The Bhagavad-Gita: An Introduction & Invitation

bhagavadgitaWe began our journey here at the “Living Yoga Blog” with a look at the key principles of Yoga, followed by an overview of each of the major branches.  We then continued with a closer look at the primary techniques, which we’ll continue this week with a look at the second central philosophical work, The Bhagavad-Gita.

If you’ve practiced yoga for a while, you’ve probably heard of the Gita – a text of such wisdom that Gandhi referred to as his “spiritual Mother.”  Even here in the West, the Gita has been recognized as one of the crowning pieces of spiritual writing and literature as a whole – in fact, Albert Einstein himself wrote: “When I read The Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”  And yet, for all its prominence, many of us know little about it.  In the following, I’d like to share a bit about what makes the Gita such a powerful resource, as well as the basic background it can help to know before diving into this timeless work….

Spirit and Society 

Like Yoga’s other central text, The Yoga Sutras, the Gita includes a wide range of psychology, philosophy, and concrete technique, examining our conventional approach to life and less-than-optimal consequences, suggesting a healthier alternative, and offering concrete tools for making the change.  But the Gita is also unique in many ways.  To begin, while the Sutras are terse the Gita is expansive, the Sutras are pedagogical while the Gita is poetic, and where the Sutras are didactic, the Gita is a dialogue – a heartfelt talk between a young man and an esteemed elder at the advent of a great war.

But what sets the Gita apart even more – and a significant part of what has made the Gita such an invaluable work for so many – is its focus, which is the question: “Is it possible to live in harmony with our spiritual values while also honoring our worldly obligations?”  The answer of the Gita is “very much yes,” and it is this confirmation, along with the specific techniques it offers for balancing the two, that makes the Gita so invaluable.  Given these important elements, you’d think the Gita would be better known, but there are a few things that can make it a little challenging to start.  Once we know a bit about them, it can be far easier to dive into and in turn benefit from its profound wisdom.  So let’s start with the basics.

The Fundamentals of the Gita

Written approximately 500 BCE by the sage Vyasa, the Gita is made up of 18 chapters of approximately 30-80 verses or slokas each.  As mentioned, the Gita is actually a discussion between two men at the cusp of a battle as they discuss the younger man’s uncertainty as to whether he should fight.  For the average Western reader, this appears to be an abstract discussion between two unfamiliar characters, but the first thing to understand is for the average Indian it is profoundly different.  In fact, for him or her, both the war and the characters are already deeply familiar, because the Gita was actually inserted into one of the most popular and best-known of all Indian works, The Mahabharata.

As you may know, The Mahabharata is one of the two great epics of India and holds a place in Indian culture it can be hard for us to grasp.  Simply put, there isn’t a single Indian man, woman, or child, regardless of class, education, or faith, who isn’t deeply familiar with this tale.  Further, the two men talking in the Gita – the warrior-prince Arjuna and his esteemed uncle Krishna – are in fact central characters of The Mahabharata and the battle they are about to enter is the very climax of this epic and vast tale.  This means, when he or she begins the Gita, an Indian reader is already profoundly familiar with who Arjuna is and his responsibilities as a prince, the nature of the battle and how it evolved including Arjuna’s crucial obligations, and finally the nature of his relationship to Krishna and why he would want to take his advice very seriously – a familiarity Vyasa counted upon in composing the Gita and which we in the West are completely lacking.  For that reason, by learning a bit about the backstory of The Mahabharata, we can actually understand the dialogue the way the author intended.

The Story of The Mahabharata & the Opening of the Gita

Of course, distilling thousands of pages into a few paragraphs is obviously a monumental task, for which reason you might wish to consider attending or listening to a workshop on the Gita or reading one of the excellent introductions such as found in The Living Gita by Swami Satchidananda.  But that disclaimer made, we’ll try to at least cover the basics.

The Mahabharata describes a great and prosperous dynasty ruled by two brothers, Dhritarashtra and Pandu.  Dhritarashtra, the elder, has 100 sons, the oldest of which is Duryodhana, while Pandu has five, the eldest being Yudisthira and the middle Arjuna.  When Pandu dies, his brother the king takes in his sons and raises them as his own.  Obviously, 105 boys in the same household would pose a problem in the best of circumstances, but it’s further compounded here by several factors.  First, Duryodhana and his brothers are notoriously selfish and petty – traits that are amplified when forced to share their home with their cousins.  Arjuna and his brothers, on the other hand, are amazingly talented and virtuous, characteristics they possess in part because they happen to be half-gods (one of many long but fascinating side-stories of The Mahabharata), which tends to fuel the tension with their cousins.  Finally, the boys not only share a home and attention of family but also teachers who instruct them in their responsibilities as members of the ruler-warrior caste and the skills they need to uphold those obligations.

The heated relationship between cousins naturally intensifies as they grow in both skill and disposition, Duryodhana and brothers becoming more petty and mean-spirited just as Arjuna and his become more meritorious.  As the boys reach maturity, the king decides to honor his deceased brother and ease the tension by dividing his kingdom and giving half to his nephews – a decision which unsurprisingly further agitates Duryodhana.  Duryodhana and his brother immediately begin to run their portion of the kingdom to ruin in their tyrannical pursuit of pleasure, while Yudisthira and siblings cultivate prosperity and peace throughout their half.  Gradually the gulf widens, culminating in citizens risking the daunting journey from Duryodhana’s half of the kingdom to Yudisthira’s, seeking better fortune in a more justly ruled land.

This of course further outrages Duryodhana and his brothers, who seek to sabotage their cousins through various intrigues, culminating in outright attempts at assassination.  Because of their wise and beloved nature, Arjuna and his brothers manage to evade these attempts, until one final ploy ensnares Yudisthira and his siblings.   It so happens Yudisthira has a weakness for gambling, a weakness Duryodhana uses to draw him into a cooked game of dice, eventually enticing Yudisthira to wager away his portion of the kingdom.  Again, the details are too complicated to cover here, but in a nutshell, as a result of his bet, Yudisthira, his brothers and their wife (whom the five share) end up temporarily losing their kingdom and being forced to spend 13 years in exile, undergoing extensive hardships and needing to pass certain “tests” in order to reclaim their half of the kingdom.

Again, due to their integrity and character, the six manage to survive the grueling period of banishment and to pass the conditions imposed by Duryodhana – conditions they choose to honor even though they eventually learn the game was in corrupt.  After 13 years of hardship Yudhisthira and brothers return to claim what is rightly theirs only to have Duryodhana, by this point accustomed to full reign, flatly refuse.  At this point, Yudisthira and his brothers are in a quandary: not only have they been cheated, but Duryodhana is now refusing to honor his portion of the agreement, even though they have fulfilled the requirements he established.  Their concern is further amplified by the fact that, in their absence, Duryodhana has dragged their portion of the once-great dynasty into the same poverty and oppression as his own, spreading misery among the citizens as his greed and arrogance ran unchecked.  And yet, in spite of this, they still realize Duryodhana and brothers are their relatives and rightful heirs, and so they find themselves unsure what to do next.

At this point, they seek counsel starting with their mother, who unhesitatingly points out not only the unjust nature of Duryodhana’s behavior but also the fact innocent people are suffering – people who cannot defend themselves and lack the skill or means to fight Duryodhana and his armies.  She also points out these are the very people Duryodhana has an obligation to care for – an obligation he is violating – and whom Yudisthira and his brothers as warrior-rulers are sworn to protect.  In short, she tells them they not only have a right to fight on their own behalf but an obligation to do so for the innocent who are suffering.  But in spite of sharing all this, she encourages her boys to seek the guidance of others to be completely sure, and so the princes proceed to seek advice from their most esteemed relatives and teachers, every one of whom echoes their mother’s advice.  In fact, many go on to point out, because of their obligations, they will be fighting on the side of Duryodhana, but in spite of this still urging the brothers to stand up to him, noting that, should they meet in battle, they will do everything to win but hope Yudisthira and siblings will actually prove victorious.

The very last person whose counsel they seek is their esteemed uncle, Krishna – a great warrior himself, and even more revered for his wisdom.  By coincidence, Arjuna happens to go to his uncle at the same time as Duryodhana, who seeks not guidance but allegiance.  As relative of both, Krishna decides to divide his support, but does so in an unusual way: on one side, he offers his soldiers and weapons, and on the other his counsel, leaving the choice to the younger of the two.  Before Duryodhana can express his dismay at this “unfair” division, Arjuna without hesitation chooses his uncle’s guidance – pleasantly surprising his cousin, who is all too thrilled to take the men and arsenal.

After a few final failed attempts, including by Krishna himself, to get Duryodhana to reconsider his dishonest choice, the two forces gather on a field known as Kurukshetra, Arjuna guided by Krishna who in fact serves as his charioteer, leading us finally to the start of the Gita.  As forces amass, though Arjuna knows full well who will be fighting, he asks Krishna to take him out to see the “enemy,” which Krishna readily does.  When Arjuna sees family members, friends, and teachers actually amassed on the other side of the field, he belatedly begins to question their choice and turns to his uncle for guidance.  The dialogue begins with the war itself, but quickly segues to the more general topic of how we can balance worldly obligation with our inner values in all areas of life – again, a theme of such importance, it explains when even great advocates of peace like Gandhi might still hold a work which begins with the topic of war in such high esteem….

The Gita, Yoga & Hinduism 

Before diving in, there are a few more pieces it can help to discuss.  One frequent confusion is the relationship between the Gita and Hinduism.  Because of the role of Krishna and frequent references to Vedic ritual, many assume the Gita is a work of Hindu spirituality, when in fact it is quite distinct.  In fact, much of the Gita is actually a critique of Vedic ritual and a calling to a truer vision of religious ceremony and ethics.  Even the role of Krishna tends to be misunderstood, as he himself points out in the Gita: while he does reveal himself to be a Divine figure, he goes on to point out any human conception of God – including how Arjuna and others conceive of him – is really just a limited vision of an infinitely greater whole, which of course means (as he goes on to clarify) that any religion that revolves around a particular image of God or set of ceremonies definitionally captures only a small part of a much greater truth.  In this sense, while the Gita takes place within the imagery and iconography of Hinduism, it expressly advocates a worldview that transcends it and is applicable by all of us, regardless of religious background….

Key Teachings

Now that we know a bit about the background, we’re almost ready to jump in.  The last thing it can be useful to understand is that, because the Gita – just like the Sutras – was intended to integrate a variety of traditions and address a diverse audience, it also can be a bit discontinuous.  In turn, by being aware of the major topics, we often have an easier time staying on track when the focus shifts from theme to theme.  Accordingly, here in my experience are the primary topics it can be good to know and keep in mind:

  • The Challenge of Action – Again, perhaps the single greatest focus of the Gita is how we can live a spiritual life while still honoring our worldly connections and obligations.   Krishna and Arjuna explore this topic as it applies to a wide variety of areas of life, including politics, family, community, religion, and even our own unique nature.
  • Jnana Yoga or Wisdom/Discernment – Once this goal is defined, much like the Sutras, the Gita offers several tools for cultivating this balance, beginning with the “Yoga of Wisdom.”  In these passages, Krishna explains why our thoughts and assumptions are every bit as important as our actions, as well as how to gain greater awareness of and control over them.
  • Karma Yoga or Selfless Action – The second major tool Krishna describes is “The Yoga of Action,” or understanding how focusing on the well-being of others can help us transcend egoism and the bonds of karma.  Again, discussion includes how this approach applies not only to strangers but also family and community as well as the importance of watching for ego and attachment in the act of serving.
  • Bhakti Yoga or Devotion – The next tool is “The Yoga of Devotion,” or how we can use awareness of the divine to step beyond ego, attachment, and aversion.  These passages also include discussion of the nature of our relationship to the divine and the various ways the divine can be perceived and celebrated in the people and situations around us and of course also in ourselves.
  • The Tools: Meditation – The last major tool explored in the Gita is “The Yoga of Meditation.”  Of course, all the tools listed so far are only of use if we can keep them and the spirit behind them in mind – something it can be difficult to do when our minds are not well-controlled.  Krishna explains why mindfulness training is of such great value in all avenues of life as well as the basics of how to begin a practice.
  • Svadharma or “Self-Nature” – Another major theme of the Gita, and one that is somewhat unique in spiritual literature, is the topic of svadharma or “self-nature.”  Krishna describes the importance and power of honoring our own unique disposition, as well as the strife that arises from violating it, even in the name of pleasing others.  This includes the important topic of what to do when we happen to be “talented” in areas that don’t truly fit us, a theme of special importance in our day and age.
  • Description of the Sage – Related to the topic of svadharma is the concept of the “sage” or realized individual.  The more we know the many merits of a realized life, the more motivation we have to apply ourselves to get there, and the more we know the signs of a realized individual, the more readily we can identify those who can aid us on our journey.  For these reasons, Krishna shares many of the signs and qualities of an enlightened individual, including and especially how their outlook and experiences differ from ours.
  • Understanding the Gunas, the Constituents of Nature – A final major topic of the Gita is what the Yogis believed to be the three fundamental energetic building blocks of the world, or what are referred to as the gunas.  As discussed previously in our exploration of diet, the Yogis observed all the material world – from external matter to food to feelings to thoughts – can be seen as a blend of three forms of energy: tamas or inertia, rajas or agitation, and sattvas or tranquility.  Krishna explains how all parts of our lives – from diet to service to devotion – can be approached in each of these three ways, in turn generating results that are more or less healthy, giving us one more tool for evaluating not only our actions but the spirit behind them.

An Invitation to Begin…

So now we have a sense of the basic background and elements, you are ready to dive in.  Of course a workshop can provide more of the backstory and what to expect as well as further motivation, but that much said, like countless thousands before you, you really can start right here.  To get the most from your exploration, here are a few final guidelines you might keep in mind:

  • Find a Translation that Speaks to You – As with the Sutras, there is an incredible range of translations of the Gita – some scholarly, some devotional, some very military.  For this reason, it can be beneficial to take time to find a version that appeals to you.  I happen to like The Living Gita by Swami Satchidananda – a warm, accessible translation and commentary – or Winthrop Sargeant’s, which is a bit more precise without being too technical or dry.  The versions by Stephen Mitchell and Eknath Easwaran are also excellent, but above all, find one that you like.
  • Remember Context & Audience – As you read, try to remember the context as well as the audience for whom the Gita it was intended.  Basically, if we don’t allow the occasional “cultural gaps” to throw us off and take the time to translate images and examples into forms that fit our lives, we’re sure to find a wide range of highly relevant teachings.
  • Be Patient – Remember Vyasa is integrating a variety of traditions, so be prepared for switching topics, redundancy, and shifts of terminology.  Also remember, since he uses a great deal of imagery, this adds to the repetitive nature.  For this reason, as with the Sutras, it’s best to take your time.  Basically, the more time we spend “personalizing” the teachings, the more we get from them and the more readily they come to mind when we need them.
  • Know When to Sample & Move On – Again, that much said, because the Gita offers a range of teachings for a range of people, don’t hesitate to skim passages you feel don’t apply to you, especially if they run counter to the approach that works for you – much like a buffet, while it’s good to sample, if we focus on the foods that nourish us rather than forcing ourselves to eat something because others enjoy it, we’ll get far more from our efforts, especially if we remember we can always come back later….

With these tips and techniques in mind, you are now ready to dive into a work that has touched the lives of literally millions of people, and of which Thoreau stated: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of The Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial….”  In our next article, we’ll conclude our exploration of the primary techniques of Yoga with a look at the unique role of a spiritual journal.  Until then, wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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