Importance of the Bhagavad Geeta
The Bhagavad Geeta has been considered one of the most important scriptures of Hindus for over 3000 years. The name of this Hindu scripture means the Divine Song, or Song of the Lord, or Sung by God, because it is a dialog between God incarnate (in the form of Lord Krishna, and human beings represented by Arjuna, middle sibling of the five Pandava brothers). The scripture is referred to as ‘Geeta’ in short. The scripture is almost universally regarded by Hindus as the epitome of all the spiritual teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads and is read by millions of Hindus for inspiration and solace to this day.
Geeta and Other Scriptures
The Bhagavad Geeta is a part of the much larger scripture – the Mahabharata. The dialog between Arjuna and Krishna took place in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Arjuna had to fight his close relatives (Kauravas) who refused to give a legitimate share of the kingdom to the Pandava brothers. When Arjuna had this dilemma of fighting his kith and kin, Krishna extolled him to fight for establishing righteousness in Society. The Geeta has 700 verses in the standard version but there are also traditions to the effect that the scripture had 745 verses. In the standard version of 700 verses, 574 are spoken by Lord Krishna, 84 by Arjuna, 41 by Sanjaya and 1 by King Dhritrashtra. The Geeta has 18 chapters, which have different titles.
Translations and Commentaries
The Geeta is the second most translated scripture in the world, after the Bible. The oldest surviving translation of the Geeta is in Javanese, an Indonesian language. This translation covers less than 100 verses and is more than 1000 years old. Literally dozens of Hindu scholars and saints wrote their own commentaries and explanations on the Bhagavad Geeta in the last 1500 years or more. The oldest commentary that survives is that of Adi Shankaracharya (~700 AD) and tries to show that the scripture teaches Advaita Vedanta. However, it is clear from this commentary that there existed several ancient commentaries on the Geeta but none of these has survived today. Other prominent Sanskrit commentaries on the Geeta are by Ramanujacharya (following Vishishtadvaita Vedanta), Madhvacharya (following Dvaita Vedanta).
In our own times, Mahatma Gandhi wrote an explanation on the Geeta. Literally hundreds of translations and beautiful commentaries on the Geeta in English, Hindi and many other languages have appeared since 1750 AD.
The Teachings of Bhagavad Geeta
Hindu Dharma prescribes four legitimate goals of our human existence: Artha (material wealth, security); Kāma (fulfilling desires that make our senses and mind happy, sensual and aesthetic pleasures; success); Dharma (virtue, doing one’s duty, piety) and Moksha (liberation from the continuous cycle of births and deaths through spiritual enlightenment). In these four goals, Dharma plays a pivotal role because it is the foundation for Artha and Kāma guiding towards the ultimate goal of Moksha or union with the Divine.
The Geeta is primarily a Moksha-Shastra, or a scripture which teaches us how we can practice Dharma so as to overcome the continuous cycle of births and deaths and become one with Brahman, the Supreme Being. The Geeta teaches us how to live our lives ethically and spiritually. It describes the different paths to spiritual enlightenment, the correct attitude and world-view that we should have at all times while engrossed in our day to day tasks, and the nature of the final goal – the state of Moksha.
The four main paths to Moksha taught by the Geeta are Jnana (knowledge) Yoga, Karma (Action) Yoga, Bhakti (Devotion) Yoga and Dhyana (Meditation) Yoga. These paths are not mutually exclusive and we should combine elements from all, even while focusing on 1 or 2 of them. The Geeta recognizes the fact that different people have different abilities and temperaments and therefore they may prefer focusing on 1 of the 4 approaches.
The path of Jnana Yoga teaches that our soul is the real ‘we’ and it is different from the body. Therefore, we should not get too attached to the things that pertain to the body, which dies and perishes when we die. The soul survives our death and moves from one body to another till we achieve Moksha. When we understand our nature as the spiritual soul and not as the body, we will start focusing more on the really important and spiritual things, and will desist from focusing our efforts and attention towards the things of this physical world. This knowledge and understanding leads us to Moksha.
The path of Karma Yoga states that all the sensations of our sensory organs – such as pain, happiness, sorrow, heat, cold etc., are temporary. Nothing lasts forever. Therefore, we should bear them with patience, and not get infatuated with negative emotions, nor should worldly temptations attract us. Instead, we should continue to do our duty at all times just because it ought to be done, and without any desire for the fruits resulting from doing so.
The path of Bhakti Yoga is said to be the easiest path, accessible to all irrespective of our educational background, social status or gender. It implies loving devotion to God through worship, and doing all our duties with faith in Him and with a sense of surrender to His will. For such a devotee the divine power will lead to Moksha.
The path of Dhyana Yoga teaches that we should not focus all our attention on the external world, because the Supreme Truth and Reality, which is our soul and God, are right within us. Therefore, we should meditate on God, and should not waste our time in pursuing things that hamper meditation, such as strong emotions, strong likes and dislikes etc. In meditation, you go to the source of the mind and eventually the thoughts fade away, revealing the pure all pervading consciousness of the Supreme.
It can be seen very easily that people with different temperaments will focus on one or the other of the paths above. For example, emotional people would prefer the path of Bhakti, introverts and self-reflective people will prefer Dhyana Yoga, intellectuals will prefer Jnana Yoga and action oriented people will prefer Karma Yoga. However, there is no one who does not have some portion of aspects of intellectualism, emotion, self-reflection and action in his or her behavior.
The Bhagavad Geeta therefore describes these four paths but also teaches them in a way that spiritual aspirants will follow elements of all these paths even when focusing on one of them. For example, a Karma Yogi will benefit from practicing Dhyana Yoga because it will help him bring his senses under the discipline of his pure mind. He will understand the temporary nature of the physical sensations better if he understands the path of Jnana Yoga to learn about the true nature of our body, our soul, God and this universe. And devoting the fruits of his Karma to God will help him give up the desire for these fruits. Similarly, the follower of Jnana Yoga will give a practical bent to his understanding of the nature of the soul and the body if he actually experiences the ability to discipline his mind through Dhyana Yoga. He will not lapse into evil ways if he continues to do his duty towards others (Karma Yoga). And finally, he will not get enamored of dry intellectualism alone if he combines his philosophical and theological insights with devotion and faith in God.
The Geeta strongly emphasizes the need to follow the path of Dharma as taught in our scriptures, and continue doing all our required duties throughout our lives. Towards the end of the Geeta, Lord Krishna assures us that as long as we continue to do our duties without desire for the fruits thereof, as an offering for Him and remembering Him, He will save us from all evil and also grant us Moksha.
Here and there, the Geeta has beautiful gems that have become a part of general Hindu repertoire and are recalled by us with great faith, piety and devotion. For example, in Chapter 4, Lord Krishna states how God incarnates on earth to protect Dharma whenever it is in danger of being overwhelmed by Adharma. In Chapter 11, he says that just as the body passes through the phases of childhood, youth and old age followed by death, the soul passes from one body to another in its different lives. The soul is never born, it never dies, and it is unchangeable and eternal. It cannot be destroyed by weapons, drowned by water, burnt by fire or dried by wind.
Lord Krishna also teaches us to practice moderation, or seek a balance in our lives while performing our Karma or duties. We should all aspire to become knowledgeable and wise because true knowledge and understanding alone cut ignorance like a sword. While describing the beautiful doctrine of Bhakti in chapter 8, He says that he accepts the offerings of whosoever offers even water or a leaf to God, as long as it is done with faith and devotion. In chapter 16, the Geeta condemns superficiality of behavior and asks us to be pure within ourselves, and to combine simple living with high thinking, with faith in God and with a virtuous character. In chapter 18, Lord Krishna recognizes the fact that every action, even if good and done with pure intentions, can lead to a negative result, just as fire and light are surrounded by smoke. But this must not deter us from performing our duties required of us. We must, at all times, perform our duties because all activities have a role to play in maintaining stability of our society and the universe.
Contemporary Relevance of the Geeta
The Bhagavad Geeta is not merely a ‘historical’ document that should be read only to study history, or to appreciate only its literary worth without paying attention to its actual ethical and spiritual teachings. There are several reasons to regard the Geeta as an eternally relevant scripture that provides us with guidance on Moksha and Dharma.
Even a cursory perusal of the contents of Geeta reveals that it seeks to answer the eternal questions of life, even though it is placed within a specific situational context of the Mahabharata.
Second, the Bhagavad Geeta itself points to its eternal relevance. The scripture is indeed intended to provide guidance on questions of life for all times to come. For example, when Sanjaya completes his narration of the Geeta with the following words: “Wherever there…” Even the opening words – ‘dharmakshetre kurukshetre…’ hint that the dialogue that follows them deals with perennial issues of conflict between evil and virtue, between darkness and spiritual enlightenment.
The Geeta is placed within a particularly challenging situation within the Mahabharata where Arjuna, one of its main characters, is faced with numerous moral dilemmas that cripple and drain him physically and mentally. Very often, we find ourselves in similar situations, and incorrect decisions taken at these junctures can lead us to complete ruin. In response, Lord Krishna then provides Arjuna with spiritual solutions that can fit almost any context in our own lives.
Many noteworthy Hindus as well as non-Hindus have found solutions to their problems through the Geeta. For example, Mahatma Gandhi once wrote – “I have had no less share of great tragedies in my life. But whenever I am in trouble, I rush to Mother Geeta as a child, and find a verse or a phrase here or there, that provides an answer to my problem, and gives me great comfort (paraphrased).”
There are very few verses in the Geeta that are specific to the exact historical context of the Mahabharata war, which seems to be a literary muse to expound eternal Hindu teachings. The scripture predominantly deals with eternal questions that plague our minds and our conscience, and provides numerous complementary and supplementary solutions in keeping with the complexity and diversity of our individual lives.
In conclusion, the Geeta provides answers to our moral dilemmas and gives hope to the hopeless, to the helpless and the needy by exhorting us to be strong, have faith in God, and have a deep commitment to performance of our duties. We must never give up and continue to take small steps towards our goals, while never forgetting God.
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