Summary of 24 [2] lines 1-40 

Arjuna – who has become so overcome with pity for his teacher Bhisma and his family members, positioned on the other side of the pitched battle lines – lets go of his arrows and his Ghandiva bow, and he sinks to the floor of his chariot with a dejected and anguishing heart.

Krishna responds at first with a direct exhortation to ‘man up’, to get up and fight – to rid himself of his cowardice and press on. This initial exhortation fails. Arjuna has reason to resist, and he stands by it, and tells his trusted friend (who also turns out to be a god) that he can see no clear way forward. Either choice – to kill or not to kill – appears to him lead to certain disaster. (Lines 5-10)

Krishna, with a ‘hint of laughter’, takes a different approach and responds to Arjuna’s plight, framing it as a “sage issue”: “You sorrow over men you should not sorrow over, and yet you speak to ages issues” (line 10)

From this point, Krishna begins to developed this thought through line 40, by presenting the idea (or reality) that there is something inborn in us that never dies, is never burnt or touched, that stands constant through all the changes of coming to be and passing away.  By line 30, Krishna is able to conclude that Arjuna should therefore look to his own Law without wavering:

“for there is nothing more salutary for a baron than a war that is lawful. It is an open door to heaven, happily happened upon; and blessed are the warriors, Partha, who find a war like that!”

Opening Question

Krishna tells Arjuna: “You sorrow over men you should not sorrow over, and yet you speak to sage issues” (line 10).  I’d like to ask about this ‘hint of laughter.’ How do we read this hint of laughter in light of what Krishna begins to explicate, up until line 40 of today’s reading? Is Krishna simply unfeeling about Arjuna’s plight (who, we remember, is called upon to kill his beloved teachers Bhisma and Drona!)….or how does this laughter stand?


As we settled in and began to reflect upon this “hint of laughter”, several ways of reading it were proposed.  One way saw the laughter as being the attitude that an experienced elder may have for  a young person – or a mentor for a mentee – the younger who might (on this reading) take their own understanding of problems too seriously. The laughter is a gentle and loving laughter, one that is full of guidance toward a better, more mature standpoint.

Another way of seeing Krishna’s hint of laughter is as being dismissive or discounting of Arjuna’s grief, if not his situation.  After all, Krishna does go on to say that – if he is seeing it correctly – Arjuna should not sorrow over this situation. Why should Krishna then be overly concerned for Arjuna’s feelings?

On the other hand, Krishna doesn’t explicitly propose that Arjuna should be overjoyed. Arjuna can only see unhappiness, loss and defeat in whatever he chooses. In fact, by the end of this section, he counsels Arjuna to hold to a standpoint of equanimity, one characterized by neither sorrow nor happiness, loss nor gain, defeat nor victory – and to “yoke” himself to the battle – which is to say, to his “Law and honor” (line 34), and to the fact that, according to Krishna, this is a “lawful war”.

The question of Krishna’s laughter, then, leads us to wonder just what does Krishna understand about Arjuna’s crisis or impasse? How does Krishna understand Arjuna’s problem?  Does he in fact dismiss the problem altogether – along the lines of “if you see things correctly Arjuna, you would see that there is no problem here at all”?  Or is it conserved in some way?

And as far as Krishna’s answer – which seems to amount to “just do your duty and don’t ask questions why – do or die” – some of us fear, perhaps rightfully, that this is an unacceptable proposition that amounts to a kind of mindless obescience.

Krishna’s answer – which is only just beginning to unfold here in the middle lines of section 24 [2] –  seems to amount to a kind ‘cosmological’ or ‘eternal’ vision (two ways of describing it offered by members of today’s discussion) of the basis upon which Arjuna’s life, and his Law, is founded.  We wondered what the connection or relationship is between this vision and Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to “look to his own Law”.  

First of all, it might seem that Krishna’s exhortation is meant to be a necessary conclusion of his cosmological vision –> “therefore” rise up and fight! Someone in the group proposed that it is presented a simple alternative – if this higher perspective or standpoint is too far for you to reach, then just look to your own Law and fight.

But then, if his advice is to ‘stick to your duty Arjuna’, why go through this extra step of offering a cosmological vision of things? What necessity is governing it (if there is indeed a necessity)?  A glance at the rest of the text reveals very quickly that Krishna is not about to finish up here – that this is only the beginning of a lengthy and elaborate cosmological-eternal perspective.

Last week we wondered if Arjuna’s impasse is in some way intrinsic or internal to the Law of his world – that it possesses a kind of internal contradiction – and here, in the figure of Arjuna, this contradiction is being exposed, is coming to light.

This would mean that what he is facing is not merely personal, even though Arjuna himself felt it so exquisitely in a personal way.  On this reading, then, a cosmological or divine framework of the answer has the significance of founding or grounding the Law on a new – i.e. cosmological or divine  – basis.

Thus Krishna can safely exhort Arjuna to “yoke” himself to his lawful action, because the Lawfulness is preserved on a new, cosmological or divine founding.  It is not completely evident how this contradiction is resolved, or how Arjuna’s Law is “saved” from the oblivion he faces – how, in other words, the Law does not just dissolve in this vision. To take an example from modern physics, an ordinary table and the world of common experience, “dissolves” or disappears in Sir Arthur Eddington’s classic envisioning of Quantum Mechanics. But here we are facing a rather extraordinary proposition that all of Arjuna’s familiar codes and Law are preserved in the vision of higher, cosmological-eternal wisdom.

And we recall that along the path indicated by Krishna, which involves equanimity and “yoking” himself to battle and the Law, Arjuna is brought to understand that – if he doesn’t feel grief, he will not also feel triumph when they win the battle; he will not feel exultant pride kill his family and beloved teachers.  Thus we see that his very reason for doing battle – under Krishna’s guidance -would be shifted away from the one Arjuna had accepted as the important consideration, namely, winning victory, getting happiness and securing good for the family. Instead of looking to those reasons, Krishna guides him look to two other considerations: to his Law and to the broader standpoint that would seem to make this possible, i.e. to the cosmological-divine vision in its beginnings.  Is Krishna not, then, counseling the Arjuna do more than merely followe duty blindly, or yoking himself to mere action for action’s sake, but rather stresses the lawfulness of the action, as well as how it might fit with the highest order of things, or the ultimate grounds of the dharma?

In this sort of serious long term endeavor of open-ended, close (or “slow”) reading and discussion, we inevitably face problems arising from the text – and at the end of  Socratic discussion, we often walk away with more questions than we can answer. This is a good thing. When the texts are from India, China and Japan – flowing as they have from different lineages than those in Western European and Mediterranean lineages – it seems to add an additional complication.  All these questions might add up to some big cultural obstacle for us that simply can’t be surmounted. Someone invariably brings up our “western way of thinking” as a possible obstacle in the path to understanding. In order to understand it, the proposition goes, we have to try to rid ourselves of our “western way of thinking”.

A response to this was indicated in the discussion today, which is here explicated a little more fully: within the horizon of text itself, Arjuna apparently experiences a block in his thinking that has nothing to do with a “western way of thinking” at all (whatever in fact that is!).  And it is a ‘block’ we understand perfectly well – we feel Arjuna’s crisis keenly, and it really does strike us as a problem. This comprehension, even it is only a beginning grasp, is itself a sign, if not of proof, that we can hope for understand the text, regardless of what culture we come from. Instead of having recourse, then, to an idea about what “eastern” thinking may or may not be – or what “western” thinking” is or is not – it might be more practical for us, and richer, at least right now, to “yoke” ourselves to the text at hand and our own experience, in elucidating the matters that arise for us. 

The word “yoke” here, by the way, has the Sanskrit root “yug-” which is the basis of “yoga.” We saw the first use of the word here in today’s reading, and we will begin to encounter it next week in our reading that begins after line 40 completing section 24 [2].

Until next week, everyone!

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