The Bhagavadgītā – background

For many among us who have just heard of the word Bhagavadgītā, but are not quite sure of who wrote, where it occurs and what it is about, the following background would help. For the rest of us, this is just a concise summary of what we already know.

This text, sometimes translated as “The Song Divine” has eighteen chapters, comprising about 700 verses. This is in the epic “Mahābhārata”, a 100,000-verse work attributed to Vyāsa. This epic describes a familial feud among nephews of two royal families that resulted in a fratricidal war leading to almost total annihilation of one of the families. Bhagavadgītā is set at the place in the epic where the nepoticidal war is about to begin. But the Commander-in-Chief of one army was having a crisis of confidence and was ready to give up. This was brought about, not by lack of courage, but by the fact that this war thrust on him by his nephews would result in his killing or death in battles of his brethren and those he respects. His name was Arjuna and his charioteer was Kṛṣṇa, his friend and relative. Bhagavadgītā is a conversation between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, where Arjuna beseaches his own charioteer thus

Kārpaṇyadoṣopahatsvabhāvaḥ pṛcchāmitvām dharmasammūdhachetāḥ
Yacchreyaḥ syānniścitam brūhi tan me śiṣyasteham śādhi mām tvām prapannam. (2-7)

My mind is tainted by self-pity, I am totally confused about what is dharma I approach you as your student, please teach me! (Ch.2, Verse 7)

Thus, having set the context, Vyāsa describes this spiritual teaching as an ongoing dialogue between the two, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. This dialogue is about 650 verses constituting the rest of the 2nd chapter and the remaining 16 chapters.

Even at that time it was common belief that Kṛṣṇa was an incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. And in a few chapters in the Gītā he takes on the role of God. In one celebrated chapter he shows Arjuana his cosmic vision. Those who are familiar with the nuclear physicist Oppenheimer may remember his quote from the Gītā (from the 11th chapter, where Kṛṣṇa shows Arjuna the cosmic vision of Himself) on witnessing the first atomic bomb detonation. 

The “Vision” and the “Way” in Bhagavadgītā

Bhagavadgītā is not an easy text to follow: thus, giving rise to a number of interpretations over the last several centuries. This set of 700 verses captures the essence of Vedānta’s vision of what you are in contrast to what you take yourself to be. 

Vedānta means the end portion of vedas. Vedas mean books of knowledge. Vedānta is also called the ultimate knowledge of the vedas. Another name for vedānta is Upaniṣads. Vedānta is usually looked upon or interpreted in three ways: advaita-vedānta, viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and dvaita-vedānta

These Sanskrit terms such as advaita, viśiṣādvaita and dvaita are typically translated as philosophies of nondualism, qualified dualism and dualism respectively. The foremost exponents of these three thoughts are Śaṅkarācārya (8th century CE) for advaita-Vedānta, Rāmānujācāya (11th century CE) for viśiṣādvaita-vedānta and Madhvācārya  (13th century CE) for dvaita. It is not correct to assume that they were the ones who came up with these concepts first. It is likely that such divergent views were already present, and they expounded them clearly by writing commentaries to several upaniṣads and the Gītā.

The nondual vision of vedānta and the Gītā is that you, the individual, are essentially not different from the world and God. The qualified non-dualism insists that you and God are not quite nondual while the dualistic vision, which is commonly shared with all Abrahamic religions, is that you and God are separate and your role is to worship Him so after death you will be in heaven with Him. Note that this idea of ultimate duality is also the cornerstone for Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy.

In one of the invocation verses for the Gītā usually chanted in India expresses the fact that it captures the essence of Upaniṣads in a poetic way.

Sarvopaniṣado gāvo dogdhā gopālanandanaḥPārtho vatsassudhīrbhotkā dugdhaṁ gītāmṛtam mahat

All Upaniṣads are cows, the milkman is KṛṣṇaArjuna is the calf, the enjoyer is one of clear-mind (who drinks this) great nectar of the Gītā.*

(In olden days the calf is allowed to drink the milk from the cow, then the milkman moves the calf away and milks the cow. The milk is for others to enjoyThis is the basis for this verse. I replaced the words gopālanandanaḥ and Pārthaḥ with the corresponding synonyms for clarity.)

Irrespective of these philosophical differences, one has to agree that the Gītā imparts a vision: of who you are that is at variance from your idea of your relationship to other people, the world and God. Since this Vision is so radically different from our perception, merely presenting the vision as Upanisads do was not enough. So, the Gītā offers a Way to understand and assimilate this Vision. (I use the terms Vision and Way with cqpitalized first letters since these terms are commonly used in a Buddhistic tradition.) Assimilation of this vision manifests in terms of one’s behavior towards people and all living beings as well as ways of  understanding of the nature of God. Thus, one can say that the Gītā has both the Vision of this ancient spiritual wisdom and the Way to own it up.

The Vision of the Gītā

The easy way to introduce the Vision for the reader is to start with a familiar example of what we all know and perceive. But we do not see any inherent problem or conflict between our perception and knowledge. We all know that the Sun never rises or sets. This knowledge can be called Vision. But this vision does not negate the perception and experiential enjoyment of a beautiful sunrise or spectacular sunset. In this simple example of the Vision, the way to retain it is through the  basic science taught in grade schools.

Another more advanced example, one my vedānta teacher Swami Dayananda Sarasvati used to cite, is diamond and charcoal. This illustration shows how day-to-day transactions with people need not conflict with the Vision. Any one who has an understanding of elements, crystalline and amorphous solids has the vision that diamond and a piece of charcoal are but the same carbon. But this vision will not alter the behavior of a man offering a big piece of wood charcoal to his girlfriend as a unique Valentine-day gift! 

The following example illustrates the Vision of non-duality not in conflict with perceptual/ experiential duality. In science it was left to Einstein to remove the perceived duality of mass and energy; this does not mean a piece of rock can light up an object nor can visible light be hurled at one to cause physical harm. 

I plan to use these examples to highlight the most difficult, if not often questioned, Vision of non-duality revealed in the Gītā. Once this is understood, it is easier to see the viewpoint of the other two philosophies. 

The vision of the Gītā is a concise summary of the knowledge stated in all Upaniṣads. The core teaching of all Upaniṣads is captured by a single sentence “Tat tvam asi, That (limitlessness, brahman) you are.” (This is a quote from Chandoyopaniṣad.) The natural question arises in one’s mind, “If I am limitless, then what about the world I perceive?” This is where one can see that perception is not reality only to be sublated by knowledge – this is what science teaches us tirelessly! The examples cited earlier of sunrise, sunset, diamond, charcoal, matter, energy, all tell the human being that perception is not reality, nor does reality alter your perception.

But does this mean advaita-vedānta is a branch of science? As a retired scientist, I will respond, “Definitely not!” The simple reason is that the foundation of science is the invariant observer-observed relationship. The observer is the scientist and the observed is the phenomenon. In Vedānta, this is described as aham-idam, I-this duality. But the edifice of advaita-vedānta is elimination of this observer/observed duality, the ultimate goal of science by the postulate of non-duality. This is why vedānta is treated as philosophy and not science. 

But for many of us who are students of this philosophy it is not just a speculation but sacred knowledge to be understood and assimilated. I must add that for some academics and other scholars, this too is only a belief system not any different from any other theistic dualism or non-theistic philosophies.

While there is no conflict between knowledge of sun rise and perception, if vedānta tells me that non-duality is the reality, I find it at variance with all my waking world experience, my emotions, my conflicts etc., So, where is the catch? The catch is that one takes oneself to be this body, this mind, this intellect, these emotions, to be different from this world, God, Heaven, Hell etc., – simply taking perceived duality as the only reality. That is, idam is really and totally different from and other than aham. The prime substratum for this notion is the total identification with mind by the individual.  And to remove this habituated and society imposed thinking that is defined as “knowledge” one has to have a “how to” manual. And this I call the Way to assimilate the Vision. This is where the Gïtā comes in. 

This, in a nutshell, is what the Gïtā teaching of Vision / Way is all about. Namely, if one follows the Way to hold the Vision, that person’s behavior towards fellow human beings or any living being on the Earth will never result in disharmony. And the person will operate from a center of complete harmony in his / her thought, word and deed. Maintaining harmony is what is technically called dharma in Indian tradition, and this dharma conflict was what drove Arjuna to the exasperating confusion and consequent need for clarity. 

The Way described in the Gītā

While the Vision is easy to communicate. But without emphasizing the Way, it cannot be retained to bless the student. Thus, one very short Upaniṣad, called Māṇdūkya conveys the Vision in just 12 sentences! This Vision is called Brahmavidyā, knowledge of the Timeless (limitless, Brahman, call it God, total, Nature or whatever).

Note the word Yoga as many meanings. The most popular meaning is practice of physical postures, called āsanas. The other meaning is a section or topic. Third meaning, mentioned by Vyāsa in his commentary to Yoga aphorisms refers to a mind that is capable of single-pointed attention towards a chosen action or thought, also called samādhi.
The Way is what is called Yogaśāstra, teaching of yoga. Yoga centers on dealing with the mind, accepting the mind with all its existing notions, concepts, conclusions, impulses etc., but consistently and methodically works with it towards its complete rehabilitation. This results in a mind in samādhi, that can hold the Vision. Else the Vision only remains as an intellectual exercise, not blessing the seeker.

This is the reason why in traditional chanting of the Gītā one chants at the end of each chapter the following:   

Brhamavidyāyām yogaśāstre Kṛṣṇārjunasaṁvāde arjunaviṣādayogonāma prathamodhyāyaḥ.
In the knowledge of Brahman and the teaching of Yoga, in the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arrjuna (is) the first chapter called Topic on Confusion of Arjuna.

Each chapter ends in a similar way, as though reminding the one who chants that this is the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. For those of us who have studied the Gītā the titles of each section beyond the second chapter tells the Way – the means of assimilating this vision while the main focus of the second chapter is to tell the Vision.

The Gīta’s exposition of the Way

Any teaching has to start with what one already knows or believes. The Gītā is no exception. What one knows is this phenomenal world. I, the person, is the one who perceives, knows and thinks. I know I am other than this world. This dichotomy of I and world, known as duality, is the basis of all my worldly pursuits driven by my cravings, desires and aversions . If I believe in a Higher Being, call it God or any other name many religions give, then that God gives me punishment or reward for “good” or “bad / evil” things I do while living. The result is heaven, hell and so on after death. 

Kṛṣṇa, knowing Arjuna’s background, starts with the latter’s world view which includes God as an entity beyond the phenomenal world. For multi-layered idea of God in the tradition, please refer to my post at this site: At the same time, Kṛṣṇa never loses sight of the Vision, whether you are drawn to non-dual or dualistic philosophy.

As long as one takes oneself to be a limited-being, circumscribed by the world of things and beings, then God is as real to that person as this world. For such a one this conviction on dualism is valid. And, this dualistic approach is quite relatable and popular in the context of prevalent theism with Creator – Created dichotomy as the reality among all religions. This dualistic thinking, found in most of Indian systems of theology as well, contrasts with mystic traditions of both the East and the West that assert the essential non-duality despite perceived and experienced duality. The latter is the same as the advaita-vedānta Vision.

Jewels from the Gītā

As the title of this post implies, this will be the first in a series of posts. I take some snippets from this 700-verse text which I call jewels. Since our focus is centered on the Way to hold the vision of the Gītā, these quotes pertain to this primary objective.

I thank Alice and Chris for editing and helpful comments.