Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita: Prince and Pupil

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bhagavad Gita" by Eknath Easwaran. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita? What is his role in the story and what lessons does he learn?

Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita is a prince who learns that he will go into battle facing his family. He seeks out Krishna for help and learns about seeking God and fulfilling his dharma.

Read more about Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita

As The Bhagavad Gita begins, two mighty armies face each other across the field of Kurukshetra, which is located to the north of modern-day Delhi. The Pandavas, led by Prince Arjuna, are about to wage war against their kin, the Kauravas, who have usurped the throne of Hastinapura. 

Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita is conflicted because he doesn’t want to fight against his own family. He turns to his childhood friend and charioteer Krishna, who is actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu, for advice. 

Arjuna and Sri Krishna

Prince Arjuna leads the Pandavas’ army. His chariot is driven by Sri Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who has taken a mortal form in The Bhagavad Gita. Krishna has been Arjuna’s friend and advisor throughout his life, but he can’t fight this battle. Leading the army is Arjuna’s dharma—his duty and destiny. Krishna is only there to support him. 

(Shortform note: “Sri,” sometimes spelled “Shri,” is a term of respect that doesn’t have a direct translation.) 

As Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita sees that the fighting’s about to start, he asks Krishna to drive his chariot in between the two armies so that he can take a closer look at his enemies. When he sees the people in the Kauravas’ army, he recognizes many of them as his own family and friends. 

Arjuna is overcome with despair. He tells Krishna that he doesn’t want to fight against his own family, and that his family fighting within itself will lead to chaos in the kingdom. He also says that there are great heroes and respected scholars on the other side, and Arjuna questions how he could ever live with himself if he killed them in battle. Arjuna says that it would be better to lay down his weapons and let the Kauravas kill him. 

Krishna replies that, though Arjuna is speaking from the heart, he is also speaking from ignorance. Although physical bodies can be destroyed, a person’s essence will be reborn again and again, unchanged, through the process of reincarnation. Therefore, Arjuna wouldn’t be killing anybody, and there would be no reason to grieve for them. 

Krishna compares reincarnation to the changes that a person goes through over a single lifetime, from childhood to adulthood to old age. You wouldn’t say that a person became someone else after growing up, and in the same sense, you shouldn’t think of someone who’s been reincarnated as becoming a different person. 

Only the Eternal Is Real

Krishna explains that temporary things shouldn’t be considered real. Pain and pleasure, heat and cold, and even life and death are temporary. Similarly, the temporary bodies of the men Arjuna will fight against aren’t real; their true selves are eternal and immutable, and change bodies as a living person changes clothes. Knowing that, Krishna asks rhetorically, how can Arjuna kill or be killed by them? 

People who understand the difference between the real and the illusory will remain calm in any situation, unaffected by either hard times or good times. Such people have taken a key step toward breaking the cycle of reincarnation.

Even if Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita can’t currently separate his ideas of the temporary bodies from the true souls that inhabit them, Krishna points out that death and rebirth happen to everyone. These men will die whether or not Arjuna kills them, and there’s no point in mourning the inevitable.

Fulfilling Dharma

Next, Krishna reminds Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita of his dharma. He’s of the kshatriya caste, a warrior and a leader, and therefore it’s his duty to fight in this battle. He should be excited for the chance to wage war against evil, as there’s no higher calling for a kshatriya. Fighting this battle will nearly guarantee Arjuna entrance to heaven while he waits for his next life.

On the other hand, if Arjuna refuses to fight, he’d be going against his dharma. Doing so would hurt his chances of reaching heaven and—possibly even worse for a kshatriya—disgrace him in life. Great heroes on both sides of the battle would think that Arjuna had withdrawn out of cowardice or weakness, and his reputation would be irreparably damaged. 

(Hindu tradition divides people into four castes. Brahmins are the highest caste, the priests and spiritual leaders. Kshatriyas like Arjuna are just below them, the caste of warriors and rulers. Below that are the vaishyas, who are merchants and landowners. The lowest caste is the shudras, or servants, who do the bidding of all others.) 

(Shortform note: Below even the shudras are the untouchables or outcastes, who do distasteful work such as street sweeping and latrine cleaning.)

Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita: Prince and Pupil

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  • The key principles of the Hindu faith
  • Why all spirituality is good and there is no single path to God
  • The 3 reasons that can explain every action people take

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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