Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
It should be made very clear at the beginning that this paper does not deal with the religious issues raised in Bhagavadgita. I am not competent to do it nor am I interested in that exercise. There is a vast literature published in English and most Indian languages, which should be referred to by those interested in Bhagavadgita as a religious text. My purpose is non-religious and limited to exploring the model of the helping process in the Bhagavadgita. In other words, I take the problem faced by Arjuna at the battlefront as an eternal human problem – what is one’s duty when faced with a critical situation? Self-interest? Interest of “others”? Who are these “others”? What are the guiding principles to make the correct or the right choice?
Most people in India know the story of Mahabharata in some form or the other. While the details may vary, the main features of the context, the dilemma faced by Arjuna while both the armies of Kauravas and Pandavas are facing each other, ready to fight to the finish at the battlefield of Kurukshetra would be the same. At that time –a short while before the actual beginning of the war, Srikrishna, the charioteer of Arjuna (Parthasarathy) takes the chariot in the middle of the battlefield –between the two army formations and asks Arjuna to look in front of him, the Kauravas – the enemy. Shreeranga states that Krishna did this deliberately. He asks Arjuna to look in front and not at the back-his own army and then in front-the Kauravas. Why? Perhaps Krishna is aware with his superior knowledge and ability to look ahead in future, what might happen. He does not want that to happen which would be a catastrophe i.e after the war has begun Arjuna to say that he did not wish to fight and in the process kill his own people (swajana) and commit a serious sin which would surely drive him to hell after his death. He wants Arjuna to face it now and deal with it, get it over with, so that he is fully determined to fight the Kauravas – without wavering in his mind by the feelings of “swajana” (my people).
So, Krishna says take a look in front of you and see all the people ranged against you-the patriarch of the Kuru dynasty, highly revered Bheeshma Pitamaha, the great teacher Drona, who taught archery to both Kauravas and Pandavas, the other teacher before him Kripacharya, and then his cousin Duryodhana and his brothers, hundred of them. When Arjuna looks at all of them, suddenly there is a panic reaction. The feelings of “swajana” is so overpowering that his reasoning faculty fails. And he reacts by saying I will not fight and kill these people, they are my own kith and kin. It is at this crucial point that Krishna intervenes and his exposition of the great message follows, at the end of which Arjuna with his emotions in control, retrieving his sense of reasoning, knowing what is right and wrong in a proper perspective, unhesitatingly decides to fight and lead his army to victory. Rest is history.
Shreeranga says Arjuna had faced a similar situation before, at the time of Gograhana battle (seizure of cattle) as Brihannale (neither man nor woman) as part of forest-dwelling incognito (Ajnatawasa). But, he was then in the employment of the king Virata as the chief of the army (Senapati), fighting for his employer, the king. His mind was not troubled by the feelings of “swajana”, because it was not a personal or family war against his rivals, for the share in the kingdom. In other words, the present situation is the cause of his mental conflict. It is situation-specific, for a different cause, which is deeply personal. His mind is troubled and he is unable to think properly and clearly as to his duty as a Kshatriya (warrior) and a king, and a leader. Shreeranga stresses on the last role- a leader not just an ordinary warrior. The leader has greater responsibility – the protection of his people, their welfare, and he has to fight for that additional role, not for just to follow the Kshatriya Kula Dharma, the mandated role of a warrior, in a restricted sense. Shreeranga’s interpretation of the situation, the state of mind of Arjuna, his duty as a Kshatriya king and the panic in the middle of the battlefield on the eve of the historic, epic war of Mahabharatha, and the role of Srikrishna, the charioteer (Parthasarathy) as a friend, guide and counsellor is both novel and fascinating. It has to be enjoyed by reading his writing in Kannada.
From the text of Bhagavadgita
Sanjaya, with his divine vision, is giving an eye-witness account of the war at Kurukshetra (almost like our present day T.V. commentators) to the blind king Dhritarashtra at his request.
Krishna having stationed the car between the two armies in front of Bhishma and Drona, and all the rulers of the earth, said- “ O, Partha, look at these assembled Kauravas”. Then Partha “saw arrayed there both the armies, fathers and grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons and grandsons and comrades, fathers-in-law and friends”. When Arjuna saw all the kinsmen standing in front of him he was overcome with deepest pity and thus in sorrow said:
“Seeing these kinsmen O Krishna, limbs droop down and my mouth is dried up. A tremor comes in my body and my hair stands on end. The Gandiva slips from my hand and my skin is intensely burning. I am also unable to stand and my mind is whirling round as it were.”
I see omens foreboding evil. Nor do I see any good from killing my kinsmen in battle.. I desire not victory, O Krishna, nor kingdom, not pleasures…. I do not wish to kill, though they may kill me, even for the dominion in three worlds, now much less, for the sake of the earth. Having said thus, Arjuna, sorrow-stricken in mind, caste aside his bow and arrow in the midst of the battle and sat down in the chair of his chariot.
Note the following features from the above quotation from the text.*
a). Krishna asks Arjuna to look in front, the Kauravas who are ready to fight.
b). Arjuna looks at both the armies.
c). Arjuna describes- (his self-description) the state of his mind and body; the cause of his sorrow;
d). The concluding stanza is a summary of Arjuna`s feelings and actions as stated by the distant observer Sanjaya, free from the subjective, situational impact. So, it can be considered as an objective, independent observation like that of a helper, counsellor or therapist.
1. The helping process has begun-with the statement of the problem by the seeker of help, who is in extreme state of mental grief; refuses to do what is expected of him by way of conduct.
2. The next phase- reaction of Krishna-the mentor, guide and helper. In Sanjaya`s words to him (Arjuna) who was thus overcome with pity, and whose eyes were full of tears and agitated Madhusudhana (Krishna) said- “From where this weakness found in the unworthy people has come over you? Arjuna don`t yield to such unmanliness which is disgraceful, get rid of this weakness of heart and arise, O Arjuna.”
Shreeranga describes this beginning phase – as Arjuna`s vishad yoga, a mental phase of sorrow, helplessness and confusion. He states that Krishna scolds Arjuna, even ridicules him “you are a weak-hearted man etc.”
How does Arjuna respond to this scolding by Krishna?
“I feel helpless, my mind is confounded about Dharma (right conduct). Tell me what is absolutely good. I am your pupil, instruct me, I have sought your grace.”
3. The helping phase- Krishna proceeds to give help in the form of a long discourse about the different forms of knowledge and ways of attaining the ultimate goal.
When the armies are battleready, about to begin the battle, is it possible that Krishna expounded the philosophy in 18 chapters and 700 stanzas, when the time available was, perhaps about half an hour? For the sake of one man, even though that man is Arjuna, will the entire armies of both the sides, wait patiently? Asks Shreeranga. It is not likely. So, as Radhakrishnan says in his preface to his book on Gita, what probably happened is this, ‘Krishna gave the main ideas in brief, answering some of Arjuna`s queries,* disabusing his mind of wrong thoughts, draining out the blocking, disturbing emotions, helping Arjuna to get the mental strength, clarity of vision, understand the path ahead and the role he has to play as a Kshatriya king i.e., to fight the war of Kurukshetra, to the finish by killing the Kauravas and gain victory in war. After the war was over it was written up by someone to take the present form of the text of Bhagawadgita..
4. The last phase: The concluding phase of this helping process is captured in the translated version of the verses. Krishna asks: “Have you heard O Partha with an attentive mind? Has the delusion of ignorance been destroyed?”
Arjuna responds :
“My delusion is destroyed (Nashto Mohah). I have got back my mental faculty (smrutirlabdha) by your grace, O Achyuta. I am now free from doubt. I will do as you said (Karishye Vachanam Tava).” Earlier Krishna had said: “Thus have I spoken to you-most secret of all the knowledge. Reflect deeply over all of it, and then act as you please (Yathechhasi Tatha Kuru)”
In the light of this advice by Krishna, Arjuna’s concluding words of reply-I will do as you said, (Karishye Vachanam Tava) seems contrary to Krishna’s advice. But, is it so? Is it likely that Arjuna will disregard Krishna’s earlier instruction-to reflect upon the knowledge conveyed and then act according to his judgment? Or, has Arjuna misunderstood the meaning of the words by Krishna; did not grasp the message properly? Again unlikely. The problem the seeming contradiction between Krishna’s advice and Arjuna’s response, is due to the literal interpretation of the word- your word (Vachanam Tava). What Arjuna is probably saying is this-I will reflect upon all that knowledge imparted by you and then I shall decide the course of action. In other words , what the post-modernists call as the “sub-text” within the text or as the literary critics argue that the “inter-textuality” of the verses, has to be carefully grasped after a proper study of the text or the verse. If we do that, there is no inconsistency between Krishna’s instruction (Yathechhasi Tatha Kuru) and Arjuna’s reply-I will do as you said (Karishye Vachanam Tava).
In this concluding section, I look at the problem faced by Arjuna at Kurukshetra, on the eve of the great war, whether to fight the Kaurava army as an enemy or abandon the fight because it will lead to bloodshed, and killing one’s own people (swajana), people related by blood, friendship, as a disciple who sought to learn the battle craft – archery and use of other weapons. He is in the state of a major mental conflict, confused, unable to see clearly his course of action based on what is right and what is wrong. He seeks the help of his brother-in-law, friend and mentor, Srikrishna to guide him so that he can make the right decision and act accordingly. Srikrishna proceeds to do that. At the end, he asks Arjuna to reflect seriously on what he had conveyed through the lengthy discourse, and take his own decision. Arjuna, responds: I will do as you say.
Let us look at the main features of this helping process from a social work perspective, the similarities and differences in the two counselling processes.
Arjuna presents his problem voluntarily seeking help. The problem is stated in his own words, describing his mental state; his emotional conflict and the bodily manifested symptoms of this conflict- the somatic features of a psychological tension. Krishna`s first reaction to this statement of the problem and request for help is to rebuke Arjuna in a sarcastic tone. He exhorts Arjuna to take control of himself and act as a heroic person that he is and fight the enemy. He goes through the dialogic form of discourse, offering the various alternatives before Arjuna. The Arjuna is here depicted as a human being in severe distress; seeking help from a knowledgeable person in whom he has trust, confidence and is sure of being helped. This is a fairly similar situation the modern social worker as a helper, as a counsellor, deals with. Most of the time the client approaches the social worker/counsellor voluntarily on his own or on being referred by another person – a friend or another professional person like a doctor or a school teacher. There are some differences which I now go into.
The counsellor and the client are usually strangers to each other, unrelated in any way as a friend or relative. They go through a process of an interaction, mostly verbal but also non-verbal to explore the problem, analyse and arrive at an assessment of the possible cause of this problem situation, and then help is offered, and accepted. The counsellor does not criticize or condemn the client, talk sarcastically or derogatorily about the conduct of the client as revealed in face to face interaction. The counsellor accepts the client as he is –a troubled person, at times wavering and confused , highly emotional and conveys his empathy. Here in Gita, Krishna is not a stranger to Arjuna. They are related by blood and are friends, having known each other for a long time through many critical periods involving Arjuna and his siblings. This is different from the professional helping situation. But, while it could have posed some problems in establishing a helping relationship, here it is an advantage in many respects. Krishna already knows Arjuna as a human being – the way he has grown up, the kind of person he is, his capacities and weaknesses. He can make a quick assessment of Arjuna as a “client” in this particular situation, without having to spend time to understand him by asking questions, observing his behaviour, exploring his past etc. Rapport is already there between the two developed over a long period of friendship and relation. This is not a problem because Krishna is capable of an objective, yet sympathetic “professional” assessment, bearing in mind Arjuna`s capacity to grasp the situation in a correct perspective and also his ability to act courageously, with single-minded concentration and courage.
The process of helping is a dialogic process of enabling Arjuna to go through the mental process to grasp the problem-situation and the ways to tackle it, and make the right decision. Arjuna is given the opportunity- this is worthy of note, to think, to reflect and then decide. Arjuna is given the right of self-determination, the power to choose between various alternatives. Krishna does not impose his views, decide for Arjuna, and order him to do what he knows as the right conduct with his superior knowledge (I deliberately avoid the word “divine”). He does not force in any way Arjuna to choose a particular course of action or manipulate him to decide as he (Krishna) wants him to decide. All these I think, is the essence of a helping process found in the best practice of modern professional social work, whether we call this as the “practice of social case work” or “counselling” or simply as social work helping process*. So, while there are some important differences between the helping process in the Gita and modern social work which have been identified, there are also some significant similarities which have been explained in the concluding part of this essay.
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