Arjuna’s problem in Vyasa Mahabharata is too well-known to recount here: somewhat roughly and in brief, he would not kill his grandfather, other Kuru elders, preceptors, cousins and relatives, although they stood facing him in the Kurukshetra battlefield as his enemy, and if they wanted to kill him, he would not even resist and would happily get killed. He considered raising arms against one’s very own as an act of adharma. Besides, with the destruction of a family, family values and culture would also be destroyed. He was sure that he had nothing to gain in that war and everything to lose. He would not fight, he told Krishna.

Sarala’s Arjuna had a different problem. He had no qualms about killing his enemies in the battlefield, whoever they were, but he would not start the war. He would not shoot the first arrow. Starting a war was a terrible sin because many innocents would get killed, who would be fighting someone else’s war. If he was attacked, he would fight because then he would not have to carry the sin of starting the war. This was what he told Krishna.    

In Vyasa Mahabharata Krishna tried to make Arjuna see reason, which is what Srimad Bhagavat Gita is all about, as far as the Mahabharata story is concerned. He was being merely sentimental, Krishna told the despondent warrior. He told him about the illusory nature of death, and about the senselessness of grieving over the dead on that account. He wanted him to realize the consequences of his action at a personal level. He had got the rare opportunity to fight in that dharma yuddha, righteous war, and it would be unwise for him to withdraw from it, he said. Besides, whether he won or perished, he would be a winner: he would enjoy the pleasures of the world as a victor or the pleasures of the other world if he perished. But if he withdrew, he would be mocked at as a coward during his life and after death.

 It is unclear why at this stage Arjuna was not asked to consider certain other matters that arose out of his stand. Getting killed by the enemy without harming them might be acceptable to him, but was it acceptable to him that his brothers, relatives, friends and all those others who had come to fight for the Pandavas got destroyed as a consequence of his stand? If killing one’s kin was wrong, was pushing one’s brothers and sons and relatives to death was right? Did he really believe that even without him the Pandavas would win the war? Was he so naive? One would rather think that he knew that without him the Pandavas had just no chance of winning. He was not only a great archer, the greatest according to Bhishma and Drona and many others; he had with him the most destructive of divine weapons – he was the only one among the warriors assembled there who had Shiva’s all-destructive pasupata astra. Besides, no one else in the Pandava army had divine weapons, whereas in the Kaurava army ,Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Aswasthama certainly had. Bhishma might have decided not to kill the Pandavas (incidentally, not in Sarala’s Mahabharata), but others had no such inhibitions, and the grandfather had not vowed to protect them from the warriors of the Kaurava army! 

Arjuna was aware that Krishna was not wrong. If he withdrew from the war, some would call him a coward – purely out of malice. But he believed that many including the wise and venerable Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Karna, and a host of others would not think so of him; they had known him too well for that. They would not call him a coward who had single-handedly defeated them all just a few months ago in the battlefield of the kingdom of Virata. But they would be shocked and bewildered. Along with everyone else, Arjuna had been preparing for this war ever since Krishna had returned from Duryodhana empty-handed. Arjuna had never said a word by way of protest against the war. They would be inclined to think of him as sentimental, immature and extremely irresponsible. But would these have been less humiliating and more comforting for him than being called a coward, one would wonder.

Coward or not, everyone would have thought of him as a deserter at one level and a betrayer of trust at a more personal level. As a kshatriya (“belonging to the warrior caste”) it was his duty to fight for those whose war it was not, and yet had assembled to fight for him, not abandon them right on the battlefield. His decision to withdraw from fighting was actually an act of self-indulgence and selfishness, and it showed that he was completely insensitive to his “own others”. Krishna must have wanted him to understand that his selfishness and thoughtlessness in that particular situation could lead to terribly consequences for them all, who had joined the Pandavas’ side because their cause was just.

The Pandavas firmly believed that they were fighting for a just cause. Duryodhana had become the crown prince under wrong assumptions about them (that they had perished in the lac palace fire) , but when the truth was known, no one in the Kaurava court said that if the past could not be undone, the Pandavas could not be ignored either, therefore they must be compensated in some way. As for the Pandavas, for the cause of peace, they asked for just five villages, not half of the kingdom which they believed was their due. But even that was refused. Yudhisthira, like most – sages, Kaurava elders, Drona, etc. among them – had no doubt that the Kauravas were entirely unfair to the Pandavas. He called the war a “just war” out of conviction. As already said, all those who had joined the Pandavas’ side believed that they had joined the virtuous in that just war. Arjuna’s withdrawal would amount to his abandoning the fighters who were fighting in a just war. That would certainly not be morally right. Now if a kshatriya did not fight for the honest and the morally upright, and for those who were denied their due, he would be failing in his caste-duties. As he was explaining his unwillingness to fight, Arjuna told Krishna that he was not sure whose victory would be a better outcome of the war: their own or the Kauravas’. Surprisingly, he was not advised that the war was not just between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, it was also between those who followed dharma and those who did not, and that in that situation there must be no doubt in his mind about what would constitute the desirable outcome.

And as for the loss of the family values and culture, one wonders why Arjuna was not advised that he had undue anxieties. One branch of the family was going to fight against another; so there was no fear of the culture and the traditions of the family perishing irrespective of whoever won. But even in the extremely unlikely event of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas being destroyed by the divine weapons of both sides, there was little room for anxiety. If a great family dies, its traditions and values do not really die, they live in other forms: those of tales and legends, for example. And all said, aren’t the values of a family mere expressions of a deeper set of beliefs, values and practices, common to an entire culture, and at a still deeper level, to humankind as well?

About the problem of widows that eventually brings about the moral collapse of a society, Arjuna’s apprehensions were again rather exaggerated. This problem was not unknown to that society; in all likelihood it had arisen when Bhagawan Parshurama destroyed the kshyatriyas many times over. In order to deal with the problem of the widows, the society had created the niyoga system, which was still prevalent in Arjuna’s time. If things went terribly wrong, the society would again find some solution. One did not have to get unduly exercised about it.

Moral issues as mentioned above, which are rather straightforward and obvious, but by no means trivial, and which do not demand understanding things at a profound supra-mental level, were somehow not raised in the Gita  to persuade a despondent Arjuna to fight. One would think that if they had been, it would probably not have been necessary to go beyond the familiar, the rational (in the sense of “not supra-rational”) and the normal, and that the discourse went, rather too early, to a far deeper and a highly profound philosophical and metaphysical level to deal with Arjuna’s attitude. One gets the impression that although anchored in Arjuna’s problem, the Gita discourse was not really targeted to it specifically; it was concerned with, at one level, many general issues concerning the human condition, and at another, articulating a mode of one’s inner spiritual growth leading to one’s mokshya in one terminology.  Now, for a pure story teller, his interest in the Gita is to the extent it takes the story forward elegantly; he would tend to avoid whatever would conspicuously arrest its flow or affect the smoothness of it.  
Arjuna’s witnessing the Universal Form of Krishna forms an important part of the Gita. He could see this Form with the help of Krishna himself; he gave him the special power of vision for the purpose.   One might consider this episode as part of a long argument to persuade Arjuna to fight. From this point of view, there is something in it that is of special interest, namely what he saw in the Universal Form. He saw the death of warriors from both the Kaurava and the Pandava sides – he saw the time past and the time future as indistinguishable. In that Ultimate Form he saw Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha and Karna, among others, already dead. They could be identified among the Kaurava warriors, so they were named. But none from the Pandava side was named; Arjuna did not see Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha and Draupadi’s five sons among the multitude of the Pandava warriors who had perished too. Now, it cannot be said that his knowledge that those Kaurava warriors were already dead influenced Arjuna in a perceptible way. But one would never be sure how he would have been affected, or affected at all, had he seen Abhimanyu dead. This scepticism arises because after all, Arjuna was an ordinary mortal in terms of spiritual growth; he was not a seer like the sages of the Upanishads or the Sanata Kumars.

Why Arjuna did not see what he surely did not want to see is a question that need not detain us here.  Does it have anything to do with the fact that, unlike in Yasoda’s case, Krishna showed that Form to him because he wanted to see It? In any case, who can see the Whole as whole! He saw what Krishna gave him the power to see. And wasn’t Krishna trying to persuade him to fight!

Now Sarala, the story teller must have felt it more manageable to alter Arjuna’s problem, and tell the story from that perspective. In his narrative, Arjuna’s problem was intensely moral, but did not invite any profound discourse or supra-human experience of Reality. Arjuna did not need any advice. He simply had to wait. When two armies stood face to face, something or the other would happen, someone or the other would lose patience and shoot an arrow or hit one with a mace. And that would solve his problem. This is precisely what happened, as we have seen in an earlier post in this blog.  

Snana Purnima, 2012


  1. When God shows you GOD and all His glory, its of little consequence whether he sees his sons death or not. Surely you wouldnt at that stage turn around and say “Sorry God, you are wrong and I still wont fight”.Just another thought.Kiran3~'


  2. Krishna the wilt one. Arjuna would never have gone in if he had seen Abhimanyu die, I think. And I never noticed this part in the story. This is what comes of sipping over the Gita because, in your words, it does not do much to “take the story forward elegantly”


  3. This is an interesting article. Arjuna might probably have refused to fight had he seen Abhimanyu amongst the dead. He was no stoic, but was quite sentimental. He had detachment in some things, but was attached to a lot more


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