In the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna tells a hesitant Arjuna that—as a member of the warrior class—he must fight a battle despite the fact that he will, in the commission of this action, kill some of his family members. Krishna urges Arjuna to adopt an ascetic disposition toward the battle: act with discipline and detachment, renounce your desires, and become indifferent to both your senses and the fruit of your action.
In order to help my students understand what this sort of asceticism might involve, I have them fill out this worksheet. After we discuss their choices, I point out that Krishna is asking Arjuna to approach the battle as if fighting is no different than watching snow melt on a mountaintop or watching waves crash on the beach—that is what it would mean to be detached or indifferent to one’s senses or the fruit of action.
When we get to the 11th teaching—”The Vision of Krishna’s Totality”—I go for provocative comparison over reverence (for, as Bruce Lincoln has suggested, “Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue“). The 11th teaching describes Krishna’s revelation of his “totality” to Arjuna via a secret vision so amazing that he has to give Arjuna a divine eye before he can witness it. In the vision, Arjuna sees the whole universe, from left to right, from top to bottom, and from its beginning to its end. Arjuna’s battle—and its ending—is, of course, a fleeting part of the overall vision.
My interpretation of this passage is that the vision is supposed to help Arjuna become detached, to help him renounce his fruit of action, to help him become indifferent to his senses. But how does a vision of the totality of the universe help him do that?
At this point I show students the following two clips from The Time Machine (2002), both of which present a number of years passing in seconds:
I ask the students to imagine Arjuna’s vision along the lines of the second clip in particular: Arjuna gets to see the universe from beginning to end, which is just like this clip, except the movie clip shows the viewer only one location and only for a short time span—800,000 years is short in comparison to the age of the universe! What would the rise and fall of the Roman Empire look like from this perspective? It might appear as little more than a “blip” on the radar. An individual life? Indistinguishable. A battle that lasts a day or two? Completely invisible. How could one get attached to anything if one looked at the world from this—i.e., Krishna’s—perspective?
Of course, once his perspective is “corrected,” Arjuna gives in to Krishna and fights the battle, not unlike the woman below who donates her liver (to be honest, half the fun in showing this last clip is warning the students that they should leave the room if they might be offended by a “space vagina”):