Posted by: gdevi | February 3, 2010

Bhagavad Gita

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Bhagavad Gita (Mahabharata war circa 2000 BCE; 3137 BCE, 1924 BCE)

Bhagavad Gita is a compilation of Hindu metaphysical thought and to that extent it contains the Hindu view of the world and life in general. Though Bhagavad Gita is often read as a stand-alone book (think Gideon’s Bible—there is a version of Bhagavad Gita in the same size and shape) it is part of a larger composition. It belongs to Book 6 of the Mahabharata, which is the longest epic poem in the world with its 100, 000 verses and 1.8 or so million words. Mahabharata was composed somewhere along the Indo-Gangetic plain between 10 BCE and 8 BCE in the Indian subcontinent and written in one of the oldest languages in the world, the Indo-European language called Sanskrit.  The poem itself credits a mythic sage Vyaasa as the author of the Mahabharata, but in all probability, the poem was collated and compiled over time and altered during its redaction by various editors and compilers. Like its younger cousin The Iliad, Mahabharata recounts a great war of succession fought in the Indo-Gangetic plain around 10 BCE – the Kurukshetra war – between cousins Pandavas and Kauravas who both claim the throne at Hastinapura. By rights the throne should go to the elder Pandava prince Yudhishtira, but his cousin Duryodhana tricks him in a game of dice, which causes him to lose the kingdom. Yudhishtira and his brothers – Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva go into exile for twelve years and on their return the war starts when the Kauravas refuse to cede the kingdom to the Pandavas. The Kauravas keep the kingdom through deceitful and duplicitous means. This is a violation of dharma and the war is fought to correct this dharma gone awry. Within the frame story of this war epic lies almost all facets of immanent and transcendent life that had preoccupied Indian thought and philosophy: for instance, what is our purpose in life? Does life have a purpose? Is life lived in the body? Is there a mind? Is there a soul? What is the relation between these things? How did life originate? Where are we going from here?  What are the causes of suffering? Why do we desire things?  How do we escape the endless cycle of birth and death and rebirth? What happens to the body after death? What happens to your mind after you die? What happens to your soul? Etc etc. Mahabharata is divided into eighteen books and has been translated into almost all the major languages in the world. Indians read the Mahabharata as Itihaasa, whose closest English translation is a genre that combines both history and myth.  It narrates both the historical account of India along with imaginative analogues to them.

Bhagavad Gita, which means The Song of the Lord (Bhagavad – possessive case of Bhagavan (God) and Gita—song) is also in eighteen chapters within Book 6, Bhishma’s Book. It starts in media res; the setting is the great battle field of Kurukshetra the evening before the battle. Arjuna the Pandava warrior visits the battle field along with his friend, relative (and it turns out God) Krishna where he spirals down into a complete dejection and breakdown over the fact that he will have to kill his own cousins, uncles, other family members in the battle soon to begin. Arjuna poses the following questions to Krishna. These questions are the cornerstone of Hindu metaphysics and philosophy:

  1. How can I kill my cousins when I know that killing is wrong (adharma)? How can I escape the results of my actions (karma)?
  2. According to the law of Karma, I will reap the consequences of my actions and one consequence is the possibility of being born again and again and again. I will never attain moksha (liberation). If I stay on this course of action how can I attain moksha ?
  3. How can I ensure that what I am doing is correct (dharma)?
  4. Finally, why should I take your advice, Krishna?

These questions, when generalized, address the core concepts of a form of Hinduism known as Vedanta. Here is an annotation of your textual reading:

Chapter 1 – Arjuna’s Dejection – Arjuna Vishada Yoga — Arjuna tells Krishna that he cannot kill his own cousins. He says that he would rather die than kill his cousins.

Chapter 2 – Krishna’s teaching about the nature of Being. (Being is a western ontological term; you will notice that in our English translation what we paraphrase to mean Being in Sanskrit is simply “it” or “this.” Being is termless in Sanskrit.  It is “that this  is.”)  Being is neither born nor dead. It cannot be killed any more than it can be created.  Pay particular attention to #17, #18, #19, #20, #28.

Krishna teaches Arjuna about Dharma (duty). The duty of a Kshatriya (warrior) is to fight in a war. You must focus on your action for the sake of doing action. You must only act and not think of the fruits of action. This philosophy is known as Nishkama Karma. Pay particular attention to #47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53.

Krishna speaks to Arjuna about Maya (delusion) (#52) – Maya in Hindu philosophy refers to the world we perceive around us; Hindu metaphysics regards this world as unreal; the path towards moksha (liberation) requires you to witness this world and let it go; it is the imaginative play of God, but not God. This process of cutting through Maya to reach moksha is a via negativa – you can only define God or Supreme Consciousness as “it is not this,” “it is not this either,” “it is not this” “it is not this” – you get the idea. Remember the movie Matrix with Keanu Reeves? That movie is a good exemplum of what Hindu metaphysics means by Maya. Maya is the world we perceive through our senses. We can only see what our senses allow us to see.  In the movie, the “matrix” is the Maya, Morpheus (played by the great actor Lawrence Fishburne) is sort of like Krishna and Neo (Keanu Reeves) is in Arjuna’s position. Morpheus teaches Neo how to get out of the matrix. But we can be aware of this limitation and witness this limited perception. Our true consciousness is a witness consciousness. Maya was originally a Buddhist concept.

Krishna speaks to Arjuna  about the nature of a Jnana yogi (#55-#58)– a yogi who practices the discipline of knowledge and attains moksha through such means. Contrasted with Karma yogi who attains through right action.

Chapter 3-6 – Krishna teaches Arjuna about karma (action); how to act and yet be detached from the outcome. #5, 6, 7, 8. This is a foundational concept in Hinduism.  Krishna also teaches Arjuna about the major obstacles on the path to moksha: anger, desire, willful intent (#37-#43). The antidote? Discipline (samyamanam) (##15-20).

Chapter 6 – Krishna tells Arjuna that all creation is God, Krishna himself.  This is a deliberate move in the Bhagavad Gita; here the student Arjuna needs proof that what the teacher Krishna is saying is credible and true. From this point on, you will find that the Gita increasingly becomes a monotheistic text (#29-32).

Chapter 11 – In this chapter Krishna shows Arjuna his cosmic form (viswa roopam). Arjuna sees that Krishna is all universe/creation/multiverses themselves. Also here you will notice a switch in the narrative point of view – now it is Sanjaya telling Dhritarashtra (the patriarch of the Kauravas) what Arjuna saw. This third party endorsement of Krishna’s grandeur and omnipotence is the apotheosis of the Bhagavad Gita as a monotheistic text. Read this chapter carefully. Arjuna feels liberated and frightened at one and the same time; he realizes that the Supreme God himself has come to act as his charioteer and that it is his karma to fight this war to restore dharma.

Side note: The witnessing of Krishna’s cosmic form in all its power by Arjuna is a scene that has been retold in many many forms in many texts. One of its most ironic uses was by the great physicist Robert Oppenheimer who was also an Indic scholar and who said upon seeing his first test plutonium bombs explode in the New Mexico desert Krishna’s statement from Bhagavad Gita –“ I am become Death.” One month later US dropped the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs Oppenheimer helped build.  There is a famous book about the building of the American atomic bomb entitled Brighter than a Thousand Suns. It is a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita from this chapter: Arjuna describes the grandeur of Krishna’s cosmic form thus: “If a thousand suns were to light up the sky all at once that radiance would equal the radiance of my Lord” (#12).  Apparently our bombs were brighter than those thousand suns.


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