The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 1: The Universal Scope of the Bhagavadgita

The Bhagavadgita is a well-known gospel. Very few might have not heard the name, ‘Bhagavadgita’, for it is almost universally accepted as a scripture, not merely in a sense of holiness or sanctity from the point of view of a religious outlook, but as what has been regarded as a guide in our day-to-day life, which need not necessarily mean a so-called religious attitude of any particular denomination. Our life is vaster in its expanse than what we usually regard as a vocation of religion. And if religion remains just an aspect of our life and does not constitute the whole of life, the Bhagavadgita is not a religious scripture, because its intention is not to cater to a side of our nature or a part of our expectation in life, but the whole of what we need, and what we are.

This special feature of the Bhagavadgita makes it a little difficult for people to comprehend its significance and message. While there are hundreds of expositions on this great gospel, and several commentaries have been written and are being written on it even now, it is difficult to believe that its meaning has been completely grasped, as it becomes a novelty after novelty as we go deeper and deeper into it. The more we read it, the fresher does it appear before our eyes, like the rise of the sun every morning. This speciality and comprehensiveness which is the approach of the Gita is what makes it a little distinct from the other well-known religious guidelines. We have often heard it said that it is an episode in a large epic of India, known as the Mahabharata, and we regard it as a teaching given by someone to someone else in some ancient times in a particular context of those early days. We are likely to read this epic as a story, like a drama or a play, for our diversion and emotional satisfaction. But this epic of which the Bhagavadgita is an episode is not a story come from a grandmother to a child, though it is narrated in the fashion of a dramatic performance with images and artistic touches of characters which portray the various facets of human liking and attitude. What inspires us and stirs us when we read an epic of this kind is the sympathy that exists between these characters and the various phases of our own personal lives. We somehow find ourselves in these epic characters. We are drawn to these images of persons and situations on account of there being a representation, as it were, of what we ourselves are at different moments of time or in the layers of our own personalities. All these people, the heroes and heroines, the dramatis personae of the Mahabharata, are present inside us, and we ourselves are these at different occasions and times. We have layers of personality in us and these various layers correspond to the ideal images that are portrayed in the characters of this great epic, the Mahabharata.

Why are we inspired when we read the plays of Shakespeare? Because we are present there. Every one of these special characters that Shakespeare, for instance, delineates with the masterly stroke of his pen corresponds to our own self in some manner or the other. Every character of Shakespeare is present in us and we are every one of these. So, we are in sympathy within, we are en rapport with all these characters, and so we are stimulated by a study of his plays. It is human nature as such that is displayed in the dramas of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer or the Mahabharata. It is not the story of some people that lived some time ago but a characterisation of all people that may live at any time in the history of the world. They are not stories of certain people only; they are stories of people as such, of any person, and the nomenclature of these personalities is only by the way. The essentiality is the attitude, the character and the conduct and the personal and social features that they demonstrate in their temporal existence.

The characters are perpetual features in the evolution of the cosmos, while the vehicles which embody or enshrine these characters may vary. These are the specific stages through which the world has to pass, and every individual is a part of the world. Everyone has to traverse every one of these stages. Every character is every person, and vice-versa. Thus, while the epic of the Mahabharata, like some other epics also of this nature, attempts to portray the culture of an entire nation, or, we may say, the culture of humanity in general, it pinpoints its teachings at a central occasion which it regards as the most convenient hour to give its message in its essentiality.

The Bhagavadgita is the kernel of this vast expanded fruit of the Mahabharata, which has matured out of the tree of the culture of India. The philosophic messages which are given in the various chapters of the Gita are dramatically portrayed in the characters of the story of the epic. The one explains the other. The narrative of the Mahabharata, the epic aspect of this great work, is a performance, in the stage of humanity, of the message that is to be conveyed in the form of the Bhagavadgita; and, when we look at it the other way round, the Bhagavadgita is what is intended behind the whole narration of the Mahabharata. The great author of this epic achieves a double stroke by his masterpiece that he has given to mankind. He gives a message that has to go directly into our souls, and at the same time makes it appealing to the various psychological features which constitute our emotional personality.

As I mentioned a little earlier, the message of the Bhagavadgita is not religious in the common-sense meaning of the term; it does not teach any ‘religion’, if by religion we mean the so-called faiths of the world that are prevalent today, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any sectarian cult, though under an outer cloak we may imagine that it is a Hindu scripture. It is a scripture that has originated in India, may be by an accident or a contextual necessity in the history of the universe. But it is not meant only for the people of India; it is for all people, and for all times. It is, therefore, not a message that Krishna gave to Arjuna so that we can just set it aside as something relevant to those times and not applicable to these days. It is a message of eternity, and it has a timeless significance for every one of us. It does not get rusted or worn out by the movements of time or the changes that take place geographically, socially or politically. The vicissitudes of life have no impact upon this message, because it arises from a source which transcends the transitions of life.

In a few words which occur towards the end of each chapter, as a colophon thereof, we are given an indication of the eternity, practicality and divinity of its content. The Bhagavadgita is supposed to be a message which embodies the knowledge of what is ultimately real, and not merely temporarily valuable or significant. When everything passes away, something shall remain, and what that something is, is the object of the quest of this knowledge which is embodied in the Bhagavadgita. It is called ‘Brahmavidya’, the knowledge of the Absolute, Brahman.

The reality that cannot be further transcended is called the Absolute. It is so called because it is not related to anything else; it is non-relative Being. I am socially related to you, and you are related to me; and therefore our empirical existence is relative, one thing hanging on the other. But the Absolute does not hang on something else for its description, characterisation or existence. In our case, or in the case of anything, existence is conditioned by other existences. For instance, we are dependent on various factors for our life in this world. We require sunlight, water, air, food, we require social cooperation and protection and many other things of this nature, so that if these external conditioning features are absent, our personal or individual existence may be wiped out in a few days. We have no independent status of our own; we depend on other factors for our existence. There is a mutual dependence of characters, individuals and things in this world. Therefore, we say, the world is relative, and it has no absolute reality. But this relativity of things in the world is a pointer to the possibility of the existence of something which is not relative. The idea of relativity cannot arise unless there is something which makes us feel that things are relative. That which enables us to be conscious of the relativity of things cannot itself be relative. So, there is a necessity to admit the existence of that which is not relative, and it is designated, in scriptures like the Upanishads, as Brahman. This is a name that we give, for the purpose of our own descriptive understanding, to that which must exist as transcendent to anything that we see with our eyes or anything that we can conceive with our minds. 

The Bhagavadgita is the knowledge of the Absolute, Brahmavidya, which is mentioned at the end of each chapter. It is also called an Upanishad—something very strange to normal sense. It is an esoteric teaching, plumbing the depths of the essentiality of things behind the veneer of encrustations in the shape of names and forms. An Upanishad is a secret teaching. It is secret because it has concern with that which cannot be seen with the eyes. It is not related to appearances. The names and forms of the world are not the subject of the Upanishad. Its relationship is with that which is behind the names and forms. As its connection is with that which the senses cannot perceive, and even the mind cannot think adequately, it is to an extent regarded as a secret and, therefore, it is an esoteric teaching. It is ‘Upanishad’.

The Upanishads being such, the Bhagavadgita, which is regarded as the quintessence of the teachings of the Upanishads, is also venerated as an Upanishad. And, interestingly before us, it is mentioned in the plural, ‘Iti Srimad-Bhagavadgitasu Upanishatsu’. It is not one Upanishad. It appears to be many Upanishads brought together in a forceful concentration. Perhaps, each chapter is an Upanishad by itself; each chapter is a message by its own status. Well, there have been people who thought that even a single verse can be regarded as a message. Devotees of the Bhagavadgita have received inspiration from even one verse. One may open any page of the Bhagavadgita, and one will find there something which will inspire the heart at once and lift one up from the turmoils of the ordinary life that one lives in the world. So, it is a plurality of the Upanishads, and not one Upanishad merely. All the Upanishads are here, condensed in their supra-essential essence. So, it is said, ‘Bhagavadgitasu’, again, in the ‘songs’, not merely the song of the Lord. Many messages are conveyed through the various chapters and the verses so that every disease conceivable of human nature can be remedied by some medicine or the other that is there in the form of some word of the Bhagavadgita. It is a remedy for every illness
of life.

The Bhagavadgita is also considered as an essence of all the scriptures—Sarva-Shastramayi Gita. It is said many a time that all the Shastras, all the lessons that we can have anywhere can be found here in some form. It is an esoteric, secret teaching concerning the reality behind things and it does not cater merely to a sentiment that is attached to appearances. It is intended to do us good in the ultimate sense of the term and not merely to satisfy our imagination by temporarily stimulating an emotion. It is also not an academic or theoretical message or gospel concerning the nature of the Absolute, for, it is, at the same time—and this is a special character, again—a practical guideline for the purpose of treading the path to the realisation of this ultimate reality.

It is, therefore, a ‘Yoga-Shastra’, not only a Brahmavidya. We will find very few texts which combine these two aspects of teaching. It is not an emphasis that is laid on only one side of our life, but all the sides are equally balanced. It is a theory and a practice; and practice is preceded by theory. The comprehension of the technique to be employed in any particular line of action is called theory. And when the theory is grasped, we know how to implement it in our daily life; that implementation is practice. So, here we have Brahmavidya and Yoga-Shastra, the science of the Absolute and the practical teaching on Yoga, which is the art of coming in contact with the Absolute.

The Gita is, moreover, something delightfully wonderful and more incapable of ordinary imagination than what we have already noticed. It is a conversation between God and man, which meaning is conveyed by the phrase ‘Krishnarjuna Samvada’ in the colophon. Krishna and Arjuna are taken as occasions for bringing into highlight the relationship that exists between the Absolute and the relative. The epic has a special artistic grandeur and beauty of its own. That is the glory of a drama, and you enjoy it, though the enjoyment part of it has behind it a teaching, a moral or a lesson to be conveyed.

As we noticed earlier, the characters of the Mahabharata are present perpetually in the features of the human being, and so are the characters—Krishna and Arjuna. They are eternal relatives, and not merely persons who might have lived historically some time, many years back. It is not a temporal history that is recounted to us in the epic, it is the story of the eternal drama that is played in the cosmos and is meaningful, therefore, for all times under every circumstance, to every person. As the message is imparted to the eternal individual by the eternal Reality, the teaching is also eternal.

There is some essence in us which is perpetual in its nature, and that permanent essential something is the individuality of ours, which has a permanent relationship with the Supreme Being. The Gita is, therefore, not a message conveyed in mere temporal language to suit a tentative occasion or a given moment of time, but this specific occasion of the Mahabharata was taken as a necessary context by the author of the Mahabharata to convey to the eternal human nature the knowledge of its relationship with the Eternal Absolute. The union of the individual with the Absolute is the final consummation of this story. The setting in tune of Arjuna with Krishna is the setting in tune of ourselves with all beings in a wholeness, which is Brahman, the Absolute.

The story of the universe, which is also the story of any country or nation and also the story of our own selves, is a story of the movement of all creation to the Creator, the Father of all beings that are here as these widespread phenomena. The world moves towards God. This is the story of creation. This is what is known as evolution. This is what we call desire, and this is what also goes as aspiration. This is the need, this is the requirement, this is the necessity, the hunger and the thirst, and this is everything that is blessed here. All our requirements, whatever be their nature, are necessitated by the particular nature of the context of evolution at any given moment of time in which we are involved, in which everyone is wound up entirely.

One can imagine with this introduction the widespread comprehensiveness of the gospel, the teachings of the Bhagavadgita. It leaves nothing unsaid, and the language in which this message is conveyed has behind it an incomprehensible secret. The deeper we go within ourselves, the deeper is the meaning we will discover in it. If our outer personality reads the Gita, we will see only the outer feature of its message. If we study it as a linguist, as a Sanskritist or an academician, we will see only that aspect, a story narrated which appeals to our feelings and emotions, or to our reason. If we read it as a psychologist, we will find there an unravelling of the mystery of the human psyche. If we read it as a rationalist, we will find there arguments for substantiating the varieties of the cosmos. And if we read it as a seeker, we will find there a parent to take care of us, a father and a mother who will console us and solace us under moments of despair when clouds hang heavy in the horizon and we cannot visualise the light of the sun. Such is the tremendous depth of this gospel and teaching known as the Bhagavadgita, and of the epic of the Mahabharata in which the Bhagavadgita occurs, displaying the whole character of mankind. It reveals an entire culture, not only of the Indian nation, but of all nationalities in the various stages of their evolution.

One might be surprised that this Divine Message, which should be regarded as spiritual in its character, has been imparted at a very critical moment, when a war was about to take place, in a battlefield, when people were up in arms to fly at each other’s throats, when there was heat in the minds of all that were arrayed in the war-ground. We know what is battle; and an hour or so before this terrific occasion should be regarded as the time for giving a message of eternity. It was not taught in a school or a college; one would have expected such a masterly teaching to be conveyed to students in a church or a temple, in an academy, a university, a college, a hermitage, a monastery, which would have been the proper place to reveal this message. Spirituality has little to do with war or battle, with fighting and with bloodshed. One cannot imagine the relevance of the wondrous eternity of the message to the awful scene of the battle of the Mahabharata. But here, again, is the speciality of the Bhagavadgita. It cannot, therefore, be considered as a religious scripture in any traditional sense. We do not expect a religious gospel to be broadcast in a battlefield. We assume an air of holiness, a sanctimonious attitude when we speak of God or religion. By holiness we mean something which is different from an unholy atmosphere. And what can be more unholy than a battle, a war, something unthinkable, detestable and undesirable to the utmost extent, the dreadful scene of killing each other. And yet, this is the occasion considered to have been most suitable.

Yes, the problems of life are not merely religious problems, and we should not be under the impression that we can be happy merely by a so-called religious message. If by religion we understand what is in our minds usually—and we know very well what we understand by religion: a scripture which has to be carried on the head and worshipped with a tremendous piety and fear in an atmosphere which has to be uncontaminated by secularity of any kind, cut off from the atmosphere of the give-and-take attitude of people, of shops and streets and thoroughfares, a temple, a church, a priest, a ritual—we have to study the Gita a little differently.

We have our own notions of religion. Religions there are and have been many, and we are practising them, yet grief-stricken. We are sorry people, indeed, with all our religion. We are weeping every day, either openly or secretly, and the religion that we have been hugging as our dear child has not brought any consolation to us. We run to other sources of protection and solace when we are in need of support, and we do not run to religion under every circumstance. We have difficulties of various types, which are not necessarily those which can be solved by the religion that is in our heads today, and this does not require any further explanation. We run about in ten directions every day for solution of our problems, and we do not always go to a church or a temple if we have some difficulties. This means that our life is something which is not always capable of being confined to the religion of the church or the religion of the temple. We have not been satisfied with the God that we worship, with the religion we practise, with the scripture we read and the message we have received. We are always unhappy for some reason or the other. Man has been always unhappy and he is unhappy today, and we do not know how long he will continue to be such. Is there a solution for this unhappiness of people? Is it possible for us to be really happy? If this is a possibility, it is worthwhile investigating. And the Bhagavadgita takes up this task of tackling the problems of life in general and not just any one side of our nature.

We know very well, every one of us, that our devotions and our religious practices do not cover the whole of our lives. We have a piety inside our rooms, and a different religion altogether when we walk on the road or purchase a packet of biscuits in the shop, or are travelling in the bus or journeying in the train. If our confrontation of life in these various aspects in which we are unwittingly and necessarily involved can be charged with the spirit of religion, we can be said to be truly religious, and that God will help us everywhere, and we need not run to another temporal God for solution of our daily problems. All temporality is a manifestation of eternity, and that which is eternal should be capable of interpreting temporal situations, also. And the Bhagavadgita as an eternal message is supposed to be a protection to us even in our temporal dealings and our work-a-day life. It is all things put together, like a mother to us. Our relationship with our mother is not merely religious, it is everything. We can run to it for a cup of tea, a spoon of sugar, and we will see that the Gita has specifically pinpointed even these little things to relieve us of tension in all the layers of our being.

The Bhagavadgita caters not merely to our outer personality but that essentiality of personality in us which is related to all things in the world, the whole of creation. We are not just citizens of Rishikesh or Uttar Pradesh or India or even this earth. We have a passport with us for entering into the various planes of existence. We are citizens of the creation of God, and this earth is not our only habitat. We have a duty which far surpasses our temporal obligations and tentative demands as nationals of a particular country or units in a particular community, etc. We have an obligation transcending the limits and the boundaries of the nation and the society in which we are born. When we fulfil the requirements of law, abide by the law that reigns supreme or operates in the atmosphere, that law is supposed to take care of us. Law protects. It does not always punish. It protects when we abide by it. It punishes when we disregard and disobey it. Our sufferings in life are therefore to be attributed to our disobedience of the law that operates in this world. We may be thinking that we are obeying a kind of law of a particular country, of a community and a family in which we are born. We think that is all-in-all, and that is enough to take care of us. But we know that if we are confined merely to the obedience of the law that prevails only within our family, and are disobedient to the law of the nation as a whole, our obedience to the family law is not going to help us. The national law will pursue us, because we have disregarded it, notwithstanding the fact that we are humbly obedient to the family law. And we can extend the analogy, further. The international law is also important, and if we kick it aside as if it is nothing, and we are obstinately patriotic in respect of our own little country, that also would not be a solace to us. Our whole country can be placed in a precarious situation because of its disobedience to the international set-up of things.

Such is the case with everything, everywhere. We may be obedient to the little laws of this land, but we may be disobedient to a higher law, not merely the international law, but the inter-planary law, the universal law as we may call it. That may take action against us if we are ignorant of its workings. The Bhagavadgita displays before us the structure of the universal law that operates everywhere. And if we can abide by it, it shall supremely protect us as the protection that we can expect from the Central Constitution of a Government, and our little laws are subsumed under it. Such is the beauty of this message, the Bhagavadgita.