Bhagavad Gita - Introduction

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The sublime message of the Bhagavad Gita is timeless and is applicable in every facet of life. Within Srimad Bhagavad Gita are the answers to the mysteries of existence – our real purpose in this world, how we should act and why we suffer, or are oftentimes helpless in our struggle for survival.

To understand Srimad Bhagavad Gita one must enter into the spirit of the Gita by accepting the path of devotion (bhakti). Accordingly, the Gita’s message cannot be properly understood by mental speculation. To this end, the sublime process illuminated within the Gita must be accepted as given by the speaker Himself, Shri Krishna.

The active principle of understanding the message of the Gita is to hear directly from the Master of yoga, Shri Krishna, who is glorified throughout the Vedic literature as the Supreme Person, the Absolute Truth. Shri Krishna speaks to Arjuna in Srimad Bhagavad Gita and thus one who studies the Gita hears from Krishna directly.

The philosophy of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is clear for the sincere reader, yet for some, approaching the Gita may seem daunting – its language too ancient. However, this obstacle is easily overcome by a straightforward translation and commentary (Anuvritti). The requirement for a translation and commentary on the Gita is as necessary today as anytime in the past. With the passing of time, our values and our worldview are constantly changing, and this demands a fresh approach to the understanding of the Gita.

This translation and commentary on Srimad Bhagavad Gita provides simple, yet profound knowledge to elevate us to a higher state of consciousness whereby we can realize our true self and progress towards attaining a life of spiritual fulfillment. Self-realization means to realize our actual purpose in life and act towards it, gradually freeing us from the yoke of material bondage. Where there is light, darkness cannot stand — where there is proper knowledge, ignorance cannot remain. Srimad Bhagavad Gita unravels the mysteries of life, providing not only knowledgeable answers, but also a progressive process to uplift us to pure consciousness.

One of the more remarkable features of the Gita is that its readers can easily observe and feel its philosophy working, like poetry in motion, in their everyday lives. The knowledge of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is a true science – its formulas for success clear and observable in action. The Bhagavadgita thus provides a complete outline for self-realization in everyday life.

Anyone who is fortunate enough to dive deeply into the wisdom of Srimad Bhagavad Gita and embrace its message will surely achieve success, for this is guaranteed in the Gita’s final verse:

yatra yogeshvarah krishno yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra shrir vijayo bhutir dhruva nitir matir mama

Where there is Shri Krishna, the Master of yoga, and where there is Arjuna, the mighty archer, there will always be prosperity, victory, opulence and righteousness – this is my firm conviction. (BG 18.78)

The Bhagavad Gita is the oldest and most widely read book of theistic science in the world today. Also known as the Gitopanishad, Srimad Bhagavad Gita has been the principle handbook of yoga for more than 5,000 years. In contrast to many mundane literatures of the present day, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is free from mental speculation and is complete in knowledge of the eternal self (atma), the process of bhakti-yoga and the nature and identity of the Absolute Truth, Shri Krishna. As such, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is the single most important book in the world, surpassing all others in wisdom and enlightenment.

The first word of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is dharma. Sometimes dharma is mistaken to mean religion or a particular belief, but it is not so. Dharma means the quintessential duty or knowledge that elevates our consciousness to a direct connection with the Absolute Truth. This is also known as sanatana-dharma, the occupational duty of all living beings. Srimad Bhagavad Gita begins with the word dharma – thus we can understand from the outset that Srimad Bhagavad Gita is not about dogma or a sectarian way of thinking. Indeed, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is the complete science of realizing the Absolute Truth.

For an observant person it is clear that the world around us is a bewildering place with many unsolved mysteries. If one is seeking answers to the age-old questions of ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why do we suffer?’ ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘What is the purpose of life?’ ‘What happens after death?’ – then one will find great satisfaction in Srimad Bhagavad Gita because the Gita answers these questions and more with the utmost clarity.
In Search of Truth

As a young seeker of truth, I first came in contact with Srimad Bhagavad Gita in 1968. In subsequent years I traveled to India and studied Srimad Bhagavad Gita under the foremost gurus of the late 20th century, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada and Svami B.R. Shridhara Deva Gosvami. By the goodwill of these two great masters, the essential message of Srimad Bhagavad Gita entered my heart and I was soon to be situated on the path of self-realization.

As with any path in life, one will certainly encounter crossroads. The first crossroads that I came to while studying Srimad Bhagavad Gita was to decide on the path – personal or impersonal. Was I to follow the path of personalism – ultimately to perfect the individual self and enter into the spiritual sky of Vaikuntha planets and live eternally with the Supreme Person, Shri Krishna? Or was I to follow the path of impersonalism – ultimately ending existence as an individual living being and merging myself into the brahmajyoti of infinite bliss? I chose the former, bhakti-yoga.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita culminates in Bhakti-Yoga

Srimad Bhagavad Gita is specifically meant for those following the path of bhakti-yoga. Many impersonal philosophers have tried to lay claim to the Gita over the years, at times even claiming to be Shri Krishna – a claim that is exposed by the simple fact that they do not understand the message of Shri Krishna in Srimad Bhagavad Gita, despite its profound clarity. Shri Krishna is the original speaker of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, therefore He must know the message of the Gita better than anyone, and Krishna says in the Eighteenth Chapter that the message of the Gita is exclusively meant for those who are aspiring to know the Absolute Truth on the path of bhakti-yoga.

The Message of Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Srimad Bhagavad Gita is certainly a scholarly work, but one need not be a scholar to understand the Gita’s straightforward and simple message. Indeed, Arjuna, the first student of Srimad Bhagavad Gita, was not a scholar, but a warrior. In the past many great scholars, gurus and self-realized masters have written illuminating commentaries to accompany the Gita – its as it is meaning, its poetry, philosophy and its hidden treasure – so that the people of their time, as well as the people of future generations, may have a better appreciation of the message of Shri Krishna.

According to Vishvanatha Cakravarti, a renowned commentator on Srimad Bhagavad Gita from antiquity, the first six chapters of the Gita mainly pertain to karma, the second six chapters to bhakti and the final six chapters to jnana. But the answers to life’s most puzzling questions are found throughout the eighteen chapters of the Gita with Shri Krishna’s last and conclusive instruction to Arjuna in verse sixty-six of the last chapter – sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja.

The History of Bhagavad Gita

Since time immemorial, Srimad Bhagavad Gita has been a prime source of inspiration for many great thinkers and philosophers in both the east and the west. In ancient times, the first commentary on the Gita was written by Adi Shankara, who was the first acarya to treat it as a freestanding text. Subsequently, other great acaryas such as Ramanuja, Madhva, Shridhara Svami and others wrote commentaries on the Gita that presented its essential devotional significance, in stark contrast to Adi Shankara’s impersonal interpretation.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita in the Western World

In the western world, Srimad Bhagavad Gita has been highly appreciated by erudite scholars and philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Schlegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl Jung and Herman Hesse. Upon reading the Gita, the famous American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented:

I owed a magnificent day to Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books; it was 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. -Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Scriptural Origins of Srimad Bhagavad Gita

Originally, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is part of the ancient historical epic, the Mahabharata, composed by the great sage Vyasa in approximately 3100 BCE. The eighteen chapters of Srimad Bhagavad Gita are found within the Sixth Canto of the Mahabharata known as the Bhishma-parva, which altogether contains 117 chapters. Initially Vyasa wrote the 8,800 core verses of the Mahabharata and later his disciples Vaishampayana and Suta added further historical details until the Mahabharata finally consisted of 100,000 verses – seven times the size of Homer’s Illiad and fifteen times the size of the King James Bible.

Mahabharata in Brief

The word Mahabharata means ‘The History of Greater India’ and recounts the story of two feuding royal families, the Pandavas (the sons of Pandu) and their cousins, the Kauravas (the sons of Dhritarashtra). Both Pandu and his brother Dhritarashtra belonged to the royal Kuru Dynasty of Hastinapura (modern day Delhi). Although Dhritarashtra was the elder of the two, he was born blind and so the throne was passed on to Pandu, who became the heir-apparent.

However Pandu died untimely, leaving five children – Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. While the Pandavas were still young, their uncle Dhritarashtra assumed the throne as regent until they were of age to rule the kingdom. Yet due to his excessive paternal attachment, Dhritarashtra schemed that his own sons, led by the corrupt Duryodhana, would ascend the imperial throne. To this end, and with the consent of his father, Duryodhana made several assassination attempts upon the lives of the Pandavas. Despite the wise counsel of his grandfather Bhishma, his uncle Vidura and his military teacher Drona, Duryodhana continued to plot against his cousins. Yet, due to the protection of Shri Krishna, the Pandavas were able to foil all his murderous attempts.

Historically speaking, Shri Krishna was the nephew of Pandu’s wife Queen Kunti and was thus the cousin of the Pandavas. However, Krishna was not simply a royal prince, but the Supreme Person Himself who had descended to earth to perform His pastimes and to establish the principles of dharma. Due to their righteous behavior, Shri Krishna always favored the Pandavas.

After numerous failed murder attempts, Duryodhana finally challenged the Pandavas to a rigged game of dice. Duryodhana cheated and won the game, and the Pandavas lost their kingdom. The result was that the Pandavas were forced into exile for thirteen years.

After completing their thirteen years of exile, the Pandavas returned to the capital and requested Duryodhana to return their rightful kingdom. When the proud Duryodhana flatly refused, they requested him to at least give them five villages to rule over. At this Duryodhana curtly remarked that he would not even give them enough land in which to drive a pin.

Although the Pandavas sent Shri Krishna as an ambassador to sue for peace, Duryodhana blatantly refused to listen. War was now inevitable.

Rulers as far west as Syria and as far east as China came to take part in the battle – some supporting the Kauravas due to their political designs, and others favoring the Pandavas due to their piety. During this fratricidal war Krishna stated that He would not take up arms for either side, but accepted the position as Arjuna’s charioteer. Thus, in the month of December, in 3138 BCE, both armies assembled on the planes of the holy place known as Kurukshetra.
Significance of Kurukshetra

The significance of Kurukshetra is related in the Vamana Purana that narrates how the virtuous king Kuru, the ancestral patriarch of the Pandava and Kaurava Dynasty, performed rigorous austerities at Kurukshetra. Because of this act, Kuru was given two blessings – firstly that Kurukshetra would be named after Kuru and secondly, that anyone who died at Kurukshetra would attain the celestial planets.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita is spoken on the first day of the war at Kurukshetra. As the two armies prepare to fight, the blind Dhritarashtra sits in his court with his faithful servant Sanjaya and inquires from him as to what the virtuous Pandavas are doing. Sanjaya, a disciple of the great sage Vyasa, had been blessed with the mystic power to observe the conflict far from the battlefield at the palace in Hastinapura. Sanjaya then narrates to the old emperor the sacred conversation between Shri Krishna and Arjuna. Thus Srimad Bhagavad Gita was received by Sanjaya and repeated to Dhritarashtra for the spiritual benefit of all humanity.

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