What is the Bhagavad Gita?

The Bhagavad Gita is traditionally attributed to the legendary sage Vyasa and is known for the magnificence of its imagery and language. It is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata and focuses on virtue and duty with, at its center, a memorable dialogue between Krishna (an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu) and the warrior-prince Arjuna.

The story is about a conflict, the possibly mythical Battle of Kurukshetra (between the Pandavas and Kauravas), in which Arjuna fronts up against another branch of his family over a dispute on who should rule the kingdom or Bharat. Arjuna is a member of the Kshatriya class (the warrior or ruling elite in the Hindu varna), which means that it is his duty to fight. However, he is despairing over the prospect of killing his relatives and those he respects on the opposing side. 

Arjuna would rather just give up the kingdom than ever be involved in the slaughtering of his family and teachers. Arjuna also feared that killing family and his teachers would create bad karma for all persons involved. In Hinduism, killing a relative is thought to lead to the downfall of a family and rebirth in hell. Thus, Arjuna is caught in a dilemma: it is his duty to fight as a member of the Kshatriya, but he wants to avoid the karmic consequences of killing. Advice comes from Arjuna’s charioteer, who is actually an avatar of the god Krishna. Krishna announces, 

“Arjuna, I am the taste of pure water and the radiance of the sun and moon. I am the sacred word and the sound heard in air, and the courage of human beings. I am the sweet fragrance in the earth and the radiance of fire; I am the life in every creature and the striving of the spiritual aspirant.”

Through the charioteer, Krishna says to Arjuna that it is his duty to fight and that he has the “right to perform your prescribed duties.” Krishna further informs Arjuna that the only way to create bad karma is to do something for the wrong reasons, perhaps out of hatred, greed, or anger: “When a man dwells on the pleasure of sense, attraction for them arises in him. From attraction arises desire, the lust of possession, and this leads to passion, to anger.”

But to possess selfless motives is appropriate and will lead one towards personal liberation. It is one’s motives behind any of his actions that should be considered in light of karmic consequences. Arjuna is, teaches Krishna, appropriate concerning his motive because he is willing to act out his duty without any selfish interests. Krishna then provides Arjuna with a second reason why he ought to do battle, which is that the self is immortal and passes through a succession of incarnations, which means that no one is really killed. After all, only the body dies, but the soul will live again in a different body. Historian and phenomenologist of religion Ninian Smart explains,

“In the Bhagavadgita, Visnu as Lord and numinous creator of the universe reveals himself as also loving. His avatar Krsna declares at the end: “Those who worship me with complete discipline and who contemplate me, whose thoughts are constantly on me—these I soon raise up from the sea of death and rebirth” Arjuna, awaiting battle against his relatives, is given a firmer mind after his confusions and despair about the dread effects of battling against his kith and kin” (1).

The motivation behind composing the Bhagavad Gita is important. When it was composed, there were two dominant but different trends in religious thought in India (2). The oldest one dated to the early Vedic period and prompted social order and duty as the basis of morality. This perspective was, however, challenged by the emergence of the Buddhist and Jainist philosophies and their proponents who claimed that “not killing” was the foundational precept to morality. This belief presented a strong shift away from the Vedic class system and its traditional obligations, which is why the Bhagavad Gita presents Krishna giving advice maintaining class obligations in the face of criticism from philosophies centered on karma and reincarnation. 

Today the Bhagavad Gita continues to be an important text of much religious and spiritual significance. For most Hindus, it explores important moral dilemmas and celebrates human qualities. It presents role models for devotees to follow and provides a representation of a god, Vishnu, who cares for people. As Smart concludes, “There are many riches in the Gita (“song”), as it is often called for short; but the central value is that of loyalty and devotion to God, namely bhakti” (3). The Bhagavad Gita is also the central religious text of the Hindu sect, the Hares Krishnas, who place its inspiration on par with the Vedas. 

References

1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 88-89.

2. Ambalu, Shulamit., et al.. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. 

3. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 88-89.

One comment

  1. Hi James:

    (First, apologies if my comments were out of line with Tom Brower – I tend to get frustrated with people who don’t recognize the absurdities and irrationality of physicalism)

    Thanks for this post on the Gita, one of my favorite contemplative texts.

    For folks new to the Gita, I strongly recommend Swami Sarvapriyananda’s commentaries. He is one of the liveliest, most enjoyable speakers online on any spiritual topic. Just go to YouTube and search Sarvapriyananda + Bhagavad Gita (if you just search “Gita” you’ll come up with several other “Gitas” – a word just meaning “song”)

    Swami presents the standard Advaita view, quite different from the devotional Hare Krishna approach. Advaita sees Krishna as symbolic of the infinite, unthinkable, impersonal Reality of pure Consciousness, the approach to which is primarily one of Knowledge – not intellectual knowledge but direct non-phenomenological “Knowledge by identity” (as Sri Aurobindo puts it).

    Those two choices – the devotional and the “Jnana” or knowledge based view are most of what you will find.

    Swami Medhananda – in somewhat academic language – talks of another approach, one that Sri Aurobindo took, in which impersonal knowledge of the Infinite – “Jnana” – and personal, dynamic awareness of the Infinite manifesting as all this – “Vijnana” – is seen as the core message of the gita, a view closer to that of Sri Aurobindo and also to contemplative Christianity, Sufism and Judaism (and to some extent, Tibetan Buddhism).

Let me know your thoughts!

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