The message of the first chapter of the Gita is this: The root cause of all sorrow and suffering in this world is our inability to deal with conflict.
That is why the Gita was taught to Arjuna in the middle of a gruesome battlefield, with swords clanging, trumpets roaring and soldiers screaming. Conflict is everywhere, and we have to learn to handle it. The sooner we recognize this universal truth about conflict and its impact, the sooner we can progress in our personal, professional, and ultimately, spiritual journeys.
We experience conflict at three levels – material, mental and spiritual. At the material level, conflict is everywhere. Atoms collide against atoms. Weeds take over carefully manicured flowers. Packs of wolves fight for control of territory. And we humans have disagreements with children, siblings, spouses, bosses, co-workers, states and countries. To deal with conflict at the material level, we need to learn how to act, and what to say, in any situation.
Now, here’s the second kind of conflict. How we conduct ourselves in material conflict is largely dependent on the state of our minds. Our minds are always in conflict, primarily between our rational side and our ego. Our primal urges constitute the ego, the part of our mind that oversimplifies and exaggerates situations, and responds to every situation with a “fight or flight” reaction, and shuts off the rational part of our mind that can think logically and clearly.
And even when our rational mind is active, we are unable to make the right decision because we cannot resolve conflicting arguments. We are always talking to ourselves in our head. “I should buy this shirt”. “No wait, that shirt looks better”. “But this one is on sale”.
Back to Arjuna’s dilemma. When confronting the material conflict of battle, Arjuna’s rational mind was clear – he was a warrior, and he had entered the battlefield to fight a war against the enemy for a just cause. But, upon seeing his family on the enemy side, his rational mind became conflicted. Should I kill my family? Or should I perform my duty?
Eventually his ego – the primitive side of his mind – took control away from his rational mind. It went into “flight” mode. It made him say, it is better to run away and become a monk, than to perform my duty. The inability to reconcile this conflict in his mind led to his mental breakdown in the middle of the battlefield. He could not commit to fighting, and being unable to decide, he wanted to quit.
So then, conflict at the material level, and at the mental level, is pervasive. It is an integral part of life. We cannot escape it. But so what? Shouldn’t we just accept this state of affairs?
What’s unique about the Gita is its perspective on how we should deal these two levels of conflict. The clue lies in verses 21 and 22, where Shri Krishna positions Arjuna literally in the middle of the two armies, a point from which Arjuna can see his dearest teachers and relatives stationed on the other side of the battlefield. This immediately triggers the third type of conflict – not material, not mental, but that of identity.
Arjuna now thinks: Who am I? Am I the warrior fighting for a just cause? Or am I the beloved student of my teacher? If I am that warrior, I should be in the Pandava army. If I am that beloved student and relative, I should be in the Kaurava army. But I am both. I am all of these roles, and many more. So what should I do? Since I don’t know how to reconcile my identity, let me quit – it is the easiest option I have.
Quitting is the default response of the ego. In his speech to Shri Krishna, Arjuna used logic to justify his quitting the battle. This is what many of us to – we run away from our conflicts, and use logic, or even God or religion – a whole host of rationalizations – to justify our quitting to ourselves, and to others. (Here, we use the word “God” to refer to the invisible random forces that drive the world, including chance, luck, destiny, fate, evolution and so on.)
This confusion of identity is the third type of conflict, the spiritual conflict. Unless we know who we are, what God is, and what our connection to that God is, we will never be able to completely resolve all of our material and mental conflicts. This is the central theme of the first chapter.
The second chapter contains Shri Krishna’s response to Arjuna’s misguided speech, and a summary of the entire Gita. It addresses how to deal with all three types of conflicts, so that we can put an end to sorrow and anxiety at their root.