By Swami Nikhilananda

Compiled by Maxim Shafeyev

The Bhagavad Gita, called the Gita for short, contains seven hundred verses and forms eighteen chapters of the Mahabharata, the twenty-fifth through the forty-second, in the section on Bhishma.

The main theme of the Mahabharata is the exploits of two families of royal cousins, known as the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were the sons of two brothers, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, respectively. Since Dhrltarashtra was born blind, Pandu inherited the ancestral kingdom, comprising a part of northern India around modern Delhi. The Pandava brothers, five in number, were called Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. The Kaurava brothers were one hundred in number, Duryodhana being the eldest. When Pandu died at an early age, his young children were placed under the paternal care of their uncle, Dhritarashtra.

The Pandavas and the Kauravas grew up together and were given an education suitable to their rank and position. Bhishma, the wise grandsire, acted as their chief guardian, and the brahmin Drona was their military instructor. As the princes attained adolescence their latent qualities became manifest. The five sons of Pandu were endowed with righteousness, self-control, nobility, and many other knightly traits. Yudhishthira, in particular, was truthful, benevolent, forbearing, and gentle. On the other hand, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra, especially Duryodhana, developed altogether different natures. They were cruel, unrighteous, unscrupulous, greedy, and lustful. Even from his boyhood Duryodhana had been jealous of his five cousins and contrived various means to destroy them. And the old king, in spite of his sincere efforts to maintain an impartial attitude toward his nephews, often yielded to his son's wishes and connived at his mean devices for the ruin of Yudhishthira and his brothers.

Soon Yudhishthira was proclaimed heir apparent to the throne, to the great jubilation of the subjects. This only served to inflame the jealousy of the wicked Duryodhana, who was on the lookout to destroy his cousins. The wise ministers advised the blind king to divide the ancestral kingdom between the two families in order to remove all cause of friction. The Pandava brothers were content with their share, and Yudhishthira assumed the rulership of his territory. But hardly had they settled themselves in their new capital when Duryodhana, through a diabolical device, exiled the five brothers and their wife into the forest.

On their return from banishment the five brothers demanded the return of their legitimate kingdom. Duryodhana had consolidated his power by many alliances, and the five Pandava brothers were mere beggars without any resources. So the wicked prince treated their demand with scorn. Again the elders tried to reconcile the two families. Krishna, who was a friend of the Pandavas and also a well-wisher of the Kauravas, tried His utmost at appeasement. But nothing would satisfy Duryodhana's inordinate greed.

War became inevitable. The whole realm responded to the call of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The kings, princes, and knights of India, with their armies, assembled on the sacred plain of Kurukshetra, near modern Delhi. Sri Krishna became the charioteer of Arjuna but agreed neither to touch any weapon nor to participate in the battle in any manner.

The blind King Dhritarashtra wished to follow the progress of the battle. The sage Vyasa offered to endow him with supernatural sight; but the king refused the boon, for he knew that the sight of the destruction of his near and dear ones would be too much for him to bear. Thereupon Vyasa bestowed supernatural sight on Sanjaya, who was to act as reporter to Dhritarashtra. The Gita opens with the question of the blind king to Sanjaya regarding what happened on the battlefield when the two armies faced each other in battle array.

Trumpets and drums from both sides announced that the battle was about to begin. Arjuna, the chief warrior among the Pandavas, asked Krishna to drive his chariot to the no-man's-land between the armies, that he might appraise the warriors present on both sides. What he saw chilled the marrow of his bones. There on the battle-field were assembled his sons, nephews, elders, teachers, relatives, and intimate friends. To regain the kingdom for the Pandavas, he must wade through their blood. He was no coward, but the immensity of the situation confused his mind. He was caught on the two horns of a dilemma. On the one hand was the call of duty: the chastisement of the wicked, the vindication of truth, law, and order-in short, all that belonged to his kshatriya honor. On the other was commiseration for his friends and relatives, whose destruction was unavoidable in the impending Armageddon. Was he to give the sign for the commencement of this carnage, or should he renounce the field, retire into the forest, and lead the peaceful life of a hermit? Unable to resolve the dilemma, he turned to the Divine Krishna and implored His counsel.

Sri Krishna pronounced the words of instruction, which were subsequently recorded in sublime verses by Vyasa and became immortalized as the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord.

Sri Krishna exhorted Arjuna to shake off his unheroic vacillation and stand up for battle, pointing out that his compassion, which masqueraded as piety, was the result of his ignorance of the nature of the body and the Soul. As a material entity, the body has its birth, growth, change, and death. But the Soul is birthless, changeless, and deathless. Its essence is purity, eternity, and freedom. It is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Man, on account of his ignorance, identifies the Soul with a material body. But the change in the body can in no way affect the intrinsic nature of the Soul. The Soul, indeed, is none other than the Godhead.

Sri Krishna next pointed out that Arjuna's confusion was due to his ego. Arjuna considered himself to be the doer and the master, forgetting that the Lord alone is the Doer, and man a mere instrument in His hand. It is man's duty to carry out the Lord's will, undisturbed by success or failure, good or evil, joy or suffering. The result must be surrendered to the Lord. When a duty is performed in this manner, it purifies the heart and makes one fit for the attainment of Self-knowledge. In order to bring home to Arjuna this idea of the Divine Agency, Sri Krishna revealed Himself to the bewildered disciple in His Universal Form as the Supreme Godhead. Arjuna was staggered to see that the whole battle of Kurukshetra had already been fought in the foreordaining mind of the Lord and that the combatants destined to die had already met their death. All that Arjuna was asked to do was to accomplish an already accomplished fact; and this fact would stand accomplished in the outer world, all the same, even if he should refuse to participate in the battle. It was Arjuna's privilege to be the Lord's willing instrument. He could by no means forsake his instinct to fight. To fight was his kshatriya dharma.

Sri Krishna finally instructed Arjuna in the meaning of duty and explained its great role in the evolution of the spiritual life of the individual. Every man inherits from his past lives certain tendencies, desires, and impulses-all due to his own actions-which determine for him, on the material plane, his duty, his righteousness, his sense of right and wrong, his line of conduct, his dharma. His reaction to the world, his response to his environment, his decision to act in a particular way in a given situation-all this is determined by his inborn dharma, which, however unpleasant or imperfect it may be, he cannot give up any more than a dreaming person can give up an ugly dream. This dharma alone gives sanction and validity to any action in the phenomenal world. The individual assimilates from his heredity, environment, and education only as much as is permitted by his dharma. In order to be honest with himself, in order to preserve his sincerity and integrity, in order to avoid a split personality, he must allow his dharma to mould his actions and thoughts. All foreign ideals and standards of conduct, imposed from outside or imitated from others, are alien to his nature and, if stubbornly followed, only create confusion.

But the duty dictated by dharma must be discharged in association with two imperative spiritual laws. Whatever may be the nature of the duty, it must be discharged in a non-egotistic spirit; and secondly, all desire for the result must be relinquished, since the result belongs to the Lord. Only then does the performance of duty become an elevating force in man's life. The ideal is not the Stoic one, namely, duty for duty's sake; but duty is accepted and discharged for God's sake. Thus every duty is sacred, no matter how defective it may appear in the eyes of others. Performance of duty is one of the ways to worship the Lord. A man evades or by-passes his duty only at the risk of delaying his spiritual realization.

Through performance of the worldly duties dictated by one's dharma, one gradually becomes aware of another duty, which is man's supreme duty, namely, the attainment of freedom from the bondage and suffering of the world. Unselfish action performed for the sake of the Lord creates in the aspirant's heart a longing for Self-knowledge, the cultivation of which culminates in the attainment of freedom.

In the Bhagavad Gita both Krishna and Arjuna address each other by different epithets. This may seem confusing to Western readers; but a Hindu considers the epithet by which a man is addressed as very significant. It is not just a name; it indicates his character. Further, it serves to remind a person of his latent possibilities. Thus, the various epithets by which Arjuna is addressed in the Gita recall to his mind either his noble ancestry and parentage or his physical powers and spiritual virtues. In this way Sri Krishna seeks to arouse his depressed spirit. Arjuna, too, addresses Krishna by different epithets associated with the different phases of His divinity.

The Gita is appropriately called a mokshashastra, or scripture of liberation, since it deals with the Science of the Absolute and lays down the way to emancipation. It is also designated as yoga; for it aims at union between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul and shows the way to such union. According to Vedanta philosophy, the individual soul is, in reality, one with the Supreme Soul. But man, under the spell of maya, ignorance, has forgotten his divine nature. All diversity, whether in the world of thought or of physical objects, is due to this ignorance. The purpose of spiritual discipline is the destruction of ignorance and the attainment of Self-knowledge, which makes a man conscious of his oneness with the Godhead. There are four paths leading to liberation, or union with the Godhead. These are known as the paths of philosophical discrimination, devotional love, unselfish work, and concentration or psychic control. A man chooses his path according to his nature, which may be philosophical, emotional, active, or psychic. In the actual practice of spiritual discipline these paths are not mutually exclusive. They overlap, since every human being contains all four of the elements mentioned above. A man is instructed to follow a particular path according to the preponderance of a particular element in his nature. The Gita deals with all the paths, and describes in detail the path of work.

Two movements control the world order and ensure its stability. The one is man's outer action, leading to mundane prosperity; the other is detachment, which brings him the realization of the Highest Good. Both are indispensable for the preservation of the world. It must be remembered that mere action, unlit by spiritual wisdom, does not lead to real worldly well-being, but to chaos and destruction. In the world a man finds self-expression mainly through ethics, wealth, and aesthetics. All these have meaning only when they lead to something else, which is not of this world but which belongs to the realm of Eternal Verity. This is called, in Hindu philosophy, Self-knowledge or liberation. Unless the ideal of liberation is kept in view, man's outward action-expressed through ethics, wealth, and aesthetics-degenerates into self-interest, greed, and voluptuousness. The hunger of the soul can never be permanently appeased by any finite, worldly meat. "That which is infinite alone gives happiness; there is no happiness in the finite." Again, the inward movement of the mind, characterized by detachment, must not be confused with passivity, indolence, or inertia, which the Gita condemns in no uncertain terms. So the aspirant's choice is not between mere action and inaction; his discipline lies through the practice of yoga, which alone is the secret of action. The ideal has been set forth in these memorable words of the Gita: "He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is a yogi, and he has performed all action."

The Ultimate Truth is Non-duality, which is realized in a transcendental experience, when even the grandest concepts of the relative world melt and disappear into horizonless perspectives. The subject and the object, the seer and the seen, are in truth one. "Brahman alone is real and the world unreal; man is Brahman and none else." It is the characteristic of samsara, ignorance or relativity, that under its spell man sees the diversity of the doer, the instrument of action, and the result of action. Under the influence of the same ignorance he sees the duality of good and evil, pain and pleasure, life and death. He is impelled in his work by a desire to attain the good and shun the evil. A man sees good and evil only when the face of Truth is covered. The characteristic of Knowledge and liberation is non-duality. The man who has realized it sees only One, which is without a second. Whatever a jnani, a man endowed with Knowledge, does, however he thinks, and however he comports himself, he is always inspired by non-agency and non-duality. The action of the ignorant is egocentric. There lies the difference between the activity of a jnani and that of an unillumined person, between their movement and conduct. Work or duty impelled by the idea of duality becomes a source of bondage and suffering; but the same work or duty-nay, all work and duty-performed in the manner of a yoga, as described in the Gita, becomes a means of liberation. And when a liberated soul, always conscious of non-duality, performs an action, it neither distracts his mind from the Knowledge of Reality nor creates a ripple in his inner experience of the Peace that passeth understanding.