The two great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata both share a common conundrum.  The protagonist(s) has been exiled or removed from their rightful kingdom and they must struggle and fight to regain what is rightfully theirs. The Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of the Lord, is essentially a dialog between Krishna and Arjuna who have placed themselves between the two enormous armies, one belonging to Arjuna, and the other to his cousins and many other family members and teachers.  Arjuna wants to know.  Should I really go through with this?  Should I destroy not only my errant cousins but many of his beloved teachers to regain what is really rightfully theirs and has been stolen from them by devious family members, most notably Duryodhana.  This is why the first chapter of the Gita as given to us in the Judge edition is entitled "The Despondency of Arjuna".

Right from the start, as students of Theosophy, we are presented with this challenge:

What does this war represent?  What is it a metaphor or analogy of?

Please read the first chapter on your own and let us discuss the central meaning of the teachings that are to follow.

Arjuna says:

"Woe is me! What a great crime are we prepared to commit! Alas! that from the desire for sovereignty and pleasure we stand here ready to slay our own kin!"  page 7 Judge edition

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We've added the first chapter of the Gita to the homepage on Universal Theosophy, for students to use while we engage in our study. Here's the link:

http://www.universaltheosophy.com/sacred-texts/bhagavad-gita-chapte...

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"What does this war represent?  What is it a metaphor or analogy of?"

From the link that Jon provided to this chapter on the beautiful Universal Theosophy website, I paste in Judge's footnote to the first verse of this chapter:

"The key for reading the Bhagavad-Gita is to be applied to this first verse. If we look at the poem in its application to a man aspiring to devotion, then the battlefield is the body acquired by Karma and Tanha, thirst for life, while the speaker and his party represent the lower self, and the Pandus the Higher Self. But if this and succeeding chapters are regarded from the cosmic standpoint, then the speaker, the plain of Kuru, the generals described in the first chapter, together with their instruments and weapons, are beings, forces, planes, and planets in the universe, of which it would be out of place to treat here. As applied to ourselves, the poem is of greater interest and importance: it opens with the battle inevitable between the higher and lower natures of man, and then, from this viewpoint, Krishna—who is the Higher Self—in order to encourage Arjuna, becomes his instructor in philosophy and right ethics, so that he may be fit to fight and conquer."

This answer to the two questions raised by Gerry is, to me, a quite helpful way to approach this text. When I mentioned in the last part of this discussion that Judge's is the first English translation I know of that brings this approach in, Nicholas gave a link to an important commentary by Lahiri Mahasay that does this. It was written in Bengali and only recently translated into English. As is there stated, this was an oral tradition. It seems to have been known by a number of Indians here and there, and for a long time. This may perhaps explain why Sankaracharya's commentary that is now extant does not comment on the first chapter, but begins in the second chapter. This interpretation of this text, that would come out in explaining who and what the participants introduced in chapter one really are, had become esoteric. As far as I know this idea was not included in any English translation of the Bhagavad-gita until Judge's (apparently the eighth to be published).

As for his recension itself, Judge says: "It is the result of a careful comparison of all the English editions and of a complete retranslation from the original wherever any obscurity or omission was evident in the various renderings consulted." Boris notes in his bio-bibliography of Judge, given in vol. 1 of the Blavatsky Collected Writings (p. 478), that Judge's recension is "based mainly on the translation of J. Cockburn Thomson, but with valuable commentaries in footnotes." Thomson's translation was published in 1855, and is only the second English translation ever made. I do not have this translation, and have not been able to find an online version of it (the one available at archive.org includes only Thomson's new Sanskrit edition from 1855).

After the link given by Nicholas to the Lahiri Mahasay commentary, Jon posted a link to the several English translations available at or via the Universal Theosophy website, along with Sanskrit editions in devanagari and in roman script. Jon has put together a very valuable resource here for our study.

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It is interesting to connect the war described in the Gita with the forces at work in cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis.  If we posit the idea that mankind is trapped in 'material consciousness', like in the Matrix movie, human beings are slaves, in this case to desire and sense perceptions of primarily a material orientation (rather than the computer Matrix), then a war must be waged, at the level of the mind, for the Spirit to regain the kingdom.

Mr. Judge is suggesting that the Gita can be looked upon precisely this way.  You might say it is an esoteric perspective.  All the various players in the story, with particular emphasis of course with Krishna and Arjuna, can be corrollated not only with cosmic forces but with human principles as well.

Would anyone care to comment on this idea?

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Thanks David. I've definitely found the study of the Gita much helped by looking through several translations and working towards the "heart" of each verse through comparison. I find it also helpful (as I'm sure many theosophists would) to look at the romanized sanskrit version, where certain terms theosophists are familiar with are often helpful in seeing through to possible inner meanings.

For anyone wishing to dive into the study in that way, here's a link to the page on our UT site that David mentions:

The Bhagavad Gita on Universal Theosophy

I haven't been able to find a copy of Thomson's translation either.

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Is the war of the Gita a war against separateness if we were to look at it from a Buddhist standpoint?  It the battle with Mara analogous to the war with Arjuna's cousins?

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Tamiko, Friends,

It may prove to be a very good practical perspective to view this battle set to commence as Gita describes, as a "war against separateness".  Truth is, if we take the study of the Gita from this direction, we must first get a firm foot hold, or basis, as it were, on the true meaning of separateness and unity.   For when we are presented with the idea such as separateness, we are literally forced to imagine one thing that is defiantly distinct from another thing.  Hence, the entire first chapter of the Gita shows Arjuna's reaction regarding this view, which more or less throws him into a state of grief and despondency. 

If we turn to our selves, meaning our daily thoughts and life in general, we may see this same exact "battle" commencing constantly.  Just perhaps, that one single thought we may have about a persons lifestyle, or habits, or choices, etc., as opposed to our personal ideas of what is "right," most defiantly support separation by viewing their life compared to mine, which ultimately leads to harsh judgment, envy, jealousy, delusion, grief, etc. until one may become utterly despondent and lost in this world of "theirs and mine."  Separation runs deep, our minds, if not constantly checked, are programmed to to support this delusion.  Which I suppose makes this daily practice all the more difficult, however we need not travel very far to the battle field. 

What are some ways we can relate this study to daily practical life?  What sacrificesshould we make to be the living example of the teachings?

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The opening line of the Bhagavad Gita is spoken by the blind king, Dhritarashtra, who asks his assistant, Sanjaya, ‘what happened when the two opposing forces met on the sacred plain of Kurukshetra?’

That it is a sacred plain may indicate that the battle to be fought involves the struggle between spiritual and material forces.  The field of action in which this struggle takes place exists both within ourselves and in the world about us.  If we accept Krishna as the Supreme Self and Arjuna as the human soul, then we find the former instructing Arjuna in relation to both his inner world and the outer world.  

There are various interpretations as to what the different characters on the battlefield might symbolise.  Some make the characters represent various aspects of the soul, mind and senses.  In a general sense this affirms the notion that our biggest struggles in life often take place within ourselves rather than with the people and world around us.  But it may not be possible to make those symbolical characters the sole interpretation of every thing Krishna states in the Gita.  For example, when Arjuna grieves at having to fight and slay his kinsmen Krishna informs him of the immortality of the Self within all beings, ‘Never, was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor these kings of men. Never will there be a time hereafter when any of us shall cease to be.”  (II.12)   Arjuna is taught to discriminate between the physical forms of his kinsmen which perish and the immortal Self that abides within each body.

In a way, the context of the battle, whether historical, philosophical or symbolical does not seem to alter the profound wisdom we discover in the following chapters which can all be studied without knowing what all the individual characters of the battlefield might represent.

Sri Krishna Prem offers a good insight into what the characters of the Gita might symbolise from a theosophical perspective in his book  “The Yoga of the Bhagavat Gita” (1953). Below is a very brief summary.

The story of the Bhagavad Gita as it takes place on the sacred field is told to the blind king Dhritarashtra by his assistant, Sanjaya.  Sanjaya has the gift of being able to see and hear at a distance, given to him by Vyasa, hence he is able to see and overhear the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna far away on the battlefield. He explains this in the closing verses of the book, “Thus did I hear this wonderful dialogue between Krishna and the high-souled Arjuna, which caused my hair to rise. Through the grace of Vyasa I heard this supreme and profound yoga direct from Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, Himself teaching it.”  (Ch. 18:74-75)

Krishna is the Supreme Self instructing Arjuna, who is the higher Mind (Manas).  

Dhritarashtra represents the empirical ego (lower manas) blinded by egoism and foolish infatuation. 

Dhritarashra is sometimes portrayed as a king torn between adherence to Dharma on the one hand and pleasing his son, Duryodhana, on the other.

Duryodhana (who represents kama) effectively runs the kingdom, seeking power, opposing and plotting against the legitimate ruler and eventually exiling him (i.e. the pandavas).  With Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana we have the analogy of the lower manas which lets itself be ruled by desire and selfish pursuit, which risks shutting itself off from the wisdom of the higher manas.  

Sanjaya, who recounts the events of the Bhagaved Gita to Drhitarashtra, may be said to represent the link or bridge between the lower and higher Manas.   This is called the antaskarana (antakaranah) in Theosophy.  It is through this link that the lower manas is able to receive the wisdom of the Higher Mind or Buddhi-Manas.  

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The notion of conflict between spiritual and material forces in the Gita may also be seen in the following.

Arjuna and his brothers (the five pandus or pandavas) are all divine births.  The head of the family, Pandu, could not sire his own children with his two wives, Kunti and Madri, due to a curse placed upon him as a result of accidentally killing a rishi and his wife while out hunting.  However, Kunti had been given a mantra by a sage which would allow her to beckon a god to her who would bless her with a son.   By this means she had three sons, the youngest of which was Arjuna.  She used the mantra to help Madri, who had two sons.

Pandu, the head of the family, was the younger half brother of the blind king Dhritarasthra.   Because of his blindness, Dhritarashtra could not rule the kingdom and the role was given to Pandu instead.  Following Pandu's accidental killing of the rishi who cursed him, Pandu gave up the his role of ruler of the kingdom, which reverted back to Dhritarashtra for the time being.  The five brothers, pandavas, were seen as the legitimate heirs to Pandu, even though not strictly speaking his sons.  The eldest, Yudhishthira was expected to rule the kingdom.  It is just here where the conflict over power came in between the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra lead by Duryodhana, the eldest, and the five divinely born brothers of which Arjuna was a mighty warrior.

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This first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is usually titled something along the lines of “The Despondency of Arjuna.”  It is Arjuna’s grief which is the main subject of the chapter when he finds himself opposed by cousins, friends, old and revered teachers on the opposing  army.  

For the warrior a battle is noble thing when the enemy clearly represents all those bad things that so obviously bring us harm.  But what about when the re-establishment of Dharma in our lives requires that we also rid ourselves of those things we feel are most familiar and closest to us, our cherished beliefs, habits and desires?  It is here that the Soul may despair at the conflict it now has to face,  believing that so much will be undone by the battle ahead that nothing that it has cherished up to now will remain.  It seems it cannot go back, yet pressing ahead and winning the battle brings no hope or succour.

This is not a superficial nor an intellectual problem but a veritable dark night experienced by the earnest soul.  No solution in the outer world can resolve it.   It is here that the soul appeals to the Voice of the Higher Self, just as Arjuna appeals to Krishna.

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These ways of looking at the Gita are very helpful.  One could say, " I have discovered the enemy and he is myself." Theosophy teaches that we are trapped inside a cloud or box of private and personal identification.  For a human being to experience higher planes of consciousness one must strip away the fierce identification with name and form.  So this sets up a struggle, a battle if you will. All that is familiar, all that we identify with, all that we love and desire must be replaced with what is universal, all inclusive, The Over-Soul, to use Emerson's phrase.  This struggle is what the Gita is talking about.   A war against family and teachers is symbolic of this struggle with what is familiar and must eventually be transcended.

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This is very nice way of looking at the first chapter of the Gita.

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Peter, I agree with Grace and Barbara that the way you here describe looking at the first chapter of the Gita is very helpful. As you say, fighting an enemy who is bad or evil is one thing, but what about fighting against all of those things we feel are most familiar and closest to us. This indeed brings us to a dark night of the soul. It is hard to imagine the immensity of the problem that Arjuna here faces, and that one day each of us will face on a similar scale. In the meantime, it is hard enough to face our little daily problems, whether to do a thing or to fall back without meeting the challenge.

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Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on December 24, 2013 at 10:46am
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Here is another example of the war/battle theme connected to the Spiritual Path in another Sacred Text

From the Voice of the Silence p. 68, 69

"Prepare, and be forewarned in time. If thou hast tried and failed, O dauntless fighter, yet lose not courage: fight on, and to the charge return again and yet again.

The fearless warrior, his precious life -blood oozing from his wide and gaping wounds, will still attack the foe, drive him from out his stronghold, vanquish him, ere he himself expires. Act then, all ye who fail and suffer, act like him; and from the stronghold of your Soul chase all your foes away — ambition, anger, hatred, e'en to the shadow of desire — when even you have failed..........

Remember, thou fightest for man's liberation, each failure is success, and each sincere attempt wins its reward in time."

Can students find other examples?

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on December 25, 2013 at 5:46pm
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Somewhere in the Bible it says that the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be attained except through force.  We must struggle and strain to get to the next plateau, the next level.  It requires a battle.

This is a common theme in the world's literature.  The Buddha battled with Mara before attaining enlightenment.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on December 27, 2013 at 4:09pm
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Hi Tamiko,

The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be attained except through force is a very interesting idea because it holds multiple meanings.  It not describes the constant struggles exist in the world of duality, it also hints that one must draw upon the power of will, which is not very developed at this point of our evolution, to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.      

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on December 25, 2013 at 7:26pm
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Gerry, there is a parallel to the quote you give from the Voice of the Silence in the Bodhicaryavatara, chapter 4, verse 44 (Wallace and Wallace translation): "Let my entrails ooze out and my head fall off, but by no means shall I bow down to my enemies, the mental afflictions" (such as ambition, anger, and hatred).

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on December 26, 2013 at 1:08pm
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Is it true that the only truly righteous war is one with ourselves? All other forms of war have shades of moral gray rather than black and white.

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on December 27, 2013 at 6:07am
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Grace, the question of whether there is any such thing as a righteous war, other than within ourselves, has been answered in different ways by different teachers. Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita advises war. Mohandas Gandhi believed in total non-violence. Therefore, Gandhi believed that what the Gita says could only be symbolic, and that the war must be fought within. Bal Gangadhar Tilak believed otherwise. He wrote a very influential commentary on the Gita in his native Marathi that was later translated into English (called the Gita Rahasya). He did not think that Krishna was speaking only symbolically in the Gita, and thought that Indians should fight for their independence from British rule.

In the U.S.A., the Vietnam war was widely regarded as unnecessary. But World War Two was widely regarded as necessary and just. Where would the world be today, if Hitler and the Nazis were not stopped in their attempt to conquer the world and impose the Nazi ideology? This is a modern example of what many regard as a righteous war. The fight between good and evil is almost universally recognized. In the Vietnam war, there was no clear good and evil. In World War Two, good and evil was much clearer. If we have a duty to fight evil within ourselves, why would we not have the same duty on a larger scale? No man is an island. We have social responsibility as well as personal responsibility.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on December 27, 2013 at 11:10am
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Good points David. It's interesting to look back at theosophical periodicals during the first and second world wars, to see how various theosophists approached the issue. I've seen a wide range of approaches, just as in your examples here.

It's also worth considering, I think, that the Mahabharata war was indeed a historical event, and it's more than probable that Krishna (as Prince of Dwarka) and Arjuna (as a historical prince himself) did actually engage in the war themselves.

There is, of course, also the war between "good and evil" that took place during Atlantean times, as we're told, which certainly seems to have manifested as a "righteous war".

The other thing we must keep in mind about someone like Gandhi, and those who share the non-violence approach, is that most of us (including myself in that camp) do indeed believe in fighting against evil, but we believe that the method of fighting need not be violent to be successful. Gandhi's approach isn't pacifism, but active engagement in the fight, even with offensive "attacks" (in fact, Gandhi's method was far more offensive than defensive), yet without purposeful violence. It may, perhaps, be a glimpse into the way true Good does battle with Evil, whether within ourselves or outwardly in the world—a way of fighting that doesn't perpetuate anger, hatred, violence, etc., but rather dullens it through what Gandhi called "soul-force".

So long as humans are engaged in their own inner battles, so long will this spill over and manifest outwardly in wars. And just as we do no good to ourselves through self-mutilation or self-mortification (which Krishna warns against in the Gita), so also may we do little good by outward mutilation of our outward foes. In both cases it is not the outer things we're fighting, but the inner ones: in an outer war, our enemy isn't truly the other persons, but rather is the ideas and ideologies they have taken into themselves, and in cutting off the outward bodies we don't necessarily defeat the inner ideology (any more than castration works to create a brahmachari (celibate)).

It may be entirely possible, for instance, that the second world war was indeed a righteous war, requiring us to fight on behalf of the Good, but it may be equally possible (I would venture to say very probable) that our chosen methods of fighting that war did little to actually defeat that evil, but rather simply caused it to transmute and find its way into other avenues (the way cutting of the head of a hydra causes it only to grow two new heads in response). By using "evil" to fight "evil" (as seems to be exemplified in many ways in that war) we may have simply invited that evil into ourselves and our societies, instead of defeating it on the battlefield. And perhaps the method to actually defeat evil, whether inwardly or outwardly, is just what Gandhi was showing us, revealing one aspect of the Gita that we can try to put into practice.