The Bhagavad Gita | Study Guide


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The Bhagavad Gita | Context


Hindu Texts

There are two major groupings of texts in the Hindu tradition: shruti and smriti. Shruti, or "that which is heard," encompasses the most sacred of Hindu texts, including the Vedasor scriptures containing hymns, liturgical material, myths, prayers, and guidance about ritual—and the Upanishads, the fourth section of the Vedas that contains commentary and philosophical inquiry. These texts are considered to have been handed down or heard by the great sages and comprise the basis of most Hindu philosophy.

Smriti, on the other hand, means "that which is remembered" and comprises Hindu literature passed down in the memories of ordinary people. Although considered less sacred than their shruti counterparts, smriti texts are more influential in modern practices of Hinduism. Epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (epic poem of India, composed after 300 BCE) are considered smriti. They are stories with religious and philosophical importance that expound and exemplify the basic philosophies laid out in shruti texts.

The Mahabharata

The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Blessed One, constitutes a small part of the epic known as the Mahabharata, or Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty. The longest epic poem still in existence, the Mahabharata consists of 100,000 slokas, or verses; the Bhagavad Gita makes up 700 of those. Like the Gita, the composition of the Mahabharata is often attributed to the sage Vyasa, even though the epic was written and compiled over centuries. Extensive scholarship dates the work in its present form from about 400 CE.

The epic tells the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two related families who clash over power and the ruling of a kingdom. Two sons, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, are born to a great ruler. The elder, Dhritarashtra, should inherit the kingdom, but because he is born blind, Pandu rules instead. Pandu later dies, leaving five sons, and Dhritarashtra then takes the throne instead of Pandu's eldest. Dhritarashtra raises the Pandava boys with his own sons (of which there are 100). When the eldest Kaurava son, Duryodhana, inherits the throne, he exiles all five of the Pandavas along with their common wife, Draupadi. To avoid further conflict, Dhritarashtra divides the kingdom into two parts, permitting his son to rule one and the Pandavas the other. The eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, plays dice with Duryodhana for sovereignty over both kingdoms—and loses everything.

The Pandavas are then exiled for 13 years. The epic records their many adventures in exile, which ends with a battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Bhagavad Gita takes place just before that battle starts, with Prince Arjuna hesitant at first to fight his relatives. Two sides clash, and all the Kauravas are killed. Sorrowful at the death of their relatives, the Pandavas abdicate the throne to another relation and leave for the Himalayas. Four of the brothers, including Prince Arjuna, and their wife Draupadi perish during the journey. Yudhishthira is the only brother who reaches Indra's heaven in the mountains. He finds Duryodhana already there, having fulfilled his dharma as a warrior. Yudhishthira, however, still has attachments to release, so he is sent back into the cycle of rebirth for one more life.

With many regional versions and variations, the stories in the Mahabharata are frequently performed theatrically and incorporated into festivals all around India. An Indian television series production of this epic in the late 1980s was one of the most popular television shows ever aired in India. British director Peter Brook (b. 1925) staged a nine-hour live production of the epic, which was later turned into a six-hour miniseries. The Mahabharata has found and retained religious importance and popularity throughout India and around the world.


Krishna, one of the two primary figures in the Bhagavad Gita, is a Hindu deity who appears in many different stories over the ages. Widely worshipped, he is one of the most popular gods in India and is often considered an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. However, many Krishna-centric traditions argue it is the other way around or that Krishna is a separate god in his own right.

Krishna's history is documented in important texts. The royal family into which he was born hid him as the result of a prophecy that he would destroy his uncle, the king. Krishna was raised instead by a cowherd and his wife. The texts describe Krishna as a mischievous child who is also incredibly powerful and able to slay demons. As a young man, Krishna is known as a lover. He calls out with his flute to the gopis, or female cowherds, to dance with him in the moonlight. Krishna later becomes involved in the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, even though he does not fight in the battle. Instead, he becomes adviser and charioteer to Prince Arjuna. Scholars generally agree that Krishna's personality in the Gita is a composite of different stories from diverse communities. Greatly beloved and revered, Krishna is frequently depicted in painting and sculpture across many eras.

Hindu Caste System

The caste system has long been a significant and controversial part of Hindu beliefs. There are four broad primary castes in addition to thousands of smaller castes and subcastes. They are the Brahmans, or priest caste; the Kshatriyas, or warrior caste; the Vaishyas, or merchant caste; and the Sudras, or laborer caste. A fifth group consists of untouchables or people outside of the caste system. Until recent times, intermingling or intermarriage between these castes was completely forbidden. In some areas, it still is.

Many Hindu religious texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, reinforce the critical importance of the caste system in religious and social terms. Through karma, or the cycle of rebirth and actions, a person is born into an incarnation in accordance with prior actions. If people are born into low-caste families, those people must do their duty, or dharma, as members of that caste. On the basis of their actions, they may hope for a better rebirth. The difficulty with this system in a modern context is that it inherently places the responsibility for the circumstances of birth—something one does not control—on the individuals themselves.

Gandhi's Interpretation of the Gita

Political activist and leader of India's liberation movement against Great Britain, Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) had a powerful and special relationship with the Bhagavad Gita. He called the Gita his "eternal mother" because the text gave comfort and support in his moments of darkness. It also provided him with practical and ethical standards for living. Gandhi found important messages even in the parts of the epic that seem to contradict his own ideologies, such as nonviolence. Gandhi writes that "under the guise of physical warfare," the Gita was really describing "the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind." In this way, Gandhi manages to reconcile his own beliefs in nonviolence, or satyagraha, with the central messages of the Bhagavad Gita.

Gandhi notes that the author of the Gita did not write it with the intention of creating or establishing a doctrine of self-realization. Instead, the poem intends to show "the most excellent way to attain self-realization." Gandhi saw the Bhagavad Gita as a text of guidance, with Krishna representing divine incarnation. Gandhi's perspective underscores the enduring practical application of the Gita for anyone devoted to yoga today. The writers of the Gita speak through Krishna to provide a road map for attaining inner freedom. Its core message is the idea of nonattachment to the fruits, or results, of one's actions. This particular concept spoke directly to Gandhi.

Another aspect of the Bhagavad Gita that attracted Gandhi is the text's teachings about devotion. Gandhi interpreted the poem's ideas of devotion as intimately connected to one's solitary experience or sense of inner being. The Gita doesn't promote devotion that involves outward acts of display, such as making offerings or engaging in external ritual. Instead, it focuses on internal acts of devotion, including remaining free of jealousies and hate, cultivating mercy and forgiveness, and disciplining the mind and body. Gandhi found this type of devotion inspiring, as it spoke to his own beliefs and philosophy.


The original philosophy of yoga incorporates physical poses, or asanas, related to meditation, but these are only a small part of a larger concept that Krishna illuminates in the Bhagavad Gita. Yoga, meaning "yoke" or "union," is one of the primary systems of Hindu philosophy. The practice of yoga was systematized by the sage Patañjali (lived second century BCE or fifth century CE) in his yoga-sutras. Patañjali insisted that the spiritually aware person understands that suffering is the nature of reality. To find freedom from suffering, people must free themselves from action and its outcomes. The yogic tradition holds to the idea that liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth occurs when the spirit is free from matter, or prakriti, that binds it to incarnation. This matter is not physical matter but rather the actions and ignorance that keep a person bound to earthly desires and consequences. Practitioners of yoga use meditation, physical poses, breathing, and focused concentration—a combination that can create a state of inner alignment and higher states of consciousness or liberation. The practice from early roots centers around the use of meditation to focus the mind and liberate the spirit.

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