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How Intelligent People Still Make Faulty Decisions

Reading Time: 4 minutes

निमित्तानि च पश्यामि विपरीतानि केशव |
न च श्रेयोऽनुपश्यामि हत्वा स्वजनमाहवे || 31||

O Krishna, killer of the Keshi demon, I only see omens of misfortune. I do not foresee how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in this battle.

Bhagvad Gita 1.31

न काङ्क्षे विजयं कृष्ण न च राज्यं सुखानि च |
किं नो राज्येन गोविन्द किं भोगैर्जीवितेन वा || 32||
येषामर्थे काङ्क्षितं नो राज्यं भोगा: सुखानि च |
त इमेऽवस्थिता युद्धे प्राणांस्त्यक्त्वा धनानि च || 33||

O Krishna, I do not desire the victory, kingdom, or the happiness accruing it. Of what avail will be a kingdom, pleasures, or even life itself, when the very persons for whom we covet them, are standing before us for battle?

Bhagvad Gita 1.32-33

आचार्या: पितर: पुत्रास्तथैव च पितामहा: |
मातुला: श्वशुरा: पौत्रा: श्याला: सम्बन्धिनस्तथा || 34||
एतान्न हन्तुमिच्छामि घ्नतोऽपि मधुसूदन |
अपि त्रैलोक्यराज्यस्य हेतो: किं नु महीकृते || 35||

Teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, grandsons, fathers-in-law, grand-nephews, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen are present here, staking their lives and riches. O Madhusudan, I do not wish to slay them, even if they attack me. If we kill the sons of Dhritarashtra, what satisfaction will we derive from the dominion over the three worlds, what to speak of this Earth?

Bhagvad Gita 1.34-35

निहत्य धार्तराष्ट्रान्न: का प्रीति: स्याज्जनार्दन |
पापमेवाश्रयेदस्मान्हत्वैतानाततायिन: || 36 ||
तस्मान्नार्हा वयं हन्तुं धार्तराष्ट्रान्स्वबान्धवान् |
स्वजनं हि कथं हत्वा सुखिन: स्याम माधव || 37||

O Maintainer of all living entities, what pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarasthra? Even though they may be aggressors, sin will certainly come upon us if we slay them. Hence, it does not behoove us to kill our own cousins, the sons of Dhritarashtra, and friends. O Madhav (Krishna), how can we hope to be happy by killing our own kinsmen?

Bhagvad Gita 1.36-37

यद्यप्येते न पश्यन्ति लोभोपहतचेतस: |
कुलक्षयकृतं दोषं मित्रद्रोहे च पातकम् || 38||
कथं न ज्ञेयमस्माभि: पापादस्मान्निवर्तितुम् |
कुलक्षयकृतं दोषं प्रपश्यद्भिर्जनार्दन || 39||

Their thoughts are overpowered by greed and they see no wrong in annihilating their relatives or wreaking treachery upon friends. Yet, O Janardan (Krishna), why should we, who can clearly see the crime in killing our kindred, not turn away from this sin?

Bhagvad Gita 1.38-39

Arjuna does not wish to participate in the battle. His emotions are repulsed at the idea of fighting against his own family. He faces an inner battle between intellect and emotions.

The Battle Between Head and Heart

We have to ask ourselves: what drives our behavior? Is it driven by dharma, or by what feels good?

A popular saying “follow your heart” emerged over time and became popularized as a method for making decisions. The message suggests that we are meant to act based on how we feel regardless of the consequences. This way of choosing how to act can form a harmful basis for making decisions. Emotions are meant for feeling, not for developing arguments. Our intellect is the proper instrument with which to make decisions. 

Arjuna is not listening to his intellect which says to fight. Instead, he is listening to his emotions that are opposing battle. The force of his emotions has distorted his intellect.

Arjuna’s Faulty Reasoning

Arjuna forgets that he needs to fight for dharma (righteousness). The war has not yet been fought, but Arjuna knows the consequences of the war mean the death of thousands of his relatives. He experiences anticipatory grief that causes him to question the purpose of living. 

Arjuna is only considering one side because of his emotions. The consequences of fighting are horrible, but the results of not fighting are far worse. We are all capable of using our intellect to argue for the wrong thing. Arjuna rationalizes his stance to offer himself validation when his argument is false. 

Arjuna’s argument is that by killing the transgressors of dharma, he would be committing sin. When in fact, his inaction would lead to much worse consequences. He uses the power of rationalization or emotions to twist his reasoning to such an extent that he can make an argument for the path of adharma. Indeed, murdering one’s own family members is atrocious, but to not fight has much more significant repercussions that Arjuna chooses to overlook because of the strength of his emotions.

Arjuna wants to feel good about himself, which will not be possible after killing his own relatives. These are his emotions guiding him, but his intellect knows that he must fight. To feel good conflicts with acting in dharmic ways. Making decisions based on feelings might offer instant gratification, but in the long term basing decisions on intellect provides more fulfillment. 

Arjuna also argues that his opponents cannot recognize the defect of fighting against one’s family because their minds are overcome by greed. Since Arjuna’s mind is not overcome by greed, he sees that what is about to happen will be terrible for everyone involved. With this knowledge, how can he not refrain from committing this terrible sin? His argument is flawed because not fighting would lead to even greater sin. 

What the Gita Teaches Us

Arjuna, an intelligent being, allows his emotions to take over and influence his decision-making. Smart people can make harmful decisions if they let their feelings overcome their better judgment. 

Our decisions must be guided by our intellectual agenda rather than our emotional ones. Emotions cloud our judgment and can lead to poor decisions. 

When we allow our emotions to dictate our decisions, we are not being true to ourselves. We are not living in accordance with our values and beliefs. We are not acting in a way that is consistent with who we are. In brief, we need to be able to think rationally and not let our emotions take over.