(first century b.c.) Sanskrit text
The Bhagavad Gita is a philosophical poem that summarizes and explains the key concepts underlying Hindu religious belief and practice. The poem is staged as a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, and his charioteer Krisna, an engaging and remarkable young man. In these conversations, Arjuna ostensibly asks for advice on how to regain his composure and courage to fight against the evil Kurowas, his half-cousins. Krisna, who is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, answers with a series of instructions that coherently unify and communicate the foundational tenets of Hindu beliefs, and also, in the guidance Krisna gives his pupil on how to conduct himself in war and life, provides a spiritual manual for daily living.
The setting of the work is the battlefield of Ku-rukshetra, where the two armies led by the Pan-davas and Kurowas gather for battle—also the setting of the greatest and most elaborate of Indian epic poems, the mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita forms the sixth chapter. The essential teachings of the Gita most likely existed long before the Mahabharata was composed, transmitted through oral teachings in the manner of the Upan-ishads and the four Vedas, the oldest known Sanskrit scriptures. The actual events of the Mahabharata are thought to have transpired between 1000 and 700 b.c. The Bhagavad Gita contains the outlines of a spiritual practice that may date to the earliest indigenous settlers in the Indus valley, around 3000 b.c.
Unlike other important works of Indian literature, like the Ramayana, the author of the Bha-gavad Gita remains unknown. Early Indian commentators have suggested that the Gita may have been written by the Hindu god Krisna or by the seer Vyasa, who is considered the author of the Mahabharata and the purana.
The dramatic beauty of the Gita is that, in appearing in the midst of a physical battle, the war between good and evil provides a metaphorical parallel to the Bhagavad Gita’s true topic. As translator Eknath Easwaran says, “the Gita’s subject is the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious.”
The poem opens with a metaphysical dialogue between Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Kuruk-shetra and father of the Kurowas, and his courtier sage, Sanjaya. Worried about the course of the war, Dhritarashtra asks Sanjaya (who is blessed with the ability to see all that transpires in the past, present, and future) to relate to him every detail of the war. Sanjaya first tells of the conversation that takes place between Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra’s son, and his teacher, Drona, in which Duryodhana boasts of his great number of forces and his confidence in securing victory. This sets the scene for the long dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna in which Krisna instructs Arjuna that it is the latter’s duty to fight and win the war. The Greek idea of hubris, or exaggerated pride, is exemplified in the contrast between the haughtiness of Duryodhana and the unwillingness of Arjuna to engage in a war in which his teachers and kin will be killed.
Given this background of war, in the poem, Ar-juna becomes concerned with the universal questions of life and death. Seeing that his courage wavers, Krisna proceeds to explain to him the nature of the soul, the soul’s relation to God, the laws that govern the natural world, and the laws that govern consciousness and reality. In the end, Krisna reveals himself as an avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu, one of the faces of the Infinite God, the lord of life and death. Arjuna goes on to engage in battle because it is his duty; as the remainder of the Mahabharata describes, he will, with Krisna’s help, be victorious, and the proper rulers will be restored. The heart of the Bhagavad Gita, however, is its essential teachings about living with love and compassion toward others. The Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, who based his life on the tenets of the Gita, found its instructions incompatible with harming others. In learning how to transcend mortal consciousness and attain spiritual union with God, Arjuna learns how to enter his atman, or essential self, which transcends life and death. He learns the profound Hindu concepts of karma and dharma, which govern human life, and he understands that the demands of duty and consequence must be fulfilled.
Briefly, the ultimate goal of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, is moksha, or spiritual liberation, also called nirvana. Spiritual liberation is achieved through a combination of three things: jnana, or knowledge; bhakti, or devotion; and yoga, or spiritual discipline and practice. Union with the Brahman, or Infinite God, is the highest good, as Krisna explains in passage 6:30-32 of Eknath Easwaran’s translation:
I am ever present to those to have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me.
The challenges of human life, Krisna explains, are the result of karma and dharma. Karma, which literally means “something that is done,” is often translated as “deed” or “action” and basically states that every event contains both a cause and an effect. The consequences of each action engender another act, with similar consequences, and so on in a potentially unending series of events. An individual acts out karma until he or she learns how to act in harmony with dharma. Dharma, often translated as “duty,” can be thought of as the master plan to which each living thing in the universe is connected. When one learns not to pursue selfish interests but rather contributes to the welfare of the whole, the karmic debt is discharged.
One learns and understands one’s duty through yoga, the disciplined practice through which one heals the splintered, unconscious self and learns how to come in contact with the atman, the higher self, and through that the Brahman or divine. Meditation and yoga bring one to essential truths, as Krisna instructs Arjuna in passages 6:19-21:
When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place. In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself. Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment. Having attained that abiding joy beyond the senses, revealed in the stilled mind, he never swerves from the eternal truth.
The surrounding environment of imminent war serves, in the poem, to highlight the importance of the spiritual path, transcendence, and union with the divine. Krisna’s explanation of the relationships among the ideas of death, sacrifice, and devotion exemplify the Hindu belief that transcendental truth can only be experienced and grasped when one heroically faces death and fulfills one’s duty. Hence, the path to liberation lies not in the avoidance of action but through action performed simultaneously with detachment to consequences and with devotion to the divine God. Krisna teaches Arjuna that he is not being asked to commit indiscriminate violence but instead has a mortal duty to restore the legitimate rulers, who have been given their authority by the gods.
Through disciplined action combined with knowledge, committed with a detachment from selfish interest in the outcome and an interest in the greater welfare, Arjuna will be led not only to mortal victory but also to an understanding of his essential connection to the higher order. Thus, the Bhagavad Gita dramatically portrays Arjuna’s inward journey and also shows in human form the possibility of union with the divine. Arjuna’s recognition of his destiny, coinciding with Krisna’s revelation of his divinity, is the climax of the poem.
As a document of Hindu culture and belief, the Bhagavad Gita has had a profound impact. Barbara Stoler Miller says the “Bhagavad-gita has been the exemplary text of Hindu culture for centuries, both in India and in the West.” The true value of the Gita, Easwaran believes, is in the philosophical truths it contains: “Like [Jesus'] Sermon on the Mount, it has an immediacy that sweeps away time, place, and circumstance. Addressed to everyone, of whatever background or status, the Gita distills the loftiest truths of India’s ancient wisdom into simple, memorable poetry that haunts the mind and informs the affairs of everyday life.”
English Versions of the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Eknath Easwaran. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
The Bhagavad-gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. The Bhagavad-Gita: Translated and Interpreted. 2 vols. Translated by Franklin Edgerton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Works about the Bhavagad Gita
Minor, Robert N. Bhagavad-Gita: An Exegetical Commentary. Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1982.
Van Buitenen, J. A. B. Ramanuja on the Bhagavadgita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.
Zaehner, R. C. The Bhagavad-Gita: With a Commentary Based on the Original Sources. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.