“Alas, how strange it is that we are preparing to commit greatly sinful acts, driven by the desire to enjoy royal happiness.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 1.44)
अहो बत महत् पापं
कर्तुं व्यवसिता वयम्
हन्तुं स्व-जनम् उद्यताः
aho bata mahat pāpaṁ
kartuṁ vyavasitā vayam
hantuṁ sva-janam udyatāḥ
War comes off as a puzzling reality of life. Everyone else is living their lives as per normal. They go to work. They go to school. They worry about the future, both short-term and long-term. They get into squabbles every now and then, but usually nothing serious.
Then there is this other aspect to life. People taking up arms against one another. A formal declaration of hostilities preceding the actual combat. The goal is to kill people and break things. That is how you win war.
When given a moment to contemplate, a person might be hesitant to proceed. They are afraid to shoot strangers. They don’t know why another person has to lose their life in such a way. What is the struggle for? It seems like the politicians are the ones who start the war and the ordinary citizens are the ones who suffer for it.
In the case of one warrior, the fear was shooting people who were not strangers. Friends, family, and respected elders. They happened to be fighting for the other side. These were expert fighters with the bow and arrow, riding on chariots. Sometimes, they would step down to the ground and face-off with clubs and swords.
Arjuna wanted no part of it. He was afraid to shoot at people he respected. He was okay with them raising hostilities. Let them get what they want. Giving up wouldn’t be so bad. At least lives would be saved, for the time being.
Arjuna’s proposal to give up arms is the premise of the famous conversation known as Bhagavad-gita. The questions he posed were not related to military combat. He wasn’t looking for advice on when to attack and when to retreat. He already possessed the qualities necessary to fulfill the obligations of a kshatriya, which is a person in the warrior occupation.
शौर्यं तेजो धृतिर् दाक्ष्यं
युद्धे चाप्य् अपलायनम्
दानम् ईश्वर-भावश् च
क्षात्रं कर्म स्वभाव-जम्
śauryaṁ tejo dhṛtir dākṣyaṁ
yuddhe cāpy apalāyanam
dānam īśvara-bhāvaś ca
kṣātraṁ karma svabhāva-jam
“Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the kshatriyas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.43)
If a person is afraid to shoot strangers in an authorized military conflict, their hesitation is a sign of intelligence. If another person has the same fear, but related to people they know, it is as if they have taken the thought to another level.
Arjuna was surprised at the response he received. Arjuna posed the questions to his charioteer, Shri Krishna. The guru in this case chastised Arjuna for speaking words that were not aligned with a person who knows the proper values in life. Arjuna’s behavior was anarya.
स्वधर्ममपि चावेक्ष्य न विकम्पितुमर्हसि ।
धर्म्याद्धि युद्धाच्छ्रेयोऽन्यत्क्षत्रियस्य न विद्यते ॥
sva-dharmam api cāvekṣya
na vikampitum arhasi
dharmyād dhi yuddhāc chreyo ’nyat
kṣatriyasya na vidyate
“Considering your specific duty as a kshatriya, you should know that there is no better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles; and so there is no need for hesitation.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.31)
How could this be? Shouldn’t nonviolence be celebrated? Shouldn’t concern for well-wishers be applauded? Shouldn’t a person be grateful to those who give them so much?
The behavior was anarya because of the bodily consideration. Whether they were related or not, the task at hand was military combat. The bodily welfare would not continue forever. It never does. A wise person does not lament the changes to the body, which occur at every moment.
अशोच्यनन्वशोचस्त्वं प्रज्ञावादांश्च भाषसे ।
गतासूनगतासूंश्च नानुशोचन्ति पण्डिताः ॥
aśocyān anvaśocas tvaṁ
prajñā-vādāṁś ca bhāṣase
gatāsūn agatāsūṁś ca
“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.11)
The cost of not acting was great. The negative consequences would be tied to Arjuna’s decision. He would not get off without liability. The innocent depend on the kshatriyas to protect against injury. If not for valiant defenders, the offenders would run rampant in society. The aggressors would make up their own rules. Adharma would rule the day.
Moreover, the specific outcome was immaterial. Whether winning or losing, Arjuna should fulfill his obligations. He should live up to the role. He has a specific nature, and he should act according to that nature. Every person is compelled to act within that nature, whether they like it or not.
Arjuna decided to carry forward, with mind attached to Krishna. He would act, but without concern for the result. He would respect etiquette and the rules, but he would not be overly concerned with life or death, either for himself or for others.
That sort of behavior is considered transcendental. Though Arjuna released arrows in a fury on the battlefield, he was no different than a person meditating on the Almighty while situated in a remote cave. That work was just as much yoga as the person seated on the floor and contemplating the four-armed form of Vishnu within the heart. Vishnu was there as Arjuna’s guide, in the outward appearance as Shri Krishna.
Though originally afraid,
From highest authority word,
Like attentive disciple heard.
That whether friend or foe,
According to nature to go.
As kshatriya stand and fight,
Devotion for outcome right.