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> This is an article by Swami Nirmalananda Giri.
> Bhagavad Gita Commentary: Battlefield of the Mind
> Most of us have heard the story of the centipede who,
when asked how he managed to walk with so many legs,
could no longer do so, but tangled his legs hopelessly
in the attempt to intellectually figure it out and ended
up on his back, helpless. This is not unlike the person
who attempts to plumb the depths of oriental scriptures.
Right away it becomes evident that they consist of
incalculable layers, nearly all symbolic in nature.
Furthermore, the meanings of the symbols are not consistent,
changing according to the levels on which they occur. For
example, on one level water symbolizes the mind, on
> another level the constant flux of samsara, and on
another the subtle life-currents known as prana. This being
the case, our Western linear mode of thought becomes as
entangled and disabled as the fabled centipede. Knowing this
to be so, I have decided to avoid the Lorelei of subtle
symbolism and concentrate instead on the obviously practical
side of Krishna teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. Having
stated this, in complete consistency with oriental thought,
I shall contradict myself and consider the symbolism
encountered in the first chapter of the Gita.
We find ourselves on Kurukshetra, a field of impending
battle. It is not as vast as our Hollywood-epic-shaped
minds might imagine, as can be seen for oneself by a
visit to Kurukshetra, now also a sizeable modern city
in Northern India, not very far from Delhi. At one end
is a hillock topped with a great tree under which the
visitor finds a life-sized reproduction in marble of the
type of chariot used in the battle. This is the vantage
point from which Arjuna, the great warrior, and Sri Krishna
looked out over the field. Today its tranquillity is charming,
despite the strong feeling in the air that something
tremendously momentous occurred there in the distant past.
It is both awesome and soothing.
For background information regarding how the battleground
came to be thronged with soldiers, chariots, elephants and
the other paraphernalia of a deadly war, see the introductory
essay, "Gita and Mahabharata" in Swami Prabhavananda's
unparalleled translation "The Song of God". This is the
translation I will be using in these essays on the Gita.
Suffice it to say that the two opposing armies are very
easy to morally identify. The Kauravas, led by the murderous
Prince Duryodhana, are fundamentally evil, although many
honorable men have, through various complicated alliances and
obligations, found themselves among their ranks. The Pandavas,
headed by the virtuous and noble Yudhisthira, the eldest
brother of Arjuna, are embodiments of all that is good,
among them being the divine Sri Krishna himself who chose to
be the charioteer of Arjuna.
The symbolism is not very hard to figure out (leaving aside
the complex matter of assigning a symbolic meaning to every
person named in the battle narrative). Kurukshetra is the
personalityparticularly the mind (intellect)of the
individual, awakened seeker for higher consciousness. Such a
seeker, determined to end the whirling cycle of birth and
death, finds that his aspiration itself has inspired opposition
from within his own mind and heart, where good and evil,
truth and falsehood, ignorance and wisdom, like the Kauravas
and Pandavas, have drawn themselves up in readiness for a conflict
that must end in the annihilation of one side or the other.
Even more daunting is the fact that much considered
"good" is found lining up in support of negativity, and most
of the "Pandava" side will also be blotted out in the
eventual transmutation of the individual into a higher state
of being itself, much as the endearing ways of infancy and
childhood must be eradicated at the advent of adulthood and
replaced with completely different virtues.
In the chariot set betwixt the two armies we find Arjuna and
Krishna. Many interpretations of these two pivotal figures are
possible, nearly all of them correct, but the words of the
Mundaka Upanishad, written long before the Gita, are certainly worthy
of our attention.
"Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the
individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the
branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the
sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of
neither, calmly observes.
"The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with
the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad.
But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true
Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more."
These two paragraphs are a perfect summary of the entire Gita.
Arjuna is the bewildered and sorrowing atma, the individual
self, and Krishna is the divine Paramatma, the Supreme
Self from which the atma derives its very being and existence.
Forgetful of its true nature as part of the Infinite Spirit,
the finite spirit passes through countless experiences that
> confuse and pain it, producing utterly false conclusions that
compound and perpetuate the confusion and pain. Only when the
perspective of the Divine Self is entered into, can its troubles
cease. We can also think of Arjuna as our lower mortal self, and
Krishna as our higher immortal self. Krishna and Arjuna thus
represent both God and Man and our own (presently) dual nature
as mortal and immortal. Keeping this perspective before us, the
ensuing dialogue which forms the Gita is to be seen both as
God's communication to human beings and the communication of
our own divine self with our human selfliberation of the spirit
(moksha) being their sole intention.
In the opening verse of the Gita, King Dhritarashtra, father of
Prince Duryodhana, asks his minister and charioteer, Sanjaya:
"Tell me, Sanjaya, what my sons and the sons of Pandu
did, when they gathered on the sacred field of Kurukshetra,
eager for battle?
The word Swami Prabhavananda renders "sacred field" is
dharmakshetra the field of dharma. Dharma usually means the
right way of thought and action, but it can also mean the
accurate expression of one's own dominant character, for
dharma also means "quality." This entire world is a
dharmakshetra, a field upon which we act out the character
of our inner makeupi.e., the quality of our emotions, mind,
intellect, and will (not our ultimate being as spirit). We as
individuals are each a dharmic field, expressing the
actuality of our present level of evolution.
As already said, when we take stock of the inner conflict,
we identify with both sides. Thinking that if they are
dissolved or destroyed "we" will cease to exist, we are appalled
and feel that our very existence is threatened. Then, like all
human beings who do not like the truth when they see or hear it,
we become "confused" and try to avoid the unpleasant prospect.
Bitter as death seems the inner battle, so we shrink from it and
desperately try to find a way out.
So does Arjuna. In a lengthy and impassioned monologue he presents
to Krishna his "confusion," which is really a plea to inaction,
to avoidance of conflict, thinking that such a negative condition
is peace, whereas peace is a positive state, not the mere absence
of unrest and conflict. It is also reached only through unrest
and conflict, however little we like the fact.
Running away from spiritual obligationand therefore spiritual life
itselfis a common activity of the awakening soul, which brings
all its ingenuity to bear on justification of such avoidance.
Arjuna veils his aversion with words of compassion for others,
when in actuality he is the sole object of his "compassion."
He simply does not wish to see others suffer because that will
make him sufferand feel guilty for their suffering. Krishna makes
this clear to him. The Stoic, Epictetus, was once visited by a
man who told him that he loved his daughter so much he had run
from the house rather than see her suffering from illness.
Carefully, gently yet firmly, Epictetus led him to understand
that it was his self-love that motivated him, not love for his
It is the same with us; ego-involvementaddiction, actuallygrips
us, and we are the only ones who can free ourselves from it.
And battle is the only means.
Swami Nirmalananda Giri is the abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram near the
small desert town of Borrego Springs, CA, USA. More of his
writings, and much more, may be found at
I hope people find this article informative.
I really enjoyed this post and appreciate your posting it here.
I hope you will consider continuing to share more of Swami
Nirmalanda Giri's Gita commentaries. Perhaps you could
find the time to post one per week. In any event, thanks
for letting this wonderful knowledge appear at this time.
Peace and blessings,