Shock Treatment in the Bhagavad-Gita

In many ways, the Bhagavad-Gita is a unifying text. Krishna cuts across class distinctions, mocks at social prejudices, abhors outdated traditional practices, and finds convergence for divergent thoughts and beliefs. And in the process, he rattles the cage on several occasions.

No unification is possible without loss of individual identity – and this is not taken lightly by the various factions. Unification calls for not just revolutionary fervor but also flawless reasoning. Krishna seemingly instigates chaos in the heart of Arjuna and then brings order by the force of his impenetrable logic. The Bhagavad-Gita has many such ‘shock treatment’ passages where Krishna tries to shake Arjuna out of his stupor.

Krishna gently mocks at the elite and the orthodox, and repeatedly claims that the religion of the Vedas (the foremost revealed scriptures of Hinduism) is inclusive. Time and again, he talks of egalitarianism but with focus on the inherent strength of an individual. He challenges Arjuna to think differently and not to buy into traditional baggage.

Even to this day, it is hard for an orthodox brahmin, on his own, to teach the Vedas to a non-brahmin. Some years back, an orthodox brahmin had resigned from his position at a state-run Vedic school when the authorities insisted that he should teach the Vedas to anyone who wanted to learn. This is perhaps the effect of attaching importance to outdated traditions in the face of the eternal truth.

Krishna begins his shock treatment early on; he starts off by mocking at Arjuna at his foolish decision at a crucial juncture. Then he says,
“You grieve for that which you should not,
yet you speak words of wisdom.
The wise do not grieve for the
dead or for the living.”

Contrast this to Arjuna’s worry that the ancestors, deprived of the funeral and post-death rites, would land up in hell (1:42-44). Ironically, this view is upheld by many ardent Hindus even to this date. Down the ages, usually tradition tends to shake the truth, like a tail wagging the dog. It is noteworthy that Krishna declares that the essence of the religion was lost over the years (4:1-2).

At one point, Krishna directly attacks the orthodox with his genial approach,
“Those who lack proper insight
delight in the letter and not the spirit of the Vedas
and proclaim in flowery words:
‘there is nothing else other than this’.”

“They are filled with desires, and
reaching heaven is their supreme goal.
Caught in the vicious cycle of karma,
they perform many elaborate rituals
to attain pleasure and power.”

“Those attached to pleasure and power
are led astray by that flowery language of the Vedas;
they never attain the firm intellect 
of a contemplative mind.”

At the crescendo of his argument, Krishna presents a simple analogy that will not, hopefully, fail to clarify to Arjuna the importance of right living rather than mere reading.
“What is the use for a well when there is a flood
and water is flowing freely everywhere?
What is the use of all the Vedas
when one has realized the ultimate truth?”

It is important to note that Krishna was not opposed to the Vedas. He says, “Realizing the supreme is the goal of all the Vedas; I am the source of the Vedas” (15:15). Basically, he wanted people to realize the higher purpose of the Vedas.

Later in the conversation, Krishna clarifies a huge doubt about the role of the divine in daily life. He says that it is foolish to hold god responsible for the acts of good and evil on earth. Whatever good and evil that we have on earth are just results of the actions that we have performed; why bring god in the picture?
“God does not command people to act.
God does not create activities
or its associated rewards.
All these arise from nature.”

“God is not responsible
for goodness or evil.
People are deluded because
their knowledge is clouded by ignorance.”

Krishna also evens out all the distinctions that exist in societies – be it ancient or modern. He presents an egalitarian approach and shows how external factors mean little when greater heights are reached spiritually. Societies typically look down upon certain sections of people. Krishna clarifies that whoever submits to the supreme attains liberation, irrespective of their birth, gender, or occupation.
“Even if a man steeped in evil
takes on to my worship with undivided devotion,
he must be considered as noble
because he has taken the right decision.”

“Readily, he becomes righteous and
attains everlasting peace.
Arjuna, know this:
no devotee of mine is ever lost.”

“Whoever takes refuge in me –
even men of sinful birth, women, traders, or laborers –
will attain the supreme goal.”

Krishna often presents the idea that a wise person treats everyone equally. For example, a scholar is one who is generally held in high esteem in society while a person who eats a dog is considered to be at the lowest level. The wise notice the same inner spirit in all these beings irrespective of their external characteristics.
“A wise person treats everyone equally –
a scholar endowed with modesty, a cow, an elephant,
a dog, and one who eats a dog.”

The pièce de résistance of the shock treatment verses comes in the concluding portion, when Krishna says,
“Giving up all forms of dharma
take refuge in me alone.
I will liberate you from all sins,
do not grieve!”

[Notes: Here, dharma is used in the widest sense of the word – law, virtue, support, religion, duty, path, etc.] 

This one verse basically puts all middlemen (priests, swAmIs, tAntriks, etc.) out of business. The connection is between the individual and the universe, between the individual and god. There is no need for a via media. There is no need, perhaps, for an organized religion. The sanAtana dharma (eternal path) of ancient Indian thought was a way of life, and a path of self-illumination rather than a set of rules and rituals. And Krishna is the foremost among the upholders of this ancient tradition, and he didn’t think twice before rattling the cage to clarify the true meanings.


  1. Jyotsna Kalavar5/26/2010

    Congratulations! Thank you for sharing information through this blogspot. I look forward to reading your book.
    Jyotsna Kalavar (Pittsburgh)

  2. Respected madam:
    Thanks for your kind words! We hope to get the book published by the later part of this year. We'll keep you posted on the blog.

    Meanwhile, if you are on Facebook, you can check out our page:

    Best regards,
    Koti and Hari

  3. Interestingly put forth and in simple language...I would love to read the book...I like the title too..somehow cannot seem to agree with what u call the "middlemen". They are not necessarily unnecessary.Sometimes when you are lost a "swami" does give you the guidance to navigate through life's distracting struggles. Yes u need to find the right "guru". And a true seeker will get guided to that teacher ...there is an old adage: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears"and a teacher need not necessarily be in the human form, could even be a book ...
    As long as it leads to enlightenment or the understanding that there is no "you" and "me" and the god in you is the god in me. That's what I think you say when you talk about the "same inner spirit".
    Rama Sampath Kumar

  4. I am speaking for the authors here... The article above does not use the word middleman as in Gu-ru but more along the lines that ultimately there is no need for a via media for connecting with the supreme. Also guru (internal or external) can take you along the right path, but you are ultimately responsible for yourself.

  5. Thanks for your comments. Well, in a broad sense, there is no need for a middleman (like a priest or a tantrik) to plead on your behalf to god. There's a saying in Kannada "devaru vara kottaru poojari vara kodlilla" (even if god gave a boon, the priest didn't!) and we're talking about that.

    Of course one needs a guru for elevating oneself. Krishna himself takes the role of a guru for Arjuna, so no doubts about that.

    Thanks for your interest in reading the book. We will inform everyone on our blog/FB page/twitter page when it comes out.

    Warm regards,
    Koti and Hari

  6. Dear Author,
    It is indeed shocking to note that you have interpreted the "Ma Su Cha" verse in pulverted way and thereby misguding people
    - Ideally it should be translated as below"
    "Transcending all the dharma, take refuge in me along, I will ensure liberation" - This is the view taken by Rajaji
    Parallel to this is the situation - a baby is borns and starts walking by holding its mothers hand. However transcending is overcoming this short comings, it walks by itself leaving mother's hand - NOT ABANDONING ITS MOTHER - what you are suggesting abandoning one's own duties as laid down in scriptures.
    Also Krishna did not suggests to abandon scriptures as suggested by you - your suggestion is like throwing out a manual of instructions while operating a machine (simple one like a TV or a complicated one like complex software application) and try to do research.
    Agreed Hinduism is EXTREMELY TOLERANT - but there is a limit to so called revolutionary ideas as suggested by you. Be aware that youngsters might read this blog and use words rather carefully if not parsimonoiusly

  7. Respected Sir,

    #1. Verse 18:66
    sarvadharmān parityajya
    mām ekaṃ śaraṇaṃ vraja
    ahaṃ tvā sarvapāpebhyo
    mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ ||

    sarvadharmān: all dharmas
    parityajya: abandoning, giving up
    mām: to me, unto me
    ekaṃ: only
    śaraṇaṃ: surrender
    vraja: go
    ahaṃ: I
    tvā: your
    sarva: all
    pāpebhyo: from sins, from sinful acts
    mokṣayiṣyāmi: (I) will liberate, (I) will give moksha
    mā: do not
    śucaḥ: worry

    Giving up (or transcending) all forms of dharma, take refuge in me alone. I will liberate you from all sins, do not worry (or grieve).

    #2. "what you are suggesting abandoning one's own duties as laid down in scriptures."
    We are not suggesting this. Which line of the article indicates this?

    #3. "Also Krishna did not suggests to abandon scriptures as suggested by you"
    We are also not suggesting that Krishna asks people to throw out the manual. He is merely saying that the manual is useless unless you use it. Also, once you know how to operate the machine, then the manual is redundant. See BG 2:46.

    #4. "...there is a limit to so called revolutionary ideas as suggested by you."
    These are revolutionary ideas of Krishna, not ours!

    Hope this provides a satisfactory response. If not, I am willing to elaborate on my world-view. Our intention is not to hurt anyone's sentiments but rather present the thoughts of Krishna the way we understand it.

    Warm regards,

  8. Dear Swamin,
    I do read your blogs - u would have noted my pseudonym here. I still say that Bhagavan did not suggest revolutionary ideas but a way for normal living keeping HIM in mind at all times.
    You say that Manual is useless when One learns operates the machine - in this case, it is simply not possible to complete the understanding the scriptures - even Bhagavad Gita cannot be understood even if one learns the slokas by heart - every time you read it it gives a new insight - EVRY TIME - any scripture - whether Vishnu Puranam / Srimad Bahgavatham / Sundrakandam etc. that is the beauty of the scripture - no way can it become useless of redundant -
    I am recalling my experience with you sir - no way to dissuage you from this good work you are doing - I thought I would merely add value to your blogs. Please note it appropriately that is all -

  9. Respected Sir,

    Truly it's not easy to understand the scriptures in full. That's why Krishna says "What is the use of all the Vedas
    when one has *realized the ultimate truth*?" (2:46b) Vedas are redundant for one who has realized the ultimate, just like how the manual becomes useless once we know perfectly well how to operate the machine. So this is a particular case when scriptures become redundant.

    Otherwise, Krishna says in 16:24 --
    "Therefore, let the words of the wise (i.e. the shastras) be your guide in determining what should be done and what should not. Having understood the eternal wisdom, you should act accordingly."

    Thanks for your comments. It surely adds value to our blog because we are sharing our thoughts and raising questions, which is always good!

    Warm regards,

  10. Anonymous3/22/2011

    I think it is hard to let go when someone has mastered something.
    This is true for anything. That is why many people walk around with cow dung in one hand and soap in the other. Hindus are amazingly assimilative people. We want that yellow dhoti and Western suit for wedding at the same time. Now we also have added that Taliban dress, even in Southern India. Krishna in a way is the greatest reformer Hinduism ever had. He plainly said the yoga he taught eons ago was LOST to Arjuna. That shows the value of elders who were around Arjuna. It is hard not to see that Krishna was not a revolutionary! That is why 18:66 is VERY TOUCHY for orthodoxy. Basically they were put out of business. So some of them created Prapatti through an acharya, in spite of 18:66 simply to stay in circulation. Also they wrote mile long bhASHyams to ensure that every ritual they were familiar with stays. If we fail to see that Krishna did not rattle the cage, then we basically missed the message and for such people, Gita is no different than Garuda Purana.