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Bhagavad Gita

Category: Books sutras and myths

The Bhagavad Gita  is a 700–verse Dharmic scripture and a part of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, written by the sage Vyasa. The actual dates of composition of the Gita remain unresolved.  ‘Scholars’ accept dates from fifth century to second century BCE as the probable range.

It is based on a conversation between Pandava prince Arjuna and the god Krishna on a variety of moral and philosophical issues.  It uses the conversation as a means of explaining the contradictions and moral dilemmas that life presents.  For example, it is morally wrong to hurt, but in order to eliminate hurt being inflicted on a grand scale by someone else, is it right to engage in acts of hurt, to stop the larger act?  It expresses moral dilemmas that apply to every day and age – do we go to War and thus add to the hurt in order to stop hurt being inflicted?

"It is not the story of some people that lived some time ago but a characterisation of all people that may live at any time in the history of the world."
[ Swami Krishnananda]

Like the Rig veda, there is extensive use of symbolism with similar symbolic objects – chariots, horses, gods and so on.  Thus we could regard the Bhagavad Gita as a companion text to the Rig veda.  One presents the spiritual landscape, this text describes the moral framework.  It also nestles nicely against the Upanishads another set of companion texts that explains spiritual concepts.  The Bhagavad Gita is classified as a Smriti text in the sense that we have to work out the moral issues, how human beings have to organise themselves and live together.  This contrasts with sruti texts like the Upanishads, which are considered more revelatory in the sense that the spiritual landscape needs to be revealed to us, we can’t work it out for ourselves.

Incidentally the Bhagavad Gita is also a good story! A ‘ripping yarn’ as Michael Palin might say.

The Gita begins before the start of the climactic ‘Kurukshetra war’.  Thus a war is used as an allegory for the  "battleground for moral struggle".  Arjuna is filled with doubt on the battlefield. Realizing that his enemies are his own relatives, friends, and teachers, he turns to his ‘charioteer’, Krishna, for advice. Responding to Arjuna's confusion and moral dilemma, Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and prince, elaborating on a variety of philosophical concepts.

In my rather humble opinion I think Arjuna is the allegorical soul and Krishna his Higher spirit, but I’m sure many would disagree.

The text is a ‘yogic text’ meaning it is one of the texts that can be used for those on the Spiritual path.  The text covers the nature of the Higher spirit, reincarnation, the need to be in touch with your Higher spirit, basic moral tenets, ways in which one can better master the mind to keep in touch with the spiritual world, what happens after death, the illusory nature of the so called ‘real world’ [the physical], and the difference between the soul and the body.  Arjuna is also given a demonstration of what it is like to meet your Higher spirit or an Intelligence. There is also an explanation of the Tree of Life.

The text also covers such things as destiny in quite a clear way.  The names are different, but there is quite a long description of the nature of personality called in the text, swadharma. Krishna explains that one cannot change the swadharma one has been allocated, but that one has to work with it and understand why one has been allocated this.  It is clear that this concept has helped a lot of people understand their true calling [destiny].  Aurobindo, for example, used the Gita when he said  "the functions of a man ought to be determined by his natural turn, gift, and capacities". Gandhi found in the concept of swadharma, the basis for his idea of swadeshi. To him, swadeshi was "swadharma applied to one's immediate environment".  So you use the personality one has been given to achieve one’s destiny.

I think it is important to emphasise that although this is not a prescriptive spiritual path per se, it is a very good allegorical summation of all the things one has to consider on the path.  The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita have a progressive order, by which Krishna leads "Arjuna up the ladder of Yoga from one rung to another."  So the battle in the story is as much a battle with yourself, as it is against outside elements.  As Swami Nikhilananda says:

"The language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long, drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego" [ego meaning Personality]

All Hindu commentators understand the allegorical nature of the text.  Swami Vivekananda, for example,  said "this Kurukshetra War is only an allegory. When we sum up its esoteric significance, it means the war which is constantly going on within man between the tendencies of good and evil."

But, it is still important, I think, to realise that it is not just an allegory of inner struggles, but of wider moral issues.  The two obviously go together.

"When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external tragedies and if they have not left any visible or invisible effect on me, I owe it to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita."
[Gandhi]

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