Introduction

Over the years, human beings have changed in significant ways. Even with our limited ability to see into our ancient past, we like to believe that we have evolved, refined our senses, heightened our aesthetics, and acquired exquisite tastes. However, we have also hunted, waged wars, spilled blood, destroyed the natural environment around us, and caused a whole lot of trouble to one another.

As we dive deep into this ocean of human activity – filled with astonishing achievements and abysmal atrocities – we are intrigued to observe that in spite of some seeming changes, few of the basic human qualities remain unchanged; for example, human emotions. The ‘way we feel’ has mostly been the same though it has taken different forms and characteristics.

It is both interesting and beneficial to who we are now to know what the ancient people ‘felt’ about life, growth, thought, awareness, death, and the universe. The quiet wisdom of our ancestors, often disguised as records of experiences or imaginative poetry, might give us some inspiration and insights into our own lives.

What we call as ‘scriptures’ is different from all other genres of literature, for they deal with a different kind of reality and operate at a different level of consciousness, sometimes quite removed from our day to day life. They give us a completely different perspective on things and quite often awaken us to a broader realm of reality.

The Bhagavad-Gita is one such scripture from ancient India.

Hinduism
Hinduism is the major religion of India with a worldwide following of over a billion people. In its original and purest form, it is a sanaatana dharma (loosely translated as ‘eternal truth’ or ‘timeless religion’) that represents over 5,000 years of contemplation, tradition, and continuous development in the Indian subcontinent. One who follows Hinduism is called a ‘Hindu’ (the term originally referred to a person living in India).

Hinduism has no single founder. Many ancient seer-sages, both men and women, contributed to its scriptures. The Hindu scriptures are numerous and diverse. Most of them are written in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, like Latin, is the root language for several languages; both Sanskrit and Latin belong to the same language family.

The word ‘scripture’ comes from the Latin scriptura, meaning ‘that which is written’, but the equivalent terms in Sanskrit for Hindu scriptures are shruti, ‘that which is heard’ and smriti, ‘that which is remembered’.

Rishis (the seekers of truth) of ancient India contemplated on creation, human nature, refining basic instincts, purpose of life, workings of the physical world, and the metaphysical dimensions of the universe. The collective consciousness of the rishis is called ‘Veda’. The literal meaning of the word ‘Veda’ is ‘to know’ or ‘knowledge’.

Vedas are the foremost revealed scriptures in Hinduism. Every Hindu ceremony from birth to death and beyond is drawn from the Vedas. There are four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. These comprise the shruti texts. Though any body of knowledge can be called a Veda, like Ayurveda (health manual), the term shruti applies only to the four Vedas.

The rishis taught this collected wisdom to their disciples, who in turn taught it to their disciples. Thus, this knowledge was passed on, intact, for many generations, without a single word being written down. Even today, traditional students learn Vedic hymns orally from a guru (teacher). A verse from the Rig Veda (10.191.2) poignantly captures the intellectual atmosphere of those times:
Come together, speak together,
let your minds be united, harmonious;
as ancient gods unanimous
sit down to their appointed share.

The final portion of the Vedas, called ‘Upanishads’ or ‘Vedanta’, contain anecdotes, dialogues, and talks that deal with body, mind, soul, nature, consciousness, and the universe. Of the several Upanishads, ten are very important: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Munda, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka.

Post-Vedic texts form another set of scriptures, the smriti, which were composed by a single author and later memorized by generations. These include Ramayana and Mahabharata (the epics), Astadhyayi (grammar), Manusmriti (law), Purana (old episodes), Nirukta (etymology), Sulba Sutras (geometry), Grihya Sutras (running a family), and a whole body of texts governing architecture, art, astrology, astronomy, dance, drama, economics, mathematics, medicine, music, nutrition, rituals, sex, and warfare, among others.

The Bhagavad-Gita (or simply ‘Gita’), which is a small part of the epic Mahabharata, is an important and widely read scriptures of Hinduism. It is one of the most comprehensive summaries of Hinduism.

The Sanskrit word for Creation is srishti, which means ‘pouring forth’. It is not ‘creation’ but rather an outpouring, an expansion, a change. The idea of creation is discussed in different ways in the Vedas. One hymn (Nasadiya Sukta) proposes a brilliant conceptual model for creation while another (Hiranyagarbha Sukta) raises and answers many questions about god and creation. Yet another hymn (Purusha Sukta) describes in detail the process of creation. Amidst all these varied views, there is a single underlying idea: ‘one became everything’.

Another contention is that the concept of god is subsequent to creation. Hinduism has many gods but only one Supreme spirit. The Vedas make a clear distinction between god and brahman, the Supreme spirit, which is beyond all creation and destruction.

Hindu timeline spans trillions of years and time is considered cyclical rather than linear; so we have eternal time cycles one after the other with no beginning or end. The Surya Siddhanta, a treatise of Hindu astronomy explains the staggering timeline:
...twelve months make a year
this equals a day and night of the gods (1.13)
360 days and nights of the gods make a divine year (1.14)
12,000 divine years make one mahayuga. (1.15)
A day of Brahma spans 1,000 mahayugas
a night of Brahma also spans 1,000 mahayugas. (1.20)
Brahma’s life span is 100 Brahma years. (1.21)

A mahayuga (Great Age) is made up of four yugas (Ages): Satya yuga, Treta yuga, Dwapara yuga, and Kali yuga. In human terms, a mahayuga is 4.32 million years.

A day of Brahma (the god of creation), spanning a thousand mahayugas, equals 4.32 billion human years, which is the time he is active and thus enables activity in the universe. During the night of Brahma, all creatures are dissolved only to be brought forth again at the beginning of the next day (this is also explained in the Bhagavad-Gita; see 8:17-19 and 9:7).

Hindu sects are many and they often follow their own set of traditions and customs. While they seem very divergent, they have an underlying unity. Hinduism has a lot of freedom and openness with regard to beliefs, practices, and philosophies of its followers. Take the example of belief in god: some Hindus believe in god with a form, some others believe in a formless god, while others are agnostics; some believe in one god and some others believe in many.

Hindu values include harmony, tolerance, righteousness, respect for nature, and respect for the supreme. Hinduism accepts other religions and modes of thought. Here are two verses from the Rig Veda that bring out these values very nicely:
May noble thoughts come to us from every side,
unchanged, unhindered, undefeated in every way;
May the gods always be with us for our gain and
our protectors caring for us, ceaseless, every day.
(1.89.1)

The truth is one; the wise call it by different names.
(1.164.46)

Hindu worldview emphasizes conduct more than creed. It celebrates the diversity of existence and embraces the world as part of a big family, as recorded in an ancient book of stories, the Hitopadesha (1.3.71):
“These are my own, those are strangers” –
thus the narrow-minded ones judge people.
But for those magnanimous hearts,
the world is but one family!

The Vedas call humans by a cheerful and hopeful name: 'the children of immortal bliss' (Rig Veda 10.13.1). We are born pure and perfect but over time we accumulate the dust of unhappiness and pettiness. The constant quest is to return to our true nature as children of bliss. A prayer from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.3.28) talks about the spiritual journey from ignorance to illumination:
Lead me from falsehood to truth,
lead me from darkness to light,
lead me from death to immortality.

Hinduism is perhaps the oldest, most diverse, and most sophisticated system of religious thought and practice, covering nearly everything that comes under the umbrella of religion and philosophy. A human lifetime is insufficient to exhaust the wisdom it has to offer, and accessing even a small portion of this vast treasure enthralls, enriches, and elevates!

Mahabharata: Story and Characters
The Author
Vyasa is a famous sage of ancient India. He is often called Veda Vyasa since he organized the Vedas. Vyasa composed several important works, including the Brahma Sutra, a collection of aphorisms on metaphysics and the Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic. The Mahabharata is the great story of king Bharata’s dynasty. Bharata was an important king of ancient India; the official name of India, ‘Bhaarata’, comes from his name.

Apart from composing Mahabharata, Vyasa appeared as a character in the epic. He was born to Satyavati, a fisher girl, before her marriage. She later married king Shantanu, a descendent of Kuru (of Bharata dynasty). They had two sons but both of them died young, thus leaving no heirs to the throne. And so, Vyasa fathered Dhritarashtra and Pandu for the sake of the dynasty.

Kuru was a famous king of the Bharata dynasty and his descendents were the Kauravas (or the Kurus). However, the term ‘Kauravas’ often refers to the one hundred children of Dhritarashtra, while Pandu’s five children are called the ‘Pandavas’. It is the dispute between the Kauravas and the Pandavas that resulted in the Mahabharata war, which took place nearly five thousand years ago in Kurukshetra (the land of Kuru) in Northern India. Almost all major kings from the Indian subcontinent took part in this great war, which was fought for eighteen days.

The Grandfather
Bhishma was the son of king Shantanu from his first marriage. Bhishma took a great oath of celibacy for life and helped his step-brothers and their descendants rule the kingdom. He was, in a way, the ‘grandfather’ of the Pandavas and Kauravas. In the war, though he fought on the side of the Kauravas, his heart was always with the Pandavas because he felt they were the more righteous of the two.

The Tutor
Drona was a great archer and warrior, though he was born in a priestly family. Drona, who was extremely poor, came to the Kauravas seeking a job. Bhishma appointed him to teach the art of warfare to both Pandavas and Kauravas. Drona loved the Pandavas dearly and Arjuna was his favorite disciple. But Drona was indebted to the Kauravas for their patronage and fought the war on their side.

King Dhritarashtra was born blind and before the great war began, Vyasa offered him divine vision so that he could witness the war. But the blind king refused to see this terrible war between his sons and nephews.

The Narrator
Sanjaya was born in a family of raconteurs and he was Dhritarashtra’s advisor and charioteer. When Dhritarashtra refused to witness the war, Vyasa gave Sanjaya divine vision in order that he might witness the events on the battlefield as they happened, without leaving the palace, and narrate them to the blind Dhritarashtra. In fact, the dialogue of the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ is structured in the form of Sanjaya’s narration to Dhritarashtra.

Duryodhana, the eldest among the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, was known for his exploits with the mace. His childhood jealousies towards the Pandavas and his greed for power made him plot against them.

The Aggressor
Teaming up with his maternal uncle Shakuni and his friend Karna, Duryodhana orchestrated many devious schemes to destroy the Pandavas. One such instance was when he got the Pandavas invited to a game of dice and defeated them by deceit; it had been decided earlier that the losers of the game would forsake their kingdom, retire to the forest for twelve years and live incognito for a year after that. Having lost the game of dice, the Pandavas went into exile for thirteen years. When they returned, Duryodhana refused to return their kingdom as promised; he wanted to wage a war to decide that.

The Rightful Heir
Yudhistira, eldest of the five Pandavas, was the personification of goodness. His wisdom and good conduct attracted the admiration of even his enemies. Yudhistira couldn’t bear the thought of a war, so he pleaded for peace in the land of their ancestors. When the Kauravas showed no signs of compromise, he finally asked for five villages to be given to the five Pandavas, and all would be forgotten.

Duryodhana said in response, “I challenge the Pandavas to battle! Either I, killing the Pandavas, will rule over this kingdom or the sons of Pandu, killing me, shall enjoy this land. I will sacrifice everything but I can’t live side by side with the Pandavas. I won’t surrender to them even that much of land which is covered by the sharp point of a needle.”

The Hero
Arjuna was the third of the five Pandavas, known for his prowess in archery. He was a key player in the great war and spent years honing his martial skills and acquiring new weapons, knowing well that he will have to defend his family from the Kauravas. But just before the war began, he felt sympathetic towards his foes because they were his relatives and friends, and so refused to fight. At that point, Krishna, his old friend and mentor, spoke the Bhagavad-Gita to awaken him.

The Mentor
Krishna, a popular Hindu god, is an avatara (incarnation) of the supreme. He was related to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. When war became inevitable, he declared that he won’t raise a weapon. He allowed his entire army to fight on the side of the Kauravas, as Duryodhana wished. He became the charioteer to Arjuna and gave him the supreme guidance at the time of war. But before the war broke out, Krishna tried to broker peace between the cousins because he didn’t want the dynasty to be destroyed.

Krishna went to Dhritarashtra’s court and said, “Joy in the happiness of others, sorrow at the sight of another’s misery – this has been the credo of the Kurus! Your race, O king, is so noble, that it will be a pity if its scion should do something so improper; and worse still if it were done by you. The evil Duryodhana’s misconduct will lead to universal slaughter. Please do something!”

All the elders in the assembly, the many sages visiting the kingdom, and Dhritarashtra’s counselors told Duryodhana that Krishna’s words were appropriate for the situation and that peace was the best way forward.

Duryodhana shouted in rage, “Why me? I have done nothing wrong! But as long as I live, the Pandavas will not get a share of the kingdom. Out of ignorance or fear or some other reason, we had earlier given them the kingdom but now I will not give them even an inch of our land.”

With anger in his eyes, Krishna said, “If you want a war, then you shall have it. In a short time, there will be terrible bloodshed. After so many devious acts, you claim that you have done nothing wrong! You are not willing to give them their share of the land even when they are begging for it! Ignoring the words of the wise and deriding the advice of friends, you can never achieve anything that is good. What you are set to do is dishonorable and sinful.”

In an extreme fit of anger, Duryodhana tried to use violence against Krishna. A shocked Dhritarashtra tried to intervene. Krishna calmly said, “O king, if they wish to use violence, let them. On my part, I will not do anything that will bring disgrace.”

In response to the violence, Krishna just showed a glimpse of his divine form to everyone present. Duryodhana left the place in a huff.

“If war is what they want, let them have it. Now, with your permission, I will return.” So saying, Krishna calmly went out of the king’s assembly.

The war had to be fought. Peace had lost.

(Appendix 3 has a family tree that explains the relationships between some of the characters of the Mahabharata. It also has a map of ancient India that includes some relevant places.)

Bhagavad-Gita: History and Context
Krishna and Arjuna had the conversation on the battlefield, standing in the midst of the two armies. Sanjaya narrated it with visual detail to the blind Dhritarashtra. Vyasa wrote it down for posterity and taught it to his student Vaishampayana, who later narrated it to King Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna.

As per the traditional accounts, the Kurukshetra war was fought between 22 November and 9 December, 3139 BCE and over 18 million warriors died; only a handful of them survived. The Pandavas won the war and ruled for about 35 years. Then with the death of Krishna the previous Age (the Dwapara yuga) came to an end. The present Age, Kali yuga, began on 18 February, 3102 BCE.

Many famous saints of medieval India wrote commentaries on the Gita as they considered it an important text. From what we know, the first of these commentaries was written by the 8th century CE philosopher and saint, Shankara. His work popularized the Gita and also standardized the number of verses in the text. Some of the other notable scholars who wrote commentaries on the Gita are Ramanuja, Abhinavagupta, Madhva, Nimbarka, and Vallabha.

Many leaders of the Indian Independence movement (late 19th century and early 20th century CE) translated and interpreted the Gita, including Tilak, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Rajaji, Bharathiar, and Bhave.

The whole episode of the Kurukshetra war is so deeply engraved in the Indian mind that for most Indians ‘Gita’ refers to Bhagavad-Gita and ‘the Great War’ refers to the battle of Kurukshetra. This speaks a lot, given that there are many gitas in the Hindu canon like Anu Gita, Ashtavakra Gita, Avadhuta Gita, Devi Gita, Ganesha Gita, Ribhu Gita, Shiva Gita, and Uddhava Gita (or Hamsa Gita).

The influence of the Gita outside India has also been enormous. This is perhaps because the text has such a nice blend of everyday pragmatism and spiritual mysticism. It has something valuable for everybody.

(Appendix 4 has a compilation of quotes about the Bhagavad-Gita by different eminent people from all over the world, spanning many centuries.)

Bhagavad-Gita: The Text
‘Bhagavad-Gita’ is made up of two words: Bhagavat (of the lord) and Gita (song) so it becomes ‘song of the lord’ in English. The chapters 25 to 42 of the sixth episode of Mahabharata contain the Gita.

The Gita has 700 verses divided into 18 chapters. Though it is structured thus, it is not a systematic manual but a conversation between two friends that is captured in poetry.

The Gita does not present arguments in a linear way; it is circular and often descriptive, with repetitions and clarifications all through. Krishna presents many ideas and opinions to inspire Arjuna to fight the war and in the course of the discussion, talks about many aspects of life. Finally, he gives the choice to Arjuna to decide for himself whether to fight or not.

Most of the verses in the Gita are set to the anushtubh meter, with 4 lines of 8 syllables each, like in 2.47:
ka-rma-ṇye-vā-dhi-kā-ra-ste
mā-pha-le-ṣu-ka-dā-ca-na
mā-ka-rma-pha-la-he-tu-rbhūḥ
mā-te-sa-ṅgo-’stva-ka-rma-ṇi

A few verses are in the trishtubh meter, with 4 lines of 11 syllables each, like in 2.20:
na-jā-ya-te-mri-ya-te-vā-ka-dā-cit
nā-yaṃ-bhū-tvā-bha-vi-tā-vā-na-bhū-yaḥ
a-jo-ni-tyaḥ-śā-śva-to-’yaṃ-pu-rā-ṇo
na-ha-nya-te-ha-nya-mā-ne-śa-rī-re

(Appendix 1 has a transliteration guide, which will help in reading Sanskrit written in the roman script. Appendix 2 has the original text of the Bhagavad-Gita.)

Every chapter of the Gita ends with a colophon that includes the chapter number and name, along with a generic description of the Gita. Here is the colophon of the first chapter:
Thus ends the first chapter ‘Arjuna’s Despair’
from the Upanishad Bhagavad-Gita,
which is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna
on the knowledge of the supreme and
the art of union with the supreme.
That’s the truth, Om!

Though the colophon refers to the Gita as an Upanishad, the Gita is not one of the Upanishads. The colophon is not found in the Mahabharata but by convention is used while reciting the Gita.

Bhagavad-Gita in Translation
The Bhagavad-Gita is the most translated Indian book. Saint Jnaneshwar composed one of the earliest translations of the Gita during the later part of 13th century CE; his Marathi language translation, along with elaborate commentary makes up the classic Jnaneshwari. Even earlier, Abu-Saleh is said to have translated Mahabharata into Arabic (11th century CE) and Abul-Hasan-Ali, into Persian (as Modjmel-altevarykh; 12th century CE). The most popular Persian translation, Razm nama, was commissioned by King Akbar in 16th century CE. These works contain the Gita either in part or in full.

The Bhagavad-Gita was first translated into English in 1785 by Charles Wilkins, an orientalist and typographer. His translation was translated soon into French and German. Later, the German poet August Wilhelm Schlegel translated the Gita into Latin in 1823. The Prussian minister and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt translated the Gita into German in 1826. In 1846, the orientalist Christian Lassen translated the work into French and in 1848, Dimitrios Galanos, an Indologist, translated it into Greek.

Needless to say, the Bhagavad-Gita has been translated into all major languages of India. A conservative estimate is that the Gita has been translated about 2,000 times into over 75 languages.

Conclusion
In an ideal world, we don’t need any religions by their brand names. We have enough collective wisdom that we use in various aspects of our life. Our true nature knows right from wrong. So we could easily light the fire and burn all religious books. But that would be inefficient. Why would we want to miss the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants?

We read and enjoy novels written by great authors without worrying about their religious backgrounds, but things change drastically when religion comes into the picture. We get crazy. We simply refuse to learn from each other when it is a matter of faith. In addition, we try to convince others that our brand of religion is the best.

Perhaps the world is not yet ready to absorb the collective wisdom from all religions and philosophies. Then, the best we can do is to present the most important book in each of our religions and cultures, and leave it at that; readers can draw their own conclusions.

People of a particular religion often take their books for granted and read them with minimal introspection beyond the dictates of their sectarian views. On the other hand, people from foreign cultures might not be very familiar with those books. Thus, revisiting such works might give fresh insights to adherents and a totally new inspiration to everyone at large.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a good place to start if one wants to know about India’s grand heritage, religious traditions, philosophy, and spirituality.

May it protect both of us.
May it nourish both of us.
Let us work together.
Let our work be lit up by vigor.
Let us not hate each other.
May peace prevail, Om!
(from the Katha Upanishad)


<< Preface

8 comments:

  1. Anonymous6/15/2011

    Excellent! We are so fortunate that you are with us!
    Sameer

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks a lot Sameer!
    Warm regards,
    Hari

    ReplyDelete
  3. But please remember.. Hindu is NOT an "ism" .. pls try to avoid using the word "Hinduism"..

    there is no religion in india before advent of bhakthi movements.. even shaivam and vaishnavam cannot be compared to semitic religions, which were essentially gangsterism..

    ReplyDelete
  4. @senthil:
    You are right in that Hinduism, in its purest form is a sanaatana dharma, an eternal truth. However, in the modern context, "Hinduism" is a religion. It has the elements of the western concept of "religion" in addition to the great truths contained in the Upanishads and the Gita.

    Personally speaking, I always avoid using Hinduism because I am not attracted to it in its entirety. I use "sanaatana dharma" or "eastern wisdom" when I speak about ancient Indian wisdom (note that I avoid using "India" which is a western word also).

    As for the Abrahamic religions, I think that they started off as religions but because of certain flaws in their basic premise, they ended up becoming what you refer to as gangsterism. Sadly, some of the Hindu sects have also moved to this unhealthy state of being.

    You are right in saying we had no "religion" before the advent of the bhakti movement. I have always felt that we needn't settle for religion when our ancient rishis have given us truth. However, the triumvirate of Anti-Hindus, Pseudo-secularists and Hindutva folks have ensured that people are closer to Hinduism and far away from Sanaatana Dharma!

    Best,
    Hari

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous1/16/2012

    The "Bhakti Movement" did not start Bhakti, just as "Hindutva Movement" did not start Hinduism or Hindutva.
    Bhakti is a part of Sanatana Dharma, abundantly endorsed in Bhagavad-Gita.

    Koti

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ramesh RB6/13/2013

    Can I copy your text into my facebook account for my friends? You have done a great job. I want to share this with my friends in Facebook.Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Ramesh RB:
    Sure, you can share this page on Facebook. Please tag us: https://www.facebook.com/newbhagavadgita
    Thanks, Hari

    ReplyDelete
  8. Dear sirs,
    to me Gita is for INTELLECTUALS to learn read and reread and re read to understand and to tell all how to live,the purpose of life and to contribute to the globe to prevent divisions and unite and progress,
    though it was translated in to many languages many times,it still not reached many
    many intellectuals are putting GITA through the children right from childhood to propagate,to under stand and realize as early as one can start contribute to the society small or big.
    pray for no wars between any countries and plenty of prosperity for all by propagating GITA of GOD to all human race produce food and share and not to loot from any one any thing,earn honestly live and let live and give to needy the extra
    sastry

    ReplyDelete