KRSHNA'S BHAGAVAD-GITA AS RAJAVIDYA
WAR----A THREAT TO SOCIAL ORDER
The Historical Background and the Battle Array (1-37)
The first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita draws our attention to the strength, composition and leadership of the two rival military arrays that had gathered on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (where it has been claimed Krshna expounded this Upanishad to Arjuna). Dhrtarashtra, the blind ruler of the country on whose soil the code of righteous conduct, dharma, was firmly established and which belonged to the Kurus, wanted to know from his reporter, Sanjaya, what his sons and those of his brother, Pandu, who had gathered at Kurukshetra, the Dharmakshetra, were doing.
Dhrtarashtra had earlier been set aside in favour of Pandu, his younger brother. The untimely demise of the latter led to intense rivalry between the two Kuru factions, the Pandavas and the Dhartarashtras. Yudhishtira, Pandus son, was the eldest of them and was recognized by the then rules to be eligible to take over what was due to his mother, Kunti. He assumed the title, Rajan, though he had not yet been elected to that post by the Kuru oligarchy. Dhrtarashtras eldest son, Duryodhana, had taken over power as Rajan. However, blind Dhrtarashtra continued to be the overlord.
Sanjaya reported to his king that, after surveying the mighty army of the Pandavas, Duryodhana approached his teacher, Drona and drew his attention to how Drshtadyumna, Dronas wise pupil and son of Drupada had organized it. Drona and Drupada had been joint rulers of Panchala under the system of dyarchy, dvairajyam, advocated by their teacher, Bharadvaja. Bharadvaja had recommended it also after the retirement of the great emperor, Bharata, whose counsellor he had been. Dyarchy, dvairajyam, which called for division of powers and duties between the nobles and the commoners was held to be a better alternative to monarchy (that often deteriorated into autocracy) It was better than oligarchy (which was faction-ridden) and also than vairajyam, devolution of power to the lowest units. Vairajyam that bordered on anarchism, it was feared, would lead to anarchy.
Bharata had enjoyed the support of Kanva, his fathers uncle and of Visvamitra, his mothers father. This Bharata was the son of Dushyanta by Shakuntala, daughter of Visvamitra. Visvamitra and his rival, Vasishta, were both teachers of Rama of Ayodhya, the hero of the other epic, Ramayana. Ramas brother, Bharata, was regent at Ayodhya when Rama was under exile. Rama had met Bharadvaja before he went to the forests. Kashyapa, Atri, Vasishta, Visvamitra, Gautama, Jamadagni and Bharadvaja were the members of the council of seven sages during the tenure of the seventh Manu, Vaivasvata. It is useful to note that the events pertaining to the two great epics of ancient India took place during the same century.
Both Kurus and Panchalas like many other chieftains of the Indian sub-continent had accepted Bharata as suzerain. Drona fell out with Drupada and opted to join the ruling faction of the Kurus as their counsel and chief of the military academy. Kanika, another student of Bharadvaja, was the finance minister of Dhrtarashtra. He was a friend of Pisuna, the finance minister of Dushyanta. Drona married Krpi, the twin sister of Krpa who too belonged to Panchala but was being patronized by the Hastinapura Kurus. Krpa who was a teacher at the Kuru academy was for minimal government.
Krpa and Krpi were orphans brought up by Santanu, Bhishmas father. Vyasa or Dvaipayana was the son of Satyavati by her first husband, Parasara. Santanu was her second husband. Bhishmas mother, Ganga, and Dushyantas first wife, Lakshi, were daughters of Bhagiratha, another prominent ruler. Asvatthama was Dronas son. While Drona and Bhishma and all the sons of Dhrtarashtra fell in the battle of Kurukshetra, Asvatthama, Krpa and Vyasa survived. It is necessary to note that Bhagiratha, Bharata, Marutta, Mamdhata, and Kartavirya were five prominent emperors then. Parasurama, Jamadagnis son, had killed Kartavirya in battle. Parasurama was an influential teacher of martial arts and weaponry. Parasurama, Krpa, Vyasa and Asvatthama joined the council of seven sages set up by Vaivasvatas successor, Manu Surya Savarni.
The Pandavas had wedded Draupadi, daughter of Drupada, Dronas enemy. All their sons got killed in the battle. The Kurus and the Panchalas dominated both the scenes, cultural and political, of the Ganga-Yamuna basin when the Manava Dharmasastra was outlined by the ten Prajapatis, chiefs of the people, nominated by the first Manu who had his base in the Sarasvati basin to its west. The Sarasvati basin was then known as Brahmavarta and the Ganga basin as Aryavarta. These Prajapatis who were also great sages, Maharshis, classified the larger society into four varnas, socio-economic classesBrahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudrasintelligentsia, administrators and soldiers, landlords and traders, and workers.
The social groups that were not allotted to any of the four basic varnas were known as samkara-varnas, mixed classes. The Ganga-Yamuna basin had several mixed classes, which had not fallen in line with the new regulations regarding vocations and marriages. The Kurus and the Panchalas dominated until Kasi and Mithila in the eastern Ganga basin emerged as new seats of learning and valour. Their rulers patronized the Upanishadic sages. Acquaintance with this facet of socio-political history is needed for a correct comprehension of the Gita.
The Battle of Kurukshetra was a historical event (c.3100.B.C.), though it was not then recognized as a historic one. It was a decisive battle. It did not remain confined to the two Kuru factions. It took the colour of one between the Kurus and the Panchalas. Panchala was noted for polyandry and feminism, aspects of Apsara culture. It was a period when the society was moving away from the pre-varna Vedic social order to the new post-Vedic four-varnas system. Monogamy was rare. Both polyandry and polygamy were in vogue. All these systems got inter-twined with the dayada system, fraternal oligarchy, as present in the Gandharva ranks of the Vedic times with which the Kurus and the Madras were associated. Pandus second wife was a Madra princess, and the first, Kunti, was a Bhoja princess. The dilemma of Kuntis son, Arjuna, has to be examined against this backdrop.
Dharma has to be described as a social and moral code developed in the context of conflicts and contradictions in social relations and of the transition to consensus and not as religion or as law or as a code ordained by God. Society was then at the crossroads. It would not be appropriate to treat this battle as one between dharma and adharma, as one between good and evil, with the Pandavas and the Kauravas representing dharma and adharma, respectively.
Drupada, Drshtadyumna, Yudhamanyu, Uttamauja and Sikhandi, all of Panchala, had come with their troops to help the Pandavas. Arjunas maternal uncles, Purujit and Kuntibhoja and the Yadava chieftains, Satyaki, Dhrshtaketu and Chekitana too came to their aid. Krshna was a kinsman of Kunti and a guardian of Draupadi. He was a Vasu and a Yadava. The prince of Kasi (Pandus brother-in-law), Saibya (Yudhishtiras father-in-law) and the ruler of Virata whose daughter had married Arjunas son too came to their aid. This son, Abhimanyu, was born to Arjuna and Subhadra, sister of Krshna and Balarama. Abhimanyu and the sons of Draupadi too were on the battlefield. The generals had come with their own troops, chariots and arms. The mobilization of such an army could not but have disturbed the normal economy.
Drona, Bhishma, Karna, Krpa, Asvatthama, Vikarna and Bhurisrava were the prominent leaders of the state army of the Kurus. Karna was Kuntis son by pre-marital sex with a general. Vikarna was Duryodhanas younger brother. Though he was against his brothers high-handedness, he stood by his brother. Bhurisrava was a kinsman, dayada, of Dhrtarashtra. He was a grandson of Santanus brother, Bahlika. Bhishma, son of Santanu, was the paternal uncle of Pandu and Dhrtarashtra and was highly respected for his wisdom and valour. Drona and Bhishma had been always victorious in battles. Yet Duryodhana was nervous, for the Pandava army was adequate while his was not. The Pandava army was under the command of Bhima, Arjunas elder brother, and the Kaurava army was under that of Bhishma. Duryodhana requested Drona to ensure that Bhishma was protected on all sides.
In order to cheer him up, the aged Kuru, the glorious grandsire roared like a lion and blew his conch. This was a signal for commencement of battle. Krshna and Arjuna and other Pandavas too blew their personal conches in reply, to call their respective troops to alert and so did other leaders. That terrible sound echoing through the firmament and the plains, nabha and prthvi, rent the hearts of the Dhartarashtras, said Sanjaya, addressing Dhrtarashtra as prthvipati. This address is significant and so are the terms used to address Krshna and Arjuna.
Prthvipati and Mahipati__ A Note
Prthvipati means ruler of the earth. Prthvi, however referred also to the territory controlled by Prthu, godfather of Kunti. She was known as Prtha and her favourite son Arjuna, as Partha. Prthu was a protg of Manu Vaivasvata and of Kashyapa, the chief of this Manus council of seven sages. Atri and Gautama, two other sages of this council, consented to encourage him as they found that he followed the instructions of Sanatkumara, a great sage. Visvamitra and Bharadvaja, two other members of this council supported Bharata. Prthus empire covered the areas between Sindhu and Yamuna, Sutlej and Narmada, the central region, Madhyadesa. Here it would suffice to note that neither Prthu ruled the entire earth nor Bharata exercised suzerainty over the entire Indian sub-continent. Arjuna was claimed to be a successor to both these rulers. But Dhrtarashtra was being acknowledged as such when the famous Battle of Kurukshetra took place.
Prthu, an agriculturist chieftain, kshiti-isvara, became the ruler of Anga, a principality after its autocratic ruler, Vena, had died, burned to death by his enraged subjects, especially, by the agriculturists. The Bhrgus had instigated the revolt against Vena. Prthu was a king elected by the people under a new constitution. Dhrtarashtra who claimed to be acting under the authority of Bharata seems to have refused to recognize Prthu. He even nominated Karna, a son of Kunti, as the ruler of Anga. Krshna, a nephew of Kamsa, the ruler of Mathura, upheld the claims of Partha, Arjuna. Prthvi was under the Bhojas, who were agriculturist chieftains.
Sanjaya addresses Dhrtarashtra as mahipati and also as Bharata. He reported to the king that Krshna placed Arjunas chariot between the two armies and in front of Bhishma, Drona and all the agrarian chiefs, mahi-kshitas, to enable Partha to behold all the Kurus who had gathered there. The lands on the banks of the river, Mahi, flowing into the Gulf of Kambay were governed by agriculturist rulers, mahipatis. They were Bhojas, sons of the soil. They were basically farmers and warriors. These chieftains who should have been on Arjunas side as he was Partha, claimant to Prthus legacy, were then arrayed against Arjuna. They had to obey the overlord, Dhrtarashtra, as Mahipati. Bhishma and Drona were loyal to the Kuru throne then occupied by Dhrtarashtra. (37)
Social Issues and Dharmas (38-47)
Arjuna saw both the armies from his chariot and recognized paternal uncles, maternal uncles, granduncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, and other kinsmen, teachers, companions and supporters, all arrayed against each other, eager for battle. The son of Kunti was filled with sadness and by the feeling of krpa, gracious compassion for the weak and the innocent who might fall in the battle. Krpa is sympathy and patronage extended by the nobles to their dependents. It is responded to with gratitude and respect. It builds up the charisma of the leader-patron and loyalty to him.
But as Krshna points out later, Arjuna was not entitled to show 'krpa' and refuse to punish the guilty. Krpa was the spirit with which Santanu, a ruler with the healing touch, had saved the abandoned children, Krpa and Krpi, and reared them. Krpa survived the battle and became the advisor of Parikshit and also joined Savarnis council of seven sages headed by Galava, a disciple of Visvamitra. Rshyasrnga, the son-in-law of the ruler of Anga (to be precise, of Dasaratha of Kosala), an eastern state, and Diptiman, a disciple of Krshna were two other members of this council, besides Badarayana, Parasurama and Asvatthama.
At the sight of his own people, svajana, members of his family and his dependents, arrayed and eager for battle, Arjuna felt his limbs giving way and a shiver passed through his body. His bow slipped from his hands and his mind reeled. He could not stand erect. He told his charioteer, Krshna, that he saw bad omens and found no good following his killing his own people. He did not long for victory or for kingdom or for pleasures, for the very persons for whom these were desired stood arrayed in battle, renouncing their desires and ready to get killed. [Svajana was a group larger than Sambandhana, close relatives.] It is simplistic to hold that this battle was one between two rival factions only. The social issues debated in the Gita are weighty.
Arjuna told Krshna that he would not kill his relations even if he should gain all the three lokas (social worlds), divam, prthvi and antariksham. These formed the nobility, the agro-pastoral commonalty and the industrial society of the forests and mountains. These are not to be interpreted as heaven, earth and intermediate space populated by gods, men and preternatural beings. His claim was for a small territory and this did not call for killing these chieftains. He addressed Krshna as Madhusudana, as one who had killed the Madhus who were his own kinsmen. Krshna was addressed also as Janardana to point out that he caused unrest for the people, jana. Arjuna would not get any satisfaction. For, he would have to distribute all the spoils of war among his men. It was a war of liberation. He was not entitled to annex any conquered territory.
Of course the Dhartarashtras were desperadoes, atatayina, not eligible to be called as protectors, Kshatriyas, as they killed unprotected and unarmed persons. Still he would not kill them, for only sin would accrue to the Pandavas if they killed their brothers. Fratricide was a sin. The Pandavas could not remain happy if they killed their own kinsmen. He was raising weighty social issues. Charges of treason and revolt against the state could be countered by the argument that the state had to be freed from misrule and from the desperadoes at its helm and that the revolt was just. But the moral issue behind fratricide would loom large.
He asked Krshna why even if those whose thinking, cetas, was blinded by greed saw no wrong, dosham, in causing the decay of the clan, kula, they two should not have the wisdom, jneyam, (knowledge) to turn away from the sin, papam, as they clearly deplored the decay of the clan. Mere transliteration of the verses of the Gita is not enough. The issues debated must be brought out. Krshna and Arjuna must have discussed earlier about the value and importance of the clan, kula, and its traditions, kuladharmas.
With the decay of the clan, the ancient, sanatana, traditions, the kuladharmas, disappear. As the practices of right conduct, dharmas, and their rationale are lost, adharma takes hold of the entire clan. (38-40)
Arjuna had come to this conclusion after that discussion which was perhaps about the permission granted by the Arthasastra, politico-economic code, of Pracetas Manu for pursuit of new enterprises and unlimited self-interest. These had been criticized in Sanatana Dharma outlined by the first Manu, Svayambhuva as greed. The Kuru state followed this code, which in Krshnas view was amoral. Bhishma, the great statesman and expounder of Rajadharma, code of political conduct, held this code in esteem. Arjuna who was trained in Samkhya dialectics by Krshna did not accept it. [The Arthasastra of Pracetas is now not available but much of it might have been incorporated in the extant Manava Dharmasastra or Manusmrti.]
What has been present since the most ancient times is kuladharma. It was the inherited and ancient code of conduct (sanatana dharma) then. The duties of the individual in tune with his class affiliation, varnadharma had come into focus only recently then. It would be imprecise to describe varnasrama dharma as sanatana dharma. Arjuna was for protection and continuance of the codes of the clans, kuladharmas. He did not examine whether they were just and rational or not. He feared that if they were given up, adharma would prevail. Every one must adhere to the traditions, orientations, customs and practices of his clan, according to this position, which in the form of caste has considerable influence over the minds of the people in a federal society and their lives even today. Did Krshna concur with him? What was his response? What is dharma and what is adharma?
Addressing Krshna as Varshneya for he was known by his clan, Vrshnis, a branch of the Vasus, Arjuna said that with preponderance of adharma, resort to prohibited conduct, the women of the clan, kula, became corrupt, pradushya, and that with their violations, dushta, mixture of classes, varnasamkara, appeared. (41) This argument was irrational. It was not fair to blame women alone for failure to prevent or for causing varnasamkara. Varnasamkara was looked at with horror then. It is wrong to translate varnasamkara as confusion of castes. Manava Dharmasastra was then yet on the anvil and only a preliminary draft of this social code as introduced in Brahmavarta was being debated. Arjuna demanded that the formation of classes, varnas, should not affect adversely the continuance of the clans and their codes, kuladharmas.
Every clan, kula, was jealous in guarding the chastity and dignity of its women, whether born in it or admitted to it through marriage. It is so now too and any affront to it is resisted. If any woman failed to guard her chastity and uphold the dignity of the clan, she was penalized severely. Varna or class orientations were then seen to be a threat to kula or clan orientations as the former did not endorse every one of the existing kula orientations and highlighted only the common and desirable ones. A varna is a confederation of clans and communities with similar practices and vocations. It is a socio-economic class and is not to be translated as a caste or equated with jati, community. It is not an ethnic unit. Hindu sociologists should prefer to use the terms, varna, jati and kula to indicate the social groups, class, community and clan and cease to use the terms, caste, race and tribe.
It was the traditional kuladharma that imposed severe restrictions on women and not the new varnadharma. There was a large section of the population that was not organized on the basis of clans or communities. How was it to be brought under the framework of the four social classes? Social thinkers like Krshna had to address themselves to the major issue of social organization even while bringing into existence the four varnas, classes, using valid parameters. Arjuna was against recognition of groups that did not fall clearly within any of the four varnas. Karna, his half-brother, was derided as he 'belonged' to a mixed class, samkaravarna, a class with the traits of more than one basic varna.
It was an era when the clan, kula, of a child was determined on the basis of its fathers if it was born within wedlock. A woman belonged to the clan and class of her father until her marriage and to those of her husband after that. She could not marry one of her own clan and had to marry one from another clan but in the same community and class. No clan accepted a child born of pre-marital sex or of adultery or to a widow and it was consigned to a mixed class. Arjuna did not realize that economic factors behind shifts in occupations and rise of new ones played a major role in the emergence of mixed classes.
Krshna did not encourage change of occupations and resort to new enterprises. He was eager to ensure social stability. Mixed classes, samkaravarnas were connected with the issue of innate traits of men, gunas, even as the four basic varnas, were when they were first formed. The Gita was expounded during that epoch of history. The innate traits of most men and women were not amenable to easy categorization and definitive assignment to a particular varna, social class. We discuss later how Krshna proposed to overcome these limitations. Violation of sex codes by women under duress or under conditions of social unrest was not to be held to have caused the emergence of mixed classes or new communities. Such violations were however to be prevented. This needed an atmosphere of peace.
Spread of adharma led to other disorders too. Chastity of women was valued by the patriarchal society and it refused to pardon violation of its sex codes. It was eager to protect the kuladharmas more than it was to subscribe to the varnadharma. It has continued to be so. The first chapter of the Gita raises issues that were tackled by Krshna while re-organizing the social order. His plan is examined in detail in the later chapters. These have to be highlighted. Devotion should not overshadow these.
Varnasamkara, the process of social classes getting mixed and losing their identity, affected adversely not only the clan but also those who destroyed it, Arjuna argued. The other innocent members of the clan too had to suffer besides the guilty. Of course the latter were bound to be outcast. The clan included all generations, young and old and also the yet-to-be-born. If the young became corrupt and tried to destroy its traditions, the retired fathers and grandfathers too suffered. All of them lost their status as naras, responsible free human beings. They were condemned to the lowest life, naraka, to a life in the ghetto (hell, in common parlance). The departed souls, pitrs, were deprived of the benefit of offering of rice-balls, pindas and sip of water, udaka, that is the propitiatory rites known as sraddha and tarpana. These represented the basic needs of man, food and water. The surviving elders, pitaras, too were boycotted. They had to suffer because they did not like to be fed by impure women. (42) Neither Krshna nor Arjuna was a male chauvinist, it may be noted. Both wanted social stability.
The stains, dosha, of the destroyers of the clan contributed to varnasamkara, women giving birth to children by men belonging to other varnas, and the traditional values and practices, kuladharmas and jatidharmas got extinct thereby, Arjuna complained. (43)
For, these were protected only within the framework of their respective basic varnas. The mixed classes were unable to develop definitive orientations and had no traditions to fall back on. In a changing society samkaravarnas could not be prevented from emerging. So thinkers like Kautilya called upon the Sutas, Magadhas and Rathakaras, three influential mixed classes, to guard their respective identity and refrain from further interaction with those who had been outcast as chandalas for violating sex codes and resorting to rape and abduction. [Kautilya was a contemporary of Bhishma and Dvaipayana or Vyasa. Kautilyas work, Arthasastra, was discovered and edited during the 4th century BC by Vishnugupta.] Arjuna was against varnasamkara. But Krshna ignored this. This has to be explained. We should not shut our eyes to issues that have relevance to all epochs.
Arjuna told Krshna that they had heard that the commoners, manushyas, who had lost their kuladharmas, their basic orientations, traditions and practices as organized clans, were reduced to the level of fallen men and had to reside for ever in naraka. Was there no hope for them? An issue he expected Krshna to address. (44) Hindu Sociology needs to be put on sound lines. It has to steer clear of mysticism and be wary of many of the interpretations given by western Indologists. Prthvi, the agro-pastoral commonalty, was referred to by the term, manushyas. This status gave the commoners secure jobs that were monopolized by the clans and communities, kulas and jatis. Those who lost this status because they did not adhere to their kuladharmas became naras working on their own in occupations not reserved for any clan or community or class. Those who got no jobs because they were guilty of moral turpitude were forced to stay forever in ghettoes.
Krshna was expected to find out a solution for this socio-economic problem, a product of varnasamkara, a dreaded consequence of war. It is academically unsound to ridicule clannishness and impolitic to undermine the importance and influence of the clan. Arjuna did not want to contribute to the decay of the kula system, a compact socio-economic entity with its own code of conduct and with adequate coercive power to ensure compliance by its members.
Arjuna regretted that he and his brothers had set their mind on committing a great sin in intending to slay their own people, svajana, out of lust for kingdom and happiness. Would they be really sinners? (45) He felt that it would be far better for him if the sons of Dhrtarashtra should kill him in battle with weapons while he stood unarmed and unresisting. For, then they would be guilty of destroying their clan and not he. (46) It was not mere passive resistance. It was passiveness and non-resistance. Having spoken thus on the battlefield, with his mind agitated by grief, Arjuna threw aside his bow and arrows and sank in his seat, as Sanjaya told his king. (47) It is not academically sound to hold that the rest of the Gita contains all that and only what Krshna expounded to Arjuna on the battlefield. Most of the discourse was delivered in Krshnas (and Vyasas) academy, as Chapter 18--75 of the Gita hints. Sanjaya, Dhrtarashtra's reporter, came to know about this discourse from Vyasa. Romaharsha, a follower of Vyasa, had recited it in a thrilling way.
Vyasa, known also as Krshna Dvaipayana and Badarayana, had sired Dhrtarashtra and Pandu, as their father, Vicitravirya was impotent. A great scholar with wide contacts, he was in the know of the secrets of several personages and states. He later became a member of Manu Savarnis council of seven sages during the reign of Parikshit who took over the governance of Hastinapura as the eldest surviving member of the Kuru oligarchy. Vyasa is said to have edited and compiled the Vedic anthologies and briefed his students on the history of the Bharata clans of which Kuru was one. Parikshit was the son of Samvarana by a princess of Tapati.
The Bharatas had exiled Samvarana to the Sindhu delta. The forest workers, sarpas, killed Parikshit as he had insulted their guide. Janamejaya, a half-brother of Bharata, succeeded Parikshit. Vyasa was a guide of this cruel ruler too. Vyasa however found a match in an Astika, a believer. The latter was a Brahman and also a supporter of the industrial proletariat, sarpas. This historical background would aid us to comprehend the contents of the Gita correctly.
The Bhagavad-Gita and Rajavidya
The Bhagavad-Gita was a discourse on political science, Rajavidya, and on Rajayoga, a section of Karmayoga. The salient features of Krshnas socio-political thought as reflected in it are examined in this work. The Gita dwells on metaphysics too but these do not distract its main note and purpose, the reorganization of the social polity of his times. I would avoid referring to the stands of the great masters of ancient Hindu philosophical systems like Samkara and Ramanuja, Maddhva and Vallabha and their modern exponents and to those scholars who have interpreted these systems to the modern west and to modern India from the medieval angles or from the western angles.
We would trace this thought which was relevant to the Mahabharata times and is relevant to our contemporary society also, from a non-theological, non-fundamentalist, rational, sociological angle, without getting trapped in the disputes these philosophical systems have been led into. As we embark on a critical examination of the verses, we would dwell on some of the postulates that have led our modern scholars away from the important theme, the re-organization of the society. Arjuna put forth mainly sociological grounds for refusing to fight. He did not want the clans to decay and their traditions undermined. He wanted to save the women from corruption, from being the cause of samkaravarnas, a sequel to many women, mainly young widows, going astray and their children being orphaned and outcast. Bhishma too was worried over the plight of the war-widows. War has always been a threat to social order.
The core society of the Vedic times had two main strata, nobles and commoners, devas and manushyas. It was confined to agro-pastoral economy, to towns and villages. The commoners were engaged in agriculture, pasture and trade. The nobles (devas) formed the cultural aristocracy, a leisure class and the governing elite and provided social leadership. This class had to constantly recruit new members from the higher ranks of the commonalty, Vis, to replace its decadent members. The nobles, devas, liberal patricians, were involved in a prolonged conflict with the feudal warlords, asuras, who had entrenched themselves in garrisons, durgas, and had a stranglehold on the rural areas around.
The conflict between devas and asuras was not one between gods and demons. They were both human beings like the manushyas, commoners, and constituted two rival sections of the ruling class of the Vedic core society. The loyal and docile servants of the nobles were known as dasas and the unruly mercenaries engaged by the feudal chiefs were known as dasyus. It is wrong to describe these groups as ethnically or racially different from one another.
There was a parallel society that was confined to the forests and mountains and was engaged in industrial economy. It was technologically more advanced than the core society. This parallel society, itara-jana, other people, was governed by the plutocrats, yakshas, who had their personal guards, rakshas. The guards who revolted against their masters were referred to as rakshasas. The mines and industries were owned and financed by the plutocrats. Roving groups of technocrats and proletariat, known as nagas and sarpas respectively, operated them. These industries were based on forest and mountain resources. The nagas and sarpas were not serpents nor were they worshippers of serpents. Only long after the Vedic times these artisans began to worship serpents to assert their identity. The yakshas were not evil spirits. Both the plutocrats and the technocrats were given the status of devatas, nearly equal to the aristocrats, devas. We have to disabuse our minds of many of the myths and stereotypes made popular by the western Indologists.
The sages and elders, rshis and pitaras, did not belong to the economic society. There was also a vast section of the population that was not organized as clans and communities and who moved across all areas. Gandharvas, Apsarases, Kimpurushas and Kinnaras were such cadres. They were known as the blessed people, punya-jana. While all resident settled communities were included in social worlds, lokas, these mobile groups not engaged in production economy were referred to as social universes, jagats.
Kashyapa, a contemporary of Krshna, and head of the council of seven sages convened by Manu Vaivasvata, visualized a larger society comprising eight approved sectors having distinct cultural orientations. Nobles (devas), feudal lords (asuras), elders (pitaras), sages (rshis), commoners (manushyas), plutocrats (yakshas), the blessed peoples (gandharvas etc.), industrial workers (nagas, sarpas etc.) were identified by this ideologue as the eight sectors in which all human beings could be included. There were discrete individuals, bhutas, not assigned to any of these eight sectors.
Bhutas were not ghosts, even as sarpas were not serpents. Gandharvas and apsarases were not celestial musicians and dancers. They were social groups with distinct cultural orientations. These categories lost their identities as they were merged in the new four-varnas system by the end of or soon after the Vedic era. We have to desist from describing devas as gods, asuras as demons, sarpas as serpents, bhutas as ghosts, yakshas as demigods, pitrs as spirits. Such description has given a wrong picture of the ancient Indian society and distorted its religious and philosophical systems. The Gita and other ancient Indian works can not be understood correctly without disassociating ourselves from such wrong description.
The commoners, manushyas, were organized in clans and communities, kulas and jatis. A kula was a unit that claimed a separate genetic identity. Such a genetic identity was not claimed for a jati. Its members were known by the region in which they were born and by their vocations. It was thus an ethnic unit, which a varna was not. A varna was a cross-regional class. A kula was composed of several nuclear families, claiming a common paternal ancestor, and same social status and cultural orientation. A jati was composed of several clans among whom inter-clan marriage was permitted and prescribed. A member of a clan had to marry one from another clan. Intra-clan marriage was not permitted. Later, marriage within the same gotra (an extended family that was not confined to a particular village and claimed descent from the sage after whom that gotra was named) was banned.
Jatidharma was a composite of approved kuladharmas, which were the oldest of the social codes (dharmas). It was less rigid than the kuladharmas. Jatidharmas and kuladharmas were in existence even before varnadharmas were defined. Varnadharmas were less rigid than these. The verses of the Gita have to be appreciated in the context of the early steps taken to define the varnadharma, the rights and duties, the privileges and obligations, of the members of each of the four classes. A varna was a confederation of jatis and kulas with similar orientations and following vocations prescribed or permitted for that class. It was a socio-economic class.
No jati or kula admitted new men to its fold. Individuals who did not belong to any community or clan could get assigned to appropriate varnas on the basis of their conduct and pursuits. Whole clans could move away from the communities of which they were members and the classes to which these communities were affiliated and join new classes by changing their orientations and vocations. This liberal pyramid of individual, family, clan, community and class was in danger of being pulled down very soon after it had been brought into existence, due to the decay of the ruling clans and the emergence of mixed classes. Arjuna was anxious to stop this rot and save the above social pyramid.
SAMKHYA AND YOGA: DIALECTICS AND ENDEAVOUR
Arjuna's Dilemma (1-9):
During the Vedic times, the commoners could rise in the social ladder slowly by adhering to the codes of their clans, kuladharmas, and as social groups. Social ascent was not easy for individuals. The decadence caused by absence of social bonds and communal values led to the degradation of isolated individuals, naras, as implicit in the fallen being consigned to naraka. Arjuna was aware of this danger, a calamity that would befall many if the battle took place leaving behind a host of war-widows and orphans. Not only members of his clan but also those who caused its decay depriving it of its protective force and patriarchal governance and heritage were liable to be debarred as sinners, from participation in its wholesome communal activities. Krshnas discourse has to be studied against this threat to social order and Arjunas fear of becoming a sinner and not as a mere treatise on abstract metaphysics and comforting theology.
Krshna tried to make Arjuna realize that he had to shed his fear and dejection and enter the fray. For it was his duty as a Kshatriya to fight. He asked Arjuna who was overcome by pity, krpa, for the likely victims of his action and whose eyes were filled with tears and who was depressed in mind, whence that dejection had come to him at that odd time. Such dejection was disapproved by Aryas and such pity would not lead him to svarga, to a place among the nobles (a status he had aspired for). Such diffidence would bring him only disgrace. (1, 2)
The Pandavas lost the freedom, the rights and privileges enjoyed by them as owners of property, Aryas, when they lost to the Dhartarashtras at dice and were reduced to the status of serfs, dasas. If they had won, they would have become entitled to a place in the ruling elite as nobles, devas, svas. On their return from exile they had to first get approved by their erstwhile peers, the landlords, as Aryas, as free citizens capable of standing on their own legs, before they could arise to the level of the nobles, svas. Only those rich nobles, who could protect their dependents, svajana, could show pity, krpa, for the weak and the penitent and pardon the guilty among their dependents.
A commoner, whether he was a landlord (Arya) or a serf (dasa), had to earn and protect his dependents. He had no right to punish or pardon any one. The commoners had jurisdiction only over common lands. Only the nobles, svas, had personal lands, svabhumi. Arjuna was still a commoner and was not entitled to show mercy and leave the field. Samkhya dialectics aids one to recognize correctly his rights and duties, two aspects of svadharma. Was Arjuna relying on an incorrect advice given by Krpa, one of his teachers? It is necessary to read between the lines to comprehend the message of the aphorisms of the Gita.
Krshna would address Arjuna as Partha to suggest that he was the son of Prtha, Kunti who was patronized by Prthu, the agriculturist king, kshiti-isvara. Prthu did not belong to the nobility, divam. Arjuna was suspected to have a streak of womanliness in him, to be almost a eunuch, a kliba. Krshna asked him to shed his weakness, durbalyam, and his unmanliness, klaibyam, for these characterized the heart of a kshudra, an agricultural worker. Krshna asked Arjuna to stand up and assert himself. (3) But Arjuna had a dilemma to overcome.
Only a kshudra would not be bold. Kshatriyas had risen from the ranks of independent landlords, Aryas or Vaisyas, who were a class of self-employed, self-reliant landlords or traders. (Aryas were not a race.) Those landlords and traders who had fallen from their status were treated as kshudrakas and vaidehakas. Aryas and Kshudras were later equated with Vaisyas and Shudras, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the two strata of the commoners, Vis. The nobles, the intellectuals and the warriors, Devas, Brahmans and Kshatriyas were not personally engaged in economic activities, vrtti.
How could Arjuna fight against Bhishma and Drona who were worthy of worship? He hesitated to fight against the Mahi-kshitas, the agriculturist chieftains of the Mahi region. They had not yet been accepted as Kshatriyas. He felt that it was better to live on alms in this world, loka, of commoners without slaying honoured teachers though the latter were enamoured of wealth (were arthakami). Arjuna had a poor view about Drona and Krpa. They did not deserve to be held as ideal teachers living on alms collected for them by their students from householders. They were servants of the state. By killing them he would be enjoying here, in the world of commoners, only bloodstained pleasures. (4, 5) Every one of the verses of the Gita has to be reexamined to bring out the aspects of the later Vedic social polity many of which have eluded the medieval and modern scholars.
Arjuna wondered which would be better for the Pandavas, they conquering the Dhartarashtras or the latter, conquering them. The Pandavas would not like to live after killing them. (6) They did leave the scene for their last great journey never to return, on mahaprastana, soon after the war was over, handing over power to Parikshit, the eldest survivor among the Kurus. Parikshit, son of Kuru was installed on the throne of Hastinapura with Krpa as the Rajapurohita. This was what was to be done according to the constitution of Hastinapura. The Rajarshi constitution did not validate conquest.
Kuru was a son of Samvarana and Tapati. (The latter was a princess of a province on the banks of River Tapati.) Arjuna was claimed to be one of the heirs to her wealth and was addressed as Tapateya. It needs to be pointed out that Parikshit was till then a ruler of Uttarakuru, a northern province. [He was not the posthumous son of Abhimanyu by Uttara, a Virata princess. Hers was born dead.] Janamejaya of Takshasila, an autocrat and half-brother of Emperor Bharata was another claimant. Janamejaya took over the reins of Hastinapura after Takshaka, a leader of carpenters and protg of Dhrtarashtra and Kashyapa, killed Parikshit, a protg of the Pandavas.
Arjuna said that his very being wasstricken with the fault, dosham, of krpa, pity for the undeserving recoiling on the man who has shown pity and that his mind was bewildered about dharma, the ethics behind the rules of pity. This meant more than a doubt about ethics. He was referring to an unsatisfactory provision of the political code then in vogue. Dharma permitted and prescribed participation in battle as a duty of the Kshatriyas. It also permitted conquest. But it did not permit annexation of the territories conquered. They had to be handed over to a son or brother of the defeated ruler or to the lawful claimant. The conqueror had to withdraw after restoring order. Krpa adhered to the Rajadharma that was expounded by Bhishma. It was based on Bahudantakam, a political treatise authored by the son of Bahudanti and honoured by the emperor, Mamdhata. This son of Bahudanti seems to have held the post of Indra in Kosala. Arjuna too had to adhere to it.
To slay or to be slain: Kshatra Dharma or Kshatra Dharma
Arjuna asked Krshna to tell him for certain which of the two was good, to slay or to be slain. It was not an issue of abstract ethics or a field of abstruse metaphysics. It belonged to the field of dialectics that had its methods of reasoning to reconcile contradictory stands. Was Kshatra Dharma which permitted aggression and destroying of enemies of the society who were bent on upsetting the codes, dharmas, of all classes, and slaying those enemies, better or Kshatra Dharma which called upon the ruler to fight and die in battle while protecting the weak and the pious? Bhishma who followed Bahudantakam distinguished between Kshatra Dharma and Kshatra Dharma. (Vide Chapter on Bhishma and Rajadharma in my treatise, Evolution of Social Polity of Ancient India). Arjuna had been a student of both Krpa and Drona. He had learnt political science from Chitraratha and also from the Saligrama sage, a friend of Vyasa. Now he would become Krshnas disciple. (7)
For a proper appreciation of the Gita we have to trace the socio-political scene that prevailed when the two Kuru factions fell out. The Battle of Kurukshetra was fought a few years before 3102 BC according to the Hindu calendar. [It is irrational to discard this tradition. Assigning any later date without proof is unwarranted.] The Kurus had accepted a constitution that was based on the Rajarshi constitution originally recommended by Samkara, a Rudra. Chitraratha followed the school of Samkara. He was a Gandharva chieftain. Krshna admired both Samkara and Chitraratha as the Vibhuti Yoga (Ch. 10 of the Gita) shows.
Thisconstitution, as traced by Kautilya whose deuteragonist Krpa must have been, required that the successor to the throne be selected from among eligible trained candidates. (Vide my work, Foundations of Hindu Economic State.)
A board of three authorities selected the successor from a panel recommended by the head of the state academy of princes. This was intended to obviate the rival claimants in the college of rajanyas, chieftains, battling out and disturbing the lives of the people. The then practice approved by Atharvaveda had placed political and economic power in the hands of this college. Under the Rajarshi constitution, the incumbent Rajarshi, his political counsellor, Rajapurohita, and the Prime Minister would nominate the selected successor as Crown Prince, Yuvaraja, and train him in the various fields of administration.
These provisions had been manipulated by the Kauravas to get Duryodhana appointed as Crown Prince and the Pandavas declared as rebels. (Vide Hindu Social Dynamics Vol.3 on the Hastinapura Tangles) They would not be recognized as rulers even if they won the battle. Arjuna wanted to know from Krshna what the constitution, Dharma, did say. He sought instruction from Krshna on Rajavidya, science of polity. As the later sections of this discourse show, he wanted clarifications also on papa and punya, sin and virtue, issues of ethics and spiritualism. Krshna dealt with these too.
Arjuna did not see what would dispel the sorrow that was withering his senses, indriyas. Even if he should obtain undisputed control, adhipatya, over the treasury, sura, and an affluent realm, rajyam, on earth, bhumi, he would not be happy. (8) After addressing Hrshikesa (Krshna) thus, Arjuna refused to fight and fell silent. Sanjaya reported this to Dhrtarashtra, addressing him as Paramtapa, scorcher of enemies. Krshna uses this attribute to address Arjuna. In his view Arjuna was the rightful claimant to the throne occupied by Dhrtarashtra for the latter was only a regent. A Pandava was to succeed to Pandus legacy. But Sanjaya, a Suta and recorder as member-secretary, of political and administrative decisions, taken by the large council of ministers and the small cabinet, did not think so. (9) Pandu himself was but officiating, as ruler, for Dhrtarashtra, the rightful claimant to the Hastinapura throne was blind.
A note on the Atharvan polity is necessary here. Krshna had told Arjuna that he would not be able to get a place among the nobles, svas, in svarga. But he could get control over the commonalty, bhumi or prthvi, the commoners engaged in economic activities like agriculture, pasture and trade and also over the treasury, sura or rajyalakshmi. The sociopolitical constitutions that were in force during the later Vedic era were gradually lost sight of during the next two millennia. Modern scholars of the history of Ancient India who have heavily depended on western Indologists have failed to trace these.
Earlier the patricians controlled the treasury to which they were the sole contributors. The nobles had their private lands, armies and retinues and were known as devas, svas and suras. They were not gods. [Sura also meant liquor.] The feudal warlords who were denied access to this treasury were known as asuras. The Gandharvas who did not have private lands were known as asvas. The plutocrats, yakshas, who controlled the mines and the industrial centres, were treated as devatas, almost equal to the aristocrats, devas. Devas and devatas were not gods and demigods. Nor were asuras, demons. They were all human beings and belonged to the ruling classes of the Vedic times. They differed from one another in their orientations and in the treatment they meted out to their subordinates.
The core society comprising the nobles and the commoners (devas and manushyas) had a political system by which it had two institutions, sabha and samiti, or divam and prthvi, headed by the officials designated as Indra and Agni. It also had a Rajan, a king, elected by the college of Rajanyas from among its members and a Prajapati, chief of the people. The Prajapati, the chief of the people, convened the two bodies. The nobles controlled the treasury and the army. The scholars and elders who were members of the samiti controlled the civil administration.
This arrangement underwent a change in some areas where the commonalty became influential and was represented by Brhaspati who was an economist of the Angirasa-Atharvan school rather than by Agni, an officer of the judiciary. Indra-Brhaspati agreement placed the army under a separate official, Aditya, and the arms in the custody of the civilian authority, Brhaspati. The nobles, devas, were in charge of the treasury, sura. This new system kept the intellectuals, the Brahmans, represented by Agni out of positions of power. (Vide Ch.4. on the Atharvan Polity in Evolution of Social Polity of Ancient India)
This imbalance was set right by the Mahadeva constitution that created four autonomous institutions, sabha, samiti, sena and sura. These represented the nobles (Devas), the intellectuals (Brahmans), the warriors (Kshatriyas) and the commoners (Manushyas, Prthvi). Indra, Agni, Aditya and Brhaspati represented the elite, the intelligentsia, the army and the bourgeoisie respectively. As pointed out in my earlier works, this constitution arrived at after considerable debate had been agreed to by most of the regional states of the sub-continent shortly before the Battle of Kurukshetra took place. It treated the Prajapati as the most influential leader representing the nation, rashtram, and the state, kshatram. Even the king who was elected by the college of Rajanyas had to honour this charismatic leader, I have explained describing Mahadevas role while tracing the evolution of the social polity of Ancient India. (Vide Ch.5 on the Vratyan Nation-State in Evolution of Social Polity of Ancient India)
Karpanya Dosham: The Snag in Krpa's Offer:
These constitutions tried to prevent concentration of power in the hands of one individual or one body and enabled the commoners to govern themselves. Arjuna might have been offered control over the agro-pastoral spread, prthvi or bhumi and also over the treasury, sura, that is, the position and powers that Brhaspati had. But he would not be accepted as a noble or as a ruler. The Pandavas were asked to give up their claim to the throne and place in the ruling elite and also the right to lead the army. Of course, they had no place in the samiti, council of scholars and jurists.
Arjuna who had aspired for the post of Indra (who in the earlier constitution controlled the sabha and also the army and the treasury, sena and sura) turned down this offer. There was a snag in Krpas offer of amnesty. It is referred to as karpanya dosham. These possibilities need to be looked into in view of Krshnas offer to train Arjuna in Rajayoga and impart him the secret knowledge, Rajaguhya, behind his theory propounded in Rajavidya, science of polity. We highlight these aspects, which have eluded the commentators, both medieval and modern. They have concerned themselves with matters pertaining to devotion, spiritualism, pursuit of knowledge and renunciation of the fruits of work, if not of the work itself. Krshna was training Arjuna for a great socio-political mission. The objects of this mission and the method of training are to be traced in the Gita.
The approach of the physicians, the Panditas:
To him sitting depressed in the midst of the two armies, Hrshikesa, smiling as it were at his sorrow, diffidence and dilemma, pointed out that he grieved for those who were not to be grieved for, but had yet spoken words of awareness, prajna. Arjuna had not been carried away by the lure of status and power. The learned, panditas, did not grieve for the departed, gatasu, or for those who had not departed, agatasu, for the dead or for the living, Krshna said. He added, Never was there a time when I (aham) or you (tvam) or these chiefs of the people (janadhipas) were not, nor there will be a time when these shall not be. (10,11,12)
Krshna meant by panditas, the physicians, who had become inured to scenes of pain and death. He subtly draws Arjunas attention to his earlier association with the Saligrama sage who was a physician and veterinarian and also a teacher of political science. This sage was privy to the secrets of many states, sages and chiefs and was a friend of Vyasa. These physicians who had confined themselves to the forests where they had access to herbs were held to be devoid of sensitivity. Krshna explains that their refusal to grieve for the dead or to pity the dying is because they are aware that it is the body that ceases to function and that the soul in it does not cease to be.
Saligrama was a resort located at the intersection of four states or regions, janapadas and was a neutral ground where the rival chieftains, janadhipas, could meet. This political arrangement was in vogue since many centuries before the Battle of Kurukshetra. There was a fifth, indifferent and distant state also. The five constituted a circle, mandala, of states. From the dialectical point of view adopted by Krshna, this model was valid for all times. The above reference to the approach of the physicians is more than a prelude to the necessary awareness, prajna, of the reality that one neither slays nor is slain for he is soul and not body. In political theory states do not cease to be. Only their rulers die or get killed or overthrown or retire. The word, janadhipas, was not a reference to the rulers who had assembled at Kurukshetra.
The relationship between aham and tvam, I and you, that is between Krshna the teacher and Arjuna the student is made clear later. Arjuna was a student of Krshnas academy of princes and administrators where the janadhipas, the chiefs of the local people, were being trained in Rajayoga, and Karmayoga. Rajayoga is political endeavour and Karmayoga deals with performance of duties. Arjuna had to conduct himself as a trainee for the position of a king ought to. He had to learn how to carry out his duties by emulating his teacher. Krshna had for this purpose assumed the position of a political counsellor, Rajapurohita. This feature of pedagogy, playing the roles of different characters to master the entire scene, was known then.
Krshna seems to have taken over an ancient centre of learning and intended to introduce certain vital changes and make it a permanent one. This institute must have earlier been under Usanas (Sukra), a famous political thinker. Vamana, a follower of Kashyapa, had forced Usanas to quit as he had misguided Bali, a ruler of Janasthana in the Narmada valley. It is not argued here that Krshna was not dwelling on the theme of the immortality of the soul. But that note need not and should not be read in every one of Krshnas utterances or even as the main theme of this discourse. Krshna was a socio-political thinker and statesman. He wanted to revive the Rajarshi constitution, amend it and enable it to survive for a long time. Most of this discourse was delivered in his academy before the battle of Kurukshetra was slated. This stand does not diminish the merit of his advice.
Krshna points out, Just as in the body, deha, the soul, dehina, passes through the stages of boyhood, youth and old age, even so is its passing to another body, dehantara. The resolute, dhira, the brave and composed is not perplexed by this process. (13) Arjuna has to realize that the soul that had migrated from its earlier abode to its present one would be migrating to another. This process is described as dehantara. Krshna prefers to term this soul as dehina. It is not born with the body nor does it die with it.
He points out that pleasure and pain result from the contacts made by the senses, indriyas, with their objects. These feelings are transitory. (14) Here he addresses Arjuna as Bharata. Bharata is one who bears the load of duties and cares patiently. It evokes the picture of Jatamuni Bharata, son of Rshabha and a descendant of the first Manu, Svayambhuva. He was a stoic and was emulated by Bharata of Ayodhya who was Ramas regent when the latter had gone on exile. Rshabha was respected by the Sramanas as well as by the Saivaites as a saint. These related concepts are woven together as Krshna describes the traits of a stoic, which a saintly king, Rajarshi was expected to be. In this verse, Krshna does not try to remind Arjuna that he was a descendant of Bharata, the son of Dushyanta and Sakuntala.