By Swami Harshananda
Bhagavadgītā literally means ‘Song of God’.
Significance of the Bhagavadgītā
The Bhagavadgītā, popularly known as the Gītā, is one of the outstanding religious classics available in the world. Hindus, irrespective of their sects and denominations, cherish great reverence for this book. A ceremonial reading of the book or even a part thereof, is believed to confer great religious merits.
Origin of Bhagavadgītā
Bhagavadgītā forms an integral part of a much bigger work, the great epic Mahābhārata. It is a poetical work in the form of a dialogue between Srī Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra. The setting of the battlefield contributes a dramatic element to the book and relates religion to the realities of life.
Magnitude of Bhagavadgītā
The greatness and the popularity of the Gītā can be attributed to several factors.
- It is a part and parcel of the epic Mahābhārata, which itself has been highly venerated as the fifth Veda (Pañcama- Veda).
- The teacher of the Gitā is Srī Kṛṣṇa, who is regarded as an avatāra or incarnation of God Himself. As an ideal friend, a great statesman, an invincible warrior, a wise preceptor and a yogi par excellence, he harmonizes in his life the various conflicting activities of life. It is precisely this that makes him the fittest person to preach such a religio-spiritual classic.
- Arjuna, the recipient of the preachings given by Srī Kṛṣṇa, was himself a great warrior. He is a typical representative of humans, easily liable to be upset or confused during the periods of crisis. Hence, his predicaments very much represent those of the common man. The questions, doubts and the misgivings he raises and the solutions that Srī Kṛṣṇa offers are not only relevant but also valid even today.
- Finally, the Vedāntic tradition has always regarded the prasthānatraya (the three foundational works) as its basis. The Gītā is one of them, the other two being the Upaniṣads and the Brahmasutras. That is why Śaṅkara (A.D. 788-820) and other ancient teachers have chosen to write commentaries on it.
Existence of Bhagavadgītā
Since the Gītā is an integral part of the epic Mahābhārata, its date and authorship are obviously the same as those of the epic itself. Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana, better known as Vedavyāsa, is reputed to be its author. As per the oral traditions based on the notion of time as the yuga-system, the Kurukṣetra war must have taken place during 3139 B.C. However, the dates given by the modern historians and scholars (mostly from the West) vary from 1424 B.C. to 575 B.C.
Segments of Bhagavadgītā
The widely accepted present text of the Gītā is based on the one chosen by Śaṅkara, the earliest of the traditional commentators. It consists of 700 ślokas or verses spread over 18 chapters. The following is a brief summary of the book, arranged chapterwise. The book comprises of eighteen chapters.
This chapter contains forty seven verses. Arjuna, the Pāṇḍava hero, shaken by the prospect of killing the venerable Bhīṣma and the preceptor Droṇa, gets into a despondent mood at the beginning of the war. He describes the horrendous fallout of such wars, and lays down his arms, refusing to fight.
Chapter 2, Sāñkhya-yoga
This chapter contains seventy two verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa, at first, admonishes Arjuna for his unmanly and ignominious behavior. This however, falls on deaf ears. Hence he was obliged to give a long philosophical discourse, summarized as follows: Since the soul inhabiting bodies, is immortal, one should not grieve over death and destruction. It is Arjuna’s duty to fight for righteousness in the war and win it, or become a martyr if necessary. He should never yield to unrighteousness. Work done as duty in a spirit of detachment and for public welfare ultimately leads to perfection. A perfect man (called ‘sthitaprajña’ here) approves only truth under all the vicissitudes of life.
Chapter 3, Karmayoga
This chapter contains forty three verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa clears Arjuna’s doubts regarding the conflict between jñāna (knowledge), which envisages renunciation and karma (work, action). Śrī Kṛṣṇa opines that the path of karma is easier and better for most people. Citing his own example, along with ancient kings like Janaka, he urges Arjuna not to relinquish his duties. He should perform his duties without selfish motives.
Śrī Kṛṣṇa explains to Arjuna how knowledge of Karma yoga, or the yoga of action, taught by him in ancient times to Vivasvān and others, got lost in the course of time. Śrī Kṛṣṇa reveals that he is God Himself who has come down to save dharma or righteousness. He incarnates himself at his own will whenever dharma declines to put it on a firm foundation. He extols the greatness of jñāna or spiritual wisdom.
This chapter contains twenty nine verses. Arjuna questions which is better karma-sanyāsa (renunciation of action) or karma yoga (yoga of action). Śrī Kṛṣṇa avers that the latter is better for him. What is needed is equanimity while doing karma.
Chapter 6 Dhyānayoga
This chapter contains forty seven verses. In this chapter, Śrī Kṛṣṇa describes the process of dhyāna or meditation. He graphically depicts the place and posture suitable for meditation. He also explains that the method of controlling the mind is only through meditation.
Chapter 7 Jñāna-vijñāna-yoga
This chapter contains thirty verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Lord has created the whole universe, drawing upon his twofold prakṛti or nature. It is he that is holding together all beings and things. Only those that surrender themselves to him can transcend his māyā (the power of delusion).
Chapter 8 Aksarabrahmayoga
This chapter contains twenty eight verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa describes here how a person should remember Him at the moment of death to attain Him. Repetition of praṇava or Om at this juncture is of a great help. He also mentions the two well-known paths which the jīvas or embodied beings take to after death. These paths are :
- Arcirādimārga - The path of light
- Dhumādimārga - The path of smoke
Chapter 9 Rājavidyā-rājaguhya-yoga
This chapter contains thirty four verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa gives here the esoteric wisdom by which Arjuna can get liberated. He is everything in creation. If people worship him with devotion, offering him even insignificant things like a flower, or a leaf or water, he accepts them and blesses them. His devotee never perishes in life.
Chapter 10 Vibhutiyoga
This chapter contains forty two verses. Śrī Kṛṣṇa devotes this chapter almost entirely to the delineation of his vibhutis or divine manifestations. He is the best or the essence in all beings or things. The whole world has been supported by just a part of His glory.
This chapter contains fifty five verses. At Arjuna’s request, Śrī Kṛṣṇa reveals his Viśvarupa or celestial form, after endowing him with divine sight. Awed by it, Arjuna offers his prayers and obeisance. Śrī Kṛṣṇa withdraws the Viśvarupa and declares that it can be seen only by those who have intense devotion.
Chapter 12 Bhaktiyoga
This chapter contains twenty verses. In this chapter, Śrī Kṛṣṇa declares that even though contemplation on the Avyakta or unmanifested leads to the same result as devotion to him, the latter path is better. He advises Arjuna to cultivate devotion to him. Towards the end, the characteristics of a bhakta or an ideal devotee are delineated.
Chapter 13 Ksetra-ksetrajña-yoga
This chapter contains thirty four verses. The body is the kṣetra or the field. The Self is the kṣetrajña or the knower of the field. Both these concepts are described in this chapter. This is followed by descriptions of jñāna (knowledge), jñeya (that which is to be known, viz., Brahman), prakṛti (nature) and puruṣa (the Self or kṣetrajña). Those who can intuit the difference between the last two will attain Brahman.
Chapter 14 Gunatraya-vibhaga-yoga
This chapter contains twenty seven verses. Prakṛti (or nature), from which creation proceeds, prodded by the Lord (Srī Kṛṣṇa), comprises the three guṇas. There is a detailed description of these guṇas and also that of the guṇātīta (the person who has transcended them):
Chapter 15 Purusottama-yoga
This chapter contains twenty verses. In this chapter, Srī Kṛṣṇa describes samsāra or the created world as an inverted tree with its roots above, in Brahman or Purāṇa-puruṣa, the Primeval Being. By taking refuge in Him, this tree can be cut resulting into liberation. There is also a description of transmigration of the jīva, the bound soul. Srī Kṛṣṇa also states that He is the power that sustains the world and its living beings. He is the Puruṣottama or the best of beings.
This chapter contains twenty four verses. In this chapter, Srī Kṛṣṇa delineates those traits of character (sampat) that make a person divine (daivi) or demoniac (āsurī). He assures Arjuna that he belongs to the divine group but urges him to avoid the three gateways to hell :
Chapter 17 Sraddhātraya-vibhāga-yoga
This chapter contains twenty eight verses. It contains interesting descriptions of śraddhā (faith), āhāra (food), yajña (sacrifices), tapas (austerity) and dāna (gifts). All are divided into three categories according to the three guṇas. Śrī Kṛṣṇa also give the aphorism ‘Om tat sat,’ a designation for Brahman, which can act as a magic formula to correct the deficiencies in religious acts.
Chapter 18 Moksa-samnyāsa-yoga
This chapter comprises of seventy eight verses. It is the last and the longest chapter, dealing with several miscellaneous topics like tyāga, sanyāsa (renunciation), jñāna (knowledge), karma (action) and kartā (doer) classified as per the three guṇas. The division of society into four varṇas or groups, according to people's nature and vocation, has also been mentioned in this chapter. Finally Śrī Kṛṣṇa advises Arjuna to totally surrender himself to Him, with the promise of freeing him from all the sins. Arjuna's delusion was destroyed by this wonderful discourse, and he vows to fight in obedience to Śrī Kṛṣṇa's command.
- Bhismaparva, chapters 25 to 42
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore