Why does the Bhagavad-gita immediately after rejecting bodily identity address Arjuna with names which reinforce that very identity?
Answer Summary: The Gita conveys that we can’t wish away our bodily identity – we have to work our way through it and for that work we can dovetail the impetus coming from our bodily identity.
“You are not the body” is the first lesson given in the Bhagavad-gita (02.13). Yet the very next verse (02.14) refers to Arjuna twice based on his bodily connections: Kaunteya, son of Kunti, and Bharatarashabha (illustrious descendant of Bharata dynasty). In fact, out of the 25 names it uses to address Arjuna, 14 refer to his bodily connections: Bharata, Bharatarshabha, Bharatasattama, Bharatashreshtha, Dehabhritama-vara, Kaunteya, Kurunandana, Kurupravira, Kurusattama, Kurushreshtha, Pandava, Partha, Purusharshabha and Purushavyaghra.
The sheer variety of the names used indicates that the usage is not just for functional purposes. If just some name were needed for addressing the soul while it was in a body, then any one name would have been enough – and a name unconnected from the body could have been chosen.
Then, why does the Gita use so many names?
To encourage seekers through appreciation to persevere on the path of dharma that will eventually free them from bodily identification.
Far from summarily rejecting bodily identity, Vedic culture created an elaborate structure for systematically accommodating and engaging that identity.
Let’s consider the Gita (02.14): It urges Arjuna to stay unswerving on the path of dharma and tolerate the pleasures-pains inevitable in bodily existence. As such tolerance is difficult, it encourages him to take up the challenge by using two laudatory names. Srila Prabhupada points to this purpose in his purport, “To address him as Kaunteya signifies his great blood relations from his mother’s side; and to address him as Bharata signifies his greatness from his father’s side. From both sides he is supposed to have a great heritage. A great heritage brings responsibility in the matter of proper discharge of duties; therefore, he cannot avoid fighting.” This example of using laudatory body-related epithets is not an exception – it is the norm in the many epithets used for characters throughout the Vedic literature.
The acknowledgement of our bodily identity comes also in the social structure endorsed by the Vedic literature: varnashrama. Far from summarily rejecting bodily identity, Vedic culture created an elaborate structure for systematically accommodating and engaging that identity. Its purpose was to help people fit into occupations that suited their bodily nature. If bodily identity could have been simply wished away, then Vedic culture wouldn’t have stressed varnashrama. But it recognized that realizing our spiritual identity requires a lifetime (and sometimes even more) of dedicated practice of dharma. And during that practice, we need to arrive at a steady and healthy truce with our bodily nature so that we can focus on dharmic practices. Varnashrama provides a social structure that enables us to work our way through our bodily identity by practicing dharma.
Often a reminder of our respectable connections, that is, connections with those whom we respect, invokes our sense of honor and inspires us to act honorably.
And because the path of dharma is often demanding, we need encouragement to persevere on that path. One of the greatest sources of encouragement is appreciation from others. And that appreciation can be offered for different things – for one’s sincere practice of dharma as well as for one’s worldly positions. Often a reminder of our respectable connections, that is, connections with those whom we respect, invokes our sense of honor and inspires us to act honorably.
The Srimad Bhagavatam (04.08.26) reports the transcendental sage appreciating the sense of honor among kshatriyas. This sense of honor has intrinsically nothing to do with transcendence, but Narada Muni expertly uses it to guide prince Dhruva towards intense devotional service that helps him attain Lord Vishnu.
When appreciative reminders of our honorable bodily connections come from teachers of dharma, it activates our sense of honor for following their instructions to live strong in dharma. When we are thus inspired, we can work our way through our bodily nature towards our eternal spiritual nature of devotional service that is forever free from all bodily designations.