Prerequisites to the Study of the Gītā
A word of caution before we begin. All parts of the Gītā cannot be understood at the same level of clarity by everyone. Shouldn’t instruction befit the aspirant’s qualification? The amount of benefit we derive from the Gītā is directly proportional to our levels of faith, moral readiness, and intellectual ability. Anything beyond our capability might not be understood by us. So it would simply be our loss if we discarded the Gītā just because we could not understand a sentence or section of the treatise during our first or second reading, or because something did not seem right to our mind. Taking what we can grasp at the moment and reflecting upon it enables us to subsequently understand higher levels of meaning. If our study has to be fruitful, we must be equipped with the prerequisites of patience and faith. Mahātmā Gandhi has referred to the Gītā as his mother. The kind of unquestioned faith a child has in her mother’s words, the kind of unquestioned trust a child has in her mother’s cooking are the kinds of faith and trust we need, without which a great work’s essence may go unattained.
The subject of the Gītā is profound, subtle, and knotty. To understand it, we need a flight of stairs-like arrangement. We—common human beings—may be unable to explain the essence completely in one sentence or ascend in one step. The essence of life can be likened to a mountain. Those desirous of climbing it must be ready to do so step by step, resting wherever necessary, breathing in and understanding the rarefied airs as they ascend to the summit level by level. Here, it will not do to be hasty. Haste might cause misunderstanding. Manas-samādhāna (calmness of mind) and sāvadhāna (patience, caution) are two primary qualities that a votary of the Gītā must possess.
Different Schools of Philosophy
Another word of caution – about dvaita, advaita, viśiṣtādvaita, śuddhādvaita, bhedābheda, and other schools of philosophy that have differed in their exposition of the Supreme Truth. These differing schools are about the zenith of experience; about the relation between jīva and Brahman; about the final goal of mokṣa. Suppose that a person is at the foot of a hill and desires to climb to its summit. In that case, isn’t a discussion about what is in the temple at the hill’s peak a waste of time? Isn’t there a cave behind the temple? Isn’t it dark? Is it a snake or a rat that’s inside the cave? Is the rat in the womb of the snake or has the snake been pierced in its eye by the rat? Or are both the rat and snake in yoga-nidrā? Or have the snake and rat lost their natural enmity owing to their penance? This is something that a person who has entered the cave and come out can tell us. It seems that such people have not been available to us.
One could ask, “Won’t the bhāṣyas (commentaries) authored by the ācāryas of various schools suffice?” The answer is that there is no unanimity of opinion in those works. Who then do we believe in? The commentators excel in expounding upon the meanings of subtle scriptural passages. Using tarka (logic) and vyākaraṇa (grammar), it could be argued that advaita is dvaita or that dvaita is nothing other than advaita. The greatest instrument of knowledge in this lofty subject is the personal experience of the knower. That which is agreeable to one’s experience becomes his or her subjective truth. If one were to ask if Truth had parts in it or if Truth was a “whole” entity, the answer would be that though Truth is indeed whole and unbroken, the mind perceives it piecemeal. Isn’t the eye on only one side of the head? The eye can see only one side of an object from one place.
The Truth is one; its appearances are manifold. If this is kept in mind, it can be shown that not only dvaita and advaita schools of Hindu philosophy but even non-Vedic religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity can accept the Gītā.* Our goal though in this discourse is to study the meaning of the Gītā in such a way as to not oppose any traditional commentator. There is always freedom to choose whenever interpretations differ. Our focus is not on the parts where the interpretation differs but on those aspects acceptable to all. (Readers are encouraged to look at the appendix on the harmony of the three schools).
The Form of the Treatise
The Bhagavad-gītā is an account of a dialogue; a dialogue between Arjuna and Śrīkṛṣṇa. Both of them are in the battlefield of Kurukṣetra where the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas with their armies are standing in opposition to each other. Arjuna is the the third among the five Pāṇḍavas, Śrīkṛṣṇa’s bosom friend. Arjuna, who is enthusiastic to fight until the start of the war, sees the multitude of people around him and begins to express his doubts and concerns thus – “Ah! That I should kill them! Can I kill them? Is it proper to do this for selfish benefit? Is that not a grave sin?” Śrīkṛṣṇa begins to clarify those questions. Questions and doubts arise again and again with those clarifications. Śrīkṛṣṇa answers all of them. Thus expands the work. Those sorrows, doubts, and fears felt then by Arjuna are not his alone; or only of that time. The same dilemmas, uncertainties, confusions, and anxieties affect us every single day. Such fundamental questions of life have always bothered the human animal in all eras, all eons, and at all places in one form or another. The humanness of the human is in dealing with these questions and answering them. Such solutions find a solid basis in the veritable mine of the Bhagavad-gītā. The Gītā is thus a scripture of life germane to all times and places.
In our study, the Gītā has been viewed from the perspective of the everyman’s need. Nuances of the śāstra and the duels of logic are not important to us here. This is an exposition created by a common man discussing with another of his kind – much like classmates talking to one another.
Is the Gītā a Śāstra or a Kāvya?
This work is termed ‘Gītā-śāstra’ as well. The words ‘gītā’ and ‘śāstra’ convey widely different ideas in their meanings. Gītā refers to a song. Its main function is entertainment – delighting one’s feelings. That does not address the intellect. However, śāstra addresses the intellect. Here, a predominance of feeling is unwelcome. Thus gītā and śāstra appear mutually exclusive from a superficial view. However, in Śrīkṛṣṇa’s dialogue with Arjuna, thought and feeling have come together in a single narrative. For instance, the first chapter of is full of Arjuna’s despondency and expressions of karuṇa (pity, compassion), which show mental agitation more than intellectual cogitation. The eleventh chapter of the vision of the viśvarūpa (Universal form) is full of adbhuta rasa (wondrous sentiment). The other chapters exude feelings of devotion and Bliss. Juxtaposed with these are a study of Sāṁkhya, dhyāna-yoga (the method of meditation), and the teaching of the Yajña principle – all of which need significant application of thought. Therefore, it seems to be apt to term this work a ‘śāstra-kāvya’ or a scriptural poem.
That the realms of mind and intellect are different, even distant, does not hold in their elevated states. In that elevated station, both of them coalesce into one – like an ideal husband and wife. The mind prods the intellect, which in turn indulges the mind. The light of the intellect and clarity of mind combine to yield an internal bliss akin to the joy of experiencing the radiance of moonlight. Like the happiness experienced while the eye conveys the beauty of form with the simultaneous sweetness of music conveyed by the ear. It is impossible as well as improper to separate such a blessed union of mind and intellect. The Bhagavad-gītā is a ‘śāstra-kāvya’ encompassing this dual. This will be discussed further in the appendix.
To be continued…
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.
* Translators' Note: Even Prof. M. Hiriyanna famously said that the Gītā can become the Bible of any creed. While this might be true of 'Pagan' faiths similar to sanātana-dharma, it appears unlikely in the case of Semitic religions, which are not merely dualistic but also predatory in nature. Like Aurobindo Ghosh said, “[Hinduism] is in the first place a non-dogmatic inclusive religion and would have taken even Islam and Christianity into itself, if they had tolerated the process.” (The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Volume 14, pp. 73–75)