Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Bhagavad Gita has become a central devotional text in Hinduism and is admired as a work of literature; it is preserved as an interlude in the great Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata.

Summary of Event

The Bhagavadgītā (The Bhagavad Gita, 1785; literally the divine song or song of the lord) is a brief interlude of eighteen chapters, or seven hundred Sanskrit verses, interpolated into the longest epic in all world literature, the Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896). The authorship of the Mahābhārata, the great Indian epic, is traditionally attributed to the legendary Vyāsa (the compiler).

Scholars have dated The Bhagavad Gita from around the time of the Buddha, in the sixth century b.c.e., to as far forward as the fourth century c.e., although most estimates fall between c. 200 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. At least the major part of the work as it is known was probably created in the second century b.c.e.

The setting of the story is the battle between two divisions of a large founding family, the Pāndāvas, the aggrieved heroes, and the Kauravas, the aggressors, which takes place c. 1200 b.c.e., in northern India. The story may be linked to actual historical events that took place in Kurukshetra in northern India, the site of early Vedic culture. The Bhagavad Gita opens by referring to the field of dharma or righteousness, Dharmakshetra. However, to reduce the book to a search for events in history is to distort the intent of the book itself. Its importance is in the events of cultural interpretation, more exciting and more meaningful than any single battle.

According to a devotional view, The Bhagavad Gita is apauruseya, eternally existing. The work may be made up of strands and aphorisms reflecting the work of multiple poetic and religious perspectives; however, most interpreters of the work treat it as a unified poem of formal, philosophical, and religious integrity.

The plot is simple: On the battlefield, the warrior Arjuna, one of the Pāndāvas brothers, lays down his weapon and refuses to fight. He is caught in a conflict between his dharma (duty) to his society and his responsibility to inflict no harm. His chariot driver, Kṛṣṇa (Krishna, an avatar, or incarnation, of the god Viṣṇu), exhorts him to perform his dharma without seeking the rewards of his actions. Kṛṣṇa reveals the value of the yogas, or ways to worship and act in the world, which are karma (work), bhakti (love), and jñana (knowledge).

The Bhagavad Gita is both continuous with and a departure from the scriptural traditions of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads. The people who developed The Bhagavad Gita and tucked it into the Mahābhārata were concerned with the dilemma of how to awaken to the divine as well as how to be a responsible part of the everyday world. The rise of The Bhagavad Gita as a core sacred text reflects a shift in the control of society from the Brahman (priests) to the Kṣatriya (the caste of lords and warriors). In the work, that shift is made philosophically, as a shift of the meaning of duty in relation to enlightenment.

The Bhagavad Gita is the scripture of action without entanglement in ego’s desire, devotion to the source and sustaining force of all action, and the wisdom of the indivisibility of self and spirit. As with any sacred text, there are contending interpretive approaches; the two most prominent systems are Sāṁkhya and Vedānta. Without endorsing a single interpretive model, one might begin to study The Bhagavad Gita by pursuing the following puzzles concerning the divine, the world, the self, and the self in relation to the world and the divine.

The divine, or theistic, puzzle asks, Who is Kṛṣṇa? He is Arjuna’s kinsman, his chariot driver, and avatar of the god Viṣṇu, preserver of the universe. In chapter 11, Kṛṣṇa reveals to Arjuna his universal form, as the essence of all being, radiant and infinite. Does, then, The Bhagavad Gita represent the divine by means of theism (a concept of god) or nontheism (a concept of the divine that supercedes all attributes, is beyond all description)? Is Kṛṣṇa a theistic divinity, saguna (with attributes), or a means to transcend theism, apprehending the divine nirguna (without attributes)? Another way to put the question, is the divine in The Bhagavad Gita personal or transpersonal? Many interpreters of the work suggest that the figure of Kṛṣṇa paradoxically is both personal and impersonal.

The world, or the māyā (illusion), puzzle asks if the world is real or unreal. One of the arguments Kṛṣṇa offers to the reluctant warrior, Arjuna, is that he can neither kill nor be killed. If The Bhagavad Gita was written under the influence of Sāṁkhya philosophy, then it reconciles purusha (spirit) and prakriti (nature). If The Bhagavad Gita is read as representative of Vedānta thinking, as a nondualist text, then it recognizes that Ātman is Brahman, or that the self is inseparable from the divine (and everything else that seems real is māyā, the net of illusion). In either case, according to The Bhagavad Gita, humanity cannot be released from acting in the world, but humans must release themselves from desiring the fruits of their actions.

The self, or the ātman, puzzle, related to the māyā puzzle, asks what the self is. The Bhagavad Gita speaks to more than one notion of a self. First, there is the provisional self in an embodied personality. In Sāṁkhya doctrine, there are three gunas (strands, threads, or mental states), aspects of the personality: sattva (purity and selfless happiness), rajas (restlessness, fieriness, misery), and tamas (dull lethargy). Some combination of these gunas describes a person’s character. Second, there is the universal self, or ātman, which is divine. Often the word ātman is translated as “soul,” causing the term to be confused with a Western concept of personal soul, which attains eternity for the individual, transitory personality. Instead, ātman refers to the transpersonal aspect of the self that is beyond ephemeral self-identifications. Certainly the dialogue in The Bhagavad Gita draws on the range of meanings of self.

The yoga puzzle, involving the self in relation to the world and the divine, asks what people are to do. The first three puzzles, regarding the divine, the world, and self, conclude with the fourth puzzle, regarding how the self is in relation to the world and the divine. There are three primary yogas in the work: karma (action), bhakti (loving devotion), and jñana (knowledge). Many scholars contend that The Bhagavad Gita is fundamentally a case for karma yoga, yet The Bhagavad Gita clearly makes a case for all three. Can one of these methods be identified as the essence of Kṛṣṇa’s teaching? In chapter 3, Arjuna must learn to work (karma) without seeking goals or rewards for his action. Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna that action is better than inaction, that he must perform his duty free from attachment to the fruits of that work. Moreover, even though nothing is to be attained and has not been attained already, “Yet,” Kṛṣṇa says, “I work.” In chapter 9, Arjuna also learns that devotion is the purest form of worship. “If one offers me with bhakti, a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I accept it.” In chapter 4, Arjuna learns that jñana is the ultimate marga (path). Arjuna “cuts with the sword of wisdom (jñana) this doubt born of ignorance, follow the means of wisdom.” Finally, the distinction between these yogas, or disciplines, breaks down, and knowledge, action, and devotion are intermingled and united.

Significance

In 1785, Charles Wilkins first translated Bhagavadgītā into English, and although there may be no precise English equivalents either linguistically, theologically, or philosophically for many of the words used, the book has had an enduring influence on the West. The essential qualities of American nineteenth century thought, as evidenced in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, were profoundly influenced by these writers’ readings of The Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who helped lead India to independence in 1947, first became interested in The Bhagavad Gita in an English translation; his interpretation of it became part of the very fabric of his life’s work. Although The Bhagavad Gita takes place on a battlefield, Gandhi was certain that the book was not about the necessity of warfare but rather proved its futility. It has become the most beloved of all Hindu texts and, since its translation into European languages, has profoundly influenced Western culture as well.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gandhi, Mohandas K. The Gospel of Selfless Action: Or, The Gita According to Gandhi. Translated with an introduction by Mahadev Desai. Roseville, Calif.: Dry Bones Press, 2000. Originally published for an unsophisticated audience in India, the text exemplifies the use of The Bhagavad Gita in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolas, Antonio de, trans. The Bhagavad Gita. York Beach, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, 1990. An elegant translation and an invaluable introductory essay on models of interpretation of Arjuna’s crisis and liberation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prabhavananda, Swami, and Christopher Isherwood. The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. Introduction by Aldous Huxley. 1944. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. This lyrical translation also includes Huxley’s introduction and two appendices on cosmology and war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sargent, Winthrop. The Bhagavad Gita. New York: State University of New York Press, 1994. Each page provides one stanza in Sanskrit in the Devanagari script, in transliteration, in a literal translation, and in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharma, Arvind. The Hindu Gita: Ancient and Classical Interpretations of the Bhagavadgītā. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986. A thorough guide to the major Hindu interpretations of the text, which is a reminder that there are several crucial interpretive issues in the tradition of Hinduism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharpe, Eric J. The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavad Gita. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. Tells the story of the influence The Bhagavad Gita has had on Western culture.

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