Arjuna’s Temperament and His Existential Crisis

The interaction between the higher powers of consciousness and the human soul striving to grow and develop has been the subject of considerable review throughout history, in a variety of contexts. The Vedic parable of Indra, the divine king of heaven, and Kutsa, the purified human soul ready to ascend to a higher level is described by Sri Aurobindo. At the same time he points out that this interaction is primarily focused on development of consciousness.

The Bhagavad Gita takes up his subject from the viewpoint of the human soul acting in the world. The interaction between Krishna and Arjuna centers on the issue of Arjuna’s existential crisis when he is faced with the reality and immensity of what he is being asked to do by his position, his ethical and moral code, and his training. The question is not, in this case, how to achieve a purified status of consciousness that is fulfilled in some other plane or world or status of existence; rather, it is how the human soul should act in a world of conflicting issues, motives, values, calls and loyalties. Arjuna faces a total emotional breakdown at the moment that this realisation takes hold on him in a visual, vital, emotional way standing between the two armies party to the conflict, and seeing respected family, friends, and teachers on both sides of the battle waiting to destroy one another.

Sri Aurobindo comments on Arjuna’s situation: “From the beginning of the Gita this characteristic temperament of the disciple is clearly indicated and it is maintained throughout. It becomes first evident in the manner in which he is awakened to the sense of what he is doing, the great slaughter of which he is to be the chief instrument, in the thoughts which immediately rise in him, in the standpoint and the psychological motives which make him recoil from the whole terrible catastrophe. They are not the thoughts, the standpoint, the motives of a philosophical or even of a deeply reflective mind or a spiritual temperament confronted with the same or a similar problem. They are those, as we might say, of the practical or the pragmatic man, the emotional, sensational, moral and intelligent human being not habituated to profound and original reflection or any sounding of the depths, accustomed rather to high but fixed standards of thought and action and a confident treading through all vicissitudes and difficulties, who now finds all his standards failing him and all the basis of his confidence in himself and his life shorn away from under him at a single stroke.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 3, The Human Disciple, pp. 18-19,