Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapura, asks his minister, Sanjaya, what happened when his sons (the Kauravas) met their cousins (the Pandavas) “in the field of dharma” to battle for the kingdom that both sides claim. Sanjaya recounts Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava son, approaching his martial arts teacher, Drona, and remarking on the Pandavas’ extensive forces, listing the warriors and charioteers he and his brothers were poised to fight. However, noble and powerful warriors also led the Kauravas’ skilled army, which was ready to die for Duryodhana’s sake and followed the command of Bhishma, who was great-uncle to both sides of the Bharata family. The Kauravas’ forces seemed “unbounded” compared to the Pandava army, which was led by a powerful warrior named Bhima. Duryodhana charged all of his side’s warriors with protecting Bhishma and holding their proper places.
Vyasa, the grandfather of both sides and the legendary composer of the Mahabharata, blessed Sanjaya with the power to see everything that transpired on the battlefield or “field of dharma,” a phrase that immediately establishes dharma as a central motif in the text. At this point in the Mahabharata, the Pandavas have already defeated the Kauravas, but the reader only learns about the war’s events through the frame story of Sanjaya recounting the tale to the blind Dhritarashtra, who rejected the gift of sight because he did not want to watch the other side of his family (the Pandavas) get slaughtered. The king’s despair over the conflict within his family evokes the tension between familial and political obligations that later shatters Arjuna’s moral compass, but that Bishma seems to have overcome by picking a side.
Sanjaya continues: to Duryodhana’s pleasure, Bhishma blows his conch horn, leading his army’s instruments to create an uproar until, from their chariot, Krishna and Arjuna blow their own conch horns, followed by Bhima, the other Pandava brothers, and their ally, Drupada. All of the Pandavas’ horns are divine and specifically named, and their cry “tore the hearts” of the Kauravas, causing the earth and sky to shake.
Although the Kauravas initiate the battle cries, the odds are clearly in the Pandavas’ favor: their horns are divine (unlike the Kauravas’) and their performance is much more tumultuous, shaking the earth as if the gods are crying out. The remainder of the Gita shows how the Pandavas won the gods’ favor: Arjuna learned to devote himself to the divine and follow his dharma.
As he raises his bow, Arjuna asks Krishna to bring their chariot between the armies. Arjuna gazes out on the Kauravas, asks whom he must fight first, and notes his enemies’ devotion to their cause. Krishna brings the chariot to the middle of the battlefield, and Arjuna sees his family on all sides. The Pandava warrior breaks down, telling Krishna that his body seems to fail him, and he cannot think clearly, as he sees no reason to kill his kinsmen. He finds that victory, kingship, and pleasure have become meaningless, for he wants all three only on behalf of the family he must now kill.
From the center of the battlefield, Arjuna loses sight of the distinction between the Kauravas and Pandavas, seeing them again as members of the same family. He also loses control of his body and sense of motivation, which curiously foreshadows Krishna’s later suggestion that, by standing between and looking beyond earthly dualities, one can relinquish attachment to the outcomes of action, and the soul can learn to transcend the body. While Arjuna realizes that he cannot bring himself to fight merely for the sake of victory, kingship, and pleasure—in other words, he is not wedded to the outcomes of action—he does not yet understand the true justification for action.
Arjuna declares that he cannot slay his cousins and would take no joy in this evil battle, which would destroy his family and its dharma forever, defiling their women, corrupting the caste system, and leading their ancestors to fall into hell. Lamenting the family’s eagerness to kill their own for pleasure and power, Arjuna declares he would find “greater peace” were he to simply suffer the Kauravas’ attack unarmed. He drops his bow and arrow, “recoiling in grief.”
Arjuna couches his opposition to the war in terms of his family’s dharma, which suggests that he already recognizes dharma’s relationship to action in a limited way. Although Arjuna sees the dharma of family as superseding the dharma of caste, Krishna eventually challenges the warrior’s initial perspective.