THE BHAGAVAD GITA begins at a moment of crisis—not just a crisis of the community and the nation, as it certainly is, but one of a personal and (to use a relatively contemporary term) existential nature. When the influential Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy published his first novel, Samskara, about a Brahmin who deliberately chooses to estrange and isolate himself from other Brahmin priests, it invited the thought, even from its translator AK Ramanujan, that Ananthamurthy might have made his protagonist more of an existentialist than his Brahminical identity could credibly allow for. But Arjuna in the Gita (of course, he’s a Kshatriya, a warrior, not a Brahmin) reveals that anguished choice-making in relation to the world—the characteristic preoccupation and mood of existentialism—is hardly new to India; that, at least in cultural antecedents, Ananthamurthy’s Praneshacharya is not alone.
What kind of crisis, exactly? The Gita is an episode—a slightly anomalous, somewhat unassimilable episode, but an episode nevertheless—in the epic the Mahabharata. The epic (composed roughly between 400 BCE and 400 CE) is the story of two warring clans of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas, the family to which the great warrior Arjuna and his four brothers belong, are the ‘good guys’. In other words, Vyasa, the author of the epic, means us to see the action through the Pandavas’ eyes, from (to use an ugly piece of creative writing school jargon) their ‘point of view’. The Kauravas are treacherous; they inveigle the Pandavas into a game of dice and rob them of their kingdom, even attempting to disrobe Draupadi, the Pandava brothers’ wife. (How Draupadi came simultaneously to marry five men is another story.)
The Pandavas go into exile for the mandatory mythic period of 13 years, or thereabouts (the Ramayana has Rama banished for 14). The deal at the close of the game of dice was that they would resume their reign once that period was over. Returning, they discover the Kauravas have no intention of letting that happen. The two clans are now formally at war. There’s a crucial scene before the actual conflict begins on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (which, in the course of the rest of the epic, will become a site that, in scale and destruction, out-Guernicas any imaginable Guernica). Both clans have gathered before Krishna, like bidders at a Premier League auction, to petition him for his support and also for his powerful army. Krishna says that each clan can have one or the other; that he will provide advice to the clan that chooses him over his army, but will abstain from fighting himself. The Kauravas decide they want Krishna’s army; Arjuna elects to have Krishna as his charioteer.