The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God” or “Song of the Lord”) is among the most important religious texts of Hinduism and easily the best known. It has been quoted by writers, poets, scientists, theologians, and philosophers – among others – for centuries and is often the introductory text to Hinduism for a Western audience.
It is commonly referred to as the Gita and was originally part of the great Indian epic Mahabharata. Its date of composition, therefore, is closely associated with that of the epic – c. 5th-3rd century BCE – but not all scholars agree that the work was originally included in the Mahabharata text and so date it later to c. 2nd century BCE. The Gita is a dialogue between the warrior-prince Arjuna and the god Krishna who is serving as his charioteer at the Battle of Kurukshetra fought between Arjuna's family and allies (the Pandavas) and those of the prince Duryodhana and his family (the Kauravas) and their allies. This dialogue is recited by the Kauravan counselor Sanjaya to his blind king Dhritarashtra (both far from the battleground) as Krishna has given Sanjaya mystical sight so he will be able to see and report the battle to the king.
The Kauravas and Pandavas are related and there are mutual friends and family members fighting on both sides for supremacy of rule. Accordingly, when Arjuna sees all his former friends and comrades on the opposing side, he loses heart and refuses to take part in a battle which will result in their deaths as well as many others. The rest of the text is the dialogue between the prince and the god on what constitutes right action, proper understanding and, ultimately, the meaning of life and nature of the Divine.
The Gita combines the concepts expressed in the central texts of Hinduism – the Vedas and Upanishads – which are here synthesized into a single, coherent vision of belief in one God and the underlying unity of all existence. The text instructs on how one must elevate the mind and soul to look beyond appearances – which fool one into believing in duality and multiplicity – and recognize these are illusions; all humans and aspects of existence are a unified extension of the Divine which one will recognize once the trappings of illusion have been discarded.
The Gita inspired the Bhakti (“devotion”) Movement which then influenced the development of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Krishna explains the path of selfless devotion as one of the paths toward self-actualization, recognition of the truth of existence, and liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death; the other two being jnana (“knowledge”) and karma (“action”). The Hare Krishna Movement of the present day is an expression of Bhakti, and the Gita remains their principal text.
Vedas, Upanishads, & the Three Gunas
Hinduism is known to adherents as Sanatan Dharma (“Eternal Order” or “Eternal Path”) and is informed at its fundamental level by the texts known as the Vedas which also include subtexts known as the Upanishads. The word Veda means “knowledge”, and Upanishad is interpreted to mean to “sit down closely” as though drawing near for instruction from a master. The Vedas convey the essential knowledge of the universe; the Upanishads instruct one on how to use that knowledge. The vision of the Vedas and Upanishads, in its simplest and most concise form, is that there is a single entity – Brahman – who is the creator of existence and existence itself. Human beings carry a spark of this great Divinity within themselves known as the Atman. The purpose of life is to reach the self-actualization of the Atman which will then bring one into union with Brahman in life after one experiences physical death. One achieves this self-actualization through the performance of one's dharma (duty) in accordance with one's karma (right action) to eventually attain moksha (liberation) and the recognition of Final Truth. If one does not attain self-actualization in a given lifetime, one is reincarnated and must try again.
Standing in the way of one's self-actualization are worldly distractions in the form of the three gunas – qualities, characteristics, states of mind – inherent in each individual. The gunas are:
Sattva – wisdom, goodness, enlightenment
Rajas – passion, activity, aggression
Tamas – darkness, confusion, helplessness
The gunas are not a hierarchy one needs to work through from bottom to top but all three exist, to greater or lesser degrees, in every individual. The confusion of Tamas can be caused by the passion of Rajas and the urge toward goodness or wisdom of Sattva. The gunas help to enslave the mind by interpreting the world one sees as the truth – as the way life and the universe truly are – and so trap one in the cycle of rebirth and death (samsara), keeping one from self-actualization by diverting attention from the truth of reality to what one has been taught to accept as reality. The best illustration of this is the interpretation of death as a tragic loss both for the deceased and for the survivors. One's natural response to death is sorrow and anger at the loss or, for those experiencing the decline in health of a terminal disease, fear of the unknown and rage at being forced to leave all one knows behind. The sages of the Upanishads and the figure of Krishna in the Gita would say these responses are simply the gunas at work. One is conditioned to respond emotionally to loss but, depending on which of the three gunas is most dominant in an individual, one will express that emotion in different ways. The soul possessing more of Sattva will be inclined to be philosophical and optimistic; of Rajas, angry and aggressive; of Tamas, inconsolable and despairing. None of these responses, Krishna would say, are appropriate because the person who has died has not ceased to exist and one commits a serious spiritual error in responding as though they have. Even the response of Sattva is not wholly appropriate because it supposes an end to life, a discontinuity, when there is none. The soul is immortal, existed before birth, and exists after death. This understanding is emphasized in the Upanishads and illustrated dramatically throughout the Gita which stresses the importance of moving beyond what seems to be true toward actual Truth.
Mahabharata & Gita Summary
As noted, the action of the Gita is set in the great Indian epic Mahabharata which focuses on the interrelated families of the Pandavas and Kauravas and their struggle for control of the land of Bharat (India). The work is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa (as is the Gita by some, said to have been dictated by Vyasa to the elephant-headed god Ganesha) and illustrates spiritual truths through its epic tale.
The Vedas (and, to some schools of thought, the Upanishads) are considered shruti (“what is heard”) by Hindus in that the works are considered eternal knowledge communicated by the Divine and heard by sages who then preserved them. The Mahabharata, the Gita, and the other great epic, the Ramayana, are considered smritis (“what is remembered”) as they are regarded as works written by human beings drawing on past history, lore, and tradition. It should be noted that, in some Hindu sects (such as the Hare Krishna movement), the Gita is understood as shruti on par with the Vedas, but this claim is not commonly accepted. The Mahabharata begins with the story of the king Shantanu of the Kuru clan who sets in motion a series of events whereby his second wife, Satyavati, comes to control the kingdom along with their son Devavrat (also known as Bheeshm). Bheeshm captures three princesses from another kingdom as wives for his half-brother Vichitravirya, who was to be crowned king. One of these was released and the other two married Vichitravirya who then died without producing an heir. The two princesses were then married to Satyavati's son from her first marriage, the sage Vyasa, in order to preserve the Kuru line. One of the princesses gave birth to Dhritarashtra (who was born blind) and the other to Pandu. Vyasa then had a third son with a maid of the ladies who was called Vidur. All three boys showed exceptional skills in different areas of government. In time, Dhritarashtra was married to the princess Gandhari and Pandu to another named Kunti. The two princes and Vidur consolidated the rule of the kingdom and, when they came of age, Pandu became king even though Dhritarashtra was older because a blind man could not legally rule. Pandu reigned well and, when all seemed in order, Pandu requested leave and went off to live in the woods with Kunti and his lesser wife Madri. Years later, Kunti returned with her five sons who had been born in the wilderness – Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva – along with the corpses of Pandu and Madri whose deaths have brought the family back to the kingdom. These sons (known as the Pandavas) are attributed to Pandu as father but, actually, each was conceived by the union of Kunti and Madri with different gods.
While Pandu and his wives were gone, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari had produced 100 children, the oldest of whom was Duryodhana, known as the Kauravas. Rivalry between Duryodhana's side of the family and the five sons of Kunti informs the rest of the story which finally results in the armies of the two branches of the family facing each other at the Battle of Kurukshetra. This is where the action of the Gita takes place, just before the battle is about to begin. Krishna, in his present incarnation, is related to both sides and declares he will fight for neither but assist both. He serves as Arjuna's charioteer and, as both armies move into position for battle, Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him to the center of the field so he can look upon all of those who are so eager for war. When Krishna obliges, Arjuna sees his friends, relatives, old teachers, counselors, all of the people who played a part in his life and made him who he is. He tells Krishna that he cannot be a part of any action that will result in so much death and misery. He throws down his great bow and declares he will not fight.
Prior to the battle, Krishna endowed the counselor Sanjaya with a kind of second sight so that, even miles away, he could see everything taking place on the battlefield and report it precisely to Dhritarashtra. The Gita begins with Dhritarashtra asking Sanjaya what is happening at Kurukshetra; Sanjaya then narrates Arjuna's despair, Krishna's response, and the whole of their dialogue which finally culminates in Arjuna's understanding of the nature of existence, his place in the cosmic order, and why he has to take part in the coming battle.
The Mahabharata then continues as Arjuna picks up his bow to fight. The Pandavas win but at the cost of almost their entire army. Duryodhana and the Kauravas are all killed. Yudhishthira and his brothers then rule the land for 36 years before abdicating in order to pursue peace in their final days in the Himalayas where they die and are brought to paradise.