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Bhagavad Gita–The Book of Life

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Several thousand years ago in north-central India, two people sat in a chariot in the midpoint of a great battlefield. One of them, the yogi Arjuna, knew that it would not be long before the conflict would begin. So he asked Krishna, the Master of Yoga (Yogeshwara), what should be his attitude and perspective in this moment. And above all: What should he do?

There was no time to spare in empty words. In a brief discourse, later turned into seven hundred Sanskrit verses by the sage Vyasa, Krishna outlined to Arjuna the way to live one’s entire life so as to gain perfect self-knowledge and self-mastery.

The battle was ferocious and–as always with war–everyone lost. But when Vyasa wrote his epic poem, the Mahabharata (The Great Indian War), he put Krishna’s inspired teachings into it as a precious jewel. Instantly they were extracted, named Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God), and circulated throughout the subcontinent.

That was several thousand years ago, and today the Gita is found in nearly every household in India and has been translated into every major language of the world. Literally billions of copies have been handwritten and printed. (A few years ago a spiritual organization in South Africa printed one million copies for free distribution.) When Rudyard Kipling became a Freemason in Lahore, four scriptures were on the altar, including the Bhagavad Gita.

What is the appeal of the Gita? First of all, it is totally practical, free of any vague or abstract philosophy. During my first trip to India over forty years ago, I heard about a yogi who lived in a small houseboat on the Ganges river in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He never spoke or wrote, yet every day for many years people came to him for advice. How did he manage? He had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and after he was told the problem or question he would open the book, point to a portion, and the inquirer would have a perfect and complete solution to the trouble.

My own spiritual awakening began by kicking me out of the nest of comfortable religion into a vast world of realities I had no idea how to cope with. I floundered around in the sea of my new horizons until one day I bought a paperback edition of the Bhagavad Gita. I did not read it, I inhaled it. I was not reading the words of a long-dead teacher: my own Self was talking to me in the pages of that little book. Nor did I learn anything from the Gita–I remembered that which I had always known. Eternal Self spoke Eternal Truth. The Bhagavad Gita changed my life by giving me Life that has never ended.

Nothing has ever arisen in my life, internal or external, that the Gita has not made clear and enabled me to deal with or understand. Yet is it not dogmatic. At the very end Krishna says to Arjuna: “Now I have taught you that wisdom which is the secret of secrets. Ponder it carefully. Then act as you think best.” No threats, no promises, no coercion. It is all in the reader’s hands.

Even better: the Bhagavad Gita tells us that we can attain a Knowing beyond even what it tells us. And it shows us the way. It is a wise resolve to read the Gita every day without fail for the rest of one’s life.

A Practical Suggestion

The translation used in this commentary is my own, but I recommend that you obtain other translations of the Gita, for it is impossible to produce a definitive translation of a text written in such a complex language as Sanskrit. I always check at least four translations when looking into the meaning of a verse: those of Swamis Prabhavananda, Swarupananda, Sivananda, and that of Winthrop Sargeant. I sometimes consult those of Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, and William Judge, as well.

I would like to point out that reading any English-only translation of the Gita, however good, will only be skimming the surface. This is because of the many meanings of Sanskrit words–meanings that were in the mind of Vyasa and that were used for that very reason. In the West we have the idea that spiritual texts have but one meaning, and that may be so for some, but this is not at all the case for Sanskrit texts which are intended to have multi-level messages and subtle nuances. Words which carry several relevant ideas are ideal for the profound wisdom of the Gita and Upanishads, particularly.

In the Gita translation, words in parentheses indicate alternate readings of the actual Sanskrit word preceding them. Those alternate readings are as legitimate as the English term I have used. Brackets indicate words not in the Sanskrit text but inserted by me to clarify the meaning.

Because of this I recommend that you obtain translations of the Gita that contain the Sanskrit text with word-by-word translations as well as the usual verse form. Sargeant’s translation is definitely the best for this, but it would be good to have one or two more. In addition you need some Sanskrit dictionaries. I recommend: A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy by John Grimes, The Yoga-Vedanta Dictionary of Swami Sivananda, Sanskrit Glossary of Yogic Terms by Swami Yogakanti and A Sanskrit Dictionary by John M. Denton. My own endeavor, A Brief Sanskrit Glossary, is certainly helpful, and definitely complements them.

Swami Nirmalananda Giri
(Abbot George Burke)

Read the first article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Battlefield of the Mind

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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