Alternate Time: Friendship and Revelation in the Bhagavad-Gita

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An essay on how the Bhagavad-Gita occurs as a moment of “expansion of time” in the Mahabharata. I have taken a relationship-centric perspective (or, perhaps, a bhakti perspective), arguing that Arjuna’s existential crisis and a deepening of the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna is the inner purpose for this dialogue. It has been pointed out to me that another important feature of the dialogue is the depersonalized teachings presented – teachings about all jivas, the gunas, and material existence, not just about Arjuna. One might wonder why Krishna chooses to give these teachings in addition to His comforting, revelatory stance. Perhaps in the future I will be able to integrate these understandings. Any feedback is appreciated, as always.

The Bhagavad-Gita in the context of the Mahabharata is a time dilation, a moment charged with emotional intensity in which Krishna and Arjuna move into an alternate space of relational and revelational intensity. It is sparked by an existential crisis in which Arjuna feels that he and the armies for which he is responsible are about to commit a great crime (BG 1.45). Arjuna’s self-image as a Kshatriya prince is based on the set of actions that he is able to perform following Kshatriya-dharma. If he cannot bring himself to perform these actions, who is he? This existential crisis demands the entry into an alternate relational space of intimacy. Through an exchange of faith, trust, and friendship, Krishna and Arjuna move into a deeper, more intimate relationship that enables deeper insights on Arjuna’s part and revelation on Krishna’s part.

The Gita is a rare emotional moment within the Mahabharata, where the inexorable forces of plot, fate, and time pause to allow Arjuna to turn to Krishna for guidance. It is normal in the context of major battles to consult during the long build-up period to action; but the improbable physical location of this consultation in the center of the battlefield heightens the emotional aspect and places it even more firmly into this alternate space.

This is not a one-sided relationship; Krishna, too, has deliberate agency in entering into this alternate relationalspace. He is the one who guides Arjuna through his crisis of faith and dharma, offering words of friendship and comfort, teachings on dharma, and revelation of his own nature. Furthermore, Krishna uses his own power of time to allow this moment to occur. It is not only a metaphorical suspension of time but also a literal one. A modern recitation of the Gita would take two to three hours while the Mahabharata states that it only took forty minutes. As part of his ongoing revelation in the Gita, Krishna reveals that among his many powers is mastery of time: “I am everlasting Time, the Placer who looks everywhere, I am all-snatching Death, and the Source of things yet to be” (10.34). As the creator, maintainer, and one who ends all, it is fully within Krishna’s power to create the time and space for Arjuna to move through his crisis and mature in his understanding of dharma, yoga, and metaphysics.

Krishna also states explicitly that his profound revelation is only made possible by this intensifying of their personal relationship. “This ancient yoga is today declared by me to you, since you are my devotee and friend; this secret is supreme indeed” (4.3). The implication is that with a less personal connection, the counterpart in dialogue would not even be able to understand Krishna’s revelations, let alone integrate them into an existing relationship.

Krishna was a friend to the Pandavas throughout the Mahabharata. They were occasional guests at Dvaraka as he was an occasional guest of their forest home, and allies in the dynastic war of the Kurus. His closest relationship was with Arjuna as a brother-in-arms and a brother-in-law. Krishna allows the infatuated Arjuna to marry his sister Subhadra by abduction, and in the Battle of Kurukshetra, the climax of the Mahabharata, he offers to serve as his friend’s charioteer. One example of their normal relationship as brothers-in-arms is in the Battle of the Khandava Forest. Recruited by Agni to help satisfy his ferocious hunger, Krishna and Arjuna stand in the midst of the blazing forest shooting all the fleeing creatures with Arjuna’s machine gun-like archery and Krishna’s discus. Soon the devas, perturbed by the burning of the vast forest, come to stop them. Arjuna is now battling his own father, Indra.

Khandava and Kurukshetra carry similar themes. Here Arjuna is fighting all Indra’s armies, there all of Krishna’s; here he is fighting his own father, there all his cousins and gurus. Yet Krishna and Arjuna remain calm and confident throughout this battle. There is no conflict of dharma, and no emotional connection to the creatures and devas against which they battle. They do not enter into the alternate space of the Gita. There is no dialogue, no questions; Krishna and Arjuna know what to do.

The tone of the narrative is all about might and power.  With the power of his arrows Arjuna dries up the towering clouds of Indra and returns the light of the sun and the virtue of the wind (Adi-Parvan 218.15-18). Mighty Krishna massacres the Daityas and Danavas with his discus and Arjuna churns the limbs of the gods with his well-honed arrows (218.25-26). In this scene, too, Krishna’s divine nature is noted in passing by the narrator in a laudatory phrase, speaking of Krishna as the soul of all beings, most dreadful in battle (219.9). This battle does deepen their relationship, of course, as brothers-in-arms and friends, but there is no crisis of dharma to trigger a revelatory, alternate space as occurs on Kurukshetra. The basic difference is that as Kurukshetra is the climax of the Kuru war, it represents the climax of the dharmic and emotional conflict between the two sides. Only on Kurukshetra would Arjuna be so challenged. Khandava occurs as an episode in the natural flow of the text; the Bhagavad-Gita is a moment of stepping outside. The language of banners, conch shells, elephants, and armor fades away as Arjuna speaks of his crisis, and does not return for nearly 700 verses.

In the Mahabharata and other Puranas, any break in the plot movement would typically be a philosophical soliloquy or dialogue; the Bhagavad-Gita is no exception. Where it differs is in the very personal language of that dialogue: at times casual, at times intimate, at times stern. The suspension of time allows a mutual exchange of faith, confidence, and revelation.  Arjuna’s internal dilemma is directed to Krishna directly, and in very humble terms. “Pray guide me, your student who asks for help,” (BG 2.8) he pleads. These are not typical terms of address for a Kshatriya, and not typical of their relationship. Krishna counsels him with philosophical aphorisms about the eternal nature of the soul, the overarching importance of svadharma, and the qualities of one who is undisturbed by the vicissitudes of life. Krishna also begins to reveal himself, subtly at first and later in very powerful and unequivocal words. At first Arjuna seems to disregard Krishna’s unexpected statements. Perhaps he simply overlooks Krishna’s revelations; perhaps he disbelieves Krishna, though there is little precedent in their relationship of Krishna openly lying to him or even teasing sarcastically; perhaps he simply has more pressing concerns at the moment.

It is not until chapter 10 that Arjuna acknowledges and accepts Krishna’s divine nature. “The divine seer Narada and all the seers declare that you are the supreme brahman, the supreme abode, the supreme means of sanctification, the divine and eternal Person, the primordial God, unborn and ubiquitous. … Tell me again fully of your yoga and ubiquity, Janardana, for I am not sated of listening to your elixir!” (10.12-18). Out of the dark thicket of his own crisis, Arjuna is thirsty for more personal revelation. He now has full faith in Krishna as his friend and through closeness and revelation is able to understand Krishna’s divine nature as well. He asks Krishna to reveal more, and Krishna willingly shows him the universal form. Intended by Arjuna to be a moment of deepening, this vision causes him to draw back in terror. He apologizes for the casualness of their friendship and asks Krishna to return to the form which he knows. “At the sight of this unwitnessed marvel I thrill while a sense of dread unsettles my mind. Please show me, O God, the body I’ve known. Have mercy, Lord God, repose of the world!” (11.45) This is a profound change in their relationship; instead of faith, hope, and affection, Arjuna expresses fear and reverence. In this kind of relationship, revelation is only made possible by the presence of both deep respect and casual, brotherly love.

In the closing lines of the Gita, Krishna states once again that confidential revelation can only occur in an intimate relationship. “Hear again my supreme word, most secret of all. You are surely loved by me; therefore, I shall speak for your good…. Be without fear” (18.64-66). These are words of comfort and love directed from one friend to another and from the Divine to his beloved devotee. None of the other Pandavas, much less their cousins, could have been able to enter into this intimate relationship; nor would Arjuna have been able to in prior episodes.

This level of interaction is impossible without a time dilation. A time dilation – a redefinition of a suspension of time – occurs when everything becomes magnified. For Arjuna, the causes of his crisis (action) and what he turns to because of it (truth) are magnified; all else is cast into the background. The relationship that happens to be present at this moment is also dilated: deepening in intimacy and knowledge. When Krishna and Arjuna enter back into the normal time-space of the battle, it is with this deeper friendship, faith, and knowledge that enables them to pass through the most challenging of battlefield moments as comrades.

 Note on translation: All verses quoted are from J.A.B van Buitenen’s Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita except BG 4.3 and 18.64-66 from Winthrop Sargeant.

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