Bhagavad Gita Introduction

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce The Bhagavad Gita.

Objective

Understand the Gita’s prominent role in yoga philosophy and establish a foundation for exploring its teachings.

Description

Become familiar with this foundational text that features a dialogue between the incarnate god Krishna and the warrior-prince Arjuna. Tell how the Gita is structured. Provide an overview of its contents. Summarize Arjuna’s “impossible task” and consider some of the concepts that are central to the Gita, including detachment and renunciation. Review how the Gita describes yoga.

Vocabulary

  1. Arjuna — In The Bhagavad Gita, a warrior-prince who faces a moral crisis
  2. The Bhagavad Gita — A portion of the Mahabharata featuring “a dialogue that takes the soul on an inward journey culminating in the ultimate state of yoga”
  3. Detachment — Doing the right thing for its own sake, not for the expected results
  4. Gita — Another name for The Bhagavad Gita
  5. Krishna — An incarnate god, in the form of a charioteer in The Bhagavad Gita
  6. Mahabharata — An epic poem containing 18 books and approximately 100,000 verses
  7. Renunciation — Active involvement without seeking rewards and results

Introduction

  • The Bhagavad Gita has been translated as the Lord’s Song, Song of the Spirit, the Song of God and the Song of the Beloved Lord.
  • Often simply called “the Gita,” it is a portion of the Mahabharata, an epic poem containing 18 books and approximately 100,000 verses.
  • The Mahabharata is said to have been authored by the illumined sage Vyasa.
  • The Gita is 700 verses and forms 18 chapters (23 through 40) of the sixth book.
  • “It stands out among the holy books of the major world religions, for its flowing Sanskrit verses present a uniquely vivid portrait of the intimacy between humanity and divinity. Indeed, this divine intimacy is revealed in the form of a dialogue that takes the soul on an inward journey culminating in the ultimate state of yoga, in which souls unite with the heart of God.” – Graham M. Schweig

A Poetic Presentation

While many of the chief events and persons in the compendious Mahabharata indeed have their basis in historical fact, their poetic presentation in the epic has been arranged conveniently and meaningfully (and wonderfully condensed in the Bhagavad Gita portion) for the primary purpose of setting forth the essence of India’s Sanatana Dharma, Eternal Religion. – Yogananda

Key Yoga Text, Revered Throughout the World

Distinguished scholars explain that the Gita is the book on yoga par excellence andthe first full-fledged Yoga scripture.

A Book on Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita… is essentially a book on yoga. The word yoga is found 78 times in the Gita, appearing in every chapter except three… The word yoga and related words, such as yogi (found 28 times) and yukta (found 49 times), appear 155 times. This means that in over 20 percent of the Gita’s verses the word yoga or its related forms appear.  This profound teaching is the book on yoga par excellence because it presents yoga in the most comprehensive sense of the term and in all its depth… Yoga covers a broad range of practices and visions, significantly more than what we encounter in the West, or for that matter more than what a reading of famous treatises on yoga, such as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, may yield. In the Gita, the concept of the sacred connection of humanity with divinity is gradually introduced and developed, then fully disclosed as the “supreme secret of yoga.” – Graham M. Schweig

The First Full-Fledged Yoga Scripture

Its importance for the student of Yoga is obvious, since it must be regarded as the first full-fledged Yoga scripture. Indeed, the Gita speaks of itself as a yoga-shastra, or yogic teaching, restating ancient truths. – Georg Feuerstein

Inspirational Throughout the World

Gandhi said, “I find a solace in the Bhagavad Gita that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount… I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.” The Gita, which has been available in English translation since 1785 also has inspired many well-known Westerners, including the philosophers Georg Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Johann Gottfried Herder… the writers Walt Whitman, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood; as well as the esotericists Rudolf Steiner (founder of Anthroposophy) and Annie Besant (a leader of the Theosophical Society). The German Sanskritist and pioneering Yoga researcher J.W. Hauer summed up the sentiment of many of these personalities when he wrote: “The Gita gives us not only profound insights that are valid for all times and for all religious life… Here spirit is at work that belongs to our spirit.” – Georg Feuerstein

Overview of the Gita

  • In the Gita, Arjuna learns from his charioteer, the supreme Hindu deity Krishna, the meaning of dharma, the paths of yoga, and the purpose of life.
  • Arjuna’s “impossible task” is not of the type often encountered in heroic tales. He is encountering an apparent moral crisis.
  • The Gita teaches that the practice of detachment is doing the right thing for its own sake, not for the expected results.
  • It describes renunciation as active involvement without seeking rewards and results.
  • The teaching is not that detachment is a lack of desire or aspiration, or an unimpassioned life. Rather, it is detachment from results.
  • The Gita describes various paths (branches) of yoga including Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Arjuna’s Impossible Task

Literature’s heroes and heroines are often faced with impossible tasks: Hercules has seven impossible labors to accomplish, Cinderella must spin straw into gold, Frodo Baggins has to smuggle the Ring into the very center of the armed camp of Mordor and destroy it… Here, the impossibility of Arjuna’s task is not an issue of strength (there’s no question that he’ll be successful if he goes into battle), and the goodness of his heart is more an obstacle than a help to him: he can’t bear the thought of killing his own relatives and his childhood teacher, and bringing about the end of the whole world in which he was raised. This is a test of moral fiber of an unusual sort, since he must commit acts that could well be considered immoral. – David Damrosch 

Doing the Right Thing for Its Own Sake

We can’t use detachment as an excuse not to deal with fundamental issues such as livelihood, power, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. (Well, we can, but eventually those issues will rise up and smack us in the face…) Nor can we make detachment a synonym for indifference, or carelessness, or passivity. Instead, we can practice detachment as a skill—perhaps the essential skill for infusing our lives with integrity and grace. The Bhagavad Gita, which is surely the basic text on the practice of detachment, is wonderfully explicit on this point. Krishna tells Arjuna that acting with detachment means doing the right thing for its own sake, because it needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure… At the same time, Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna not to cop out of doing his best in the role his destiny demands of him. In a sense, the Bhagavad Gita is one long teaching on how to act with maximum grace while under maximum pressure.  – Sally Kempton 

From the Experts

How to Act in a World of Conflict and Suffering?

The Gita is a multilayered manual for living—the ultimate self-help book. “How do we act in a world of conflict and suffering?” That’s the question that the Gita answers. – Anna Dubrovsky

Comprehensive Spiritual Guide

So comprehensive as a spiritual guide is the Gita that it is declared to be the essence of the ponderous four Vedas, 108 Upanishads, and the six systems of Hindu philosophy… Indeed, the underlying essential truths of all great world scriptures can find common amity in the infinite wisdom of the Gita’s mere 700 concise verses. – Paramahansa Yogananda

The Deeper You Dive, the Richer the Meanings

The Gita is not an aphoristic work; it is a great religious poem. The deeper you dive into it, the richer the meanings you get. It being meant for the people at large, there is pleasing repetition. With every age the important words will carry new and expanding meanings. But its central teaching will never vary.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi

Inspirational Throughout the World

Gandhi said, ‘I find a solace in the Bhagavad Gita that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount… I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.’ The Gita, which has been available in English translation since 1785 also has inspired many well-known Westerners, including the philosophers Georg Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Johann Gottfried Herder… the writers Walt Whitman, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood; as well as the esotericists Rudolf Steiner (founder of Anthroposophy) and Annie Besant (a leader of the Theosophical Society). The German Sanskritist and pioneering Yoga researcher J.W. Hauer summed up the sentiment of many of these personalities when he wrote: ‘The Gita gives us not only profound insights that are valid for all times and for all religious life… Here spirit is at work that belongs to our spirit.’ – Georg Feuerstein

One Can Act with Pure Intentions

Trappist monk Thomas Merton… in his essay “The Significance of the Bhagavad Gita”: ‘Arjuna has an instinctive repugnance for war, and that is the chief reason why war is chosen as the example of the most repellent kind of duty. The Gita is saying that even in what appears to be the most ‘unspiritual,’ one can act with pure intentions and thus be guided by Krishna consciousness. This consciousness itself will impose the most strict limitations on one’s own use of violence because that use will not be directed by one’s own selfish interests, still less by cruelty, sadism, and blood-lust.‘ – Barbara Stoler Miller

Distress as a Result of Delusion

In the first verse of the Bhagavad Gita, the blessed lord Krishna said: ‘Although you mean well Arjuna, your sorrow is sheer delusion.’… What Krishna was saying here, in my humble understanding, is that Arjuna, despite having the best of intention, still found himself in a state of distress as a result of the delusion that there was no happiness. For only in lack of light can there be darkness, and it must be so for darkness to take up residence in one’s soul. – D. Brad Leath

Incorporating All Ways of Salvation

It is here that we encounter the first organized and triumphant efforts of Indian theism. It was the Bhagavad Gita that first formulated the identification of the Brahman of the Upanishads with Visnu—a god who now becomes supreme—and with his earthly avatar, Krsna. The Bhagavad Gita declares that “Children—not wise men— talk of Samkhya and Yoga as distinct. One who pursues either well obtains the fruit of both… He sees (truly) who sees the Samkhya and Yoga as one.” This position is in perfect accord with the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita. For as we shall see, in that jewel of the Mahabharata, Krsna tries to incorporate all ways of salvation into a single new spiritual synthesis. – Mircea Eliade

Rekindling a Yearning to Reconnect with the One

For the past nine years, I have been privileged to facilitate study groups of the Bhagavad Gita with participants form all religions and walks of life. I have witnessed again and again that it doesn’t matter if you are passionate about a particular religion, don’t have a religion, or have simply become disenfranchised. Study of the Bhagavad Gita makes a Methodist a better Methodist, a Jew a better Jew, a Catholic a better Catholic, a Buddhist a better Buddhist… I have often seen the study rekindle a remembering, a yearning, to reconnect with the One about whom all religions speak.  – Rev. Stephanie Rutt,

Sanskrit Unlocks Secrets from the Gita

I concluded the only option for escaping translator bias was to begin to learn Sanskrit. Even at the outset, this unlocked many more secrets from the Gita. For example, years ago a friend, who was new to both Sanskrit and the Gita, rushed breathlessly into the room, saying, “Isn’t it amazing how the first word of the Gita reveals its subject!” There I was, a self-declared Gita lover, a bit nonplussed because I could only think of the opening words in English: “On the sacred field of Kurukshetra . . . ” I hurried home to find out what word had caused such excitement.The opening words are two compounds: dharma-kshetre, kuru-kshetre, making dharma the first word of the Gita. Dharma, right living, is the key to the entire subject matter of the Gita. I started to see why my friend was so excited. – Peter Bonnici

Once You Renounce the Fruit, Action is Not Entangling

“One who does his duties properly and renounces the fruit of action is both a renunciate and a yogi. It is not possible to become a sanyasi merely by forgoing work and sacrificial fire…” [This] means that it is not the action which is entangling. To give an example – let’s say you are an accountant. Going to the office, counting numbers, coming home does not entangle you. But [if] you are going to the office because it gives you a certain prestige, access, and other benefits, [then] you are going to the office not because you love to count numbers but for the fruit of action… If you do not get any salary, no prestige, no social access, no benefits of any kind – would you still be willing to work?… Once you renounce the fruit of action, action is not entangling. It is never what you do which entangles you. It is the expectation of what you should get which entangles you. Just observe yourself – wherever you do action without expectation, what is your experience? Wherever you do action with expectation, what is your experience? –Sadghuru 

TASK – WORK THROUGH AND ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS ON PHILOSOPHY BOOK