Jñāneśvara’s school of philosophy broadly aligns with Advaita-vedānta; even so, it is not possible to pigeonhole his ideas to one particular school of thought. In this work, we can see threads of all major Indian darśanas. It would not be incorrect, however, to say that the Jñāneśvarī lays emphasis on Bhakti (devotion) and Vairāgya (detachment).
At several places the Jñāneśvarī stresses the inevitability of the guru’s compassion. Jñānadeva considered his elder brother Nivṛttinātha as his guru; in fact, he has called himself Nivṛttinātha-suta – i.e., the son (or protégé) of Nivṛttinātha. He has said that all his words are merely the result of Nivṛttinātha’s kindness.
At the beginning of most adhyāyas (chapters) of the Jñāneśvarī, we find emotionally rich praises of the guru. In the words of Bahiṇā-bāi, “Navhatī akṣare hī, nija nirguṇa bhujā!” –what the Jñāneśvarī contains is not merely letters, it is the very arms of the nirguṇa (formless) brahman.
The Jñāneśvarī has several specialities. There is no other commentary on the Bhagavad-gītā that is as poetic as this. Another facet of its greatness is that it is an ancient composition in the Marathi language which has survived until the present day. An even more important aspect of the Jñāneśvarī is that it not only appealed to the world of scholars but has also attracted towards itself the common people – millions of unlettered villagers.
Jñāneśvara has made no distinction between creative literature and experiential philosophy. In his view, a composition that leads one towards mokṣa (ultimate release, liberation) is real sāhitya (literature). The following Ovī verse captures his thoughts succinctly:
vāce baraveṃ kavitva। kavitvīṃ baraveṃ rasikatva।
rasikatvīṃ paratatva-। sparśu jaisā॥
In one’s speech, there must be poetry
in poetry, there must be rasa
That aesthetic experience is akin to
a touch from the Supreme
Jñāneśvara didn’t see the Gītā as a śāstra-grantha (a treatise on a technical subject). He deemed it as something that could give us aparokṣānubhava (direct perception and experience). In the beginning of his work he says, “Anubhavāvī he kathā” – experience and enjoy this story. The Jñāneśvarī is a beloved of the young and the old alike because of its qualities of sweetness and lucidity. Jñānadeva was the one who first showed how sweetly Marathi can be used.
There is a subtle nuance that should be observed carefully. It was not Jñānadeva’s aim to compose poetry. For a person who is composing an independent poem, there is ample scope for exercising his creativity in multiple dimensions but what Jñāneśvara had in front of him was the Bhagavad-gītā. To provide a poetic interpretation and explanation for a Vedānta-śāstra-grantha is indeed a marvellous feat.
Jñāneśvara suggests that this kāvyānanda (enjoyment of poetry) is effortless – “A bee extracts nectar from a lotus but the lotus never takes notices of this happening! So also is the kāvyānanda that one derives from this work.”
He says that the ultimate purpose of the study of this work and putting it into practice is Praśānti, tranquillity. After all, śānti-rasa (aesthetic experience of peace) is brahman (Supreme, all-pervading being; Absolute Reality). All other rasas (aesthetic experiences) come as guests in this mansion of śānti-rasa, says Jñāneśvara.
Although he has given so much of importance for the poetic beauty of his work, Jñāneśvara says that it is merely a stepping stone for attaining higher spiritual realms. “This kāvya should lead a person to para-tattva-sparśa – these words of his are pregnant with meaning. Here ‘sparśa’ (touch) suggests two things: i. the study of this work is merely a sādhanā and not the Ultimate Reality and ii. Just as a sparśa-maṇi (touchstone) completely transforms an object, the Bhagavad-gītā too can bring about transformation in a human being.
Tapas-phala (The Fruit of Penance)
Jñāneśvara thinks that he must have acquired this skill as a result of his penance performed over long years.
mājhiyā satyavādāceṃ tapa। vācā keleṃ bahuta kalpa।
tayā phaḻāceṃ heṃ mahādvīpa। pātalī prabhu॥
I have attained refuge
in this great island of Gītā
as a result of my penance of honest speech
spreading over several aeons
Jñānadeva lived only for twenty-one years. He was about fifteen or sixteen when he composed the Jñāneśvarī. His father Viṭhalapanta passed away when his children were very young. When such was the case, how and wherefrom did Jñāneśvara acquire such vast and deep knowledge of Vedānta? It is possible only by divine blessings.
One of the Purāṇas narrates a story – once when Śaṅkara started speaking about the Gītā, an astonished Pārvatī asked him a few questions. In response, Śaṅkara said, “Just as your svarūpa (form, essence) is always youthful and eternal, so is the essence of the Gītā!”
...devī jaiseṃ kā svarūpa tujheṃ।
taiseṃ nitya nūtana dekhije। gītātattva॥
Prema-latā – Creeper of Love
Jñāneśvara tries to attract readers by saying that their lives can become fulfilled by listening to the great teachings of the Gītā.
tarī avadhāna ekaleṃ dīje। maga sarvasukhāsi pātra hoije।
heṃ pratijñottara mājheṃ। ughaḍa aikā॥
If you pay full attention to the Gītā,
you will attain all kinds of happiness –
I will assure you that; it’s my promise
parī prauḍhī na boleṃ ho jī। tumhāṃ sarvajñāṃcyā samājīṃ।
deyāveṃ avadhāna he mājhī। vinavaṇī salagīcī॥
I’m not commanding you to listen to the Gītā,
for you (people) are all-knowing
I’m just requesting you out of the affection
and familiarity that I have with you.
Jñāneśvara says that Sanskrit, which is a deva-bhāṣā (language of the gods) and Marathi, which is a mānava-bhāṣā (language of the masses) are both equal to each other.
jaiseṃ aṃgāceni suṃdarapaṇeṃ। leṇiyā āṃgaci hoya leṇeṃ।
tetha aḻaṃkārileṃ kavaṇa kavaṇeṃ। heṃ nirvacenā॥
When a beautiful body is decked
with magnificent ornaments,
it is difficult to say
what enhances the beauty of the other –
are the ornaments adding charm to the body or
is the body making the ornaments attractive
taisī deśī āṇi saṃskṛta vāṇī। ekā bhāvārthācyā sokāsanīṃ।
śobhatī āyaṇī। cokhaṭa āikā॥
Similarly, both Marāṭhi and Saṃskṛta
have equal capability to help us
understand the essence of the Gītā!
The Exuberant Play of Upamās (Part 1)
Jñāneśvara’s intention was to make the Gītā intelligible not merely to scholars but also to the common people. One has to read and experience the lucidity and sweetness of the Jñāneśvarī. It makes the dense and profound teachings of the Gītā accessible to everyone. All the upamās (loosely translates into ‘simile’) used by Jñāneśvara are memorable.
From the beginning to the end, the Jñāneśvarī is full of upamās (simile), dṛṣṭāntas (allegory), and rūpakas (metaphor). One can easily say that the abundance of upamās found in this work is unmatched not just in Marathi literature but in the Indian literature. Jñāneśvara pleads with people to have sahṛdayatā, to read his commentary with the heart of a connoisseur.
bāḻaka bāpāciye tāṭīṃ rige। āṇi bāpāteṃci jevaūṃ lāge।
kīṃ to saṃtoṣaleni vegeṃ। mukhaci voḍhavī॥
A child that eats food from the same plate as the father
takes a fistful of rice and feeds it to the father as well
As for the father, he opens his mouth wide
to gladly accept that morsel of food
taisā mī tumhāṃpratī। cāvaṭī karitaseṃ bāḻamatī।
tarī tumhī saṃtoṣije aisī jātī। premācī ase॥
Likewise, with my childish mind,
I too feed you something;
it’s possible that you too will derive joy from it
Isn’t this the business of love?
 “…नव्हती अक्षरे ही, निज निर्गुण भुजा।
बहिणी क्षेम देती, अर्थ ऐकता ओजा॥”
 वाचे बरवें कवित्व। कवित्वीं बरवें रसिकत्व।
रसिकत्वीं परतत्व-। स्पर्शु जैसा॥ – Jñāneśvarī 18.347
 “…अनुभवावी हे कथा।…” – Jñāneśvarī 1.57
 माझिया सत्यवादाचें तप। वाचा केलें बहुत कल्प।
तया फळाचें हें महाद्वीप। पातली प्रभु॥ – Jñāneśvarī 16.32
 ...देवी जैसें का स्वरूप तुझें।
तैसें नित्य नूतन देखिजे। गीतातत्त्व॥ – Jñāneśvarī 1.71
 तरी अवधान एकलें दीजे। मग सर्वसुखासि पात्र होइजे।
हें प्रतिज्ञोत्तर माझें। उघड ऐका॥ – Jñāneśvarī 9.1
 परी प्रौढी न बोलें हो जी। तुम्हां सर्वज्ञांच्या समाजीं।
देयावें अवधान हे माझी। विनवणी सलगीची॥ – Jñāneśvarī 9.2
 जैसें अंगाचेनि सुंदरपणें। लेणिया आंगचि होय लेणें।
तेथ अळंकारिलें कवण कवणें। हें निर्वचेना॥ – Jñāneśvarī 10.44
 तैसी देशी आणि संस्कृत वाणी। एका भावार्थाच्या सोकासनीं।
शोभती आयणी। चोखट आइका॥ – Jñāneśvarī 10.45
 बाळक बापाचिये ताटीं रिगे। आणि बापातेंचि जेवऊं लागे।
कीं तो संतोषलेनि वेगें। मुखचि वोढवी॥ – Jñāneśvarī 9.15
 तैसा मी तुम्हांप्रती। चावटी करितसें बाळमती।
तरी तुम्ही संतोषिजे ऐसी जाती। प्रेमाची असे॥ – Jñāneśvarī 9.16