“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bhagavad-gita, 4.5)
बहूनि मे व्यतीतानि
जन्मानि तव चार्जुन
तान्य् अहं वेद सर्वाणि
न त्वं वेत्थ परन्तप
bahūni me vyatītāni
janmāni tava cārjuna
tāny ahaṁ veda sarvāṇi
na tvaṁ vettha parantapa
“He missed a golden opportunity. Here was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan, standing before him. The beloved eighth child to mother Devaki, the darling of Vrindavana, the foster-son of mother Yashoda, the butter-thief who always managed to get away with His crimes even after being caught in the act.
“Arjuna knew that this was Krishna. The virata-rupa confirmed for any of the doubters. The universal form had everything in it. The planets, the trees, the mountains, the rivers, the various demigods – there was a time element, as well. Arjuna could see the future in that wonderful exhibit, which was three-dimensional.
“The great Markandeya Rishi explained to the five Pandava brothers the true identity of Krishna. He described how he was one time privy to the universal destruction, when nothing else remains. There was a small boy, seated on the leaf of a banyan tree, sucking on His toe. This was Narayana, the source of men, and Krishna was that same Narayana.
“In Bhagavad-gita, Krishna reveals to Arjuna that both of them have lived before. Never was there a time that they did not exist. The same applied to the many kings assembled on the battlefield that day, prepared to commence hostilities in what would be known as the Bharata War.
“Presented with such a glorious opportunity, why did Arjuna not take full advantage? He could have asked Krishna anything. Arjuna could have learned about the nature of the previous births. Wouldn’t that be neat to know? You never get a similar opportunity in the future. Did he simply lack curiosity?”
As God is the all-knowing, omnipresent all-pervading witness, antaryami, He can explain the past and future lives for every person. The benefit was not exclusive to Arjuna. Whatever information a person wants to gather, Krishna can provide.
The issue is that a wise person understands the limited value to such knowledge. We can take our own life as an example. I know where I was during childhood, in a relative sense. The place, circumstance, home, other residents inside of the dwelling – you give me a period of time and I can provide the details.
Yet there is also so much that I do not remember. For instance, what was I eating for breakfast on a daily basis? What were my hopes and dreams? What did I look to accomplish in the future? What were my interactions with friends and family like?
As the decades have passed, those memories become more distant. It is almost like the events never happened. Would a notebook detailing the accounts of each day be helpful? What would I do with such information? It might be interesting to reminisce every now and then, but that does not help me much moving forward.
In the same way, Arjuna asked about the most important information. That knowledge was known as the king of education, raja-vidya, and Krishna was kind enough to share it.
पवित्रम् इदम् उत्तमम्
सु-सुखं कर्तुम् अव्ययम्
pavitram idam uttamam
su-sukhaṁ kartum avyayam
“This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.2)
As time is infinite in both directions, to truly relive the past lives is to sit for hours and hours and listen to explanations. The warriors assembled on the battlefield did not have time for this. The entire Bhagavad-gita delivery was the essence of brevity. Through the relatively small number of shlokas Arjuna received a complete education on matters of life and death.
The nuance and detail extend through the contemplation and further explanation by the acharyas, the spiritual leaders who follow in the example of Arjuna. The relevance of that sacred work carries through the ages, as each individual has the same ideal destination and the same predicament in facing the difficulties of a material existence.
We benefit from the questions that Arjuna did ask. He maintained a proper focus, though he could have been diverted in attention by the close proximity to unlimited information, which includes the trivial. The all-knowing Krishna directed the disciple in the proper way, and Arjuna humbly accepted the vital information that was key to his victory, both in the war and the struggle against the illusory energy known as maya.
Sitting there with simple task,
Of past lives’ detail to ask.
Since Krishna there confirming,
Eternal nature of soul affirming.
But Arjuna properly directed,
Importance of time detected.
That the soul in the future where,
Answered by guide standing there.