Queen Kuntī has been given the boon of a night visit in successive years by six gods of her choice. By them she has six sons who are thus half-brothers. Five of them are adopted by her husband King Pāṇḍu, and thus called Pāṇḍavas. The eldest, Yudhiṣṭhira, is to inherit the kingdom. The next two are the fierce Bhīma, and Arjuna who becomes a master archer, and later the disciple in the Gītā. The last two Pāṇḍavas play no part in the Gītā. The other infant, who will be the heroic Karṇa, is abandoned, but found and adopted by a charioteer. This is an important point.
The cousins of the Pāṇḍavas, headed by the cruel Duryodhana, trap Yudhiṣṭhira into a gambling match against a dice sharper; he loses the kingdom to Duryodhana. The Pāṇḍavas are exiled, pursued by the new king’s murderous hate. The noble Bhīṣma the commander-in-chief, and Droṇa a great general, who had trained the young Pāṇḍavas, now hold themselves bound by their oath of loyalty to the monarch, though they recognize that the present one is a tyrant.
Another relative of both sides is Kṛṣṇa, a warrior chief who is an incarnation of God, though largely undeclared. He makes attempts to mediate as allies come to support the Pāṇḍavas, but war becomes inevitable. As the armies face each other, Arjuna’s will to fight collapses. He suddenly realizes how they will have to kill revered figures like Bhīṣma if they are to win. He appeals to Kṛṣṇa to tell him what to do. Kṛṣṇa makes a few attempts to rally his courage with talk of honour and glory: when Arjuna does not respond, the Gītā teachings begin on an entirely different level.
The teachings begin. But for a long time, as the Gītā will show, Arjuna has his doubts about them. If he had had no doubts, the Gītā would have ended with Chapter III.
© Trevor Leggett