A Study of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Bhagavadgita

There are two forces in this world, upon a balancing of which everything functions. They may be designated as the positive and the negative powers of nature, or the subjective and the objective sides of experience. There are two sides for everything in this world: one which receives, and another which is received; that which is conscious of an act taking place, and the object towards which the action is supposed to take place. Philosophically, these phases of experience, or activity of force, are known as the subjective phase and the objective phase.

There is a world in front of you, and you are also there in this world. Right from morning till evening, until you go to bed at night, you are engaged in the handling of this world – the world consisting of anything which you have to encounter, which you have to face in some way or the other, which stares at you as a question, a problem or a task to be executed. The early morning gazes at you as a problem and a series of questionnaires. These are the things to be done in respect of the atmosphere, the environment in which you are living.

The circumstances, the conditions of life taken in their totality, all things that you regard as whatever is to be done or handled, may be regarded as your world. “I live in a world.” This is what you may say to your own self. But what kind of world is it in which you are living? You have in front of you the world of nature: the solar system, the sun, the moon and the stars, the galaxies, space and time, the mountains and the rivers, the forests, the hills and the dales, and the ground on which you are seated. This is the world indeed.

But you will appreciate that your life in this world, which expects you to do something and often forces a hard question, is not necessarily in the mountains and the rivers, nor the sun and the moon and the stars. You are not thinking of them very much. “Today I have to deal with the sun or the moon or the mountain in front of me in some manner. Today I have to handle this Earth. I have a lot of work to do with the forests and the hills and the dales.” These questions do not arise in your mind. The world of nature does not seem to be posing a problem as you would define a problem in your personal experience. When you make statements such as, “I have a lot of difficulty. It is difficult to live in this world,” obviously you are not referring to the world of nature – mountains and rivers, or the trees in the forest. You are not even referring to the animals in the jungle, though they are important enough and you have to be cautious of them. All the subhuman species which you may categorise under the animal, plant, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms do not seem to be attracting your concern so much as something else which you have in your mind when you say that this is a difficult world.

If you psychoanalytically subject yourself to a study of what experience it is that you are passing through in your daily life, you will realise that your adjustments, which you call your work in this world, are concerned with human beings more predominantly than with anything else. You wake up in the morning and prepare yourself for work. Mostly, it may be work in a particular condition where other people are also involved, such as farming, working in a factory or being in an office – all which involve necessary adaptation to human circumstances. All work in this world is related to the existence of people and things other than your own self. This word ‘objectivity’, as distinguished from the subjectivity of your own personality, actually concerns itself with this world which is humanly oriented and externally conditioned. The world of experience is something outside you. Here is the whole problem.

The Bhagavadgita starts with a great human question – a problem that did not appear to be there at all, and suddenly it projected itself into a concrete confrontation under another circumstance altogether. People in an undivided family, for instance, with several brothers involved, may be living a happy life of mutual harmony and adjustable sacrifice. Brothers, as the word itself signifies, constitute a fraternity of affectionate members cooperating mutually in every conceivable way. Brothers are always friends. They cannot be anything other than that. They are cooperative forces. You cannot expect a conflict among brothers; else, they would not be brothers. But apart from the fact that persons are fraternally related in a family, there is another element involved which is often missed in the heyday of our ignorance of the basic relation that obtains between one person and another.

It is not true that conflicts cannot arise between brothers, though the word ‘brother’ is a beautiful word which implies that such a conflict is unthinkable. Because a person is your brother, a conflict should not arise between you; but because of outside factors, conflicts can arise. A brother is not merely an affectionate participant in a family setup. He is also an independent individual.

Here is the whole point. How can two persons be independent and yet be cooperative to the hilt? How can you expect total sacrifice on the part of a person who is also independent like you? If you consider that the other person is not independent, then you also may not regard yourself as wholly independent. If an abolition of independence assumed by persons can be considered as necessary for a cooperative life of sacrifice, conflict may not arise. Even nations may avoid war if it is not absolutely called for. But a peculiar trait called egoism in human nature which is in families, in communities, in nations – a self-assertive principle which will not submit to the call of any other person or any other nation – may set up a new type of environment around you.

Father and son are perhaps the best example of immense cooperation and affection in a family. Yet, have you heard of them going to court for partition of land and not speaking to each other? Father and son are mutually sacrificing elements – biologically, psychologically and even spiritually cooperative to the basic substratum. Nothing can be a greater affectionate bond than that between a parent and a child. But even between these two, there can be a conflict because the child, when it grows up, assumes a kind of natural independence. This is perhaps the reason why in a slightly sarcastic or humorous way, the great lawgiver Manu tells us: prapte tu shorase barse putra mitra-badacharel. It is an instruction to the father and the mother that when their son reaches sixteen years old, he must be considered as a friend and not as a son. That is, you should no longer subject him to your orders.

The world of nature and the world of human society, when it is subjected to an acute philosophical analysis, will present itself in this circumstance of a dual action taking place between the world of nature and yourself, and yourself and the people around you, who are also like you. The Bhagavadgita occurs in the context of a big Armageddon, the Mahabharata war. The interesting phenomenon of the delivery of the Bhagavadgita is that the most sacred thing that it is – a holy teaching connected with God and creation, something which you would like to hear in a sanctified spot such as a temple or an ashram, a university or an academy, a school or a college – is given in the worst of human conditions, called battle. Nothing can be more odious and unsuited for the delivery of a divine gospel than the field of war where minds are tuned up to an immediate and immanent attack. Such a circumstance was considered as the best occasion for the delivery of the divine gospel.

The great work of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharata, is not merely a story that you can witness as a television drama, as you have it these days. It is not a novel which you can read at your leisure for your own personal pleasure. It is a study of human nature. It is a history, no doubt, but not merely a political history like the history of England, Europe or India, as you read in your colleges. This is a history of human character, the development of the human psyche, and the ups and downs of human development throughout the process of the march of time – not merely confined to a particular point in time. So you may say this great epic of the Mahabharata is a history of the time process, not the history of India, not the history of the Bharatas. It is the history of humanity as conceivable in the very structure of the time process itself.

The term ‘humanity’ should be understood in the context of the creation of the world itself, and not in the light of the anthropological or the modern historical findings which commence human history sometime after 3000-4000 B.C. The history of the world did not start only at that time; it began when creation itself started. When Brahma created Manu, or God created Adam and Eve, you may say, history commenced. Therefore, for you, from the point of view of what you may have to learn from the Bhagavadgita, history may be regarded as a cosmic process. At one place in the Bhagavadgita, the great Master refers to Himself as the Time Spirit. Kālo’smi loka-kṣaya (Gita 11.32): “I am here before you as the world-transforming Time Spirit.”

Transmutation is the process of creation and destruction, and everyone is involved in this time process, which is basically mutation. Time never stands still for even a second. It undergoes transformation. It is a conflict between the present and the future. It absorbs the past into the present and runs forward into the future. There is a continuous activity taking place with every person and every thing involved in time. There is a confrontation of the three phases of the time process – past, present and future – something going, something coming, or we may say more prosaically, something dying and something being born. It is something like a war taking place. The history of humanity, which is the history of creation itself, is a story of events dying and being born that constitute the whole of history.

God speaks to man in the Bhagavadgita. It is not an individual Krishna that speaks to Arjuna. The symbology, the cosmicality, the inner suggestiveness that is immanent in the entire epic of the Mahabharata is something that you have to read between the lines. Poets do not merely write lines; great poets also write something between the lines. That is the grandeur of the poet. You may read Valmiki, Vyasa, Milton, and Shakespeare. They do not merely tell you their words, but they also tell you something which they have not spoken through the words; that is the spirit of the poetry. It is that which is between the lines, in between the words, that stirs you, stimulates you, enraptures you and causes you to read it again and again. The words, of course, are noted everywhere. Every word in the Mahabharata, every English word used by Shakespeare may be in the dictionary and you know what the meaning of the words are, so no words in Shakespeare can be regarded as unknown to you. But why is it that Shakespeare inspires you? It is not merely the words, but the adjustment of the words, the force that the words are expected to generate by their compilation in a particular manner. That is the poet’s power. Poetry inspires you much more than prose – especially great poetry, epic poetry. Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana, or whatever it is, is some such great example which stimulates you from the heart. What is it that attracts you? It is something you yourself cannot know – a spirit that is operating behind the presentation. The poet’s imagination catches you. The battlefield of the Mahabharata, the war that was the occasion for the delivery of the Bhagavadgita, is therefore not merely a local event to which we are making reference.

So when you study the Gita, it is not enough if you merely read the words and understand them grammatically. In almost every good translation or commentary of the Gita, you will find exact grammatical meanings of each Sanskrit word are given; the same thing is arranged in a prose order, and you have the translation. This is good enough. Very few commentaries will go beyond the mere translation and the meaning of the words. There is an old saying that Sri Krishna alone knows what he said, Arjuna knows something of it, the great Suka Rishi knows it, Vyasa knows it, and nobody else can be said to know it entirely. The spirit of the cosmos manifested itself at the time of the delivery of the gospel. It was not the Yadava hero that spoke; the Universal Spirit manifested itself at one stroke, as if the whole world stood up and spoke. Can you imagine how you would receive the gospel if the entire universe stands before you and speaks to you from every corner? Every leaf in the tree speaks, and every atom vibrates and has a tongue before you, which will give you a message. Everywhere is gospel, the whole world coming from all sides. The entire space is speaking to you. What will you feel at that time? You will shudder from the roots of your being. This happened to Arjuna when the Cosmic Spirit manifested itself; his very roots shook. You can never imagine a condition in which the whole cosmos will speak to you. You have seen only one or two persons speaking to you, or ten people shouting at you. This is all that you know. But can you imagine the entire world speaking to you at one stroke – not merely this Earth, but the whole of creation speaking to you from every nook and corner? That circumstance was stirred up by the conditions described in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita.

As I mentioned, the conflict which is the battlefield, under which circumstance the Bhagavadgita was thought to be properly delivered, is connected with your very soul itself. It is an adhyatma-vidya; it is a spiritual teaching. It is not a war gospel, it is not a military science, it is not a science of sociology, it is not human psychology, it is not even cosmology – though all of this the Bhagavadgita is, because of its integrated nature. As a parent speaks to a child from every aspect of the well-being of the child, God speaks to man from the point of view of the welfare and well-being of creation as a whole. It is a message to me, to you, to all those that were, all those that are, and all those that are yet to be. It is a gospel of eternity. Eternally valid is this message. You cannot say that it was good only at that time when the war took place.

Actually, this war is taking place always. It did not simply take place once upon a time, five thousand years back. The context of the spiritual significance of the Mahabharata battle is an eternal occurrence, and therefore it is taking place even now. As an Arjuna, you are facing the world context in the same manner as he seems to have faced it many, many years ago. The problems he faced, you are also facing today, but not every day. Today, just now, you are in a hall of teaching; you may not be thinking of a serious problem in your life. Arjuna did not have a problem always in his life. It rose up only when confronted by him. You can know the nature of a human being when you oppose that person. In a very friendly and chummy way you cannot know what a person is, but opposition coming from all sides will rouse up the spirit of even a rat. If you corner it in a room, it will jump on you although it is small. You have cornered it from all sides, and so it asserts its last might – that is, jumping on your face. A mouse can do that, and you will run away. You would not like a mouse to be on your nose.

The world does not always fight with you. Nobody will fight with you always. Even the Kauravas did not fight with Arjuna every day. It looked as if everything was fine. But something unexpected was an inner and outer occurrence, which is the description you have in the First Chapter of the Gita, and that brought the cat out of the bag, as they say; it brought out the true nature of the human individual. There are certain conditions when your true nature comes out, not always. You have enough money in your hand, you have a nice family, you have a friendly society, you are very secure in every way. What is the problem? Everything is good. Honey and milk are flowing in this world. You may think like that, but honey and milk will not always flow. There will be thorns, and you will have to pass through thickets.

Arjuna thought that he lived in a friendly atmosphere of human relation. Bhisma was his grandsire, Drona was his teacher, and the Kurus themselves were very close in blood relation. They were more than friends; they were relatives. Your relative is more concerned with you than a friend. Arjuna, the hero who was the generalissimo in the battle of the Mahabharata, faced the world.

Many of us do not face the world properly because we are cosily placed, and are not being wrenched from all our pet relations. Some good karmas that we performed in the previous life seem to be keeping us satisfactorily happy. But the earth can shake one day, even for the best of men. Even a king can become a pauper tomorrow. Nations can perish. The Roman Empire can go to dust. This is not unthinkable. King and beggar make no difference when they are on their deathbed. They want a little glass of water. The king will say, “Give me a little sip of water. My throat is parched, and I am passing.” He will not think of his kingdom, his queen and his ministers. This will also be what the beggar will think: “Give me a little water. My tongue is drying up. I cannot speak.” This is what you want finally, when the world tells you what it really is. When it confronts you, it will tell you what it is. Kālo’smi loka-kṣaya: It will stand before you as a destroying power.

You may ask, “Is the world so unkind to us? Is God so merciless?” It is nothing of the kind. These ethical and social rules do not obtain in a world which is wider than human society and family relation. ‘Mercy’, ‘goodness’, ‘kindness’, ‘affection’ are words which are meaningful to us human beings; but the cosmos God has created is not made up of human beings. God has not created human beings, actually. He has created forces, energies. As modern science will tell you, quanta of powers by a process of permutation and combination become larger by logical embodiments and may look like organisms, plants, animals, and human beings; but really, in God’s eye, or to the eye of the world itself, there may not be plants, animals and human beings. There are only cosmic forces operating.

Any kind of attachment or aversion, any emotion which is sunk in love and hatred, is not the way in which the world is working or, perhaps, God Himself is working. God does not love you or hate you. Nādatte kasyacit pāpaṁ na caiva sukṛtaṁ vibhuḥ (5.15): The Lord wants not your good deeds, nor does He care for your bad deeds. The actions that you perform are the dispensers of your own justice. The universe is more an embodied law than a field of force that looks like human beings.

Perhaps many of you are scientists, or at least acquainted with the science of Newton, and so on. The classical science of Newton says that many things are in this world of space and time as things can be in a basket or glass balls can be in a soda bottle. In that way, the world of matter seems to be inside space and time. This is the classical picture that Newton and Laplace presented before us, making out thereby that there is no organic relationship between space and time and the world of matter, much less the relation between ourselves and space and time. That would keep us away from the structure of the cosmos, vitally speaking. If Newton’s statement was entirely true, space and time would not be vitally connected with us. We would be like apples in a basket. A basket knows not that there are apples, and the apple does not know that it is inside a basket, though it is inside. Such is the case that is made out by classical science, classical mathematics. Two and two make four. They cannot make anything less or anything more.

But modern findings, as you are all perhaps aware, have shown a vital relationship between even space and time and your own selves, so that you are sitting in this hall at your desk, not unconnected with the walls around you, not unconnected with the sun that is shining in the sky, not unconnected even with the distant stars or what you may call the white hole or the black hole. With that you are connected even just now. Though modern science is not regarded as a spiritual science, it tells you, very strangely, that every cell in your brain is connected to every atom of the cosmos. Every person is a cosmic individual, you may say. Certainly you are made in the image of God; and as God is a cosmic entity, anything that is made in the image of that cosmic substance should also have a cosmic significance. So you are not Mr. so-and-so, a little boy born of somebody who is your father. This is not the way in which the Bhagavadgita asks you to understand yourself, your relations, your friends, your society.

Arjuna never knew that there is such a profundity involved in his relation with the atmosphere outside. He thought he was a Pandava, a son of so-and-so, brother of so-and-so, relative of so-and-so, student of so-and-so – none of which is our description. The Bhagavadgita becomes an eternal gospel only because of the fact that it stands above all sciences, all teachings, and every branch of learning in schools and colleges as a solution to your ultimate problem, which is the relation of yourself to creation itself. When you die one day, what happens to you? Your sciences, your geographies and histories do not know what happens to you, though it is an event that can take place at any moment. What is the good of your education, your degrees, if tomorrow something happens to you and they cannot help? The whole thing is gone. You have gone to the winds. You have become ashes. Is this the tragedy you are expecting in this world by working so hard, by the sweat of your brow, in offices and factories to take care of your family when you are going to die tomorrow? It is a predicament you cannot escape, which you have to face.

But nature has a trick, a peculiar stratagem by which it prevents you from knowing that such a tragedy can take place; else you will not eat today, you will not sleep, you will not drink a cup of water if you know that tomorrow is the last day – which it can be, but it should not be known. The stratagem of nature keeps you in ignorance of the facts of life and presents before you a golden apple brought from the garden of Hesperides. This is very, very unfortunate.

Sri Krishna’s gospel is God’s gospel to mankind, not merely to people in India, in an eternal setup. It is not a religious gospel of Hinduism, or a religious teaching at all; it is a scientific teaching connected with your relationship with the entire creation. Therefore, ordinary commentaries will not be of much utility to you though, of course, they introduce you to the basic framework of the teaching.

The Bhagavadgita is the Lord’s song, as they say. Bhagavan is Bhagavat. Song is a musical message that has sprung from God, as it were. When God speaks, He speaks in a language of Eternity. He does not speak in English or Sanskrit or Latin. It is the tongue of the Eternal that spoke here. That ferocious and fear-striking picture that is painted in the Eleventh Chapter of the Bhagavadgita is a faint attempt that is made by the best ability of the poet to tell you what you can expect finally when the world does not want you any more. When you go to war, you do not always go with the idea of coming back safe. You may go to the other side also; but what is the use of going to the other side? What is the purpose? Even if death is the outcome of a war which is considered as very unavoidable, what happens to you after death?

If nothing happens after death, perhaps nothing happens in this life also. There will be no significance in what you do in this world. If the life that you live in this world is full of meaning, there will also be meaning in what happens to you after the passing of this body. Life and death are connected in the life that is eternal. Life is disconnected from death in the life that we live in time; but our life is not merely confined to time. It is timeless. You have taken many births. How many births you have taken, nobody can say. Right from the original will of the Almighty Himself at the time of creation, and the evolutionary process, which is the process of mutation, you have been conditioned to all these subjections to the different species through which you have passed. Indian tradition says that eighty-four lakhs [8,400,000] of yonis or species are there through which you have to pass before you become a human being, and even the birth of a human being is not the last terminus of human evolution.

The restlessness that you feel in this world and the unhappiness that characterises your daily life will tell you that life in this world as a human being is not complete. If human life is complete, you would be happy always and no problem would be facing you. There would be no anxiety of any kind if human life is the last point, the terminus.

The Upanishads say there are realms of being that transcend human life, and modern evolutionary doctrine says there are species above the mineral, the plant and the animal, leading to the human species. The Upanishads say that there are realms of being, denizens occupying a different order of life altogether, larger than what can be comprehended by a human being. The Gandharvas, the Devas, the realm of Brihaspati, Narayana and Nara, up to Prajapati, Brahma, Virat, Hiranyagarbha, Ishvara, and the Absolute, are used to take your mind beyond the concept of human satisfaction and human limitation.

Life is not complete merely with bread and jam. Even with the best of comforts that you have in this world, you are still very poor in comparison with the great blessing that is ahead of you. That will be opened up in a series through the chapters of the Bhagavadgita, which are eighteen in number. There are also eighteen books of the Mahabharata. They seem to be designating a gradational ascent of teaching, the movement of the spirit of man in an advance in the direction of higher and higher dimensions of experience until God-experience becomes the fulfillment of life.

In the earliest of stages, which is the First Chapter, it is a tragic experience. It is a battlefield that is described there, with kettledrums of war, bands beating for the forthcoming neck-to-neck fight, and arms drawn for the eventuality. With that, the Bhagavadgita commences the First Chapter. And the greatest hero Arjuna, representing humanity itself we may say, cowed down. The best of men cannot face the forces of nature. The widest learning that you have will not give you even one piece of bread that is not earned and produced by somebody else.

To this condition of a possible descent of human nature into an utter helplessness of understanding of what is ahead, Arjuna was introduced. It is something that any one of us can expect. Perhaps some of us have an inkling of what the bitter side of life is. I do not think every one of you is the happiest of human beings. There is something pricking your back that you are trying to ignore by adding a cushion, but still it is pricking. Life tells you that it is not always very soft. With every beautiful rose flower, you will also find a little thorn on its stem. So for every pleasure that comes to human nature, there is also a little poisonous sting which may manifest itself one day or the other.

When you study a subject, you have to see the whole of it. Therefore, learning should not be merely a branch of learning such as physics, mathematics, history, or geography, because a historian does not know what geography is, and a geography student does not know what history is. Their knowledge is parochial, very limited. But the wisdom of life, the insight into things, is a total grasp of things and knowing all things at the same time by an intuitional sight. That it is which the Bhagavadgita will provide for us.