death of King Pandu, his brother, the
blind Dhrtarashtra takes over the kingdom.
He is partial to his sons, the
Kauravas, against the claims to the kingdom,
of the five sons of Pandu, better
known as the Pandavas. Hostility develops
between the cousins, and the Kauravas deprive
the Pandavas of their rights to the
kingdom, by trickery at a dice game
which requires the losers to suffer
exile for 12 years. At the end of
that period, when the Pandavas return,
the Kauravas decline to restore their rights,
despite advice from Krsna, and war
between them becomes inevitable. With the
two sides arraigned against each other
at Kurukshetra, Arjuna, the chief of the
Pandavas, asks Krsna, who has agreed
to be his charioteer, to position their
chariot between the two armies, from where
he may be able to survey the
line-up of the enemy. And seeing in
their ranks, his kith and kin, respected
elders and revered teachers, he is dismayed
at the prospect of fighting them and
killing them. Stricken with a sense of
moral crisis, Arjuna turns to Krsna
for guidance. This is the starting point
of Krsna's teaching which constitutes the
Bhagavad Gita - a teaching in the
course of which, it soon appears that
Krsna speaks as the Lord Visnu Himself,
in human form.
The Gita unfolds in 700 slokas or verses, spread over 18 Adhyayas or Chapters. The slokas are in poetic form, set in the Anushtup Chandas, a metre that is adopted in all major Sanskrit works. This metre requires strict conformity to a structure of 32 Aksharas or syllables, spread equally over two groups in each of the two lines omprising a sloka. This structure is designed as much for maintaining the aesthetic framework of poetic composition, as for sustaining accuracy in the the tradition of oral transmission of knowledge. Each Chapter ends with a colophon which assigns to it the title of a Yoga of a specific name, and describes it as a Chapter of the Upanishad called the Bhagavad Gita, which treats of Brahma Vidya, (the Knowledge of Brahman) and Yoga Sastra (the Science of Yoga), in the form of a dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna.
Our mind, intellect and intuition enable us to see more than our eyes do; to see that we are but finite elements in a Time-Space matrix that extends to infinity. But we do not as readily see that our finiteness imposes upon us limitations that often cloud our vision of the Reality of that Infinity. This leads us into lives of ego-centred selfish actions on the naieve assumption that what is "here and now" is the only reality. The Ultimate Reality is called Brahman, and a clear understanding of it is sought to be given by Brahma Vidya. The relative realities of our physical existence emerge from and merge back into that Reality, but impose upon us compulsions of action. We need to find ways while we live, of transforming these actions from selfish ones that bind, into selfless ones that free us and put us on the Path to that Reality. There are indeed several paths, provided by the Yoga Sastra, and these appear in the different Yoga Chapters of the Gita.
Scholars have viewed the overall structure of the Gita in different ways. Madhusudana Sarasvati, a 16th Century commentator from Bengal regarded the Gita in three six-chapter sequences, respectively elaborating the "Tvam" (Thou), the "Tat" (That) and the "Asi" (art) components of the Maha Vakya or Great Saying "Tat Tvam Asi" of the Chandogya Upanishad. "Tat" in Sanskrit, which is "That" in English, refers to Brahman, and is used for want of a word that can describe the indescribable. Another view of the Gita looks at Chapter 1 as stating the problem of the human situation, Chapter 2, as stating the central issues and the approaches to resolving them, Chapters 3 to 17 as elaborating these approaches, and Chapter 18 as a summing up.
The word "Yoga" has many meanings, often complex and varying according to context. A literal meaning is "union", referring to uniting with the Ultimate Reality. A related meaning used in the Gita is "path", referring to the path to that Reality. In delineating several paths, reflected in the different Yoga titles assigned to it's 18 Chapters, the Gita is simply saying the goal is the same, but that each person has to choose a differnt path or blend of paths suited to his own personality. The Gita recognises that the Ultimate Reality has to be approached from within a wide range and mix of capabilities and limitations built into the mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual composition of each individual's personality.
The fact that the ultimate goal may
be a distant one, beyond the reach
of most people, does not mean that
it is unattainable. The Gita insists that
it is attainable even within the lifetime
of the ardent aspirant, even at the
moment of his last breath. One who
attains such liberation in his own lifetime
is called a Jeevan Mukta. In our
own times, we have seen the examples
of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and
the Paramacharya of Kanchi. For the
vast majority, of course, the Ultimate Reality
or that manifestation of it that is
referred to as God, can only provide
a spiritual, intellectual or emotional framework,
from within which to draw the strength
to lead lives of rectitude and purpose.
Krsna, as the Avatar, exemplifies God's
descent into Man, while His teaching emphasises
the potential within Man for ascent into
God; indeed, that God is as much
within as without.
Karma is a word of profound significance in the Indian tradition. It connotes many things like work, duty, action, obligation, fate, etc. The Gita presents many key features of the doctrine of Karma : that existence in any form arises fro action and subsists on action; that both action and results of action are inevitable; that actions affect not only the person or object they are directed to, but the performer of the actions as well; and that the effect on the performer is determined by the motive with which the actions are performed. These features are so rooted in commonsense, that they will readily be acceptable to any reader without having to accept other features of the doctrine like rebirth which place demands on faith.
The Law of Karma applies to human
affairs in much the same way as Newton's
Third Law, of every action having an
equal and opposite reaction. It posits that
beneficial acts bring benefit and harmful
acts bring harm to the doer. The benefit
or harm is immediate in terms of
raising or lowering his moral worth,
which may not be readily obvious, but
is nevertheless, very real. One has
only to touch one's conscience to feel
this result. And every change in the
level of one's moral worth surely reflects
in the quality of his onward actions.
Modern psychology says very much the same
The word Yajna is another important word found all over the Gita, and it is used in a sense, far more significant than the ordinary run of ritualistic procedures to which the word is commonly applied. The Yajna denotes an offering for the good of others with no expectation of anything in return. The whole of the cosmos, from the very first act of it's creation by the Creator, down to the offerings of Nature like sun and rain that support the life cycle, proceed from this spirit of Yajna, and we are exhorted to have all our actions proceed from the same spirit. Another related word is Samnyasa or renunciation, often mistaken for renuncaiation of all worldly activity, but really referring to renunciation of all fruits of activity. Around these and other words like Dhyana, Bhakti, Sraddha etc. the Gita weaves an integrated and positive approach to life, reflecting profound insights from the viewpoint of different disciplines like spiritualism, religion, philosophy, psychology, ethics, physical and mental health, dietetics, lifestyles and social responsibility.
The Gita is an unusual work in that it brings unique meaning to each individual who reads it. This is because each individual brings to bear a range and depth of understanding, unique to his personality, perceptions and perspectives. Each repeated reading also brings into view perspectives that were not seen before. Commentaries on the Gita reflect the personality, perceptions and perspectives of the commentators, and are a help to understanding, but ultimately, it is for the individual to arrive at an understanding that satisfies him best. Each individual has to decide for himself on where he wants to go, and how best he can reach there. But it will soon become obvious to the reader that the teaching of the Gita is set in a framework of universal and eternal relevance, that does not rule out any viewpoint that is rooted in any particular religion or philosophy, or indeed any wholly unique and individual viewpoint.