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Bhagavadgita: Selfless Action as Duty of the Warrior (kshatriya-dharma)

Introduction: The Bhavadgita (“The Song of the Lord”) is one of the great philosophical texts of mankind and is venerated as the holy text of Hinduism. It is usually dated around the beginning of the Common Era. The Bhagavadgita forms the most essential part of the Mahabharata, India’s great epic of the slaughterous war between the royal cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for their ancestral heritage. At the sight of their deployed armies on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and the estranged relatives and mutual teachers, Arjuna, the great Pandava, was haunted by grave doubts and refused to fight Hereupon a dispute arose between Arjuna and divine Krishna, his charioteer. Krishna speaks of the illusionary nature of life and killing and exhorts Arjuna to follow his obligation as warrior (kshatriya-dharma) and to fight without attachment to the results of his action. The emphasis of selfless service according to one’s own dharma (svadharma) by the Bhagavadgita had a strong impact on Indian Freedom Movement (e.g. Vivekananda and Gandhi).
(see also AHOI, Ch. 2, section The Bhakti Movement)

Gudākesa [Arjuna] said to Govinda [Krishna]. ‘I shall not engage in battle:’ and verily remained silent To Him thus desponding between the two armies, O descendant of Bharata! Hrishîkesa [Krishna] spoke these words with a slight smile.
The Deity [Krishna] said:
You have grieved for those who deserve no grief, and you talk words of wisdom. Learned men grieve not for the living nor the dead. Never did I not exist, nor you, nor these rulers of men; nor will any one of us ever hereafter cease to be. As in this body, infancy and youth and old age (come) to the embodied (self), so does the acquisition of another body; a sensible man is not deceived about that. The contacts of the senses, O son of Kunti! which produce cold and heat, pleasure and pain, are not permanent, they are ever coming and going. Bear them, O descendant of Bharata! For, O chief of men! that sensible man whom they (pain and pleasure being alike to him) afflict not, he merits immortality. There is no existence for that which is unreal; there is no non-existence for that which is real. And the (correct) conclusion about both is perceived by those who perceive the truth. Know that to be indestructible which pervades all this; the destruction of that inexhaustible (principle) none can bring about. These bodies appertaining to the embodied (self) which is eternal, indestructible, and indefinable, are said to be perishable; therefore do engagein battle, O descendant of Bharata! He who thinks it to be the killer and he who thinks it to be killed, both know nothing. It kills not, is not killed. It is not born, nor does it ever die, nor, having existed, does it exist no more. Unborn, everlasting, unchangeable, and primeval, it is not killed when the body is killed. O son of Prithā! how can that man who knows it thus to be indestructible, everlasting, unborn, and inexhaustible, how and whom can he kill, whom can he cause to be killed? As a man, casting off old clothes, puts on others and new ones, so the embodied (self) casting off old bodies, goes to others and new ones. Weapons do not divide it (into pieces); fire does not burn it; waters do not moisten it; the wind does not dry it up. It is not divisible; it is not combustible; it is not to be moistened; it is not to be dried up. It is everlasting, all-pervading, stable, firm, and eternal. It is said to be unperceived, to be unthinkable, to be unchangeable. Therefore knowing it to be such, you ought not to grieve. But even if you think that it is constantly born, and constantly dies, still. O you of mighty arms! you ought not to grieve thus. For to one that is born, death is certain; and to one that dies, birth is certain. Therefore about (this) unavoidable thing, you ought not to grieve. The source of things. O descendant of Bharata! is unperceived; their middle state is perceived; and their end again is unperceived. What (occasion is there for any) lamentation regarding them? One looks upon it as a wonder; another similarly speaks of it as a wonder; another too hears of it as a wonder; and even after having heard of it, no one does really know it. This embodied (self), O descendant of Bharata! within every one’s body is ever indestructible. Therefore you ought not to grieve for any being. Having regard to your own duty also, you ought not to falter, for there is nothing better for a Kshatriya than a righteous battle. Happy those Kshatriyas. O son of Prithā! who can find such a battle (to fight)—come of itself—an open door to heaven! But if you will not fight this righteous battle, then you will have abandoned your own duty and your fame, and you will incur sin. All beings, too, will tell of your everlasting infamy; and to one who has been honoured, infamy is (a) greater (evil) than death, (Warriors who are) masters of great cars will think that you abstained from the battle through fear, and having been highly thought of by them, you will fall down to littleness. Your enemies, too, decrying your power, will speak much about you that should not be spoken. Arid what, indeed, more lamentable than that? Killed, you will obtain heaven; victorious, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, O son of Kunti! resolved to (engage in) battle. Looking alike on pleasure and pain, on gain and loss, on victory and defeat, then prepare for battle, and thus you will not incur sin. The knowledge here declared to you is that relating to the Sāṅkhya. Now hear that relating to the Yoga. Possessed of this knowledge, O son of Pritha! you will cast off the bonds of action. In this (path to final emancipation) nothing that is commenced becomes abortive; no obstacles exist; and even a little of this (form of) piety protects one from great danger. There is here, O descendant of Kuru! but one state of mind consisting in firm understanding. But the states of mind of those who have no firm understanding are many-branched and endless. The state of mind consisting in firm understanding regarding steady contemplation does not belong to those, O son of Prithā! who are strongly attached to (worldly) pleasures and power, and whose minds are drawn away by that flowery talk which is full of (ordinances of) specific acts for the attainment of (those) pleasures and (that) power, and which promises birth as the fruit of acts—(that flowery talk) which those unwise ones utter, who are enamoured of Vedic words, who say there is nothing else, who are full of desires, and whose goal is heaven. The Vedas (merely) relate to the effects of the three qualities: do you, O Arjuna! rise above those effects of the three qualities, and be free from the pairs of opposites, always preserve courage, be free from anxiety for new acquisitions or protection of old acquisitions, and be self-controlled. To the instructed Brahmana, there is in all the Vedas as much utility as in a reservoir of water into which waters flow from all sides. Your business is with action alone; not by any means with fruit. Let not the fruit of action be your motive (to action). Let not your attachment be (fixed) on inaction. Having recourse to devotion, O Dhananjaya! perform actions, casting off (all) attachment, and being equable in success or ill-success; (such) equability is called devotion. Action. O Dhananjaya! is far inferior to the devotion of the mind. In that devotion seek shelter. Wretched are those whose motive (to action) is the fruit (of action). He who has obtained devotion in this world casts off both merit and sin. Therefore apply yourself to devotion; devotion in (all) actions is wisdom. The wise who have obtained devotion cast off the fruit of action; and released from the shackles of (repeated) births, repair to that seat where there is no unhappiness. When your mind shall have crossed beyond the taint of delusion. then will you become indifferent to all that you have heard or will hear. When your mind, confounded by what you have heard, will stand firm and steady in contemplation, then will you acquire devotion.
Arjuna said:
What are the characteristics, O Kesava [Krishna]! of one whose mind is steady and who is intent on contemplation? How should one of steady minD speak, how sit, how move?
The Deity said:

When a man, O son of Prithā! Abandons all the desires of his heart, and is pleased in his self only and by his self, he is then called one of steady mind. He whose heart is not agitated in the midst of calamities, who has no longing for pleasures, and from whom (the feelings of) affection, fear, and wrath have departed, is called a sage of steady mind. His mind is steady, who, being without attachments anywhere, feels no exultation and no aversion on encountering the various agreeable and disagreeable (things of this world). A man’s mind is steady, when he withdraws his senses from (all) objects of sense, as the tortoise (withdraws) its limbs from all sides. Objects of sense draw back from a person who is abstinent; not so the taste (for those objects). But even the taste departs from him, when he has seen the Supreme. The boisterous senses, O son of Kunti! carry away by force the mind even of a wise man, who exerts himself (for final emancipation). Restraining them all, a man should remain engaged in devotion, making me his only resort. For his mind is steady whose senses are under his control. The man who ponders over objects of sense forms an attachment to them; from (that) attachment is produced desire; and from desire anger is produced; from anger results want of discrimination; from want of discrimination, confusion of the memory; from confusion of the memory, loss of reason; and in consequence of loss of reason he is utterly ruined. But the self-restrained man who moves among objects with senses under the control of his own self, and free from affection and aversion, obtains tranquillity. When there is tranquillity, all his miseries are destroyed, for the mind of him whose heart is tranquil soon becomes steady. He who is not self-restrained has no steadiness of mind; nor has he who is not self-restrained perseverance in the pursuit of self-knowledge; there is no tranquillity for him who does not persevere in the pursuit of self-knowledge; and whence can there be happiness for one who is not tranquil? For the heart which follows the rambling senses leads away his judgment, as the wind leads a boat astray upon the waters. Therefore, O you of mighty arms! his mind is steady whose senses are restrained on all sides from objects of sense. The self-restrained man is awake, when it is night for all beings; and when all beings are awake, that is the night of the right-seeing sage. He into whom all objects of desire enter, as waters enter the ocean, which, (though) replenished (still) keeps its position unmoved,—he only obtains tranquillity; not he who desires (those) objects of desire. The man who, casting off all desires, lives free from attachments, who is free from egoism1, and from (the feeling that this or that is) mine2 , obtains tranquillity. This, O son of Prithā! is the Brahmic3 state; attaining to this, one is never deluded; and remaining in it in (one’s) last moments, one attains (brahma nirvāna) the Brahmic bliss4.subverted. And O Granârdana! we have heard that men whose family-rites are subverted, must necessarily live in hell. Alas! we are engaged in committing a heinous sin, seeing that we are making efforts for killing our own kinsmen out of greed of the pleasures of sovereignty. If the sons of Dhritarâshtra, weapon in hand, should kill me in battle, me weaponless and not defending (myself), that would be better for me.
Sañgaya said:
Having spoken thus, Arguna cast aside his bow together with the arrows, on the battle-field, and sat down in (his) chariot, with a mind agitated by grief.

Chapter II.
Sañgaya said:
To him, who was thus overcome with pity, and dejected, and whose eyes were full of tears and turbid, the destroyer of Madhu spoke these words.
The Deity said:
How (comes it that) this delusion, O Arguna! which is discarded by the good, which excludes from heaven, and occasions infamy, has overtaken you in this (place of) peril ? Be not effeminate, O son of Prithâ! it is not worthy of you. Cast off this base weakness of heart, and arise, O terror of (your) foes!
Arguna said:
How, O destroyer of Madhu! shall I encounter with arrows in the battle Bhîshma and Drona—both, O destroyer of enemies! entitled to reverence? Not killing (my) preceptors—(men) of great glory—it is better to live even on alms in this world. But killing them, though they are avaricious of worldly goods, I should only enjoy blood-tainted enjoyments. Nor do we know which of the two is better for us—whether that we should vanquish them, or that they should vanquish us. Even those, whom having killed, we do not wish to live—even those sons of Dhritarâshtra stand (arrayed) against us. With a heart contaminated by the taint of helplessness1, with a mind confounded about my duty, I ask you. Tell me what is assuredly good for me. I am your disciple; instruct me, who have thrown myself on your (indulgence). For I do not perceive what is to dispel that grief which will dry up my organs2 after I shall have obtained a prosperous kingdom on earth without a foe, or even the sovereignty of the gods3.
Sañgaya said:
Having spoken thus to Hrishîkesa, O terror of (your) foes! Gudâkesa said to Govinda, ‘I shall not engage in battle;’ and verily remained silent. To him thus desponding between the two armies, O descendant of .Bharata! Hrishîkesa, spoke these words with a slight smile.
The Deity said:
You have, grieved for those who deserve no grief, and you talk words of wisdom1. Learned men grieve not for the living nor the dead. Never did I not exist, nor you, nor these rulers of men; nor will any one of us ever hereafter cease to be. As in this body, infancy and youth and old age (come) to the embodied (self)2, so does the acquisition of another body; a sensible man is not deceived about that. The contacts of the senses3, O son of Kuntî! which produce cold and heat, pleasure and pain, are not permanent, they are ever coming and going. Bear them, O descendant of Bharata! For, O chief of men! that sensible man whom they4 (pain and pleasure being alike to him) afflict not, he merits immortality. There is no existence for that which is unreal; there is no non-existence for that which is real. And the (correct) conclusion about both5 is perceived by those who perceive the truth. Know that to be indestructible which pervades all this; the destruction of that inexhaustible (principle) none can bring about. These bodies appertaining to the embodied (self) which is eternal, indestructible, and indefinable, are said 6 to be perishable; therefore do engage in battle, O descendant of Bharata! He who thinks it to be the killer and he who thinks it to be killed, both know nothing. It kills not, is not killed1. It is not born, nor does it ever die, nor, having existed, does it exist no more. Unborn, everlasting, unchangeable, and primeval, it is not killed when the body is killed2. O son of Prithâ! how can that man who knows it thus to be indestructible, everlasting, unborn, and inexhaustible, how and whom can he kill, whom can he cause to be killed? As a man, casting off old clothes, puts on others and new ones, so the embodied (self) casting off old bodies, goes to others and new ones. Weapons do not divide it (into pieces); fire does not burn it; waters do not moisten it; the wind does not dry it up. It is not divisible; it is not combustible; it is not to be moistened; it is not to be dried up. It is everlasting, all-pervading, stable, firm, and eternal3. It is said to be unperceived, to be unthinkable, to be unchangeable. Therefore knowing it to be such, you ought not to grieve. But even if you think that it is constantly born, and constantly dies, still, O you of mighty arms! you ought not to grieve thus. For to one that is born, death is certain; and to one that dies, birth is certain4. Therefore about (this) unavoidable thing, you ought not to grieve. The source of things, O descendant of Bharata! is unperceived; their middle state is perceived; and their end again is unperceived. What (occasion is there for any) lamentation regarding them1? One looks upon it2 as a wonder; another similarly speaks of it as a wonder; another too hears of it as a wonder; and even after having heard of it, no one does really know it3. This embodied (self), O descendant of Bharata! within every one’s body is ever indestructible. Therefore you ought not to grieve for any being. Having regard to your own duty also, you ought not to falter, for there is nothing better for a Kshatriya4 than a righteous battle. Happy those Kshatriyas, O son of Prithâ! who can find such a battle (to fight)—come of itself5—an open door to heaven! But if you will not fight this righteous battle, then you will have abandoned your own duty and your fame, and you will incur sin. All beings, too, will tell of your everlasting infamy; and to one who has been honoured, infamy is (a) greater (evil) than death. (Warriors who are) masters of great cars will think that you abstained from the battle through fear, and having been highly thought of by them, you will fall down to littleness. Your enemies, too, decrying your power, will speak much about you that should not be spoken. And what, indeed, more lamentable than that? Killed, you will obtain heaven; victorious, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, O son of Kuntî! resolved to (engage in) battle. Looking alike on pleasure and pain, on gain and loss, on victory and defeat, then prepare for battle, and thus you will not incur sin. The knowledge here declared to you is that relating to the Sâṅkhya1. Now hear that relating to the Yoga. Possessed of this knowledge, O son of Prithâ! you will cast off the bonds of action. In this (path to final emancipation) nothing that is commenced becomes abortive; no obstacles exist; and even a little of this (form of) piety protects one from great danger2. There is here3, O descendant of Kuru! but one state of mind consisting in firm understanding. But the states of mind of those who have no firm understanding are many-branched and endless. The state of mind consisting in firm understanding regarding steady contemplation4 does not belong to those, O son of Prithâ! who are strongly attached to (worldly) pleasures and power, and whose minds are drawn away by that flowery talk which is full of (ordinances of) specific acts for the attainment of (those) pleasures and (that) power, and which promises birth as the fruit of acts1—(that flowery talk) which those unwise ones utter, who are enamoured of Vedic words, who say there is nothing else, who are full of desires, and whose goal is heaven2. The Vedas (merely) relate to the effects of the three qualities3; do you, O Arguna! rise above those effects of the three qualities, and be free from the pairs of opposites4, always preserve courage5, be free from anxiety for new acquisitions or protection of old acquisitions, and be self-controlled6. To the instructed Brâhmana, there is in all the Vedas as much utility as in a reservoir of water into which waters flow from all sides7. Your business is with action alone; not by any means with fruit. Let not the fruit of action be your motive (to action). Let not your attachment be (fixed) on inaction8. Having recourse to devotion, O Dhanañgaya! perform actions, casting off (all) attachment, and being equable in success or ill-success; (such) equability is called devotion. Action, O Dhanañgaya! is far inferior to the devotion of the mind. In that devotion seek shelter. Wretched are those whose motive (to action) is the fruit (of action). He who has obtained devotion in this world casts off both merit and sin1. Therefore apply yourself to devotion; devotion in (all) actions is wisdom. The wise who have obtained devotion cast off the fruit of action; and released from the shackles of (repeated) births2, repair to that seat where there is no unhappiness3. When your mind shall have crossed beyond the taint of delusion, then will you become indifferent to all that you have heard or will hear4. When your mind, confounded by what you have heard5, will stand firm and steady in contemplation6, then will you acquire devotion.

Chapter III.
Arguna said:
If, O Ganârdana! devotion is deemed by you to be superior to action, then why, O Kesava! do you prompt me to (this) fearful action? You seem, indeed, to confuse my mind by equivocal words. Therefore, declare one thing determinately, by which I may attain the highest good.
The Deity said:
O sinless one! I have already declared, that in this world there is a twofold path5—that of the Sâṅkhyas by devotion in the shape of (true) knowledge; and that of the Yogins by devotion in the shape of action. A man does not attain freedom from action6 merely by not engaging in action; nor does he attain perfection7 by mere8 renunciation. For nobody ever remains even for an instant without performing some action; since the qualities of nature constrain everybody, not having free-will (in the matter), to some action1. The deluded man who, restraining the organs of action2, continues to think in his mind about objects of sense, is called a hypocrite. But he, O Arguna! who restraining his senses by his mind3, and being free from attachments, engages in devotion (in the shape) of action, with the organs of action, is far superior. Do you perform prescribed action, for action is better than inaction, and the support of your body, too, cannot be accomplished with inaction. This world is fettered by all action other than action for the purpose of the sacrifice4. Therefore, O son of Kunti! do you, casting off attachment, perform action for that purpose. The Creator, having in olden times created men together with the sacrifice, said: ‘Propagate with this. May it be the giver to you of the things you desire. Please the gods with this, and may those gods please you. Pleasing each other, you will attain the highest good. For pleased with the sacrifices, the gods will give you the enjoyments you desire. And he who enjoys himself without giving them what they have given, is, indeed, a thief.’ The good, who eat the leavings of a sacrifice, are released from all sins. But the unrighteous ones, who prepare food for themselves only, incur sin5.
THE BHAGAVADGÎTÂ
with
THE SANATSUGÂTÎYA
and
THE ANUGÎTÂ
translated by
kâshinâth trimbak telang, m. a.
Oxford
at the clarendon press
1882
[All rights reserved]

(quoted from The Bhagavadgita, translated by K.T. Telang, chapter II, Oxford 1882, repr. Delhi 1962, pp. 43-49)

1 The commentators say that ‘heart’ here signifies the dispositions which are stated in chapter XVIII infra, p. 126. The feeling of ‘helplessness’ is incompatible with what is there stated as the proper disposition for a Kshatriya.
2 I.e. by the heat of vexation; the meaning is, ‘which will cause constant vexation of spirit.’
3 I. e, if the means employed are the sinful acts referred to.
1 Scil. regarding family-rites, &c., for, says Nîlakantha, they indicate knowledge of soul as distinct from body.
2 A common word in the Gîtâ, that which presides over each individual body.
3 Scil. with external objects.
4 I. e. the ‘contacts.’
5 The sense is this—there are two things apparently, the soul which is indestructible, and the feelings of pain &c. which ‘come and go.’ The true philosopher knows that the former only is real and exists; and that the latter is unreal and non-existent. He therefore does not mind the latter.
6 Scil. by those who are possessed of true knowledge.
1 Cf. Katha-upanishad, p. 104.
2 Katha-upanishad, pp. 103, 104.
3 ‘Eternal.’ Nîlakantha explains this by ‘unlimited by time, place,’ &c. Saṅkara and others as ‘uncreated,’ ‘without cause.’ Stable=not assuming new forms; firm=not abandoning the original form. (Srîdhara.) The latter signifies a slight change; the former a total change.
4 Cf. the following from the Sutta Nipâta (Sir M. C. Swamy’s translation), pp. 124, 125: ‘There is, indeed, no means by which those born could be prevented from dying.’ ‘Even thus the world is afflicted with death and decay; therefore wise men, knowing the course of things in the world, do not give way to grief.’
1 Cf. Sutta Nipâta, p. 125. ‘In vain do you grieve, not knowing well the two ends of him whose manner either of coming or going you know not.’
2 I. e. the self spoken of above.
3 Katha-upanishad, p. 96.
4 One of the warrior caste.
5 Without any effort, that is to say, of one’s own.
1 Sâṅkhya is explained in different modes by the different commentators, but the resulting meaning here seems to be, that the doctrine stated is the doctrine of true knowledge and emancipation by its means. See infra, p. 52.
2 Viz, this mortal mundane life.
3 I. e. for those who enter on this ‘path.’
4 I.e. of the supreme Being; Yoga meaning really the dedication of all acts to that Being.
1 See Sutta Nipâta, p. 4.
2 This is a merely temporary good, and not therefore deserving to be aspired to before final emancipation.
3 I. e. the whole course of worldly affairs. As to qualities, see chapter XIV.
4 Heat and cold, pain and pleasure, and so forth. Cf. Manu I, 26.
5 Cf. Sutta Nipâta, p. 17 and other places.
6 Keeping the mind from worldly objects.
7 The meaning here is not easily apprehended. I suggest the following explanation:—Having said that the Vedas are concerned with actions for special benefits, Krishna compares them to a reservoir which provides water for various special purposes, drinking, bathing, &c. The Vedas similarly prescribe particular rites and ceremonies for going to heaven, or destroying an enemy, &c. But, says Krishna, man’s duty is merely to perform the actions prescribed for him among these, and not entertain desires for the special benefits named. The stanza occurs in the Sanatsugâtîya, too.
8 Doing nothing at all.
1 Merit merely leads to heaven, as to which see note on last page. Cf. Sutta Nipâta, pp. 4, 136, 145 note.
2 Sutta Nipâta, pp. 3–7, &c.
3 Sutta Nipâta, p. 21.
4 This, according to Ânandagiri, means all writings other than those on the science of the soul.
5 I. e. about the means for the acquisition of various desired things.
6 I. e. of the soul (Saṅkara), of the supreme Being (Srîdhara). Substantially they both mean the same thing.
1 Either pride or, better, the false notion mentioned infra, p. 55.
2An almost identical expression occurs in the Dhammapada, stanza 367, and Maitrî-upanishad, p. 37.
3 The state of identification of oneself with the Brahman, which results from a correct knowledge of the Brahman.
4 Infra, p. 66.
5 Supra, p. 47.
6 I. e., according to .Saṅkara, identification of oneself with Brahman.
7 Final emancipation.
8 I. e, not coupled with knowledge and purity of heart.
1 Cf. infra, pp. 122–128.
2 Hands, feet, &c.
3 By means of true discrimination keeping the senses from attachments to worldly objects, which lead to sin and evil.
4 Cf. infra, pp. 60, 61. Probably the ‘sacrifices’ spoken of in that passage must be taken to be the same as those referred to in the Creator’s injunction mentioned in this passage.
5 Cf. Maitrî-upanishad, p. 143.

 

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