The Bhagavad Gita is arguably India's greatest scripture and is over 5,000 years old. When Mahatma Gandhi died, a famous photograph was taken of all his possessions: his simple white cotton piece of clothing, his glasses, his sandals and his well-worn copy of The Bhagavad Gita. It is read daily by millions of people around the world and is in the homes of literally hundreds of millions of people, and is considered by a great many to be the finest source of spiritual teaching in the world.
The Gita is an epic mystical poem about life, death, love, and duty, embedded in the middle of the larger poem, the Mahabharatha, a literary masterpiece about the heights and depths of the human soul.
Summary of the Bhagavad Gita
The year is 3141 BCE. Arjuna, an esteemed warrior-prince at the height of his powers, is readying to go into battle with his cousin to regain a kingdom rightfully his. All his life he has been a courageous and successful combatant, but now, on the eve of the biggest fight of his life, he begins to lose his resolve. He sees the tragedy of the potential mutual slaughter of two opposing sides of the same family.
Arjuna’s chariot driver, and his best friend from boyhood, is Krishna, an Avatar, an incarnation of divinity on earth. Arjuna asks "what is life all about?" and Krishna gives him The Answer, straight from God.
First he teaches that only the body is mortal, and that the Atma, or pure consciousness, is unchanging and indestructible. One’s personal duty is to remain faithful to the one’s true Self and to never do anything contrary to this. For a warrior there is no higher duty than to fight for righteousness.
He talks of selfless action, karma yoga, where all action is dedicated to God and not for personal reward. One should have no thoughts of gain or loss. He describes a person who achieves this as an Illumined One, who withdraws their senses from the pleasures of the world, and steadies their mind. They are devoid of cravings and desire.
'Sacrifice' is necessary, meaning offering, helping and being dedicated to the welfare of all humanity, and is the noblest form of action. Truly wise persons recognise inaction in action, and action in inaction. These persons have equal love for all around them.
Krishna indicates that there are many paths to God of which two are the path of knowledge and the path of action. Most people find the action path is better for them. One cannot discard one’s worldly duties, but must do them to the utmost extent of their capacity for excellence.
Meditation is then described by Krishna, where the mind is stilled and the ego is mastered. Krishna indicates that spiritual work is never wasted, even if one does not reach Divinity in one’s own lifetime.
Krishna then talks of learned knowledge versus 'realised' wisdom and how Divinity is in everything. He mentions the three 'gunas' of sattva, rajas and tamas that are present in all of nature. The four different types of God worshipper are described, but Krishna makes clear that any of the types need to know their own Truth before they can know God.
Krishna next indicates that whatever occupies your attention throughout your life will be in your consciousness when you die and is manifested in the next birth. Two paths exist: freedom from death-rebirth and bondage to the death-rebirth cycle. The only way to reach the immortal state is through love and unswerving devotion to the Divine.
He reiterates that God is in everything, above and beyond all worldly objects and even above all minor deities. Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s True God form and Krishna shows him in a blaze of light. Arjuna realises God’s limitless and all-pervasive presence.
Krishna brings Arjuna back to the forthcoming war and points out that the destruction of enemies is inevitable, and that fighting for righteousness one will always win, even if slain in the process.
The two friends talk of worshipping the invisible formless God versus the visible God with form. Krishna indicates that for most people it is easier to relate to the God with form, however for full liberation, enlightened yogis have to understand the formless path, without attachment to body.
Krishna then moves on to explain the different levels of consciousness, talking of the 'Field' (the world of nature or 'matter') and 'the Knower of the Field' (Spirit). He reminds us that all beings are one and they all come from the same source.
He returns again to the 'gunas' and types of people: sattvic (calm and harmonised), rajasic (full of restless energy) and tamasic (lethargic and indolent). The particular state of mind uppermost at your time of death is the deciding factor of your next birth, and sattva should be the goal. Wise yogis transcend all three gunas, as they dwell within the Self where the mind is tranquil and the ego disappears.
To help understanding, Krishna uses an analogy of most humans being like an upside down tree with its branches firmly rooted in the earthly. Krishna says that to gain ‘the eye of wisdom’ one must surrender the ego and purify the mind.
He describes how humans have two kinds of tendencies: divine (fearlessness, purity, steadfastness, charity and control of senses; sacrifice, study of scriptures, austerity, straightforwardness, non-injury, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation, equanimity and not slandering; compassion, not coveting, gentleness, modesty, no fickleness and vigor; forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, no hatred and no pride) and degenerate (pride, pompousness, vanity, anger, harshness and absence of discrimination). The gates to hell are desire, greed and anger.
Arjuna asks whether people can pursue the right path without knowledge of the scriptures. Krishna replies that people are the sum total of the beliefs they hold in their hearts. He points out that the food people eat is important and shapes their mental attitudes. The best kind of sattvic food is pure, mild and nourishing. Breakfast should be light, lunch substantial as required and supper as light as possible so that the organs are rested overnight.
Krishna elaborates on the three spiritual practices of sacrifice, austerity (or purification) and charity, which he indicates are the three highest of human activities. He relates these to the different types of action: rajasic, tamasic and sattvic.
He re-iterates the importance of doing one's duties and explains the four segments of society: Seers (providing spiritual and moral leadership), Leaders (to help transform ordinary beings into exemplary beings), Providers (business people) and Servers (workers). None are more superior than the others and spiritual growth is possible for all divisions of society. Your duties should be performed for your natural calling ('dharma'), and you should not try to master the work of another. Krishna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior and so he must not shy away from fighting the righteous fight.
In summary Krishna tells Arjuna to fix his mind on Divinity and give it his whole heart.
Summary copyright Nick Long 2007