The Mahabharata (pronounced approximately as Ma-haa-BHAAR-a-ta) is an ancient religious epic of India and arguably the most famous Indian text. Attributed to the poet Vyasa, the epic is divided into 18 sections, containing over 220,000 lines. The most famous section is the Bhagavad Gita. It is the sixth book of the Mahabharata and contains the central text of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is somewhat reminiscent of the Iliad while the other great Indian literary text, The Ramayana, is somewhat reminiscent of the Odyssey. The great war featured in the Mahabharata is thought to have been fought around the 13th or 14th century B.C.
The Mahabharata ("The Great Tale of the Bharatas") may well be the world's second largest book (after the Gesar Epic of Tibet). Unlike the Vedas, which are considered "sruti" or divine revelation, the epics are considered smrti ("that which is remembered") or of human origin. The Mahabharata is said to have been written by Vyasa. Who he was and when he lived is not known.
James L. Fitzgerald, a professor of Sanskrit at Brown University, wrote: “ simply, the Mahabharata is a powerful and amazing text that inspires awe and wonder. It presents sweeping visions of the cosmos and humanity and intriguing and frightening glimpses of divinity in an ancient narrative that is accessible, interesting, and compelling for anyone willing to learn the basic themes of India's culture. The Mahabharata definitely is one of those creations of human language and spirit that has traveled far beyond the place of its original creation and will eventually take its rightful place on the highest shelf of world literature beside Homer's epics, the Greek tragedies, the Bible, Shakespeare, and similarly transcendent works.” [Source: James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University, July 30, 2009 \*/]
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs ; Hindu Texts: Sanskrit and Prakrit Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Manuscripts Vol. 1 archive.org/stream and Volume 2 archive.org/stream ; Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata Online (in Sanskrit) sub.uni-goettingen.de ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org
History of the Mahabharata
The Mahabharata story first began in the oral tradition during the first millennium B.C. and was composed in Sanskrit over centuries, beginning perhaps as early as 800 or 900 B.C., and reaching its final written form around the fourth century B.C. James L. Fitzgerald, a professor at Brown University, wrote: “ The Mahabharata has existed in various forms for well over two thousand years: First, starting in the middle of the first millennium B.C., it existed in the form of popular stories of Gods, kings, and seers retained, retold, and improved by priests living in shrines, ascetics living in retreats or wandering about, and by traveling bards, minstrels, dance-troupes, etc. [Source: James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University, July 30, 2009 \*/]
“Later, after about 350 CE, it came to be a unified, sacred text of 100,000 stanzas written in Sanskrit, distributed throughout India by kings and wealthy patrons, and declaimed from temples. Even after it became a famous Sanskrit writing it continued to exist in various performance media in many different local genres of dance and theater throughout India and then Southeast Asia. Finally, it came to exist, in numerous literary and popular transformations in many of the non-Sanskrit vernacular languages of India and Southeast Asia, which (with the exception of Tamil, a language that had developed a classical literature in the first millennium B.C.) began developing recorded literatures shortly after 1000 CE. \*/
“The Mahabharata was one of the two most important factors that created the "Hindu" culture of India (the other was the other all-India epic, the Ramayaa... and the Mahabharata and Ramayaa still exert tremendous cultural influence throughout India and Southeast Asia. But the historical importance of the Mahabharata is not the main reason to read the Mahabharata. Quite simply, the Mahabharata is a powerful and amazing text that inspires awe and wonder.” \*/
Main Characters of the Mahabharata
The Mahabharta describes a conflict between the Pandavas (Paavas) and Kauravas (Dhartararas), two related clans in the Kuri tribe in the Delhi area, in Vedic times. Professor Fitzgerald wrote: “The innermost narrative kernel of the Mahabharata tells the story of two sets of paternal first cousins—the five sons of the deceased king Pau [pronounced PAAN-doo] (the five Paavas [said as PAAN-da-va-s]) and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhtarara [Dhri-ta-RAASH-tra] (the 100 hundred Dhartararas [Dhaar-ta-RAASH-tras])—who became bitter rivals, and opposed each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata [BHAR-a-ta] kingdom with its capital in the "City of the Elephant," Hastinapura [HAAS-ti-na-pu-ra], on the Gaga river in north central India. What is dramatically interesting within this simple opposition is the large number of individual agendas the many characters pursue, and the numerous personal conflicts, ethical puzzles, subplots, and plot twists that give the story a strikingly powerful development. [Source: James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University, July 30, 2009 \*/]
“The five sons of Pau were actually fathered by five Gods (sex was mortally dangerous for Pau, because of a curse) and these heroes were assisted throughout the story by various Gods, seers, and brahmins, including the seer Ka Dvaipayana Vyasa [VYAA-sa] (who later became the author of the epic poem telling the whole of this story), who was also their actual grandfather (he had engendered Pau and the blind Dhtarara upon their nominal father's widows in order to preserve the lineage). The one hundred Dhartararas, on the other hand, had a grotesque, demonic birth, and are said more than once in the text to be human incarnations of the demons who are the perpetual enemies of the Gods.\*/
“The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahabharata, however, is Ka, son of Vasudeva of the tribe of Andhaka Vis, located in the city of Dvaraka in the far west, near the ocean. His name is, thus Ka Vasudeva [Vaa-su-DAY-va]. But he also a human instantiation of the supreme God Vasudeva-Narayaa-Viu descended to earth in human form to rescue Law, Good Deeds, Right, Virtue and Justice (all of these words refer to different facets of "dharma," the “firm-holding” between the ethical quality of an action and the quality of its future fruits for the doer). Ka Vasudeva was also a cousin to both Bharata phratries, but he was a friend and advisor to the Paavas, became the brother-in-law of Arjuna [AR-ju-na] Paava, and served as Arjuna's mentor and charioteer in the great war. Ka Vasudeva is portrayed several times as eager to see the purgative war occur, and in many ways the Paavas were his human instruments for fulfilling that end.” \*/
Tribe in the Mahabharata
In order to understand the allusions made in the Bhagavad-Gita, it is important to have some knowledge of the tribe and people, which lies at the heart of the story. J. Cockburn Thomson, a 19th century translator of the Bhagavad-Gita, wrote: The Mahabharata is about "two branches of one tribe, the descendants of Kuru, for the sovereignty of Hastinapura, commonly supposed to be the same as the modern Delhi. The elder branch is called by the general name of the whole tribe, Kurus; the younger goes by the patronymic from Pandu, the father of its five principal leaders. Of the name Kuru we know but little, but that little is sufficient to prove that it is one of great importance. We have no means of deriving it from any Sanskrit root, nor has it, like too many of the old Indian names, the appearance of being explanatory of the peculiarities of the person or persons whom it designates. It is, therefore, in all probability, a name of considerable antiquity, brought by the Aryan race from their first seat in Central Asia. Its use in Sanskrit is fourfold. It is the name of the northern quarter, or Dwipa, of the world, and is described as lying between the most northern range of snowy mountains and the polar sea. It is, further, the name of the most northern of the nine Varshas of the known world. Among the long genealogies of the tribe itself, it is found as the name of an ancient king, to whom the foundation of the tribe is attributed. Lastly, it designates an Aryan tribe of sufficient importance to disturb the whole of northern India with its factions, and to make its battles the theme of the longest epic of olden time. [Source: J. Cockburn Thomson]
"Viewing these facts together, we should be inclined to draw the conclusion that the name was originally that of a race inhabiting Central Asia beyond the Himalaya, who emigrated with other races into the northwest of the Peninsula, and with them formed the great people who styled themselves unitedly Arya, or the Noble, to distinguish them from the aborigines whom they subdued, and on whose territories they eventually settled. . . .
"At the time when the plot of the Mahabharata was enacted, this tribe was situated in the plain of the Doab, and their particular region, lying between the junma and Sursooty rivers, was called Kurukshetra, or the plain of the Kurus. The capital of this country was Hastinapura, and here reigned, at a period of which we cannot give the exact date, a king named Vichitravirya. He was the son of Santanu and Satyavati; and Bhishma and Krishna Dwaipayana, the Vyasa, were his half-brothers; the former being his father's, the latter his mother's son. He married two sisters — Amba and Ambalika — but dying shortly after his marriage . . . he left no progeny; and his half-brother,the Vyasa.
The Vyasa, instigated by divine command, married his widows and begot two sons, Dhritarashtra and Pandu. The former had one hundred sons, the eldest of whom was Duryodhana. The latter married firstly Pritha, or Kunti, the daughter of Sura, and secondly Madri. The children of these wives were the five Pandava princes; but as their mortal father had been cursed by a deer while hunting to be childless all his life, these children were mystically begotten by different deities. Thus Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna, were the sons of Pritha by Dharnma, Vayu, and Indra, respectively. Nakula was the son of Madri by Nasatya the elder, and Sahadeva, by Dasra the younger of the twin Asvinau, the physicians of the gods. This story would seem to be a fiction, invented to give a divine origin to the five heroes of the poem: but, however this may be, Duryodhana and his brothers are the leaders of the Kuru, or elder branch of the tribe; and the five Pandava princes those of the Pandava or younger branch.
"Dhritarashtra was blind, but although thus incapacitated for governing, he retained the throne, while his son Duryodhana really directed the affairs of the State. . . . he prevailed on his father to banish his cousins, the Pandava princes, from the country. After long wanderings and varied hardships, these princes collected their friends around them, formed by the help of many neighboring kings a vast army, and prepared to attack their unjust oppressor, who had, in like manner, assembled his forces.
Story of the Mahabharata
Set in the kingdom of Kurukshetra on India's northern plains, the epic narrates a succession struggle among members of the Bharata ruling family that results in a ruinous civil war. The Pandava brothers are pitted against their rival cousins, the Kauravas, who divest the eldest Pandava brother of his kingdom and his wife in a fixed gambling match. The brothers are forced into exile for 13 years during which time they prepare for war with their cousins. The Pandavas prevail in an 18-day battle that causes great loss of life on both sides. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]
Professor James L. Fitzgerald wrote: “The Dhartarara party behaved viciously and brutally toward the Paavas in many ways, from the time of their early youth onward. Their malice displayed itself most dramatically when they took advantage of the eldest Paava, Yudhihira [Yu-DHISH-thir-a] (who had by now become the universal ruler of the land) in a game of dice: The Dhartararas 'won' all his brothers, himself, and even the Paavas' common wife Draupadi [DRAO-pa-dee] (who was an incarnation of the richness and productivity of the Goddess "Earthly-and-Royal Splendor," Sri [Shree]); they humiliated all the Paavas and physically abused Draupadi; they drove the Paava party into the wilderness for twelve years, and the twelve years had to be followed by the Paavas' living somewhere in society, in disguise, without being discovered, for one more year. [Source: James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University, July 30, 2009 \*/]
“The Paavas fulfilled their part of that bargain, but the villainous leader of the Dhartarara party, Duryodhana [Dur-YODH-ana], was unwilling to restore the Paavas to their half of the kingdom when the thirteen years had expired. Both sides then called upon their many allies and two large armies arrayed themselves on 'Kuru's Field' (Kuru was one of the eponymous ancestors of the clan), eleven divisions in the army of Duryodhana against seven divisions for Yudhihira. Much of the action in the Mahabharata is accompanied by discussion and debate among various interested parties, and the most famous sermon of all time, Ka Vasudeva's ethical lecture accompanied by a demonstration of his divinity to his charge Arjuna (the justly famous Bhagavad Gita [BHU-gu-vud GEE-taa]) occurred in the Mahabharata just prior to the commencement of the hostilities of the war. Several of the important ethical and theological themes of the Mahabharata are tied together in this sermon, and this "Song of the Blessed One" has exerted much the same sort of powerful and far-reaching influence in Indian Civilization that the New Testament has in Christendom.” \*/
Great War in the Mahabharata
J. Cockburn Thomson wrote: The theme of the whole work is a certain war which was carried on between two branches of one tribe...This war between the Kurus and Pandavas occupies about twenty thousand slokas, or a quarter of the whole work...The hostile armies meet on the plain of the Kurus. Bhishma, the half-brother of Vichitravirya, being the oldest warrior among them, has the command of the Kuru faction; Bhima, the second son of Pandu, noted for his strength and prowess, is the general of the other party [Arjuna's]. The scene of our poem now opens, and remains throughout the same — the field of battle. [Source: J. Cockburn Thomson]
“In order to introduce to the reader the names of the principal chieftains in each army, Duryodhana is made to approach Drona, his military preceptor, and name them one by one. The challenge is then suddenly given by Bhishma, the Kuru general, by blowing his conch; and he is seconded by all his followers. It is returned by Arjuna, who is in the same chariot with the god Krishna, who, in compassion for the persecution he suffered, had become his intimate friend, and was now acting the part of a charioteer to him. He is followed by all the generals of the Pandavas.
“The fight then begins with a volley of arrows from both sides; but when Arjuna perceives it, he begs Krishna to draw up the chariot in the space between the two armies, while he examines the lines of the enemy. The god does so, and points out in those lines the numerous relatives of his friend. Arjuna is horror-struck at the idea of committing fratricide by slaying his near relations, and throws down his bow and arrow, declaring that he would rather be killed without defending himself, than fight against them. Krishna replies with the arguments which form the didactic and philosophical doctrines of the work, and endeavors to persuade him that he is mistaken in forming such a resolution. Arjuna is eventually overruled. The fight goes on, and the Pandavas defeat their opponents."
On the allusion drawn from the battle,William Q. Judge, translator of the Bhagavad-Gita, wrote in 1890: “The hostile armies who meet on the plain of the Kurus are two collections of the human faculties and powers, those on one side tending to drag us down, those on the other aspiring towards spiritual illumination. The battle refers not only to the great warfare that mankind as a whole carries on, but also to the struggle which is inevitable as soon as any one unit in the human family resolves to allow his higher nature to govern him in his life. Hence, bearing in mind the suggestion made by Subba Row, we see that Arjuna, called Nara, represents not only Man as a race, but also any individual who resolves upon the task of developing his better nature. What is described as happening in the poem to him will come to every such individual.Opposition from friends and from all the habits he has acquired, and also that which naturally arises from hereditary tendencies, will confront him, and then it will depend upon how he listens to Krishna, who is the Logos shining within and speaking within, whether he will succeed or fail.”
Impact of the Great War in the Mahabharata
Professor James L. Fitzgerald wrote: “The Paavas won the eighteen day battle, but it was a victory that deeply troubled all except those who were able to understand things on the divine level (chiefly Ka, Vyasa, and Bhima [BHEESH-ma], the Bharata patriarch who was emblematic of the virtues of the era now passing away). The Paavas' five sons by Draupadi, as well as Bhimasena [BHEE-ma-SAY-na] Paava's and Arjuna Paava's two sons by two other mothers (respectively, the young warriors Ghaotkaca [Ghat-OT-ka-cha] and Abhimanyu [Uh-bhi-MUN-you ("mun" rhymes with "nun")]), were all tragic victims in the war. Worse perhaps, the Paava victory was won by the Paavas slaying, in succession, four men who were quasi-fathers to them: Bhima, their teacher Droa [DROE-na], Kara [KAR-na] (who was, though none of the Paavas knew it, the first born, pre-marital, son of their mother), and their maternal uncle Salya (all four of these men were, in succession, 'supreme commander' of Duryodhana's army during the war). Equally troubling was the fact that the killing of the first three of these 'fathers,' and of some other enemy warriors as well, was accomplished only through 'crooked stratagems' (jihmopayas), most of which were suggested by Ka Vasudeva as absolutely required by the circumstances. [Source: James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University, July 30, 2009 \*/]
“The ethical gaps were not resolved to anyone's satisfaction on the surface of the narrative and the aftermath of the war was dominated by a sense of horror and malaise. Yudhihira alone was terribly troubled, but his sense of the war's wrongfulness persisted to the end of the text, in spite of the fact that everyone else, from his wife to Ka Vasudeva, told him the war was right and good; in spite of the fact that the dying patriarch Bhima lectured him at length on all aspects of the Good Law (the Duties and Responsibilities of Kings, which have rightful violence at their center; the ambiguities of Righteousness in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective of a beatitude that ultimately transcends the oppositions of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant, etc.); in spite of the fact that he performed a grand Horse Sacrifice as expiation for the putative wrong of the war. These debates and instructions and the account of this Horse Sacrifice are told at some length after the massive and grotesque narrative of the battle; they form a deliberate tale of pacification (prasamana, santi) that aims to neutralize the inevitable miasma of the war.\*/
“In the years that follow the war Dhtarara and his queen Gandhari [Gaan-DHAAR-ee], and Kunti [Koon-tee], the mother of the Paavas, lived a life of asceticism in a forest retreat and died with yogic calm in a forest fire. Ka Vasudeva and his always unruly clan slaughtered each other in a drunken brawl thirty-six years after the war, and Ka's soul dissolved back into the Supreme God Viu (Ka had been born when a part of Narayaa-Viu took birth in the womb of Ka's mother). When they learned of this, the Paavas believed it time for them to leave this world too and they embarked upon the 'Great Journey,' which involved walking north toward the polar mountain, that is toward the heavenly worlds, until one's body dropped dead. One by one Draupadi and the younger Paavas died along the way until Yudhihira was left alone with a dog that had followed him all the way. Yudhihira made it to the gate of heaven and there refused the order to drive the dog back, at which point the dog was revealed to be an incarnate form of the God Dharma (also known as Yama, the Lord of the Dead, the God who was Yudhihira's actual, physical father), who was there to test the quality of Yudhihira's virtue before admitting him to heaven. Once in heaven Yudhihira faced one final test of his virtue: He saw only the Dhartararas in heaven, and he was told that his brothers were in hell. He insisted on joining his brothers in hell, if that be the case. It was then revealed that they were really in heaven, that this illusion had been one final test for him. So ends the Mahabharata! \*/
Mahabarat Excerpt on Kingship
The following brief excerpt deals with the origins of kingship. “Yudhistira said: "This word raja [king] is so very current in this world, O Bharata [master]; how has it originated? Tell me that O grandfather." Bhishma said: "Certainly, O best among men, do you listen to everything in its entirety - how kingship originated first during the krtayuga [golden age]. Neither kingship nor king was there in the beginning, neither danda [scepter] nor the bearer of a danda. All people protected one another by means of righteous conduct, O Bharata, men eventually fell into a state of spiritual lassitude. [Source: “Sources of Indian Tradition,” ed., Stephen Hay (Columbia UP, 1988), Internet Archive, from CCNY |:|]
“Then delusion overcame them. Men were thus overpowered by infatuation, O leader of men, on account of the delusion of understanding; their sense of righteous conduct was lost. When understanding was lost, all men, O best of the Bharatas, over-powered by infatuation, became victims of greed. Then they sought to acquire what should not be acquired. Thereby, indeed, O lord, another vice, namely, desire overcame them. Attachment then attacked them, who had become victims of desire. Attached to objects of sense, they did not discriminate between what should be said and what should not be said, between the edible and the inedible and between right and wrong. When this world of men had been submerged in dissipation, all brahman [spiritual knowledge] perished; and when brahman perished, O king, righteous conduct also perished." When brahman and righteous conduct perished, the gods were overcome with fear, and fearfully sought refuge with Brahma, the creator. |:|
“Going to the great lord, the ancestor of the worlds, all the gods, afflicted with sorrow, misery, and fear, with folded hands said: 'O Lord, the eternal brahman, which had existed in the world of men has perished because of greed, infatuation, and the like, therefore we have become fearful. Through the loss of brahman, righteous conduct also has perished, O God. Therefore, O Lord of the three worlds, mortals have reached a state of indifference. Truly, we showered rain on earth, but mortals showered rain [i.e., gave sacrifices] up to heaven. As a result of the cessation of ritual activity on their part, we faced a serious peril, O grandfather, decide what is most beneficial to use under these circumstances." Then, the self-born lord said to all those gods: 'I will consider what is most beneficial; let your fear depart, O leaders of the gods.' |:|
“Thereupon he composed a work consisting of a hundred thousand chapters out of his own mind, wherein dharma [righteous conduct], as well as artha [material gain] and enjoyment of kama [sensual pleasures] were described. This group, known as the threefold classification of human objectives, was expounded by the self-born lord; so, too, a fourth objective, moksa [spiritual emancipation], which aims at a different goal, and which constitutes a separate group by itself. Then the gods approached Vishnu, the lord of creatures, and said: 'Indicate to us that one person among the mortals who alone is worthy of the highest eminence.' Then the blessed lord god Narayana reflected, and brought forth an illustrious mind-born son, called Virajas" who became the first king of India.” |:|
According to the BBC: “The Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of the Lord" is part of the sixth book of the Mahabharata, the world's longest poem. Composed between 500 B.C. and 100 CE, the Mahabharata is an account of the wars of the house of Bharata. The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a dialogue between Pandava Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna, his charioteer. Arjuna is a warrior, about to join his brothers in a war between two branches of a royal family which would involve killing many of his friends and relatives. He wants to withdraw from the battle but Krishna teaches him that he, Arjuna, must do his duty in accordance with his class and he argues that death does not destroy the soul. Krishna points out that knowledge, work and devotion are all paths to salvation and that the central value in life is that of loyalty to God.” [Source: BBC]
Some have labeled the Bhagavad Gita as the Hindu Bible. But that is not the case. It is one of the most popular Hindu texts but is regarded as a smriti text (the remembered tradition), which is considered by some to be of less importance than shruti (the heard text, such as the Vedas). It has, nevertheless, an important place within the Hindu tradition. Mohandas Gandhi called the Gita his “spiritual dictionary” and used its teachings as a guide during India’s struggle for independence.
Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most revered of Indian scriptures. Though it is much later than the Vedas, and does not constitute part of the revealed literature of the Hindus, it occupies a distinct and in some respects unrivaled place in Indian philosophical and religious literature. While it is almost conventional to view it is a separate text, it is in fact a part of the Mahabharata, and relays the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna. The occasion for these teachings was furnished by the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who are also related to each other. As the battle is about to begin, Arjuna, one of the five Pandava princes, throws down his bow and arrow, and confesses his inability to kill his own cousins and kinsmen, as well as those revered teachers who had been the common tutors of the Kauravas and Pandavas. Krishna then delivers an oration, urging Arjuna to perform his duty, to be the warrior that he is, and it is these teachings that are encapsulated in the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord.”[Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA. sscnet.ucla.edu]
There are many English translations of the Gita: perhaps the most readable of these is one by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, though the translations of Swami Nikhilananda, S. Radhakrishnan, and Barbara Stoller Miller are both scholarly and literary. Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita is a trifle too ponderous but still unmatched. The complete text of the Bhagavad-Gita was translated by Kashinath Trimbak Telano in 1882, edited and updated by Richard Hooker. This is regarded as the most readable version on the net.
Teachings of the Bhagvad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita teaches many tenets of Hinduism through the narrative dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Considered by some be an allegory a person’s ethical and moral struggles, The Bhagavad Gita discusses the four goals of life or purushartas: 1) artha (worldly wealth and success), 2) kama (pleasure and desire), 3) dharma (righteousness), and 4) moksha (knowledge and liberation from the cycle of birth and death). These ideas are addressed in the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. The central lesson of the Bhagavad Gita is the importance of dharma as expressed in Arjuna selfless duty to participate in war he doesn’t want to engage in. [Source: PBS, The Story of India, pbs.org/thestoryofindia]
William Q. Judge, translator of the Bhagavad-Gita, wrote in 1890: “The Bhagavad-Gita tends to impress upon the individual two things: first, selflessness, and second, action; the studying of and living by it will arouse the belief that there is but one Spirit and not several, that we cannot live for ourselves alone, but must come to realize that there is no such thing as separateness, and no possibility of escaping from the collective karma of the race to which one belongs, and then, that we must think and act in accordance with such belief.”
Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “The teachings of the Gita have been the subject of much interpretation. The Gita counsels us to retain our equanimity, and says unequivocally that the sthitha-prajna, or the being preserved in wisdom, is moved to neither excessive joy nor excessive sorrow. Krishna is understood as recommending that we must fulfill our duties, but never with an eye to being rewarded for our activities; and that whatever travails the flesh may be heir to, the soul is always immortal. Thus, truly speaking, we do not have it within our power to kill anyone, nor can we be killed by anyone; and if Arjuna should imagine that he has such power, he has failed to understand the nature of the divine. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA. sscnet.ucla.edu <~>]
“The Gita lays out several paths to emancipation: for those inclined towards activity or service to humankind through works, there is karma yoga, just as those inclined towards devotion can practice bhakti yoga. The intellectually inclined can veer towards jnana yoga, the path of knowledge and intellectual discrimination. The eleventh chapter contains some of the most celebrated verses of the Gita. As these teachings have been delivered by Krishna, who however appears in human form, and that too as as the humble charioteer of Arjuna, the Pandava prince must be brought to the realization that he is in the presence of the Lord himself. Krishna consequently reveals to Arjuna his cosmic form, and Arjuna is dazzled by the vision of the Supreme Deity. <~>
Influence of the Bhagvad Gita
Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, wrote: “ There are hundreds of commentaries on the Gita, and in modern times no great Hindu figure has failed to leave behind an interpretive work on this philosophical poem. The earliest, and still most moving, of the commentaries is the twelfth-century work by Jnaneshvar, a Marathi poet-saint, called the Jnaneshvari. From the purely literary and devotional standpoint, this work is without comparison. In the late nineteenth century, the Gita was put to different use. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his magisterial interpretation, the Gita-Rahasya, suggested that the Gita urges us to action. It is the devotionalism of the Hindus that, Tilak was to argue, made them incapable of defending the country against foreign invaders. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA. sscnet.ucla.edu <~>]
“Krishna's injunction to Arjuna to take up arms and perform his duty as a warrior was taken literally by the armed revolutionaries who now declared the Gita to be their indispensable bedside companion. But Mahatma Gandhi, who was inclined to view the teachings of the Gita as an allegorical representation of the conflict between knowledge and ignorance (rather than good and evil, if I may add that caveat) within each person, insisted upon the centrality of the Gita's teaching that we must perform our duties without expecting the fruits of our labor. Gandhi called the Gita the 'Gospel of Selfless Action'. Among the modern commentaries, the most notable ones, besides those by Tilak and Gandhi, are by Aurobindo, Vinoba Bhave, Vivekananda, and Ramana Maharishi. There are numerous recitations of the Gita as well, and the Gita has drawn the attention of many prominent Western writers, such as T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood. <~>
Chapters of the Bhagavad Gita
CHAPTER I — The Despondency of Arjuna
CHAPTER II — Devotion through Application to the Speculative Doctrines
CHAPTER III — Devotion through the Right Performance of Action
CHAPTER IV — Devotion through Spiritual Knowledge
CHAPTER V — Devotion by Means of Renunciation of Action
CHAPTER VI — Devotion by Means of Self-Restraint
CHAPTER VII — Devotion by Means of Spiritual Discernment
CHAPTER VIII — Devotion to the Omnipresent Spirit Names as Om
CHAPTER IX — Devotion by Means of the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery
CHAPTER X — Devotion by Means of the Universal Divine Perfections
CHAPTER XI — The Vision of the Divine Form as Including All Forms
CHAPTER XII — Devotion by Means of Faith
CHAPTER XIII — Devotion by Means of the Discrimination of the Kshetra from Kshetrajna
CHAPTER XIV — Devotion by Means of Separation from the Three Qualities
CHAPTER XV — Devotion through Knowledge of the Supreme Spirit
CHAPTER XVI — Devotion through Discriminating between Godlike and Demoniacal Natures
CHAPTER XVII — Devotion as Regards the Three Kinds of Faith
CHAPTER XVIII — Devotion as Regards Renunciation and Final Liberation
'Bhagavad Gita: Perform Action, Free from Attainment to its Fruits
“Perform Action, Free from Attachment to its Fruits” ('Bhagavad Gita,' III, 8-9, 19-24, 31, 35) reads:
8) Perform thou action that is (religiously) required;
For action is better than inaction.
And even the maintenance of the body for thee
Can not succced without action.
9) Except action for the purpose of worship,
This world is bound by actions;
Action for that purpose, son of Kunti,
Perform thou, free from attachment (to its fruits)
10) Therefore unattached ever
Perform action that must be done;
For performing action without attachment
Man attains the highest.
20) For only thru action, perfection
Attained janaka and others.
Also for the mere control of the world
Having regard, thou shouldst act.
21) Whatsoever the noblest does,
Just that in every case other folk (do);
What he makes his standard,
That the world follows.
22) For Me, son of Pritha, there is nothing to be done
In the three worlds whatsoever,
Nothing unattained to be attained;
And yet I still continue in action.
23) For if I did not continue
At all in action unwearied,
My path (would) follow
Men altogether, son of Pritha.
24) These folk would perish
If I did not perform action,
And I should be an agent of confusion;
I should destroy these creatures. . . .
31) Who this My doctrine constantly
Follow, such men,
Full of faith and not murmuring,
They too are freed from (the effect of) actions
35) Better one's own duty, (tho) imperfect,
Than another's duty well performed;
Better death in (doing) one's own duty;
Another's duty brings danger.
Translation by Franklin Edgerton, Bhagavad Gita, Vol. I, Harvard Oriental Series, VOI. 38 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944, Eliade Page website]
In the famous passage below Krishna comes to the aid of Arjuna as he debates the moral contradiction involved in killing, not merely human beings, but his relatives, in order to achieve a worthy end. In the end Arjuna realizes that in some instances the end justifies the means. Soem questions to think about as you read it: 1) What is the difference between action and inaction? 2) How does action delude the mind? 3) How does Krishna's dilemma fit in with the concept of dharma? 4) Does the way one goes about getting something good allow you to do anything to get it?
The Bhagavadgita reads: “The Blessed Lord said: Just as the unwise act, being attached to their action, even so should the wise act, O Bharata, but without attachment, and only with a view to promoting the solidarity of society. One should not create any conflict in the minds of the ignorant who are attached to action. On the contrary the wise man, himself acting in accordance with the technique of the yoga of action, should induce them willingly to undertake all [prescribed] actions. [Source: Stephan Hay ed., “Sources of Indian Tradition” (Columbia UP, 1988). 281-282, Internet Archive, from CCNY]
“Actions of every kind are actually done by the dispositions of matter and, still, a person whose mind is deluded by the ego thinks: "I am the doer [of those actions]." But he, O Mighty-Armed One, who knows the truth of the distinctness of the soul from the dispositions of matter and from the actions [resulting therefrom], does not become attached [the results of actions], realizing that the dispositions operate upon the dispositions.
“Those who are deluded by the dispositions of matter become attached to the disposition and the actions [resulting from them]. One who knows the whole truth should not make such dullards, who do not know the who truth, falter [by himself renouncing all action]. Renouncing into Me all actions, with your mind fixed on the Self, and becoming free from desire and all sense of 'my-ness, " do you fight, freed from your spiritual fever. What is action? What is inaction?-as to this even the wise sages are confounded. I will expound action to you, knowing which you will be liberated from evil.
One has to realize what is action, similarly, one has to realize what is wrong action; and one has also to realize what is inaction. Inscrutable, indeed, is the way of action. He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is discerning among men, expert in the technique of karmayoga, the doer of the entire action [enjoined by his dharmal. He whose undertakings are all devoid of motivating desires and purposes and whose actions are consumed by the fire of knowledge - him the wise call a man of learning. Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of actions, ever content, independent-such a person even if engaged in action does not do anything whatever.
“Action alone is your concern, never at all its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let yourself be attached to inaction. Steadfast in Yoga, engage yourself in actions, Dhananjaya abandoning attachment and becoming evenminded in success and failure. Such evenmindedness is called yoga. Far inferior is mere action to action done according to the technique of karmayoga. O Dhananjaya. Seek refuge in the [right] mental attitude. Wretched are those who are motivated by the fruits of action. One who acts according to the technique of karmayoga casts off, in this world, the consequences of both his good acts and his bad acts. Therefore take to this yoga. Yoga is skill in actions.”
Professor Lal wrote: “The Jnaneshvari is one of the greatest works of Indian devotional literature, and is still spoken of as the supreme work of Marathi literature. Jnaneshvar, after whom the work is named, lived in the thirteenth century, and is not inaccurately described as the founder of Marathi literature and language. The Jnaneshvari describes itself as a commentary (tika) on the Bhagavad Gita, and its eighteen chapters are framed around the like number of chapters of the Gita, but commentators are divided on whether it should be regarded as a work of pure devotional literature or as more expressive of the author’s advaitist sentiments. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA +++]
“B. P. Bahirat has written that "Jnaneshwar gives prominence to Bhatiyoga or the path of loving devotion in Jnaneshwari" (p. 56), but Dandekar opines that "like that of Shankaracharya and other Acharyas, Dnyanadeo’s philosophy can be truly described as Vedantic philosophy . . . . Dnyanadeo advocates spiritual monism or absolutism and in the advocacy of this he is nearer to Shankara than to any other Acharya" (p. 24). If Jnaneshvar was more than anything else a bhakta, it is somewhat puzzling that the chief work authored by him should have been a commentary on the Gita, since the Gita, notwithstanding the fact that it lays down the yoga of bhakti as one of the true paths to Krishna, has seldom been the cardinal or favorite text of bhaktas or devotees. +++
“On the other hand, in common with the bhakti tradition, Jnaneshvar was alive to the fact that he was bringing sacred knowledge to the less privileged elements of society; and his choice of the Gita as the text by which to break the barrier signifies both his estimate of the importance in which the Gita was held by the orthodox and the relative simplicity of the Gita’s teachings. The essence of the Vedas, writes Jnaneshvar, is to be found in the Mahabharata, and of the latter in the Gita (J, X:29-31; cf. XV:538; XVIII:1640). The unique charm of the Gita, avers Jnaneshvar, is that he "who recites it obtains the same fruit as he who knows its meaning; to the Gita, as a mother, there is no distinction of learned and unlearned" (XVIII:1518). It is enough to be a genuine aspirant, though one may be unlearned: "Thus, O Arjuna, both those who hear the Gita and those who study it obtain the fruit of the highest joy . . . ." (XVIII:1528). The same "benefit" is derived by those who repeat the words and those who comprehend the meaning (XVIII:1662). Finally, towards the conclusion of his exposition of the Gita (XVIII:1678ff), Jnaneshvar offers a grand defense of his enterprise. He allows that Vyasa, to whom the Mahabharata is attributed, had expressed in the anushthubha meter "that which cannot be conveyed by words, so as to bring it within the understanding of women and those of low castes" (XVIII:1678); and yet even Vyasa was not bold enough: "Where even the wisdom of Vyasa and others wavered, I, a humble man, have dared to speak of these things in simple words" (XVIII:1688). A puddle reflects the sky just as the sea does; the reflection will be proportionate to the size of the body of water: similarly it is not out of place if lesser minds than those of Vyasa and others ponder over the Gita (XVIII:1695-6): "there is no reason to consider it wrong for us ordinary men to make a version of the Gita in our language" (XVIII:1699).” +++
Notes:Jnaneshvari is also spelled as Jnaneshwari in the litearture, and similarly Jnaneshvar’s name also appears as Dnyaneshwar and Dnyandeo. All citations are from the Jnaneshvari, except where indicated; citations are in the form of XVIII:1528, meaning Book 18, Verse 1528.
Jnaneshvari and the Bhagavad Gita
“Some of the best know parts of the Jnaneshvari are commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. Professor Lal wrote: “There are numerous streams that fed into the Jnaneshvari: the ambition of the author to bring a great text of high literature to the people; to develop the Marathi language and make it into an exalted tongue; to render homage to his guru, Shri Nivrittinatha; and to engage in the interpretation of the Gita. The Jnaneshvari is, in the first instance, a commentary on the Gita, and as the Gita itself expounds on the manifold paths of liberation — action, meditation, devotion, renunciation of the fruits of action, and knowledge — so the Jnaneshvari follows suit. But as attempts to discern which of the paths enumerated in the Gita is elevated over the others have been fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, similarly the Jnaneshvari does not prove malleable to interpretations which would affirm that Jnaneshvar was undoubtedly a bhakta or a jnani. "Thou shouldst know", Jnaneshvar’s Krishna instructs Arjuna, "that there is but one path by which I can be reached; the heart must be filled with devotion" (XI:675). But knowledge receives its due: "In the Gita the main theme is the destruction of ignorance and the fruit of it is the attainment of liberation; knowledge is the means that leads to these two"; and "only he who has found spiritual wisdom is able to reach liberation" (XI:675; XV:30). [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA +++]
“In the Gita the Vedas are born anew, to make good the defect, of which they are now ashamed, of their inaccessibility to all men and women: "the Gita does not consider whether men are of high or low birth but refreshes the whole world with the gift of heavenly bliss" (XVIII:1449, 1454-55). Similarly the Sanskrit Gita is reborn in the womb of the Marathi Gita so that the whole of creation, animate and inanimate, may benefit from these inspired teachings; and, in the company of "Saints devoted to the Supreme":
May the wickedness of sinners cease, may their desire for good deeds increase and may all beings live in harmony with each other.
May the darkness of sin disappear, may this universe see the rise of righteousness, and may the desires of all creatures be satisfied. (XVIII:1773-5)
Towards the Gita Jnaneshvar’s attitude was one of reverence; and although the Jnaneshvari represents one of the most significant attempts to bring the Gita to the common person and expand the domain of its influence, there are passages which suggest that Jnaneshvar was not free of doubt regarding the propriety and wisdom of vulgarizing the Gita’s teachings. Perhaps the orthodox view was so deeply encrusted into his being that he could not restrain from pontificating on the uselessness of entrusting the Gita into the hands of the ignorant: As crows cannot recognize the moon, so ordinary people will never be able to understand this work. As the chakora bird feeds on moonbeams, so this writing is meant only for wise men; as the ignorant can make nothing out of it, there is no need to enlarge further on the subject. (VI:29-30)
For Jnaneshvar the Gita remained the most indispensable of all the scriptures, the only one that with unquestionable authority fully expounds the method of attaining liberation (XVIII:1224): "When the eastern sky is illuminated by the rising sun, all other directions are aglow with light; so the Gita, the highest of all, gives support to all other scriptures" (XVIII:1220). The Gita, he often says, is like a mother who suckles her young and lulls them to sleep — here the sleep of final absorption in the spirit (cf. XII:7). It is the metaphor of the mother with her child which suggests how finally the Jnaneshvari is to be judged in relation to the Bhagavad Gita. Almost at the very end of his exposition, Jnaneshvar exclaims that "the Gita is like a trusting mother" from whom he "as a child has wandered away." The devotion of the guru has "brought mother and child together again", he quickly adds; and though the infant, Jnaneshvar, is back at its mother’s breast, at the threshold of the home of the Gita, "the wandering away" has been just as, if not more, momentous (XVIII:1761). The Jnaneshvari — a work sublime in its tone, pure in its feeling, exquisitely rich in its metaphors, similes, and analogies, lofty in its flights, and evocative of a saint so gentle that not a single blade of grass would feel the burden of his tread — invites us to run away, like the errant child, from our mother once in a while.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018