O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end. My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has slipped from my hand. I am unable to stand; my mind seems to be whirling. 1. 28-29. (Easwaran trans.)
Arjuna sees his relatives and teachers arrayed on the battlefield before him and strongly desires to withdraw from the fight. The evocative language here suggests not just distaste, but a powerful sense of dread. Philosophically inclined readers might be reminded of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the binding of Isaac (or Ishmael in the Muslim tradition) in Fear and Trembling. Isaac is the son of the promise, the one through whom Abraham will be blessed, through whom his descendants will become a multitude. And yet Abraham, the “knight of faith,” is asked to kill this chosen son for God in an intense paradoxical situation. Abraham ultimately doesn’t have to go through with it (because of the ram in the bush), but the ordeal certainly stings. Arjuna does have to go through with the battle in the end, and Krishna’s discourse steels his frayed nerves for the fight.
For us today, the first chapter serves as a reminder that even our friends and relations can stand in the way of spiritual progress. This can be a real, active resistance, as in abusive or manipulative situations, or the obstacle may be more psychological, as when we impute thoughts and feelings to our associates that may not actually be present. Shri Ramakrishna was fond of saying that the guru may not be recognized in his (or her) own household. Just as a lamp (deepa) casts a shadow directly below it, so those who take shelter in us may not see the light. The path of duty prescribed by the Gita reminds us to press onward, regardless of whether or not anyone pays attention.
Fortunately, we do not have to actually take up arms against our families. Most of the time, the feeling of resistance will be subtle, a case of one duty conflicting with another. We may be tempted to give up spiritual practices out of a fear that they will conflict with family life. If we press onward and let the chips fall where they may, we will find that the conflict was illusory. Puja, japa, and meditation enhance family life as we become more patient, kind, and tolerant people. The whole household receives blessings from the home shrine as we attune ourselves to divinity. As we read the Gita, let us steel our nerves along with Arjuna for the “fight” ahead.