Bhagawad Gita


In Vedanta, प्रस्थान-त्रयी Prasthaan-Trayi – the three main scriptures conducive to मोक्ष Moksha (Liberation from transmigration) – refers to Upanishads, Bhagawad-Gita, and Brahma-Sutras. Shrimad Bhagawad-Gita is called स्मार्त प्रस्थान Smarta-Prasthaan i.e. scripture from Smriti (for various aspects of Indian Scriptures please see Indian Scriptues) because it appears in the Bhishma Parva of Mahabharata and Mahabharata is a Smriti. Bhagawad-Gita is the dialog between Lord Krishna - regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu - and Arjuna, the Pandava hero, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra where armies of Kauravas and Pandavas are about to start the epic war. Gita contains the essence of Upanishads and it also gives the practical path to reach the goal of Self/God; Swami Vivekananda observers:

'The Gita is a commentary on the Upanishads. ...
...Gita takes the ideas of the Upanishads and in [some] cases the very words. They are strung together with the idea of bringing out, in a compact, condensed, and systematic form, the whole subject the Upanishads deal with.'

'The Gita is like a bouquet composed of beautiful flowers of spiritual truths collected from the Upanishads.'

Until Sri Shankaracharya wrote his famous commentary on Gita, it was lost in the colossal Mahabharata; Shankara with his masterly commentary brought out the importance of Gita and since then it is one of the main pillars of Vedanta in India. In modern times – especially after translations of Gita into English in Nineteenth Century and Swami Vivekananda’s expounding of Vedanta to the West – Gita is rapidly gaining the status of world-scripture of Spirituality.

There are few beautiful ध्यान-श्लोक Dhyana-Shlokas (Meditation Verses) on Gita - attributed to Shridhar Swami or Madhusudan Saraswati - which are generally recited before reading/reciting Gita. In the first verse, Gita is praised as Divine Mother who destroys our ignorance/worldliness, saves us from rebirths (भवद्वेषिणीम्), and showers the bliss of non-dual Pure-Consciousness-Bliss on us (अद्वैतामृतवर्षिणी) as we constantly meditate on Her. Second verse praises Bhagawan Vyasa, the composer of Mahabharata and various other scriptures. Next few verses are in praise of Sri Krishna wherein Upanishads are seen as ‘cows’ that are milked by the expert ‘milkman’ Krishna and the sweet, strengthening ‘milk’ of Gita is the result! The 'milk' of Gita was for Arjuna - the ‘calf’- and also for all the virtuous people of the world. Sri Krishna is praised also as an 'expert boatman' who successfully carried the boat of Pandavas across the 'river of war' full of various dangers in the form of Kauravas! Last few verses seek grace of God and Gita for all.

Sri Shankaracharya has written a brief but profound introduction (उपोद्घात Upodghaat) to his commentary on Gita, which gives wonderful summary of Vedanta and its impact on human society. Some of the main points in it are as below:

  • From Supreme, Infinite, Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Reality, the un-manifested (un-differentiated) Nature (अव्यक्त प्रकृति) arose and from that 'un-manifested Nature' the manifested (differentiated) phenomenal universe consisting the seven-continental Earth appeared.

  • In order to maintain the projected universe, the Supreme Being/God then projected the प्रजापती Prajapatis (Marichi and others) and instructed them the philosophy of प्रवृत्ति Pravritti (outward going) i.e. imbued them with outward projecting tendencies. Then He projected His नित्य कुमार Nitya Kumaras (Eternal Children - Saanaka, Sanatana, Sanatkumar, and Sanandana) and instructed them the philosophy of निवृत्ति Nivritti (inward going) i.e. imbued them with inward going tendencies which are characterized by knowledge, renunciation, and detachment.

  • Thus the famous Dharma of Vedas has two vital aspects: प्रवृत्तिलक्षण: Pravrittilakshana (circling outwards) and निवृत्तिलक्षण: Nivrittilakshana (circling within). Both of these are necessary for the maintenance of the universe; outward action, responsibility etc. as well as inward meditation, contemplation etc. are needed for healthy development of individual and society. These two enable for external growth, prosperity, better life (अभ्युदय Abhudaya) and also for peace, happiness, bliss (नि:श्रेयस Nishreyasa). Abhudaya also means performing good deeds and worship in this life to achieve higher spheres of existence after death and Nishreyasa also means performing spiritual practices in order to achieve final Liberation (मोक्ष Moksha).

  • As time passed, desires developed in the hearts of beings which resulted in overpowering of धर्म Dharma (righteousness) with अधर्म Adharma (unrighteousness). Then in order to protect the virtuous and to maintain the world, the Supreme Being manifested in this world of mortals as कृष्ण Krishna, the son of Devaki and Vasudeva. By protecting virtuous/spiritual people, the वैदिक धर्म Vaidika Dharma (Eternal Religion of Vedas) – which has the systematic arrangement of society according the skills and moral, ethical development of people (वर्णाश्रम Varnashrama) – is protected.

  • Though God is unborn, imperishable, controller of all beings, ever-free, ever-pure, omniscient, omnipresent and is endowed with splendor, power, courage, knowledge, and luminosity, He/She manifests and sports as human being using His/Her cosmic divine power (माया Maya). This is done in order to bestow Grace on people and to help virtuous people.

  • Thus the Supreme Being/God in human form i.e. Sri Krishna explained the Vaidika Dharma to Arjuna who was afflicted by grief and delusion; in doing so the Lord had no selfish motive of his own but out of compassion for all beings, he thought that this teaching will help virtuous people and thus will help spreading Dharma (righteousness) in the world.

  • The twofold Dharma (of Pravritti and Nivritti) expounded by the Lord to Arjuna was recorded exactly as it is by Veda-Vyasa in the seven hundred verses of Bhagawad Gita. This scripture of Gita is the essence of all Vedas and is difficult to understand owing to the subtlety of the message.

  • Many have tried to explain the meaning of Bhagawad Gita using various commentaries, words, explanations etc. but still common man finds it hard to grasp hence I am (i.e. Shankaracharya) writing a succinct explanation on Gita in order to rationally bring out its proper meaning.

  • This scripture of Gita has its aim as the highest well-fare (Nishreyasa) of human being namely मोक्ष Moksha from संसार Samsara (Liberation from transmigration by the cessation of phenomena). And it is achieved through Self-knowledge which is characterised by renunciation of all ‘doer-mentality’ (mental attitude of ‘I am the performer of actions’); this is explained at various places in Mahabharata and Gita.

  • The other Dharma of Abhyudaya, though clearing ones way to heaven after death, if performed with detachment and surrender to the God, purifies the mind and makes it capable of enquiry into Truth; thus this way also ultimately conduces to Nishreyasa. This has also been clearly mentioned in Gita at various places.

  • Thus the two-fold Vaidika Dharma ultimately leads to the highest good of spiritual Liberation i.e. attainment of Self/God/Truth/Brahman. This is the special goal and purpose of Gita.

  • By realizing the meaning of Gita, one becomes fulfilled completely and attains all the four goals of life (Dharma, Artha, Kaam, Moksha); hence now I will try to expound it.

Sri Shankaracharya’s introduction thus brings out the essential character of Bhagawad Gita. It clearly highlights the two central movements of human life and society: action and contemplation. By pointing out the ultimate goal of existence for both the movements of human life, Gita becomes scripture for entire humanity.

The message of Gita is interpreted by various commentators according to their own philosophies (dualism, qualified-non-dualism, non-dualism etc.). Some have tried to highlight the ज्ञान Jnana (Knowledge) part, others भक्ति Bhakti (Devotion) part, still others कर्म Karma (Work) part; some have advocated combination of two or many. Anyone can see his/her ideas explained in Gita as it gives unified philosophy of Jnana and Bhakti, action and contemplation. Fortunately for us in modern period Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have pointed out that none of these aspects be at war with each other as they are all various aspects of the same Reality. द्वैत Dvaita (Dualism), विशिष्टाद्वैत Vishishtadvaita (Qualified Non-Dualism), and अद्वैत Advaita (Non-Dualism) are the different stages through which a spiritual aspirant passes before he/she ultimately merges in the Transcendental Reality (नित्य Nitya); after reaching the Supreme, if the aspirant returns to the phenomenal plane then he/she sees that the same Transcendent Reality has ‘become’ all the phenomenal universe and beings (लीला Lilaa). This broad view puts an end to all text torturing and persecution under limited and sectarian views; it harmonizes Jnana and Bhakti, action and contemplation, science and religion, reason and faith.

May the study of this immortal scripture liberate us from all delusions.

Grief and Delusion

Bhagawad-Gita has seven hundred verses divided in eighteen chapters; it is world’s ‘largest philosophical poem’! It's English translation in Ninetieth Century by Sir Edwin Arnold was rightly titled as ‘The Song Celestial’. The first chapter is called अर्जुन विषादयोग Arjuna Vishad-Yoga (the yoga of Arjuna’s Grief) as it portrays the grief and delusion into which Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior, finds himself before the war; it is termed Yoga as the grief caused Arjuna to come to Lord! First chapter gives description of the scene on the battlefield of Kurukshetra – a place known as holy, religious center from ancient times. Two ancient Indian clans – Kauravas and Pandavas – are about to start the epic ‘civil war’ of India. Duryodhana – the crown prince of Kauravas – is etching for the war; he has many great kings and warriors on his side and similarly the Pandava army is also filled with great and powerful warriors. Bhishma – the grand-sire of the two clans and Commander General of Kauravas – sounds the war bugle and immediately there is a great noise of war instruments like conchs, kettle-drums, tabors, trumpets, cow-horns etc. from Kaurava side. On the Pandava side Lord Krishna, seated as the charioteer to Arjuna on a beautiful chariot yoked to white horses, blows His divine conch-shell named Panchajanya; then Arjuna and followed by him other prominent warriors from Pandava side blow their respective conch-shells in orderly fashion. Thus the war was about to start.

At this moment, Arjuna asked Krishna to take his chariot in the middle of two armies so that he can see the Kaurava warriors who are eager for war; Krishna does the same and shows him the enemy army. Arjuna, who wanted to take a look at all those who wish to fight him, now suddenly, sees his relatives in the enemy; he finds that his grandfathers, father-in-laws, uncles, brothers, cousins, his sons and their sons, grandsons, comrades, teachers, friends etc. are eager to fight with him. This disturbs his mind and he is overcome by attachment, sorrow, and delusion. Thus forgetting 'the fighting spirit' as well as the injustice done by the Kauravas, he says to Krishna, ‘Seeing here my relatives gathered to fight, my mouth is parched, I am shivering and my hairs stand on end, my bow, Gandiva, slips from my hand and my skin burns; I can’t even stand and my mind whirls. I do not see any point in killing my own people; what pleasures will I enjoy if I kill my relatives and revered teachers. The Kauravas may be overcome by greed but why should we follow evil by killing our own clan; this act would be ruinous to us in this world and next; now if these Kauravas are to kill me un-resisted and unarmed in the battle that would be better for me.’ Saying these words he dropped his bow and arrow and sank down on the seat of his chariot.

Arjuna’s mental condition turned radically after he was overcome by attachment and sorrow. He had come to war with full knowledge of the enemy army and also he was aware of the great injustice done by the Kauravas to Pandavas; he was in the war for a 'just cause' and not for any selfish greed. All this he forgot and suddenly became nervous due to attachment; the delusion of ‘me and my people’ which covered his mind, made him put forth arguments in support of his mental condition; and thus the war which was a 'mission' for him and means to achieve justice now started appearing as a source of sin and degradation! But Lord Krishna was to see the real situation and not deceived by Arjuna’s arguments; He knew that all this talk of compassion, peace, non-violence by Arjuna is not from a position of strength, based on virtue and courage, but rather it is the result of weakness and nervousness of a mind that is emotionally disturbed. The Lord rightly saw that this state of mind is not helpful to Arjuna in anyway and decided to guide Arjuna correctly. Arjuna’s condition is representative of all of us facing various life-situations and like him we too make mistakes in judging people and ourselves. Instead of being guided by steady, rational mind we tend to confuse emotional opinions as truths and take wrong decisions; emotional attachments cloud the sane principles and delusion overpowers us. Thus the teaching which Lord Krishna will now impart in Gita is not just meant for Arjuna but is of utmost importance to all people at all times. With this picture of Arjuna submerged in delusion, ends the first chapter called Arjuna-Vishad-Yoga.

Arjuna is now sitting on his seat in a pitiable condition; Lord Krishna looks at him and rebukes him with following words: ‘wherefrom has this low-minded attitude come upon you at such a critical moment! Noble-minded people never take this attitude which not only brings ill-fame here on Earth but also makes one lose his glory in heaven.’

Arjuna was not expecting this reply from Sri Krishna; he expected Krishna to comfort him and praise him for the compassion and non-violent stand taken! But Sri Krishna gave him correct psychological shock in order to drive out the delusion. Further Krishna added: ‘Do not be chicken-hearted; this doesn’t befit a warrior like you. Give up this mean weakness of heart and stand-up, face the problems.’ The exact Sanskrit verse for this is as below:

क्लैब्यं मा स्म गम: पार्थ नैतत् त्वयि उपपद्यते ।
क्षुद्रं ह्रदयदौर्बल्यं त्यक्त्वोत्तिष्ठ परन्तप ॥

This is a powerful verse in the beginning of second chapter about which Swami Vivekananda used to say that in it is embedded the whole message of Gita and reading this one verse gives the merit reading whole Gita! It asks us to be brave and face life from a position of strength born out of the understanding of our real spiritual nature; without this strength life becomes meaningless and prone to ‘fear-borne-maladies’. These few but powerful words from Krishna acted as a tonic on Arjuna’s depressed mind; it shook him out of his grief and made him speak, about his confusion, a bit more coherently. He said, ‘How can I kill people like Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of our worship? I would rather prefer to lead a life of wandering monk begging for food than to enjoy the pleasures of life which I would achieve through the blood, of these elders and teachers, on my hand.’ This reply of Arjuna shows that though he has recovered a bit, his mind still is confused about the right course of action; he was in this war to fight against injustice – a right action for his position as a warrior king (क्षत्रिय स्वधर्म Kshatriya Swadharma) – and not for gaining pleasures of life. He is confused about the values in life as is indicated by his talk of being a wandering monk – an ideal which should come out of true renunciation and detachment and not through depression and confusion.

After saying these words, Arjuna expected some reply from Krishna; but could get only silence from Krishna and this made him realize his mistake, so he now clearly asks Krishna for guidance by saying, ‘We don’t know which is better for us: to win or to lose to the enemy. And these Kauravas whom we don’t want to kill are in front of us.’ An attitude of genuine inquiry and discipleship now descended on Arjuna and he further said, ‘I have overcome by faint-heartedness and I am confused as to what is right course of action. I request you to teach me what is beneficial for me as I have surrendered myself to you. I see no means, on Earth or in heaven, to overcome this scorching of my senses due to grief and hence I won’t fight!’

From this point onward the main teaching of Bhagawad-Gita starts, as Sri Krishna would now guides Arjuna, step-by-step, towards wisdom.

Our true spiritual nature is infinite Pure-Consciousness-Bliss, but owing to ‘ignorance’ (Maya), we find ourselves in a universe surrounded by other beings; this is the superimposed state. In this state, attachment to illusory names and forms makes us lose the proper discrimination and result is sorrow and confusion, which leads us to wrong decisions and actions. The predicament of Arjuna is universal and hence guidance given by Krishna is also universal. Sri Krishna will first point out the real, Pure Consciousness nature of the self and later will show the journey required or the path to be trodden, for ignorance-removal. In describing these means he has to give guidance regarding right actions and certain moral duties (स्वधर्म व कर्तव्य Swadarma and Kartavya); but even while performing these, the ultimate aim should not be forgotten lest confusion between work v/s meditation, duty v/s renunciation etc. crop up. In this connection it is better to remember Sri Ramakrishna’s following teaching:

‘In the beginning, when a man reasons following the Vedantic method of 'Not this, not this', he realizes that Brahman is not the living beings, not the universe, not the twenty-four cosmic principles. All these things become like dreams to him. Then comes the affirmation of what has been denied, and he feels that God Himself has become the universe and all living beings. Suppose you are climbing to the roof by the stairs. As long as you are aware of the roof, you are also aware of the stairs. He who is aware of the high is also aware of the low. But after reaching the roof you realize that the stairs are made of the same materials—brick, lime, and brick-dust—as the roof.’

Thus Bhagawad-Gita is rightly one of the three pillars of Vedanta and its study is beneficial for all aspects of life.

(The notes on Srimad Bhagawad-Gita, in this section, are taken from the talks of Revered Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, Swami Ramananda Saraswati and Swami Shivatattwananda. Talks of Swami Ramananda Saraswati take into consideration the commentary of Adi Shankaracharya and Anandagiri Tika. Swami Chinmayananda's commentary of Gita is also referred for some sections.)