“On this path effort never goes to waste,
and there is no failure.
Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness
will protect you from the greatest fear.”
Bhagavad Gita, 2:40
At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna requests Krishna – now acting as his charioteer – take him to the middle of the battlefield, right between the two warring factions. Once there, Arjuna lays down his weapons, ready to concede defeat before the battle has begun. I don’t know if there is a filmed version of the Bhagavad Gita, but I always envision this scene with the sound effect of a record/tape scratching to a stop as everything around Arjuna and Krishna slows down then freezes to make space for their conversation, which Arjuna begins by revealing his weakness to Krishna:
“My will is paralyzed, and I am utterly confused.
Tell me which is the better path for me. Let me be
Your disciple. I have fallen at your feet; give me instruction.”
Bhagavad Gita, 2:7
Arjuna makes the unpopular – foolish? – choice to press pause right as the action is about to begin. Were he acting more in accordance with those around him – more “normal” – he would be so caught up in visions of victory, or so worried about potential defeat, that he would have no space for realizing he was confused. Or even if he recognized the niggle of doubt beneath his desires to do his duty, Arjuna could have chosen another accepted path, that of keeping up appearances, harmful as such appearances may be to his physical body and eternal soul.
Instead, Arjuna risks playing the fool. If you’ve been reading the Embodied Philosophy blog regularly this month, you know many of us here have been rethinking the negative connotations of “the fool,” considering what good things being “foolish” might lead to. For me, the framing of the Bhagavad Gita illustrates the vast distinction between being foolish and being stupid. While the two terms are often considered synonyms, I propose that no one profits from stupidity, at least, not their own. Whereas a little foolishness can go a long way.
So, back to Arjuna: his actions and his timing may be foolish, but certainly not stupid. It takes tremendous courage and self-knowledge to say “I don’t know what to do; teach me what you know so I may act wisely.” By admitting his confusion, ignorance, and helplessness to Krishna, Arjuna lays himself bare to potential ridicule but he also reveals his ultimate readiness to learn from Krishna’s wisdom.
Foolishness is often little more than an external judgment of our actions as abnormal. And choosing the path less traveled, when the clear, easy path is there for the taking, is abnormal, crazy, foolish. But even if you end right back smack dab in the middle of a battle you were trying to avoid in the first place (spoiler alert: just because a path is difficult and untrod doesn’t guarantee that it leads anywhere good), being foolish enough to question the expected will change the way you enter that battle. Although Arjuna is physically right back where he began when the record screeched to a stop and everyone froze, when the credits roll in my imaginary Bhagavad Gita film he is not the same warrior he was at the beginning. He emerges from his journey on the fool’s path with new perspective on active service and on the results of these actions, with new wisdom about himself and about God, and with the tools to act from reflection rather than from unexamined passion. And that, as the poet says, made all the difference.