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One of the most important and beloved works in the Indian religious literature. It constitutes the sixth book out of the monumental eighteen-book epic poem Mahābhārata. Scholars date it sometime between 5th and 2nd centuries BCE. Its name means “Song (gītā) of the Lord (or Blessed One, bhagavan),” referring to the fact that it is a poetic dialogue between Śrī Krishna (Kṛṣṇa), the eighth incarnation of the Hindu deity Viṣṇu, and his warrior-disciple Arjuna. Although not considered śruti or “revealed” (lit. “heard”), like the Vedic hymns and Upaniṣads, it is treated by many philosophers on a par with those śruti texts. The invocation prefacing the text indicates this status thus: “All the Upaniṣads are the cows, the son of the cowherd [Krishna] is the milker, Pārtha [i.e., Arjuna] is the calf, men of purified intellect are the drinkers, and the supreme nectar known as the Gītā is the milk.” It has been translated into English more frequently than any other work of world literature, among which translations are several done by theosophists, perhaps the most noted being by Annie BESANT and Bhagavan DAS.
The dramatic setting of the Gītā is depicted in the first chapter in which Arjuna and his four brothers along with their allies are drawn up on the family battlefield, Kurukṣetra, to fight with an army consisting of their cousins and their allies (including Arjuna’s respected teacher, Droṇa, and beloved great-uncle, Bhiṣma). The epic poem, the Mahābhārata, has previously depicted Arjuna as a man of high moral sense, but he cannot accept his duty (dharma) to fight this war, so he throws down his bow and refuses to fight. In the remainder of the Gītā, Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer and counselor, gives arguments to persuade his disciple that he should and must fight this war. In the last chapter of the Gītā, Arjuna is convinced. The actual battle, in which the five brothers prevail despite great loss of life, begins in the following book of the epic.
There have been numerous commentaries on the Gītā in Sanskrit, English, and many other languages, among which are several by theosophists such as William Q. JUDGE, T. SUBBA ROW, Annie Besant, and Geoffrey Barborka. One American philosopher, Karl H. Potter, has suggested that the structure of the Gītā is a dialectic in which Krishna offers increasingly profound arguments, in the course of which a detailed philosophical system is developed. This system is termed Sānkhya at several points (2.39, 5.4-5), although it bears only a general resemblance to the Indian philosophic system called Sānkhya. Krishna also develops his ideas, he says, according to Yoga, although again what he says bears only a superficial resemblance to that philosophic system, and he says that “only the foolish (or childish, bāla), not the wise, speak of Sānkhya and Yoga as different” (5.4). Actually, Krishna expounds three yogas: karma, bhakti, and jñāna. Although the Gītā does not develop its ideas systematically, one can find the first of these yogas primarily in chapters 2-5, the second primarily in chapters 6-12 (culminating in a beatific vision of Krishna as the entire universe in chapter 11), and the third primarily in chapters 13-18. An elaborate metaphysical system is developed in these latter chapters, especially in terms of Matter (prakṛti) and Spirit (puruṣa) or “the Field” and “the Knower of the Field” (13.1-4). Matter is said to have three aspects (guṇas, lit. “strands”) termed sattva, rajas, and tamas (14.5) and individual humans, human society as a whole, human psychological states, and even foods (17.7-10) are classified according to the preponderance of the guṇa they contain. Many scholars consider those three yogas to be three different methods to reach self-knowledge, though theosophists, such as Radha Burnier, have claimed that they are, in fact, integrally interrelated. And Dr. Ravi Ravindra has plausibly argued that the basic yoga of the Gītā is buddhi yoga, since it is the first mentioned (2.49) as well as the last (18.51).
In addition, the Gītā is a remarkably inclusive work, integrating ideas from various different systems, including the māyā doctrine and Indian atomism. It is an optimistic work, stating that whenever the world becomes immoral (adharma), Krishna incarnates (4.7) “for the protection of the good and the destruction of evil-doers” (4.8). And it is a tolerant or catholic work, stating repeatedly that Krishna is one with ultimate reality (Brahman), is the “eternal seed” (bijam . . . sanātanam) in all beings (7.10) or their rootless root (9.4-5), and is “seated in the hearts of all” (15.15), hence, “However men approach me, even so do I accept them, for the paths men take from every side are mine, O Pārtha” (4.11; cf. 9.23). It is a charitable work, stating “Whoever offers me a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water with devotion, I accept from his aspiring mind, since it is given with devotion” (9.26; cf. 9.30-32) and says a true sage considers a learned brahmin, a cow, an elephant, and an outcaste the same (5.18; cf 6.8-9).
To the casual reader, the Bhagavad-Gītā might seem to be a justification of warfare because of its setting and Arjuna’s eventual conviction that he should battle against his relatives. But, in effect, it is really a metaphor for the battle within ourselves in which our divine nature struggles against our ignorance-driven habitual nature to gain domination over our actions. This is clearly seen when one realizes that Arjuna and his brothers are not really “sons of Pandu,” as the Gītā calls them, but actually sons of different gods (devas) invoked by their mother, Kuntī, when she learns that her husband cannot procreate; therefore they are, in the epic, semi-divine, as theosophy proclaims all human beings are. The brothers are five, symbolizing our five-fold lower nature: the physical body and its etheric double (Nakula and Sahadeva), our desire-mind (Arjuna), our intellect (Bhīma), and the causal body (Yudiṣṭhira). And they are fighting mainly against bad habits, personified by their cousins, whose names translate as “Ill-bred” (Duryodana), “foul mouth” (Durmukha), “unruly” (Duhṣasana), “insufferable” (Durdhara), etc. Thus it is that the Gītā is essentially a text on spiritual psychology set in a symbolic metaphysical background. And thus it is that one can reconcile its battle metaphor with a doctrine of non-violence (ahimsā): the battle is within oneself while non-violence marks one’s behavior toward others.
In the final words uttered by Śrī Krishna, one finds the “supreme word” of the poem in a passage that conveys, without circumlocution, clear instruction for the conduct of our spiritual life:
The first of these two verses encapsulates the yoga of the Bhagavad-Gītā. It is yoga without qualification and therefore can be described as “Integral Yoga” or “all-embracing yoga.” It is, if properly understood, an attack on that fundamental human enemy, ignorance of our true Self, and the consequences of that ignorance which not only limit our consciousness but cause us confusion about our moral obligations to society. Theosophy suggests that ultimately there is but one consciousness and all that is is a manifestation of that universal consciousness. Such a concept is repeatedly emphasized in the Gītā, including the final verses spoken by Śrī Krishna (18.67-70). The second of the above two verses urges a turning away from the habit of clinging to orthodox religion instead of realizing our identification with ātman, our true Self, which, in turn, is one with Brahman. But dharma, from the Sanskrit root dhṛ (support, bear, sustain, uphold) is more than just religion; it is whatever sustains society, whatever makes up the essential nature of anything, including human beings, whatever purpose we have in life. Neglecting our dharma, or doing the dharma of another, causes social confusion and is contrary to the best interests of society (cf. 2.33, 3.35, 18.47). Yet when our consciousness is merged with the Divine, our dharma becomes Krishna’s and thus is inerrant, free from any possibility of misperformance (or “sin”).
Helena P. BLAVATSKY has suggested an unusual interpretation of the symbolism of the Gītā. In a footnote to an article in an early number of The Theosophist (June, 1882) she writes, “The idea that the Gita may after all may be one of the ancient books of initiations — now most of them lost — has never occurred to them [i.e., Hindus as well as scholars]. Yet — like the Book of Job very wrongly incorporated into the Bible, since it is the allegorical and double record of (1) the Egyptian sacred mysteries in the temples and (2) of the disembodied Soul appearing before Osiris, and the Hall of Amenti, to be judged according to its Karma — the Gita is a record of the ancient teachings during the Mystery of Initiation” (CW IV:124).
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