The Bhagavad Gita is the most revered and bestknown sacred work in the Hindu world. It contains the essential doctrines of mainstream Hinduism. It is in the format of a dialogue in which the divine Krishna expounds spiritual truths to the hero Arjuna in the context of an impending war. The work appears in the Hindu epic known as Mahabharata.
Its eighteen chapters are divided into three sections. The first deals with the practice of yoga, stresses the importance of asceticism for the spiritual aspirant, and affirms divine omnipresence. Soul and transmigration are also explained. The second expounds Vedanta which is central to Hindu philosophy. Here Krishna reveals his cosmic aspect (Vishvarupa) of dazzling radiance. Arjuna was dazzled by a direct encounter with the Divine which can be blinding. In the last section, the purusha-prakriti duality is explained. Human consciousness (purusha) is more basic than the phenomenal world (prakriti). Without it, the clockwork of a mechanical world would be as irrelevant as libraries buried in the sea. The physical universe takes on significance only in the context of an experiencing observer (purusha).
Like other great works of perennial significance, the value of the Gita lies in the insights that may be adapted from age to age to draw contextual nourishment. Scholars and commentators have written voluminously on the interpretations of the Gita, which have also touched people beyond the Hindu tradition. The Gita speaks of an unchanging principle spanning the ever-changing world of fleeting impressions. As spectators of a show we may laugh at the comedy and shed tears at the tragedy. But we must never forget that what we are witnessing is only a show, and that there is a real world outside. Likewise, even in the triumphs and tribulations of life, we must bear in mind that beneath all transient experiences, there is something more permanent, more durable, more intrinsically real.
Another teaching of the Gita relates to our attitudes to work: While engaged in a task, we should not be preoccupied with the fruits of our actions. We must undertake only desireless action (nish-kama karma): In any undertaking, our commitment should be total and selfless. The aim should be completion of the task and not reaping the fruits that might accrue. Exertion in a spirit of total detachment enhances efficiency. Desireless action becomes relevant in public involvements. Temptations of personal gains can only spell disaster. The Gita suggests that in our commitments to community, in our campaigns for a just cause, in political actions and social services, we must dedicate ourselves without any thought of self-interest. The Gita stresses the importance of different paths (margas) that people follow: intellectual, activist, and spiritual-aesthetic. It is more dangerous to try to do another's mode (paradharma) perfectly than to try to execute, however inadequately, one's own (svadharma). Svadharma is what one can and must do with one's talents and tendencies. We must realize our potential and recognize our limitations. Our work and aspirations must be determined by these, and not by what others may achieve. Often people wreck their lives because of envy and ambition.
The Gita also gives a message of historical optimism to the effect that whenever and wherever injustice and oppression arise, an appropriate leader will emerge to reinstate justice and righteousness. The Gita can stand alone, but it appears in the middle of a Hindu epic, suggesting that its truths become particularly relevant in the context of Indian culture. The Gita is presented as a dialogue with the brilliant Arjuna in a state of utter confusion. This reflects the predicament of the keenest intellects in the face of social, moral, and spiritual dilemmas. Scholarship and intelligence cannot tackle questions pertaining to life and God. In moments of deep despair, at the crossroads of spiritual anguish, we should seek counsel from the enlightened.
The Gita expounds the highest philosophies on a battlefield. This reminds us that the deeper problems of existence are not to be relegated to hours of leisure and retirement. Ethical and religious considerations must be in our minds at every heartbeat of life's activities, in the center of the storm as well as in the quiet of the countryside.
Problems pertaining to war and peace are complex, as are conflicts of everyday life. Who can assert categorically what is right and what is wrong, what is punishment and what is forgiving? It is not by conventional rules and common perceptions that we can arrive at correct decisions. Events in the world, where we may play a major or a minor part, often have far deeper significance than we might imagine; their grander purpose in the scheme of things may not always be clear to our imperfect understandings.
The Bhagavad Gita is glorious music. When we hear it chanted in its traditional rhythm and immerse ourselves in its serene melody, we experience an inner peace such as only the loftiest expressions of the human spirit can afford. The piously simple and the profoundly sensitive are moved by it. Throughout India's history, many thinkers, great and modest, lay and religious, have been touched by this work. Thinkers outside of the Hindu tradition have also found meaning and message in the Gita.
The Gita combines poetry and philosophy, music and religious solace. It kindles subtle thoughts, and calls for decisive actions. It consoles the bereaved and uplifts the dejected. It thrills the soul and illumines the mind. Few other works have accomplished so much for over a millennium of human history. The Bhagavad Gita has been translated, fully or partially, into more than seventy languages, and commented upon by countless scholars.