A Closer Look
We can gain a deeper understanding of Arjuna’s inner conflict by dividing the first part of verse 2:7 into three columns. The translations are numbered the same as before. Note the differences in the seven translations.
|Afflicted Self||Problem of Afflicted Self||Source of Affliction|
|1. my heart||is contaminated||by the taint of helplessness|
|2. my natural disposition||is vitiated||by a sense of pity|
|3. my true nature||is subdued||by the fault of miserableness|
|4. my will||is paralyzed|
|5. my very being||is harmed||by the error of my compassion|
|6. my own being||is overcome||by pity-weakness|
|7. my very being||is afflicted||by a piteous weakness of spirit|
A key to understanding this verse is the Sanskrit word karpanya. Its essential meaning is “pity.” “My natural disposition,” says Arjuna, “is vitiated by a sense of pity” (No. 2). In translation No. 6, Arjuna describes himself as “overcome by pity-weakness.” And “a piteous weakness of spirit” afflicts Arjuna in translation No. 7.
But despite these variations, more than half the translations (Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5) offer different sources of affliction altogether. These are “helplessness,” “miserableness,” the absence of any source at all, and finally, in a particularly meaningful insight (No. 5), Arjuna says of himself, “My compassion is an error that harms my very being.” Arjuna’s error is that he has substituted pity for wisdom. The cause of this error is Arjuna’s attachment to family, to teachers, to ancestors, and even to social order. He is bewildered regarding what is a genuine source of happiness and what is not. And he is forgetful regarding the true nature of body, mind, and Self.
Though his cousins are blinded by greed and seek their own ends, Arjuna sees no moral good in killing them, even though they would kill him. The destructive consequences he envisions of fighting against his teachers and relatives have amplified his fears and doubt, and magnified his confusion.
One might expect the Lord of Life to offer comforting words in response to Arjuna’s crisis. But although he smiles at Arjuna (BG 2:10), creating an impression of confidence, Krishna’s words are less than sentimental: “Abandon this littleness and weakness of the heart and rise,” he admonishes (BG 2:3). In verse 2:11, he strengthens his advice, seizing on Arjuna’s failure to discriminate between wisdom and pity: “You are grieving about those over whom one should not grieve, and yet you are speaking words of pretended wisdom. The wise do not grieve about those who are yet breathing nor about those who have ceased to breathe.”
The depth of Krishna’s advice needs time to mature. It is worked out over the next 30 verses of chapter 2 of the Gita. Something exists in every human life, Krishna says, that is invisible before life begins and again invisible when life ends. In between these unmanifest stages of being is a period of manifestation—a period in which a timeless and all-pervasive spirit permeates body and mind. To look outward, as Arjuna has been doing, is to see the manifest aspect of beings. To look inward is to engage in a search for happiness and truth, a search aimed at the discovery of an enduring Self. Thus, having twice struggled against Krishna’s advice, Arjuna now becomes fully engaged in a dialogue—an interchange pointing to knowledge of the Self.
Be sure to join us in the next blog post (read all of chapter 2 of the Gita before then, if you’d like) to explore Krishna’s fundamental teachings about the nature of karma. Until then, here are words of encouragement from Krishna: “Belonging to the immeasurable, imperishable, eternal owner of the body, these bodies are said to be perishable; therefore fight, O Descendant of Bharata” (BG 2:18).
[Translations in last section taken from Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama.]