The Bhagavad Gita remains, to this day, one of the most influential books of the Hindu religion, estimated to originate as far back as roughly the third or fourth century BC (Davis 6). The Gita, or Song of the Blessed One or Lord is a long dialogue between Krishna (a Supreme Deity) and a warrior, Arjuna (Edgerton 105). The event takes place on the battle field of Kurukshetra, during a war between two rival families, finding the warrior-Prince Arjuna steeped in doubt and dejection (Edgerton 105). Through the dialogue, Krishna teaches and reveals the mysteries of existence to Arjuna, convincing him to perform his sacred duty and fight the impending war (Edgerton 105, Stoler-Miller). The Bhagavad Gita’s malleability has survived the ages and continues to have a profound effect on those who read it (Davis). This essay will examine the content of the Gita, in addition to various commentary of both individual chapters, and the work as a whole. In addition, this paper will supply further context of specific passages, and provide a moderate history of the book to substantiate its existence and importance in regard to Hindu tradition.
To begin, the actual content of The Bhagavad Gita shall be examined chapter by chapter. In the initial chapter of the Gita, Sanjaya, an overseer, or chorus of sorts, reports the setting to the blind King Dhritarashtra, which is made apparent by listing the warriors assembled on the “Kuru Field” (Edgerton 3). Near the end, we find Arjuna slumped in his chariot between the two sides, steeped in misery at the thought of going to war against his kinsmen, riddled with a lowness of spirit, physically crippled, in the presence of the imminent war before him. He foresees in the war “… omens of chaos” (Stoler-Miller 25), finding “…no good in killing [his] kinsmen” (Stoler-Miller 25). This chapter is known as Arjuna’s Dejection (Stoler-Miller 21) or Discipline of Arjuna’s Despondency (Edgerton 8).
Commentary from the viewpoint of the average Hindu, as provided in this paper by Eknath Easwaran, titles this chapter “The War Within”, and points out the first detail the reader must pick up in order to understand the actual purpose of the text – this is not Krishna’s fight, it is Arjuna’s own internal battle (Easwaran 47). The author points out some interesting insights here about the significance of the setting of the Gita, that may explain the seeming paradox of the lessons Krishna is trying to deliver in the context of a war. As the incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, Krishna is sworn to be noncombatant and impartial, and as Arjuna’s charioteer in the middle of a battlefield, this role becomes possible (Easwaran 47). Easwaran also explains some of the other people mentioned in the opening chapter, giving more context to the non-Hindu reader. The blind king, Dhritarashtra, is Arjuna’s uncle, and has been blind since birth (48). He was never actually supposed to rule, but ended up assuming power when his brother, Pandu, whom he co-ruled with, died (Easwaran 48). Dhritarashtra tried to eventually install Duryodhana, his own son, as King. However, the grown up son of Pandu, Yudhishthira, is the rightful heir, thus leading to the war and its imminency (Easwaran 48-49). Other people worth mentioning according to Easwaran are Drona, a brahmin-turned warrior specialist, who taught all the warriors including Arjuna, who was his prized student (Easwaran 49). Bhisma, “the grandsire”, a respected elder statesman, is also Dhritarashtra’s advisor, and worth mentioning according to the translator (Easwaran 49). Easwaran also discusses the two main viewpoints about the setting of war as a backdrop for the Gita. Firstly, there is the orthodox Hindu view that “…condones war for the warrior” (Easwaran 50), claiming war for a warrior is simply dharma playing out. War is tragic and honorable at the same time, and is an evil that simply cannot be avoided. War is in accordance with divine will to the orthodox viewpoint (Easwaran 50). The second view of this setting is the mystic standpoint, which claims an allegory of cosmic struggle between good and evil (Easwaran 50). Gandhi famously said by placing too much stock in the setting of the Gita “…gives importance only to its opening – its preface – ignoring the scripture itself” (Easwaran 50). Chapter one of the Bhagavad Gita “…bridges a rather perilous bridge between the warrior’s world,…and the really important part of the Gita – Sri Krishna’s revelations of spiritual truth” (Easwaran 51).
The second chapter, known as Philosophy and Spiritual Discipline (Stoler-Miller 29) or Discipline of Reason Method (Edgerton 17), lets the colloquial discourse of Krishna begin. Arjuna is so beside himself, his “…eyes [are] blurred by tears” (Stoler-Miller 29). Krishna urges Arjuna to rise to the occasion of his sacred duty, even though to Arjuna is clearly torn between “…conflicting sacred duties” (Stoler-Miller 30). Which is better? To not fight and be silent? Or to go into battle, and surely have to slay kinsmen? In this moment of the dialogue, Arjuna has settled on stepping aside from the fight that confronts him. Krishna begins with telling him that you “…[cannot] grieve for those beyond grief” and that “learned men do not grieve for the dead or the living” (Stoler-Miller 31). The deity is speaking of rebirth and reincarnation of spirit, beyond the realm of the human body. Krishna also reminds Arjuna that the senses are fleeting, the human body is impermanent, and that the embodied self is indestructible and immeasurable, and when one finds the infinite spirit within, one is freed from delusion (Stoler-Miller 34-39). The analogy used is of changing of clothing and the body, in that the cycle of life is inevitable. Arjuna questions what defines a man deep in contemplation and Krishna informs him that he has to give up desires, and be content with oneself. One must also free himself from attachment and desire. This chapter lays the foundation for further understanding of Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna, confirming he has no cause to grieve, since through self control and discipline, one finds serenity (Stoler-Miller 32-39).
According to Easwaran’s commentary, “The Illumined Man” is the title of the following chapter, chapter two of the Gita. Krishna’s task as Arjuna’s spiritual teacher is set out, to raise him out of despair and put him on his way to salvation (57). He points out that Arjuna has always been a man of action, and has not given much thought to spirituality at this point of his life, but as Krishna points out, active life alone is not enough (Easwaran 57-59). Thus Arjuna asks the perennial questions to give the Gita its purpose and mandate – Is there a soul?, What happens to the soul after death?, and Is there a deeper reality? (Easwaran 57-60). Interestingly, as the author points out, Krishna begins with an “ultimate premise” of the atman to answer his students principal questions (Easwaran 58), rather than leading Arjuna stage by stage. The main point is that the immortal soul is more important than the passing world (Easwaran 57-60). Out of his comprehension, Arjuna knows he needs Krishna as his Guru (in Hindu thought, one needs an experienced teacher to seek spiritual enlightenment) (Easwaran 57-60). This chapter also introduces the concept of samsara, and seeing past the dualities that exist in life (Easwaran 57-60). Also touched upon in this overview chapter are the different types of yoga and their importance for spirituality (Easwaran 57-60). One of the Gita’s most cited and famous quotes is found in this portion when Krishna answers Arjuna’s question about what difference spiritual wisdom makes in everyday life (Easwaran 59). The warning of sense objects, yet shying from austerity is also introduced (Easwaran 57-60).
The third teaching in the Gita expands on the notion of discipline regarding action. It is known as Discipline of Action (Stoler-Miller 41) or Discipline of Knowledge (Egderton 27). This chapter focuses on disciplined knowledge of the discipline of men themselves when in action. Arjuna questions whether understanding is more powerful than action and queries his mentor to”…speak one certain truth” (Stoler-Miller 41). His mentor replies by first explaining that one cannot escape the force of action, neither by abstaining by it or acting for fruits (Stoler-Miller 41-45). Krishna reaffirms that performing necessary action is far more powerful than inaction, and that actions must be performed without attachment, uttering words spoken by Prajapati (Stoler-Miller 42). Prajapati said “By sacrifice will you procreate! Let it be your wish-granting cow!” (Stoler-Miller 42). Perhaps the most important point in this section is when Krishna declares that “Your own action done imperfectly is better than doing someone else’s duty perfectly” (Stoler-Miller 46).
The third section of the scripture is called “Selfless Service” according to Easwaran. He explains the meaning of “karma yoga”, which translates in Sanskrit as “the way of action”, and this takes a sharp turn away from the previous chapter (Easwaran 71). While Krishna begins to try and teach his student, Arjuna can only find himself concerned with his immediate predicament (Easwaran 71). Krishna explains: we must all act selflessly and out of a sense of duty, doing our part in the grand scheme of things, which cannot be avoided (Easwaran 71-72). Here, the Doctrine of Karma comes to the forefront as Krishna tries to convince Arjuna to fight his battle, which is one of the most basic Hindu teachings (Easwaran 71-72). Put quite simply by Krishna, actions determine destiny, reminding him not to avoid work, but to perform them without selfish attachment (Easwaran 72). Arjuna’s next question deals with what binds us to our selfish ways, and his teacher answers that is the qualities of anger and selfish desire (Easwaran 73). The Gita refers to the Sankhya philosophy of the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas, warning of the pitfalls of the latter two (Easwaran 72-73). An example of a noble king by the name of Janaka is given as an example of how to conduct oneself to Arjuna (Easwaran 73).
Knowledge (Stoler-Miller 49) or Discipline of Renunciation of Actions (Edgerton 31) are the titles of the fourth teaching. Perhaps in this part of the Gita Arjuna better understands his sacred duty of action as a result of how Krishna clarifies true knowledge. The deity explains that when sacred duty decays and chaos prevails, he must then re-create himself to restore order, much the way sacrifice in the world of man (ie: Arjuna’s sacred duty to fight) is equivalent to action, even though action can easily be obscured (ie: wrong action, inaction) (Stoler-Miller 50-52). In other words, existence must keep going, and we must do our duty, even when it may not be desirable or ideal (Stoler-Miller 50-52). When one has true knowledge, which is the mastery of oneself, the totality of all action emanates in it, and if one recognizes this, one can never descend into delusion (Stoler-Miller 52-52). “The fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes (Stoler-Miller 54).
Chapter four, in reference to Easwaran’s treatise of the Gita is referred to as “Wisdom in Action”. Arjuna is informed he will be privy to “secret teachings” (Easwaran 81). The process of re-birth is again raised, and Krishna’s greatness is implied when he informs Arjuna he can recall his past lives unlike mortal men (Easwaran 81). Roots of the Sanskrit words avatar (avatara=descent) and krish (“to draw a plow”, “to draw to oneself”) are also explained by this author (Easwaran 82-83), which gives some insight into the Hindu thought about God. The latter part of this chapter turns back again to Arjuna’s problem, and Krishna makes a new point in the final verses, in that wisdom is the end of selfless action, knowing is the fruit of doing (Easwaran 83).
Chapter five is called Renunciation of Action (Stoler-Miller 57) or Discipline of Meditation (Edgerton 37), and focuses on which is superior: renunciation of action or discipline. Krishna teaches discipline in action is better, and that by mastery of one correctly, one will find the fruit of both, and that renunciation is impossible without discipline (Stoler-Miller 57). He further explains that undisciplined men are in bondage, attached to the fruit of desire (Stoler-Miller 58). Through “…exist[ing] in the infinite spirit, [men will find] flawless equilibrium” (Stoler-Miller 59).
The fifth chapter, according to lay Hindus, is titled “Renounce and Rejoice”, and contrasts complete renunciation (sannyasa) and detachment in the working world (Easwaran 91). Siddhartha Gautama’s quest, for example, is a prime illustration of trying to maintain balance yet avoiding austerity through a middle way (Easwaran 91). The translator points out that the word “yoga” presents difficulties in the Gita, as it means different things at different times (Easwaran 92). Generally speaking, it is fair to say that yoga=practice and sankhya=theory (Easwaran 92). The Gita could indeed be the first Hindu scripture to combine karma yoga and the pursuit of self knowledge together (Easwaran 92). The true goal of action is knowledge of the self, and in that the example of the lotus flower is given – it spends its life floating in water, yet is waterproof (Easwaran 92). Krishna’s point is that a life of work cannot be fulfilling without self knowledge, also known as the knowledge of Brahman (Easwaran 93). The last three verses, as the author points out, deal with Samadhi, and how once established, can come and go, yet always be resilient (Easwaran 93-94).
The Man of Discipline (Stoler-Miller 63) or Discipline of Meditation (Edgerton 41), the name of the sixth teaching of Krishna to Arjuna, outlines what proper discipline in living is. Declaring that discipline is renunciation, only one who is mature in this has tranquility as a means (Stoler-Miller 63). For Krishna, discipline is equal to renouncing and detaching from all intentions, sense objects and actions being renounced and detached from (Stoler-Miller 63-69). Men need to “elevate not degrade oneself” (Stoler-Miller 63). The self is both ones best friend and worst foe, and a man without self-mastery is in internal war (Stoler-Miller 64) and by controlling the mind, diet, breath, demeanor, senses, sleepfulness, desires and cravings, the disciplined man is “…unmoved, even by deep suffering” (Stoler-Miller 66). The man who’s self is in God and who “…acts with honor, cannot go the wrong way” (Stoler-Miller 68).
The sixth chapter, according to Easwaran, is called “The Practice of Meditation”, and is one of the most interesting chapters of the Gita according to this author. Krishna delivers a detailed explanation of meditation for the layperson very simply (Easwaran 99). Easwaran points out how the western notion of a yogi is inconsistent, in that what a true yogi is is a person who does his or her job without attachment to rewards (100). Great depth is gone into by Krishna in his explanation of the practice of meditation, and he uses a mountain top analogy to explain to Arjuna that his spiritual path will not be easy, but a constant struggle right to the top (Easwaran 100-101). A famous verse in this chapter has Krishna comparing the mind to a flame, while Arjuna says his mind is more like the wind (Easwaran 101). The teacher reinforces to the student that through practice, the mind can be trained, in the proper mindfulness, in the proper way physically (Easwaran 101-103). Arjuna questions what happens to a person who is spiritual but does not pursue this goal. Krishna reaffirms that any practice will not got to waste, and that spiritual enlightenment can take as many lives as it needs to (Easwaran 102-103).
The seventh teaching in the Gita is entitled Knowledge and Judgment (Stoler-Miller 71) or Discipline of the Theoretical and Practical Knowledge (Edgerton 45). Arjuna’s teacher tells him that by practicing discipline in God’s protection, one can know God without doubt (Stoler-Miller 72). God teaches the totality of knowledge and judgment, and that nothing else needs to be known (Stoler-Miller 71-72). In both versions, Krishna clearly states God’s lower and higher natures. The lower natures are eight-fold and include earth, water, fire, wind, space, mind, understanding, and individuality, and the higher nature of God is the “…life force that sustains the universe” (Stoler-Miller 72). Nature’s triad of qualities, spoken further of in the fourteenth teaching, lucidity, passion and dark inertia also come from God (Stoler-Miller 72), and in turn produce four types of virtuous men devoted to God: the tormented, the seeker of wisdom, the suppliant and the sage (Stoler-Miller 73). Krishna reminds Arjuna that “unwaivering faith [maybe granted] to any devoted man to worship in any form” (Stoler-Miller 73). The overwhelming tone of this teaching is devotion to God and the love one will endure in return.
Easwaran explains, in the seventh chapter, the problems with the translations of certain words from Sanskrit, such as jnana (wisdom, roughly) and vijnana (realization, roughly) (Easwaran 111). These words can be left up to interpretation, and can mean many different things. This chapter follows several trails, sometimes losing a unifying theme – which as Easwaran points out is knowledge of the supreme reality underlying nature (111). Two natures, important to the Sankhya school of Hindu philosophy, are discussed in this section, which are prakriti (mind and matter) and purusha (pure spirit) (Easwaran 112). The word “maya” (from the Rig Veda) also appears here as the three gunas are brought forth, swirling within maya, hiding Krishna’s true nature (113-114). Moha (delusions) are contrasted with jnana and vijnana (113-114).
The eighth teaching, perhaps one of the most difficult chapters in the Gita to decipher, is entitled The Infinite Spirit (Stoler-Miller 77) or Discipline of the Imperishable Brahman (Edgerton 45), begins with a question from Arjuna concerning what the infinite spirit is, what its inner self is, what its inner being is, and what its inner divinity is (Stoler-Miller 77). Krishna answers respectively with that the inner spirit is eternal and supreme, its action or creative force is the inherent being, and its divinity is man’s spirit (Stoler-Miller 77). There is an overall focus on God and how man will always be one with him.
“The Eternal Godhead” is the title of the eighth chapter by Easwaran, and alludes to several important concepts presented more fully in the Upanishads (119). The very ancient ideas discussed and taught by Krishna in chapter eight explain the soul’s journey after death, and how to die (Easwaran 12-13, 119). Arjuna questions how God can be known at the hour of death. Krishna replies that anyone who remembers God will, since the mind directs the soul (Easwaran 119-120). First, consciousness is withdrawn from the senses, and then the mind is placed (locked up) in the heart (chakra), at which time the mind can go north (released from karma) or south (not, and reborn) (Easwaran 120-122). This chapter also alludes to the “days and nights of Brahma”, which is strikingly similar to modern expand and collapse theories of the universe, yet Hindu thought believes in a higher state of being (Vishnu), or avyakta (the unmanifest) (Easwaran 124).
The Sublime Mystery (Stoler-Miller 83) or Discipline of Royal Knowledge and Royal Mystery (Edgerton 49) is the title of the ninth chapter. Krishna divulges to Arjuna “…the deepest mystery” “…since he finds no fault and will realize it with knowledge and judgment” (Stoler-Miller 83). The deep mystery is that God is everything, yet does not exist within men, and that any man devoted is not lost (Stoler-Miller 84-85). If men act in resolve through sacred duty, they are one with God, regardless of what they do. (Stoler-Miller 86).
Chapter nine of the Gita is called “The Royal Path”, in average viewpoints, and praises Krishna as the supreme being, while exalted nature is stressed, and warning is given to those who think God is limited or to be underestimated (Easwaran 129). This would definitely speak to the average follower about the importance of loyalty to God. A lot of this chapter is dedicated to bhakti, or real love and devotion to God, reassuring God’s impartiality toward all living things (Easwaran 129-131
The tenth teaching, called Fragments of Divine Power (Stoler-Miller 89) or Discipline of Supernal Manifestations (Edgerton 54), has Krishna trying to explain that regardless of diverse attitudes about God among men, God is the source of everything, and everything proceeds from God (Stoler-Miller 89-90). Arjuna asks him to recount his divine powers. The deity explains that he is the beginning, middle and end, a number of Gods including Vishnu, Indra, and Shiva, he is the great mountain of Gods, Meru, he is OM, the great Himalayas, the sacred fig tree, chief of divine sages, the immortal stallion, the king, etc., sustaining the world with a fragment of his being (Stoler-Miller 90-95). The purpose of this teaching is a segway of demonstration of Krishna’s greatness into the next chapter that includes the actual vision of Arjuna.
“Divine Splendor” is the title of chapter ten according to Easwaran’s explanation, and goes deeper into revelation of the divine being of Krishna, the source from which all comes, encompassing all dualities, and incomprehensible beyond thought (Easwaran 137-138). The author points out that this can be a difficult chapter for non-Hindu reader, for there are many unfamiliar names.
The vision teaching, or eleventh chapter titled The Vision of Krishna’s Totality (Stoler-Miller 97) or Discipline of the Vision of the Universal Form (Edgerton 61), is perhaps the climax of the Gita itself, and it is explained by the outside voice of Sanjaya. After Arjuna asks Krishna to “…reveal himself…”(Stoler-Miller 97), the great vision of God’s totality begins, intense and foreign. Arjuna is so affected by this that he has a clearly written physical reaction to the intensity of his experience.
“The Cosmic Vision” in Easwaran’s version is claimed to be the most exalted chapter of the Gita. Arjuna sees the divine vision of Krishna as his full nature as God himself (Easwaran 147). Some critics have questioned why the vision is granted to Arjuna, and the reasoning probably is because in the Mahabarata, the two have been companions for many years. The rest of the chapter describes Arjuna’s Samadhi, a word used by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra (Easwaran 147-148). For Arjuna, there are two forms of Samadhi experienced during his vision, savikalpa (God in human form), and nirvikalpa (all forms disappearing into God, supernatural fire consuming the entire phenomenal world) (Easwaran 148). It is here, and has been described by many mystics as “a thousand suns” (Easwaran 148). There is definite entertainment value for the lay follower in this chapter.
The twelfth section of the Gita is called Devotion (Stoler-Miller 111) or Discipline of Devotion (Edgerton 64). Arjuna questions who best knows discipline. Krishna answers that men who worship, with true faith, the imperishable, the ineffable and the un-manifest. He explains that men are bound by bodies, and therefore the un-manifest becomes hard to comprehend (Stoler-Miller 111). Therefore, meditating with singular discipline, and attaining knowledge gives one faith in devotion (Stoler-Miller 111-113).
Easwaran refers to this chapter as “The Way of Love” (159). It is brief and focuses on the supreme importance of devotion and faith in spiritual development (Easwaran 159). As the author points out, all world religions would probably agree with the Gita at this point, as it stresses a way of devotion, and stresses the efficacy of devotion (Easwaran 159). The approach found in this text is one of incomprehensibility of everything, and faith from love, as love is a sure path to God, and can be cultivated through practice (Easwaran 159-160).
Knowing the Field (Stoler-Miller 115) or Discipline of Distinction of Field and Field Knower (Edgerton 68) names the thirteenth teaching. Krishna first explains what “The Field” is, being the great elements: individuality, understanding, un-manifest nature, the eleven senses, and five sense realms (Stoler-Miller 115). He continues by clarifying that dispassion toward sense objects, an absence of individuality, and seeing the defects in birth, death, old age and suffering will help a man attain the infinite spirit (Stoler-Miller 116). The self is not an actor, and everything is born from the field and its knower (Stoler-Miller 117-118). “Just as the sun illuminates the world, so too does the master illuminate the entire field” (Stoler-Miller 119).
“The Field and the Knower”, according to Easwaran, is the title of chapter thirteen, and gives the reader two sweeping categories: the field (the body and mind, all components of prakriti – mass, time, energy, space and strata of mind) and the knower (the Self that resides within) (Easwaran 165). This section focuses in on the dualities (prakriti and purusha) of all things (Sankhya philosophy), and how the “field of karma” defines the whole of existence. The interesting comparison of akasha (space itself as an element) is used as an analogy (Easwaran 168).
The fourteenth teaching in the Gita is entitled The Triad of Nature’s Qualities (Stoler-Miller 121) or Discipline of Distinction of the Three Strands (Edgerton 72). Krishna tells Arjuna he will teach him “…the farthest knowledge one can know” (Stoler-Miller 121). The triad of nature’s qualities are lucidity, passion and dark inertia, which all bind the self in the body (Stoler-Miller 121). Lucidity binds one to joy, passion to craving and attachment, and dark inertia to ignorance and delusion (Stoler-Miller 122). Arjuna proceeds to have Krishna explain these aspects and how they work for and against men. Arjuna questions what distinguishes a transcendent man from others, and Krishna explains that no desire, disinterest, knowing qualities of nature, being self-reliant, impartial and resolute serves God faithfully and becomes the basis for perfect joy (Stoler-Miller 124-125).
Easwaran titles chapter fourteen “The Forces of Evolution”, and contends it deals greatly with the nature of prakriti, the basis of the world of mind and matter in which we exist (175). The gunas, do not translate perfectly from Sanskrit, but are likely to be present, and constantly shifting, in all people, as they are thought of as the “mix that colors our experience” (Easwaran 175-176). Krishna tells Arjuna that all three must be transcended for the soul to attain peace.
Chapter fifteen, or The True Spirit of Man (Stoler-Miller 127) or Discipline of the Highest Spirit (Edgerton 75), gives an analogy of the tree of life: unchanging, nourished by nature’s qualities, budding with sense objects, we must take an ax, sharp like attachment, and free man to return to the original spirit (Stoler-Miller 127-128). The seer of truth though knowledge will see God and in turn conquer self-mastery (Stoler-Miller 128-131).
An average Hindu would probably call this section “The Supreme Self”, and recognize it is a fairly difficult section of the Gita – essentially, it deals with questions of theology (Easwaran 181). The nature of God and that which transcends everything including Atman and the world of matter is explained to Arjuna, even though a paradox is found here: Krishna says he is Atman yet transcends it (Easwaran 182). An upside down Pipal tree is given as an analogy to Arjuna this time (Easwaran 182). This section also speaks of Krishna’s abode of light: avyayam padam (pada=foot or step), in reference to how Vishnu took three steps to measure out the cosmos (Easwaran 182-183). Krishna is the prana or breath or vitality, which refers to ancient scripture of the five pranas, the Gita dealing with the two most prominent: breath and digestion of food (Easwaran 182-183).
The sixteenth teaching of Krishna to Arjuna, called The Divine and the Demonic Man (Stoler-Miller 133) or Discipline of Distinction between Divine and Demonic Lots (Edgerton 78), lists the different traits of both a divine man and a demonic man. Demonic traits led to bondage and divine traits lead to freedom put simply (Stoler-Miller 133-135). While all creatures are one or the other, demonic men cannot comprehend activity and rest, have no clarity, morality or truth residing within them, landing them in the three gates of hell, desire, anger and greed (Stoler-Miller 135).
Easwaran refers to this chapter as the “Two Paths” (187). It is a most unusual chapter, as it departs from the view of human nature and describes two tendencies among men: the higher or divine and the lower or demonic, and describes in great depth the differenecs between a desirable man and the opposite (Easwaran 187). This section also mentions the three doors to hell: lust, greed and anger. Demon and divine are not to be taken too literally, as they more imply the battle between good and evil (Easwaran 189).
The second last chapter of the Gita, before the dialogue concludes, called The Three Aspects of Faith (Stoler-Miller 137) or Discipline of Distinction of Three Kinds of Faith (Edgerton 82), finds Arjuna questioning Krishna about which quality “…men who ignore tradition, but sacrifice in full faith…”(Stoler –Miller 137) have. The deity explains that a man’s faith depends on lucidity of mind, giving examples to Arjuna, such as food choices of men (Stoler-Miller 138). He says that one must not violate norms, one must practice bodily, mental and verbal penance, and one must also practice proper acts of charity (Stoler-Miller 138-140). Krishna also expands on the notion of OM TAT SAT in this section.
Commentary by Easwaran also addresses the question about what happens to those who do not follow orthodoxy. According to him, Krishna goes into greater detail of the gunas and stresses the importance of shradda (faith, or the sum of all that’s held in the heart) (Easwaran 193). According to Krishna there are different kinds of faith depending on the gunas present and potency. Om Tat Sat is also mentioned in this chapter, which means “only the good really exists”, and Krishna explains how evil is transient and therefore does not actually exist (Easwaran 194-195).
The final and concluding chapter of the great discussion between Krishna and Arjuna entitled The Wondrous Dialogue Concludes (Stoler-Miller 143) or Discipline of Renunciation unto Salvation (Edgerton 91), answers the student’s question about the “…real essence of renunciation”(Stoler-Miller 143). This can be achieved, according to the deity, by giving up actions based on desire and relinquishing all fruits of action, through the three kinds of relinquishment: action in sacrifice, charity, and penance (Stoler-Miller 143-145). However, he clarifies that renunciation of prescribed action is inappropriate and becomes a way of dark inertia (Stoler-Miller 144). Krishna further explains five causes for success for all actions, including the material basis, the agent, different instruments, the various behaviors, and fate (Stoler-Miller 145). The dialogue concludes with a basic over view of Krishna’s lessons, about sacred duties, relinquishment and detachment, the infinite spirit and our own intrinsic being and our bounding to it (Stoler-Miller 146-153). Krishna enforces with Arjuna, to “…keep his mind on God”(Stoler-Miller 152), and the conversation ends with a small commentary from Sanjaya.
The closing chapter in the text is titled “Freedom and Renunciation” according to Easwaran’s viewpoint, and it roams over many subjects. The Gita is aimed at those who “live in the world”, yet desire fulfillment, and therefore Krishna recommends the path of tyaga over the path of sannyasa, a middle route to enlightenment (Easwaran 201). Moksa (liberation) comes from renunciation of the gunas, Krishna tells Arjuna, since in life you can never be sure things will turn out as planned (Easwaran 202). The Gita offers a more practical application of some of the Sankhya teachings, such as the three kinds of happiness (Easwaran 202). Krishna explains caste in this conclusion, and points out it is better to do one’s own work imperfectly than to do another’s perfectly (Easwaran 202), but the returns to his favorite topic: devotion and faith in God, to wrap up the diologue, giving the analogy of a toy mounted on a machine (Easwaran 202-203). Arjuna is asked if he understands and he confirms, attending to his divine duty.
The Gita is problematic to translate perfectly from its initial writing in Sanskrit to other languages, as demonstrated by Easwaran. This contributes to the subjectivity in interpretations already available in individual passages, chapters, and work as an aggregate. In order to demonstrate the partisanship that one can interpret from The Bhagavad Gita, a comparison of several versions of the text regarding “…two verses with unmistakable resonance for modern society” could provide further evidence (Davis 172). In Richard H. Davis’s biography of the Gita, he provides comparison of “…four distinct approaches to the task of translating [it]” (172). This paper will summarize one of those in comparison with several others from my research.
The two notable and descriptive passages that easily expose the subjectivity of the translations are in the eleventh teaching, during Arjuna’s grand vision, when Krishna describes himself and the greatness of God to the warrior prince (Davis 172). As Davis recounts, “on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer (a brilliant physicist and gifted amateur student of Sanskrit) watched the first human-controlled atomic explosion at Los Alamos, New Mexico…[he] later recalled [this] passage from the Bhagavad Gita…” (172):
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor
Of the Mighty One…
I am become Death
The shatterer of worlds. (173).
It is not surprising that Oppenheimer compared the intensity and God-like force of an atomic bomb to these passages, and the description Krishna gives as God himself (Davis 173). Drawing from the two more poetic and easy reading versions I came across during my own research of the Gita, it can be demonstrated how these passages can be delivered more gently, and taken in a completely different context.
In Barbara Stoler-Miller’s translation, the passages read:
If the light of a thousand suns
were to rise in the sky at once,
it would be like the light
of that great spirit…
I am time grown old
creating world destruction (pp. 99, 11:12, pp. 103, 11:32).
And in Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of the translation, the matching segments announce:
If a thousand suns were to rise
and stand in the noon sky, blazing,
such brilliance would be like the fierce
brilliance of that mighty Self…
I am death, shatterer of worlds
annihilating all things. (pp. 134, 11:12, pp. 138, 11:32).
These two translations clearly show, when juxtaposed against Oppenheimer’s version, the poetics that can be drawn from the text. It can be made more gentle, with milder words – especially in the latter passage speaking about the inevitable fate of death and destruction in the human world.
Interpretation of the passages according to both a lay/average Hindu viewpoint, and a consecrated Hindu Guru will also greatly expose the variability available in the Gita. Swami Prabhupada, who “…established a following of Krishna consciousness” (Davis 7), interpreted these passages this way:
If hundreds of thousands of suns rose at once into the sky,
they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form…
Time I am, the destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. (pp. 181, 11:12, pp. 183, 11:32)
Obviously, from this explanation, one can draw out words such as “effulgence” and “engage”, to see how the passage is being used as an instrument of piety. In contrast to Swami Prabhupada, an average interpretation of these sections by Eknath Easwaran read:
If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens
at the same time, the blaze of their light
would resemble the splendor of that supreme
I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come
To consume the world. (pp. 151, 11:12, pp. 154, 11:32).
The lay read of this section is much more toned down and simple, expressing the greatness and incomprehensibility of God, without any distinct push in the direction of piousness whatsoever. By comparison of several versions of specific passages in the translation of The Bhagavad Gita, it is easy to realize the extreme subjectivity and personal sway that can be placed on the text for individual purposes.
To further demonstrate this, it is advantageous to now turn to The Bhagavad Gita’s biography and historical background, with regard to the work as a whole. The physical place of the believed setting of The Bhagavad Gita, was in “Kurukshetra,…[which is] both a particular field of battle and perpetual field of dharma, as Dhritarashtra’s opening question suggests” (Davis 4), found near the town of Jyotisar, India (Davis 4). This being said, most researchers agree that the text was written in northern India, sometime during the classical period between the reign of the Mauryan king Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE) and Gupta dynasty (320-547 CE), as part of a much larger opus, the epic poem Mahabharata (Davis 6). The Mahabharata, which was originally composed in ancient Sanskrit, tells the legend of a devastating enmity between two clans of the ruling class for control of a kingdom in India (Davis 10). From an early date, the Gita circulated as an independent piece, and found itself as a “…self standing work of religious philosophy”, giving it a binary identity (Davis 11). But in order to appreciate its full “…rhetorical power” (Davis 11), the story found within the Gita is better understood in the full context of the larger epic in which it is found, the Mahabharata. The background of the two rivaling sides of cousins is explained more clearly in the complete epic, and the point at which we find Krishna and Arjuna in the beginning of the Gita seems more fitting, than to a reader who may just be exposed to the Gita alone.
Krishna’s battlefield teachings addressed two of the main causes of philosophical distresses being discussed by religions at the time of the Gita’s composition, moral questions and psychological insight (Davis 15). Rebirth, or samsara, was a widely accepted premise in classical India (Davis 16). The Gita took on a more liberal note of practice of religion during its time of emergence as well, in that anyone could engage in yoga while still being active in worldly affairs, which was very attractive and more practical for the everyday masses (Davis 20). The Gita discusses two important systems of thought, Samkhya (dualist approach) and Vedanta (monistic approach) (Davis 22). Thus, one of the appeals of the script may be its “…heuristic validity”, with either path seen as correct (Davis 22). The path of devotion, or bhakti, is new in Sanskrit literature, and makes its debut in the Gita to religious audiences (Davis 22-23).
Krishna’s teachings are widely speculated to provide a convincing justification for Arjuna to fight, and the Mahabharata does not shy away from the calamitous consequences of that choice (Davis 33). The Gita embraces the message of the greater epic as a whole (Davis 33). The war, as found in the Mahabharata, is not sensationalized as it is in the Gita, ending with very few survivors of the warrior class, extreme grief and ethical failure (Davis 33-34), better supporting the eschatological belief of “Indian cyclic time, [and great dissolution followed by new creation]” (Davis 35). “Later Indian tradition uses the Mahabharata as transition from one era to another…[taking us from the Dvapara era to the Kali-yuga era]” (Davis 35).
The belief of the authorship of the Gita is especially fascinating, proclaimed by both a “divine authorship of God” (Davis 36), and Vyasa, the physical author of the work (Davis 36). Vyasa was a brahmin sage, and appears as a character within the Mahabharata, playing a pivotal role, who was actually a genetic grandfather to the Pandava and Kaurava fraternities (Davis 36). While it is believed that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata, “…few historians accept a single genius as an author”, and was probably complied over a lot of time (Davis 39). The great poet Jnanadeva “…composed a lengthy new work that translated and expanded on the Sanskrit Gita in Marathi language” (Davis 44). During this time, Gitas of other deities were also produced with The Bhagavad Gita as a model in the writing of these, and while Krishna’s significance was always recognized, rivalry always wanted to oust him, indicating the characteristics of medieval theistic Hinduism (Davis 53).
There were also many commentators of the Gita in classical India, “…seek[ing] to determine the true meaning of [the] difficult text” (Davis 54-55). Shankara was among them, but not the first or the last, claiming “…[the] concentrated essence of the Veda [within the Gita itself]…”, giving it a permanent and universal meaning (Davis 54, 59). In contrast, another commentator of the same time period, by the name of Ramanuja, who disagreed with Shankara, demanded “…[the] path of knowledge alone will not suffice for higher ends” (Davis 63). He also maintained that Krishna came to the battlefield to “…reveal the new path [of devotion]”, bhakti, a new concept found in the Gita (Davis 63-64). These two views reveal only the tip of the iceberg of commentary in classical India and beyond that the Gita received in its early days.
In 1866, the transatlantic under-sea cable was laid under the Atlantic Ocean, linking the North American and European continents in an unprecedented way, and in 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines joined, forming a transcontinental railway, linking homeland North America in the same fashion, and the French Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean (Davis 72). With the new and rapid form of communications taking place in their infancy stages to what we know today, inevitably the movement of information suddenly became faster and more efficient across oceans, formerly a huge obstacle to such flow of ideas (Davis 72). Just before this, the Gita would see its first translation to English by an British man and employee of the East India Company, by the name of Charles Wilkins, in 1785 (Davis 75-76). His translation of this, the first Sanskrit text, fascinated European erudite circles, helping along a demand for a new influx of eastern literature (Davis 76). This version also saw the Gita’s first notable political use – vis a vis British control in colonial India (Davis 76). The success that the Gita would find among this new audience would be exponential, especially in the midst of the Romantic movement (Davis 83-84). From the late eighteenth century onward through the early nineteenth century, those who read or interpreted the Gita “…did so in a political context” (Davis 93). While certain attitudes and approaches, such as those of Governor General Hastings, “…advocated for [a better] understanding [of Indian] culture, others such as James Mill used the Gita to “…criticize and judge…” the history of India (Davis 96). Mill used the rhetorical value available to the apt purveyor in the Gita to his full advantage, portraying the Indian civilization as problematically primordial, further calling for radical change (Davis 96-99). During the latter half of the nineteenth century, new versions of the Gita began to appear, with scholars in Germany wanting to “…get to the bottom of the Indian antiquity…”(Davis 100), with the most popular and perhaps notable by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial” (Davis 104).
Along with the new wave of antiquity texts flowing into Europe and North America, the first Hindu sannyasin, Swami Vivekanada, would also find his way to America in 1893, to speak to the World Parliament in an impromptu manner, that would both introduce Western thought to a living breathing knower of Eastern faith, and fascinate many more (Davis 105-112). Perhaps the most famous reader and commentator of the Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi, the Mahatma (Davis 136). First read by the young Gandhi, in London around 1888-1889, he called it a “…spiritual reference book” (Davis 136). What set his interpretation aside from all others up to this point was that he “…approached the Gita as not specifically Hindu…”, but as universal knowledge and truth for all (Davis 137). Throughout Gandhi’s career, the text was “…made a constant point of reference” (Davis 137). Another way in which Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita differed from others before him was that he was indifferent to any historical context, placing more importance in allegory, in that the war in the book represents “…[the] battle within all…”(Davis 139). He was well educated and able to effectively argue skewed views of the text by both past and contemporary commentators, promoting ahimsa over violence (Davis 141). The Gita was last in Gandhi’s discussion three days before his death in 1948, killed by an assassin who ironically was also an avid reader of the text (Davis 138-143). Prayers are still held at Gandhi’s ashram in India daily, with the recitation of the Gita practiced daily (Davis 181-185).
In 1923, Jayadayal Goyandka opened The Gita Press in northern India, publishing “…expansive editions with Hindi translations” (Davis 154), making the Gita widely available. After the Holy Bible, the Gita is the most frequently translated religious work to this day (Davis 155), and as of 1982, there were 1891 versions of the text circulating in 75 languages around the world, giving context to the importance of the book (Davis 155). Just as it is believed that the Gita was originally delivered through an oral performance, the text finds itself in contemporary acts as well (Davis 177). Nowadays, audio incarnations are available through multi-media, a sixties rock group named themselves The Bhagavad Gita respectively, and Jimmy Hendrix’s album cover “Axis” featured a picture of Krishna and Arjuna (Davis 180) Just as the Gita speaks of existence being nothing more than a mere changing of our clothes as we change bodies during reincarnation, the book itself has undergone much the same process (Davis 156). The text remains, to this day, one of the most significant books of the Hindu religion, and is repeatedly politically and ideologically contorted to suit. The Bhagavad Gita’s variability and flexibility has survived the ages and continues to have a profound and philosophical effect on those who read it.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, A.C. (1968). Bhagavad Gita as it is. Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Davis, R.H. (2015). The Bhagavad Gita: A biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Easwaran, E. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita. Tomales, CA: The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation/Nilgiri Press.
Edgerton, F. (1972). The Bhagavad Gita. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mitchell, S. (2000). Bhagavad Gita: A new translation. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Stoler-Miller, B. (1986). The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s counsel in time of war. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Article written by Laura Gunn (2015), who is solely responsible for it content.