The fault of Arjuna’s compassion is not just that it was indiscriminate and unexamined. It was mixed with ego. The self-delusion that he was responsible for deciding the nature of his dharma, that the others were fit for compassion, that the decision to fight the war was out of his own free will (see BG 18.58–59) was included in it.
Among the various forms of human relationship, compassion is indeed great. There are very few people in the world worthy of compassion but dharma applies to the whole world. Therefore, the appropriateness or inappropriateness of compassion has to be examined with due consideration given to dharma. Dharma is a conglomeration of many principles of which compassion is only one. A dhārmic person should consider other relevant principles during his course of action.
Compassion is natural whereas dharma is established by right judgment. The basis of compassion is nature whereas the basis of dharma is philosophical deliberation. Compassion that negates dharma can be disastrous. Therefore, when compassion manifests itself, it is necessary to examine and purify it in the light of philosophy. Thus, a study of the nature of dharma becomes pertinent.
ರಣಮಘಮೂಲಂ ಪ್ರಿಯಗುರು ।
ಹನನಕರಂ ಲೋಕಧರ್ಮಘಾತಕಮದರಿಂ ॥
ರ್ಜುನನಳುತಚ್ಯುತನಿಗೊರೆಯೆ ಮೊದಲಧ್ಯಾಯಂ ॥
War is the root cause of pāpa, causes elders and loved ones
To be killed, destroys the dharma of the world, therefore
I will not bear my bow, said Arjuna
To the Lord – thus finishes the first chapter.
Appendix: Dharma is Multifaceted
Many people think that dharma is a feast of lāḍus and cīroṭis. They do not feel that pepper chutney and ginger pickle are dharma. Arjuna is like them.
He is a good man. His virtues are something we generally praise but we do not know if viveka is part of it. Goodness unaccompanied by viveka cannot yield the intended result. In the feast of a man of discernment, there is a place for pepper rasam, just as there is a place for pāyasam. In the conduct of dharma, just like there is a place for compassion, there is a place for stone-heartedness.
vajrād-api kaṭhorāṇi mṛdūni kusumād-api।
Arjuna had forgotten this. Just as nurturing life is dharma, there can be circumstances where killing also becomes dharma. Just as friendship is dharma, there are also circumstances where war becomes dharma. In the case of Sugrīva and Vibhīṣaṇa, friendship became dharma for Śrīrāma. In the case of Vālī and Rāvaṇa, killing became his dharma.
The essence of dharma is the elevation of the soul. By following dharma, the soul should get trained and should elevate itself to at least a little higher state. The souls of Sugrīva and Vibhīṣaṇa were in a slightly more elevated state than those of Vali and Ravana. The training that they had to undergo had to be done through friendship. Vālī and Rāvaṇa lacked the qualifications to be trained through friendship in their current birth, so it was necessary for them to be reborn to acquire them. Some dirty clothes can be washed and cleaned. Some other dirty clothes cannot even be touched by water – fire is their refuge. The same can be said about bodies. This is the essence of the art and dharma of war.
After Hiraṇyakaśipu was killed, his son Prahlāda beseeched Narasiṃha to grant him salvation. The Supreme One replied –
triḥ-saptabhiḥ pitā pūtaḥ pitṛbhiḥ saha te’nagha। (Bhāgavata-purāṇa 7.10.18)
...pituḥ pūtasya sarvaśaḥ।
madaṅga-sparśanenāṅga-lokān yāsyati suprajāḥ॥ (Bhāgavata-purāṇa 7.10.22)
The touch of the Supreme’s limbs is the panacea that cures the pāpī. Therefore, Bhagavān’s avatāra kills the pāpī, thereby freeing the soul from the prison of vice. This sort of killing, even though it looks cruel at the superficial level, it is not cruelty but compassion when examined subtly. It is the compassion of a wise man – like that of a surgeon.
Dharma has to occasionally take fierce forms – just as the hands of the father who feeds sweets might also have to give a slap. Just as a spank from the father is affection, just as the bitter medicine from the physician is compassion, so also is the war that is waged for the sake of dharma.
Dharma is not just the sound of festive bells, it is also the sound of lions’ roar. The call of dharma is not just for feminine affection but also for masculine brave-hearts. Our people should understand this well. After pepper has finished its job, black gram can take its place. After war has finished its work, compassion and affection can find their places. After the stick of the teacher has worked its magic, the disciple will win prizes. Bhagavān himself has indicated this –
yat-tad-agre viṣam-iva pariṇāme’mṛtopamam। (BG 18.37)
Neem always comes before jaggery.
duḥkham-ity-eva yat-karma kāya-kleśa-bhayāt tyajet। (BG 18.8)
na dveṣṭy-akuśalaṃ karma kuśale nānuṣajvate। (BG 18.10)
We should not give up a job because it is tedious. It should not be avoided just because it is difficult for the body. An activity should not be shunned because it is difficult or disagreeable; neither should it be adhered to because it is delightful.
It is enough if a job is dharma. Whatever it is, it has to be finished – that is the purport of this chapter. It is not right to eye the results, whether they are good or bad, attained or not attained.
Like the Pitāmaha Brahmā, dharma can also be visualized as having four faces. It is said that Brahmā recites the four Vedas through his four mouths. Dharma, with its four mouths, will teach these four duties – (1) nurturing of the ātmā, (2) purification of the ātmā, (3) understanding the true nature of Self, and (4) benevolence towards the world. Among the above, purification of the ātmā is tapas. It cannot be achieved by short-cuts. Like Śiva, it has a terrific form; it performs the fearsome tāṇḍava dance; it drinks the hālāhala. Arjuna’s eyes beheld this fierce form of dharma in front of him at Kurukṣetra. It needed a courageous heart not feminine yearning. It needed virility. That is why Bhagavān’s advice was replete with instructions to be valorous and heroic.
ಮೃದಲಂ ಪುಷ್ಪದವೋಲದೊಮ್ಮೆ ಶಿಲೆವೋಲ್ ಇನ್ನೊಮ್ಮೆ ತಾಂ ನಿಷ್ಠುರಂ ।
ನದಿವೋಲ್ ಧಾರೆಯದೊಮ್ಮೆ ವಂಕಗತಿ ತಾಂ ಮತ್ತೊಮ್ಮೆ ಗುಪ್ತಸ್ರವಂ ॥
ಮಧುವೋಲ್ ಸ್ವಾದುವದೊಮ್ಮೆ ಶುಂಠಿವೊಲೆ ತೀಕ್ಷ್ಣಂ ಮತ್ತೆ ನೋಡಿಂತು ನೂರ್
ವಿಧ ರೂಪಂಗಳ ತಾಳ್ವುದೀ ಜಗದಿ ಧರ್ಮಂ ಜೀವಭೇದೋಚಿತಂ ॥
Soft as a flower now, hard as a rock then, rigid at another time
Flowing continuously like a river now, meandering then, and then hidden
Sweet as honey now, pungent as ginger then, behold thus, dharma takes
A hundred forms in this world, suited for various souls.
ಘನಶ್ಯಾಮಂ ಕ್ಷಮಾಧಾಮಂ ಶರಣ್ಯಂ ಕೃಷ್ಣನಾವಗಂ ॥
One who is cognizant of human experiences, his eyes moist with sympathy
Dark as a cloud, the abode of mercy – he, Kṛṣṇa, is our refuge always.
Thus Concludes Chapter 1.
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.