Bhagavad Gita Book summary

Vyasa

Overview

About

The Bhagavad Gita was passed through the oral tradition like the other Sanskrit literature from the time. The Gita is an extract from the much larger Sankirt poem of Mahabharata. The historical validity of the events described in the tale is widely debated by scholars. Traditionally the war is said to have occurred in 3137 BCE, but archaeologists believe that it occurred around 1000 BCE. The village of Jytoisar is said to be the battlefield where the Bhagavad Gita was delivered to Arjun by Krishna. The village remains a site of pilgrimage for many practicing Hindus. The language of the Bhagavad Gita is simple Sanskrit and it is thus thought to have been composed around the same time as some of the other important Hindu scriptures. Others believe that the Bhagavad Gita was included in the Mahabharata later onwards and that it originally wasn't a part of the tale. The version of the Gita that is widely read in the present time is called the Poona edition, and it was compiled between 1919 and 1966, but the earliest English translation of the text is dated back to 1785.

There is just one other epic tale like the Mahabharata in the Hindu tradition, and it is called the Ramayana. The Ramayana follows the life of Lord Ram who is believed to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and it was followed by the incarnation of Krishna, according to most major sects of Hinduism. Ramayana details how Lord Ram vanquished the demon, King Ravana of Lanka after he abducted Sita, Lord Ram's wife. The festival of Diwali is celebrated in commemoration of Lord Ram's return to his homeland after rescuing Sita and vanquishing the armies of Ravan.

Plot Summary

The Bhagavad Gita is a conversation between Arjun, one of the mighty Pandavs, and his charioteer, Krishna. It is an extract from the great epic Mahabharata, which is one of the two great epics of Hindu Mythology. Mahabharata is the tale of Pandav's struggle against the Kauravs for their rightful position as rulers of Hastinapur. This struggle culminates with a war of gargantuan scale that lasts 18 days and results in the death of all but a handful of warriors. The Bhagavad begins with Dhritarashtra inquiring about the occurrences on the battlefield from his adviser Sanjay, who had been granted the ability to perceive the war by Vyasa, the author of the Gita. Sanjay describes the vast armies of both sides and the great sound that is produced when the warriors raise their conch shells, war drums, and horns. Arjun asks his charioteer, Krishna, to lead him to the middle of the armies before the battle begins. Arjun loses the will to fight when he sees his kinsmen, teachers, and friends occupy battle stances on both sides of the field. He laments the war and declares that no earthly kingdom is worthy of exacting death and vengeance upon the members of his clan. He loudly declares that it would be better if the warriors of the Kauravs found him unarmed and killed him. He sinks in his chariot, and let's drop his bow with a refusal to fight.

Krishna admonishes and labels Arjun a coward. He cites the contempt and shame that Arjun would bring on himself if he refused to fight. However, Arjun seems irresolute, believing that his Dharma towards his family compelled him not to fight. Krishna then speaks in the voice of God and delivers to him the sacred conversation of the Bhagavad Gita. He begins by speaking of the transient nature of life and death and tells Arjun that the eternal spirit in man continues to live. He explains that the spirit cannot be slain, as it sheds one mortal body to don another just as a man dons a garment. Krishna then reminds Arjun of his sacred duty as a warrior, a duty he is obligated to fulfill due to his Varna as a Kshatriya. The vision of the Eternal is the wisdom of Sankhya, and Krishna then details the path of action or Yoga. He tells Arjun that an individual must completely divorce himself from the rewards of work, but focus singularly on the work itself. Following the path of the Eternal leads to tranquility and harmony, as well as the fulfillment of Dharma.

Arjun asks Krishna to elaborate on the man of tranquility and harmony. Krishna explains that desires of the senses led to the clouding of judgment and caused a man to become disharmonious. An individual must surrender all desire to experience the joy of the Eternal and achieve salvation. Arjun is confused with Krishna's words and asks him why he drives him to participate in the fight and yet talks about the renunciation of all desires. Krishna explains that there are two paths to perfection, the first is Jnana yoga which is the path of wisdom, and the other is Karma yoga, which is the path of action. He elaborates that both of these paths eventually reach the same destination, however, the path of Jnana yoga is much more difficult to achieve. This is because it involves renouncing the thought of desires along with the renunciation of action towards the fulfillment of desires. Krishna tells Arjun that action comes naturally to man and thus achieving true stillness is nearly impossible. However, Karma yoga is easier to follow and leads to salvation just as Jnana yoga. He gives his example and says that despite being an all-powerful being, Krishna continued to work for if he ever to cease then all the three worlds would turn to disarray and confusion. He directs Arjun to focus all his actions on the divine, and disassociate himself from desires. Arjun then asks Krishna why people are driven to sin, even when they attempt to strive against it. Krishna replies that sin is a product of desire that births passion, greed, and anger.

Krishna tells Arjun that he had given the knowledge of Yoga to the sun at the time of creation, and the sun had passed it to man through Manu. The knowledge of Yoga was eventually lost in time. Arjun wonders how Krishna could have told the sun when Krishna was born much later than the creation of the sun. Krishna tells him that he has taken birth several times through his power, and has always risen on the earth when the rule of righteousness was threatened. And tells him that those who have the wisdom to understand his sacrifice will certainly attain freedom from the cycle of life and death. Arjun seeks to discover which of the two paths of perfection is preferable. Krishna reiterates both paths eventually reach the same end but neither is greater than the other, however, the yoga of action is easier to practice for humans. The practice of Yoga allowed one to understand the oneness of the universe and so see the Brahman. Such individuals are either able to gain liberation from repeated births or can progress towards that goal by earning more spiritually attuned bodies. Krishna then begins to reveal his all-pervading nature as he is the source of all things in the universe and their end. Those that can learn to fix their mind on him, especially in the moment of death, can join and dwell in him forever.

Then Krishna turns from the explanation of his vastness to an actual demonstration of it, and upon Arjun's request, he reveals his all-encompassing universal form. Arjun is moved by joy and then terror as he looks on the limitless form and sees the death of his clansmen in God's mouth. He asks Krishna to explain why he could see the death of his family and Krishna tells him that the warriors in the field of battle have already been killed by God and that Arjun would merely be serving as a tool in destroying them in the physical realm. Arjun accepts Krishna as the Eternal Supreme God and venerates him above all. Krishna then explains the primary incarnations that he has borne on earth but emphasizes that it would be easier for a devotee to worship his finite forms than to dwell and contemplate his endless forms. Krishna then explains the three Gunas of Nature that affect the actions of man and their resultant effects. The three Gunas include Sattva (light), Rajas (fire), and Tamas (darkness). Those that live in harmony with Sattva can gain salvation while those that live under the influence of Rajas and Tamas are forced to continue with the cycle of life and death. Krishna then uses the metaphor of a banyan tree to explain the intricacies of the world and informs Arjun that those with wisdom can cut through the branches of the tree to join him in the eternal abode.

He then discusses the transcendental or Devaic qualities, and the Asuric or the demonic qualities that possess men in their lives. People like Arjun are born with Devaic qualities like discipline, compassion, and truthfulness. Krishna emphasizes that the Vedic scriptures are right in the knowledge that they impart, but those that practice Bhakti Yoga, or the path of devotion, can also find salvation in Krishna. He commands Arjun to ensure that devoted Hindus can learn of their conversation and thus charges him with spreading the message of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjun's resolve to fight is formed, and Sanjay concludes the narration of their conversation. He hails both Krishna and Arjun for exposing the realities of the world.

  • Author(s)

    Vyasa
  • Publication date

    1968

  • Language

    Sanskrit

  • Classification

    Religion, Philosophy

  • Pages

    739

Keywords

Philosophy

Publisher

Macmillan Publishers