The Bhagavad Gita, coming from the Sanskrit term meaning ‘the song of the Lord‘, is a Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata, containing some of the most famous and profound teachings of yoga. It contains 18 chapters and 700 verses.
The Gita is a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna, a great warrior-king, and his charioteer Krishna, who is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord. A foundational yogic text and extensive source of wisdom, it serves as a guidebook for many Hindus and yogis alike.
There’s a lot to get into, so here’s what we’re going to cover:
- What is the Bhagavad Gita?
- What is its importance?
- Characters in the Gita
- Yoga in the Gita
- Purusha and Prakriti
What is the bhagavad gita?
Written in 2nd century CE by Maharishi Veda Vyasa, a revered sage, the Gita takes place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. It’s a story about two families at war over their kingdom, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
The dialogue recounts the conversation in the moments leading up to the war; its entire dialogue is of the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna told by Sanjaya, an advisor to Dhritarashtra (the Kauravas’ father and the blind king of Hastinapura), to Dhritarashtra.
Sanjaya was granted the boon of the ‘divine inward eye‘ by Vyasa and thus could recount the entire happenings of the battlefield without missing the smallest of details.
Why is it important?
It’s a Yoga Shastra, a scripture of Yoga, because it teaches yogic methods to attain self-realization (Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Rāja Yoga, and Jñāna Yoga), which we’ll explore later on.
As an avatar of Vishnu, Krishna is the guiding light for Arjuna through the moral conflicts that present themselves as he prepares for war.
We relate to the character of Arjuna, for his fears, worries, and questions speak to our experience as humans on the battlefield that is life.
So, indeed, the battlefield of Kurukshetra is characteristic of the battlefield of human life, with the Pandavas and Kauravas symbolic of the duality of our human nature.
The two families are also thought to represent the human body:
- The Pandavas, the five brothers, represent the five senses of knowledge or perception.
- The Kauravas, born from a literally blind (and figuratively ignorant) king, represent the not-so-good tendencies of life. More specifically, they form the less conscious tendencies of the mind and so, naturally, there are many more of them!
These are the hundreds of things that attack your senses and lead you away from the path of self-mastery.However, there is hope! This hope comes through Krishna, who represents the Absolute Atman (Paramatma).
When we trust in the nature of the divine or, as Arjuna did, allow Krishna to ride his chariot and lead him through the darkness, we can live our lives following the Supreme wisdom that is available through knowing the true self.
It is through the Gita that we can find these teachings to guide us through life or the warzone that it sometimes feels like.
The Bhagavad Gita, though written a long time ago, is so relevant to our daily lives because this battle is happening inside of us every single day. It is something that is happening right now, and the dialogue, for many, holds essential answers about how to navigate this life.
It is truly a map of the territory that is our hearts and minds.
With a lesson for any occasion or life experience, one of my teachers once told me how she will open up the Gita any time she is faced with a problem and find deep insight and answers, each time gaining a new, more profound perspective.
The more it is read, the fresher the teachings become and the deeper we discover the meaning behind the battle.
main Characters in the gita
Krishna’s disciple and one of the five Pandava brothers, unsure how he can fight on the battlefield for his kingdom.
Represents: the embodied Self (jiva).
Arjuna’s charioteer and guru, guiding him leading up to the battle. Also an incarnation of Vishnu.
Represents: the Supreme Self (Paramatma)
Advisor and charioteer of the king Dhritarashtra, reciting the entire battle and dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna
Represents: intelligence or the higher mind (buddhi)
Blind king and father of the Kauravas
Represents: the ego (aham)
Yoga in the gita
Krishna uses the word yoga over 100 times in the Bhagavad Gita, so there are definitely lots of insights that we can glean from the text.
A rich and colorful tapestry of the human experience, Krishna speaks about yoga in a way that we can all relate to and be inspired by, here are just a few of the ways that he defines it:
1. Yoga is a heightened sensitivity and awareness of all life around us and within us, and an outpour of love in reciprocation with life’s wonder and beauty
2. Yoga is sacrifice that elevates and motivates us in a manner that is harmonious for all beings
3. Yoga is vision that excludes nothing from its practice
4. Yoga is our intimate connection with the whole universe, with eternal realms even beyond the manifested universe, and with our own being’s endless capacity to love
Types of yoga presented
There is a hierarchical presentation of the different yogas in the Gita, and since the goal of yoga is to yolk or unite oneself with the true divine nature of reality (God), Bhakti is the highest.
This is something that Krishna is very clear about in the Gita; when Arjuna asks which form of worship is most superior, Krishna replies those who worship with ‘focused minds’ (12.2) and serve with ‘unswerving devotion’ (14.26) will achieve communion with him.
Everything else is secondary to bhakti because it is the only way to the highest, to transcend the material world.
It’s about pure, unconditional love and devotion to God, to completely focus your mind on worship and to bow down to the divine.
It is presented in this way precisely because we are made out of the same ‘stuff’ that the Supreme Lord is made from, and we are therefore constitutionally a part of the Absolute. Therefore, the way to achieve union with him is through Bakti.
Thus, yoga is not merely a ‘yoga of the self’, that is, achieving self-realization, but its ultimate goal is to achieve union with the aspect of oneself that is also the Supreme. Through devotion alone, we achieve a true relationship with God through which self-realization is a corollary.
The yoga or path of selfless service; Krishna speaks of how we must perform our duties without attachment to the ‘fruits’ of our work (6.1) – detached action.
This is an active form of yoga and requires engagement with the material world, which is particularly useful for those of us living in the 21st century who aren’t keen on complete renunciation!
Luckily for us, Krishna attests to the fact that ‘a person does not attain freedom from action by abstaining from action; nor does he attain fulfilment merely through renunciation’ (3.4).
What we must renounce, though, is our attachment to the outcome of these actions.
If Karma Yoga is about working for the Supreme, and Bhakti Yoga is about serving and unconditionally loving the Supreme, then Jnana Yoga (also referred to as Buddhi Yoga) is about focusing one’s knowledge on the Supreme.
As the path of knowledge, practicing jnana means using logic and discourse to attain self-realization and cultivate consciousness.
As a practitioner, you come closer to answering the question of ‘who am I?‘ through philosophical and intellectual discussion.
Raja is both the goal of yoga and the method through which we can achieve it (union).
Krishna tells Arjuna this ‘secret’ knowledge which is known only through direct experience of it, he states it’s an utmost secret (guhya-tamam), or the supreme secret (raja-guhyam) (9.1) which leads to bliss.
This state of Samadhi is reached through the cultivation of the mind towards the Lord through the practice of dhyana (meditation), limiting its fluctuations and oscillations.
This path is the way through which we can ‘save oneself by oneself’ (6.5), dissolving the mental barriers that prevent us from seeing ourselves as one with the divine.
Dharma, the first written word in the Gita and taken by many to mean duty, is tackled head-on by Krishna. He goes far beyond our concepts of dharma as duty and talks to Arjuna about its importance for our spiritual growth as humans.
Dharma is the essence of the Gita and thus ‘duty’ or ‘religion’, as many English translations present it, are not full enough terms.
Similar to what we may understand as destiny, dharma is related to knowing our eternal soul and fulfilling our highest purpose.
It is always better to perform one’s own dharma than another’s, even if one does not perform it perfectlyBhagavad Gita 18.47
If we abandon our dharma, we are doing a disservice to not only ourselves but the world and God too, and thus, we cannot be happy in any life or reach the ‘supreme destination‘ (16.23).
It is what gives life innate meaning.
We all have individual dharma related to our physical body and duty in the material world. Through contemplation and meditation, we can avoid an Arjuna-like existential paralysis by following the calling of this sacred duty.
At one point, Krishna explains, you may feel called to the pursuit of complete devotion to God, to ‘simply surrender unto me’ (18.66). Material dharma, or occupational duties, then becomes the dharma of the soul once the temporary duty, of the physical world, is achieved.
This is the supreme goal, the liberation of our human state that transcends the material form.
It is the supreme state of perfection, it’s achieved through union with the Absolute and the paths of yoga (above) are the ways to get there.
Krishna states how all experiences of suffering and misery are related to the cycle of death and rebirth, but the ‘one who attains to my abode…never takes birth again’ (8.16). This is Moksha, an eternal abode with God.
An aspect of ourselves that is imperishable in nature, something that never dies.
It is the eternal, true self that is the only reality. To those who know the atman, they know that ‘the pleasures of the world are worthless’ and are content in the ‘immortal self’ (2.55).
prakriti and purusha: concepts of reality
Because I transcend the perishable and am higher than the imperishable, I am declared in the world and by the Vedas as the Supreme Being (Purusottama)Bhagavad Gita 15.18
Prakriti and Purusha are both aspects of Purushottama, both are beginningless and infinite. The former is the primary substance (original matter) that anything is made from, whilst the latter is the eternal spirit.
These aspects form the basis for our understanding of reality within the Bhagavad Gita; in Sankhya philosophy, humans are made up of the union of these two poles and in the Gita, the two together are shown as Brahman.
They are not two separate things in the text, but more like two powers, or flavors, of the divine itself. Purusha is consciousness (Shiva) and Prakriti is spatial extension (Shiva).
Krishna also says that ‘the modifications and the gunas arise from Prakriti‘ (13.19).
The soul, in a human body, is caught in the grip of Prakriti, needing to set out on the spiritual path in order to be released from it. Once the soul leaves the body through death, then, depending on one’s karma and state of mind prior to death, it can move to the higher realm.
The practice of yoga is to refine our Prakriti so that it becomes the truest reflection of Purusha – this is Moksha.
More on the Bhagavad Gita
There is SO much more to get into on the Gita, it’s a text that could be (and is) discussed for years on end. If you want to read it for yourself, you can read Swami Mukundananda‘s translation of it here, take an online course on it here, or watch a lecture here.