What do we get from the Gītā?
What can we expect from the Bhagavad-gītā?
We normally expect something special from any book we choose. If it is a story, we expect interesting accounts of human character; in a play – a range of passions and emotions; in a song or a poem – an echo of our caprices and anxieties; in a historical account – narratives about different countries and nations; in a manual of astronomy – a description of stellar and planetary behaviour. Similarly we look forward to increase our understanding of the subject in treatises on Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics.
What is our interest in the Gītā? By ‘our,’ I refer to common people. What do we reckon as a benefit from a study of the Gītā? If we make this clear to our minds, there will be no reason to complain later that this study was a waste of our time.
Let’s accept that the popularity of the Gītā has attracted us. Several scholars and luminaries of our country have worshipped the Gītā over many millennia. Our preceptors have used the Gītā as a scriptural authority. Many philosophers of Europe have respected it. Our own leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Aurobindo, and other greats have accepted the Gītā as a fount of inspiration to their own lives. It is but natural, therefore, for us to presume that such a famous work must have something special in it.
Our ancestors considered the Gītā as a mokṣa-śāstra (a scripture of liberation). For those who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago, the difficulty of everyday life was not as big a matter as for us. The main means of sustenance then was agriculture.There was nothing to worry about as long as the rains and crops happened on time. There was no contact or distraction from other cultures. The people lived according to the ancient tradition. Traditional rituals, customs, and systems were enough for them. Living peacefully like their fathers and grandfathers was all the pleasure they wanted from life. Hence, with everyday life not bothering them as much and becoming somewhat bearable, their minds sought more after the way beyond. It was thus that mokṣa became something close to them.
Our burden nowadays is of life in the world. Earning one’s food and clothes, job opportunities, hopes and desires, loans and taxes, relentless toil, rest-less movings about, distress in practicing our customs, friction with other faiths, admixture of varṇas, and an infinitude of other worries form our fate. How then can we pay attention to mokṣa? Our daily burdens of life are more than enough for us. Can the Gītā help us amidst all of this? If so, it might be of value to us.
This is the favour we are eager for. Our minds are in turmoil; we need some fortitude. Our beliefs are shaking and infirm; the mind needs a secure resting place. The future is stuck in doubt; we need a comforting assurance. If the Bhagavad-gītā were to show us such viveka, such śraddhā, and such samādhāna, we would desire to read that work.
The Gītā makes it clear in its own words that it can indeed bestow this benefit upon us. Though our ancient commentators gave importance to mokṣa, they have stated that the Gītā is equally applicable to everyone in terms of worldly life.
Dharma is the holistic and sustainable method to enrich worldly [personal and public] life. Dharma and mokṣa cannot exist without one another. The prerequisite to mokṣa is dharma and the perfection of dharma is mokṣa. Hence what was a treatise on mokṣa to our ancestors is to us a treatise on dharma.
The Declaration of the Work
Any new work on the Gītā would have to encounter a fair question: “What’s so special about this?”
There is no dearth of treatises on the Gītā. Ācāryas Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva, who were the chief propounders of their respective schools of philosophy have all written commentaries on the Gītā. There have been sub-commentaries and glosses written upon those works. There are collections of other compendia and exegeses built around these glosses. There are innumerable translations with explanations of the Gītā not just in all Indian languages but also in English and other foreign languages. Why a new work then?
The author of the current work has to say this in response –
- The Gītā is a mokṣa-śāstra according to ancient commentators. In this work, it is chiefly a jīvana-śāstra (scripture of life). While the ancient ones held vairāgya in greater importance, we have to live in this world, finding practical solutions to the problems of life. Applying the teaching of the Gītā to worldly life is our goal.
- Our ācāryas have given greater significance to schools of Vedānta – dvaita, advaita, and viśiṣṭādvaita. In this work, it is considered that it is possible for these sub-schools to not just co-exist without opposition but exist in harmony like brothers.
- Is karma more important in the worship of the Supreme? Or is bhakti more important? Or jñāna? Our ancients speculated on this issue. In our view, all these three, along with aṣṭāṇga-yoga, are not harmful when practised together but could actually help one another. It is possible for these four practices to co-exist. The proportion of each practice could be set according to the seeker’s ability and opportunity. But there is no fear of danger even if the proportion is slightly off the mark.
- Our ancestors held the authority of śruti and smṛti to be paramount. Here, an attempt has been made to harmonize the mode of inquiry employed in the modern scientific method with śruti and smṛti and satisfy rationalism.
- Ancient commentators were well-versed in traditional śāstras. They wrote for those who understood the language of the śāstras. They were able scholars in tarka, vyākaraṇa, and other branches of traditional wisdom. Here, emphasis is placed upon the straightforward meaning of the verses of the Gītā. The Gītā has several paradoxical passages (e.g. “I am not in them; neither are they in me!”) as well as utterances that are epigrams (e.g. “The one who enjoys is verify a thief!”) The meanings of such passages can be stretched in any direction. In such cases, it is but consistent to interpret those passages according to the meanings of unambiguous passages of the Gītā, the Vedas, and Upaniṣads. A simple and straight path is thus sought after here.
- Followers of the Veda and those who don’t follow the Veda are both addressed here.
- The discourse here attempts to follow the method of a non-scholar, a common man, who could discuss deeply with his friends subjects such as the Divine, jīva, destiny and dharma.
It is in light of these reasons that this teaching of the Gītā is termed jīvana-dharma-yoga (the Yoga of the Right Conduct of Life) in this exposition.
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: The emphasis of the modern people is on iha (here) while that of the ancient people was on para (hereafter).
 Translators’ Note: Basically we should not start off with an assumption that the Gītā has internal contradictions.
 न त्वहं तेषु ते मयि (7.12)
 यो भुङ्क्ते स्तेन एव सः (3.12)
 Translators’ Note: The Upaniṣads largely deal with siddhānta while the Gītā’s emphasis is on sādhanā. When in doubt regarding sādhanā, what comes to our aid are the works of siddhānta and the experiential wisdom of oneself or of older and wiser people.