Deeply influenced by the Bhagavad-gītā, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson kept aside much of the Christian doctrine not aligned to it and began advocating the karma-siddhānta (principle of karma-yoga) – to the extent that people began criticizing Emerson as having become anti-Christianity.
Henry David Thoreau once stayed in Emerson’s house as a guest for a few days. There, housed in a cupboard, were the scriptures of different religions. After examining all of them, Thoreau finally was exceedingly attracted by the Bhagavad-gītā. In later days, Thoreau built a house on the banks of a river and began practising yoga; he became a sincere devotee of ‘anāsakti-yoga,’ the path of detachment.
We find the fruit of the influence of the Bhagavad-gītā in the writings of some of the great Western thinkers of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Carlyle, Walt Whitman, and Matthew Arnold, among others. Renowned poets like Wordsworth had read the Gītā in translation and was influenced by it.
The famous French thinker Romain Rolland after studying all the religions of Europe and Asia found Hinduism to be the greatest of them all. He writes, “...But amid all the beliefs of Europe, and of Asia, that of the Indian Brahmins seems to me infinitely the most alluring…And the reason why I love the Brahmin more than the other schools of Asiatic thought is because it seems to me to contain them all. Greater than all European philosophies, it is even capable of adjusting itself to the vast hypotheses of modern science...”
Even Viceroy Lord Willingdon, who was known to be extremely arrogant and ruthless, is said to have exclaimed that the people of India, whether they live in grand palaces or in dilapidated huts, they were all of fine character and found this trait to be deeply entrenched in the blood of the Hindu people. He said that Indians might protest when they see injustice but under any circumstances, they always retained their compassion, sympathy, and other qualities.
Samuel Johnson [quoting Abul Faz’l] speaks of the qualities resplendent in the Hindu people – “The Hindus are religious, affable, cheerful, lovers of justice, given to retirement, able in business, admirers of truth, grateful, and of unbounded fidelity. And their soldiers know not what it is to fly from the field of battle.”
The famous Irish dramatist Bernard Shaw apparently said, “The Indian way of life provides the vision of the natural, real way of life… On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creator's hand.”
It is widely known that renowned English poets of the twentieth century such as Thomas Stearns Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and others were influenced deeply by the Gītā and the Upaniṣads.
A Companion beyond Comparison
In the past, only people who were interested in Vedānta studied the Bhagavad-gītā. However, in the recent times, people have realized that the Gītā is relevant for everyday life too. It can serve as a guide to better our lives. Politicians, industrialists, traders, saṃnyāsis (ascetics), adhyātma-sādhakas (those who have taken to spiritual pursuits), students, and householders – all can benefit greatly from the Gītā, for it is a rich treasure-house of knowledge. It is from jñāna-śakti (the power of wisdom) that the other two, namely icchā-śakti (power of decision-making / desires) and kriyā-śakti (power of execution / means to fulfil desires) arise. Though the words of the Gītā don’t change, as we mature and as our intellect grows, the same words reveal different meanings to us. This is the speciality of the Gītā. An ordinary story or drama doesn’t appeal to us after the first read. The Gītā, however, stays with us, all our life like a dear friend.
It is due to the aggrandizement of ego and arrogance that people’s personal lives suffer and the social order is hampered. The Gītā teaches us the means to curb our ego. Only if people exert control on their egos can the society work smoothly, interpersonal relationships become noble, and the world become a happy and peaceful place to lead our lives. Everyone needs to execute the tasks assigned to them with full efficiency and by completely dedicating their hearts to the word at hand –
sve sve karmaṇyabhirataḥ saṃsiddhiṃ labhate naraḥ |
One attains perfection when he is committed to his work.
About two to three centuries back, when everyone adhered to this teaching—albeit unconsciously—and was committed to the work they had taken up, the job of the government was minimal.
It is difficult for the common masses to understand the Vedas and Upaniṣads; the assistance of scholars is inevitable to comprehend them. The Gītā, however, can be understood to some extent even by lay readers. As one deeply contemplates over the verses of the Gītā, newer meanings get revealed. This is why the Gītā is hailed as ‘Prapanna-pārijāta’ – it is akin to the mythical wish-giving tree—kalpavṛkṣa—for those who take refuge in it.
Gītā jñānamayī gaṅgā punāti bhuvanatrayam
The Gītā is like the magnificent river Gaṅgā
It purifies and uplifts all the worlds
A few years ago [c. 2011], I happened to meet the Venkateshamurthy couple in a certain part of Bangalore – possibly Jayanagar or Banashankari. They had been constantly tormented by troubles and had suffered for twelve or thirteen years. Dejected, they decided to do a daily pārāyaṇa (reciting a work from beginning to end) of the Bhagavad-gītā with dedication. Like a miracle, all their troubles came to an end and they regained mental calm. Their devotion to the Gītā increased by several folds due to this. They have made over a thousand copies of the Gītā along with its meaning and are distributing the books free of cost to those interested.
There are several such experiences.
Transcending Time and Space
About sixteen to seventeen years ago [c. 1998], Saeed Naqvi [senior journalist] travelled from India to Turkey and there was a pleasant surprise waiting for him there. The Prime Minister of Turkey—a country which is predominantly Islamic—told him that whenever he was in agony or distress the Bhagavad-gītā had given him suitable solutions. He had learnt the Sanskrit language and for his ready reference, he had translated several verses of the Gītā to the local language and always kept it with him. Whenever there was a security threat to the nation, the teachings of Gītā about being faithful to one’s work had come to his aid. The Prime Minister said, “I’m still translating it for my own self-education… [The Gītā] shows me the means of solving certain political problems. And I keep adding to my translation.” He also translated [Tagore’s] Gītāñjalī into Turkish and had it published.
This is just an instance to show that knowledge knows no religious or political boundaries.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, who authored works such as Durgeśa-nandinī and Ānanda-maṭha in Bengali, was initially a rationalist who saw no value in traditional knowledge systems. Gradually, with detailed study and introspection, he turned into an āstika (a person who has faith in the Vedas) and developed great reverence for traditional works. We may quote an incident to demonstrate how big an adherent of Sanātana-dharma he became. When he was bedridden during his last days, the famous physician Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar warned Bankim Chandra that he wouldn’t survive unless he consumed the prescribed medicine. Bankim Chandra replied, “But I am taking my dosage of medicine!” A surprised Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar asked, “Where? What medicine?” In response, Bankim Chandra pointed at the Bhagavad-gītā that was laying the table next to his bed!
Solace for Soldiers
The Bhagavad-gītā, which was taught by Kṛṣṇa several thousands of years ago, offers solace to millions of people even today. I shall narrate an incident of recent days.
We know that the Kargil War was fought in 1999 on the peaks of the Himalayas. Major Padmapani Acharya, 31 years of age, displayed great valour in capturing the hilly region of Tololing. He belonged to the 2 Rajaputana Rifles unit of the Indian Army. He had married just three years prior to the war and was to become a father in three months’ time. He gave up his life for the country in the Kargil War. In a letter he had written to his father a week before his death, he had said the following –
“We’re getting ready to face the enemy. None of you need to worry about me. The outcome of a war is beyond our hands. Even if we die, it is, after all, for a noble cause! Śrīkṛṣṇa has taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gītā – “hato vā prāpsyasi svargaṃ, jitvā vā bhokṣyase mahīm; tasmād-uttiṣṭha kaunteya, yuddhāya kṛta-niścayaḥ” Death will take us to svarga. If we remain alive, we may enjoy the kingdom. When such is the case, why worry?”
When we see that the Gītā can instil courage and confidence even in soldiers before they step out to fight a war, our respect for the great work on philosophy only increases.
The Essence of Indian Culture
What the other thinkers and philosophers of the world have been contemplating upon for several millennia was realised and documented in the Bhagavad-gītā some four thousand years ago.
While talking about a country and its culture, it is natural to describe its people’s intellectual feats, organisation of its society, contribution to literature and art. Though a civilization might have achieved great heights in these areas, it is no guarantee that it will flourish forever. Several civilizations which have vanished from the face of the earth in the last five thousand years had achieved quite a lot in these different areas. The Indian culture, which was developed by ṛṣis, who sat in the forests and contemplated upon the world and its nature has remained intact even ten thousand years after its birth; the reason for this being the Vedas, Upaniṣads, and Bhagavad-gītā, which are its essence.
In one of the matters pertaining to a certain temple of Kāśi, which appeared before the Allahabad High Court [in today’s Prayagraj], Justice Shambhu Nath Srivastava mentioned that just like India has its national flag, national anthem, and such other symbols, the Bhagavad-gītā too should be accorded the status of ‘Rāṣṭrīya-dharmaśāstra’, i.e., a National Dharma-śāstra. Irrespective of what stance the government takes, – it might or might not officially accord such a status to the Gītā – the work has captured the minds and hearts of the Indians for thousands of years. The Gītā reveals newer and richer light as we dig deeper into it.
Let us pay our salutations to the Gītā-mātā (Mother Gītā) by recalling the words of the poet-philosopher Dr. D V Gundappa –
cetaḥ-kleśagaḻa kaḻèdu śāṃtiya kuḍuguṃ ||
The song of the Bhagavad-gītā
destroys the mental turmoil of people
and gives lasting peace
 Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1948. p. 8 (from Romain Rolland’s Foreword to the book).
 Major Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon (1866–1941).
 Johnson, Samuel. Oriental Religions and Their Relation to Universal Religion. Boston: James R Osgood and Company, 1873. p. 294.
 स्वे स्वे कर्मण्यभिरतः संसिद्धिं लभते नरः। – Gītā 18.45