Arjuna declares that Krishna has told him “the highest mystery” of the “highest self” and banished his confusion. He explains that Krishna has told him at length about two things: beings’ beginning and end, and Krishna’s own “imperishable greatness.” But Arjuna still wants to see Krishna’s highest form and asks the god to show him.
Arjuna’s plea to see Krishna’s power reflects the distinction between intellectual and sensory understanding that led Krishna to advocate yoga above samkhya in the fifth discourse: it is possible to perceive God with the intellect, but far easier to infer his true nature after starting with a tangible, worldly proxy like a visual form.
Krishna proclaims that he will show Arjuna his thousand different divine forms, in various colors and shapes, which include various other deities that no one has ever seen before, as well as the entire world and anything else that Arjuna wants to see. However, Arjuna cannot see Krishna’s “powerful yoga” with his human eyes, so Krishna gifts him “the divine eye.”
Krishna grants Arjuna “the divine eye,” which is a viewpoint removed from any fixed spatiotemporal point in the material world, because he realizes that a human perspective is too limited to access the truth. In gifting Arjuna this vision, then, Krishna also affirms Arjuna’s own worthiness to become divine (which is what happens to the wise when they transcend the cycle of rebirth).
Sanjaya explains to Dhritarashtra that Krishna then showed Arjuna his highest form, with numerous eyes, mouths, weapons, garments, and scents. Krishna contained “every wonder” and looked “everywhere, / without end” with the brilliance of a thousand suns suddenly rising together.
The narrative briefly jumps back to the frame story but suggests that Sanjaya, too, was able to see Krishna’s divine form. Sanjaya is able to see what Arjuna can only see with the “divine eye” because Vyasa has granted him the ability to see everything—again, the power of the poet and the gods seems to mingle.
Arjuna saw the whole world together, unified yet divided in various ways, and bowed before Krishna in awe, proclaiming that he could see all the gods and beings in him, including Brahma, the sages, and the divine serpents. He sees Krishna everywhere, without a beginning, middle, or end. Although Krishna is hard to see, Arjuna sees his endless light completely and proclaims him the highest, “the great refuge of all,” dharma’s ancient and eternal protector, with the endless power of infinite limbs and a light that scorched the world.
Arjuna’s divine eye shows him a paradox: the whole world is contained in one figure, which demonstrates how Krishna, as the absolute, incorporates all beings. Krishna also includes the gods, which reflects his claim to be the highest of them all and the text’s desire to subsume previous Hindu scriptures (which largely focused on these particular gods) to the unitary God of the Gita.
Arjuna saw Krishna filling the realm separating the earth from the sky, causing the world to tremble, as did the gods and sages who sung praises to him. Seeing Krishna’s myriad colors, Arjuna trembled, too, able to “find neither / courage nor calm.” He asks for Krishna’s compassion, for in seeing the supreme god Arjuna realized that “I do not know the way, / and I find no refuge.”
Krishna unifies opposites by bridging the earth and sky, and the tremble he creates recalls the tremble the Pandavas’ divine horns caused at the beginning of the text. Yet Arjuna responds not with the equanimity of wisdom but rather with absolute terror—he again reverts from believing he is wise (he declared his confusion gone at this discourse’s outset) to realizing his ignorance.
Arjuna saw all of the Bharatas, the Pandavas and Kauravas alike, enter Krishna’s mouth and get crushed between his teeth, like river currents running toward the ocean or moths flying to their death in a fire. Arjuna declares that Krishna’s flames devour the world, and that his rays “burn the earth, / even as they fill it / with light.” He asks who Krishna is in this “terrible form” and honors him, asking for compassion and knowledge, since he cannot understand the god.
The visual of the Bharatas entering Krishna’s mouth represents the god’s insistence that they will all eventually die and return to formless eternity, which is his basis for encouraging Arjuna to fight dutifully rather than fear his cousins’ deaths. Krishna’s light destroys as it illuminates, scorching the earth in order to subsume it to his universality, just as a wise person must give up the world in order to unite with Krishna.
Krishna proclaims that he has come “to destroy the worlds,” for the Pandavas and Kauravas will die regardless of Arjuna’s presence. So Arjuna must fight for his honor and kingdom, since his enemies are already destroyed—Arjuna is a mere instrument, but will certainly vanquish the Kauravas in battle.
Krishna explicitly connects the vision he offers Arjuna to the outcome of the war. In a way, Arjuna gets to experience the cathartic terror of watching his family die, which may prepare him for the prospect of having to kill them and prevent him from attaching himself emotionally to them in the future.
Sanjaya explains that Arjuna again bowed before Krishna, proclaiming that everyone rightly honors and fears him. He declares Krishna the highest, endless, all-knowing, and all-pervading. Arjuna heaps praise upon the god, honoring him “on all sides” because he is everywhere. Arjuna apologizes for ignorantly considering Krishna his friend, asking instead whether there can be anything greater than the “Incomparable One.” He asks for mercy and patience, declaring his delight and endless fear at becoming the first to see Krishna’s true form before asking Krishna to take on his previous form as a charioteer.
Arjuna reaffirms his devotion to Krishna and speaks for the community of Hindus at large, suggesting that readers should find a similar kind of devotion at this moment in the text. However, out of terror, Arjuna takes back his claim to love the god, which seems to run counter to Krishna’s insistence that wise people devote themselves to him lovingly and demonstrate that Arjuna still has not achieved true wisdom.
Krishna explains that he showed his highest form for the first time out of favor to Arjuna—not even the greatest Vedic sages or devotees were able to see him, so Arjuna should not fear. Krishna shows his divine form again, but then returns to his “pleasing, / gentle appearance” in human form, and Arjuna declares that he has composed himself and his thoughts have returned to normal. Krishna reminds Arjuna that his divine form was hard to see, and the gods have not even seen it, for the only way to perceive him is through “devotion that has / no other object,” action on his behalf, and a refusal to cling to worldly goals.
Surely enough, Krishna promises Arjuna that he should not dread the power of the divine, suggesting that a model of mutual, friendly devotion is appropriate in worship despite the obvious power differential between gods and humans. Arjuna has seen Krishna because of his devotion, not because of his knowledge or wisdom in action (the two paths on which Krishna has focused thus far). Unsurprisingly, then, much of the remaining discourses focus on the path of devotion (bhakti).