Krishna tells Arjuna that he loves him and desires his well-being. Nobody, even among the gods and sages, knows Krishna’s origin, for he is their beginning. However, knowing Krishna as timeless, “without beginning,” can lead one to freedom from harm. All the kinds of being, including wisdom and dualities like pleasure and pain, came from Krishna. He brought forth humans’ ancestors and recognizing his originary power can lead people to join him through the yoga of insight, which destroys the darkness of ignorance.
Although Krishna just said that he does not love beings at the end of the previous discourse, he nevertheless professes his unique love for Arjuna at the beginning of this one. It is unclear whether this stems from Arjuna’s unique devotion or his simply being in the right time and place, at the historical moment when God has deemed dharma out of balance.
Arjuna acknowledges Krishna as the highest being, an eternal, divine spirit, and notes that the sages who wrote the Vedas (including Vyasa) acknowledged him, too. He affirms that he believes all Krishna says and that nobody, not even the gods or demons, knows Krishna’s forms, for Krishna knows himself only through himself. However, Arjuna asks Krishna to disclose his divine forms, which allow Krishna to pervade the various realms of existence. Arjuna believes that only through acquaintance with these forms can he learn to constantly reflect on the divine. Arjuna asks for all the details, claiming he will “never tire / of hearing this nectar.”
Krishna formally wins Arjuna’s absolute devotion; if Vyasa is truly the author of the Bhagavad Gita, he declares his devotion to Krishna here, too. This may be why Arjuna thinks he may be the first to learn Krishna’s forms, which already seem paradoxical insofar as Krishna has declared himself formless. Arjuna’s assurance that he will “never tire” reflects his understanding of the stable peace and ecstasy Krishna says people can find in unity with him and Brahman.
Krishna promises to tell Arjuna about his forms, but only the primary ones, since his other forms are truly endless. First, he is the self, and all beings’ beginning, middle, and end. He is the Sama chant, the most important in the Vedas, as well as the great god Indra; he is the mind among the senses and thought among beings. He is the greatest in each category of lesser gods, “fire, the purifier,” and the mountain at the center of the universe. Of the priests, he is the greatest; of army chiefs, he is Skanda, the god of war; of waters, he is the ocean. He is the greatest of sages and the syllable “Om” among utterances, the ashvattha tree among trees, and so on—he continues through sages and chiefs, animals and the forces of nature.
Krishna’s extensive list of forms not only establishes his supremacy in every aspect of the human and natural worlds, but crucially also offers the reader a preliminary index of important Hindu beliefs, scriptures, and gods. In this way, Vyasa offers Hindus a map of their religion’s ancient traditions and history through the Gita, suggesting not only which people, texts, and symbols are the holiest but also demonstrating how earlier, fragmented Hindu traditions can be sustained and unified through his work.
Krishna continues to elaborate his forms, declaring himself the “first, last / and middle” of creations, the highest form of insight, and discourse itself “among those who speak.” He is the link between words and the only imperishable arranger of the world; he is the death that takes everyone and the beginning of everything to come; the greatest of the female deities, chants, mantras, months, and seasons; and risk among cheaters, brilliance among the brilliant, and truth itself among its possessors. He is the greatest of each people, including Arjuna among the Pandavas and Vyasa among the wise. He is authority among rulers, wise conduct among those desiring victory, silence among that which is hidden and wisdom among the wise. He is “the ancient seed of all beings,” for nothing would exist without him.
Krishna turns from identifying as specific exemplars of defined categories to declaring himself the very principles in virtue of which certain forms of being and action are possible in the first place. He stands outside and above categories like creation and “those who speak” as their condition of possibility, which reflects his insistence that he is the fundamental grounds of all being and non-being, rather than one being among others. By specifically naming Arjuna and Vyasa, Krishna also testifies to their exemplary status and comments on the central role he wants the Gita to play in Hinduism.
Krishna explains that his forms are endless but he has demonstrated his power’s enormity through these examples. Any powerful being only requires Krishna to use “a small part” of his “brilliance.” And yet Krishna asks what “this abundant wisdom” matters to Arjuna—for he can sustain the entire world with only a fragment of himself.
The list of forms merely evokes Krishna’s power rather than truly capturing it: although it lasts twenty verses (half the tenth discourse), Krishna insists that no finite explication can capture his true, infinite power. Similarly, the world is infinitesimal in comparison to God, which suggests that his power greatly exceeds the human capacity for imagination. This might explain why he believes it so difficult for people to understand his true, formless, eternal, all-creating nature.