The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Chapter 1 : Arjuna's Despair | Summary



Blind King Dhritarashtra asks the poet Sanjaya to tell him the story of his family, the Kurus, clashing with the Pandavas in battle. Sanjaya retells how King Dhritarashtra's son, Prince Duryodhana, asks his teacher, Drona, to look out at the assembled forces. Duryodhana points to the strong and formidable members of the Pandava army that includes both Krishna and Arjuna. He then turns to the powerful people in his own army, mentioning great warriors among them. Duryodhana proudly proclaims the Kuru army is limitless, whereas the Pandavas are much smaller. Both armies blow conch shells that echo "throughout heaven and earth," calling the warriors to battle.

Arjuna tells Krishna to drive the chariot carrying them so they can stand between the two armies. He wants "to look at the men gathered ... to do battle service for Dhritarashtra's evil-minded son." Krishna directs Arjuna's attention to all the Kurus ready to battle one another. Arjuna is overwhelmed with dread as he looks out at the opposing armies made up of his kinsmen. Not wanting to fight his family even if they are foes, he tells Krishna that he sees "evil omens ... from killing my kinsmen in battle." Arjuna tells Krishna it would be better to let himself be killed in the battle without resistance than to fight this terrible battle.


The opening chapter of the Gita introduces the two opposing armies and their principal members. Looking out at his army, Prince Duryodhana feels invincible despite the strength of the Pandava fighters. Duryodhana's description of the scene introduces the reader to the principal figures in each army. Prince Duryodhana's family members are referred to as the Kurus because they are descendants of King Kuru. However, through much of the Mahabharata these descendants are called the Kauravas. The Pandavas are also descendants of the Kuru clan, but as the "sons of Pandu" they are known as the Pandavas. As Arjuna points out to Krishna, the Pandavas and the Kauravas are actually cousins because all are descended from the same king: Kuru.

Arjuna's conversation with Krishna opens the dialogue that forms the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata epic. Arjuna's reluctance and despair at the thought of killing his kinsmen forms the basis of the subsequent conversation with his charioteer, the god Krishna. It is important to note Arjuna's reference to the caste system and his belief in its purpose. Arjuna fears that by killing his kinsmen he will be doing evil that will seep into the family structure and cause the mixing of castes. Arjuna understands the intermingling of castes to be a disaster that could bring down their great family. However, what he proposes—to go into battle unarmed and let himself be killed—is a form of inaction. By refusing to act he hopes to avoid creating bad karma, or fate, for himself and thus not be responsible in this life or in the next for the perpetuation of evil.

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