The Bhagavad Gita was spoken on the battleground of the Mahabharat war, an enormous war that was just about to begin between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. A detailed description of developments that led to the colossal war is given in the Introduction to this book, in the section “The Setting of the Bhagavad Gita.”
The Bhagavad Gita begins to unfold as a dialogue between King Dhritarashtra and his minister Sanjay. Since Dhritarashtra was blind, he could not be personally present on the battlefield. Hence, Sanjay was giving him a first-hand account of the events on the warfront. Sanjay was the disciple of Sage Ved Vyas, the celebrated writer of the Mahabharat. Ved Vyas possessed the mystic power of being able to see what was happening in distant places. By the grace of his teacher, Sanjay also possessed the mystic ability of distant vision. Thus he could see from afar all that transpired on the battleground.
Dhritarashtra said: O Sanjay, after gathering on the holy field of Kurukshetra, and desiring to fight, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do?
Sanjay said: On observing the Pandava army standing in military formation, King Duryodhan approached his teacher Dronacharya, and said the following words.
Duryodhan said: Respected teacher! Behold the mighty army of the sons of Pandu, so expertly arrayed for battle by your own gifted disciple, the son of Drupad.
Behold in their ranks are many powerful warriors, like Yuyudhan, Virat, and Drupad, wielding mighty bows and equal in military prowess to Bheem and Arjun. There are also accomplished heroes like Dhrishtaketu, Chekitan, the gallant King of Kashi, Purujit, Kuntibhoj, and Shaibya—all the best of men. In their ranks, they also have the courageous Yudhamanyu, the gallant Uttamauja, the son of Subhadra, and the sons of Draupadi, who are all great warrior chiefs.
O best of Brahmins, hear too about the principal generals on our side, who are especially qualified to lead. These I now recount unto you.
There are personalities like yourself, Bheeshma, Karna, Kripa, Ashwatthama, Vikarn, and Bhurishrava, who are ever victorious in battle.
Also, there are many other heroic warriors, who are prepared to lay down their lives for my sake. They are all skilled in the art of warfare, and equipped with various kinds of weapons.
The strength of our army is unlimited and we are safely marshalled by Grandsire Bheeshma, while the strength of the Pandava army, carefully marshalled by Bheem, is limited.
Therefore, I call upon all the generals of the Kaurava army now to give full support to Grandsire Bheeshma, even as you defend your respective strategic points.
Then, the grand old man of the Kuru dynasty, the glorious patriarch Bheeshma, roared like a lion, and blew his conch shell very loudly, giving joy to Duryodhan.
Thereafter, conches, kettledrums, bugles, trumpets, and horns suddenly blared forth, and their combined sound was overwhelming.
Then, from amidst the Pandava army, seated in a glorious chariot drawn by white horses, Madhav and Arjun blew their Divine conch shells.
Hrishikesh blew his conch shell, called Panchajanya, and Arjun blew the Devadutta. Bheem, the voracious eater and performer of herculean tasks, blew his mighty conch, called Paundra.
King Yudhishthir, blew the Anantavijay, while Nakul and Sahadev blew the Sughosh and Manipushpak. The excellent archer and king of Kashi, the great warrior Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna, Virat, and the invincible Satyaki, Drupad, the five sons of Draupadi, and the mighty-armed Abhimanyu, son of Subhadra, all blew their respective conch shells, O Ruler of the earth.
The terrific sound thundered across the sky and the earth, and shattered the hearts of your sons, O Dhritarasthra.
At that time, the son of Pandu, Arjun, who had the insignia of Hanuman on the flag of his chariot, took up his bow. Seeing your sons arrayed against him, O King, Arjun then spoke the following words to Shree Krishna.
Arjun said: O Infallible One, please take my chariot to the middle of both armies, so that I may look at the warriors arrayed for battle, whom I must fight in this great combat.
I desire to see those who have come here to fight on the side of the evil-minded son of Dhritarasthra, wishing to please him.
Sanjay said: O Dhritarasthra, having thus been addressed by Arjun, the conqueror of sleep, Shree Krishna then drew the magnificent chariot between the two armies.
In the presence of Bheeshma, Dronacharya, and all the other kings, Shree Krishna said: O Parth, behold these Kurus gathered here.
There, Arjun could see stationed in both armies, his fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, cousins, sons, nephews, grand-nephews, friends, fathers-in-law, and well-wishers.
Seeing all his relatives present there, Arjun, the son of Kunti, was overwhelmed with compassion, and with deep sorrow, spoke the following words.
Arjun said: O Krishna, seeing my own kinsmen arrayed for battle here and intent on killing each other, my limbs are giving way and my mouth is drying up.
My whole body shudders; my hair is standing on end. My bow, the Gāṇḍīv, is slipping from my hand, and my skin is burning all over. My mind is in quandary and whirling in confusion; I am unable to hold myself steady any longer. O Krishna, killer of the Keshi demon, I only see omens of misfortune. I do not foresee how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in this battle.
O Krishna, I do not desire the victory, kingdom, or the happiness accruing it. Of what avail will be a kingdom, pleasures, or even life itself, when the very persons for whom we covet them, are standing before us for battle?
Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, grandsons, fathers-in-law, grand-nephews, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen are present here, staking their lives and riches. O Madhusudan, I do not wish to slay them, even if they attack me. If we kill the sons of Dhritarashtra, what satisfaction will we derive from the dominion over the three worlds, what to speak of this Earth?
O Maintainer of all living entities, what pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarasthra? Even though they may be aggressors, sin will certainly come upon us if we slay them. Hence, it does not behoove us to kill our own cousins, the sons of Dhritarashtra, and friends. O Madhav (Krishna), how can we hope to be happy by killing our own kinsmen?
Their thoughts are overpowered by greed and they see no wrong in annihilating their relatives or wreaking treachery upon friends. Yet, O Janardan (Krishna), why should we, who can clearly see the crime in killing our kindred, not turn away from this sin?
When a dynasty is destroyed, its traditions get vanquished, and the rest of the family becomes involved in irreligion.
With the preponderance of vice, O Krishna, the women of the family become immoral; and from the immorality of women, O descendent of Vrishni, unwanted progeny are born.
An increase in unwanted children results in hellish life both for the family and for those who destroy the family. Deprived of the sacrificial offerings, the ancestors of such corrupt families also fall.
Through the evil deeds of those who destroy the family tradition and thus give rise to unwanted progeny, a variety of social and family welfare activities are ruined.
O Janardan (Krishna), I have heard from the learned that those who destroy family traditions dwell in hell for an indefinite period of time.
Alas! How strange it is that we have set our mind to perform this great sin. Driven by the desire for kingly pleasures, we are intent on killing our own kinsmen. It will be better if, with weapons in hand, the sons of Dhritarashtra kill me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield.
Sanjay said: Speaking thus, Arjun cast aside his bow and arrows, and sank into the seat of his chariot, his mind in distress and overwhelmed with grief.