Song of the Blessed One
The Bhagavad-Gita, Canto 11:
Vision of the Universal Form 
EDITOR’S NOTE: There at least five ways to experience John Timpane’s glorious and ambitious translation:
origin ah and undoing
if You think
centered in one whole
(Sanjaya said 
ARRAYED IN MAGNIFICENCE STAR-VESTMENTS STAR-GARLANDS
in the heavens
UNNUMBERED ARMS STOMACHS so many FACES
CROWNED and CROWNED
hosts of godss truly
Those Mortal with Difficulty
breasting the sky
ON ALL SIDES
flaming with MOUTHS incinerant
therefore you arise
go and kill your teacher Drona
The Blessed Lord said
best of the Kurus 
The Blessed One said
impossible to see
O Scorcher of Enemies
 The word gita means “song,” and the word bhagavad means “blessed (or “honored,” “revered,” “venerable,” “adored”)” a frequent name for Krsna or more generally for God. Thus the Bhagavad-Gita is often titled The Song of God. The Bhagavad-Gita is a small excerpt from the Mahabharata, often called the world’s longest poem. The Mahabharata begins with the blind king Dhritarashtra asking Sanjaya, his charioteer, to tell him stories about the great war between the Pandavas (the sons of Pandu) (Arjuna is a Pandava) and their 100 cousins, the Kauravas (Dhritarashtra’s sons), on Kurukshetra field. Thus Sanjaya is narrating all of the action of The Bhagavad-Gita.
 Arjuna the archer speaks to Krsna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu the Preserver-God, on the nature of life, warfare, duty, and God. The great war is about to have its climactic, decisive battle when Arjuna and Krsna have their exchange.
 A nickname for Krsna, the god who is Arjuna’s chariot driver, and who sometimes is both human warrior and celestial Ultimate... indeed, a few times in the larger Mahabharata, the name Krsna is given to Arjuna himself. (See note 5.)
 “Your Isvara self” the word isvara suggests control, dominance, lordliness; it is the intimate, pervasive, permeating personhood that governs and characterizes the universe.
 A name for Arjuna, nicknamed as often as Krsna is in this poem, indicating awareness, acknowledgment, respect, honor. But there’s more. Arjuna is the son of Prtha, who was the sister of Krsna’s father, Vasudeva (“The All-Playing, All-Pervading One”). Krsna and Arjuna thus are cousins. Krsna tends to address Arjuna this way when he wishes to invoke their kinship, either to spur Arjuna to honorable conduct or to explain something Krsna himself does or says. At the moment The Blessed One throws himself open, at this unprecedented revelation, he does so not only as God to man but also as cousin to cousin.
 The first BEHOLD reveals, laid out before Arjuna, the 33 traditional devotional
gods of the Aryan/Hindu pantheon, along with 49 stormgods sometimes included in the brilliant flux of traditional Hinduism.
I have not used their actual names. This passage would literally read:
The Adityas (from aditi, [the] unbegun, the eternal) were the sustainers of light in the universe not the celestial bodies that showed light, but the gods who made light continue. The Vasus were the attendants of Indra, the Sky God; the Vasus were good at kicking up trouble. The Rudras were different manifestations of Siva, the Destroyer God. And the 49 Maruts (from a word meaning “breakers”) were gods of storm.
 The Bharatas appear in the ancient texts as an old and supremely honored ancestral dynastic family, a family among families. Indeed, the title of the Mahabharata refers to them: “Epic of the Bharatas.” The irony of the Mahabharata is that both sides in this world-threatening war are Bharatas. To call Arjuna “Best of Bharatas” is more than just a compliment. It reminds us that Arjuna, for all his emotional vulnerability and hesitation, is the best a human being can hope to be.
 A favorite nickname for Arjuna. In Sanskrit it is Gudakesha, something like “He who has mastery over sleep” and thus “Lord of Sleep” a good characteristic for a warrior to possess.
 Again, Arjuna. Pandu was the father of the Pandavas.
 Arjuna. The word is Dhananjaya, the conqueror of wealth both in having won great wealth through victory and in not caring for wealth.
 The Seven Sages, known as the Rishis, were the seven stars in the Big Dipper. Their job was to ensure that the sun rose.
 The word is dharma, which means things like “duty,” “right conduct,” and “religious observance.”
 “The three worlds” (Sanskrit triloka) were the three planes of existence and experience, or the three great divisions of the cosmos. Bhuloka or “Earth world” is our plane, that of physical existence; Antarloka, the inner or “Between-world,” where souls stay between incarnations, and also when they sleep; and Sivaloka, “Siva’s World,” world of the gods and highly-evolved souls. This is the causal plane. It’s also called Karanaloka, “World of the Superconsciousness,” where the 12 organs of perception and action are on deific tunings.
 A cavalcade of the subsidiary gods, semigods, and not-quite-gods of the
Hindu pantheon attend on the Great Ultimate. I have not used their names here, so much as epithets suggesting the meaning
or significance of those names. A more literal list would read
The Rudras, who name does indeed mean “mortal with difficulty,” were divine entities who passed into mortal state and drove many of the things that happen in the middle-world between Earth and the world of God. The Adityas (or “children of the Aditi,”) were thought to be the offspring of the sun. The Vasus were gods corresponding to the elements and forces of nature. The Sadhyas were gods who personified the benefits of prayer and religious ritual. The Visvedevas were an expression of the sense of “all the gods who are throughout the universe.” We have met the Ashvins and Maruts before . The Ushmapas were the spirits of ancestors; the Sanskrit suggests those who feed on warmth. The Gandharvas were spirits of birds, horses, and other animals; they were thought of as a celestial choir. The Asuras, from a word meaning “breath,” were thought to be warrior-gods, gods of hunger and frustrated roaming between astral planes. And the Siddhas, already seen, are those who accomplish transcendent wisdom and enlightenment.
 This stanza is for me the turning point of this canto, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Mahabharata, and potentially the entire history of human thought about the nature of the divine. For the ancient Aryan notion of God, already old before the Vedas set it down, already old when the Mahabharata was assembled and many scholars believe the great battle at Kurukshetra really happened, around 3,100 BC rejects an aspect of theology incorporated into most Western belief. Arjuna already has seen and ecstatically (if insecurely) accepted that God exists, pervades the universe, is all-wise and beautiful, possesses irresistible power, and encompasses all good but here the poem wheels about, whips comfort out from under our feet (at least, us readers; Arjuna never really is comfortable with God), and forces us to behold a terrifying, ugly, alien, dismaying divinity, and to accept that this, too, is an aspect of the divine, that Vishnu is here to preserve, but also Siva to destroy, and that we can never rest secure in this universe acknowledging only one as so much Western theology does but must, if we wish to be wise, assent to both, intertwined and constantly asserted in reality. And Krsna/Vishnu, in stanza XLIX, does take pity on Arjuna, acknowledging that “this form of mine is terrible,” and reverts to his human incarnation to make Arjuna glad again. But before that, this turn in stanza xxiii turn is a terrific challenge and offering and it is perhaps the single most frightening moment in all writing.
 Arjuna, in seeing all the kings of the Earth line up to be destroyed in the mouth of Vishnu, sees inevitably the death of Dhritarashtra himself, who, as we recall, is being told this story by his charioteer. Since part of the story is Arjuna’s vision of the future, Dhritarashtra thus must listen to the story of his own destruction. This is a foresight of the outcome of the war at Kurukshetra. For Dhritarashtra’s side will lose. And Arjuna sees that three of the absolute ideals of human prowess will themselves be destroyed in God’s maw. The vision of the destruction of Bhishma is startling. He is even more respected than Arjuna: he is the commander-in-chief of the Kauravas, a terrific warrior, a wise politician and diplomat, an exemplary king. In fact, Krsna comes out of a self-willed retirement to fight and kill him, a death he receives willingly. Drona is a great guru and warrior; he is Arjuna’s archery teacher. And Karna, a lower-class man who through prowess and righteousness ascends to the status of king, is a warrior superior even to Arjuna. In their one showdown on Kurukshetra, Karna has the upper hand when Krsna intervenes, saves Arjuna through one trick, and then through another (quite unfair) trick allows Arjuna to kill him. Karna’s death is one of the most tragic moments of the entire Mahabharata. If Karna, Drona, and Bhishma can be destroyed, anyone can.
 This is the greeting of honor, as in the daily nahmas te. It means “honor,” “peace,” “obeisance.”
 This begins The Ultimate’s final argument for Arjuna. It is harsh, uncompromising, and yet cast with a call to act and be heroic. It is also a forecast of the terrible destruction of the final battle of Kurukshetra. One side, the Kurus, are wiped out; the other, the Pandavas, Arjuna’s side, are victorious, but are gutted and decimated. Very little remains except for the surviving few to make a trek to heaven. God’s argument is that fate is cast, and that Arjuna cannot change it whether he fights or does not and so it is better that he fight as well as he can, since he shall prevail. It does not matter, evidently, if that fate is deserved or makes sense. These are not considerations in which the terrifying, intoxicating Primeval One is interested.
 Jayadratha is a fierce warrior who marries into the Kaurava family. Arjuna does eventually kill all these great warriors, the very flower of the other side. All of them are technically either his teachers or his cousins, so in killing them he is committing apparently horrible, polluting acts, and the prospect of this, and the waste and futility of it, is what paralyzes Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad-Gita. The Primeval One is uninterested in resolving the moral or religious question of their deaths, even less in assuaging Arjuna’s conflicts.
 A name for Krsna, who slayed the demon Keshi.
 A name for Krsna. The Sanskrit is Hrishikesha.
 Or “eternal Personality,” purana purushah. The Purusha is sometimes spoken of as a separate God.
 The original reads
These are some of the oldest gods in Hinduism.
 “Lord of Creatures” in Sanskrit is Prajapati, which is the name of a very ancient creator god in the oldest religious texts. With time it became a name for Brahma. And the creator of Brahma is Vishnu.
 A “Yadava” was a descendant of Yadu, son of King Yayati of the lunar race. Krsna was a descendant of Yadu.
 “Kurus” is another name for “Kauravas,” the enemies of the Pandavas, for whom Arjuna is fighting. But since the Kurus and the Pandavas are cousins, Arjuna, who will be the best of the victorious side, is the best of the Kurus as well.
 All of these are contained in Janardana, a name for Krsna, “he who excites to worship,” “he who agitates,” “he who moves.”
 “Pandava” means “of the line of Pandu.” Arjuna was one of the five sons of Pandu.