By Vidagdha Madhav Das
What is Bhagavad Gita?
Bhagavad Gita, ‘The Song of God’, contains the teachings of Sri Krishna. In 700 beautiful verses, Sri Krishna presents the gist of the voluminous Vedas. If we had to choose a single book to represent the spiritual and cultural traditions of India, it would certainly be the Bhagavad Gita.
This theological and philosophical treatise comes in the form of a dialogue between Sri Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna, just before the devastating Mahabharat war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. All the world’s armies had gathered at the battlefield of Kurukshetra to take sides in this fratricidal conflict.
Arjuna fell into a state of grief foreseeing the massacre about to take place. Reluctant to shoot his weapons at his family members, friends and teachers, he decided to relinquish the war altogether. In this moment of crisis, Arjuna turned to his friend and charioteer Sri Krishna for counsel. Thus the Bhagavad Gita was spoken.
Bhagavad Gita, for its profound wisdom and insight, has been highly recognized by eminent scholars, scientists and philosophers:
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and insignificant. – Henry David Thoreau, American author and historian
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day. – Mahatma Gandhi, Indian freedom fighter and politician
I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, American writer and poet
Even the Vedas and the great spiritual teachers have glorified Bhagavad Gita. In the Padma Purana, Lord Siva speaks the glories of the Bhagavad Gita to his consort Parvati and this conversation is recorded as Gita Mahatmya:
If one properly follows the instructions of Bhagavad Gita, one can be freed from all miseries and anxieties in this life, and one’s next life will be spiritual. – Gita Mahatmya 1
If one reads Bhagavad Gita very sincerely and with all seriousness, then by the grace of the Lord the reactions of his past misdeeds will not act upon him. – Gita Mahatmya 2
One may cleanse himself daily by taking a bath in water, but if one takes a bath even once in the sacred Ganges water of Bhagavad Gita, for him the dirt of material life is altogether vanquished. – Gita Mahatmya 3
Because Bhagavad Gita is spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one need not read any other Vedic literature. One need only attentively and regularly hear and read Bhagavad Gita. In the present age, people are so absorbed in mundane activities that it is not possible for them to read all the Vedic literatures. But this is not necessary. This one book, Bhagavad Gita, will suffice, because it is the essence of all Vedic literatures and especially because it is spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. – Gita Mahatmya 4
One who drinks the water of the Ganges attains salvation, so what to speak of one who drinks the nectar of Bhagavad Gita? Bhagavad Gita is the essential nectar of the Mahabharat, and it is spoken by Sri Krishna Himself, the original Vishnu. – Gita Mahatmya 5
This Gitopanishad, Bhagavad Gita, the essence of all the Upanishads, is just like a cow, and Sri Krishna, who is famous as a cowherd boy, is milking this cow. Arjuna is just like a calf, and learned scholars and pure devotees are to drink the nectarean milk of Bhagavad Gita. – Gita Mahatmya 6
Let there be one scripture only, one common scripture for the whole world — Bhagavad Gita. Let there be one God for the whole world — Sri Krishna. Let there be only one hymn, one mantra, one prayer — the chanting of His name. Let there be one work only — the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. – Gita Mahatmya 7
The great spiritual teacher Sri Adi Sankaracarya also glorifies the Bhagavad Gita:
Let a man read but a little from the Bhagavad Gita, drink just a drop of water from the Ganga, worship Murari (Krishna) just once. He then will have no altercation with Yama (the lord of death). – Text 21, the famous song bhaja govindam
What is the essence of the teachings of Bhagavad Gita?
Beyond the myriad of identities we assume in this world, based on gender, caste, race, religion, nationality, and so on, Bhagavad Gita explains that we are ‘indestructible’ spirit souls encaged in temporary material bodies, suffering due to forgetfulness of our pure spiritual consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita is like a manual that teaches us how to revive our pure spiritual consciousness, which is full of uninterrupted happiness, through the process of yoga.
The Sanskrit word yoga comes from the root word yuj – ‘to connect’. Yoga is the process of connecting with the Supreme, Sri Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita explains four types of yoga: karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, dhyana-yoga and bhakti-yoga.
- Karma yoga: Karma means work. By default, our work is motivated by the desire to enjoy its fruits. But when we offer the fruits of our work to Sri Krishna as an act of sacrifice, our work becomes karma yoga. This is a way to connect with the Supreme. For example, people regularly offer their wealth in charity for the worship of Sri Krishna in temples.
- Jnana yoga: Jnana means knowledge. Modern science is limited to study of matter, both gross and subtle. But Vedas, in addition to material knowledge, explain the science of spirit, the living force that drives everything animate in this world. Vedas also talk about the invisible all-pervading presence of the Supreme known as brahman, the impersonal aspect of Sri Krishna. The analytical study of the Vedas to understand the workings of the matter and spirit and thus, connecting with the all-pervading Supreme is known as jnana yoga. For example, many monks dedicate their lives to analyse ancient scriptures and derive answers for questions such as who are we, where did we come from, what is the cause of our suffering, what happens to us after death and so on.
- Dhyana yoga: Dhyana means meditation. Through a systematic mechanical process of meditation, beginning with practice of different sitting postures, breathing exercises and following rules such as celibacy, we gain control over the mind and senses. Ultimately, the mind enters into a state of trance wherein one connects with the Supreme residing within the heart as paramatma or Supersoul, the localised partial aspect of Sri Krishna. Such meditation is dhyana yoga. For example, many Himalayan yogis sit in caves and lead austere lives to practice meditation for years.
- Bhakti yoga: Bhakti means devotion. Beyond the impersonal and localised aspect of the Supreme, there lies the personal aspect known as bhagavan, the all-attractive Supreme person known as Sri Krishna. Yes! God is ultimately a person, though not like you and me. He is the source of everything that exists. In other words, everything is the property of Sri Krishna and everyone is the beloved child of Sri Krishna. The path of bhakti yoga, thus, entails directing our actions, words and thoughts for the pleasure of Sri Krishna and engaging everything in his service with love and devotion. This is a direct way of connecting with the Supreme. For example, many bhakti practitioners perform loud chanting of his holynames in the form of a mantra (known as kirtan, now popular in the west as well), elaborate worship of his deity form in a temple (known as arati), offering of food to him and honouring his remnants (known as prasad), reciting and hearing his divine activities (known as lila) from the literatures such as Srimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharat.
Bhagavad Gita(6.47) states that among the above four, bhakti yoga is the culmination of all yoga practice and the most effective means to revive our pure spiritual consciousness because it directly connects us with the Supreme, Sri Krishna.
What are the main topics discussed in the Bhagavad Gita?
The Bhagavad Gita offers a detailed analysis of five main topics:
- Isvara (the Supreme) – Just as an invisible string threads a necklace of pearls, the hand of the Supreme orchestrates the cosmic order. The Gita teaches the process to develop the eyes to see that hand.
- Jiva (soul) – A car cannot move on its own; a driver maneuvers it. Similarly, the body does not function by itself; the soul drives it. The Gita explains the nature of the soul and what happens to the soul at the time of death.
- Prakrti (material nature) – Like a puppet that is manipulated by strings, we are driven to act – sometimes against our better judgment – by unseen forces of material nature called gunas. The Gita explains how the gunas influence our lives.
- Karma (the intricacies of action and reaction) – Why do bad things happen to good people? The Gita delineates the cause of our miseries and teaches the art of living that will put an end to our suffering.
- Kala (time) – The Gita reveals the source of the all-powerful time that devours everything in this world.
Is the Bhagavad Gita relevant for me?
Do you feel confused, dejected and helpless in trying situations such as failure in career, loss of a dear one, health crisis, interpersonal conflicts and so on? If no, you must either be a crazy person or a self-realized soul. If yes, you are a normal human for whom Bhagavad Gita is highly relevant. But why?
Arjuna, while in a state of confusion due to a trying situation, turned to Krishna who in response spoke the wisdom of Bhagavad Gita. After the entire conversation, Arjuna stated: “O Krishna, my illusion is now gone. I am free from doubt and firmly situated. Now I am prepared to perform my duty as per your instructions.” The Bhagavad Gita thus equips us with the wisdom and courage to cope with the inevitable challenges of our day-to-day lives. It is not an arm chair philosophy. The dramatic setting of a battlefield, wherein the Gita was spoken, indicates that it is meant for practical application.
The Gita says that our life is also like a battlefield where in we need to constantly fight with an enemy within. What’s that enemy? It is the ignorance of our real self, the spirit soul. This ignorance is the root cause of all our suffering in this world.
Can the message of Bhagavad Gita make the world a better place?
Think for a moment: “What has made the world a filthy place to live in?” Is it lack of sufficient food to eat, clothing to wear or a house to stay? Or is it a result of the growing selfish greed amongst humans.
There’s enough in this world to meet everyone’s need, but not enough to meet even one person’s greed. – Mahatma Gandhi
The real problem is not lack of resources, but a dearth of character amongst humans. Bhagavad Gita thus creates a strong spiritual foundation for building our character. It essentially changes our world view. In the following video, Radhanath Swami, a spiritual leader, explains three basic views of the world (which includes the Gita view):
To the extent people accept the Gita view, they shall automatically become a part of making the world a better place.
Which edition of the Bhagavad Gita should I read?
According to the Bhagavad Gita, one should learn spiritual knowledge from a guru.
The guru should belong to an authorized lineage (parampara or sampradaya). As per the Padma Purana, there are four bona fide sampradayas that begin with Vishnu himself.
- Brahma Sampradaya – Brahma was the first recipient of spiritual knowledge in this lineage, and Sri Madhvacarya was the most prominent teacher.
- Sri Sampradaya – Lakshmi was the first recipient of spiritual knowledge in this lineage, and Sri Ramanujacarya was the most prominent teacher.
- Kumara Sampradaya – The four Kumaras (Sanaka, Sanatana, Sanat and Sananda) were the first recipients of spiritual knowledge in this lineage, and Sri Nimbarkacarya was the most prominent teacher.
- Rudra (Siva) Sampradaya – Lord Siva was the first recipient of spiritual knowledge in this lineage, and Sri Visnu Swami was the most prominent teacher.
The most widely-read edition of Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavad Gita as it is, is translated and commented by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who comes in the lineage of Brahma Sampradaya. This edition has been translated into more than 50 languages across the world.