An Ancient Indian Story About Making the Right Choice

December 27, 2019

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.

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?

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