What does the Bhagavad Gita teach?

In this text we want to show the main thoughts and themes the Bha­gavad Gita deals with. Our aim is to point out the answers the “Song of the Lord”1 gives to such impor­tant ques­tions as “How can we reach lib­er­a­tion from all evil and sins?, Which image should we have about God?, What does it mean to love God?, What is the impor­tance of med­i­ta­tion?,” and oth­ers. We will not write a com­pre­hen­sive sum­ma­ry but stress those issues which are essen­tial to under­stand the mes­sage of this book and to assess them from a Chris­t­ian point of view.

Setting and context of the Bhagavad Gita

It is an episode in the 6th book of India’s great epic, the Mahab­hara­ta. The main sto­ry of this poem is the war between the Kau­ravas and their cousins, the Pan­davas. Just at the begin­ning of the bat­tle Arju­na, the bravest war­rior of the Pan­davas, refus­es to fight and Krish­na, the incar­na­tion of the great god Vish­nu and now the helper of the Pan­davas as a char­i­o­teer of Arju­na, endeav­ours to con­vince him to ful­fill his caste-duty. That’s the start­ing point of the Bha­gavad Gita in which Krish­na explains to Arju­na the most pro­found things about man and god.2

Krishna explains why Arjuna should fight against his relatives in the war: Fulfilling one’s duty

Krish­na has come as the incar­nat­ed god Vish­nu to set up right­eous­ness again.

For the pro­tec­tion of the good, for the destruc­tion of evil-doers, for the set­ting up of the law of right­eous­ness I come into being age after age. (Bha­gavad Gita 4:8)3

First of all he argues that the indi­vid­ual self is immor­tal and can­not be killed.

Nev­er is it born nor dies; nev­er did it come to be nor will it ever come to be again: unborn, eter­nal, ever­last­ing is this [self]4, —primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:20)

Fur­ther­more, rein­car­na­tion is a self­evi­dent fact, Krish­na says in chap­ter 2:

For sure is the death of all that is born, sure is the birth of all that dies: so in a mat­ter that no one can pre­vent you have no cause to grieve. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:27)

He reminds the war­rior Arju­na of his caste-duty …

Like­wise con­sid­er your own [caste-]duty, then too you have no cause to quail (means: to feel fright­ened); for bet­ter than a fight pre­scribed by law is noth­ing for a man of the prince­ly class. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:31)

… and his hon­our in front of oth­er fight­ers.

From fear he fled the battlefield—so will they think of you, the mighty char­i­o­teers. Great­ly esteemed by them before, you will bring con­tempt upon your­self. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:35)

Inter­est­ing­ly Krish­na nev­er argues with the fact that this war is a right­eous fight against evil peo­ple. This fits the fact that the unjust leader of the Kau­ravas Dury­o­d­hana, who reject­ed Krish­na, entered par­adise because he died in the bat­tle fac­ing the ene­my and thus ful­filled his duty.5 Can some­one who is an ene­my of God, act­ing unright­eous­ly, make his way into par­adise only because he ful­filled his caste-duty? Shouldn’t our deeds rather be deter­mined by God who wants to show us his will in every sit­u­a­tion?

Renunciation of the fruits of works through spiritual exercise

The Gita then elab­o­rates on the thought of detach­ment and renun­ci­a­tion which is empha­sised again and again as means to gain wisdom—an idea that occurs also in Bud­dhism. Arju­na should not think of the con­se­quences or fruits of his works, he should act free from the effect of deeds which bind him.

Stand fast in Yoga, sur­ren­der­ing attach­ment; in suc­cess and fail­ure be the same and then get busy with your works. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:48)

Yoga (see next sec­tion) is the prac­tice by which one gains same­ness with every­thing that is Brah­man6. Chap­ter 2 then speaks about the lib­er­a­tion of rein­car­na­tion through renounc­ing the fruits of works.

For those wise men who are inte­grat­ed by the soul, who have renounced the fruit that is born of works, these will be freed from the bondage of [re-]birth and fare to that region that knows no ill. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:51)

Krish­na points at him­self as an exam­ple of act­ing with­out attach­ment.

Works can nev­er affect Me. I have no yearn­ing for their fruits. Whoso would know that this is how I am will nev­er be bound by works. (Bha­gavad Gita 4:14)

The ulti­mate goal is to achieve Nir­vana, to reach the fixed, still­state of Brah­man which is beyond space and time, detached from any influ­ence, desires and even every emo­tion and thought. That’s the state of high­est joy accord­ing to the Gita.

Win­ning some pleas­ant thing [the sage] will not rejoice, nor shrink dis­qui­etened when the unpleas­ant comes his way: stead­fast-and-still his soul, [all] uncon­fused, he will know Brah­man, in Brah­man [stilled] he’ll stand. [His] self detached from con­tacts with the out­side world, in [him]self he finds his joy, [his]self in Brah­man inte­grat­ed by spir­i­tu­al exer­cise, he finds unfail­ing joy. (Bha­gavad Gita 5:20–21)

Whoever’s self is con­trolled because his soul is stead­fast and still, finds joy and light with­in him­self.

His joy with­in, his bliss with­in, his light with­in, the man who-is-inte­grat­ed-in-spir­i­tu­al-exer­cise becomes Brah­man and draws nigh (means: near) to Nir­vana that is Brah­man too. (Bha­gavad Gita 5:24)

In this verse the Bud­dhist term “Nir­vana” is equat­ed with “Brah­man.” On the one hand the Bud­dhist Nir­vana is the destruc­tion of life as we know it. On the oth­er hand it is under­stood as a state of lib­er­a­tion, an abol­ish­ment of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. The Gita though goes even fur­ther than this. In the last verse of chap­ter 5 it says that by know­ing Krish­na, which hints at a rela­tion­ship with him as a per­son­al God, one can find peace. This is actu­al­ly a con­tra­dic­tion to the imper­son­al con­cept of Brah­man.

Know­ing Me to be the prop­er object of sac­ri­fice and mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, great Lord of all the worlds, friend of all con­tin­gent (means: depend­ing) beings, he reach­es peace. (Bha­gavad Gita 5:29)

Nev­er­the­less the thought of renounc­ing every attach­ment is not giv­en up but expressed also in lat­er chap­ters. The teach­ing of find­ing joy and sat­is­fac­tion in one’s self alone and being detached of every­thing that’s con­nect­ed with works includes even the rejec­tion of glad­ness and the love for what is good as well as the rejec­tion of evil.

Who has no love for any thing, who rejoic­es not at what­ev­er good befalls (means: some­thing pleas­ant hap­pens to some­body) him nor hates the bad that comes his way—firm-stablished is the wis­dom of such a man. (Bha­gavad Gita 2:57)

Hav­ing a neu­tral atti­tude towards every­one is praised. How­ev­er, it is not taught that the aim of approach­ing every­one in the same way is to love active­ly or over­come ego­is­tic pref­er­ences in rela­tion­ships. The aim is rather indif­fer­ence and pas­siv­i­ty.

Out­stand­ing is he whose soul views in the self­same way friends, com­rades, ene­mies, those indif­fer­ent, neu­trals, men who are hate­ful and those who are his kin—the good and the evil too. (Bha­gavad Gita 6:9)

Does this real­ly fit our human nature which loves what is true and good and hates what is bad? Does it fit our nature which wants to become active for the sake of doing good in help­ing the one who is in need for instance?

Recommended acts of devotion: Sacrifice and meditation

Gita’s under­stand­ing of sac­ri­fice under­lines the impor­tance of the atti­tude of love by exceed­ing the sim­ple view of “What I give to God, I will get in return.”

Be it a leaf or flower or fruit or water that a zeal­ous soul may offer Me with love’s devo­tion, that do I [will­ing­ly] accept, for it was love that made the offer­ing. (Bha­gavad Gita 9:26)

How­ev­er, offer­ings to all dif­fer­ent gods are accept­ed because it is any­way Krish­na who ulti­mate­ly receives every sac­ri­fice.

Even those who lov­ing­ly devote them­selves to oth­er gods and sac­ri­fice to them, full filled [sic] with faith, do real­ly wor­ship Me though the rite may dif­fer from the norm. For it is I who of all sac­ri­fices am recip­i­ent and Lord, but they do not know Me as I real­ly am, and so they fall [back into the world of men]. (Bha­gavad Gita 9:23–24)

Wouldn’t a lov­ing God want his wor­ship­pers to know whom they are serv­ing and how they should serve instead of leav­ing them in igno­rance? In oth­er vers­es the per­son­al rela­tion­ship with Krish­na is empha­sised but here it seems that he does not desire this. He is sat­is­fied with rit­u­al­is­tic wor­ship giv­en to oth­er gods.

Eat­ing sac­ri­ficed food puri­fies from all blem­ish.

Good men who eat the leav­ings of the sac­ri­fice are freed from every taint (means: effect of some­thing bad), but evil are they and evil do they eat who cook [only] for their own sakes. (Bha­gavad Gita 3:13)

Anoth­er rec­om­mend­ed means is to med­i­tate on Krish­na as described in chap­ter 6:

Let the ath­lete of the spir­it ever inte­grate [him]self stand­ing in a place apart, alone, his thoughts and self restrained (means: show­ing calm con­trol rather than emo­tion), devoid of [earth­ly] hope, pos­sess­ing noth­ing. Let him set up for [him]self a steady seat in a clean place, nei­ther too high nor yet too low, bestrewn with cloth or hide or grass. There let him sit and make his mind a sin­gle point, let him restrain the oper­a­tions of his thought and sens­es and prac­tise inte­gra­tion to puri­fy the self. [Remain­ing] still, let him keep body, head, and neck in a straight line, unmov­ing; let him fix his eye on the tip of his nose, not look­ing round about him. [There] let him sit, [his] self all stilled, his fear all gone, firm in his vow of chasti­ty, his mind con­trolled, his thoughts on Me, inte­grat­ed, intent on Me. (Bha­gavad Gita 6:10–14)

Keep­ing one­self per­fect­ly still and con­cen­trat­ing on god one can reach the state of Brah­man which in itself is total still­ness, not influ­enced or moved by any­thing. Although one should con­cen­trate on god while med­i­tat­ing the whole pas­sage reflects strong con­cen­tra­tion on one­self and empha­sizes the right pos­ture in a clean place.

Image of God: Pantheistic7 and panentheistic8 view on the one hand and theistic9 view on the other hand merged together

Which image of God does the Bha­gavad Gita have? First of all one can find state­ments reflect­ing a pan­the­is­tic or even panen­the­is­tic under­stand­ing. Krish­na says in 7:4–5:

Eight­fold divid­ed is my Nature—thus: earth, water, fire and air, space, mind and also soul—and the ego. This is the low­er: but oth­er than this I have a high­er Nature; this too must you know. [And this is Nature] devel­oped into life by which this world is kept in being. (Bha­gavad Gita 7:4–5)

He iden­ti­fies him­self with the mate­r­i­al world but also with a high­er form of exis­tence which “devel­oped into life.” This expres­sion means the total­i­ty of con­scious mat­ter that sus­tains the whole world because each indi­vid­ual, con­scious self is a “part” of god as expressed in 15:7:

A part of Me in the liv­ing world, eter­nal, becomes a live­ly soul, attract­ing to itself the mind and sens­es, Nature mak­ing whole. (Bha­gavad Gita 15:7)10

Fur­ther exam­pla­to­ry vers­es are in chap­ter 7:

I am Flavour in the water, in moon and sun I am the Light, sacred Word in all the Vedas, Sound in space and manhood’s Might. I am Fra­grance in the earth, the Flames that in the fire appear, I am Life in every being, Asceti­cism (means: to renounce phys­i­cal plea­sures for reli­gious rea­sons) in men aus­tere (means: strict and seri­ous). (Bha­gavad Gita 7:8–9)11

As men­tioned already above the Gita uses Bud­dhist terms and thoughts say­ing that yoga as a spir­i­tu­al exer­cise has its goal in the “unlink­ing of the link with suf­fer­ing-and-pain” (Bha­gavad Gita 6:23). For a Bud­dhist it is the high­est joy if the self becomes Nir­vana. How­ev­er, they do not speak about God as a dis­tinct being or absolute enti­ty12 as the Gita does. The Gita then includes also a monis­tic13 point of view in the teach­ings of Krish­na. A monist who iden­ti­fies the human indi­vid­ual soul with the ground of the whole uni­verse can find his view pre­sent­ed in chap­ter 6 for exam­ple.

With self inte­grat­ed by spir­i­tu­al exer­cise he sees the self in all beings stand­ing, all beings in the self: the same in every­thing he sees. Who sees Me every­where, who sees the All in Me, for him I am not lost, nor is he lost to Me. (Bha­gavad Gita 6:29–30)

The lat­ter part of verse 30 seems to allude to an indi­vid­ual exis­tence in eter­ni­ty in con­trast to the idea of the self being dis­solved in the uni­ver­sal soul like a drop of water in the sea. The the­is­tic con­cep­tion becomes more and more vis­i­ble in the lat­er chap­ters. Krishna’s sov­er­eign­ty over Brah­man can be seen also in chap­ter 14:

For I am the base sup­port­ing Brahman,—immortal [Brah­man] which knows no change,—[supporting] too the eter­nal law of right­eous­ness and absolute beat­i­tude. (Bha­gavad Gita 14:27)

Fools think of Me as one unman­i­fest who has reached man­i­fes­ta­tion: they know noth­ing of my high­er state, the Change­less, All-High­est. Since [my] cre­ative pow­er and the way I use it con­ceal Me, I am not revealed to all; this world, delud­ed, knows Me not—[Me,] the Unborn and Change­less. Beings past and present and yet to come I know: but there is no one at all that knows Me. (Bha­gavad Gita 7:24–26)

Although qual­i­ties like “unborn,” “change­less,” and “high­est” can with dif­fi­cul­ty be referred to God as an imper­son­al pow­er, they best fit a the­is­tic under­stand­ing. The men­tioned fea­ture of omni­science and the might to cre­ate in verse 25 under­line this inter­pre­ta­tion.

Krishna’s rev­e­la­tions about the ori­gin of the world again demon­strates how pan­the­is­tic and panen­the­is­tic ideas on the one hand and the­is­tic ideas on the oth­er hand are min­gled togeth­er.

Great Brah­man is to Me a womb, in it I plant the seed: from this derives the ori­gin of all con­tin­gent beings. In what­ev­er womb what­ev­er form aris­es-and-grows-togeth­er, of those Great Brah­man is the womb, I the father, giv­er of the seed. (Bha­gavad Gita 14:3–4)

Gita’s under­stand­ing of cre­ation is not mere­ly a pan­the­is­tic ema­na­tion14 of Krish­na because he is the absolute Spir­it, the Unman­i­fest beyond the per­ish­able—“… in him all beings sub­sist, by Him this uni­verse is spun” (Bha­gavad Gita 8:22). Here in chap­ter 14 Krish­na is greater than Brah­man which fits the panen­the­is­tic view although terms like “father” and “giv­er of the seed” remind us rather of a the­is­tic under­stand­ing. On the oth­er hand it is still dif­fer­ent from the monothe­is­tic15 Judeo-Chris­t­ian con­cept of cre­ation out of noth­ing through God’s word. If we com­pare the fol­low­ing two pas­sages it becomes dif­fi­cult to grasp the con­cep­tion of God this book con­veys.

It is I who pour out heat, hold back the rain and send it forth: death­less­ness am I and death, what is and what is not. (Bha­gavad Gita 9:19)

I will tell you that which should be known: once a man knows it, he attains to immor­tal­i­ty. The high­est Brah­man it is called,—beginningless,—It is not Being nor is It Not-Being. (Bha­gavad Gita 13:12)

The high­est Brah­man means here Krishna’s nature as we have seen in 7:5 (Krish­na is life which upholds the world) as well as in chap­ter 8:3 (“The Imper­ish­able is the high­est Brah­man; it is called inher­ent nature in so far as it apper­tains (means: to belong to) to [an indi­vid­ual] self,—as the cre­ative force known as works which gives rise to the natures of con­tin­gent (means: depend­ing) beings.”) where it is the “Imper­ish­able.” Because the Bha­gavad Gita wants to include dif­fer­ent philo­soph­i­cal­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry world views, it ends up with state­ments that God is noth­ing and every­thing.

Krishna loves man and should be loved and worshipped

The source of all am I; from Me all things pro­ceed: this know­ing, wise men com­mune with Me in love, full filled with warm affec­tion. (Bha­gavad Gita 10:8)

It is clear that only a per­son­al being can be loved.

On Me your mind, on Me your lov­ing-ser­vice, for Me your sac­ri­fice, to Me be your pros­tra­tions: now that you have thus inte­grat­ed self, your striv­ing bent on Me, to Me you will come. (Bha­gavad Gita 9:34)

It has been point­ed out already in chap­ter 6 that the yogin who renounced every attach­ment and found lib­er­a­tion still lacks the ado­ra­tion to God. The per­fect spir­i­tu­al man turns in love and wor­ship to God—this goes beyond the Bud­dhist aim of becom­ing Brah­man (which is Nir­vana) and see­ing one­self in every­thing and every­thing in one­self.

But of all ath­letes of the spir­it the man of faith who loves-and-hon­ours Me, his inmost self absorbed in Me—he is the most ful­ly inte­grat­ed: this do I believe. (Bha­gavad Gita 6:47)

Krishna’s love to man is expressed in the strongest way at the end of the Gita.

And now again give ear to this my high­est Word, of all the most mys­te­ri­ous: “I love you well.” There­fore will I tell you your sal­va­tion. Bear Me in mind, love Me and wor­ship Me, sac­ri­fice, pros­trate your­self to Me: so will you come to Me, I promise you tru­ly, for you are dear to Me. Give up all things of law, turn to Me, your only refuge, I will deliv­er you from all evils; have no care. (Bha­gavad Gita 18:64–66)

It is vis­i­ble that the pan­the­is­tic and panen­the­is­tic under­stand­ing on the one hand and the the­is­tic under­stand­ing on the oth­er hand are merged togeth­er. There is no clear dis­tinc­tion between the two. How­ev­er, the thought of a per­son­al God whom we should devote our lives to is giv­en clear pref­er­ence.

In a vision Krishna is seen as the transcendent16 body of the whole world

In chap­ter 11 Krish­na reveals his divine majesty to Arju­na which can be regard­ed as the cli­max of the whole book. The bow war­rior sees God with a celes­tial eye:

Arms, bel­lies, mouths and eyes all manifold—so do I see You wher­ev­er I may look—infinite your form! End, mid­dle, or again begin­ning I can­not see in You, O Monarch Uni­ver­sal, [man­i­fest] in every form! (Bha­gavad Gita 11:16)

The whole uni­verse is seen in this vision as the body of Krish­na …

Then did the son of Pan­du see the whole uni­verse in One con­verged, there in the body of the God of gods, yet divid­ed out in mul­ti­plic­i­ty. (Bha­gavad Gita 11:13)

… and every­thing enters his mouth …

On every side You lick, lick up,—devouring,—worlds, uni­vers­es, everything,—with burn­ing mouths. Vish­nu! your dread­ful rays of light fill the whole uni­verse with flames-of-glo­ry, scorch­ing [every­where]. (Bha­gavad Gita 11:30)

In con­trast to the the­is­tic teach­ing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates between cre­ator (as spir­it) and his cre­ation, Krish­na appears as the tran­scen­dent body of all mat­ter and all imma­te­r­i­al indi­vid­ual selves, as the one all uni­fy­ing absolute self. He lives in every­one whether that person’s life is good or bad.

Self­ish­ness, force and pride, desire and anger, [these do] they rely on, envy­ing and hat­ing Me who dwell in their bod­ies as I dwell in all. (Bha­gavad Gita 16:18)

Such a doc­trine is unac­cept­able for some­one who believes in an absolute­ly good God who does not par­take in any evil­ness. The God of the Chris­tians with­draws from every­one who mis­us­es his free will for a self­ish god­less life.

Love towards others?: Conclusion

If we look for an answer to how a spir­i­tu­al man should behave towards oth­er peo­ple we find some gen­er­al qual­i­ties like being “truth­ful, free from anger, renounc­ing, com­pas­sion­ate to beings, free from greed, gen­tle, mod­est, and patient” in the begin­ning of chap­ter 16. In the whole book of the Bha­gavad Gita no men­tion is made of broth­er­ly love and all that it includes, like help­ing our broth­ers in faith in their spir­i­tu­al growth and endeav­our­ing for peo­ple that they find the path to sal­va­tion. Instead one should med­i­tate alone, being aware of the right or wrong body pos­ture. With­out think­ing whether it is right or wrong he should ful­fill his caste-duty. All these are expect­ed to be done in a state lib­er­at­ed from any kind of fruits of works. This means to be free from every emo­tion and thought because these would lead to attach­ment and bondage. This is not sur­pris­ing because the Gita, in spite of pre­sent­ing Krish­na as the only one and per­son­al God, and in this way over­comes the pan­the­is­tic and Bud­dhist approach, does not draw clear lines. In fact the Gita wants to use for­mer con­sid­er­a­tions of Hin­duism by ascrib­ing them a low­er lev­el of recog­ni­tion of how to gain lib­er­a­tion. It stops mid­way. A verse in chap­ter 4 shows the lim­it­ed view of a per­son­al God:

In what­so­ev­er way men approach Me, in that same way do I return their love. Wher­ev­er they may be, men fol­low in my foot­steps. (Bha­gavad Gita 4:11)

This reminds rather of a mechan­i­cal law that sim­ply repays and not of a per­son­al supreme being who loves the sin­ner and for­gives the trans­gres­sions so as to help the weak and bur­dened out of their sins to live a life in joy­ful rela­tion­ship with their cre­ator.

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Foot­notes:
  1. Bha­gavad Gita lit­er­al­ly means “Song of the Lord.” 
  2. But as we learn from the 14th book of the Mahab­hara­ta Arju­na proves unwor­thy of receiv­ing the divine mys­tery because he for­got every sin­gle word of the Gita and there­fore Krish­na had to repeat it. 
  3. Out of numer­ous trans­la­tions we have cho­sen R.C. Zaehner’s because of its objec­tiv­i­ty. If not oth­er­wise men­tioned all quo­ta­tions are tak­en from his book: The Bha­gavad Gita, with a com­men­tary based on the orig­i­nal sources, R.C. Zaehn­er, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press 1969. 
  4. Text in these brack­ets is added for eas­i­er under­stand­ing. 
  5. 18th book of the Mahab­hara­ta 1:4–5. 
  6. Brah­man is the tran­scen­dent (sur­pass­ing phys­i­cal exis­tence) and imma­nent (exist­ing with­in the world, oppo­site of tran­scen­dent) ulti­mate real­i­ty of Hin­duism. 
  7. Pan­the­ism is the view that every­thing is of an all-encom­pass­ing imma­nent abstract, not per­son­al God; or that God is syn­ony­mous with the mate­r­i­al uni­verse. 
  8. Panen­the­ism believes that God exists and inter­pen­e­trates every part of nature. It claims that God is greater than the uni­verse and that the uni­verse is con­tained with­in God. 
  9. The­ism is the belief in at least one per­son­al deity. 
  10. Quot­ed from The Bha­gavad Gita, a verse trans­la­tion, Geof­frey Par­rinder, Research Press 1999. 
  11. Quot­ed from The Bha­gavad Gita, a verse trans­la­tion, Geof­frey Par­rinder, Research Press 1999. 
  12. An enti­ty is some­thing that has a dis­tinct, sep­a­rate exis­tence. 
  13. Monism in gen­er­al means that there is uni­ty in a par­tic­u­lar field of inquiry. Here it holds that the human indi­vid­ual soul is the same as the divine ground of the whole uni­verse. 
  14. Ema­na­tion (“to flow from”) means that all things derive from God or first Prin­ci­ple by degrad­ing to the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of all beings and objects where­as God is not clear­ly dis­tinct from the world. 
  15. Monothe­ism states that there is only one per­son­al God who is the cre­ator of the whole uni­verse and dis­tinct from his cre­ation. 
  16. Tran­scen­dent means sur­pass­ing phys­i­cal exis­tence.