Bhagavād Gīta (literally: Song of the Lord), composed between the fifth and second centuries BCE, is part of the epic poem of Mahabharata, located in the Bhisma-Parva, chapters 23–40, and is revered in Hinduism. It is not limited to followers of the Vaishnava stream, since it is a core text for most yogic and tantric Hindu philosophies. The Gita is considered by most Hindus to be the single most representative sacred text of the faith, and it is the acknowledged source book of Yoga philosophy.
Bhagavad Gita in General
Many Hindus have said that the most succinct and powerful abbreviation of the overwhelmingly diverse realm of Hindu thought is to be found in the Bhagavad Gita. Essentially, it is a microcosm of Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and even Tantric thought of the Hindu fold. Indeed, the Bhagavad Gita refers to itself as a 'Yoga Upanishad,' thereby establishing itself as more than just a text based on Krishna, but rather one that speaks of truths through Krishna. Through verse, based on the third-party retelling by the Kaurava courtier Sanjaya, King Dhritarasthra's chief advisor, it relates the lesson imparted to Arjuna, a warrior prince, by his mentor and friend, an avatar (reincarnation) of the Lord Vishnu, Krishna, who is steering his chariot for the great battle of Kurukshetra. It is set in the great Hindu epic of the Mahabharata. Arjuna and Krishna have ridden out into the middle of a battlefield, with armies arrayed on either side of them, just before the battle has begun, signaled by the blowing of conch shells. Seeing friends, teachers and relatives in both armies, Arjuna is heartbroken at the thought that the battle will cost him many loved ones. He turns to Krishna for advice.
Krishna counsels Arjuna on a wide range of topics, beginning with a tenet that since souls are immortal, the deaths on the battlefield are just the shedding of the body, which is not the soul. Krishna goes on to expound on many spiritual matters, including the yogas (or paths) of devotion, action, meditation and knowledge. Fundamentally, the Bhagavad Gita proposes that true enlightenment comes from suppression of the ego, of "I", "my" and "mine" consciousness, and to realize that the only truth is the immortal Self (soul), Atman, which is none other than Brahman (the ultimate divine consciousness). Through dispassion for the senses, extreme jubilation and bereavement, the yogin is able to subjugate his mortality and attachment for the material world and see the infinite.
To demonstrate the infinitude of Brahman, which is unknowable, indescribable and ineffable in human knowledge, Krishna temporarily gives Arjuna the cosmic eye and allows him to see him in all his divine glory. He reveals that he is fundamentally both the ultimate ground of being behind the universe and the material body of the universe, as well as an avatar for the personalized Lord Vishnu. This three-fold understanding of the nature of God has led to the Bhagavad Gita becoming the basis for many varying philosophies of the Hindu faith and the fountainhead text of Yoga.
The Gita has been the favorite book of many great thinkers, sages, devotees and figures of Hindu India. Among some of the most well-known are Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who represents the truest example of bhakti yoga (yoga of love and devotion) of Krishna, exemplifying what Vaishnavs (followers of Vishnu) saw as a great devotee of Krishna. It was he who first sang the "Hare Krishna" mahamantra (great mantra). Needless to say, he was steeped in the Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi, who interpreted the war of the Mahabharata - an obvious aspect of the philosophical/religious epic mythology - as a metaphor for the confusions, doubts, fears and conflicts that trouble all people at one time or another. He thus used the culminating message of the Gita to aid him in his own struggle against the colonial rule of the British.
The first great yogin to spread the message of Hindu Yoga in America was the dynamic Swami Vivekananda, follower of Shri Ramakrishna, known for his seminal commentaries on the four yogas, those of Bhakti, Jnana, Karma and Raja Yoga. In writing them, he drew from his knowledge of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita to expound on them. (See below for "Bhagavad Gita as a Yoga Scripture"). Swami Sivananda, a renowned yogin, advises that the true yogin will read verses from the Bhagavad Gita every day. Paramahamsa Yogananda, writer of the famous "Autobiography of a Yogi," viewed the Bhagavad Gita as one of the world's two most divine scriptures, along with the Four Gospels of Jesus.
Bhagavad Gita as a Yoga Scripture
The Gita addresses this discord within us and speaks of the yoga of equanimity - a balanced outlook. The term yoga covers a wide range of meanings, but in the context of the Bhagavad Gita it describes a unified outlook, serenity of mind, skill in action, and the ability to stay attuned to the glory of the Self (Atman), which is ultimately one with the ground of being (Brahman). It is the basis of all yoga philosophy. According to Krishna, the root of all suffering and discord is the agitation of the mind caused by desire. The only way to douse the flame of desire, says Krishna, is by stilling the mind through discipline of the senses and the intellect.
However, total abstinence from action is regarded as being just as detrimental as extreme indulgence. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the goal of life is to free the mind and intellect from their complexities and to focus them on the glory of the Self. This goal can be achieved through the yogas of meditation, action, devotion and knowledge.
Krishna summarizes the Yogas through eighteen chapters. Yoga can fundamentally be said to comprise FOUR MAIN TYPES: Raja Yoga (psycho-physical meditation), Bhakti Yoga (devotion and love), Karma Yoga (selfless action), and Jnana [pronounced GYAAN]Yoga (self-transcending knowledge). Other forms that exist today sprang up long after the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras (to be discussed below) and are all essentially forms of Raja Yoga.
While each path differs, their fundamental goal is one and the same: to realize Brahman (the Divine Ground), as being the only truth, that the body is temporal, but the soul (Atman) is infinite and one with Brahman. Yoga's aim (nirvana, moksha) is essentially to escape from the cycle of reincarnation through realization of oneness with the ultimate reality.
Here are some quotations from Lord Krishna that make up history's first real yoga text and give comprehensive definitions of the four principle yogas:
On The Goal Of Yoga
" When the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, and when beholding the Self, by the self, he is content in the Self." (B.G., Chapter 6, Verse 20) | " He who finds his happiness within, his delight within, and his light within, this yogi attains the bliss of Brahman, becoming Brahman."
On Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga is, in general, stilling of the mind and body through meditative techniques, geared at realizing one's true nature. This practice was later described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
" Establishing a firm seat for himself in a clean place... having directed his mind to a single object, with his thought and the activity of the senses controlled, he should practice yoga for the purpose of self-realization. Holding the body, head and neck erect, motionless and steady, gazing at the tip of his own nose and not looking in any direction, with quieted mind, banishing fear, established in the brahmacharin vow of celibacy, controlling the mind, with thoughts fixed on Me, he should sit, concentrated, devoted to Me. Thus, continually disciplining himself, the yogin whose mind is subdued goes to nirvana, to supreme peace, to union with Me." (B.G., Chapter 6, Verses 11-15)
On Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is simply love and devotion, epitomized by such traditions as worship of Krishna, dedicating one to Mother Kali. This Hindu system of worship is analogous to finding salvation in Christ through love.
".... those who, renouncing all actions in Me, and regarding Me as the Supreme, worship me... of those whose thoughts have entered into Me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of death and transmigration, Arjuna. Keep your mind on Me alone, your intellect on Me. Thus you shall dwell in me hereafter." (B.G., Chapter 12, Verses 6-8) " And he who serves me with the yoga of unswerving devotion, transcending these qualities [binary opposites, like good and evil, pain and pleasure] is ready for absorption in Brahman." (B.G. Chapter 14, Verse 26)
On Karma Yoga
Karma Yoga is essentially acting, or doing one's duties in life, without desire or expectation of reward, a sort of constant sacrifice of action to the Supreme. It is action done without thought of gain. It includes, but is not limited to, dedication of one's chosen profession and its perfection to God. It is also visible in community and social service, since they are inherently done without thought of personal gain.
" With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the yogins perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace..." (B.G. Chapter 5, Verses 11-12)
On Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga is a process of learning to discriminate between what is real and what is not, what is eternal and what is not eternal. Through a steady advancement in realization of the real and the unreal, what is eternal and temporal, one develops into a Jnana Yogin. This is essentially a path to God through knowledge and disrimination, and has been described as being the "shortest, but steepest" path to God: the most difficult one.
" When he perceives the various states of being as resting in the One, and from That alone spreading out, then he attains Brahman. / They who know, through the eye of knowledge, the distinction between the field and the knower of the field, as well as the liberation of beings from material nature, go to the Supreme." (B.G. Chapter 15, Verse 31 / Verse 35)
Revelation of the Supreme
A memorable passage of the Gita is in the Eleventh Chapter in which Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna in all his splendid forms, all the plenary permutations of beings, the many gods and planes of existences all subsumed into the one essential Super-consciousness. A stirring excerpt from Sir Edwin Arnold's highly poetic style follows:
Therefore I give thee sense divine. Have other eyes, new light!
And, look! This is My glory, unveiled to mortal sight!
Sanjaya: Then, O King! the God, so saying,
Stood, to Pritha's Son displaying
All the splendour, wonder, dread
Of His vast Almighty-head.
Out of countless eyes beholding,
Out of countless mouths commanding,
Countless mystic forms enfolding
In one Form: supremely standing
Countless radiant glories wearing,
Countless heavenly weapons bearing,
Crowned with garlands of star-clusters,
Robed in garb of woven lustres,
Breathing from His perfect Presence
Breaths of every subtle essence
Of all heavenly odours; shedding
Blinding brilliance; overspreading—
Boundless, beautiful—all spaces
With His all-regarding faces;
So He showed! If there should rise
Suddenly within the skies
Sunburst of a thousand suns
Flooding earth with beams undeemed-of,
Then might be that Holy One's
Majesty and radiance dreamed of!
So did Pandu's Son behold
All this universe enfold
All its huge diversity
Into one vast shape, and be
Visible, and viewed, and blended
In one Body—subtle, splendid,
God of Gods, the Never-Ending
But, sore amazed,
Thrilled, o'erfilled, dazzled, and dazed,
Arjuna knelt; and bowed his head,
And clasped his palms; and cried, and said:
Arjuna: Yea! I have seen! I see!
Lord! all is wrapped in Thee!
The gods are in Thy glorious frame! the creatures
Of earth, and heaven, and hell
In Thy Divine form dwell,
And in Thy countenance shine all the features
Of Brahma, sitting lone
Upon His lotus-throne;
Of saints and sages, and the serpent races
Yea! mightiest Lord! I see
Thy thousand thousand arms, and breasts, and faces,
And eyes,—on every side
And nowhere end of Thee, nowhere beginning,
Nowhere a centre! Shifts—
Wherever soul's gaze lifts—Thy central Self, all-wielding, and all-winning!"
In many ways a heterogeneous text, the Gita is a reconciliation of many facets and schools of Hindu philosophy of both Brahmanical (i.e., orthodox, Vedic) origin and the parallel ascetic, yogic tradition. It comprises primarily Vedic (as in the four Vedas, as opposed to the Upanishads/Vedanta), Upanishadic, Samkhya and Yoga philosophy. It has stood the time, bringing together all four thought systems by taking their largely cohesive, common ideologies and backgrounds into the powerful Sanskrit verse of one text.
It had always been a seminal text for Hindu priests and yogins in India. Although not strictly part of the 'canon' of Vedic writings, almost all Hindu sects draw upon the Gita as authoritative. Recently, textual studies have indicated that it may have been inserted into the Mahabharata at a later date, but this is only natural as it sounds more like an Upanishad (which are commentaries that followed the Vedas) in thought than a Purana (histories of Hindu gods and goddesses), of which tradition the Mahabharata is a part.
For its religious depth, quintessential Upanishadic and Yogic philosophy and beauty of verse, the Bhagavad Gita is one of the most compelling and important texts to come out of the Hindu tradition. Indeed, it stands tall among the world's greatest religious and spiritual scriptures.
Text Used Above
Winthrop Sargeant (the Yogas) and Sir Edwin Arnold (Revelation) translations
External Links: the text and translations
The Bhagavad Gita is quickly becoming one of the most popular religious texts in translation with numerous readings and adaptations of its 700 verses in many languages having come out, especially with its exposure to the world outside of India. It should be kept in mind that different translators and commentators have widely differing views on what multi-layered Sanskrit words and passages truly signifiy and their best possible presentation in English. Different authors offer a wealth of diverse views which, when taken as a corpus of literature, present a fittingly varicolored idea of the possible interpretations of the religion and philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.
English translations of high repute not available on the public domain include those of Juan Mascaro (praised by Aurobindo Ghosh), Barbara Stoler-Miller, the combined effort of Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda and Winthrop Sargeant.
- Bhagvad Geeta source text in Sanskrit/Devnagari at Wikisource
- Selections from Eknath Easwaran's poetic translation of the Gita:
- Mahatma Gandhi Translation and interspersed commentary
- Sir Edwin Arnold translation (1900): highly poetic style
- Shri Aurobindo Ghosh's, a great Hindu mystic scholar and guru, translation and Excerpts of Shri Aurobindo's highly influential scholarly philosopho-mystical essays on the Gita
- Prabhupada A.C. Bhaktivedanta translation from theistic Vaishnava tradition
- www.bhagavad-gita.org: Verses in Sanskrit Devnagari, transliteration, word-for-word translations, verse translations and accompanying chants in Realaudio)
- William Quan Judge of the Theosophical Society
- Dr. Ramanand Prasad, of the American Gita Society
- Sanderson Beck translation
- Kashinath Trimbak Telang translation
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