Life sometimes appears to us like a labyrinth. One has to make the right choice each time the passage bifurcates. A labyrinth is an irregular structure, with many passages, hard to find way through or about… So are some choices in life…
That was the case of Arjuna, the great devotee-warrior from Bhagavad-gita, who saw himself faced with a decisive battle. Anyone who ever found himself or herself in front of an important life-choice, to a greater or lesser degree, can relate to the experience of Arjuna. Arjuna had to choose between fighting the battle and bringing righteousness back to the world, or withdrawing to the forest, to live the life of a hermit. Both options seemed valid and acceptable to the culture Arjuna lived in. Still, only one choice was right in those circumstances, at that moment in time.
In a labyrinth-like situation, what would make us go on with our goals? What would cause us to continue pursuing our purposes in a structure one is not sure one can go through, nor what is awaiting ahead? It must be something one feels with all their being. Only such a thing can give vital force: courage, resourcefulness, strength in the heart…
Arjuna was a warrior, a ksatriya. A warrior is so by intrinsic quality, not by external denomination. For him, to desert an important battle and take the path of a hermit in the forest would have been artificial. Artificial things don’t match one’s internal quality or genuine predisposition. So, they deprive one from the strength coming from within. Without this internal force, any goal, material or spiritual, would be hard to pursue in the long run.
Still, Arjuna denies the confrontation, throws away his bow and declares he would rather live by begging than engage in this ghastly war. Krishna tells him he is in illusion. A long process begins at this point, in which Krishna imparts real knowledge to Arjuna.
Of course, the question can be raised if it is enough to have this strong desire? It is indeed absolutely necessary, but it seems not to be enough. There is a legend about a labyrinth and a hero who ventures to enter it, because it is a real need in the world for him to do it. Beside his resolute determination, the hero gets something more: a thread meant to help him not to lose the way. It is given to him by someone who knew the main points about the labyrinth. A gift of knowledge to keep him fixed on his goal. The question may be raised: with such strong initial determination, was he not already fixed on his goal? Well, he was in a labyrinth, in the middle of intricacies. So many elements were there to sabotage him, to waste his resources without any benefit. Like in certain situations which appear in life. Situations in which one may be subjected to feelings of weakness, confusion, grief. Hard moments when one needs help to clear one’s mind.
If this could happen to a devotee personality like Arjuna, it definitely can happen to any of us! After all, Bhagavad-gita is spoken for us all.
Arjuna’s confusion was about his duty: should he perform his ksatriya dharma to fight, or should he avoid a war which announced itself to be overwhelming? Like all great heroes of mankind, Arjuna was faced with a terrible dilemma. This crisis marks the beginning of their quest for knowledge, because they are desperately in need of some answers. After giving up the pride of finding all the answers by themselves, they receive the needed help in the form of a person or a book of knowledge.
At this point, it all starts. Not by addressing their problem, but with the understanding of the world, of the nature of things, which gives them a larger perspective. In this way, their dilemma is seen as a part of the whole. Arjuna had the unique chance to have the Absolute Truth Himself, Krishna, to impart this knowledge to him.
So, Krishna begins to deal with Arjuna’s burning problem by encouraging him to search into the nature of the soul, to realize its imperishable quality, and the sense of identity it gives to a person, regardless of the changes in the body.
Realizing that a person’s everlasting identity is the soul, Arjuna gets a first element of order in the chaos of his situation. He understands that both he and the material world belong to the energy of the Supreme Lord. The difference is that he is the superior energy, while the material elements are the inferior energy. Without the touch of the superior energy, the living entities, nothing can grow in the material world. So, his action makes a difference!
“Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection”, Krishna says (Bg. 3.4). In this way, Krishna urges Arjuna to see things in their proper perspective, that is to avoid unhealthy extremes. He wants him to become neither dry, nor cheap in his approach.
Furthermore, it is said to Arjuna that the combination of the material nature and the spiritual nature is brought about by the Supreme Lord, who is therefore the controller of both. He is the Energetic mastering His energies. In the service of their master, the Supreme Lord, both energies fulfill their goal: the material elements are spiritualized, as iron put into fire takes up the qualities of the fire. While the souls, the living entities, are placed into their constitutional position. Outside the devotional service to the Supreme, the souls, although spiritual in nature, are so minute that they can get conditioned and be caught in the intricacies of the material world.
The tendency to easily slip into a sideway is another feature of a labyrinth. There are so many sideways there, they look so similar to the main way, that one can almost unknowingly slide in one of them. Like us. We take a decision, we start pursuing it, and after some time we begin losing ourselves in justifications, confusion… Our mind seems to be a labyrinth.
This was illustrated in Arjuna’s case when his determination to fight the war, the one that initially brought him to the battlefield, was broken just before he was to start fighting. Lots of arguments burst into his mind justifying his abandon of his dharma. In other words, justifying his sliding in the mode of ignorance, the one in which a person does not see things as they are.
Under the influence of this mode of darkness, one has every chance to choose a wrong course of action, out of delusion, indolence, madness, or even utter foolishness, which is said to be the ultimate result of the mode of ignorance. Krishna, imparting the spiritual vision to Arjuna, tells him that, in order not to be misdirected in life, one has to learn the science of activities in terms of the three modes of nature: goodness, passion and ignorance. Only then he can understand in which position he is actually situated, and how his spiritual spark is bound by a certain mode of nature. Becoming aware of the risks associated with the mode of ignorance, one can take to education for development of the mode of goodness. In this mode of goodness one is illuminated by knowledge and becomes sober, knowing things as they are.
Although he had so many doubts, Arjuna was, the same time, open to receiving this spiritual knowledge, by learning from the proper person, the Supreme Lord, who is transcendental to the modes.
So, Krishna pointed out to Arjuna that renunciation of the prescribed duty for a ksatriya, fighting, out of illusion and lack of right understanding, is renunciation in the mode of ignorance, which deprives one’s life of any meaning. He definitely did not want to lead a futile life!
To Arjuna’s initial argument that he is afraid of performing fruitive activities by performing his dharma, Krishna answers that this renunciation would be in the mode of passion. It disregards the fact that certain results of work are promoting Krishna consciousness and should not be given up.
If the mode of ignorance renders one purposeless, the mode of passion leads to no elevation. Arjuna was a person who abhorred degradation and who was keen to elevate himself in life.
It is only in the mode of goodness that one starts to see what to give up and what not to give up, what is favourable to the devotional service and what is unfavorable to the devotional service to the Supreme Lord. In order to guide us through this “labyrinth” of possible decisions, Krishna speaks to us Bhagavad-gita. The spiritual process described in Bhagavad-gita is not one of just artificial repression of the senses, but one of making the mind strong by the determination born of proper intelligence.
For that, Arjuna had not only to listen to the right knowledge, but to also realize with all his heart that fighting the battle was the most important thing.
Arjuna’s refusal to fight was actually due to his considering himself the absolute doer of his actions. He was forgetting that the Supreme Personality of Godhead was the ultimate master and sanctioner of everything, and He was there present instructing Arjuna to fight. This is the forgetfulness of the conditioned soul, as Srila Prabhupada points out.
Still, Arjuna could regain his memory by hearing Krishna’s words with an attentive mind. When our mind slips during chanting and hearing, it happens to slide to everyday activities,
which don’t have their place during the time of chanting and reading. Although these activities have their place in our daily schedules, under the influence of the lower modes, the mind tends to extend them into the time which is not meant for them. In the end, when the mind becomes totally focused on petty activities, it is rendered crippled and it can not see things as they are anymore. It does not recognize real goals from superficial ones. Real goals are those which, when performed, make us feel life has meaning. They always bring connection to something higher, sacred.
Arjuna sensed that Krishna’s words bring meaning, while previously it was none, only confusion and a vacant heart. They filled an empty place and Arjuna gave his voluntary attention to them, being interested to know all about the subject matter. It was through this attentive hearing that Krishna’s words really entered his heart and dispelled the forgetfulness there, by replacing it with a conscious mind, aware of the goal of life through sacred knowledge.
So, he became ready to fulfill Krishna’s plan through the occupation born of his own nature. This conclusion is there not only for Arjuna, but it can address all people of all times, regardless they are in front of a battle or not, or whatever circumstances they may be in. Like a ball of thread in a confusing maze, Bhagavad-gita can guide us through the labyrinth of this world, as well as through the mysterious labyrinth of our own mind.
Aware of the meaning of his action, Arjuna surrendered to Krishna’s plan, picked up his glorious Gandiva bow and started the battle of Kurukshetra.