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Philosophy of Bhagavad Gita

by Octavian Sarbatoare

Bhagavad Gita ("Lord’s Song") is largely seen as the most famous of all Yoga literature, and even more authoritative than the well-known treatise Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. The work is part (see VI. 13-40) of the national epic of India known as Mahabharata. It was probably composed in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E., its content suggests that it wants to be understood as a secret teachings, a kind of an Upanishad, that is a work in which a spiritual master imparts knowledge to a pupil at a personal level. In the case of Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna representing the Divine was teaching Prince Arjuna representing the human. The entire work consists of 700 Stanzas (verses) arranged in 18 chapters. Starting with the initial circumstances, continuing with the knowledge of the main topics, the work ends up with the philosophical conclusion conducive to spiritual liberation.

The philosophy of Bhagavad Gita is integrative per se. It is an attempt to make a synthesis of diverse philosophical views expressed in concepts like Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, the Upanishads and the Bhakti notion. The teachings could be classified to be of a moral (ethical) value, discussing virtues under its generic name of Dharma. Yet, the work could be taken as a soteriological teaching, having much to do with the idea of liberation (Nirvana).

It is the idea to obtain liberation that is pertinent in the Gita that advocates the three spiritual paths towards it, namely Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Chapters I to XI are mainly about the Karma and Jnana Yogas spiritual paths, whereas chapters XII to XVIII concentrate on the path of devotion known as Bhakti Yoga.

The first chapter that might be called ‘Arjuna’s dilemma’, introduces the scene, the setting, circumstances and the characters involved, determining the purpose for the Bhagavad Gita's exposure. The scene is the sacred field known as Kurukshetra, the setting is a battlefield, the circumstances are that is war. The main characters are the Supreme Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna one of the warriors. Arjuna’s lamentation is described due to his fear of losing friends and relatives on the battlefield. His main obstacle is related to the consequences regarding the Dharma of his karmic actions. The last three Stanzas where Arjuna talks about it are relevant for this chapter.

"Alas! We are ready to commit a great sin by striving to slay our kinsmen because of greed for the pleasures of the kingdom. (I.45)

It would be far better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra should kill me with their weapons in battle while I am unarmed and unresisting. (I.46)

Sanjaya said: Having said this in the battlefield and casting aside his bow and arrow, Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow. (I.47)

Chapter two might be called ‘The Transcendental Knowledge’. Here Arjuna accepts the position as a disciple of Lord Krishna and requests the Lord to teach him how to dispel his lamentation and sorrow. This chapter is often seen as a summary to the entire Bhagavad-Gita itself. In it, is described the supreme importance of the immortal nature of the soul that exists within all living beings.

Chapter three might be called ‘Path of Karma Yoga’. Here Lord Krishna explains in clear words the duties of members of society to carry out their functions and responsibilities according to the rules and regulations of the society in which they live. Furthermore, the Lord explains why such duties must be performed, what benefits are gained by performing them and what harm could be caused by not performing them. The issues of actions that lead to bondage and actions leading to salvation are exposed in great detail.

Chapter four might be called ‘Path of Renunciation with Knowledge’. Lord Krishna reveals how spiritual knowledge is carried on from master to disciple. The supreme knowledge Jnana is emphasized as culmination of the paths of Karma and Jnana Yogas. The Lord also explains the nature and purpose of His descent (Avatara) into the material world thus:

"Whenever there is a decline of Dharma and the rise of Adharma, O Arjuna, then I manifest (or incarnate) Myself. I incarnate from time to time for protecting the good, for transforming the wicked, and for establishing Dharma, the world order. (IV.7-8) "

Chapter five might be called ‘Path of Renunciation’. In it Lord Krishna exposed the concepts of action with detachment and renunciation to fruits of actions explaining that both paths are a means to the same goal. Salvation is thus obtained by following these paths. Issues of the nature of mind and intellect are also introduced. The state of a Yogi is also defined.

"One who finds happiness with the Self, who rejoices the Self within, and who is illuminated by the Self-knowledge; such a Yogi becomes one with Brahman and attains supreme nirvana. (V.24)"

Chapter six might be called ‘Path of Meditation’. Lord Krishna reveals the nature of mind and instructs in yogic techniques and mediation. The mastery of the mind in revealed as the key to liberation.

"Arjuna said: O Krishna, You have said that yoga of meditation is characterized by the equanimity (of mind), but due to restlessness of mind I do not perceive the steady state of mind. (VI.33)

Because the mind, indeed, is very unsteady, turbulent, powerful, and obstinate, O Krishna. I think restraining the mind is as difficult as restraining the wind. (VI.34)

The Supreme Lord said: Undoubtedly, O Arjuna, the mind is restless and difficult to restrain, but it is subdued by Abhyasa (or constant vigorous spiritual practice with perseverance), and Vairaagya (or detachment), O Arjuna. (VI.35)

In My opinion, yoga is difficult for the one whose mind is not subdued. However, yoga is attainable by the person of subdued mind by striving through proper means. (VI.36)"

Chapter seven might be called ‘Knowledge of the Ultimate Truth’. Lord Krishna gives clear knowledge of the absolute reality and the way to be obtained. He describes Maya ‘the illusion’ manifested in the world and the difficulties to overcome it. Four types of people attracted to divinity and the four types of people in opposition to divinity are described. Devotional service to the Lord is described as the main spiritual refuge.

Chapter eight might be called ‘The Attainment of Salvation’. Here Lord Krishna emphasizes the knowledge of yoga, the importance of the very last thought at the moment of death. Information on the creation of the material worlds is given as well as establishing a distinction between them and the spiritual world. The light and dark paths in regards to leaving this material existence is explained as well as the destination to which they each lead to and the reward received by each path.

"The path of light (of spiritual practice of Kundalini yoga and Self-knowledge) and the path of darkness (of materialism and ignorance) are thought to be the world's two eternal paths. The former leads to nirvana and the latter leads to rebirth. (VIII.26)"

Chapter nine might be called ‘The Secret of Supreme Knowledge’. Lord Krishna explains how the entire material existence is created, maintained and annihilated by His energy and all beings are coming and going under His will. Devotional service to the Lord is emphasized and the description of Him being supreme is of utmost importance. Surrendering to the Lord is seen as a sure path to liberation.

"Anybody, including women, merchants, laborers, and the evil-minded can attain the supreme goal by just surrendering unto My will (with loving devotion), O Arjuna. (IX.32).

Chapter ten can be called ‘Manifestation of the Absolute’. Lord Krishna presents Himself as the cause of all causes, specifying His manifestations of all times.

"I am the origin or seed of all beings, O Arjuna. There is nothing, animate or inanimate, that can exist without Me. (X.39)

There is no end of My divine manifestations, O Arjuna. This is only a brief description by Me of the extent of My divine manifestations. (X.40)"

Chapter eleven might be called ‘The Vision of the Cosmic Form’. Arjuna asks the Lord to reveal His imperishable form but the Lord explains that divine means are necessary to see divine forms.

"But, you are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory. (XI.08)"

Chapter twelve might be called ‘The Path of Devotion’. Lord Krishna describes those ever-steadfast devotees (Bhaktas) that employ Bhakti practices as being the best of Yogis. The Lord is always attracted to qualities of Bhaktas.

"The yogi who is ever content, who has subdued the mind, whose resolve is firm, whose mind and intellect are engaged in dwelling upon Me; such a devotee is dear to Me. (XII.14)"

Chapter thirteen might be called ‘The Creation and the Creator’. Lord Krishna reveals the distinction between the physical body and the immortal soul as like between the perishable and the eternal. The one person who is able to understand the difference between the cause of creation i.e. the Creator and the effect i.e. what is created becomes liberated.

"They, the one who understands the difference between the creation (or the body) and the creator (or the Atma) and knows the technique of liberation (of Jiva) from the trap of Maya with the help of knowledge, that one attains the Supreme. (XIII.34)"

Chapter fourteen might me called ‘The Three Qualities of Material Nature (Gunas)’. The Sattva, Rajas and Tamas Gunas are explained along with how they could influence every aspect of life and of an individual. The Lord explains very clear that the liberation cannot be achieved without transcending the Gunas.

"The one who remains like a witness; who is not moved by the Gunas, thinking that the Gunas only are operating; who stands firm and does not waver; and (XIV.23)

The one who depends on the Lord and is indifferent to pain and pleasure; to whom a clod, a stone, and gold are alike; to whom the dear and the unfriendly are alike; who is of firm mind; who is calm in censure and in praise; and (XIV.24)

The one who is indifferent to honor and disgrace; who is the same to friend and foe; who has renounced the sense of doer-ship; is said to have transcended the Gunas. (XIV.25)"

Chapter fifteen might be called ‘Realization of the Ultimate Truth’. Lord Krishna reveals His transcendental nature and how this is applied to everything that exists. The Lord describes Himself as being Supreme, for both transcendent and immanent levels, thus encompassing material and abstract notions and all various states of human experience.

"I am seated in the hearts of all beings. The memory, knowledge, and the removal of doubts and wrong notions (about the Self) by reasoning or in Samadhi come from Me. I am verily that which is to be known by (the study of) all the Vedas. I am, indeed, the author of the Vedanta and the knower of the Vedas. (XV.15)"

Thus the Lord appears to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent for al the manifest and non-manifest reality.

Chapter sixteen might be called ‘The Divine and the Demoniac Natures Defined’. Lord Krishna describes the divine properties and the conduct and actions that are righteous by their natures and conducive to Dharma. The ill conduct and its sinful actions are also made known. Yet, the knowledge of the scriptures is recommended in order to follow the right conduct.

"Therefore, let the scripture be your authority in determining what should be done and what should not be done. You should perform your duty following the scriptural injunction. (16.24)"

Chapter seventeen might be called ‘Threefold Faith’. Lord Krishna classifies the three divisions of faith and their links to the Gunas, thus there are three divisions of faith known as Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika (see XVII.2). They are seen as determining one's consciousness in this world.

The last chapter eighteen might be called ‘Final Revelations of the Ultimate Truth’. The Lord makes the conclusion of His message in a comprehensive way. The Karma Yoga is emphasized as the path of performing actions in the world with the idea of offering everything to the Lord. Thus, by the entire teaching within Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna finally attained the knowledge of liberation and the liberation itself.

"Arjuna said: By Your grace my delusion is destroyed, I have gained knowledge, my confusion (with regard to body and Atma) is dispelled and I shall obey Your command. (XVIII.73)"

To summarize Bhagavad Gita is to say that the teachings are those that emphasizes on the engagement (Pravritti) in the world rather than the disengagement (Nivritti). The societal duties are paramount as long as they are performed with the awareness of offering them to the Lord.

Yet, there is more to Bhagavad Gita than just analyzing it chapter by chapter. It is the action in itself of the Divine (in the form of Lord Krishna descending on Earth in order to be involved in spiritual discussions with a human being) that is highly suggestive. Equally suggestive is the fact that Prince Arjuna (representing the human side) after obtaining liberation by knowledge (Jnana) decided full-hearted to perform his duties as a Kshatriya (warrior), that being to destroy his enemies. Thus again, Dharma takes priority over Ahimsa (non-violence), an issue that is highly relevant in the story of Ramayana. By manifestation of gods, in this case Lord Krishna, hierophany is pertinent in its soteriological purpose of liberation achieved by Prince Arjuna.