The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”), often referred to as the Gita, is a 700-verse Sanskrit scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata (chapters 23–40 of Bhishma Parva).
The Gita is set in a narrative framework of a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna. At the start of the Dharma Yudhha (righteous war) between Pandavas and Kauravas, Arjuna is filled with moral dilemma and despair about the violence and death the war will cause. He wonders if he should renounce and seeks Krishna’s counsel, whose answers and discourse constitute the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna counsels Arjuna to “fulfill his Kshatriya (warrior) duty to uphold the Dharma” through “selfless action”. The Krishna–Arjuna dialogue cover a broad range of spiritual topics, touching upon ethical dilemmas and philosophical issues that go far beyond the war Arjuna faces.
The Bhagavad Gita presents a synthesis of Hindu ideas about dharma, theistic bhakti, and the yogic ideals of moksha. The text covers jnana, bhakti, karma, and Raja Yoga (spoken of in the 6th chapter) incorporating ideas from the Samkhya-Yoga philosophy.
Numerous commentaries have been written on the Bhagavad Gita with widely differing views on the essentials. Vedanta commentators read varying relations between Self and Brahman in the text: Advaita Vedanta sees the non-dualism of Atman (soul) and Brahman as its essence, whereas Bhedabheda and Vishishtadvaita see Atman and Brahman as both different and non-different, while Dvaita Vedanta sees dualism of Atman (soul) and Brahman as its essence. The setting of the Gita in a battlefield has been interpreted as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of the human life.
The Bhagavad Gita is the best known and most famous of Hindu texts, with a unique pan-Hindu influence. The Gita‘s call for selfless action inspired many leaders of the Indian independence movement including Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi; the latter referred to it as his “spiritual dictionary”.
The Gita in the title of the text “Bhagavad Gita” means “song”. Religious leaders and scholars interpret the word “Bhagavad” in a number of ways. Accordingly, the title has been interpreted as “the Song of God” by the theistic schools, “the Song of the Lord”, “the Divine Song”, and “Celestial Song” by others. In India, its Sanskrit name is often written as Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, श्रीमद् भगवद् गीता (the latter two words often contracted with a compound alphabet as भगवद्गीता), where the Shrimad prefix is used to denote a high degree of respect. This is not to be confused with the Shrimad Bhagavatam, which is a Purana dealing with the life of the Hindu God Krishna and various avatars of Vishnu.
The work is also known as the Isvara Gita, the Ananta Gita, the Hari Gita, the Vyasa Gita, or simply the Gita.
In the Indian tradition, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the epic Mahabharata of which it is a part, is attributed to sage Vyasa, whose full name was Krishna Dvaipayana, also called Veda-Vyasa. Another Hindu legend states that Vyasa narrated it while the elephant-headed deity Ganesha broke one of his tusks and wrote down the Mahabharata along with the Bhagavad Gita.
Scholars consider Vyasa to be a mythical or symbolic author, in part because Vyasa is also the traditional compiler of the Vedas and the Puranas, texts dated to be from different millennia. The word Vyasa literally means “arranger, compiler”, and is a surname in India. According to Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, a Gita scholar, it is possible that a number of different individuals with the same name compiled different texts.
Swami Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu monk and Vedantist, stated that the Bhagavad Gita may be old but it was mostly unknown in the Indian history till early 8th-century when Adi Shankara (Shankaracharya) made it famous by writing his much-followed commentary on it. Some infer, states Vivekananda, that “Shankaracharya was the author of Gita, and that it was he who foisted it into the body of the Mahabharata.” This attribution to Adi Shankara is unlikely in part because Shankara himself refers to the earlier commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, and because other Hindu texts and traditions that compete with the ideas of Shankara refer to much older literature referencing the Bhagavad Gita, though much of this ancient secondary literature has not survived into the modern era.
According to J. A. B. van Buitenen, an Indologist known for his translations and scholarship on Mahabharata, the Gita is so contextually and philosophically well knit with the Mahabharata that it was not an independent text that “somehow wandered into the epic”. The Gita, states van Buitenen, was conceived and developed by the Mahabharata authors to “bring to a climax and solution the dharmic dilemma of a war”.
According to Alexus McLeod, a scholar of Philosophy and Asian Studies, it is “impossible to link the Bhagavad Gita to a single author”, and it may be the work of many authors. This view is shared by the Indologist Arthur Basham, who states that there were three or more authors or compilers of Bhagavad Gita. This is evidenced by the discontinuous intermixing of philosophical verses with theistic or passionately theistic verses, according to Basham.
Theories on the date of the composition of the Gita vary considerably. Scholars accept dates from the fifth century to the second century BCE as the probable range, the latter likely. The Hinduism scholar Jeaneane Fowler, in her commentary on the Gita, considers second century BCE to be the probable date of composition. J. A. B. van Buitenen too states that the Gita was likely composed about 200 BCE. According to the Indologist Arvind Sharma, the Gita is generally accepted to be a 2nd-century BCE text.
Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, in contrast, dates it a bit earlier. He states that the Gita was always a part of the Mahabharata, and dating the latter suffices in dating the Gita. On the basis of the estimated dates of Mahabharata as evidenced by exact quotes of it in the Buddhist literature by Asvaghosa (c. 100 CE), Upadhyaya states that the Mahabharata, and therefore Gita, must have been well known by then for a Buddhist to be quoting it. This suggests a terminus ante quem (latest date) of the Gita to be sometime prior to the 1st-century CE. He cites similar quotes in the Dharmasutra texts, the Brahma sutras, and other literature to conclude that the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the fifth or fourth century BCE.
According to Arthur Basham, the context of the Bhagavad Gita suggests that it was composed in an era when the ethics of war were being questioned and renunciation to monastic life was becoming popular. Such an era emerged after the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the 5th-century BCE, and particularly after the semi-legendary life of Ashoka in 3rd-century BCE. Thus, the first version of the Bhagavad Gita may have been composed in or after the 3rd-century BCE.
Linguistically, the Bhagavad Gita is in classical Sanskrit of the early variety, states the Gita scholar Winthrop Sargeant. The text has occasional pre-classical elements of the Sanskrit language, such as the aorist and the prohibitive mā instead of the expected na (not) of classical Sanskrit. This suggests that the text was composed after the Pāṇini era, but before the long compounds of classical Sanskrit became the norm. This would date the text as transmitted by the oral tradition to the later centuries of the 1st-millennium BCE, and the first written version probably to the 2nd- or 3rd-century CE.
According to Jeaneane Fowler, “the dating of the Gita varies considerably” and depends in part on whether one accepts it to be a part of the early versions of the Mahabharata, or a text that was inserted into the epic at a later date. The earliest “surviving” components therefore are believed to be no older than the earliest “external” references we have to the Mahabharata epic. The Mahabharata – the world’s longest poem – is itself a text that was likely written and compiled over several hundred years, one dated between “400 BCE or little earlier, and 2nd-century CE, though some claim a few parts can be put as late as 400 CE”, states Fowler. The dating of the Gita is thus dependent on the uncertain dating of the Mahabharata. The actual dates of composition of the Gita remain unresolved. While the year and century is uncertain, states Richard Davis, the internal evidence in the text dates the origin of the Gita discourse to the Hindu lunar month of Margashirsha (also called Agrahayana, generally December or January of the Gregorian calendar).
Composition and significance
The Bhagavad Gita is the best known, and most famous of Hindu scriptures. While Hinduism is known for its diversity and its synthesis therefrom, the Bhagavad Gita has a unique pan-Hindu influence. Gerald James Larson – an Indologist and classical Hindu Philosophies scholar, states “if there is any one text that comes near to embodying the totality of what it is to be a Hindu, it would be the Bhagavad Gita.”
The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Prasthanatrayi, which also includes the Upanishads and Brahma sutras. These are the three starting points for the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. The Brahma sutras constitute the Nyāya prasthāna or the “starting point of reasoning canonical base”, while the Principal Upanishads constitute the Sruti prasthāna or the “starting point of heard scriptures”, and the Bhagavad Gita constitutes the Smriti prasthāna or the “starting point of remembered canonical base”. The Bhagavad Gita is a “summation of the Vedanta”, states Sargeant. It is thus one of the key texts for the Vedanta, a school that provides one of the theoretical foundations for Hinduism, and one that has had an enormous influence over time, becoming the central ideology of the Hindu renaissance in the 19th-century, according to Gavin Flood – a scholar of Hinduism.
Some Hindus give it the status of an Upanishad, and some consider it to be a “revealed text”. Others consider the Bhagavad Gita as an important Smriti, or secondary text that exist in alternate versions such as one found in Kashmir though it does not affect the basic message of the text.
The Bhagavad Gita is the sealing achievement of Hindu Synthesis, incorporating its various religious traditions. The synthesis is at both philosophical and socio-religious levels, states the Gita scholar Keya Maitra. The text refrains from insisting on one right marga (path) to spirituality. It openly synthesizes and inclusively accepts multiple ways of life, harmonizing spiritual pursuits through action (karma), knowledge (jnana), devotion (bhakti). According to the Gita translator Radhakrishnan, quoted in a review by Robinson, Krishna’s discourse is a “comprehensive synthesis” that inclusively unifies the competing strands of Hindu thought such as “Vedic ritual, Upanishadic wisdom, devotional theism and philosophical insight”. Aurobindo described the text as a synthesis of various Yogas. The Indologist Robert Minor, and others, in contrast, state the Gita is “more clearly defined as a synthesis of Vedanta, Yoga and Samkhya” philosophies of Hinduism.
The synthesis in Bhagavad Gita addresses the question as to what constitutes the virtuous path and one necessary for the spiritual liberation and a release from the cycles of rebirth (moksha). It discusses whether one should renounce a householder lifestyle for a life as an ascetic, or lead a householder life dedicated to one’s duty and profession, or pursue a householder life devoted to a personalized god in the revealed form of Krishna. Thus Gita discusses and synthesizes the three dominant trends in Hinduism: enlightenment-based renunciation, dharma-based householder life, and devotion-based theism. According to Deutsch and Dalvi, the Bhagavad Gita attempts “to forge a harmony” between these three paths.
The Bhagavad Gita’s synthetic answer recommends that one must resist the “either-or” view, and consider a “both-and” view. It states the dharmic householder can achieve the same goals as the renouncing monk through “inner renunciation”, that is “motiveless action”. One must do the right thing because one has determined that it is right, states Gita, without craving for its fruits, without worrying about the results, loss or gain. Desires, selfishness and the craving for fruits can distort one from the dharmic action and spiritual living. The Gita synthesis goes further, according to its interpreters such as Swami Vivekananda, and the text states that there is Living God in every human being and the devoted service to this Living God in everyone – without craving for personal rewards – is a means to spiritual development and liberation. According to Galvin Flood, the teachings in Gita differ from other Indian religions that encouraged extreme austerity and self-torture of various forms (karsayanta). The Gita disapproves of these, stating that not only is it against the tradition but against Krishna himself, because “Krishna dwells within all beings, in torturing the body the ascetic would be torturing him”, states Flood. Even a monk should strive for the “inner renunciation”, rather than external pretensions.
The Gita synthesizes several paths to spiritual realization based on the premise that people are born with different temperaments and tendencies (guna). According to Winthrop Sargeant, the text acknowledges that some individuals are more reflective and intellectual, some affective and engaged by their emotions, some are action driven, yet others favor experimenting and exploring what works. It then presents different spiritual paths for each personality type respectively: the path of knowledge (jnana yoga), the path of devotion (bhakti yoga), the path of action (karma yoga), and the path of meditation (raja yoga). The guna premise is a synthesis of the ideas from the Samkhya school of Hinduism. According to Upadhyaya, the Gita states that none of these paths to spiritual realization are “intrinsically superior or inferior”, rather they “converge in one and lead to the same goal”.
According to Hiltebeitel, Bhakti forms an essential ingredient of this synthesis, and the text incorporates Bhakti into Vedanta. The Bhagavad Gita is a Brahmanical text which uses the shramanic and Yogic terminology to spread the Brahmanic idea of living according to one’s duty or dharma, in contrast to the ascetic ideal of liberation by avoiding all karma. According to Galvin Flood and Charles Martin, the Gita rejects the shramanic path of non-action, emphasizing instead “the renunciation of the fruits of action”. The Bhagavad Gita, states Raju, is a great synthesis of the ideas of the impersonal spiritual monism with personal God, of “the yoga of action with the yoga of transcendence of action, and these again with yogas of devotion and knowledge”.
The Bhagavad Gita manuscript is found in the sixth book of the Mahabharata manuscripts – the Bhisma-parvan. Therein, in the third section, the Gita forms chapters 23–40, that is 6.3.23 to 6.3.40. The Bhagavad Gita is often preserved and studied on its own, as an independent text with its chapters renumbered from 1 to 18.
The Bhagavad Gita manuscripts exist in numerous Indic scripts. These include writing systems that are currently in use, as well as early scripts such as the Sharada script now dormant. Variant manuscripts of the Gita have been found on the Indian subcontinent Unlike the enormous variations in the remaining sections of the surviving Mahabharata manuscripts, the Gita manuscripts show only minor variations and the meaning is the same.
According to Gambhirananda, the old manuscripts may have had 745 verses, though he agrees that 700 verses is the generally accepted historic standard. Gambhirananda’s view is supported by a few versions of chapter 6.43 of the Mahabharata. These versions state the Gita is a text where “Kesava [Krishna] spoke 620 slokas, Arjuna 57, Samjaya 67, and Dhritarashtra 1”, states the Religious Studies and Gita exegesis scholar Robert Minor. This adds to 745 verses. An authentic manuscript of the Gita with 745 verses has not been found. Of all known extant historic manuscripts, the largest version contains 715 verses. Adi Shankara, in his 8th-century commentary, explicitly states that the Gita has 700 verses, which was likely a deliberate declaration in order to prevent further insertions and changes to the Gita. Since Shankara’s time, the “700 verses” has been the standard benchmark for the critical edition of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is a poem written in the Sanskrit language. Its 700 verses are structured into several ancient Indian poetic meters, with the principal being the shloka (Anushtubh chanda). Each shloka consists of a couplet, thus the entire text consists of 1,400 lines. Each shloka line has two quarter verses with exactly eight syllables. Each of these quarters is further arranged into “two metrical feet of four syllables each”, state Flood and Martin. The metered verse does not rhyme. While the shloka is the principal meter in the Gita, it does deploy other elements of Sanskrit prosody. At dramatic moments, it uses the tristubh meter found in the Vedas, where each line of the couplet has two quarter verses with exactly eleven syllables.
The Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna right before the start of the climactic Kurukshetra War in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Two massive armies have gathered to destroy the other. The Pandava prince Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna to drive to the center of the battlefield so that he can get a good look at both the armies and all those “so eager for war”. He sees that some among his enemies are his own relatives, beloved friends, and revered teachers. He does not want to fight to kill them and is thus filled with doubt and despair on the battlefield. He drops his bow, wonders if he should renounce and just leave the battlefield. He turns to his charioteer and guide Krishna, for advice on the rationale for war, his choices and the right thing to do. The Bhagavad Gita is the compilation of Arjuna’s questions and moral dilemma, Krishna’s answers and insights that elaborate on a variety of philosophical concepts. The compiled dialogue goes far beyond the “a rationale for war”, it touches on many human ethical dilemmas, philosophical issues and life’s choices. According to Flood and Martin, the Gita though set in the war context in a major epic, the narrative is structured for the abstract to all situations; it wrestles with questions about “who we are, how we should live our lives, and how should we act in the world”. According to Sargeant, it delves into questions about the “purpose of life, crisis of self-identity, human soul, human temperaments, and ways for spiritual quest”.
- Arjuna, one of the Pandavas
- Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and guru who was actually an incarnation of Vishnu
- Sanjaya, counselor of the Kuru king Dhritarashtra (secondary narrator)
- Dhritarashtra, Kuru king (Sanjaya’s audience)
Bhagavad Gita comprises 18 chapters (section 25 to 42) in the Bhishma Parva of the epic Mahabharata. Because of differences in recensions, the verses of the Gita may be numbered in the full text of the Mahabharata as chapters 6.25–42 or as chapters 6.23–40. The number of verses in each chapter vary in some manuscripts of the Gita discovered on the Indian subcontinent. However, variant readings are relatively few in contrast to the numerous versions of the Mahabharata it is found embedded in, and the meaning is the same.
The original Bhagavad Gita has no chapter titles. Some Sanskrit editions that separate the Gita from the epic as an independent text, as well as translators, however, add chapter titles such as each chapter being a particular form of yoga. For example, Swami Chidbhavananda describes each of the eighteen chapters as a separate yoga because each chapter, like yoga, “trains the body and the mind”. He labels the first chapter “Arjuna Vishada Yogam” or the “Yoga of Arjuna’s Dejection”. Sir Edwin Arnold titled this chapter in his 1885 translation as “The Distress of Arjuna”.
Chapter 1 (46 verses)
Some translators have variously titled the first chapter as Arjuna vishada yoga, Prathama Adhyaya, The Distress of Arjuna, The War Within, or Arjuna’s Sorrow. The Bhagavad Gita opens by setting the stage of the Kurukshetra battlefield. Two massive armies representing different loyalties and ideologies face a catastrophic war. With Arjuna is Krishna, not as a participant in the war, but only as his charioteer and counsel. Arjuna requests Krishna to move the chariot between the two armies so he can see those “eager for this war”. He sees family and friends on the enemy side. Arjuna is distressed and in sorrow. The issue is, states Arvind Sharma, “is it morally proper to kill?” This and other moral dilemmas in the first chapter are set in a context where the Hindu epic and Krishna have already extolled ahimsa (non-violence) to be the highest and divine virtue of a human being. The war feels evil to Arjuna and he questions the morality of war. He wonders if it is noble to renounce and leave before the violence starts, or should he fight, and why.
Chapter 2 (72 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Sankhya Yoga, The Book of Doctrines, Self-Realization, or The Yoga of Knowledge (and Philosophy). The second chapter begins the philosophical discussions and teachings found in Gita. The warrior Arjuna whose past had focused on learning the skills of his profession now faces a war he has doubts about. Filled with introspection and questions about the meaning and purpose of life, he asks Krishna about the nature of life, soul, death, afterlife and whether there is a deeper meaning and reality. Krishna answers. The chapter summarizes the Hindu idea of rebirth, samsara, eternal soul in each person (Self), universal soul present in everyone, various types of yoga, divinity within, the nature of Self-knowledge and other concepts. The ideas and concepts in the second chapter reflect the framework of the Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hindu Philosophy. This chapter is an overview for the remaining sixteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. Mahatma Gandhi memorized the last 19 verses of the second chapter, considering them as his companion in his non-violent movement for social justice during the colonial rule.
Chapter 3 (43 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Karma yoga, Virtue in Work, Selfless Service, or The Yoga of Action. Arjuna, after listening to Krishna’s spiritual teachings in Chapter 2, gets more confounded and returns to the predicament he faces. He wonders if fighting the war is “not so important after all” given Krishna’s overview on the pursuit of spiritual wisdom. Krishna replies that there is no way to avoid action (karma), since abstention from work is also an action. Krishna states that Arjuna has an obligation to understand and perform his duty (dharma), because everything is connected by the law of cause and effect. Every man or woman is bound by activity. Those who act selfishly create the karmic cause and are thereby bound to the effect which may be good or bad. Those who act selflessly for the right cause and strive to do their dharmic duty do God’s work. Those who act without craving for fruits are free from the karmic effects, because the results never motivated them. Whatever the result, it does not affect them. Their happiness comes from within, and the external world does not bother them. According to Flood and Martin, chapter 3 and onwards develops “a theological response to Arjuna’s dilemma”.
Chapter 4 (42 verses)
Some translators title the fourth chapter as Jñāna–Karma-Sanyasa yoga, The Religion of Knowledge, Wisdom in Action, or The Yoga of Renunciation of Action through Knowledge. Krishna reveals that he has taught this yoga to the Vedic sages. Arjuna questions how Krishna could do this, when those sages lived so long ago, and Krishna was born more recently. Krishna reminds him that everyone is in the cycle of rebirths, and while Arjuna does not remember his previous births, he does. Whenever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten by men, says Krishna, he returns to re-establish dharma. Every time he returns, he teaches about inner Self in all beings. The later verses of the chapter return to the discussion of motiveless action and the need to determine the right action, performing it as one’s dharma (duty) while renouncing the results, rewards, fruits. The simultaneous outer action with inner renunciation, states Krishna, is the secret to the life of freedom. Action leads to knowledge, while selfless action leads to spiritual awareness, state the last verses of this chapter. The 4th chapter is the first time where Krishna begins to reveal his divine nature to Arjuna.
Chapter 5 (29 verses)
Some translators title this chapter as Karma–Sanyasa yoga, Religion by Renouncing Fruits of Works, Renounce and Rejoice, or The Yoga of Renunciation. The chapter starts by presenting the tension in the Indian tradition between the life of sannyasa (monks who have renounced their household and worldly attachments) and the life of grihastha (householder). Arjuna asks Krishna which path is better. Krishna answers that both are paths to the same goal, but the path of “selfless action and service” with inner renunciation is better. The different paths, says Krishna, aim for—and if properly pursued, lead to—Self-knowledge. This knowledge leads to the universal, transcendent Godhead, the divine essence in all beings, to Brahman — the Krishna himself. The final verses of the chapter state that the self-aware who have reached self-realization live without fear, anger, or desire. They are free within, always. Chapter 5 shows signs of interpolations and internal contradictions. For example, states Arthur Basham, verses 5.23–28 state that a sage’s spiritual goal is to realize the impersonal Brahman, yet the next verse 5.29 states that the goal is to realize the personal God who is Krishna.
It is not those who lack energy
nor those who refrain from action,
but those who work without expecting reward
who attain the goal of meditation,
Theirs is true renunciation.
—Bhagavad Gita 6.1
Chapter 6 (47 verses)
Some translators title the sixth chapter as Dhyana yoga, Religion by Self-Restraint, The Practice of Meditation, or The Yoga of Meditation. The chapter opens as a continuation of Krishna’s teachings about selfless work and the personality of someone who has renounced the fruits that is found in chapter 5. Krishna says that such self-realized people are impartial to friends and enemies, are beyond good and evil, equally disposed to those who support them or oppose them because they have reached the summit of consciousness. The verses 6.10 and after proceed to summarize the principles of Yoga and meditation in the format similar to but simpler than Patanjali’s Yogasutra. It discusses who is a true yogi, and what it takes to reach the state where one harbors no malice towards anyone.
Chapter 7 (30 verses)
Some translators title this chapter as Jnana–Vijnana yoga, Religion by Discernment, Wisdom from Realization, or The Yoga of Knowledge and Judgment. The chapter 7 once again opens with Krishna continuing his discourse. He discusses jnana (knowledge) and vijnana (realization, understanding) using the Prakriti-Purusha (matter-soul) framework of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, and the Maya-Brahman framework of its Vedanta school. The chapter states that evil is the consequence of ignorance and the attachment to the impermanent, delusive Maya. It equates self-knowledge and the union with Purusha (Krishna) as the Self to be the highest goal of any spiritual pursuit.
Chapter 8 (28 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Aksara–Brahma yoga, Religion by Devotion to the One Supreme God, The Eternal Godhead, or The Yoga of the Imperishable Brahman. The chapter opens with Arjuna asking questions such as what is Brahman and what is the nature of karma. Krishna states that his own highest nature is the imperishable Brahman, and that he lives in every creature as the adhyatman. Every being has an impermanent body and an eternal soul, and that “Krishna as Lord” lives within every creature. The chapter discusses cosmology, the nature of death and rebirth. This chapter contains eschatology of the Bhagavad Gita. Importance of the last thought before death, differences between material and spiritual worlds, and light and dark paths that a soul takes after death are described.
Chapter 9 (34 verses)
Some translators title the ninth chapter as Raja–Vidya–Raja–Guhya yoga, Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery, The Royal Path, or The Yoga of Sovereign Science and Sovereign Secret. Chapter 9 opens with Krishna continuing his discourse as Arjuna listens. Krishna states that he is everywhere and in everything in an unmanifested form, yet he is not in any way limited by them. Eons end, everything dissolves and then he recreates another eon subjecting them to the laws of Prakriti (nature). He equates himself to being the father and the mother of the universe, to being the Om, to the three Vedas, to the seed, the goal of life, the refuge and abode of all. The chapter recommends devotional worship of Krishna. According to theologian Christopher Southgate, verses of this chapter of the Gita are panentheistic, while German physicist and philosopher Max Bernhard Weinstein deems the work pandeistic. It may, in fact, be neither of them, and its contents may have no definition with previously-developed Western terms.
Chapter 10 (42 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Vibhuti–Vistara–yoga, Religion by the Heavenly Perfections, Divine Splendor, or The Yoga of Divine Manifestations. Krishna reveals his divine being in greater detail, as the ultimate cause of all material and spiritual existence, one who transcends all opposites and who is beyond any duality. Krishna says he is the atman in all beings, Arjuna’s innermost Self, also compassionate Vishnu, the Surya (sun god), Indra, Shiva-Rudra, Ananta, Yama, as well as the Om, Vedic sages, time, Gayatri mantra, and the science of Self-knowledge. Arjuna accepts Krishna as the purushottama (Supreme Being).
Chapter 11 (55 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Vishvarupa–Darshana yoga, The Manifesting of the One and Manifold, The Cosmic Vision, or The Yoga of the Vision of the Cosmic Form. On Arjuna’s request, Krishna displays his “universal form” (Viśvarūpa). This is an idea found in the Rigveda and many later Hindu texts, where it is a symbolism for atman (soul) and Brahman (Absolute Reality) eternally pervading all beings and all existence. Chapter 11, states Eknath Eswaran, describes Arjuna entering first into savikalpa samadhi (a particular), and then nirvikalpa samadhi (a universal) as he gets an understanding of Krishna. A part of the verse from this chapter was recited by Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the first atomic bomb explosion.
Chapter 12 (20 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Bhakti yoga, The Religion of Faith, The Way of Love, or The Yoga of Devotion. In this chapter, Krishna glorifies the path of love and devotion to God. Krishna describes the process of devotional service (Bhakti yoga). This chapter of the Gita, states Easwaran, offers a “vastly easier” path to most human beings to identify and love God in an anthropomorphic representation, in any form. He can be projected as “a merciful father, a divine mother, a wise friend, a passionate beloved, or even a mischievous child”, according to Easwaran. The text states that combining “action with inner renunciation” with the love of Krishna as a personal God leads to peace. In the last eight verses of this chapter, Krishna states that he loves those who have compassion for all living beings, are content with whatever comes their way, who live a detached life that is impartial and selfless, unaffected by fleeting pleasure or pain, neither craving for praise nor depressed by criticism.
Chapter 13 (35 verses)
Some translators title this chapter as Ksetra–Ksetrajna Vibhaga yoga, Religion by Separation of Matter and Spirit, The Field and the Knower, or The Yoga of Difference between the Field and Field-Knower. The chapter opens with Krishna continuing his discourse from the previous chapter. He describes the difference between transient perishable physical body (kshetra) and the immutable eternal soul (kshetrajna). The presentation explains the difference between ahamkara (ego) and atman (soul), from there between individual consciousness and universal consciousness. The knowledge of one’s true self is linked to the realization of the soul. The 13th chapter of the Gita offers the clearest enunciation of the Samkhya philosophy, states Basham, by explaining the difference between field (material world) and the knower (soul), prakriti and purusha. According to Miller, this is the chapter which “redefines the battlefield as the human body, the material realm in which one struggles to know oneself” where human dilemmas are presented as a “symbolic field of interior warfare”.
Chapter 14 (27 verses)
Some translators title the fourteenth chapter as Gunatraya–Vibhaga yoga, Religion by Separation from the Qualities, The Forces of Evolution, or The Yoga of the Division of Three Gunas. The chapter once again opens with Krishna continuing his discourse from the previous chapter. Krishna explains the difference between purusha and prakriti, by mapping human experiences to three Guṇas (tendencies, qualities). These are listed as sattva, rajas and tamas. All phenomena and individual personalities are a combination of all three gunas in varying and ever-changing proportions. The gunas affect the ego, but not the soul, according to the text. This chapter also relies on the Samkhya theories.
Chapter 15 (20 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Purushottama yoga, Religion by Attaining the Supreme Krishna, The Supreme Self, or The Yoga of the Supreme Purusha. The fifteenth chapter expounds on Krishna theology, in the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition of Hinduism. Krishna discusses the nature of God, according to Easwaran, wherein Krishna not only transcends impermanent body (matter), he also transcends the atman (soul) in every being. According to Franklin Edgerton, the verses in this chapter in association with select verses in other chapters make the metaphysics of the Gita to be dualistic. Its overall thesis is, states Edgerton, more complex however, because other verses teach the Upanishadic doctrines and “thru its God the Gita seems after all to arrive at an ultimate monism; the essential part, the fundamental element, in every thing, is after all One — is God.”
Chapter 16 (24 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Daivasura–Sampad–Vibhaga yoga, The Separateness of the Divine and Undivine, Two Paths, or The Yoga of the Division between the Divine and the Demonic. According to Easwaran, this is an unusual chapter where two types of human nature are expounded, one leading to happiness and the other to suffering. Krishna identifies these human traits to be divine and demonic respectively. He states that truthfulness, self-restraint, sincerity, love for others, desire to serve others, being detached, avoiding anger, avoiding harm to all living creatures, fairness, compassion and patience are marks of the divine nature. The opposite of these are demonic, such as cruelty, conceit, hypocrisy and being inhumane, states Krishna. Some of the verses in Chapter 16 may be polemics directed against competing Indian religions, according to Basham. The competing tradition may be the materialists (Charvaka), states Fowler.
Chapter 17 (28 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Shraddhatraya-Vibhaga yoga, Religion by the Threefold Kinds of Faith, The Power of Faith, or The Yoga of the Threefold Faith. Krishna qualifies the three divisions of faith, thoughts, deeds, and even eating habits corresponding to the three modes (gunas).
Chapter 18 (78 verses)
Some translators title the chapter as Moksha–Sanyasa yoga, Religion by Deliverance and Renunciation, Freedom and Renunciation, or The Yoga of Liberation and Renunciation. In the final and long chapter, the Gita offers a final summary of its teachings in the previous chapters. It covers many topics, states Easwaran. It begins with discussion of spiritual pursuits through sannyasa (renunciation, monastic life) and spiritual pursuits while living in the world as a householder. It re-emphasizes the karma-phala-tyaga teaching, or “act while renouncing the fruits of your action”.
The Gita adopts the Upanishadic concept of Absolute Reality (Brahman), a shift from the earlier ritual-driven Vedic religion to one abstracting and internalizing spiritual experiences. According to Jeaneane Fowler, the Gita builds on the Upanishadic Brahman theme, conceptualized to be that which is everywhere, unaffected, constant Absolute, indescribable and nirguna (abstract, without features). This Absolute in Gita is neither a He nor a She, but a “neuter principle”, an “It or That”. Like some of the Upanishads, the Gita does not limit itself to the nirguna Brahman. It teaches both the abstract and the personalized Brahman (God), the latter in the form of Krishna. It accomplishes this synthesis by projecting the nirguna Brahman as higher than saguna or personalized Brahman, where the nirguna Brahman “exists when everything else does not”, states Fowler. The text blurs any distinction between the personalized God and impersonal Absolute Reality by amalgamating their equivalence, using it interchangeably in the later chapters. This theme has led scholars to call the Gita as panentheistic, theistic and monistic.
The nature of Self
The Gita, states Fowler, “thoroughly accepts” atman as a foundational concept. In the Upanishads, this is the Brahmanical idea that all beings have a “permanent real self”, the true essence, the soul it refers to as Atman (Self). In the Upanishads that preceded the Gita such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the salvific goal is to know and realize this Self, a knowledge that is devoid of the delusions of instinctive “I, mine, egoistic” typically connected with the body, material life processes that are impermanent and transient. The Gita accepts atman as the pure, unchanging, ultimate real essence, experiencer of one’s being.
The nature of the world
The Gita considers the world to be transient, all bodies and matter as impermanent. Everything that constitutes prakriti (nature, matter) is process driven and has a finite existence. It is born, grows, matures, decays and dies. It considers this transient reality as Maya. Like the Upanishads, the Gita focuses on what it considers as Real in this world of change, impermanence, and finitude. To build its theological framework about the world, the text relies on the theories found in Samkhya and Vedanta schools of Hinduism.
The Upanishads developed the equation “Atman = Brahman”, states Fowler, and this belief is central to the Gita. This equation is, however, interpreted in a number of ways by different sub-schools of Vedanta. In the Gita, the soul of each human being is considered to be identical to every other human being and all beings, but it “does not support an identity with the Brahman”, according to Fowler. According to Raju, the Gita supports this identity and spiritual monism, but as a form of synthesis with a personal God. According to Edgerton, the author(s) of the Gita rely on their concept of personalized God (Krishna) to ultimately arrive at an ultimate monism, where the devotee ultimately realizes that Krishna is the essential part, the Real, the fundamental element in him, everyone and everything. Krishna is all and One. According to Huston Smith, the Gita is teaching that “when one sees the entire universe as pervaded by the single Universal Spirit [Krishna], one contemplates, marvels, and falls in love with its amazing glory. […] Having experienced that Truth oneself, all doubts are dispelled. This is how the flower of devotion evolves into the fruit of knowledge.”
Means to God
The Gita teaches several spiritual paths – jnana, bhakti and karma – to the divine. However, states Fowler, it “does not raise any of these to a status that excludes the others”. The theme that unites these paths in the Gita is “inner renunciation” where one is unattached to personal rewards during one’s spiritual journey.
The Gita teaches the path of Karma yoga in Chapter 3 and others. It upholds the necessity of action. However, this action should “not simply follow spiritual injunctions”, without any attachment to personal rewards or because of craving for fruits. The Gita teaches, according to Fowler, that the action should be undertaken after proper knowledge has been applied to gain the full perspective of “what the action should be”.
The concept of such detached action is also called Nishkam Karma, a term not used in the Gita but equivalent to other terms such as karma-phala-tyaga. This is where one determines what the right action ought to be and then acts while being detached to personal outcomes, to fruits, to success or failure. A karma yogi finds such work inherently fulfilling and satisfying. To a karma yogi, right work done well is a form of prayer, and karma yoga is the path of selfless action.
According to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the object of the Gita is to show the way to attain self-realization, and this “can be achieved by selfless action, by desireless action; by renouncing fruits of action; by dedicating all activities to God, i.e., by surrendering oneself to Him body and soul.” Gandhi called the Gita “The Gospel of Selfless Action”. According to Jonardon Ganeri, the premise of “disinterested action” is one of the important ethical concepts in the Gita.
In the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti is characterized as the “loving devotion, a longing, surrender, trust and adoration” of the divine Krishna as the ishta-devata. While bhakti is mentioned in many chapters, the idea gathers momentum after verse 6.30, and it is chapter 12 where the idea is sustainly developed. According to Fowler, the bhakti in the Gita does not imply renunciation of “action”, but the bhakti effort is assisted with “right knowledge” and dedication to one’s dharma. Theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “The text [of the Gita] offers a survey of the different possible disciplines for attaining liberation through knowledge (Jnana), action (karma), and loving devotion to God (bhakti), focusing on the latter as both the easiest and the highest path to salvation.”
According to M. R. Sampatkumaran, a Bhagavad Gita scholar, the Gita message is that mere knowledge of the scriptures cannot lead to final release, but “devotion, meditation, and worship are essential.” The Gita likely spawned a “powerful devotionalism” movement, states Fowler, because the text and this path was simpler, available to everyone.
Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, and direct realization of the Brahman. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is also referred to as buddhi yoga and its goal is self-realization. The text states that this is the path that intellectuals tend to prefer. The chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita is dedicated to the general exposition of jnana yoga.
The Gita praises the path, calling the jnana yogin to be exceedingly dear to Krishna, but adds that the path is steep and difficult.
Synthesis of yogas, Raja yoga
Sivananda’s commentary regards the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita as having a progressive order, by which Krishna leads “Arjuna up the ladder of Yoga from one rung to another.” The influential commentator Madhusudana Sarasvati divided the Gita‘s eighteen chapters into three sections of six chapters each. Swami Gambhirananda characterises Madhusudana Sarasvati’s system as a successive approach in which Karma yoga leads to Bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to Jnana yoga:
- Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
- Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
- Chapters 13–18 = Jnana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself
Some scholars treat the “yoga of meditation” to be a distinct fourth path taught in the Gita, referring to it as Raja yoga. Others consider it as a progressive stage or a combination of Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga. Some, such as Adi Shankara, have considered its discussion in the 13th chapter of the Gita and elsewhere to be an integral part of the Jnana yoga.
Asceticism, renunciation and ritualism
The Gita rejects ascetic life, renunciation as well as Brahminical Vedic ritualism where outwardly actions or non-action are considered a means of personal rewards in this life, after-life or a means of liberation. It instead recommends the pursuit of an active life where the individual adopts “inner renunciation”, acts to fulfill what he determines to be his dharma, without craving for or concerns about personal rewards, viewing this as an “inner sacrifice to the personal God for a higher good”.
According to Edwin Bryant, the Indologist with publications on Krishna-related Hindu traditions, the Gita rejects “actionless behavior” found in some Indic monastic traditions. It also “relegates the sacrificial system of the early Vedic literature to a path that goes nowhere because it is based on desires”, states Bryant.
Dharma is a prominent paradigm of the Mahabharata, and it is referenced in the Gita as well. The term dharma has a number of meanings. Fundamentally, it means “what is right”. Contexually, it also means the essence of “duty, law, class, social norms, ritual and cosmos itself” in the text, in the sense “the way things should be in all these different dimensions”, states Fowler. According to Zaehner, the term dharma means “duty” in Gita’s context, in verse 2.7 refers to the “right [and wrong]”, and in 14.27 to “eternal law of righteousness”.
Few verses in the Bhagavad Gita deal with dharma, according to the Indologist Paul Hacker, but the theme of dharma is important in it. In Chapter 1, responding to Arjuna’s despondency, Krishna asks him to follow his sva-dharma, “the dharma that belongs to a particular man (Arjuna) as a member of a particular varna, (i.e., the kshatriya – the warrior varna)”. According to Paul Hacker, the term dharma has additional meanings in the context of Arjuna. It is more broadly, the “duty” and a “metaphysically congealed act” for Arjuna. According to the Indologist Jacqueline Hirst, the dharma theme is “of significance only at the beginning and end of the Gita” and this may have been a way to perhaps link the Gita to the context of the Mahabharata.
According to Malinar, “Arjuna’s crisis and some of the arguments put forward to call him to action are connected to the debates on war and peace in the Udyoga Parva.” The Udyoga Parva presents many views about the nature of a warrior, his duty and what calls for heroic action.While Duryodhana presents it as a matter of status, social norms, and fate, Vidura states that the heroic warrior never submits, knows no fear and has the duty to protect people. The Bhishma parva sets the stage of two ideologies in conflict and two massive armies gathered for what each considers as a righteous and necessary war. In this context, the Gita advises Arjuna to do his holy duty (sva-dharma) as a warrior, fight and kill.
According to the Indologist Barbara Miller, the text frames heroism not in terms of physical abilities, but instead in terms of effort and inner commitment to fulfill a warrior’s dharma in the battlefield. War is depicted as a horror, the impending slaughter a cause of self-doubts, yet at stake is the spiritual struggle against evil. The Gita message emphasizes that the personal moral confusion and struggle must be addressed, the warrior needs to rise beyond “personal and social values” and understand what is at stake and “why he must fight”, states Miller. The text explores the “paradoxical interconnectedness of disciplined action and freedom”.
The Field of Dharma
The first reference to dharma in the Bhagavad Gita occurs in its first verse, where Dhritarashtra refers to the Kurukshetra, the location of the battlefield, as the Field of Dharma, “The Field of Righteousness or Truth”. According to Fowler, dharma in this verse may refer to the sanatana dharma, “what Hindus understand as their religion, for it is a term that encompasses wide aspects of religious and traditional thought and is more readily used for religion”. Therefore, ‘Field of action’ implies the field of righteousness, where truth will eventually triumph, states Fowler. According to Jacqueline Hirst, the “field of dharma” phrase in the Gita epitomizes that the struggle concerns dharma itself. This dharma has “resonances at many different levels”.
“The Field of Dharma” is also called the “Field of action” by Sri Aurobindo, a freedom fighter and philosopher. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a professor of Philosophy at the Oxford University and the second president of India, saw “The Field of Dharma” as the world (Bhavsagar), which is a “battleground for moral struggle”.
Allegory of war
Unlike any other religious scripture, the Bhagavad Gita broadcasts its message in the centre of the battlefield. Several modern Indian writers have interpreted the battlefield setting as an allegory of “the war within”. Eknath Easwaran writes that the Gita‘s subject is “the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious”.
Swami Nikhilananda, takes Arjuna as an allegory of Ātman, Krishna as an allegory of Brahman, Arjuna’s chariot as the body, and Dhritarashtra as the ignorance filled mind. Nikhilananda’s allegorical interpretation is shared by Huston Smith. Swami Vivekananda interprets the first discourse in the Gita as well as the “Kurushetra war” allegorically. Vivekananda states, “when we sum up its esoteric significance, it means the war which is constantly going on within man between the tendencies of good and evil”.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in his commentary on the Gita, interprets the battle as “an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, man’s higher impulses struggling against evil”.
In Aurobindo’s view, Krishna was a historical figure, but his significance in the Gita is as a “symbol of the divine dealings with humanity”, while Arjuna typifies a “struggling human soul”. However, Aurobindo rejected the interpretation that the Gita, and the Mahabharata by extension, is only “an allegory of the inner life”, and it has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions.
Promotion of just war and duty
Other scholars such as Steven Rosen, Laurie L. Patton and Stephen Mitchell have seen in the Gita a religious defense of the warrior class’s (Kshatriya Varna) duty (svadharma), which is to conduct combat and war with courage and do not see this as only an allegorical teaching, but also a real defense of just war.
Indian independence leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw the Gita as a text which defended war when necessary and used it to promote war against the British Empire. Lajpat Rai wrote an article on the “Message of the Bhagavad Gita”. He saw the main message as the bravery and courage of Arjuna to fight as a warrior. Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw the Gita as defending killing when necessary for the betterment of society, such as, for example, the killing of Afzal Khan.
Liberation or moksha in Vedanta philosophy is not something that can be acquired. Ātman (Soul) and Self-knowledge, along with the loss of egotistic ignorance, the goal of moksha, is something that is always present as the essence of the self, and must be realized by each person by one’s own effort.While the Upanishads largely uphold such a monistic viewpoint of liberation, the Bhagavad Gita also accommodates the dualistic and theistic aspects of moksha. The Gita, while including impersonal Nirguna Brahman as the goal, mainly revolves around the relationship between the Self and a personal God or Saguna Brahman. A synthesis of knowledge, devotion, and desireless action is offered by Krishna as a spectrum of choices to Arjuna; the same combination is suggested to the reader as a way to moksha. Christopher Chapple – a Comparative Theology scholar focusing on Indian religions, in Winthrop Sargeant translation of the Gita, states, “In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation.”
According to Dennis Hudson, there is an overlap between Vedic and Tantric rituals with the teachings found in the Bhagavad Gita. He places the Pancaratra Agama in the last three or four centuries of 1st-millennium BCE, and proposes that both the tantric and vedic, the Agama and the Gita share the same Vasudeva-Krishna roots. Some of the ideas in the Bhagavad Gita connect it to the Shatapatha Brahmana of Yajurveda. The Shatapatha Brahmana, for example, mentions the absolute Purusha who dwells in every human being. A story in this vedic text, states Hudson, highlights the meaning of the name Vasudeva as the ‘shining one (deva) who dwells (vasu) in all things and in whom all things dwell’, and the meaning of Vishnu to be the ‘pervading actor’. In Bhagavad Gita, similarly, ‘Krishna identified himself both with Vasudeva, Vishnu and their meanings’. The ideas at the center of Vedic rituals in Shatapatha Brahmana and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita revolve around this absolute Person, the primordial genderless absolute, which is same as the goal of Pancaratra Agama and Tantra.
The first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published by Charles Wilkins in 1785. The Wilkins translation had an introduction to the Gita by Warren Hastings. Soon the work was translated into other European languages such as French (1787), German, and Russian. In 1849, the Weleyan Mission Press, Bangalore published The Bhagavat-Geeta, Or, Dialogues of Krishna and Arjoon in Eighteen Lectures, with Sanskrit, Canarese and English in parallel columns, edited by Rev. John Garrett, and the efforts being supported by Sir. Mark Cubbon.
In 1981, Larson stated that “a complete listing of Gita translations and a related secondary bibliography would be nearly endless”. According to Larson, there is “a massive translational tradition in English, pioneered by the British, solidly grounded philologically by the French and Germans, provided with its indigenous roots by a rich heritage of modern Indian comment and reflection, extended into various disciplinary areas by Americans, and having generated in our time a broadly based cross-cultural awareness of the importance of the Bhagavad Gita both as an expression of a specifically Indian spirituality and as one of the great religious “classics” of all time.”
According to Sargeant, the Gita is “said to have been translated at least 200 times, in both poetic and prose forms”. Richard Davis cites a count by Callewaert & Hemraj in 1982 of 1,891 translations of the Bhagavad Gita in 75 languages, including 273 in English. These translations vary, and are in part an interpretative reconstruction of the original Sanskrit text that differ in their “friendliness to the reader”, and in the amount of “violence to the original Gita text” that the translation does.
The translations and interpretations of the Gita have been so diverse that these have been used to support apparently contradictory political and philosophical values. For example, state Galvin Flood and Charles Martin, these interpretations have been used to support “pacifism to aggressive nationalism” in politics, from “monism to theism” in philosophy. According to William Johnson, the synthesis of ideas in the Gita is such that it can bear almost any shade of interpretation. A translation “can never fully reproduce an original and no translation is transparent”, states Richard Davis, but in the case of Gita the linguistic and cultural distance for many translators is large and steep which adds to the challenge and affects the translation. For some native translators, their personal beliefs, motivations, and subjectivity affect their understanding, their choice of words and interpretation. Some translations by Indians, with or without Western co-translators, have “orientalist”, “apologetic”, “Neo-Vedantin” or “guru phenomenon” bias.
According to the exegesis scholar Robert Minor, the Gita is “probably the most translated of any Asian text”, but many modern versions heavily reflect the views of the organization or person who does the translating and distribution. In Minor’s view, the Harvard scholar Franklin Edgerton’s English translation and Richard Garbe’s German translation are closer to the text than many others. According to Larson, the Edgerton translation is remarkably faithful, but it is “harsh, stilted, and syntactically awkward” with an “orientalist” bias and lacks “appreciation of the text’s contemporary religious significance”.
The Gita in other languages
The Gita has also been translated into European languages other than English. In 1808, passages from the Gita were part of the first direct translation of Sanskrit into German, appearing in a book through which Friedrich Schlegel became known as the founder of Indian philology in Germany. The most significant French translation of the Gita, according to J. A. B. van Buitenen, was published by Emile Senart in 1922. Swami Rambhadracharya released the first Braille version of the scripture, with the original Sanskrit text and a Hindi commentary, on 30 November 2007.
The Gita Press has published the Gita in multiple Indian languages. R. Raghava Iyengar translated the Gita into Tamil in sandam metre poetic form. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust associated with ISKCON has re-translated and published A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s 1972 English translation of the Gita in 56 non-Indian languages. Vinoba Bhave has written the Geeta in Marathi language as Geetai i.e. Mother Geeta in the similar shloka form.
Paramahansa Yogananda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita called God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita has been translated into Spanish, German, Thai and Hindi so far. The book is significant in that unlike other commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita, which focus on karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga in relation to the Gita, Yogananda’s work stresses the training of one’s mind, or raja yoga.
Bhagavad Gita integrates various schools of thought, notably Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga, and other theistic ideas. It remains a popular text for commentators belonging to various philosophical schools. However, its composite nature also leads to varying interpretations of the text and historic scholars have written bhashya (commentaries) on it. According to Mysore Hiriyanna, the Gita is “one of the hardest books to interpret, which accounts for the numerous commentaries on it–each differing from the rest in one essential point or the other”.
According to Richard Davis, the Gita has attracted much scholarly interest in Indian history and some 227 commentaries have survived in the Sanskrit language alone. It has also attracted commentaries in regional vernacular languages for centuries, such as the one by Dnyaneshwar in Marathi language (13th-century).
The Bhagavad Gita is referred to in the Brahma Sutras, and numerous scholars including Shankara, Bhaskara, Abhinavagupta of Shaivism tradition, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya wrote commentaries on it. Many of these commentators state that the Gita is “meant to be a moksa-shastra (moksasatra), and not a dharmasastra, an arthasastra or a kamasastra“, states Sharma.
Śaṅkara (c. 800 CE)
The oldest and most influential surviving commentary was published by Adi Shankara (Śaṅkarācārya). Shankara interprets the Gita in a monist, nondualistic tradition (Advaita Vedanta). Shankara prefaces his comments by stating that the Gita is popular among the laity, that the text has been studied and commented upon by earlier scholars (these texts have not survived), but “I have found that to the laity it appears to teach diverse and quite contradictory doctrines”. He calls the Gita as “an epitome of the essentials of the whole Vedic teaching”. To Shankara, the teaching of the Gita is to shift an individual’s focus from the outer, impermanent, fleeting objects of desire and senses to the inner, permanent, eternal atman-Brahman-Vasudeva that is identical, in everything and in every being.
Abhinavagupta was a theologian and philosopher of the Kashmir Shaivism (Shiva) tradition. He wrote a commentary on the Gita as Gitartha-Samgraha, which has survived into the modern era. The Gita text he commented on, is slightly different recension than the one of Adi Shankara. He interprets its teachings in the Shaiva Advaita (monism) tradition quite similar to Adi Shankara, but with the difference that he considers both soul and matter to be metaphysically real and eternal. Their respective interpretations of jnana yoga are also somewhat different, and Abhinavagupta uses Atman, Brahman, Shiva, and Krishna interchangeably. Abhinavagupta’s commentary is notable for its citations of more ancient scholars, in a style similar to Adi Shankara. However, the texts he quotes have not survived into the modern era.
Rāmānuja (c. 1100 CE)
Ramanuja was a Hindu theologian, philosopher, and an exponent of the Sri Vaishnavism (Vishnu) tradition in 11th- and early 12th-century. Like his Vedanta peers, Ramanuja wrote a bhashya (commentary) on the Gita. Ramanuja’s disagreed with Adi Shankara’s interpretation of the Gita as a text on nondualism (Self and Brahman are identical), and instead interpreted it as a form of dualistic and qualified monism philosophy (Vishishtadvaita).
Madhva (c. 1250 CE)
Madhva, a commentator of the Dvaita Vedanta school, wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which exemplifies the thinking of the “dualist” school (Dvaita Vedanta). According to Christopher Chapelle, in the Madhva’s school that there is “an eternal and complete distinction between the Supreme, the many souls, and matter and its divisions”. His commentary on the Gita is called Gita Bhāshya. Madhva’s commentary has attracted secondary works by pontiffs of the Dvaita Vedanta monasteries such as Padmanabha Tirtha, Jayatirtha, and Raghavendra Tirtha.
Vallabha (1481–1533 A.D)
Vallabha the proponent of “Suddhadvaita” or pure non-dualism, wrote a commentary on the Gita, the “Sattvadipika”. According to him, the true Self is the Supreme Brahman. Bhakti is the most important means of attaining liberation.
Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Commentaries
- Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (b. 1486 CE) commentaries on various parts of the Gita are in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism Bhakti (acintya bhedabheda) Vedanta tradition; in part a foundation of the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) interpretation of the Gita
- Bhāskara (c. 900 CE) disagreed with Adi Shankara, wrote his own commentary on both Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras in the Dvaita-advaita tradition also called as the Bhedābheda tradition. According to Bhaskara, the Gita is essentially Advaita, but not quite exactly, suggesting that “the Atman (soul) of all beings are like waves in the ocean that is Brahman”. Bhaskara also disagreed with Shankara’s formulation of the Maya doctrine, stating that prakriti, atman and Brahman are all metaphysically real.
- Yamunacharya, Ramanuja’s teacher summarised the teachings of the Bhagavadgita in his “Gitarthasangraha”.
- Nimbarka (1162 CE) followed Bhaskara, but it is unclear if he ever wrote the commentary; the commentary Gitatattvaprakashika is generally attributed to a student named Kesava Bhatta in his tradition; the text states that Dasasloki – possibly authored by Nimbarka – teaches the essence of the Gita; the Gita tattva prakashika interprets the Gita also in a hybrid monist-dualist manner.
- Dnyaneshwar (1290 CE), the commentary is titled Dnyaneshwari also called Jnaneshwari or Bhavarthadipika; it is the oldest surviving literary work in the Marathi language, one of the foundations of the Varkari tradition in Maharashtra (Bhakti movement, Eknath, Tukaram); the commentary interprets the Gita in the Advaita Vedanta tradition Dnyaneshwar belonged to the Nath yogi tradition. His commentary on the Gita is notable for stating that it is the devotional commitment and love with inner renunciation that matters, not the name Krishna or Shiva, either can be used interchangeably.
- Vallabha II, descendant of Vallabha (1479 CE) commentary Tattvadeepika is in the Suddha-Advaita tradition
- Madhusudana Saraswati commentary Gudhartha Deepika is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Hanumat’s commentary Paishacha-bhasya is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Anandagiri’s commentary Bhashya-vyakhyanam is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Nilkantha’s commentary Bhava-pradeeps is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Shreedhara’s (1400 AD) commentary Avi gita is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Dhupakara Shastri’s commentary Subodhini is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Purushottama (1668-1781 A.D), Vallabha’s follower, also wrote a commentary on Bhagavadgita
- Raghavendra’s commentary Artha samgraha is in the Dvaita Vedanta tradition
- Vanamali Mishra (1685 CE), Gitagudharthacandrika is quite similar to Madhvacharya’s commentary and is in the Dvaita Vedanta tradition
Modern era commentaries
- Among notable modern commentators of the Bhagavad Gita are Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Vinoba Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi (who called its philosophy Anasakti Yoga), Sri Aurobindo, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Chinmayananda. Chinmayananda took a syncretistic approach to interpret the text of the Gita.
- Tilak wrote his commentary Shrimadh Bhagavad Gita Rahasya while in jail during the period 1910–1911 serving a six-year sentence imposed by the British colonial government in India for sedition. While noting that the Gita teaches possible paths to liberation, his commentary places most emphasis on Karma yoga.
- No book was more central to Gandhi’s life and thought that the Bhagavad Gita, which he referred to as his “spiritual dictionary”. During his stay in Yeravda jail in 1929, Gandhi wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in Gujarati. The Gujarati manuscript was translated into English by Mahadev Desai, who provided an additional introduction and commentary. It was published with a foreword by Gandhi in 1946.
- The version by A.C. Bhaktivēdānta Swāmi Prabhupāda, entitled Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, is “by far the most widely distributed of all English Gīta translations” due to the efforts of ISKCON. Its publisher, the Bhaktivēdānta Book Trust, estimates sales at twenty-three million copies, a figure which includes the original English edition and secondary translations into fifty-six other languages. The Prabhupada commentary interprets the Gita in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition of Chaitanya, quite similar to Madhvacharya’s Dvaita Vēdanta ideology. It presents Krishna as the Supreme, a means of saving mankind from the anxiety of material existence through loving devotion. Unlike in Bengal and nearby regions of India where the Bhagavata Purana is the primary text for this tradition, the devotees of Prabhupada’s ISKCON tradition have found better reception for their ideas by those curious in the West through the Gita, according to Richard Davis.
- In 1966, Mahārishi Mahesh Yogi published a partial translation.
- An abridged version with 42 verses and commentary was published by Ramana Maharishi.
- Bhagavad Gita – The song of God, is a commentary by Swami Mukundananda.
- Paramahansa Yogananda’s two-volume commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, called God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, was released 1995 and is available in 5 language. The book is significant in that unlike other commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita, which focus on karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga in relation to the Gita, Yogananda’s work stresses the training of one’s mind, or raja yoga. It is published by Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society of India.
- Eknath Easwaran’s commentary interprets the Gita for his collection of problems of daily modern life.
- Other modern writers such as Swami Parthasarathy and Sādhu Vāsvāni have published their own commentaries.
- Academic commentaries include those by Jeaneane Fowler, Ithamar Theodor, and Robert Zaehner.
- A collection of Christian commentaries on the Gita has been edited by Catherine Cornille, comparing and contrasting a wide range of views on the text by theologians and religion scholars.
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has strongly pitched the Bhagavad Gita as “India’s biggest gift to the world”. Modi gifted The Bhagavad Gita to the then President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama in 2014 during his U.S. visit.
With the translation and study of the Bhagavad Gita by Western scholars beginning in the early 18th century, the Bhagavad Gita gained a growing appreciation and popularity. According to the Indian historian and writer Khushwant Singh, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If—” is “the essence of the message of The Gita in English.”
Praise and popularity
The Bhagavad Gita has been highly praised, not only by prominent Indians including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, but also by Aldous Huxley, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, Herman Hesse, and Bülent Ecevit.
At a time when Indian nationalists were seeking an indigenous basis for social and political action, Bhagavad Gita provided them with a rationale for their activism and fight against injustice. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi used the text to help inspire the Indian independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi expressed his love for the Gita in these words:
I find a solace in the Bhagavadgītā that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount.When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavadgītā. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies – and my life has been full of external tragedies – and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavadgītā.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, commented on the Gita:
The Bhagavad-Gita deals essentially with the spiritual foundation of human existence. It is a call of action to meet the obligations and duties of life; yet keeping in view the spiritual nature and grander purpose of the universe.
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India, despite being a Muslim, used to read Bhagavad Gita and recite mantras.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, learned Sanskrit in 1933 and read the Bhagavad Gita in the original form, citing it later as one of the most influential books to shape his philosophy of life. Oppenheimer later recalled that, while witnessing the explosion of the Trinity nuclear test, he thought of verses from the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12):
दिवि सूर्यसहस्रस्य भवेद्युगपदुत्थिता यदि भाः सदृशी सा स्याद्भासस्तस्य महात्मनः ॥११- १२॥
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 …
Years later he would explain that another verse had also entered his head at that time:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, remarked the following after his first study of the Gita, and thereafter frequently quoted the text in his journals and letters, particularly the “work with inner renunciation” idea in his writings on man’s quest for spiritual energy:
I owed – my friend and I owed – a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.
Criticisms and apologetics
The Gita presents its teaching in the context of a war where the warrior Arjuna is in inner crisis about whether he should renounce and abandon the battlefield, or fight and kill. He is advised by Krishna to do his sva-dharma, a term that has been variously interpreted. According to the Indologist Paul Hacker, the contextual meaning in the Gita is the “dharma of a particular varna”. Neo-Hindus such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, states Hacker, have preferred to not translate it in those terms, or “dharma” as religion, but leave Gita’s message as “everyone must follow his sva-dharma“. According to Chatterjee, the Hindus already understand the meaning of that term. To render it in English for non-Hindus for its better understanding, one must ask what is the sva-dharma for the non-Hindus? The Lord, states Chatterjee, created millions and millions of people, and he did not ordain dharma only for Indians [Hindus] and “make all the others dharma-less”, for “are not the non-Hindus also his children”? According to Chatterjee, the Krishna’s religion of Gita is “not so narrow-minded”. This argument, states Hacker, is an attempt to “universalize Hinduism”.
The Gita has been cited and criticized as a Hindu text that supports varna-dharma and the caste system. B. R. Ambedkar, born in a Dalit family and the principal architect of the Constitution of India, criticized the text for its stance on caste and for “defending certain dogmas of religion on philosophical grounds”. According to Jimmy Klausen, Ambedkar in his essay Krishna and his Gita stated that the Gita was a “tool” of Brahmanical Hinduism and for its latter-day saints such as Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak. To Ambedkar, states Klausen, it is a text of “mostly barbaric, religious particularisms” offering “a defence of the kshatriya duty to make war and kill, the assertion that varna derives from birth rather than worth or aptitude, and the injunction to perform karma” neither perfunctorily nor egotistically. Similar criticism of the Gita has been published by Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi, another Marxist historian.
Nadkarni and Zelliot present the opposite view, citing early Bhakti saints of the Krishna-tradition such as the 13th-century Dnyaneshwar. According to Dnyaneshwar, the Gita starts off with the discussion of sva-dharma in Arjuna’s context but ultimately shows that caste differences are not important. For Dnyaneshwar, people err when they see themselves distinct from each other and Krishna, and these distinctions vanish as soon as they accept, understand and enter with love unto Krishna.
According to Swami Vivekananda, sva-dharma in the Gita does not mean “caste duty”, rather it means the duty that comes with one’s life situation (mother, father, husband, wife) or profession (soldier, judge, teacher, doctor). For Vivekananda, the Gita was an egalitarian scripture that rejected caste and other hierarchies because of its verses such as 13.27—28, which states “He who sees the Supreme Lord dwelling equally in all beings, the Imperishable in things that perish, he sees verily. For seeing the Lord as the same everywhere present, he does not destroy the Self by the Self, and thus he goes to the highest goal.”
Aurobindo modernises the concept of dharma and svabhava by internalising it, away from the social order and its duties towards one’s personal capacities, which leads to a radical individualism, “finding the fulfilment of the purpose of existence in the individual alone.” He deduced from the Gita the doctrine that “the functions of a man ought to be determined by his natural turn, gift, and capacities”, that the individual should “develop freely” and thereby would be best able to serve society.
Gandhi’s view differed from Aurobindo’s view. He recognised in the concept of sva-dharma his idea of svadeshi (sometimes spelled swadeshi), the idea that “man owes his service above all to those who are nearest to him by birth and situation.” To him, svadeshi was “sva-dharma applied to one’s immediate environment.”
According to Jacqueline Hirst, the universalist neo-Hindu interpretations of dharma in the Gita is modernism, though any study of pre-modern distant foreign cultures is inherently subject to suspicions about “control of knowledge” and bias on the various sides. Hindus have their own understanding of dharma that goes much beyond the Gita or any particular Hindu text. Further, states Hirst, the Gita should be seen as a “unitary text” in its entirety rather than a particular verse analyzed separately or out of context. Krishna is presented as a teacher who “drives Arjuna and the reader beyond initial preconceptions”. The Gita is a cohesively knit pedagogic text, not a list of norms.
Novel interpretations of the Gita, along with apologetics on it, have been a part of the modern era revisionism and renewal movements within Hinduism. Bakim Chandra Chatterji, the author of Vande Mataram – the national song of India, challenged orientalist literature on Hinduism and offered his interpretations of the Gita, states Ajit Ray. Bal Gangadhar Tilak interpreted the karma yoga teachings in Gita as a “doctrine of liberation” taught by Hinduism, while S Radhakrishnan stated that the Bhagavad Gita teaches a universalist religion and the “essence of Hinduism” along with the “essence of all religions”, rather than a private religion.
Vivekananda’s works contained numerous references to the Gita, such as his lectures on the four yogas – Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, and Raja. Through the message of the Gita, Vivekananda sought to energise the people of India to reclaim their dormant but strong identity. Aurobindo saw Bhagavad Gita as a “scripture of the future religion” and suggested that Hinduism had acquired a much wider relevance through the Gita. Sivananda called Bhagavad Gita “the most precious jewel of Hindu literature” and suggested its introduction into the curriculum of Indian schools and colleges.
According to Ronald Neufeldt, it was the Theosophical Society that dedicated much attention and energy to the allegorical interpretation of the Gita, along with religious texts from around the world, after 1885 and given H. P. Blavatsky, Subba Rao and Anne Besant writings. Their attempt was to present their “universalist religion”. These late 19th-century theosophical writings called the Gita as a “path of true spirituality” and “teaching nothing more than the basis of every system of philosophy and scientific endeavor”, triumphing over other “Samkhya paths” of Hinduism that “have degenerated into superstition and demoralized India by leading people away from practical action”.
In the Gita, Krishna persuades Arjuna to wage war where the enemy includes some of his own relatives and friends. In light of the Ahimsa (non-violence) teachings in Hindu scriptures, the Gita has been criticized as violating the Ahmisa value, or alternatively, as supporting political violence. The justification of political violence when peaceful protests and all else fails, states Varma, has been a “fairly common feature of modern Indian political thought” along with the “mighty antithesis of Gandhian thought on non-violence”. During the freedom movement in India, Hindus considered active “burning and drowning of British goods” which technically illegal under the colonial laws, were viewed as a moral and just-war for the sake of liberty and righteous values of the type Gita discusses. According to Paul Schaffel the influential Hindu nationalist V.D. Savarkar “often turned to Hindu scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita, arguing that the text justified violence against those who would harm Mother India.”
Mahatma Gandhi credited his commitment for ahimsa to the Gita. For Gandhi, the Gita is teaching that people should fight for justice and righteous values, that they should never meekly suffer injustice to avoid a war. According to the Indologist Ananya Vajpeyi, the Gita does not elaborate on the means or stages of war, nor on ahimsa, except for stating that “ahimsa is virtuous and characterizes an awakened, steadfast, ethical man” in verses such as 13.7–10 and 16.1–5. For Gandhi, states Vajpeyi, ahimsa is the “relationship between self and other” while he and his fellow Indians battled against the colonial rule. Gandhian ahimsa is in fact “the essence of the entire Gita“, according to Vajpeyi. The teachings of the Gita on ahimsa are ambiguous, states Arvind Sharma, and this is best exemplified by the fact that Nathuram Godse stated the Gita as his inspiration to do his dharma after he assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of books on Zen Buddhism, concurs with Gandhi and states that the Gita is not teaching violence nor propounding a “make war” ideology. Instead, it is teaching peace and discussing one’s duty to examine what is right and then act with pure intentions, when one’s faces difficult and repugnant choices.
Philip Glass retold the story of Gandhi’s early development as an activist in South Africa through the text of the Gita in the opera Satyagraha (1979). The entire libretto of the opera consists of sayings from the Gita sung in the original Sanskrit.
In Douglas Cuomo’s Arjuna’s dilemma, the philosophical dilemma faced by Arjuna is dramatised in operatic form with a blend of Indian and Western music styles.
The 1993 Sanskrit film, Bhagavad Gita, directed by G. V. Iyer won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Film.
The 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield, and its adaptation as the 2000 golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance by Robert Redford has parallels to the Bhagavad Gita, according to Steven J. Rosen. Steven Pressfield acknowledges that the Gita was his inspiration, the golfer character in his novel is Arjuna, the caddie is Krishna, states Rosen. The movie, however, uses the plot but glosses over the teachings unlike the novel.