The Bhagavad Gītā (Sanskrit, "The Song of the Lord") is the single most popular and influential religious text of the Hindu tradition. The exact dating of its writing is difficult; the best estimates are between 400 b.c.e. and 400 c.e. (Indian scholars generally prefer earlier dates than those of their Western counterparts.) Though it is self-contained and reads as an independent work, its seven hundred Sanskrit verses (divided into three sections and eighteen chapters) are placed in the sixth major book (Bhiṣmaparvan) of the Indian national epic the Mahābhārata, attributed to the sage Vyasa. This epic, an enormous collection of Indian legends, romances, royal history, theology, and philosophy, tells the story of a great Indian civil war (ca. 1200 b.c.e.?) between two royal factions, the Pandus and the Kurus. The Gītā begins as the leader of the Pandus, Arjuna, and his four brothers mass their troops to confront the evil forces of their usurping cousins and reclaim the kingdom that is rightfully theirs. In the face of the impending mass slaughter of relatives and friends on both sides, Arjuna, confused as to his true duty (dharma), refuses to begin the bloody conflict. His charioteer, Lord Kṛṣṇa (Krishna) who happens to be the supreme God incarnate, resolves his perplexity in an ongoing dialogue that clarifies and summarizes not only Arjuna's duty but also the nature of life, God, and the three paths to spiritual liberation.
Kṛṣṇa urges Arjuna to uphold his caste duty as a warrior and fight. Arjuna's confusion reflects a transition in Indian society from a tribal level whose worldview, the karma or action path, is focused on caste duty and priestly rituals, to a more complex society focused on growing feudal kingdoms and their expanding commerce and warfare. This social revolution helped to engender new religious movements: on one side a retreat into introspective, impersonal (and often nontheistic) mysticism, the jñāna Yoga or knowledge path, and on the other the rise of personal devotion to a single chosen deity, the bhakti or devotional path. In advising Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa reinterprets the ancient karma Yoga path; while acknowledging the path of jñāna Yoga that threatens to divert Arjuna from his social duty. He steers Arjuna, and Indian society as a whole, toward an active engagement with life, fulfilling traditional social duties with heartfelt bhakti to the supreme personal God. Any action, according to Kṛṣṇa, not just sacrificial rituals, performed as duty and without attachment to the results, can be a path of spiritual discipline (Yoga) that brings salvation. "Your claim is to action alone, never to its fruits; don't let the fruits of action be your motive, nor attach yourself to inactivity" (II.47). The easiest path to attain this equanimity in action is the discipline of devotional surrender (bhakti Yoga) to the Lord. "With mind fixed on Me you shall pass over all problems through my grace. . . ." (XVIII.58). Although three main paths to liberation are put forward, it is the bhakti path, supplemented by action and knowledge, that Kṛṣṇa emphasizes. Certainly Kṛṣṇa's awesome revelation to Arjuna of his "universal form" in chapter XI is a vision of the divine unique in world religious literature in its sheer intensity. Even so, the Bhagavad Gītā's interpreters have never agreed on its fundamental message, either in India or in the West. The text is poetic, unsystematic, and filled with philosophical ambiguity and a variety of viewpoints drawn (sometimes verbatim) from the Upaniṣads (Upanishads), early Sāṃkhya philosophy, and the devotional Bhāgavata movement. The genius of the text is just this mix, which appeals to different inclinations and social strata, opening Hindu religion to all, whether in the village or the city, male or female, high caste or low. The ambiguity and variety of viewpoints bolster reconciliation and acceptance of diverse paths to salvation. Traditionally it is read by worshipers of Viṣṇu (Vishnu) as well as Śiva (Shiva), the two principal deities of Hinduism. Leaders of the chief Hindu philosophical schools have each written important commentaries interpreting the Gītā for their own support. Śankara (eighth century), whose commentary is the oldest, saw it as a bulwark of absolute nondualism emphasizing jñāna-Yoga; Ramānuja (eleventh century) read it as qualified nondualism, and Madhva (thirteenth century) as dualism, both emphasizing bhakti Yoga. Nationalists seized upon it as a karma Yoga path to inspire their struggle for independence from British rule. Indeed, only since 1880 and the Hindu "renaissance" has the Gītā achieved wide popularity beyond scholarly circles, often as a symbol of national unity and a prod toward political action. B. G. Tilak (1856–1920) used it to justify violence in the name of patriotic duty and defense of traditional caste structures, whereas Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) relied on it to inspire nonviolent resistance to foreign rule and abolition of caste untouchability. In Indian law courts today Hindus swear with their right hand on the Gītā.
The Bhagavad Gītā in the West
The Gītā has been translated more often than any book except the Bible. The first English translation was by Charles Wilkins in 1785. In the United States the Transcendentalists were the first to celebrate the romantic appeal of Eastern wisdom. Both Emerson and Thoreau praised the Gītā in glowing terms and found in it an apparent confirmation of their own viewpoints, valuing inner discipline and intuiting the divine spirit in nature.
With a famous speech of Swami Vivekananda in 1893 at the Chicago World's Parliament of Religions, Americans became aware of a newly invigorated Hinduism, relying on the Bhagavad Gītā as its central text. This Hindu missionary succeeded in planting several chapters of a Hindu religious organization, the Vedanta Society, in American cities. At about the same time Madame H. P. Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, began to emphasize Hindu themes and promote its own influential translations of the Gītā by William Q. Judge in the United States and by Annie Besant in Great Britain, both emphasizing the allegorical and occult dimensions of the text and little informed by the Indian context. Gandhi himself, according to Eric Sharp, first encountered the Gītā in England in this theosophical milieu and popularized an allegorical rather than a historical or critical interpretation.
Among other influential readings of the Gītā in the twentieth century is that of the poet T. S. Eliot, who found inspiration in the text's vision of time and in the selfless path of karma Yoga. However, by far the greatest surge of Western interest in the Gītā took place in the religious counterculture of the 1960s, which, dissatisfied with traditional religion and social norms, encouraged millions of young people to experiment with new forms of consciousness and new types of religious experience. In this efflorescence of religious experimentation, disciplines (Yogas) of the East became widespread and popular. The Bhagavad Gītā held pride of place—no important teacher of meditation, yoga postures, or devotional worship in the Hindu mode could ignore its authority or refrain from commenting on its interpretation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, emphasized the jñāna-Yoga of the first third of the Gīta to millions of followers. Likewise, Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON), made his literal interpretation—The Bhagavad Gītā, As It Is —the center of his own worldwide bhakti Yoga teaching. Famous stars such as the Beatles echoed and amplified these Indian movements by mixing their religious themes with psychedelic music.
From the 1970s the religious counterculture continued to blend the Theosophy and New Thought from the beginning of the twentieth century with Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu themes. These movements understood themselves as heralds of an evolutionary "New Age" of human spiritual development. Such New Age movements often found the diverse yogic paths of the Gītā congenial to their eclectic approach, harmonizing Eastern and Christian elements.
At the same time, starting with a liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, an increasing number of Indians immigrated to the United States and soon made their own ethnic religious identities felt. More than a million strong by 1999, Hindu groups now have multiple temples, most with regular Gītā study classes, in all major American cities.
The growth of interest in Eastern philosophy and religion that burgeoned in the late 1960s also promoted the academic study of non-Western religions. Today more than four hundred institutions of higher learning feature religious studies programs, and the Bhagavad Gītā, because of its beauty and accessibility, continues to be one of the most widely read and studied of world scriptures.
See alsoDharma; Hinduism; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Karma; New Age Spirituality; New Thought; Pacifism; Ramakrishna Movement; Theosophical Society; Transcendental Meditation; Upanishads; Vedanta Society; Vedas; Yoga.
Desai, Mahadev. The Gospel of Selfless Action, or theGitaAccording to Gandhi. 1948.
Deutsch, Eliot. The Bhagavad Gītā. 1968.
Edgerton, Franklin. The Bhagavad Gītā. 1944.
Larson, G. J. "The Song Celestial: Two Centuries of Bhagavad Gītā in English." Philosophy East andWest 31 (October 1981): 513–541.
Sastri, Allādi Mahadeva. The Bhagavad-Gītā withtheCommentary of Srī Sankarachārya. 1961.
Sharpe, Eric J. The Universal Gītā. 1985.
Zaehner, R. C. The Bhagavad Gītā. 1973.
Lloyd W. Pflueger
The Gita, The Song of God
Written more than two thousand years ago, the Bhagavad Gita is probably the most widely read of the Hindu scriptures and contains some of the basic ideas of Hindu culture. The poem is actually part of a larger Hindu epic (long poem) called the Mahabharata, which tells the story of the struggle between two closely related families, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Bhagavad Gita begins just before the start of the great battle between the families. It is written in the form of a conversation between one of the warriors, Prince Arjuna, and his chariot driver, Krishna—actually a god in disguise.
As the poem opens, the two armies are lined up facing each other across the batdefield. Prince Arjuna questions his part in the war. He wonders whether he should follow his duty and fight, even though this would mean killing friends, relatives, and teachers in the opposing army, or whether he should throw down his arms and let himself be killed. Krishna reminds Arjuna that everyone has certain duties in society. As a member of the warrior caste (the second highest level in India's complex social class system), Arjuna's duty is to fight and protect. Yet, while he is required by duty to act, his actions must be “right” actions, meaning they must be guided by devotion and selflessness.
The Bhagavad Gita in Context
The Mahabharata (pronounced muh-hah-BAHR-ruh-tuh), the great epic of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part, is one of the longest poems in the world, with over 1.5 million words and almost seventy-five thousand verses. The sage Vyasa (pronounced vee-YAH-sah), who may or may not have been a real person, is believed to be its author, but he probably just collected and compiled the many stories in the epic. Originally the Mahabharata was passed down through oral tradition, changing and developing from generation to generation. The Bhagavad Gita was probably added to the original epic sometime between the fifth and second centuries bce. If the Mahabharata describes an actual historical war, scholars place it around the beginning of the ninth century bce.
Key Themes and Symbols
Selfless devotion to duty is the major lesson in the Bhagavad Gita. Each caste has its own specific duty, and society as a whole benefits when all members perform their duty properly. Through the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, the reader also learns of many ways to express religious belief, including meditation, worship, and work. The poem teaches that Krishna is a loving god who is concerned about people's welfare and who appears on earth to help during times of trouble.
The Bhagavad Gita in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Throughout history, religious and political leaders in India have written commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and translated it into many Indian languages. Mahatma Gandhi, a major figure in the Indian independence movement, referred to the Bhagavad Gita as his “spiritual dictionary.” Since 1785, the text has also been translated into English and European languages. The Bhagavad Gita was the inspiration for the former Beatle George Harrison's posthumous album, Brainwashed (2002). Robert Redford's 2000 film The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Jack Lemmon, and Charlize Theron, was based on Steven Pressfield's 1995 novel of the same name that takes place in the Bhagavad Gita. In both the film and the novel, Bagger Vance is a Krishna figure who guides the main character through difficult times.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley (2001) is one way to enjoy the tale with the help of an expert. This book presents the tale in a simple, easy-to-read format and explains the significance of elements to those unfamiliar with Hinduism and Indian culture.
BHAGAVAD GĪTĀ The title of the Bhagavad Gītā is now generally rendered as the "Song of the Blessed One," but it originally meant the "Upanishads sung by the Blessed One"—a philosophical, rather than a lyrical poem. Together with the old Upanishads and the philosophical "aphorisms of Vedānta," it forms the "triple canon" (prasthāna-traya) of Vedānta (End of the Vedas) philosophy and has thus been a mainstay not only of Vedānta, but of Hinduism in general for more than two millennia. Part of the gigantic epic Mahābhārata, the Gītā was composed sometime around the third or second century b.c. Whether it was an early or later episode in that epic as it evolved in the oral tradition, it is now a central element of that entire work. Attempts by some scholars to show it as an interpolation are now generally regarded as oversimplifications, attributed to a lack of appreciation for the character of oral literature.
The Bhagavad Gītā comprises eighteen chapters in the sixth book of the Mahābhārata, which described the beginning of the great battle between the armies of the rival cousins: the five Pāndava brothers against the one hundred Kauravas. Krishna, a prince of a local tribe—known only to a few insiders as the god Vishnu descended in a human form—had taken the side of the Pāndavas, but only as an adviser, not as a combatant. In this battle of the righteous Pāndavas against the devious Kauravas, a struggle of good against evil that was really part of a larger divine scheme in which all men played their assigned roles, Krishna assumed the role of the trusted charioteer to his friend Arjuna, one of the five Pāndavas and the commander of their army. As the battle was about to commence, Arjuna realized that he would fight and kill his relatives and his former teachers for the sake of the kingdom. He sat down in his chariot and refused to start the battle. After first appealing without success to Arjuna's pride and sense of honor as a soldier, Krishna turned to philosophy, the vanity of bodily existence, and finally to the ethics of action and the love of God. As Arjuna still hesitated, Krishna overwhelmed him with a display of his divine glory and authority. It is this code of ethics that gave the Gītā, as the text is commonly known, its prominent role, spawning innumerable commentaries and becoming the guiding light for many prominent people, among them Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma M. K. Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the Gītā, Krishna went beyond earlier philosophic concepts that sought bliss and liberation though ritual acts, metaphysical insight, or total renunciation and inactivity, proposing the new paths of "disinterested selfless action" (karma yoga) and fervent "devotion" (bhakti). Activity out of a sense of duty (dharma, which includes the notions of law, righteousness, and functional identity) leaves no residue of karma to create painful rebirths, since it is not the act itself, but the emotions and thoughts behind it that create karma. Arjuna must fight because it is his princely duty, not for the sake of the prize of victory. Better still is the path of total devotion (bhakti, "sharing, taking part") to God. There are few antecedents to this new theism before the Gītā, but it flourished later, especially among the millions of devotees of Krishna/Vishnu.
Hartmut E. Scharfe
Brockington, John. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden: Brill, 1998. van Buitenen, J. A. B. The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Of the large number of holy books revered within Hindu culture, the Bhagavad Gita, a short work originally written in Sanskrit, is by far the most popular. An epic poem, it lays out a path of mystical devotion to Krishna, one of the primary deities in the Hindu pantheon, and describes the Hindu perspective on such essential teachings as reincarnation and karma. It was one of the first books translated by Western scholars as they began to study Eastern teachings in the eighteenth century, and it was widely circulated among dissident religious groups such as the Transcendentalists of New England.
The Gita was written over a period of years between the fifth and second centuries B.C.E. At a later date, it was inserted into the larger Mahabharata, the great epic volume of Indian history and lore. The Mahabharata tells the story of the development of ancient India and the activities of the descendents of Bharata, the mythical character from whom India (or Bharat) takes its name. The story of the Gita is set as a war has broken out between two groups of Bharata's descendents, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and concerns the problem that Arjuna, the leader of the Pandava army, has in participating in that war. He turns the problem he has been contemplating over to Krishna. Is it worth ruling a kingdom, to kill so many kinsmen?
Krishna responds by calling Arjuna to attend to his role in life as a member of the warrior caste, and not turn his back on his social duty (dharma). Duty should be followed without regard of results. More importantly, however, he offers an understanding of the human being. The human is not a body, but the eternal Atman (analogous to the soul in Western thought), and the Atman is indestructible. The Atman cannot die and it is reborn in this life a number of times. Just as humans change clothes, so the Atman changes bodies. Krishna goes on to out-line the process of yoga and meditation through which a person can come to know the real amid the illusionary world of human life. His teaching culminates in a mystical moment in which Arjuna sees the vast universe lodged as a body within the God of gods.
In the relationship of Arjuna and Krishna, the Gita offers a model of the relationship between chela (pupil) and guru (teacher), so essential to Eastern culture, a structure that has been brought to the West in great force, and now without controversy, during the twentieth century. That structure has focused the question of the necessity of a guru in training a seeker in appropriating mystical states of consciousness.
Numerous translations of the Gita exist in English (and other Western languages), the different translations reflecting the variant understandings of the deity as personal or impersonal in Hindu thought. In the Western work, the Vedanta Societies offer an impersonalist interpretation of the deity while the International Society of Krishna Consciousness is a major exponent of the personalist approach.
The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Juan Mascaró. New York: Penguin Classics, 1962.
Oragan, Troy Wilson. Hinduism: Its Historical Development. Woodbury, Conn.: Barons' Educational Series, 1974.
Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad Gita As It Is. New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972 (frequently reprinted).
The Gītā appears to have been addressed (the date is uncertain, but c.200 BCE is likely) to a situation in which major unease about the excessive and costly rituals of Brahmanical religion had led to a reaction so severe that it had isolated both Buddhism and Jainism as separate religions. The Gītā appears to make a deliberate attempt to show the worth of the major ways of the continuing tradition (though obviously it corrects any non-theistic system if taken in isolation). It therefore reads as a deliberate attempt to reconcile and hold the line against further schism. It achieves a profound reconciliation; not surprisingly, therefore, it is the most revered and influential text among Hindus.