Arjuna’s Reaction Viewed Through the Modes of Nature

Sri Aurobindo succinctly draws the picture of Arjuna’s psychology: “Arjuna is the kshatriya, the rajasic man who governs his rajasic action by a high sattwic ideal.” He is looking forward to the battle, confident in his powers of action and the rightness of his cause. He expects to succeed, and establish the rule of right in the aftermath.

“When this confidence is shattered within him, when he is smitten down from his customary attitude and mental basis of life, it is by the uprush of the tamasic quality into the rajasic man, inducing a recoil of astonishment, grief, horror, dismay, dejection, bewilderment of the mind and the war of reason against itself, a collapse towards the principle of ignorance and inertia.”

It is characteristic of the action of the gunas, that when rajas gets rebuffed or stymied, it tends to fall into tamas. This leads to exactly the response we see in Arjuna. He becomes dejected, and wishes to give up the vanity of action in the world, and renounce his position, his action, and even, if necessary, his own life.

The ideal of renunciation is usually considered to be a positive ideal, a striving for something higher, purer and finer, but as Sri Aurobindo points out “…it has to be approached through one or the other of the three qualities.” There is the call to renunciation that derives from failure, rejection, depression or the rebuff of rajas, and this is a tamasic call, even if it originates from a rajasic recoil. “Or the impulse may be that of Rajas tending towards Sattwa, the impulse to arrive at something superior to anything life can give, to conquer a higher state…Or it may be sattwic, an intellectual perception of the vanity of life and the absence of any real goal or justification for this ever-cycling world-existence or else a spiritual perception of the Timeless, the Infinite, the Silent, the nameless and formless Peace beyond.”

The divine Teacher does not accept the tamasic response of Arjuna. He wants him to move beyond the cycling of the gunas to a higher state of awareness from which he can act with freedom, and do “the work to be done.” He wants Arjuna to accept “…inner renunciation which is the real issue from his crisis and the way towards the soul’s superiority to the world-Nature and yet its calm and self-possessed action in the world.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 6, Man and the Battle of Life, pp. 50-51,