As Arjuna weeps on the battlefield, Krishna calls him ignoble, disgraceful, and cowardly; Arjuna wonders how he can bring himself to kill his family members, saying that he would rather eat a beggar’s food than fight them. It would be just as good for the Kauravas to win, Arjuna says, for he would not want to continue living even if the Pandavas won. Yet he admits that his feeling of pity, sense of moral wrongness, and anticipation of endless grief cloud his knowledge of dharma, so he asks Krishna for guidance.
Arjuna and Krishna’s disagreement centers on a tension between family and social obligations—Arjuna would gladly lose his social (caste) status as a warrior by eating a beggar’s food. However, he now recognizes that this may not reflect his true dharma because it comes from emotion rather than rational reflection.
Sanjaya explains that, as Arjuna refused to fight, Krishna grew quiet before apparently starting to laugh and then telling Arjuna that, although his words seem wise, his mourning is unwise: the dead and living continue to exist forever, as they are reincarnated in other bodies, so they should not be mourned. Sensations like pain and pleasure are ephemeral and should be endured. Only people who see pain and pleasure as equivalent are truly “ready / for immortality.” Such souls, who see the truth, can readily see the limit of being and non-being. The “imperishable” world cannot be destroyed, and this includes bodies that will be reincarnated as part of the “eternal / embodied self.”
Krishna introduces the model of reincarnation and transcendence that soon becomes the cornerstone of the Gita’s theology: because the true self is immaterial and eternal, mourning is unnecessary. In fact, all concern with emotion seems to reveal a limited perspective, in which one forgets the true nature of being in favor of unwise attachments to the false, material world and the dualities that govern humans’ limited experience.
Accordingly, Krishna tells Arjuna to fight; the self does not kill or get killed because it is eternal. This eternal self sheds bodies like a human sheds old clothes; weapons do not destroy this self, which is difficult to perceive with vision or the intellect because it is “formless / and unchanging.” If Arjuna accepts that the self is eternal, Krishna explains that he “should not / mourn it” because everything that is born is certain to die. Beings move from formless beginnings to “middle states” in which they are formed, and back into formlessness. Krishna laments that, while it is “a wonder” that anyone discovers this at all, most still do not come to know it. He insists that, because the true self cannot be harmed, Arjuna “should not grieve / for any living beings.”
Krishna acknowledges that wisdom is difficult to achieve because the true self is formless and therefore not readily perceptible to humans. Although he clearly thinks that fully understanding this truth would liberate people from their ignorance and emotional attachments, he does not seem to expect this from people and soon offers other routes to the same end, such as yoga.
The kshatriya warrior’s dharma, Krishna continues, lies precisely in battle, so Arjuna will harm his dharma by refusing to fight. People will speak of his “eternal disgrace”—which is worse than death—and fellow warriors will think that he was fearful and unworthy. Those hostile to him will ridicule him, and there is no greater pain. Krishna explains that Arjuna will reach heaven if he dies and rule the earth if he survives, and so he will cause no harm if he learns to equivocate pain and pleasure, as well as victory and defeat.
Krishna confirms that Arjuna’s dharma should be based on his social identity as a warrior rather than his familial one as a Bharata. Eternal disgrace is worse than death because it follows the soul to future lives, whereas the soul would ultimately be rewarded for a valiant death. Just as the soul carries dharma in the body’s absence, one’s failures determine one’s reputation even after death.
Krishna explains that he has told Arjuna his insights in terms of samkhya and will now explain them in terms of yoga (the practice of deliberate, intense devotional engagement that often involves meditation). This yoga wastes neither momentum nor effort. While this insight is singular and unwavering, others’ insights are “endless, / with many branches.” Some naively declare that nothing exists beside the world of the Vedas; these people desire heaven and perform rituals for “power / and consumption,” but do not realize that they must undergo reincarnation first.
Krishna has first directly explained the eternal truths he wishes to teach Arjuna. Now, he explains how to translate this knowledge into true wisdom (and hopefully avoid becoming one of the numerous people who have heard but never internalized the truth). Noticeably, desiring heaven is still a form of unhealthy attachment for Krishna, so those who do so will certainly fail to achieve heaven upon death.
Krishna explains that Arjuna must free himself from the three gunas, to which the Vedas belong, as well as becoming “free from opposites” and fully “self-possessed.” A discerning brahmin (priest or teacher) sees as much in the Vedas as water in an overflowing well. One’s “authority” lies only in action, and one should never be motivated by the benefits they stand to gain by acting, nor cling to inaction. Krishna tells Arjuna to act, without regard to success or frustration, for “yoga is equanimity.”
Krishna begins trying to erode the authority of earlier Hindu scriptures (the Vedas), suggesting that they cannot serve as a formula for getting into heaven but rather must fit into a broader scheme of knowledge that depends on the knower’s wisdom.
Action, Krishna continues, “is far inferior / to the yoga of insight.” People motivated by the fruits of action should be pitied, for the insightful are indifferent to good and evil acts, able to adopt yoga’s “ease in action” and cease feeling pain. Once his insight supersedes his confusion and he learns to ignore the previous revelations he has heard, Arjuna can achieve yoga.
Curiously, as he tries to persuade Arjuna to take up arms, Krishna nevertheless declares insight superior to action. In part, he seems to think this because insightful people act wisely. He explains this position more systematically in the following discourse, but he is clearly trying to tell Arjuna that merely fighting is not enough; rather, he must fight with the proper mindset and insight.
Arjuna asks Krishna what language a wise meditator with unwavering thoughts could have—how could they “speak? Or sit? Or move about?” Krishna explains that one who has renounced desire becomes content with the self, free from anxiety and greed, “rage, passion, and fear,” a sage without desire and even without a draw to the pure or impure, good or evil, like a tortoise who “pulls in its limbs.” The sage stops attending to their senses, and by fasting, even conquers taste. The senses violently distract the mind from its focus, but one who has practiced yoga and learns to control their senses remains firm in their wisdom.
Arjuna recognizes the apparent contradiction in Krishna’s argument: pure, unshakeable wisdom might be impossible for most people to achieve because it seems at odds with all action whatsoever. Krishna does not answer this query yet, for he needs to emphasize that insight truly is antithetical to the material world. Although he later shows that a wise person can indeed speak, sit, or move about, he wants to emphasize that insight is sufficient in itself to bring enlightenment. Krishna says that taste goes last because it was traditionally considered the deepest sense.
By dwelling on the senses, Krishna explains, one begins clinging to worldly things, which leads to desire, and consequently to anger, confusion, the loss of memory, the loss of insight, and finally the loss of the self. One who does not give into the senses learns to control the self and “attains peace,” losing the ability to feel pain and gaining a steady insight. But yoga and the concentration it teaches are the only means to this peace, and one cannot have pleasure without peace. When following the senses, the mind loses wisdom “like the wind / steals a ship / on the water.” In contrast, the wisdom of a person who restrains the senses “stands firm.”
The opposite of yoga, oversaturation in the world leads people to lose track of their true, eternal selves and instead cling to the desires of their false, worldly bodies. For Krishna, the fulfillment of earthly desire does not count as true pleasure because it is temporary and unsustainable—one immediately begins to covet and seek out something else, rather than finding the sustainable pleasure of peace and wisdom.
The sage learns to watch all beings during the night. The sage gains peace like that of the ocean as it fills with water, unlike for “one who desires desire.” The sage loses the idea of possession and even the self as “I,” reaching peace as the state of Brahman and feeling “the bliss of cessation.”
This deeply metaphorical ending compares the sage’s loss of self in face of Brahman’s universal being to water entering the ocean. Both continue to exist yet find fulfillment by losing their individuality to join a greater whole.