Article abstract: The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most revered and celebrated texts in Hinduism. It is a primarily a practical religious text--one concerned with moving its readers toward salvation--and only secondarily concerned with doctrine.
Authorship and Context
Although the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita cannot be traced to an individual, someone inserted the Bhagavad Gita into the Mahabharata, an ancient and highly popular Indian Hindu epic. The Mahabharata, which consists of some 180,000 lines, is the product of a process of oral transmission and was probably written down by 400 b.c.e. The title means the great story of the Bharatas, and it recounts the tale of the Kauravas (depicted as demons incarnate) and the Pandavas (depicted as sons of gods or as gods incarnate). The Kauravas and the Pandavas are cousins fighting one another for the Bharata kingdom with the latter enjoying the advice and support of Krishna (who is depicted as the god Vishnu incarnate). The Mahabharata describes itself as the fifth Veda, the Vedas being viewed as eternal, unauthored schruti (spoken revelation) or authoritative scripture. Unlike the four other Vedas, the Mahabharata was available to the poor, the low caste, and the uneducated as well as to the affluent, the high caste, and the learned; it was also available to women as well as to men. Its focus--at least on one very plausible reading, is bhakti (devotion) to Vishnu or Krishna.
The Bhagavad Gita (the song of the blessed lord) became part of the great Indian epic and shared in its popularity. Strictly, it is not officially schruti or scripture according to the Hindu Vedantic tradition, but smriti--a remembered, traditional text. Not only is its author unknown; some scholars believe that the work had multiple authors. Nonetheless, its practical status is that it is a fully authoritative Hindu text. It is highly popular among ordinary believers, and it is nearly mandatory that the leading Vedantic scholars comment on it. Thus Samkara, Ramanuja, and Mahdva--leading scholars in different Hindu schools of thought- -all wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. Its relative brevity- -some seven hundred verses--makes it easy to separate from the Mahabharata as a devotional text with its own powerful influence.
The Bhagavad Gita is a mainstream text in the Hindu religious tradition in which reincarnation and karma are basic assumptions. This tradition is based on two basic assumptions: that every person is subject to the law of karma and that every person is subject to a beginningless and potentially endless cycle of reincarnation. The law of karma guarantees that each person will reap the benefits and suffer the costs of his or her actions; good actions yield benefits and bad actions yield costs. The benefits and costs do not all come in any one lifetime, and whenever one dies with benefits or costs due to one, one must be born into a new life with a new body and receive the benefits and costs still due from past lives. It is difficult but possible in a given lifetime to have suffered all the costs due to one, to avoid wrong actions, to have received all the benefits, and to perform good actions without concern for their effects (and thereby avoiding generating benefits). Thus it is possible to die without benefits or costs remaining due to one, in which case one escapes the cycle of reincarnation, which is the goal of religious belief and practice.
Salvation is conceived in terms of escape from the cycle of reincarnations and freedom from all karmic benefits and costs. In monotheistic Indian religions, the supreme being can release one from the cycle of rebirths given one's repentance of wrong actions and trust in the supreme being's grace. One's body, in this view, is merely the vehicle that one takes through the course of a given life, to be left behind at death and replaced by another body that is one's vehicle in the next life. One way in which one's karmic benefits and costs can bear fruit is in the quality of the vehicle in which one takes the next ride, specifically in features such as the health, strength, and beauty of one's body and more significantly, the caste into which one is born.
The Bhagavad Gita examines some of the tenets of Hinduism through the characters of Arjuna and Krishna. Arjuna is a member of the warrior class; it is his caste duty to participate in a war that his community is waging. However, Arjuna--dressed for battle and observing his army and the enemy forces gather for conflict--is himself unwilling to fight because he has relatives on both sides. He may well be called upon to kill some family member that he loves. Krishna, Arjuna's charioteer, argues that Arjuna's duty is to fight. Even if he kills a relative, he merely destroys that person's body. The real person will not die. Each person must do his duty as defined by his caste; only this will further his progress to liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Not inactivity, but disinterested activity done as sacrifice to God and in accord with the duties that are consequent on one's status in society, lead to escape from the cycle of reincarnation. This doctrine involves the idea that it is desire for consequences that keeps one attached to this world and the notion that detachment is essential to escape. This is also occurs in the Buddhist tradition.
Disinterested right action is one among several suggested ways to liberate the self from reincarnation. Another suggested path is asceticism, which, in one of its more extreme forms, might require wandering through India clad only in a loin cloth with a beggar's bowl as one's only other possession, eating only what one is given. Less austere versions involved abstinence from all sexual activity, no use of alcoholic beverages, and dedication to meditation. Still another path is that of esoteric knowledge gained from learning the language in which the sacred texts are written and studying those texts under the guidance of recognized pundits. Neither of these paths, of course, are likely to be attractive or available to most people. The path that Krishna recommends does not require a change of caste, a forsaking of family or society, a lifetime of scholarship, an embracing of impoverished asceticism, or membership in a separate sacred society.
Another path is that of devotion--trust in the supreme being's gracious willingness to forgive the repentant sinner. This path is not difficult to combine with the path of disinterested good action, particularly insofar as one's failures are at least in principle forgivable. This path is, of course, monotheistic--it requires that a god exists and can be prayed to, is willing to forgive a repentant sinner, and to release the devotee from karmic consequences and the cycle of reincarnations--to provide enlightenment in the form of salvation from karma and rebirth.
Given its popularity, it is not surprising that the various religious and philosophical traditions provide interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita that accord with their own fundamental tenets. Two major readings of the Bhagavad Gita's content derive from the Advaita Vedanta, which sees the work as a monistic text, and the Vsistadvaita and Dvaita Vedanta, which see it as a theistic text.
Advaita (nondual) Vedanta offers a monistic reading of the Vedas and Upanishads, which serve as the central doctrinal scriptures of Hinduism. A monistic view of the world holds that there is one kind of thing and only one thing of that kind. All that exists is nirguna ("not quality," or "qualityless") Brahman. While admittedly there seems to be a plurality of things, all of them possessing qualities, how things seem is held to be illusion, and the reality is that there is only qualityless Brahman. There are passages in the Bhagavad Gita that seem to teach this.
Vsistadvaita (qualifiedly nondual) Vedanta holds that Brahman has qualities and is distinct from all else in the sense that Brahman with qualities could exist in the absence of all else. It also regards the world (the things that exist and are not Brahman) as Brahman's body. Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta also holds that Brahman possesses qualities, but it denies that the world is properly said to be Brahman's body. It is not clear that in the end the doctrinal differences between Vsistadvaita Vedanta and Dvaita Vedanta are as deep as they may seem, but it is quite clear that they are much closer to one another than either is to Advaita Vedanta. For example, each is theistic rather than monistic. For both, Brahman has qualities, is an appropriate object of worship, and can and does answer prayer, forgive sins, and provide release from the reincarnation cycle. Brahman is not viewed as qualityless. There are Bhagavad Gita passages that seem to teach that the theistic view of Brahman is correct.
The Bhagavad Gita is often interpreted as a text intended to bring about a synthesis of competing religious positions and to make religious enlightenment available to everyone rather than simply to monks or Brahmans. If so, this puts certain features of the work into a different perspective. For example, the work contains both monistic and theistic passages, so it appears that the Bhagavad Gita teaches contradictory doctrines. However, if the text aims at synthesis and making enlightenment widely available, then another interpretation of this apparent contradiction may be correct. Although the assertion of these two logically incompatible doctrines cannot be termed synthesis, a doctrine that says that monism is true but those who embrace theism come as close to the truth as they are able and they too will receive enlightenment (or the reverse case), would provide a synthesis of means of salvation without proposing that contradictions are true. Of course, monists will interpret the Bhagavad Gita as stating that monists receive enlightenment by seeing the truth and theists receive enlightenment in spite of not doing so, and theists will interpret the work as stating that theists receive enlightenment by seeing the truth and monists receive enlightenment in spite of not doing so, but through these ideas, the presence of contradictory passages is explained. The theistic version of this sort of reading has at least one advantage: It can explain how false belief can still lead to enlightenment (God's grace is deep) whereas it is hard to see what sort of explanation monism could give of false belief leading to enlightenment. This suggests that perhaps, in the end, the Bhagavad Gita is a fundamentally theistic text.
The Bhagavad Gita, the most revered text in Hinduism, literally means the "song of the blessed lord." The spiritual poem consists of the god-incarnate Krishna's discourse with a despondent warrior, Arjuna. Throughout the discourse, the Bhagavad Gita attempts to synthesize the various ideas in the Hindu philosophy of its time into its own brand of theism. Yet, in spite of its philosophical profundity, it remains a delightfully easy-to-read poem with an almost lyrical...
(The entire section is 4505 words.)