SankarAcArya's bhagavad gItA bhAshya - the epic setting.

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Mon Aug 31 05:33:29 CDT 1998

The gItA was taught to the Pandava prince, Arjuna, by his friend,
philosopher and guide, Lord Krishna, who was an incarnation of Lord
Narayana Himself. The setting of this teaching is the ancient battlefield
of Kurukshetra. There is still a place in northern India called
Kurukshetra, which is generally considered the site of this ancient
battle. This geography aside, it is also interesting to note that the
teaching really addresses an internal battle that every person faces in
the course of one's life. This explains how the gItA has remained relevant
to mankind throughout the centuries.

As far as the mythological battle is concerned, it will help to explain
the background briefly. The battle was between the five sons of Pandu and
their cousins, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra. Both sides were
collateral descendents of an ancient line of emperors, and the battle was
essentially a decision-making process, regarding which branch of the
family was to inherit the kingdom. To understand the forces leading to the
battle, one must go back to the common great-grandfather of both sides.
For the full story of the epic, I commend readers to the various
translations of the Mahabharata. Most of these are meant for the general
reader, but those interested in a more critical translation may read J. A.
B. van Buitenen's multi-volume translation of the critical edition
published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Santanu was the king of Hastinapura, the most powerful kingdom in the
upper reaches of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. He first married Ganga, the
river goddess. Their son was Devavrata, who came to be called Bhishma.
This name came about because of the 'terrible' vow he took on one
occasion. The story goes that Santanu fell in love with Satyavati, the
foster daughter of the fisherman chieftain. This chieftain, however,
refused to give Satyavati in marriage to Santanu, unless he agreed to let
her children inherit the kingdom. Seeing his father pining away, Devavrata
made enquiries, and found out about Satyavati. So he gave the fisherman
chieftain the promise that he would step aside, and let his father's
children from Satyavati inherit the kingdom. To prevent future
complications in the line of descent, he also promised never to marry, and
to remain celibate all his life. Thus, he tried to prevent a potential
civil war within his father's dynasty.

Satyavati and Santanu had two sons, named Citrangada and Vicitravirya.
Citrangada died when he was very young, and Vicitravirya inherited the
kingdom. He was married to two princesses, named Ambika and Ambalika, but
he died without fathering any sons, and the dynastic succession was once
again in danger. Devavrata, now widely called Bhishma, on account of his
vow, declined to break his word and marry at this late stage. Satyavati
invoked the old law of levirate, according to which a brother-in-law of a
newly widowed woman could be a biological father of her children, which
would be legally considered to be those of the dead husband. She asked
Bhishma to father sons on the newly widowed wives of Vicitravirya,
according to this law, but he again refused, because he had promised to
remain celibate all his life. He advised her to search for some highly
qualified Brahmana, who could perform this role, citing ancient precedent
for this practice among Kshatriya families.

Satyavati then revealed that before she married Santanu, she had had
another son, through Parasara, a great Rishi, and a grandson of the great
Vedic Rishi, Vasishtha. This son of Parasara and Satyavati was Dvaipayana,
who was the same as the famous Vyasa, the redactor of the Vedas. Because
Vyasa and Vicitravirya had the same mother, they were also brothers in one
sense. Bhishma and Satyavati felt that this Vyasa would be an apt choice
to produce sons on Vicitravirya's widows. However, Vyasa told them that
the princesses may not tolerate his matted hair and his deerskin, and his
strange ways of the forest, which would be very alien to women who had
always been used to the comforts of a king's palace. The elder wife,
Ambika, closed her eyes in fear, when she saw Vyasa. Accordingly,
Dhritarashtra, her son, was born blind. It was an ancient custom that a
king should not have any such bodily defect, so Satyavati asked the
younger wife, Ambalika, to go to Vyasa. This princess turned pale in fear,
and accordingly her son, Pandu, was born pale-skinned (albinic?).
Satyavati asked her daugher-in-law to go again to Vyasa, but this princess
decked one of her servant maids in her ornaments and sent her to him. This
maid received Vyasa cheerfully, and her son, Vidura, was born extremely
wise. Vidura acted as a minister and counsellor to the dynasty. During the
infancy of the new children, Bhishma remained true to his word, and acted
only as the regent, not the king.

In due course, Pandu became the king, although he was the younger brother.
This was because Dhritarashtra was blind. The usual rule was one of
primogeniture, so that it became unclear whether in the future, Pandu's
sons should inherit after him, or whether the kingdom should revert back
to Dhritarashtra's line. Pandu died early, when his children were still
infants. This was the beginning of the entire conflict which lead to the
Mahabharata war. Dhritarashtra had a wife named Gandhari, who had a
hundred sons, Duryodhana, Dusshasana and others. She also had a daughter,
named Dusshala, who later married Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu, which
lay to the west of Hastinapura.

Pandu had two wives, Kunti and Madri, who produced five children.
Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna were Kunti's children, while Nakula and
Sahadeva, the twins, were Madri's children. These five were known as the
Pandavas, or the sons of Pandu. In reality, they were all children of Gods
- Yudhishthira was born of Dharma, the God of Law, Bhima from Vayu, the
God of Wind, Arjuna from Indra, the king of the Gods, and Nakula and
Sahadeva from the Asvin twins, the Gods of medicine. This was a result of
a boon which Kunti had received in childhood, according to which, using
the power of a secret mantra, she could invoke any God to come to her. The
five Pandavas had a common wife, Draupadi, the princess of Pancala. This
was a kingdom to the south-east of Hastinapura. They also had other wives
of their own. One must particularly mention Arjuna's wife, Subhadra, who
was the younger sister of Lord Krishna. Another set of family
relationships must be mentioned here. Kunti, the elder wife of Pandu, was
a sister of Krishna's father, so that the Pandavas and Krishna were also

With so many important players in the generation after Pandu and
Dhritarashtra, the question of who would become king became quite
complicated. Pandu's eldest son, Yudhishthira, was older than
Dhritarashtra's eldest son, Duryodhana. After Pandu's death, Dhritarashtra
became the regent of the kingdom, and Yudhishthira was designated crown
prince. If all had gone well, Yudhishthira would have inherited the
kingdom in full right, and we would have had no battle, and no
bhagavad-gItA. Very early on, the five sons of Pandu and the hundred sons
of Dhritarashtra grew to hate one another. In particular, Duryodhana
harbored great enmity towards Bhima, the second Pandava. Duryodhana also
tried to orchestrate a fire in the Pandava palace, in order to kill the
Pandavas. However, they managed to escape, and lived incognito for a
while, at the end of which they came to Pancala anad married Draupadi,
their common wife. On returning to Hastinapura, a partition of the kingdom
was arranged, with Yudhishthira ruling from a new capital at Indraprastha,
while Dhritarashtra and his sons remained at Hastinapura. Soon
Yudhishthira and his four brothers established their rule from
Indraprastha, leading to further conflicts for Duryodhana and his
ninety-nine brothers. Duryodhana invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice,
in which he used loaded dice and cheated the Pandavas out of all their
possessions. Draupadi was also much insulted during this game. Finally,
ashamed at his son's behavior, Dhritarashtra returned all the possessions
to the Pandavas, and sent them back to Indraprastha. A second challenge
for a game of dice was issued, and Duryodhana won again, aided by the
cunning and deviousness of his maternal uncle, Sakuni. As a result, the
Pandavas had to once again repair to the forest for a period of twelve
years, to be followed by a year of living incognito.

At the end of this thirteen year period, the Pandavas again tried to
negotiate their kingdom back, but Duryodhana was adamant in his refusal to
accept their claim. Krishna, the cousin of the Pandavas, tried to mediate,
but all his efforts were in vain. Duryodhana essentially maintained that
unless the Pandavas defeated him and his brothers in battle, they had no
claim to any kingdom. Each party was allied through bonds of friendship
and matrimonial ties to a number of other important and powerful kingdoms.
Thus, preparations for a battle of epic proportions began. with the other
kings deciding to cast in their lot with one of the two sets of cousins.
As might be expected, every one of the important fighters on each side was
related to every one else on the other side. Fathers found themselves
fighting with sons, uncles with nephews and grandfathers with grandsons.
Among the more important people, Bhishma, the grand old man of the
dynasty, fought on the side of Duryodhana and his brothers. So did Drona,
who had taught archery to all the princes. Krishna, the cousin of the
Pandavas, acted as a charioteer of Arjuna, as he had decided not to fight
in this fratricidal war.

With this setting in the background, the bhagavad-gItA begins. Arjuna, who
had resolved to fight till the last breath, and win back the kingdom, asks
Krishna to drive him to the center of the battlefield, so that he may
survey the armies on both sides. Suddenly, Arjuna is gripped with fear and
self-loathing and grows despondent over the ultimate pointlessness of it
all. He sees no good that can come out of this war, and asks Krishna how
he could possibly fight against Bhishma and Drona, people who are worthy
of his reverence.

In addressing this sudden doubt of Arjuna, his cousin and charioteer
Krishna, reveals the remarkable teaching of the gItA. As it turns out,
Krishna is not an ordinary human being, and is an incarnation of the Lord
Narayana. As such, he is much more than a cousin, and much more than a
charioteer. In the course of the teaching, as we shall see, Krishna
reveals the Universal Form, filling Arjuna with wonder and awe. This
narration of Krishna's is itself embedded within the narration of a
minister named Sanjaya to the old Dhrirashtra. As the latter was blind,
and could not take part in the war, Vyasa gives the gift of divine vision
to Sanjaya, who then narrates all the events of the war, beginning with
the gItA, to the end of the eighteenth day, when Duryodhana and all his
army has been killed, except for three people. On the Pandava side, the
only survivors are the five Pandavas themselves.

Various kinds of allegorical connections have been drawn from the epic
story, by various scholars and teachers. Academic scholars, for example,
see a model of the Indian social organization, based on the four varnas,
represented in the qualities of the five Pandavas. From a more practical
perspective, and this will be of more interest to readers here, the five
Pandavas are usually said to represent the five senses. Krishna, the
charioteer, is the Atman, who holds the reins and guides them throughout.
Without the light of the Atman, the senses are lost, just as the Pandavas
are lost without the help and guidance of Krishna. The hundred cousins on
the opposite side, Duryodhana and the others, represent various kinds of
negative tendencies and qualities, which constantly threaten to overpower
the five senses. With the help of the indestructible Atman, the Pandavas
win the battle. The Mahabharata war is not only an ancient mythological
war, it is also an internal war that each human being fights in the course
of transmigratory existence. The bhagavad gItA, which is the teaching of
the Lord Krishna, given at the onset of this war, teaches one how to face
this war with equanimity and forbearance. It is meant not only for Arjuna,
who once prepared for battle, suddenly grows despondent and is prepared to
walk away. While the Lord teaches Arjuna how to prepare himself, mentally,
emotionally, spiritually and psychologically for the war of the
Mahabharata, the bhagavad gItA has corresponding lessons for all human

While this teaching is universal, it is also simultaneously geared for
each individual. Krishna recognizes that there are many kinds of diseases,
each of which requires a different kind of medicine at different times
along the way. Therefore, the gItA teaches according to the concept of
adhikAra, i.e. the eligibility of each aspirant. Since it contains
teachings for all gradations of adhikArins, its thought is difficult to
follow. It seems to contradict in one place what it says in another. This
has lead to all sorts of opinions about the origins and development of the
text. This is not the place to go into these opinions in any detail.
Suffice it to say that the text clearly has a unitary purpose, and is
deliberately designed so as to have its different pieces and threads to
fit in snugly together, to form a beautiful mosaic, as it were. This is
made expressly clear in SankarAcArya's commentary on the text, where the
connection of each verse to the next is explained, and various other
cross-chapter references are mentioned and elaborated.

In the next posting in this series, the introductory chapter of
SankarAcArya's bhAshya will be discussed, where the great commentator
situates the teaching of the gItA within the age-old Indian parameters of
pravRtti and nivRtti dharmas. In the process, he also explains the sphere
of application of karma, and the sphere of application of jnAna, and how
the latter can not and should not be falsely combined with the former.
Each has its own distinct use for man. Specifically, karma can be done
after an acknowledgement of the superiority of jnAna, in the spirit of
desireless action (nishkAmya karma) or as an offering to the Lord. When it
comes to describing the real nature of the Atman, the state of liberation,
it is only jnAna that reigns supreme, and neither expects, nor needs any
support from karma. The posting after the next will cover the first
chapter of the gItA briefly, and take up the commentary as it begins in
the second chapter.


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