For those unfamiliar with the context of the Bhagavad Gita, here goes..
Translated as the “Song of God”, the Gita is a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Lord Krishna, functioning here as Arjuna’s charioteer. This dialogue is historically believed to have occurred on the first day of the great war of Kurukshetra. Written in the form of 700 verses, it is narrated by Sanjaya, the charioteer of king Dhritharashtra. The Gita occurs exactly in the middle of the Indian epic Mahabharata. Strange circumstances for a discourse…
How did this war come to be, and why is it relevant nearly 5,000 years (by some estimates) later? The details of the Mahabharata are beyond the scope of these writings, but a brief and necessary summary is needed..
Dhritharashtra and Pandu are brother-princes of a particular (Sun) dynasty. Dhritharashtra, although older, is born blind and thus, Pandu is crowned king. This is where this story begins in earnest – lifelong jealousy on Dhritharashtra’s part, which will eventually cost him everything. Pandu has 5 sons who are known as the Pandavas – Yudhishtra, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Dhritharashtra has 100 sons and one daughter, called Kauravas after the Kuru dynasty. The most prolific of all his sons are Duryodhana and Dushasana. The Pandavas and Kauravas grow up together, have the same gurus and eventually become arch rivals, in their attempts to outdo each other in bravery, strength and warfare skills. Pandu dies young, leaving Dhritharashtra the throne, who in turn, tries to be fair and kind to his nephews as they grow up. When they reach adulthood, he gives them the undesirable half of kingdom that they spruce up well, establishing peace and justice and invoking Duryodhana’s intense jealousy. Further, they marry Draupadi, a coveted princess, invoking further jealousy and hatred from Duryodhana.
Meanwhile, Krishna is growing up in Vrindavan as the foster son of Nanda and Yashoda, cowherds by vocation. His childhood is filled with miracles and mystical phenomena wherever he sets foot. The supreme avatar of Lord Vishnu, he keeps everyone around him entrenched in his own maya such that even with him performing superhuman feats, everyone surrounding him is fooled into thinking of him as one of their own. Humans, animals, plants, trees, the Yamuna river and even inanimate objects are transformed in his divine presence. He is related to the Pandavas in that Kunti, the mother of the older three, is his aunt. As the Pandavas grow into able princes, Krishna himself grows into an astute politician and king-maker.
Finally unable to bear the growing fame and prosperity of his able cousins, Duryodhana calls upon his cunning uncle and scheming up a plan to destroy them, they invite the Pandavas for a game of dice. Little by little, the Pandavas lose everything in this gamble, including their kingdom, wealth and finally, Draupadi. She is dragged into the court by her hair, and in front of the king, the gurus, all the ministers, and her husbands, an attempt is made to disrobe her. Initially she resists, and begs for mercy, but when her pleas fall upon deaf ears, she turns to Krishna, surrendering her will unto Him. All of a sudden, all attempts to shame her fail, as the sari covering her grows even as it is pulled away. Finally exhausted, the Kauravas give up and Duryodhana banishes the Pandavas with Draupadi into exile for 12 years with the condition that the 13th year be spent incognito; if discovered, they would be banished for 12 more years. They complete the exile braving many adventures, and gaining further mastery in warfare, spending time in severe austerities along the way.
When the Pandavas return and ask for their kingdom to be handed back, Duryodhana refuses outright, famously declaring that he would not give them land to fit the tip of a needle, instead challenging them to war. Krishna, ever the king-maker, tries in every way to negotiate, but Duryodhana is intent on war – he travels across the country, forming allegiances, cajoling and threatening kings everywhere to join him or be challenged. As a result, the Kaurava army turns out to be several times bigger than the Pandavas’ – even the gurus, relatives and friends common to both parties are forced to side with Duryodhana.
Finally, Duryodhana and Arjuna arrive at Krishna’s door to ask for his help. Krishna sees Arjuna first and gives him the choice between himself who will not fight, and will simply act as guide or his immensely powerful Yadava army – despite being desperate in this already seemingly losing war, Arjuna picks Krishna. Duryodhana is elated to have the Yadava army fighting for him. And the war begins.
Since Dhritharashtra is blind, he asks his messenger and charioteer, Sanjaya, to provide a live commentary on the war. Sanjaya is an ardent devotee of Krishna, who grants him divine sight and hearing to enable him to see and hear remotely..
So here we are on the battleground of Kurukshetra. All the participants blow their conches, adrenaline is high with hatred, fear and excitement.. Krishna wordlessly drives the chariot, placing it strategically where Arjuna can survey the whole battlefield. Arjuna sees the smaller Pandava army on one side, facing off with the substantially larger Kaurava army on the other, filled with his cousins, gurus, uncles, childhood playmates and loved ones..