Sometimes when we commit mistakes, we may become embarrassed, irritated or enraged with ourselves. If we become excessively disturbed, that often becomes a second mistake. By fretting or seething, we waste the time and energy that could have been used for rectification. Certainly we need to learn from our mistakes, but learning requires calmness, which is lost when we let ourselves over-react.
To calm ourselves, we can contemplate how Krishna is always in control and how he is always our benefactor. So he can bring good out of even our mistakes –provided we let him, that is, we keep our calm so that he can give us intelligence to make the best of the situation. Just as an expert musician can produce quality music even with a poor instrument, so too can Krishna produce auspiciousness out of a messy situation.
On the Kurukshetra battlefield, with the war about to start, Arjuna suddenly got an impulsive desire to see his opponents. So, he asked Krishna, who was acting as his charioteer, to take the chariot between the two armies (Bhagavad-gita 01.21). When he looked at the opposing forces, he saw his venerable elders, especially his grandsire and his teacher (01.25). He became overwhelmed, lost his will to fight and broke down.
Arjuna’s decision to see his opponents was imprudent, being an error of judgment. Firstly, he already knew who were arraigned on the opposite side – the alliances formed by both sides had been done openly, not covertly. Secondly, even if the Kauravas were planning to unveil any hidden ace, the Pandavas’ competent spies would have sounded them off. Thirdly, Arjuna was well aware of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses – that had been discussed just the previous night in the Pandavas’ strategy planning meeting. So there really was nothing for Arjuna to see. Yet he saw and had to reap the consequences when his vision sabotaged his determination. His eyes changed his perception of the opposing forces from dispassionate to sentimental: from “the well-wishers of the wicked-minded son of Dhritarashtra” (01.23) to “my relatives” (01.31).
Of course, both perceptions were true, but every activity requires us to cultivate the appropriate vision for doing it properly. Our letting ourselves see with an alternate vision can be a mistake, especially when it triggers emotions that compromise our performance. For example, if a judge has to adjudicate a case in which his son is the defendant, he needs to adopt the appropriate vision, or in today’s parlance, wear the right cap. He has to see the person standing in the box as a defendant, not as his son.
Such vision adjustment is undoubtedly difficult. Most judges would probably recuse themselves – or would be told by the government to do so. But recusing was not an option for Arjuna; he was the foremost fighter in his army, and he couldn’t let down his comrades who were counting on him to counter the Kauravas’ formidable forces. So knowing the huge stakes and emotional tensions, Arjuna would have been wiser in resisting the urge to see his opponents. Unfortunately, he not only saw his opponents; he also let his eyes and thoughts dwell on his venerable elders, specifically his grandsire and his mentor. And that proved to be emotionally devastating.
Significantly, though Arjuna did commit this mistake, he didn’t compound it. He didn’t let himself get further carried away by his feelings, which were impelling him to give up the fight entirely, even if such pacifism cost him his life (01.45). Instead, he pulled himself together to turn to Krishna for guidance (02.07). He wouldn’t have found it easy to shift from an emotionally wrought state to an intellectually alert state, as was required for hearing the Gita. That he managed such a shift shows that he had already started determinedly on a corrective course.
And Krishna with his trademark expertise brought an immense good out of Arjuna’s mistake. He spoke the timeless wisdom of the Gita – wisdom that not only restored Arjuna’s vision and determination (18.73), but also provided all of humanity for all time to come with a vision of the path to enlightenment.
The Mahabharata contains another story that conveys Krishna’s expertise in bringing good out of a devotee’s mistake. When the Pandavas were living in forest exile, they would feed their guests – sages and mendicants – using a mystical vessel (akshaya-patra). This vessel would provide inexhaustible food till everyone was fed and finally the hostess Draupadi took her meal. After she finished her meal, the vessel would not supply any more food on that day.
Duryodhana knew this limitation in the plate’s supply and saw an opportunity to exploit it when the irascible sage Durvasa visited the Kauravas’ palace. The conniving prince personally and attentively served the sage, thereby pleasing him. When offered a benediction, the wily Kaurava beseeched the sage to provide a similar chance for service to his cousins, adding the request that the sage go to them late in the day. Accordingly, Durvasa along with a large contingent of disciples arrived at the Pandavas’ forest hermitage in the afternoon. As Draupadi had already taken her meal, the Pandavas had no way to feed so many guests. They felt alarmed because firstly they would be failing in their duty as householders if they didn’t offer proper hospitality to a guest, especially a sage; secondly Durvasa was no ordinary sage – he was a powerful mystic known to give deadly curses if displeased.
Draupadi’s devotional reflexes sprang into action and she started praying fervently for help to Krishna. He appeared promptly and told her that he was very hungry. Krishna’s request mortified the already distraught princess; she felt that she was failing doubly, being able to serve neither the venerable sage nor her beloved Lord. For Draupadi, praying to Krishna seemed to have made things worse – but only temporarily.
Krishna calmed the distressed princess and told her to check if their mystical vessel had any food remaining. To her surprise, she noticed that a morsel was indeed there. When she brought it to Krishna, he immediately took it and after eating it said that he felt completely satisfied. By his supreme mystic power, Krishna arranged that this morsel also satisfied fully all the guests, who had gone for bathing before their meal. The sage and his disciples found themselves belching and felt no need for any food. Thus, the Pandavas were saved from danger.
While the thrust of this story is that Krishna protects his devotees and that satisfying him satisfies everyone else, it conveys another message relevant to our discussion: Krishna’s ability to bring good out of a mistake. The fact that the mystical vessel had some food morsel left on it was surprising. Draupadi was a careful housewife who would not have tolerated such neglect in the cleaning of utensils. Moreover, that vessel was no ordinary utensil – it was a celestial gift and was vital for the Pandavas in fulfilling their householder duty of hospitality. So a morsel of food lying on it was odd. And yet Krishna expertly used that anomaly to both advance his pastime and demonstrate immortal lessons for the world’s edification.
At a transcendental level, the actions of exalted devotees such as Arjuna and Draupadi can be said to be orchestrated by Krishna himself for his pleasure. Still, we can simultaneously study these actions at a practical level to learn how we should or should not act. From that perspective, we can see in these pastimes Krishna’s expertise in bringing out good from apparent mistakes as long as the devotees turned to him for shelter.
So, when we commit mistakes, we can see them as an opportunity, indeed an impetus, for taking shelter of Krishna. Of course, it’s better to be careful and avoid committing mistakes – and it’s better still to take shelter of Krishna proactively without being impelled by fear of consequences.
Nonetheless, if we do commit mistakes, we can take shelter of Krishna instead of ranting or moping – activities that characterize the mode of ignorance (18.28). Even if our mistakes have consequences that can’t be mitigated by taking shelter of Krishna, still we will at least get the realization that Krishna’s inner shelter – the security we feel on remembering him – is always available to us, no matter what goes wrong or even what we do wrong. And that realization is a priceless gain, for it deepens our conviction that Krishna’s love for us is indeed unfailing – he is truly achyuta (unfailing). The Puranas conveys this point through the apt metaphor of the earth.
tvayi vipratipathasya tvam eva sharanam prabho / bhumau skhalita padanam bhumir evavalambanam
“O Lord, as the earth is the only shelter for those who slip and fall, You are the only shelter for misguided people.” (Skanda Purana, Kumarika-khanda of the Maheshvara-Khanda, 7.101)
Further, with the calmness coming from finding shelter in Krishna, we can intelligently find ways for damage minimization and course correction. Indeed, one definition of intelligence is said to be to know what to do when we don’t know what to do – take shelter of Krishna and seek his guidance. So even if we have unintelligently made a mistake, we can immediately turn to Krishna and thus start reclaiming our intelligence.
So whenever we get worked up over a mistake, we can remind ourselves that Krishna’s assurance (18.58) – taking shelter of him will enable us to cross over all obstacles – applies also to the obstacle of our human susceptibility to mistakes.[ arjuna ] [ bhagavad-gita ] [ gita ] [ intelligence ] [ shelter ] [ vision ]