Arjuna laments that he must fight his own family. He then makes some statements that I think are illustrative and problematic.
Though [my enemies] are overpowered by greed and see no evil in destroying families or injuring friends, we see these evils. Why shouldn’t we turn away from this sin? When a family declines, ancient traditions are destroyed. With them are lost the spiritual foundations for life, and the family loses its sense of unity. Where there is no sense of unity, the women of the family become corrupt, and with the corruption of its women, society is plunged into chaos. Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well. It disrupts the process of spiritual evolution begun by our ancestors. (BG 1:38-42)
First, let’s acknowledge that this is the patriarchy speaking. It is the same perspective we often find in Proverbs, which describes both wisdom and folly as women. The “corrupt woman” leads men astray and destroys families: Her feet go down to death; her steps lead to the grave. She doesn’t stay on the way of life. Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it. (Proverbs 5:5-6). In this kind of conventional religion, women are constrained to play the role of virgin or whore, and society rises or falls based on the control of their bodies.
Second, let’s also acknowledge the truth of generational harm and trauma Arjuna describes. Much of the Hebrew Bible is about the disruption of family and the way that dysfunction is passed from parents to children: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, all jealous and fighting over the affection of parents or spouses. (Much of this strife is caused by the patriarchy, by who has power and who does not).
I also want to consider Arjuna’s statements in light of conservative social policy, which often idolizes “family values” even as it makes it difficult for families to survive intact. Often it is idolization of the family that leads to its destruction. The religious right in America has argued for decades that society is on the decline because women no longer stay at home, divorce is too easy, prayer has been “taken out of schools,” and the family is no longer considered as sacred as it was in our mythical past.
Jesus’s ministry was tremendously disruptive to family values. He said because of him, families would be torn apart (Matthew 10:34-35). But he believed in a chosen family.
He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
While there is truth in it, I think Arjuna’s lament is grounded in conventional religion—the notion that religion should create social stability and uphold the status quo. He is speaking as one who is not yet enlightened. He knows enough to know there is a problem, but hasn’t identified it properly yet. Krishna is going to point out to him that the problem is much deeper than family disunity; the problem is that we do not know who we are. What has brought all these people to the point of battle is that too many people are attached to the wrong things, because they do not know themselves.
Practically, it doesn’t mean that Arjuna can opt out of the battle at hand, any more than it means we can opt out of resisting patriarchy and other injustices in our world. But it illustrates the failure of conventional morality, and why we shouldn’t fall into the same trap.
Source of my being, I may not have picked this struggle; yet I will follow you through it.