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The Essence of The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita has attained the status of the Holy Book for the Hindus. The following article describes how. It also describes the essence of the teachings in this Holy book with a little introduction to understand the background. The story is woven around a royal family. Two brothers brought forth two families, the Kauravas who were thousand in number and the Pandavas who were five. The Pandavas were the heroes. Yudhishtra was the eldest, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva were the others. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is believed to have helped the Pandavas win the war they waged with the Kauravas. Now read on…

The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata; it is an episode in the concluding part, Santi Parva, representing Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the battle field when the latter shows diffidence caused by moral doubt and confusion. But seldom does history offer a parallel to the phenomenon of a section of the work overshadowing the whole. How this happened is linked with the course which philosophical and social development took in the last thousand years.

The setting of the Gita is the scene of the great battle which brings the Kauravas and the Pandavas face to face in the final trial of strength. Arjuna, the best archer of all, tell Krishna to lead the chariot to a central point, between the two arrays of hostile forces. As he surveys the field he is overcome with emotion; the absurdity of war dominates the mind. (The theme would have struck a familiar chord among the ancients who were clearly aware of Emperor Asoka’s renunciation of the world and embracing of Buddhism after grieving over the futility of the Kalinga war that he had won.)

The answer that Krishna gives forms eighteen chapters of the Gita. Free of doubt and firm in the mind, Arjuna enters the field and emerges triumphant.

If the validity of human action in the crisis of war has to be established, a brief answer was adequate. Krishna’s reply upto chapter II, sloka 38, meets all the points. But if it is recognized that the story as well as the setting merely serve as a peg on which to hang the message, the long treatise would not seem an irrelevant digression. In fact once Arjuna posed the question his image receded into the background very much like that of the pupils in the Upanishads (ancient sacred texts). The answer is what concerns us. The war would correspondingly become our battle of life. Viewed thus, the discussions on karma (duty), gnana (knowledge) and bhakti (worship) acquire universality. One need no longer ask, “How could there be a long discourse right in the midst of war?”

The message of the Gita may be viewed in two ways. As a practical guide to a man of action and as an integral view of systems of thought.

The first part, addressed to Arjuna specifically, is devoted to the definition of duty (karma) and prescribes the right approach, that is through detachment. Man must recognize the order of life and devotee himself to his own duty as per his own dharma (way of life). In that task he shall devote himself energetically but without anxious anticipation of results. Herein occurs the famous passage, Karmanyeva adhikaraste ma phalesu kadachana, Krishna’s message to Arjuna includes caution against ignorance (agnana); for it is the single contributor to confusion (moha). Knowledge is that which transcends understanding (or, information). It is a man of true knowledge who sees that the soul is indestructible: arrows can not pierce, fire can not burn, water cannot wet and wind can not dry. As man discards the worn out clothes and takes new ones to wear, the soul discards the worn out body and enters a new one, Man shall treat alike, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, devoid of passion, fear and anger. Victory and defeat will thus cease to agitate the inner spirit that engages in action.

Interest in the Gita is confined to this, at the popular level. To the student o India’s philosophical tradition, however, the work represents a brilliant attempt at reconciling the different schools of thought that prevailed at that time – the Sankhya and the Mimamsa, chiefly. While the former emphasizes self effort, meditation and the control of the senses, that is the intellectual approach; the latter relies upon sacrifice and rituals as per Vedic injunction. The Gita is critical of both: the way out is that of yoga, that is dedication to work and worship, Karma and bhakti. Angnana, lack of right knowledge is repeatedly under attack; for its is the root of human suffering (carrying forward the Buddha’ dictum: desire is the root cause of all suffering.)

The human being can evolve through restraint of the senses so as to reach the state of Sthithapragna, steadfast consciousness. The well known passage on this employs the simile of the tortoise.

As the tortoise draws within, all its limbs, he who withdraws the senses from their objects – his is the conscious mind, so firm.

Control of the senses, non-attachment, universality of vision and constant consciousness of the supreme, these are the requisites of the liberated man. Thus moksha or liberation is emphasized as an attainment in this world, here, not hereafter. It is essentially a state of peace in which nothing can agitate the mind.

However is an attempt to grapple with various philosophies, not all of them equally sound, the Gita tends to be discursive; contradictions have also been noticed. Yet, the Gita may be viewed as a deliberate attempt to synthesise different schools of thought, which in their independent existence were threatening to be explosive. It was probably undertaken by a master thinker who, “felt the urge for it in order to meet certain social and philosophical and religious needs.” If this was the deliberate synthesis of the master mind in ancient India, it was another such in medieval Indian that lent the universality that belongs to the Gita today. Sankara, the philosopher, gave the Gita high status in equating it with Upanishads and Brahma sutras (ancient work of tremendous philosophical and religious value).

On the Gita, Sankara, the greatest Hindu thinker of the century, wrote a commentary with emphasis on karma yoga. Two centuries later another philosopher, Ramanuja, followed up with another commentary on the Gita.

To seek authority in scriptural literature thus became a tradition. What the philosopher did in medieval times was so effective that social reformers sought to achieve, in the 19th century, a similar response. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, an erstwhile statesman who was the father of the freedom struggle in India, gained remarkable success in mobilizing public support by means of the Gita; the message to Arjuna became the youth of India, dazed and weary under British regime. Mahatma Gandhi too found strength and inspiration in the Gita; he wrote a simple commentary in Hindi entitled, “Anasaktiyog”.

The spiritual awakening led by reformers, thinkers, philosophers like Ramakrishna Parahamsa, Vivekanada and Dayanand naturally drew upon the teachings of the Gita to awaken India from Slumber and servitude.

Nowhere has a mere part of a great epic served such noble purposes in so many contexts through so many centuries.

The Gita is unique.