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The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgitā

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

The philosophical systems, known as darśanas, generally treat their subject under four major headings :

  1. The cause of the universe
  2. Creation or evolution of the universe
  3. Nature of the individual soul
  4. The goal of human life and the means of achieving it

Though the Bhagavadgitā is not a systematic treatise on philosophy, it is possible to deal with its subject matter under these headings. It may not be out of place to mention that the colophon given at the end of each chapter of the Gitā viz. Upaniṣad, Brahmavidyā and Yogaśāstra, reflects its contents very well. It is an ‘Upaniṣad’ or esoteric wisdom, given by the teacher to a disciple on request. It is ‘Brahmavidyā’, since it deals with Brahman, the Absolute. It is ‘Yogaśāstra’, since it describes yoga or practical disciplines that help an aspirant to attain spiritual wisdom, the goal of life.

Cause of the Universe[edit]

Śrī Kṛṣṇa has been venerated and worshiped as God Himself, who came down to Earth as a human being to save mankind and redirect it to the path of dharma or righteousness. In the Mahābhārata, the Bhāgavata, and also in the Gītā, Śrī Kṛṣṇa often identified himself with God and speaks with indisputable authority. While studying the philosophy of the Gītā, it is necessary to keep this fact in mind.

The Gitā compares the created universe to an inverted tree with its roots above, established in God.[1] The more popular view of the mythological lore is that Brahmā (the four-faced Creator) creates the world during his ‘day’ and withdraws it into himself during ‘night,’.[2] The various terms used to indicate the Supreme or God are :

  1. Parabrahman[3]
  2. Paramātman[4]
  3. Uttamapuruṣa or Puruṣottama[5]
  4. Īśvara[6]
  5. Kṣetrajña[7]
  6. Parameśvara[8]

Creation of Universe[edit]

God has a twofold prakṛti or nature.

  1. The aparā or the lower one is insentient and comprises of the eight components. The five elements like earth, water, manas (mind), buddhi (intellect) and ahaṅkāra (egoism) are also a part of it.
  2. The parā or the higher one consists of the innumerable jīvas or souls.

Creation proceeds out of the combination of the two prakṛtis. It is under His direction that prakṛti gives birth to all beings and things. He is the sole origin and place of dissolution of this universe.[9] The whole universe is supported by Him as the beads of a necklace are supported by the string on which they are strung.[10] As Avyakta or the Unmanifest, He has pervaded the whole universe.[11] That is why He is the essence of all in this creation.[12]

God is not only transcendent and immanent,[13] but he can also incarnate himself as a human being whenever dharma or righteousness declines, in order to restore its balance. He does it out of his own free will. By his māyā-power, and subjugating his prakṛti, he creates a body for himself.[14]

God is more easily approachable through devotion.[15] He responds in whatever way people approach him.[16] His devotee never perishes.[17] Those who surrender to him will easily cross over māyā (the delusive power of God), which is otherwise impossible to cross.[18] He takes over their entire responsibility even here in this world.[19] That is why He constantly urges Arjuna to cultivate devotion to him and surrender to him.[20]

Nature of the Individual Soul[edit]

The jīva or the individual soul is an important aspect of this creation. He is a part of God.[21] He is the higher aspect of his nature, parāprakṛti.[22] He is essentially unborn, indestructible and eternal.[23] He takes on bodies just as he wears garments, and then discards them to take new ones.[24] While doing so, he draws to himself the five sense-organs and the mind from the aparā prakṛti or the lower prakṛti[25] and transmigrates with them. He is deluded by ajñāna (or ignorance) which covers jñāna (or knowledge).[26]

Goal of Human Life[edit]

The goal of life is to reach the Lord’s Abode, from which there is no return to this mundane existence.[27] This state has been variously called as follows :

  1. Brahma nirvaṇa - Dissolution into Brahman[28]
  2. Brāhmīsthiti - Being established in Brahman[29]
  3. Samsiddhi - Perfection[30]
  4. Parāgati - Highest state by attaining Srī Kṛṣṇa Himself.[31][32]

Means of Achieving the Goal of Human Life[edit]

The ancient Upaniṣadic idea of the jīva reaching Brahmaloka (Abode of Brahmā) by the arcirādi-mārga, or the path of light, has also been mentioned in the Gitā.[33] Since it is ajñāna or ignorance that is responsible for transmigration, it can be erased only by jñāna or spiritual wisdom.[34] Acquisition of jñāna has to be preceded by spiritual disciplines that help in purifying the mind. Indriyanigraha or control of sense organs is one of the most important disciplines referred to.[35] Tapas or austerity[36] and other disciplines, such as the performance of one’s duties with the right attitude, have also been recommended. But devotion to the Lord and surrendering to him have been highly extolled.[37]

Characteristics of a Perfect Being as per Bhagavadgitā[edit]

There are three beautiful descriptions of the perfect being, who has reached the final goal of life :

  1. The sthitaprajña or the man of steady wisdom[38] - The sthitaprajña (man of steady wisdom) is bereft of all desires. He is unmoved by the pairs of opposites like pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion. He is capable of withdrawing his sense-organs from the sense-objects effortlessly. He is the supreme master of himself. He can wield his sense-organs among the sense-objects without being affected by them. He is ever awake to the ātman, the reality within himself. He is free from egoism and possessiveness, and hence ever-filled with peace. This state is called brāhmīsthiti; the state of being established in Brahman.
  2. The bhakta or the devotee[39] - The bhakta or the ideal devotee who is ever dear to God, is free from inimical thoughts towards all beings. He has nothing but friendliness and compassion for them. He has neither egoism nor attachment. He is always equanimous and contented. Having controlled the senses and the mind, he has totally dedicated them to God, out of devotion. He is never upset by other people nor are they agitated by him. Bereft of desires, pure to the core and an expert in his field of work, he has renounced all selfish desires and actions. Deeply devoted to God, indifferent to praise and blame, unaffected by the vagaries of the weather and having no fixed place for dwelling, the bhakta is extremely dear to the Lord.
  3. The guṇātīta or one who has transcended the three guṇas.[40] - The guṇātīta (who is beyond the three guṇas) is never affected by the experiences brought about by the three guṇas, like knowledge, happiness or delusion. He knows about the guṇas and the senses that act upon the guṇas as objects, and that he as the Self is beyond them. He looks upon happiness and misery, wealth and worthless objects, praise and blame with equipoise. He never undertakes desire-motivated actions, but only serves God through devotion.

Special Contribution of the Gitā to Philosophical Thought[edit]

Though the Gītā has been reputed to contain the essence of the teachings of the Upaniṣads and is considered to be one of the three basic scriptures of Vedānta (prasthānatraya), there is no gainsaying the fact that it has charted new avenues in the philosophical literature, previously unknown or unexpressed. The work presents us with three original doctrines :

  1. The doctrine of niṣkāma-karma-yoga - The yoga of desireless actions with the allied concepts of svadharma and loka-saṅgraha
  2. The doctrine of integral yoga - A comprehensive mode of sādhanā (or spiritual discipline)
  3. The doctrine of avatāra - Descent of God into the human form or the theory of incarnation of God

The Doctrine of Niskāmakarmayoga[edit]

During the period of Srī Kṛṣṇa, two major streams of thoughts which resulted in two different views and ways of life existed. One line of thought was the philosophy of abhyudaya or worldly well-being. It emphasized more on yajñas and yāgas, or sacrificial rites and rituals. By performing these rites, one could get everything in life, here and hereafter. Since this involved a lot of time, energy and money, the results of these rites were considered petty. The retro-reaction came in the form of the doctrine of niśśreyasa, or the highest good, put forward by the sages of the Upaniṣads. These sages advocated a life of renunciation of all actions except those needed for the bare sustenance of life, coupled with mendicancy and contemplation on the ātman (the Self) within. These two views and ways according to their execution were restricted to the brāhmaṇa and kṣattriya classes, as they were the most affluent and rigorous groups. As a result, the majority of the people were left in the lurch, though imbued with higher spiritual aspirations. It is here that Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s doctrine of niṣkāma-karma-yoga becomes relevant and extremely useful.

Being a wise and a sensible leader, Srī Kṛṣṇa accepts the tradition of sacrifices as it existed then, but shows the way to transform it or even transcend it. Since Prajāpati (Father of beings) created the system of yajña or sacrifice as a link between human beings and gods, they are expected to prosper only by mutual help and cooperation.[41] Yajña or sacrifice is not the only one that can be performed with a duly consecrated fire, but any act of an individual, involving the sacrifice of selfishness and done for the public good can also be a yajña.[42]

Srī Kṛṣṇa defines saṅnyāsa as the renunciation of all kāmya-karmas (or desire-motivated actions) and tyāga as the abandonment of sarvakarmaphala (or the fruits of all the actions).[43] Srī Kṛṣṇa rules out the renunciation of actions that purify mind like yajña (sacrificial rites), dāna (giving gifts) and tapas (austerity).[44] These actions should be performed without attachment and the desire for fruits just as we perform our duties. What really binds one is not work itself, but the selfish desire for its fruits.[45] Work is inevitable for an embodied being,[46] so it is better to accept the fact gracefully and perform it with self-control.[47] Similarly a yajña or sacrifice[48] should be performed by giving up the desire for the fruits thereof.[49] One who performs such actions is both a saiṅnyāsi and a yogi.[50]

Alternatively, one can perform actions for the sake of God and offer the fruits thereof.[51] It is necessary to perform the actions even from the standpoint of lokasaṅgraha or guiding the people on the right path[52], which is the bounden duty of the leaders of the society.

Work done in the right spirit, thus, can also lead to mokṣa (liberation or perfection). It is in no way less effective than jñāna or knowledge. Many of the great people in the past, like Janaka, attained perfection through the path of actions alone.[53] Not only did such persons, including Srī Kṛṣṇa himself, continue to live and work in the society to set an example to the unenlightened ones, but also they guided people as to how to work with perfection and also lead a life will lead to beatitude.[54]

Arjuna was a sincere seeker of spiritual wisdom. He was not interested in sakāma-karma or desire-motivated actions. However, he was also not qualified to tread the path of jñāna or knowledge, which entails renunciation of all actions. That is why Sri Kṛṣṇa declares that Arjuna has the competence only to work and not to renounce it. At the same time he should do so without reference to the fruits thereof.[55]

Closely associated with this is the idea of ‘svadharma’, or 'dharma’ (duties) that are ‘sva’, meaning one’s own. This idea is nurtured and ordained by the scriptures. It goes without saying that ‘svadharma’ must be ‘dharma’ (righteousness) first. Such svadharma should never be abandoned. If performed righteously, it brings great good, and if this dharma is abandoned, it brings sin.[56] However imperfect it may appear, it is far better to die performing it than to do paradharma, or someone else’s dharma, which is unsuitable.[57] One who acts according to svadharma will never be tainted by its effects.[58] There is no doubt that the performance of svadharma in the right spirit will lead to perfection.[59]

The Doctrine of Integral Yoga[edit]

As already stated, the colophon of the Gītā calls it as a ‘yogaśāstra.’ Yoga’ is a technical term which means union with God. It is the spiritual discipline that leads to such union. Yoga takes into consideration four different states of human mind :

  1. The active mind
  2. The philosophical mind
  3. The emotional mind
  4. The psychic mind

Yoga has branched off into four paths :

  1. Karmayoga - The path of work for the active
  2. Jñānayoga - The path of knowledge and philosophy
  3. Bhaktiyoga - The path of devotion for the emotional
  4. Rājayoga - The path of psychic control for the psychic

Each of these yogas opens upon the infinite horizon of Truth and effects union with God. The Gītā describes them all. Śrī Kṛṣṇa has used the word ‘yoga’ in several senses. For instance, it is Karmayoga that is meant in verses 2.48, 50 and 6.2. However, in the verses 6.12 and 15 it is Rājayoga that is referenced. In the verse 5.8, the word ‘yukta’ has been used to signify the jñānayogi. Finally, it is the bhaktiyogi that is implied by the word ‘nityayukta’ in verse 8.14.

Srī Kṛṣṇa has taught all the four yogas to one person, Arjuna, and urged him to follow them. From this it can be safely concluded that the yoga of the Gītā is a comprehensive spiritual discipline integrating into itself all the four aspects. However, since Arjuna’s svabhāva or nature was such that Karmayoga was better suited to him, Srī Kṛṣṇa relentlessly urged him to fight.[60]

The inference from this is obvious that the Gitā urges an aspirant to practice a balanced combination of all the four yogas. One should practice, as the main discipline, the yoga which suits one’s nature best, and add the others in the right proportion. Since each human being has all four aspects in varying proportions, this deduction is reasonable.

The Doctrine of Avatāra[edit]

The doctrine of avatāra or incarnation of God is another original contribution of the Gītā to philosophical and religious literature. The avatāra concept is perhaps suggested in the Rgveda[61] itself. Some of the avatāras mentioned in the purāṇas in the lists of daśāvatāras (ten incarnations of Viṣṇu) are met with in the Satapatha Brāhmana also.[62] However, in the Gītā this concept is more definite and clear.

Srī Kṛṣṇa mentions that he taught the yoga to Vivasvān (Sun-god), who further transmitted it to Manu. But it was lost in the course of time. Arjuna naturally questions him out of disbelief how a contemporary person like him could have taught a person living in antiquity.[63] It is then that Srī Kṛṣṇa reveals the truth of both of them passing through many births. Arjuna underwent those births helplessly due to prārabdha karma (residual karma, responsible for rebirth) and did not know about his past births. Sri Kṛṣṇa being the Supreme Lord himself, voluntarily and willingly accepted these births for a higher purpose.

It is dharma or righteousness that is the principle regulating the smooth working of the created world. Since the created world is a product of the three guṇas (sattva, rajas and tamas), which are constantly in a state of flux, it is but natural that each one of them gets the upper hand periodically. Whenever sattva goes down and rajas or tamas comes up, dharma declines and adharma (evil) gets the upper hand. At such critical periods of human history, the Supreme Lord decides to incarnate himself in a human frame to restore the balance. Though he is unborn, eternal and the Lord of all beings, he can and does ‘come down’ (avatāra = coming down) by taking recourse to his māyā-power (also called prakṛti or nature).[64]

The primary purpose of the avatāra is dharma-saṅsthāpana, or establishing dharma on a firm foundation. In the process, if he needs to destroy or chastise the wicked, he can do it as per His will and thereby protect the good.[65] This descent of the Divine into the human frame can take place anywhere and anytime. The sole condition of taking incarnation is only the decline of dharma and the ascent of adharma[66] to the extent that good people are rendered absolutely helpless and at the mercy of evil.

There is an added assurance given by Srī Kṛṣṇa that one who is able to understand the significance of his birth and work as an avatāra will attain liberation.[67] Understandably, in number of places, he urges Arjuna to cultivate devotion towards him, to meditate upon him and to work for him.[68] The final destination is the command to surrender totally to Him, with the pledge to free him from all sins.[69]


Being a part of the prasthānatraya and thus accorded a very high place in the religio-philosophical tradition, the Gitā has attracted the attention of several ancient and medieval teachers who have written commentaries on it in Sanskrit. The commentaries written by great authors are as follows :

  • In the Advaita Vedanta tradition, Śaṅkara (A. D. 788-820) comes first. In fact, his is the earliest of the extant commentaries.
  • Rāmāmija (A.D. 1017-1137), Madhva (A.D. 1197-1276), Nimbārka (12th century A.D.) and Vallabha (A.D. 1473-1531) are the other great ācāryas or teachers who have written commentaries on the Gītā.
  • Ānandagiri (A.D. 1200), Vedānta Deśika (A.D. 1268- 1370) and Jayatīrtha (13th century A.D.) have written glosses on the commentaries of Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja and Madhva respectively.
  • Commentaries by Śrīdhara (15th century A.D.), Madhusīidana (A.D. 1525-1632) and Rāghavendra (A.D. 1598-1671), who have made some original contributions to the Gītā literature.


The Bhagavadgitā is one of the most translated religious classics of the world. The beauty and the sublimity of the work, its eternal relevance to the problems of human life and its universal approach helps us view the whole creation as one. This may have prompted the scholars to undertake the task of translating it as a labor of love.

Though part of the great epic Mahābhārata, it can as well stand on its own as an independent work. Though taught on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, urging Arjuna to fight, it has nothing to do with wars, battles or bloodshed. It mainly deals with the one’s sacred duties of life, however unpleasant they may be. Though given by Śrī Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna in the days of yore, its declarations like, ‘Remember Me and fight!’[70] can help and inspire anyone of us even today to handle and fight when beleaguered with serious problems of life. Though recognizing multiplicity here, its principle of unity in diversity has signified the Viśavarupa or the Cosmic Form.[71] The underlying divinity as taught in verse 7.1. helps us to cultivate a holistic approach to the universe of which ecological balance too is only a small aspect. If the Mahābhārata can claim to be an encyclopedia of religion and culture, the Bhagavadgitā can as well claim to be its quintessence.


  1. Bhagavadgitā 15.1-4
  2. Bhagavadgitā 8.17-19
  3. Bhagavadgitā 13.12
  4. Bhagavadgitā 13.22, 31
  5. Bhagavadgitā 15.17-19
  6. Bhagavadgitā 15.17; 18.61
  7. Bhagavadgitā 13.2
  8. Bhagavadgitā 13.27
  9. Bhagavadgitā 7.4-6; 9.7
  10. Bhagavadgitā 7.7
  11. Bhagavadgitā 9.4
  12. Bhagavadgitā 10.41
  13. Bhagavadgitā 18.61
  14. Bhagavadgitā 4.6-8
  15. Bhagavadgitā 9.26
  16. Bhagavadgitā 4.11; 7.21-23
  17. Bhagavadgitā 9.31
  18. Bhagavadgitā 7.14
  19. Bhagavadgitā 9.22
  20. Bhagavadgitā 9.34; 11.55; 18.65, 66
  21. Bhagavadgitā 15.7
  22. Bhagavadgitā 7.5
  23. Bhagavadgitā 2.17-25
  24. Bhagavadgitā 2.22
  25. Bhagavadgitā 7.4, 5
  26. Bhagavadgitā 5.15
  27. Bhagavadgitā 8.16; 5.17; 15.6
  28. Bhagavadgitā 2.72; 5.24
  29. Bhagavadgitā 2.72
  30. Bhagavadgitā 8.15; 18.45
  31. Bhagavadgitā 6.45; 8.13, 21; 9.32; 13.28; 16.22
  32. Bhagavadgitā 4.9, 10; 5.29; 7.3, 18, 23, 30; 8.5, 7, 14, 15, 16; 9.28, 34; 10.10; 11.55; 12.4, 9; 18.55
  33. Bhagavadgitā 8.24-26
  34. Bhagavadgitā 4.35-39; 5.16, 17
  35. Bhagavadgitā 2.58, 60, 61, 64, 68; 3.34, 41; 5.22, 23; 6.4, 24; 12.4
  36. Bhagavadgitā 16.1; 17.14-16; 18
  37. Bhagavadgitā 7.21; 8.10, 22; 9.14, 26, 29, 31; 11.54; 12.17, 20; 13.10; 14.26; 18.55
  38. Bhagavadgitā 2.55-72
  39. Bhagavadgitā 12.13-20
  40. Bhagavadgitā 14.22-27
  41. Bhagavadgitā 3.10, 11
  42. Bhagavadgitā 4.25-30
  43. Bhagavadgitā 18.21
  44. Bhagavadgitā 18.5
  45. Bhagavadgitā 9.20, 21
  46. Bhagavadgitā 3.5,8; 18.11
  47. Bhagavadgitā 3.7
  48. Bhagavadgitā 3.9
  49. Bhagavadgitā 3.19; 12.11
  50. Bhagavadgitā 6.1
  51. Bhagavadgitā 3.19; 12.11
  52. Bhagavadgitā 3.20, 25
  53. Bhagavadgitā 3.19, 20; 4.15, 23, 41; 5.5, 6, 12; 8.7; 9.27, 28; 12.12; 18.45,46,56
  54. Bhagavadgitā 3.21-26
  55. Bhagavadgitā 2.47
  56. Bhagavadgitā 2.31-33
  57. Bhagavadgitā 3.35
  58. Bhagavadgitā 18.47
  59. Bhagavadgitā 18.45, 46
  60. Bhagavadgitā 2.18; 3.30; 11.34
  61. Bhagavadgitā 3.53.8; 6.47.18
  62. Bhagavadgitā 1.8.1.-6;
  63. Bhagavadgitā 4.1-4
  64. Bhagavadgitā 4.6, 7
  65. Bhagavadgitā 4.8
  66. Bhagavadgitā 4.7
  67. Bhagavadgitā 4.9
  68. Bhagavadgitā 9.34; 11.55; 18.65
  69. Bhagavadgitā 18.66
  70. Bhagavadgitā 8.7
  71. Bhagavadgitā 11.9-13
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore

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