In The Bhagavad Gita, the act of physical, literal vision acts as a clarifying experience for s/he who sees. Each time the act of seeing is talked about, a deeper kind of vision is being alluded to and honed. This deeper vision tends to be of a spiritual nature, and allows the seer a deeper understanding of their humanity and the workings of the cosmos. Physical vision elucidates spiritual work while advancing earthly and spiritual understanding.
The first chapter of the Gita opens with Sanjaya, the servant and charioteer of King Dhritarashtra, relating the news of the Kurukshetra battle to his king. While not on the battle himself, Sanjaya can relate to Dhritarashtra the goings on, as he has been given the power of sight by the sage Vyasa. This special cognition reveals the story to Dhritarashtra, and therefore also to us, the readers of The Bhagavad Gita. The telling of the story is possible only because of the divine vision granted Sanjaya. It is vision, both literal and figurative, that transmit the tale of The Bhagavad Gita.
Dhritarashtra, father of the hundred Kaurava brothers, was born blind. His bride Gandhari voluntarily blindfolded herself for the course of her life as to share her husband’s condition. This pivotal lack of sight must not be overlooked. Their literal lack of sight can be read as a symbolic lack of vision. Lack of foresight as well as lack of oversight created and environment for the 100 sons to run amuck. Despite their bravery, they symbolize the senses unrestrained and deleterious. Without guidance clarified by vision, the 100 children of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, the Kaurava brothers, lack righteousness.
As the battle of Kurukshetra is to begin, the theme of sight once again is threaded through opening chapter of The Bhagavad Gita. Sight plays as a key a role for Arjuna as he asks Krisna to “drive his chariot . . . and place it between the two armies that I may see those warriors who stand there eager for battle” (Mascaro 1.22). Although Arjuna knows quite well who is in attendance, and why they fight, he asks Krisna to position the chariot so he can quite literally view with whom he will be fighting. The passage continues to describe how “then Arjuna saw in both armies fathers, grandfathers, sons, grandsons; fathers of wives, uncles masters; brothers, companions and friends” (1.26-27). It was this up-close sight of his family on both sides of the battlefield that produced Arjuna’s famous front-line wavering: “When Arjuna thus saw his kinsmen face to face in both lines of battle, he was overcome by grief and despair” (1.28). The literal sight of his foe produced in Arjuna a paralyzing anguish coupled with crippling lack of clarity; it is in plainly seeing his opponent that Arjuna loses heart. The act of seeing produces in Arjuna his state of despair, and therefore his overwhelming need to sit down and express his confusion to his dear friend and charioteer,
As the dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna, and thus the meat of The Bhagavad Gita unfolds, Arjuna states that he can “not see the way of righteousness”(2.7) and asks Krisna to “be a light unto [Arujuna] on the path of duty”(2.7). Krisna expounds on the nature of the cosmos, how and why we should navigate the righteous path, and the nature of life itself. Using the symbolism of that which is visible and seen,
Krishna Our current incarnation and understanding is but one episode of that which is “seen between two unseens” (2.28). Our current existence and manifestation is marked by its visibility, its sightedness; our ability to be seen in this world marks our existence. explains that we are “invisible before birth . . . and after death invisible again” (2.28).
Krisna goes on to introduce and then expound on the pivotal theme of symbolic soulful vision transcending the binding cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Transcendent vision sees the Supreme, and dedicates all work and the fruits of all work to the Supreme. Transcendent vision does not cling to the simple stimuli from the senses, including most importantly the stimuli coming from the fruits of effort, but calmly and rightly views that all work and all efforts come from and return to the Divine. This transcendent vision is the sight Arjuna should use for his personal navigation.
Thus far, The Bhagavad Gita has told story of Arjuna waffling on the battlefield and being given a divine pep-talk by his charioteer, Krisna. In the course of their chat, Krisna reveals himself to Arjuna not just as his best friend and confidante, but as the god incarnate who maintains the balance of the universe. Krisna explains to Arjuna the key concepts in the cosmos Arjuna must master to have clarity, which Arjuna relishes, yet with which he is not fully satisfied. Arjuna asks for divine vision, to be visibly shown the truth spoken about by
Krishna. It is in this passage that the weight of the symbolism of sight lies.
The theme of vision reaches its literal and symbolic climax in Chapter 11 of The Bhagavad Gita, as Arjuna, forever the willing straight man to Krisna, declares that while hearing Krisna’s teaching has been profound, and while he is grateful and honored by Krisna’s presence, Arjuna wants to see Krisna as God with his own eyes. Arjuna states, “I have heard they words of truth, but my soul is yearning to see: to see thy form as God of this all” (11.1). Arjuna asks, and Krisna obliges. Krisna reveals himself so Arjuna sees the form and essence of the God of Yoga in all its shapes and incarnations, with all the light of the universe emanating from the divine, and sees its entire infinite and bewildering splendor. It is this actual vision of the God of Yoga that reveals to Arjuna his own path of right action and dedication of all his effort to Krisna. Seeing God revealed to Arjuna his godly path in this world. Physical literal vision produced symbolic insight.
Despite the revelatory richness of Krisna allowing Arjuna to truly see him, Arjuna was overwhelmed by his vision. Arjuna exclaims:
in a vision I have seen what no man has seen before, I rejoice in exultation, and yet my heart trembles with fear. Have mercy upon me, Lord of Gods, Refuge of the whole universe: show me again thine own human form. I yearn to see thee again with thy crown and scepter and circle. Show thyself to me again in thine own form. (11.45-46).
Krisna mercifully shows Arjuna his human form once more, but allows him to keep the enlightened spiritual state of higher vision.
Krisna had shown Arjuna his supreme light, as had been seen by none other. Krisna explains to Arjuna that it is not sacrifice or ritual or study that can bring this vision of the divine, but only by love and soulful vision of all creation does one see Krisna. Through the vision given Arjuna, the lesson of true pure offering of right work and all fruits of work to the divine is taught. The sight of Krisna illumines our own path, and we, the reader, can find ourselves sharing Sanjaya’s experience. As Sanjaya concluded his report of Arjuna’s and Krisna’s discourse, he savored what he saw:
I remember, O King, I remember the words of holy wonder between Krisna and Arjuna, and again and again my soul feels joy. And I remember, I ever remember, that vision of glory of the God of all, and again and again joy fills my soul. Where is Krisna, the End of Yoga, wherever is Arjuna, who masters the bow, there is beauty and victory, and joy and all righteousness. This is my faith. (18.76-78)
We, too, can carry with us Arjuna’s lessons and enlightened vision. The true dedication of all labor and all outcomes to the Divine can fill our souls and illuminate our path. Our vision can lead to higher insight and deeper understanding. Our literal earthly vision can remind us of the sacred larger vision of the divine.
Text Used: Mascaro, Juan. The Bhagavad Gita, 1962.