The Bhagavad Gita


The Bhagavad Gita, “The Song of the Lord,” is the chief devotional text of most Indians. This text is part of a larger epic of Mahabharata, an ancient story that took literary form between the fifth BCE and third century CE. The Gita refers to dharma, which is the right ordering that supports the cosmos. Dharma is equivalent to natural law and conscience. In the Gita, a Pandava brother Arjuna loses his will to fight and has a discussion with his charioteer Krishna, about duty, action, and renunciation. The Gita has three major themes: knowledge, action, and love.


I.        The Bhagavad Gita; text, context, and interpretation.

A.     The Bhagavad Gita (“the Song of the Lord”) is the chief devotional book of most Indians. Franklin Edgerton and Barbara Stoller Miller have produced English translations that I recommend.

B.     The Bhagavad Gita is part of the larger epic of Mahabharata, an ancient saga that took literary form between the fifth century BCE and the third century CE.

1.      The Gita, like many teachings about dharma, dates from between 200 BCE and 200 CD.

2.      The setting of the Gita is the eve of an expected battle between the five Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kauravas, who have cheated the Pandavas of their rightful knogdom.

3.      The Pandava brother Arjuna loses the will to fight. He engages in dialogue with his charioteer, Krishna, about duty, action, and renunciation.

C.     The epic Mahabharata, the epic Ramayana, and the eighteen Puranas (“old stories”) are called smriti (the “remembered” tradition), as distinct from shruti (the “heard” or revealed tradition). The Gita was passed orally from one generation to the next, almost as shruti.

D.     Commentaries on the Gita have been produced by Shankara (eighth century CE), Ramanuja (eleventh century CE), and B. G. Tilak, M. Gandhi, A.D. Bhaktivedanta, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (twentieth century).

II.     On the Field of Dharma

A.     The first words of the Gita are: dharmakshetre Kurukshetre, “on the field of dharma, at Kurukshetra …” These words are spoken by the blink king to his minister Sanjaya, who will describe to him the impending battle.

B.     Dharma is the right ordering that supports the cosmos. It is equivalent to natural law, social order, the sense of duty that attaches to each caste or narna, and the right ordering of the human heart (i.e., conscience).

1.      “Dharma, when it is protected, protects.”

2.      Infractions of dharma have led to the impending battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas.

C.     On the verge of battle, Arjuna confronts the challenge of reconciling the conflicting obligations imposed by dharma.

1.      He is torn between his duties as kshatriya and the Pandavas and as kinsman of the Kauravas.

2.      Krishna persuades Arjuna of the need to fight, but their dialogue also concerns dharma.

III.   Three themes in the Bhagavad Gita: knowledge (jnana), action (karma), and love (bhakti)

A.     Knowledge: Krishna shows Arjuna that his grief is misplaced since the eternal soul, unlike the body, cannot be slain.

1.      Krishna urges Arjuna to acquire discriminative wisdom (i.e., the ability to distinguish the eternal from the transient).

2.      One acquires this wisdom by cultivating steadiness of mind, which Krishna compares to a lamp unflickering in a windless place.

3.      Attainment of the mental stability requires practice, especially yoga postures (“stopping the whirlpools of the mind”), which help to concentrate the mind. The body is a vehicle for helping the mind come to repose.

B.     Action: Acting without getting enmeshed in the results of action.

1.      Krishna asks Arjuna to renounce not the worldly life or action itself, but instead the fruits of action. One must bring steadiness of mind into action: yoga is “skill in action.”

2.      The four purushartas or goals of life are kama (please or passion), artha (wealth or power), dharma, and moksha (freedom).

3.      On the field of dharma, one should act without passion (nishkama) and without desire for the fruits of action (nishphalaratha). Through yoga, one can cultivate a disinterestedness in or detachment from the outcome of action.

C.     Love: Dedicate your action in devotion to God.

1.      God – Bhagavan – is the supreme reality that is both ultimate and personal.

2.      Krishna teaches a lesson of divine presence: Though I am unborn, I come into being in age after age, whenever dharma declines and adharma is on the rise (Gita, chapter 4). This is the first articulation of divine descent or avatara.

3.      At Arjuna’s request, Krishna reveals his supreme form, which Arjuna perceives with a special third eye.

4.      Arjuna responds with love to Krishna’s revelation. Only through love can one perceive Krishna’s true form.

5.      Krishna reveals his love for Arjuna, saying: “Abandoning all dharma, come to me alone for refuge…”

6.      Love can subvert dharma; there is no need to consider dharma when one consecrates one’s acts to God.

IV.  Krishna beyond the Gita: the love of God.

A.     The Bhagavata Purana is the story of Krishna as child, cowherd, and lover.

B.     The Gita Govinda is the story of Radha and Krishna

C.     The expanded myth of Krishna offers paradigms of human love for God.