Bhagavad Gita–The Book of Life
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 be not be long before the conflict would begin. So he asked Krishna, the Master of Yoga, 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 an entire life so as to gain perfect self-knowledge and self-mastery.
The battle was ferocious and everyone lost. Only a handful remained alive. But when Vyasa wrote his epic poem, the Mahabharata, he put Krishna’s inspired words into it as a precious jewel. Instantly they were extracted, named The Song of God (Bhagavad Gita), and circulated throughout the subcontinent.
That was several thousand years ago, and today the Gita is found in households throughout 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!)
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 fifty 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 and 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 copy of Swami Prabhavananda’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita (which is still my favorite translation). 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. 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.
Some years ago I arranged the text of the Gita according to the meter of the original Sanskrit so it could be sung as part of the daily routine of our ashram, as is usual in many of the ashrams of India. It was also recorded, and those who heard the recording commented that they were surprised at the accuracy of the translation. So it occurred to me that if I went through and took out the meter, adding anything that had been omitted to keep the meter and making logical adjustments to clarify the meaning further, it might be of value to others. As it turned out, I made changes and adjustments to virtually every verse. And here it is. I hope you will use the glossary to assist in your understanding of what you read, because some Sanskrit words must be included in the text because they have no English equivalents, and to use words with only approximate meanings will obscure the meaning of the text.
The background of the Gita
The present text of Mahabharata takes a hundred thousand verses to give us the background and aftermath of the Great Indian War which took place at Kurukshetra in Northern India in what is the modern state of Harayana. On one side were the supporters of the Pandavas, the righteous family led by the warrior-yogi Arjuna. The opposing side were the supporters of the Kauravas, the unrighteous relatives of the Pandavas led by the heinous Duryodhana, son of the blind king Dhritarashtra.
Krishna, the king of Dwaraka in Western India (the present day state of Gujarat), was the charioteer of Arjuna. Both sides were related to each other, so whoever won the war could only do so by killing their own relatives. The Pandavas were vastly outnumbered by the Kauravas, many of whom were virtuous and respected men who were only on the Kaurava side because of previous alliances and agreements–much like the tangle which dragged good and worthy men into both sides of the First World War.
Vyasa the supreme master yogi had given the courtier Sanjaya the ability to see and hear what took place on the battlefield. When King Dritarashtra asked him to relay the events, he did so, concentrating on the dialogue of Arjuna and Krishna.
The Gita opens with Arjuna asking Krishna to drive his chariot between the armies so he can see those he must engage in war. The battlefield is still there, and so is the aura of both the terrible slaughter and the glorious revelation of Lord Krishna’s immortal and eternal discourse. I recommend pilgrimage to that sacred spot which today is outwardly tranquil and pleasing to the sight. On the place where Arjuna and Krishna viewed those about to fight is a great bronze statue of Arjuna, Krishna and their chariot. (When I was there only a huge tree and a large marble replica of the chariot marked where they sat.)
But a greater pilgrimage can be made by anyone anywhere in the world by simply reading The Holy Song of God, the Srimad Bhagavad Gita. It will be a holy pilgrimage of mind and spirit. Once more the grief of Arjuna and the wisdom of Krishna will be witnessed. Those who assimilate that wisdom will come to experience for themselves the truth of the final verse of the Gita: “Wherever is Krishna, Yoga’s Lord, wherever is Arjuna the bowman, there will surely (forever) be splendor, victory, wealth, and righteousness.”
A practical suggestion
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.
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. And my own endeavor, A Brief Sanskrit Glossary, is certainly helpful, and definitely complements them.
Please consult A Brief Sanskrit Glossary about any unfamiliar Sanskrit words.
Abbot George Burke
(Swami Nirmalananda Giri)
Read Chapter One: The Yoga of the Despondency of Arjuna