BHAGAVADGĪTĀ . The Bhagavadgītā is perhaps the most widely read and beloved scripture in all Indian religious literature. Its power to counsel and inspire its readers has remained undiminished in the almost two thousand years since its composition.
The Bhagavadgītā (Song of the Blessed Lord) is sacred literature, holy scripture—it is a text that has abundant power in its persistence and its presence. The pious Hindu, even if his piety is mild, will inevitably have access to the book or will be able to recite, or at least paraphrase, a few lines from it. The devout turn to it daily; they read it ritually, devotionally, with a sense of awe. The text is intoned during the initiation ceremony wherein one becomes a saṃnyāsin (renunciant); teachers and holy men expound upon it; professors translate it and write about it; the more humble listen to the words that, though heard countless times before, remain vibrant. The text is read by all Hindus, esteemed by Śaivas as well as by Vaiṣṇavas, venerated by the lower caste as well as by the high, savored by villagers as well as by the more urbane. Many times each day in India the consoling words of the Gītā are read or whispered into the ear of someone who, with eyes looking to the south in fear or hope or both, awaits death: "And whoever remembers Me alone when leaving the body at the time of death attains to My status of being" (8.5).
One may dispute whether the Bhagavadgītā teaches the dualistic Sāṃkhya philosophy or the nondualistic Vedānta, whether it is a call to action or renunciation; but what is beyond dispute is that it teaches devotion to god as a means to liberation, whether that liberation is understood as release from the world or freedom in the world: "Hear again My supreme word, the most secret of all: thou are greatly beloved by Me, hence I will speak for thy good. Center thy mind on Me, be devoted to Me, sacrifice to Me, revere Me, and thou shalt come to Me. I promise thee truly, for thou art dear to Me" (18.64–65).
The Text in Context
The Bhagavadgītā occupies a very small part of the Mahābhārata —it is but one of the Hundred Minor Books of that enormous epic, that elephantine tale of the great war between the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas, two descendant branches of the Kurus, the Lunar Race. Yudhiṣṭhira, the righteous leader of the Pāṇḍavas, having lost his family's portion of the kingdom to the Kauravas in a crooked game of dice, was forced, together with his four brothers, into forest exile for thirteen years. Afterward Yudhiṣṭhira asked for the just return of the kingdom, or at least five villages, one for each of the brothers. When this was refused, the great war became inevitable.
Both armies sought allies. Kṛṣṇa, the princely leader of the Vṛṣṇis, another branch of the Lunar Race, in an attempt to remain neutral and loyal to both families, offered his troops to the Kauravas and his service as charioteer and counselor to his friend Arjuna, one of Yudhiṣṭhira's younger brothers.
The battle was ready to begin: "Conches and kettle-drums, cymbals and drums and horns suddenly were struck and the sound was tumultuous" (1.13). Suddenly, seeing his own kinsmen—teachers, fathers, uncles, cousins, and in-laws—arrayed for battle, Arjuna decided that he was unable to fight. Realizing that to kill them would destroy the eternal laws of the family and uncaring as to whether or not he himself would be slain, "Arjuna cast away his bow and arrow and sank down on the seat of his chariot, his spirit overcome by grief" (1.47).
In this dramatic setting the teachings of the Bhagavadgītā begin. Kṛṣṇa must show Arjuna why he must fight in this terrible war and, in so doing, he reveals the nature of reality and of himself. Military counsel becomes spiritual instruction; the heroic charioteer discloses his divinity. Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva is God, the highest reality and eternal self, beyond the world and yet of it as a preserver, creator, and destroyer. In the midst of the theophany Arjuna cries out: "Thou art the imperishable, the highest to be known; Thou art the final resting place of this universe; Thou are the immortal guardian of eternal law; Thou are the primal spirit" (9.18).
By the time the Bhagavadgītā was incorporated into the story of the great war (probably during the third century bce), a conception of this world as a dreadful, burning round of death, a tedious prison in which we are trapped by transmigration, had taken hold and with it renunciatory ideals and impulses for liberation challenged more ancient, hieratic ideals of ritual action and aspirations for heavenly domains. The Gītā provided a synthesis of conflicting ideals and past and present norms. It harmonized Brahmanic values with a warrior's code, reconciled a traditional pantheism with a seemingly new theistic religiosity, and coalesced a variety of differing and potentially dissentient philosophical trends. This synthetic or syncretic quality of the text invested it with a pan-Indian appeal that it has retained.
Ancient Indian religious literature was formally classified as either a "revelation" (śruti —that which has been sacramentally "heard," the eternally existent Veda) or a "tradition" (smṛti —that which has been "remembered" from ancient times—the epics, Purāṇas, and various sūtras and śāstra s). As a book within the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavadgītā, like Kṛṣṇa's later discourse, the Anugītā, and like the other didactic and philosophical portions of the epic, has the technical status of smṛti. But the Bhagavadgītā has attained the functional status of a gospel. Śaṅkara (eighth century), the major proponent of the Advaita Vedānta school of philosophy, quite typically begins his exegesis of the text with the comment that the Gītā contains the very quintessence of the Veda and that a knowledge of it leads to mokṣa, liberation from the bonds of worldly existence. Rāmānuga (eleventh century), who qualified the nondualistic position of Vedānta in order to expound his theology of a supreme and loving god, understood the Gītā as the actual revelation of the word of that god under the mere pretext of a discourse with Arjuna. And the Bengali saint Ramakrishna (1836–1886), like so many other modern commentators, declared the book to be "the essence of all scriptures" (The Gospel of Sri Rāmakrishna, New York, 1949, p. 772). The Bhagavadgītā, particularly after the great flowering of the devotional strain within the Hindu tradition, became accepted as revelation within tradition. The text transcended its context.
The Philosophy of the Text
The individual human being, according to the Bhagavadgītā, is at once natural (a product of nature caught up in lawlike relations and filled with desires and longings) and spiritual (an embodiment of the divine). The individual is not, however, a walking dualism, for the spiritual aspect is one's higher nature and one must come to realize that one's natural existence, taken in itself, is only provisional and has meaning only from the standpoint of the spiritual.
The individual human being, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna early on in the text, is immortal. Possessed of an eternal, unchanging spirit, a person can only appear to be an autonomous actor in the natural world. This appearance derives from an ignorance of the true self. Normally identifying himself as an ego self-sufficiently working within the conditions of his psychophysical nature, a person must reidentify himself at a deeper level of integrated selfhood and thereby understand his true role as a social being.
Following the already traditional understanding of the ideal organization of society into classes (varṇa s), the codified stages of life (āśrama s) and aims in life (puruṣārtha s), the Bhagavadgītā places much emphasis on one's need to follow or fulfill one's dharma ("social duty" or "role") as it is defined relative to one's place in the larger social order. The universe is sustained by dharma. Ideally each person works out his social career according to the dictates of his own nature (svadharma ) as this is itself a product of past experience. Dharma, karman ("action" or "work"), and saṃsāra ("rebirth") belong together: action carried over innumerable lives must be informed by a sensitivity to the obligations one has in virtue of one's interdependence with others. Arjuna is a member of the warrior class and must fulfill the duties of this social position—he must fight.
But what is the nature of reality that makes this both possible and imperative? The Gītā' s answer to this is that reality, in its essence, is the presence of a personalized brahman, something higher than the impersonal brahman, the absolute reality described in the Upaniṣads. "There are two spirits in this world," Kṛṣṇa explains, "the perishable and the imperishable." The perishable is all beings and the imperishable is called kūṭastha ("the immovable"). But there is another, the Highest Spirit (puruṣottama ), called the Supreme Self, who, as the imperishable Lord, enters into the three worlds and sustains them. "Since I transcend the perishable and am higher even than the imperishable, I am renowned in the world and in the Veda as the highest Spirit" (15.16–18).
This "Highest Spirit" then is not the nonpersonal, undifferentiated, unchanging brahman of Advaita Vedānta, but rather that being who while enjoying its status as a supreme reality, actively engages worlds of its creation. It has its higher and lower statuses as creative spirit and as the manifest natural world.
In its analysis of the lower status of the divine, the Gītā draws heavily upon the Sāṃkhya system of thought. Nature (prakṛti ) is seen as an active organic field constituted by various strands (guṇa s), which can best be understood as energy systems. Everything in nature, and particularly every individual human being, is constituted by a combination of these forces. Sattva represents a state of subtle harmony and equilibrium which is exhibited as clear intelligence, as light. At the other extreme is darkness, tamas, the state of lethargy, of heaviness. In between is rajas, agitation, restlessness, passion, the motivating force for actions. The puruṣa ("the individual spirit") caught up in prakṛti, is driven by the guṇa s and is deluded into thinking that, as a given phenomenal fact, it is their master and not their victim.
The aim of human life in the Bhagavadgītā is to attain a self-realization that "I" am not a separate, autonomous actor but that "I" am at one with a divine reality, and that my ultimate freedom comes from bringing my actions into accord with that reality. "Everyone," the Gītā says, "is made to act helplessly by the guṇa s born of prakṛti " (3.5). "I" can become a true actor only when my actions get grounded in a divine will. Freedom (mokṣa ) is thus not a transcendence of all action but rather calls for my being a social persona fulfilling my dharma without ego-attachment, at one with the divine.
The realization of this aim of life is at the heart of the Bhagavadgītā 's teaching, and has been the most controversial among both modern and traditional interpreters of the text. Following Śaṅkara, whose commentary is one of the oldest to have survived, many have argued that the central yoga put forward by the Bhagavadgītā is the way of knowledge, jñānayoga : it alone provides the insight into reality that allows for genuine self-realization. Taking the position of Rāmānuja, others have argued that bhaktiyoga, the discipline of devotion, remains the highest way for the Gītā ; bhakti, in his understanding of the text, provides the basis for a salvific relationship between the individual person and a loving god with absolute power and supremacy over the world. Still others have seen the Gītā as a gospel of works, teaching most centrally karmayoga, the way of action—of acting without attachment to the fruits of one's acts. This multiplicity of interpretations results from the fact that the Bhagavadgītā does extol each of these ways at various times. Each discipline or respective integration is said to have value. The text combines and assimilates the central features of the various paths.
The yoga of the Bhagavadgītā demands that actions be performed without attachment to their results, for otherwise, with attachment, comes bondage, not freedom. Actions, the Gītā says, must be performed as sacrifice (yajña ), which means that actions must be performed in a spirit of reverence, with loving attention to the divine. But to do this one must understand how nature, as the lower status of the divine, acts according to its own necessity and that the individual actor is merely an expression of the guṇa s. This understanding is the work of a preliminary jñāna —intellectual, philosophical analysis—which must then develop into a deeper insight into the nature of the self, one which allows for that discrimination between the higher and lower nature of both the human and the divine. It is only with this jñāna that actions can be carried out according to one's dharma, for that insight brings a fundamental axiological change. One sees the value of everything relative to the supreme value of reality itself. But according to the Bhagavadgītā, this knowledge is not sufficient for the realization of complete freedom, as it fails to provide a motivation or justification for any particular action. Jñāna must then recombine with bhakti at its highest level, which has as its object the divine in its own deepest personal nature. "Those who renounce all actions in Me and are intent on Me," Kṛṣṇa reveals, "who worship Me with complete discipline and meditate on Me, whose thoughts are fixed on Me—these I quickly lift up from the ocean of death and rebirth" (12.6–7). With the realization that one is entirely at one with an active, creative spiritual vitality, one can then imitate the divine—one can act according to its nature and realize thereby one's destiny. One rises above the ocean of death.
With such awareness Arjuna announced that his confusion and despair had passed. He picked up his bow and arrows: "I stand firm with my doubts dispelled; I shall act by Thy word" (18.73). The battle on the field of righteousness began.
The Persistence of the Text
By the eighth century the Bhagavadgītā had become a standard text for philosophical and religious exposition. The normative commentary of Śaṅkara generated subcommentaries and inspired responses, new interpretations, new commentaries and more subcommentaries. Rāmānuja's theistic exegesis set forth devotional paradigms for understanding the text which were to be elaborated by medieval Vaiṣṇava scholiasts. These latter commentators do not seem to have distinguished between the heroic Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva of the Mahābhārata and the originally distinct, erotic Kṛṣṇa-Gopāla of the Puranic and literary traditions. With the amalgamation of various Kṛṣṇas into one supreme God, the cool and detached bhakti of the Bhagavadgītā became subsumed into the emotional and passionate bhakti exemplified by the milkmaid lovers of Kṛṣṇa, the cowherd in the Bhagavata Purāṇa. The meaning of the text changed—Madhva's commentary (thirteenth century) explains that Kṛṣṇa, the supreme lord, can only be approached or apprehended by the way of bhakti which is love (sneha ), a love that is attachment.
Unabashedly classifying the overtly Vaiṣṇava Bhagavadgītā with their own ritual texts, the Agamas, Śaiva exegetes produced their own corpus of commentarial literature. In the Gītārthasaṅgraha of the Kashmir Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (eleventh century), which purports to reveal the "hidden meaning of the text," Kṛṣṇa is described as a protector of dharma and a guide to a mokṣa which is explicitly defined in the prefatory verses as "merger in Lord Śiva."
Beyond the exegetical tradition, the Bhagavadgītā became the prototype for a genre of devotional literature in which an Arjuna-like student is urged by a particular sectarian deity to absorb himself in the worship of that deity. So in the Śivagītā (eighth century), for example, Rāma is too disconsolate over his separation from Sita to go into battle with Rāvaṇa; Śiva counsels and instructs him just as Kṛṣṇa did Arjuna. In the Īśvaragītā (ninth century) Śiva explains the paths to self-realization, the methods of liberation, to ascetics in a hermitage, in more or less the same words as were uttered in the prototype. The form and style of the original Bhagavadgītā seem to have imbued these later gītā s with authority and legitimacy. Many of these texts are embedded within the Purāṇas (e.g., the Śivagītā in the Padma Purāṇa, the Īśvaragītā in the Kūrma Purāṇa, the Devigītā in the Devībhāgavata Purāṇa ). The later Purāṇas commonly give quotes from, résumés of, or eulogistic references to, the Bhagavadgītā ; the Padma Purāṇa (eighth century) contains a glorification of the book, the Gītāmāhātmya, a paean to the text as the perfect distillation of supreme truth. The text about devotion became itself an object of devotion. It is carried like a talisman by many a wandering holy man.
Throughout Indian history the Bhagavadgītā has provided social theorists with axioms whereby political issues and problems could be understood in religious and traditional terms. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), one of the most important nationalist leaders of the modern Hindu renaissance, for example, while in prison in Mandalay for sedition, wrote the Gītā rahasya, an interpretation of the ancient text as a revolutionary manifesto, a call to the Indian people to take up arms against the British. Gandhi, on the other hand, who first became acquainted with the Bhagavadgītā through British Theosophists in London, asserted, without a trace of self-consciousness, that the Bhagavadgītā taught nonviolence. He urged his followers to read it assiduously and to live by it. He often referred to the book as Mother Gita, and would say, "When I am in difficulty or distress, I seek refuge in her bosom" (Harijan, August, 1934).
The Bhagavadgītā changes with each reader, fluctuates in meaning with each successive generation of interpreters, which is to say, it lives. This vitality constitutes its sacrality.
Caitanya (1486–1533), the ecstatic founder of Bengal Vaisnavism, once came upon a man reading the Bhagavadgītā aloud in a temple, and as he read everyone laughed at him, for he mispronounced all of the words. The man himself was weeping and trembling, and Caitanya asked him which words made him cry so. "I don't know the meaning of any of the words," the man confessed, "but as I sound them out I see Kṛṣṇa in Arjuna's chariot. He is holding the reins in his hands and he is speaking to Arjuna and he looks very beautiful. The vision makes me weep with joy." Caitanya smiled: "You are an authority on the Bhagavadgītā. You know the real meaning of the text" (Caitanyacaritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Madya-līlā 9.93–103).
It has not always been important for readers or hearers of the Bhagavadgītā to understand all the words; rather, what has been crucial for many Hindus has been to feel or experience the text, to participate in it, to allow the Bhagavadgītā to sanctify their lives and console them in death.
The passages from the Bhagavadgītā cited in this article are from the translation of the text by Eliot Deutsch (New York, 1968). Since Charles Wilkins published his The Bhăgvăt-gēētā, or, Dialogues of Krĕĕshnă and Ărjŏŏn in Eighteen Lectures, with Notes in 1785 literally hundreds of translations of the text have been made into European languages. Gerald J. Largon has thoughtfully surveyed the stylistic and interpretive trends as exemplified by many of these translations in "The Song Celestial: Two Centuries of the Bhagavad Gītā in English," Philosophy East and West 31 (October 1981): 513–541. Of the readily available translations, Franklin Edgerton's (1925; reprint, Oxford, 1944) is the most literal, so literal in its attempt to preserve the Sanskrit syntax, in fact, that, for the sake of balance, it was originally published together with Sir Edwin Arnold's transformation of the text into Victorian poesy (Cambridge, Mass., 1944). Though Edgerton's always reliable translation is difficult to read, his lengthy commentary is masterful scholarship. The interpretive notes that accompany the translation by W. Douglas P. Hill (London, 1927) remain an important contribution to the literature. Étienne Lamotte's Notes sur la Bhagavadgītā (Paris, 1929) is a fine example of rigorous exegesis and reflection.
R. C. Zaehner's lucid translation (Oxford, 1969) is a pleasure to read and his analyses are as judicious as they are sensitive; Zaehner introduces the insights of Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja where they are appropriate and he admits his penchant for the theistic interpretation of the latter. For a more detailed understanding of Rāmānuja's understanding of the text, see J. A. B. van Buitenen's Rāmānuja on the Bhagavadgītā (The Hague, 1953). Van Buitenen's own translation, The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata (Chicago, 1981), is heroic scholarship, translation at its best, and his introductory essay is no less insightful. The very important exegesis of Śaṅkara has been translated into English by Allādi Mahadeva Sastri: The Bhagavad-Gita with the Commentary of Srî Śaṅkarachâryâ, 5th ed. (Madras, 1961). And the interesting commentary of Abhinavagupta, the Gītārthasaṅgraha, has been well translated into English and perceptively introduced by Arvind Sharma (Leiden, 1983).
For significant examples of modern Indian interpretations of the text, see The Gospel of Selfless Action, or the Gita According to Gandhi, edited and translated by Mahadev Desai (Ahmadabad, 1948); Śrimad Bhagavadgītā Rahasya, edited by B. G. Ti-lak (Poona, 1936); and Aurobindo Ghose's Essays on the Gita (Calcutta, 1926).
Chaturvedi, Laxmi Narayan. The Teachings of Bhavagad Gita. New Delhi, 1991.
Lipner, Julius, ed. The Fruits of Our Desiring: An Enquiry into the Ethics of the Bhagavadgita for Our Times: Essays from the Inaugural Conference of the Dharam Hinduja Institute for Indic Research, Cambridge University. Calgary, 1997.
MacKenzie, Matthew D. "The Five Factors of Action and the Decentring of Agency in the Bhavagad Gita." Asian Philosophy, 11 (November 2001): 141–151.
Patel, Ramesh. Philosophy of the Gita. New York, 1991.
Rambachan, Anatanand. The Hindu Vision. New Delhi, 1992.
Sartwell, Crispin. "Art and War: Paradox of the Bhavagad Gita." Asian Philosophy 3 (1993): 95–103.
Teschner, George. "Anxiety, Anger and the Concept of Agency in the Bhavagad Gita." Asian Philosophy 2 (1992): 61–78.
Verma, C. D. The Gita in World Literature. New Delhi, 1990.
Eliot Deutsch (1987)
Lee Siegel (1987)