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Conversation held on Thursday April 19th, 2018 at 12 Noon EST.  

“I am time grown old to destroy the world, embarked on a course of world annihilation”                     ” (Chapter 11,  lines 30-35)  

Opening Question

Arjuna has been given the ‘divine sight’ to finally see Krishna ‘as he is in himself.’ What do we make of what Arjuna sees in light of what we have encountered in previous chapters? For example, in lines 20-30 of the Chapter 10, Krishna identifies himself with the self that dwells in all beings, in so many manifestations – supporting ‘the entire universe with but a single portion’ of his being.    

Observations and Reflections

There are two things that trouble us on a first reading of Chapter 11.  First, a human being is seeing an open vision of a god – something that in other traditions – for example Greek and Hebrew speaking traditions – might seem bizarre.  Second, what we actually see is a terrifying thing – with fangs and world-devouring mouth.  One of the things Arjuna sees are all the armies being devoured in his mouth, chewed up by his fangs and fire-licking tongue – all except himself.  Arjuna is spared. This leads back to a third question: why Arjuna in particular? 

Of course, we don’t see it; Arjuna relates what he is seeing by describing it; or rather, Samjaya, the poet relates it indirectly to the reader.        

The group had a sense that there was certainly something fitting or at least understandable in Arjuna’s response to this vision.  There are connections to be made with other texts in other traditions – for example, the Greek heroes never see the gods by themselves – their presence fills them with dread. Also, in the Hebrew-speaking tradition, awe/fear is the appropriate response to a God who is hidden to most, except for one man, Moses.

Chapter 11 of the Gita opens with Arjuna wanting to see – but it closes with him, prostrating before Krishna, asking him to return to his dear old self, his familiar human form.  One might read this moment as follows: The familiar and the everyday is preserved or conserved in this teaching, something that might prove crucial to the conservation of Law.  The unfamiliar, strange, terrifying, ‘unedited’ vision of the reality of Krishna does not overwhelm or destroy the perspective of the familiar world as such.

The question of “who Krishna really is” is thus still present in this chapter, Chapter 11.   

While the fear seemed understandable, given the circumstances, we wondered at Arjuna’s response, which was prostrate devotion. A natural reaction might be to run in the opposite direction – but Arjuna stays where he is, although he does (as we have seen) request that Krishna returns to his familiar form.

The returning to his familiar form must be important to making possible Krishna’s “exclusive Bhakti” at the end of Chapter 11, as well as the sense of “who Krishna really is.”  Krishna seems neither one (the infinite terrifying multiform entity) nor the other (the human), but both.

Several of us did have the feeling that Arjuna had still not yet seen Krishna – even if this vision of Krishna had given Arjuna a glimpse of the divinity’s true being, Krishna is also Unmanifest, as he says in other Chapters.

One of the readings that came out of our discussion was to see that the vision of a world-destroyer had a battle-like energy to it – was this vision presented in a form that was suited to the warrior Arjuna and his particular situation on the battlefield?

This would suggest, again, that what we are ‘seeing’ here is only a partial vision of the full reality of Krishna. No one else has seen Krishna like this, not even the gods. (lines 45-50)  But if someone else in another situation had been given this vision, this divine sight, would this person ‘see’ a different aspect of Krishna - perhaps one that would be no less unsettling and awe-inspiring, but of different content or context?  The are many suggestions from the text up until this point that exclusive Bhakti to Krishna might appear in different forms, as various as forms of existence; and yet to practice it is simple. According the text and its sense, as we have seen it, one is to keep ones thoughts on ‘Krishna’, that thing that supports all, and is in a way all things while being nothing in particular.

Chapter 11 leaves us with an even more expanded sense of who this Krishna we are to set our thoughts on is, and what exclusive Bhakti to Krishna might involve.  Last Chapter we sense that devotion would mean, among other things, devotion to the very problem of who Krishna is. Now we see that, in addition to this, Bhakti to Krishna involves (in a manner of speaking) walking between the worlds with Krishna – holding the problem of the relationship between the ‘two’ – Krishna’s familiar form, and his other aspect – that of the Unmanifest, the ultimate ground of being, which is necessarily disorienting, dizzying, a mysterium tremendum, beyond everything we can experience. To generalize, exlcusive devotion to Krishna might involve some sort of investigation of the ‘relationship’ between ordinary experience and the ultimate ground of being.  That there could be a relationship at all, might be wondered at, since how can the finite be related to the infinite? Yet just such a relationship between the two seems to be indicated or even made possible by the story of Krishna and his encounter with Arjuna here in the Bhagavadgita.

Next week: Chapters 12 and 13

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