. In the Treta yuga (the period of time when the Mahabharata takes place), there is a collective descent into adharma, with rampant violence, greed, selfishness, and overall “darkness”. Mother Earth appeals to Brahma to help abate the chaos. He, in turn, beseeches Vishnu to help. And the magnificent, supremely compassionate and all-knowing Vishnu agrees to take not just an ordinary incarnation, but a “full” (“sampoorna” in Sanskrit) avatar, as His own supreme self, as Krishna. And thus, no event in Krishna’ s life is “ordinary”. In his childhood, he is the innocent, mystical boy of Vrindavan that has every creature wrapped around his little finger. In his youth, he is the just and able Yadava king of Dwaraka. In adulthood, he is the powerful king-maker of the nation. In the Mahabharata, he is the politician and as we will see, the quiet, “behind-the-scene” cause of every warrior’s ultimate fate.

Krishna tries his best to avoid the war of Kurukshetra. He appeals to Duryodhana, to Dhritharashtra, to Bheesma and others in vain. Finally giving up on peace efforts, he returns to Dwaraka.

Duryodhana and the Pandavas spend many months getting their armies banded once the war is imminent. Since Duryodhana is the reigning king of the most powerful kingdom in Bharat (India), he is able to gather a much bigger army, often through threats. Eventually, it is time to ask for allegiance of the Yadavas. Krishna’s brother, Balarama, is one of the cousins’ gurus. He has taught them warfare, particularly mace-wielding. Duryodhana and Arjuna’s brother, Bheema favor the mace as weapons and excel at it. Krishna and Balarama lord over the powerful Yadava army.

Duryodhana and Arjuna arrive at Dwaraka (Krishna’s kingdom) simultaneously, walking in together into Krishna’s palace where he is lying down, pretending to be asleep. Duryodhana stations himself by Krishna’s head, impatient and fidgety, while Arjuna stands humbly by his feet, head bowed and in awe to see his friend and revered guide resting. Krishna opens his eyes and sees Arjuna first. Knowing why they are there, he gives Arjuna the choice between him (Krishna) and his army (including the formidable Balarama). Arjuna doesn’t even blink an eye and immediately picks Krishna. Duryodhana is elated to have the undefeated Balarama and the Yadava army.

Symbolically, this “choosing” is that critical point in our own paths where oneness with God is the single, most desired goal (even at the cost of losing everything else). This is the beginning of the end of identification as the separate egoic self. “Mumukshutvam” is the quality of burning desire for that Supreme knowledge. This fire is all-consuming, to the extent that in every moment of a seeker’s life, the quest for God is singular and uncompromising. According to Shankaracharya, this burning desire is one of the quintessential qualities of a seeker.

This poignant episode from the Mahabharat had haunted me for years. I had always wondered what I would do if I were in Arjuna’s desperate situation. In the face of near certain defeat (his army was considerably smaller than Duryodhana’s) and near certain death (Duryodhana’s army boasted of some of the greatest warriors of the day), would I pick Krishna (who would not fight) or his army (that would be very helpful)? Did I have what it takes to throw away everything and surrender to the Lord, my beloved Ishta? All through the years that this came up in me, I did not know what my choice would be.

About two years ago, I woke up early as usual, finished my meditation practices and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee. It was still very dark on a cold January morning and the house was still, with at least an hour before the others would stir. I sat listening to my favorite kirtan playing softly, gazing at the picture of Krishna on the altar, lost in ecstatic bliss. Suddenly, I felt his divine presence in the kitchen and was simultaneously swept into a magnificent vision – all I could see were Krishna’s beautiful feet and lower legs swathed in yellow silk, all bathed in a brilliant, dazzling light. In that instant, I knew. I knew without a doubt that not only would I choose my beloved Krishna, but I already had. He was showing me this in the vision, erasing any self-doubts I had had. I saw that through the most trying times in my life, I had rested knowing I only needed (and wanted) Him. The knowing bestowed through the vision was intuitive, a certainty that comes from a totally different place than secular knowledge.. And since then, I have felt what Arjuna must have felt standing by Krishna’s feet as He slept.

Everything that follows in the Bhagavad Gita is a result of this critical incident – Arjuna’s Grace-infused decision. The great choice.

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