Scripture Study: Bhagavad Gita, book two verses 31-34

Scripture Study: Bhagavad Gita, book two verses 31-34 February 24, 2015

We are doing a scripture study together: reading along through some scriptures and discussing the passages.

From the Winthrop Sargeant translation of The Gita…

And, perceiving your own caste duty,
You should not tremble.
Indeed, anything superior to righteous battle
Does not exist for the kshatriya.

And if by good fortune they gain
The open gate of heaven,
Happy are the kshatriyas, Arjuna,
When they encounter such a fight.

Now, if you will not undertake
This righteous war,
Thereupon, having avoided your own duty and glory,
You shall incur evil.

And also people will relate
Your undying infamy;
And, for one who has been honored,
Disgrace is worse than dying.

Notes on the Sanskrit:

The thing that jumps out to me is the part about caste. That word definitely puts me on edge and I want to know what’s really meant by that here. Sargeant gives the word as svadharmam, which he says means “your duty” as in your duty as a warrior (which is what kshatriya means). I’m not sure that using the word caste is entirely appropriate here. Looking at the word we can see dharma, so that’s duty, justice, proper way, etc. Sva is in front of it, which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “of self.” So it certainly means “your duty” but it doesn’t explicitly say that it is Arjuna’s duty as a warrior specifically.

However, the word kshatriya does appear later in the same verse, so maybe that’s a fair leap.

Krishna points out that there is nothing greater for a warrior than righteous battle, but then Arjuna’s question is in that word righteous. He is asking if this is a righteous battle.

The word heaven also gives me pause. I think it’s worth noting that Hinduism does believe in a heaven, just not as a permanent state. The word here is svarga and that is not the same as liberation or enlightenment (moksha, or samadhi). Svarga is a celestial realm ruled by Indra, king of the Devas (a level just below the big three Gods).

Commentaries of Gurus:

“According to the ksatriya code of ethics no infringement has been enacted by Arjuna or his brothers the Pandava’s and so dharma or righteousness is with them. There is no action more meritorious for a ksatriya then to fight for righteousness. The qualities to be found in a ksatriya are heroism, exuberance, determination, resourcefulness, bravery in battle, generosity and leadership. That those slain in battle obtain illustrious heavenly bodies and win other rewards in heavenly spheres has already been mentioned…

“The impending war is happening by itself, on its own, without any solicitation on the part of Arjuna. Thus when it happens he and his brothers will be fighting on the side of righteousness which constitutes the means for acquiring heavenly happiness without obstacles. Such a war can only be fought by the most fortunate of ksatriyas and Arjuna should understand his good fortune.” –Ramanuja

“Then by refusing to accept his responsibility and avoiding the battle Arjuna would be abandoning his duty which brings rewards and boundless glory and thus losing his reputation both worldly and divine which results from the victory of a great warrior Arjuna would in fact incur great sin.” –Kesava Kasmiri

My Thoughts:

Krishna really turns it around on Arjuna here. While Arjuna frets that maybe fighting in this war would bring destruction and bad “karma” to him, Krishna says it is the opposite. Avoiding the war is what will bring Arjuna “evil” (other translations for that word: ill-luck, wrongness)

Disgrace is worse than dying, Krishna says, and I am reminded of the Illiad where Achilles is given a similar speech. He is told that yes he will probably die, but his name and his glory will live on. If he refused to go to Troy, then his name would die out and no one would immortalize his deeds.

It does seem a little too late for Arjuna’s crisis. Earlier in the story there were opportunities to try to avert this war and Krishna pushed for every peaceful avenue to be pursued. But now, as they say, the die is cast (and by they I mean Caesar).


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  • john

    Krishna puts forth a variety of reasons, at a variety of levels,
    as to why Arjuna should fight this war, and some of the
    arguments in the first section of this chapter are on a lower
    plane then later. These verses come down from the preceding
    ones on the permanence of the self, and then drop to an even
    lower, worldly level in 34-36 (that he will be dishonored, ridiculed,

    labeled a coward).

    The text does use svadharma. Caste duty is an inadequate
    translation, although there is no reason to be on edge about it.
    Arjuna is a kshatriya by birth, upbringing, training, temperament,
    and his vasanas. This is a major part of his svadharma. His
    svadharma in this instance, in upholding the collective dharma,
    the greater communal good, is the responsibility to fight for
    righteousness in this war. To do otherwise, would be to renounce
    his svadharma, his own character and personal calling.
    He could withdraw from the war, retire to the forest, but
    wouldn’t he be running away from himself?

    • Ambaa

      Thank you for your insight. A very good point about the descending reasons. It makes a lot of sense that he’s showing how it is the right choice on all levels, both physical and subtle, etc.