An Ancient Indian Story About Making the Right Choice

Choosing god in our times
December 25, 2019 Updated: December 25, 2019

The Bhagavad Gita (or Gita) contains much profound wisdom. However, the key event leading to the victory of Arjuna over Duryodhana in the Gita occurs in a prequel incident outlined in the Indian epic the Mahabharata. This incident is fascinating because it is so pregnant with multiple meanings that resonate with us today. In describing this, one has to strip away much of the complexity and detail that the Indian epic delights in, but the central issues are clear.

Relationships between Duryodhana and his family, the Kauravas, and Arjuna and his family, the Pandavas, have reached a critically low point. At stake is who rules the kingdom. Duryodhana (whose name in Sanskrit means “extremely hard”) is advised to consult and seek help from Krishna, the living god and embodiment of Vishnu (for some Indians, the supreme deity). Arjuna (which means “white or clear”) has the same idea. There is the suggestion that whoever gets to Krishna’s house first receives a special gift.

Duryodhana, it is said, is propelled by greed and so makes sure that he is there first. Krishna, though, is asleep in his bed, and it would be a massive act of irreverence to wake him, so Duryodhana sits at the head of his bed, fretting all night, willing that Krishna wake and see that he is there first. Arjuna, on the other hand, says his prayers, gets a good night’s sleep, and when he wakes prepares and grooms himself properly. Eventually, he arrives at Krishna’s house only to find that Krishna is still sleeping. As Duryodhana is at the head of the bed, Arjuna seats himself at the foot of Krishna’s bed and reverently prays.

Duryodhana showing off his army. Gorakhpur Geeta Press. University of Toronto Collection. (Public Domain)

Who Is First?

At that moment, Krishna wakes and sees … Arjuna first! He is immediately aware of what they both want and also that Duryodhana was first, yet he has seen Arjuna before him. But there are two gifts Krishna says. Duryodhana demands that as he arrived first, he should get first pick. The two gifts are a choice between himself, Krishna, completely unarmed but being by one’s side in the chariot as one goes to fight, or to have the entire Vrishini army at one’s disposal in the war to come. This army would be a huge advantage in any battle.

Krishna turns down Duryodhana’s demand to choose first on the grounds that the god saw Arjuna first and because Arjuna is younger, so he gets first pick. This is the critical moment: Will Arjuna select to have the god by his side or opt to have the most powerful army in the world? Duryodhana is extremely concerned by this turn of events, but his concern turns to intense joy when Arjuna selects to have the god alone and rejects the army; for, as Arjuna reasons, what good is the army without the god to guide him?

So it is that Duryodhana returns to his base (Hastinapura) with the Vrishini army allied to him; he also manages to win over the army of the maternal uncle of the Pandavas. In short, he has an apparently unassailable military strength.

But what we know from the Gita is that this apparent strength becomes ineffective against Arjuna and his noncombatant charioteer, the god Krishna. Indeed, before his defeat at the hands of Arjuna, one of Duryodhana’s own allies (Shakuni) warns him that Krishna is worth many armies and that this transaction is no cause for rejoicing.

This, in essence, is the pre-story to the Gita, so why is it so significant? And why does it foretell Duryodhana’s inevitable defeat, despite all his military prowess and armies?

First, before commenting on these issues specifically, we might address its relevance. For today, militarism is increasing in the world and various countries wish to own the greatest, the most powerful army or armies. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; it only becomes so when, as with Duryodhana, something more important than power has been abandoned. That something is at the heart of this story.

It is said that Duryodhana suffered from two major vices: pride (or arrogance) and greed. We see this in his illegitimate determination to hold on to the kingship in the first place, and also in small things: rushing to get the prize from Krishna and—impiously—positioning himself at the head of the bed. In his pride, he felt that being at the head was his place. Duryodhana didn’t really believe that Krishna was a god, else why take a position above him?

Contrast this behavior with Arjuna’s, who positioned himself at the foot of the bed; that is, below the god. One moment’s thought, too, might have revealed to him that upon opening his eyes, where would the god naturally be looking? At the head of the bed, behind him; or at the foot, before him? Obviously, on waking, we look down the bed! This elementary error lost him the chance to choose that gift he wanted most.

Getting What You Want

But, of course, that loss of choice seemed not to matter as Arjuna chose what Duryodhana did not want: the presence of the god in his chariot. Arjuna clearly divined that he had to have the god with him if he were to have any chance of success in this world. So Duryodhana got what he wanted—a form of godlessness—but not so much because he chose it, but rather because his own desires punished him by materializing in an unexpected way. As the Buddhist saying observes: “You will not be punished for your anger. You’ll be punished by your anger.”

However, the meaning of this story is deeper still, for we need to understand that the Gita story is symbolic. Every man and every woman is at war against the material world of illusion. Yes, paradoxically, the so-called real world is the world of illusion, or what in the East is called “maya.” This parallels the Christian understanding of the corrupt world below and the spiritual world above. (Jesus Christ, we remember, “came down” from heaven.)

In the Gita, Arjuna’s chariot has five horses and this is highly significant. We see that the chariot is his body and the horses represent his five senses. Arjuna, therefore, is the ego or will driving the chariot, and this will or ego must control the horses—not be led astray by the senses—if they are in the first instance to win the race, obtain victory, and achieve everlasting life, which is to supersede maya or illusion.

the chariot of Krishna and Arjuna
A bronze chariot with Lord Krishna and Arjuna in the city of Kurukshetra. (Public Domain)

Who Is Krishna Really?

Following this neat symbolism, we might ask who, then, is Krishna, the charioteer we allow on board? One answer to this question must surely be our own soul. Krishna, the living god, is really an aspect of our soul, and if we lose or ignore our own soul and its intuitive voice within us (what in the Old Testament Elijah experienced as the “still, small voice”), then we cannot drive our own chariot (our body) successfully or achieve victory in the battles against the forces of evil, as represented by the godless Duryodhana.

We note here that the soul does not actually fight; we commune with it as we would with a friend, a lover—nay, deeper than that even. It is our own essential self, our own being crying to be heard within us and to direct us onto the right way.

This again ties in with Christianity, for Christ himself urges believers to consider the loss of the soul as the greatest catastrophe that can befall a man. All the riches (or armies for that matter) of the world will not compensate for the loss. Patrick Harpur put it this way: “Even if we are not specifically religious we can all still resonate with the notion that there is some part of us which should not be sold, betrayed or lost at any cost.”

Therefore, we have to, as individuals and communities and nations, always consult the soul within us to establish what is right, and not allow the will or ego unfettered control of our destinies, since, as we know from Duryodhana, it will make the wrong choices and be driven by false desires. Writing about this in a psychological context, Thomas Moore observed: “When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence and loss of meaning.” These are exactly the behaviors of Duryodhana.

Achieving Our Destiny

Carl Jung said it even more emphatically: “A man likes to believe that he is master of his soul. But as long as he is unable to control his moods and emotions, or to be conscious of the myriad secret ways in which unconscious factors insinuate themselves into his arrangements and decisions, he is certainly not his own master.” Arjuna, by allowing the charioteer to come on board and heeding the god’s advice, was able to control and realize his destiny and overcome the most appalling odds stacked against him.

We too have a choice: Do we acknowledge the reality of our souls and allow them to direct our wills and egos so that we go in the right direction, or do we, like godless Duryodhana, think we can control everything through our own strength and power? The chief project of modernism has been, of course, to follow Duryodhana and to dismantle all belief in the soul, and so stymy all access to it for most people. Chaos, confusion, and despair has been the result of all that. If we are to renew individuals and society, then we have to allow Krishna to enter our chariots and speak with us.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and recently spoke at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.