“The Supreme Person [Bhagavan] said: My dear Arjuna, how have these impurities come upon you? They are not at all befitting a man who knows the progressive values of life. They do not lead to higher planets, but to infamy. “ (Bhagavad-gita, 2.2)
It’s a big night. You’re going to a gathering where a famous personality will be there. They are known for being expert in the field that interests you. They are considered “senior” because they have been involved in that field for a number of years. They are old enough to be your father, and they started in the field when they were younger than you are now. They have spent an entire lifetime practicing. As you can gain valuable insight through their association, you are very excited.
The event is a small gathering, so you won’t be the only person there. There is anticipation nonetheless, as this kind of opportunity doesn’t come too often. Things start out well, as you make a basic introduction and then listen attentively as they give their talk. During the question and answer period, however, you ask what you think is a harmless question. Instead of giving a typical response, the speaker scoffs at the mere suggestion you make. It’s as if they think you’re antagonistic to the field, like you don’t respect them. But you indeed have just the opposite intention, so this stern rebuke shakes you. You can’t stop thinking about it for the next few hours.
Later on, however, you realize that the rebuke was to your benefit. Your question may have been innocent in your eyes, but it represented a lack of understanding. Rather than take the kind approach, the stern rebuke sends the correct message loud and clear. This is actually an act of kindness from the superior, as through this type of interaction they teach you a valuable lesson very quickly. A similar kind of rebuke was even shown by the greatest teacher of all, Lord Krishna.
The Bhagavad-gita documents this exchange. The setting was a battlefield, and the hesitant warrior Arjuna was the character of principal focus. His army was about to take on the aggressors known as the Kauravas. Arjuna’s side had a rightful claim to the disputed land, but the opposing side unjustly usurped it and refused to give back even an inch of it. Arjuna was famous for his fighting prowess using the bow and arrow, so his side, the Pandavas, expected to ride that strength to victory. More importantly, Arjuna had Krishna for his charioteer. Krishna is the ever well-wishing friend of the Pandavas. He also happens to be the expert teacher, as He is the origin of all knowledge.
Despite his superior fighting ability, Arjuna was initially hesitant to move forward. He didn’t want to win. If you don’t have a will, how are you going to put in the effort necessary for success? A head coach in the National Football League once famously said, “You play to win the game!” If you’re not in the competition to achieve victory, you’re not really competing. If Arjuna had any hesitancy whatsoever, his side was doomed.
Afraid of living a life devoid of the company of friends and family fighting for the opposing side, Arjuna created all sorts of excuses to justify his desire to quit. He presented his arguments to Krishna, who also happened to be related to him as a cousin. Once the concerns were presented, however, the relationship between the two changed. No longer were they friends or close family members. Krishna became the acknowledged superior and Arjuna the pupil requiring instruction.
Krishna was not unnecessarily mild in His initial reaction. He didn’t say, “O Arjuna, you are such a kind-hearted soul. You are truly wise for not wanting to harm anyone else. You have passed the test life has handed to you by choosing the more difficult path of nonviolence. You are to be commended for your intelligence.”
Instead, Krishna said that Arjuna’s attitude was not befitting someone of his intelligence. It also didn’t square with his role in society. In the Vedas, society is divided up into four general categories based on natural qualities within people. The kshatriyas are the second class; their duties involve military conflict for the purpose of protecting the innocent. The kshatriyas are not meant to be unnecessarily nonviolent, as the miscreant aggressors in society will not hesitate to use violence to get their way. If the criminals are going to steal, you better be ready to protect your stuff. If the enemy is going to attack, you better be prepared to fight them off, lest you risk losing your own life and the lives of others.
Krishna’s initial admonishment was beneficial because it got Arjuna’s attention. The doubtful warrior’s attitude did not suit the occasion. It’s not that he should have been overly concerned with victory, either. Rather, when one follows their duties, they should do so out of obligation. The fighting order exists for a reason, and if one does their best job in that occupation, it is better than accepting another occupation that one is not suited for.
“It is far better to discharge one's prescribed duties, even though they may be faulty, than another's duties. Destruction in the course of performing one's own duty is better than engaging in another's duties, for to follow another's path is dangerous.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.35)
Krishna immediately touched on the eternality of the spirit soul and how it is transcendental to the changes to the outer covering, which is more commonly known as the body. As the soul never dies, no one can really kill anyone else. The killing we see is the effect of material nature on the temporary covering. Not that one should go on a violent rampage, but it should be known that everyone will have to suffer death eventually through the influence of time and that no one can do anything without the compliance of the forces controlling the material nature. If Arjuna would act on his occupational duty without attachment for the result, he would not incur any sin from fighting.
The wise souls take rebuke from the spiritual master to be a great blessing. The teacher is in an acknowledged position of superiority after all, so if they only compliment us all the time, what is the benefit to their association? It is more helpful to me if the teacher points out my flaws so that I will have something to correct going forward. Krishna pushed Arjuna towards the right choice of fighting on. And it always was a choice. The instruction Krishna offered was not a command; He left the option up to Arjuna.
In the same way, all living entities have a choice in whether or not they want to follow dharma, or duty. The dharma for the present age is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” It is difficult to decipher material occupational duties due to the lack of qualified teachers and the underlying culture necessary to maintain adherence to religious principles. The most potent method of self-realization for the present age is the recitation of the holy names, which are non-different from God. And through self-realization, one learns how to properly direct their activities.
The spiritual master is the representative of Krishna, and they are an expert in practicing bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Since they accept the dharma of the present age as their primary occupation in life, they can offer the most valuable instruction to others. When they point out our flaws it is most beneficial to us, as it gives the guidance necessary to move forward on the path to transcendence.
A superior authority I want to meet,
Excited when taking my listening seat.
But after a harmless question I say,
A stern rebuke comes my way.
At the moment I don’t realize in mind,
That such act was a lesson very kind.
Arjuna too rebuke from a wise man received,
When plan to deviate from dharma he conceived.
Teacher of his was Shri Krishna who held chariot’s reins,
Told Arjuna to battle, caring not for losses or gains.
Same kindness the guru to us gives,
Correcting us so in transcendence we’ll live.