Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.
In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Arjuna have to fight the Kauravas?
Arjuna has to fight in the Kurukshetra war because it is his duty to do so. He has made a vow to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation, and to avenge the unjust manner in which the Pandavas were tricked into losing their wealth. Krishna tells Arjuna that a man should be attached only to fulfilling his duty, not to its consequences.
Read on to discover more about why Arjuna had to fight the Kauravas in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Beginning of the War
On the first day of the Kurukshetra war, as the two armies survey one another, with Duryodhana approaching Dronacharya and entreating him to protect Bhishma, a medley of conch-sounds enters the air.
Bhishma’s conch is the first to go off, followed by the Panchajanya of Krishna, the Devadatta of Arjuna, the Paundra of Bhimasena, the Anantavijaya of Yudhishthir, the Sughosha of Nakula, and the Manipushpaka of Sahadeva.
Arjuna then says to Krishna, ‘O Madhava, take me to the centre of the battlefield so that I may station myself between these two great armies, and look into the faces of those people I am destined to fight.’
Krishna does so, and points out the great Kaurava heroes that have turned out in their resplendent chariots. Arjuna suddenly finds that his limbs have become heavy. His mouth runs dry. The Gandiva threatens to slip from his grasp.
‘My mind seems to wander, Krishna,’ he says. ‘My skin burns. I am unable to stand any longer. I do not desire victory, O Madhusudana. I do not desire sovereignty or pleasures.
‘Even if we are to win the entire earth for ourselves, of what use would it be if we are to stamp on the heads of our kinsmen? Even if we regard these men as our foes, I have no doubt that sin will overtake us if we kill them.
‘Alas, how has greed overcome us this way, that in the hope of winning the world, we are prepared to slay our own family members and pave our own paths toward hellfire?
‘The extermination of one’s race is bound to punish one with eternity in hell, O Krishna. We have read that in the scriptures. After the men of a race have been killed, I have learnt, the women of that race become corrupt.
‘And with that, an intermingling of castes happen, after which no trace of the original dynasty is present anymore. Families become extinct this way, my friend, and here I stand, ready to exterminate my own family and bring great sorrow to the souls of my ancestors.’
Saying so, Arjuna casts aside his bow and arrows to sit down in his chariot, his mind troubled with grief.
For a moment, let us pause here and speculate about what might happen if Arjuna does decide to withdraw from battle at this stage.
If Arjuna chooses not to fight, what is the alternative? Here’s the most likely scenario:
- The Pandavas withdraw from the battle because of Arjuna’s reluctance. There is no way the Pandavas can win this battle without Arjuna’s participation.
- The Pandavas leave Indraprastha and Hastinapur to Duryodhana, and take up residence in – say – a kingdom like Matsya or Panchala.
- Over time, they may develop their new home into a power centre, and Yudhishthir may become a noteworthy king.
- Duryodhana will again seek them out for a battle. He may even make new sinister plans to have the Pandavas killed or defeated.
- The Pandava-Kaurava conflict will not end with this forfeiture. It will continue until either Duryodhana dies or the Pandavas die.
- If anything, Arjuna’s resignation is likely to embolden Duryodhana into thinking that he has frightened his cousins. That must mean only one thing: he is stronger than they are, and they know it.
Practically speaking, therefore, having come this far, Arjuna would be foolish not to fight the Kaurava army.
Krishna, however, takes the philosophical approach in persuading Arjuna to fight. He takes each of Arjuna’s reservations and offers a spiritual counterpoint to it.
This monologue by Krishna extends over a number of chapters, and is collectively called the Bhagavad Gita. Here, we will summarize only those points that are relevant to convincing Arjuna of the wisdom of fighting the war.
Here are the specific points.
Life and Death
To Arjuna’s assertion that he cannot bring himself to kill Bhishma and Drona, Krishna replies that everyone in the world is part of the same life force called Brahman. Life and death are merely two cyclical phases through which every soul must pass a number of times.
‘It is not up to you to mourn the deaths of Bhishma and Drona, Arjuna,’ Krishna says. ‘Every being that lives today must die tomorrow. And every being that dies tomorrow will take birth the next day. Why do you feel sad about this natural process?
‘You do not have the power to decide when and how a person will die. It has all been ordained by the march of Time itself. You’re only a mere tool.’
Krishna asks Arjuna to relinquish his sense of responsibility, and to surrender to the force of destiny.
Pain and Pleasure
Krishna then exhorts Arjuna to stop thinking in binaries – such as pain and pleasure, good and bad, right and wrong, sorrow and joy, life and death.
‘Instead, embrace the duty that your order has placed upon you,’ says Krishna. ‘No act of yours is fully right or fully wrong. You do not possess the wisdom or the knowledge required to properly judge your own actions, because you do not see the full sweep of Time.
‘Therefore, you should stop trying to apply judgements of your clouded mind to actions that are required of you. On this day, your family and your order require you to fight. And fight you must, regardless of whom you face.’
Attachment to Action
Krishna reminds Arjuna that everything in the universe functions because of action. The sun acts by rising and setting without fail every day. The river flows down the mountain, follows the incline of the land, and joins the sea. Bees pollinate flowers. Trees grow.
‘Every living being in the world you see around you,’ says Krishna, ‘is attached to action. Do not get lost in thoughts of what the result of your action might be. Results follow due to a combination of your exertion and your destiny.
‘Attach yourself completely, therefore, to the act that is required of you, and detach yourself completely from the consequences that may emerge from your actions.’
In giving this advice, Krishna echoes the primary message espoused by the Stoics of Greece – to be committed to actions and to be humble in accepting rewards and punishments.
While telling Arjuna why it is wise to fight, Krishna also reveals himself as the Prime Mover and the Prime Cause of everything in the universe. He does not claim to be Brahman, but he dons the Vishwaroopa and shows Arjuna that they are on the right side of history.
Arjuna sees the past, the present and the future flow within Krishna’s being. He sees that the Devas, the Daityas, the Adityas and the Rudras live and breathe in him.
Arjuna concludes that all of this can mean only one thing: Krishna has seen everything that has happened and everything that will happen. He has decreed that the war of Kurukshetra is necessary for Virtue (Dharma) to reassert herself against Vice.
This final bit of faith closes the argument for Arjuna. He picks up the Gandiva and agrees to fight.
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