The Bhagavada Gita, translated to Song Celestial is perhaps the most important Hindu religious text, and it is narrated to Arjuna by Krishna just before the Mahabharata war begins. This dialogue is witnessed by Sanjaya through his divine sight, and it is through him that we witness the Gita.
This chapter in the Mahabharata is called the Bhagavada Gita Parva, and contains 994 shlokas (not all of them part of the Bhagavada Gita itself). For the Mahabharata, this is not a chapter of great size, because the next chapter — Bhishma Vadha Parva has 3,947 shlokas.
However, the Gita has 634 footnotes because a single word like for instance smriti can have a lot of meaning behind it which has been explained as footnotes. Dr. Debroy has also used the footnotes to point out certain difficulties in translating specific words, and confusing passages as well as passages that seem to have been added later because they don’t go along with the main theme.
In general, I’ve been doing a synopsis of stories that I found interesting, but this is not a synopsis because that is perhaps an errand that requires many hours of study, and an understanding that I don’t possess.
Instead, I’m just presenting a few passages that I found interesting because I didn’t want to skip the Gita altogether since it is such an important part of the Mahabharata.
The Kaurava army is much larger than the Pandava army because the Kauravas have 11 Akshauhinis while the Pandavas only have 7 Akshauhinis, and Yudhishthara seeks reassurance from Arjuna that they can still win the war despite the smaller army.
Arjuna reassures him and is confident that they can win the war, and tells his charioteer Lord Krishna to place his chariot between the two armies so he can take a better look at the Kaurava army.
But when Arjuna’s chariot is placed in between the two armies, he is overcome with grief at the thought that he will have to kill all his ancestors, teachers, cousins, and friends in this war, and he drops his weapons telling Krishna that this will be a great sin, and a kingdom won in this fashion is not worth winning at all.
On the Soul
This is really the beginning of Bhagavada Gita as Lord Krishna now begins talking to Arjuna.
The first thing he says to him is the indestructibility of the soul. He tells Arjuna that the soul can neither be created, nor be destroyed, it has always existed, and will always continue to exist. Knowing this you should understand that you can neither slay, nor can you be slain. The person who is not affected by this, and looks at happiness and unhappiness equally attains the right to immortality.
Next Krishna tells Arjuna about following one’s natural dharma, and tells him that since Arjuna is a kshatriya, his natural dharma is to fight, and he should rejoice at the prospect of this war. If he dies in the war then he will attain heaven, and if he wins then he will enjoy the earth.
This is the part where perhaps the most famous parts of the Bhagavada Gita are mentioned. Relevant shloka, translation, and passage:
Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥
You have the right to action alone. You never have the right to the fruit. Do not be motivated to act because of the fruit. But don’t be motivated to not acting either. O Dhananjaya! Perform action by resorting to yoga. Give up attachment. Look upon success and failure equally. This equal attitude is known as yoga. O Dhananjaya! Action is far inferior to the yoga of wisdom. Seek refuge in this wisdom. Pitiable are those who crave the fruit. He who has this wisdom, discards good action, and evil action in this life itself.
The passage below builds upon what is said before:
If a person can so control his senses, in him is wisdom established. If a man thinks about sensual objects, this gives birth to attachment about those. From attachment is created desire, and desire gives birth to anger. Anger gives birth to delusion and delusion leads to confusion of memory. From confusion of memory comes loss of intellect, and loss of intellect results in destruction. But he who has controlled his mind is freed from attachment.
On Jnana Yoga (Path of knowledge) and Karma Yoga (Path of Action)
Arjuna now asks Krishna that you have earlier told me that Jnana Yoga which is the path of knowledge is superior to Karma Yoga which is the path of action so why then are you telling me to perform this terrible karma?
Krishna tells him that I have earlier said that there are two paths, but without performing action, man is not freed from the bondage of action in this world. And resorting to sannyasa doesn’t result in liberation. No one can exist even for a short while without performing action because this is dictated by nature. Therefore performing action is superior to not performing action, and without this even the body can’t exist. Therefore, perform action without detachment.
Krishna’s Divine Form
There is much dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, and Arjuna requests to see Krishna’s divine form. Krishna reveals his divine form, and this is terrible to look at and Arjuna starts shivering and trembling. Arjuna sees all the Kauravas, and all the chief warriors among the Pandava side entering Krishna’s fearsome mouth with terrible teeth, some of them even have their heads smashed, and are entering his mouth like moths are attracted to flames. Arjuna asks him who Krishna is, and Krishna replies I am the terrible destroyer, referring to himself as kala, which means time. Krishna tells Arjuna that he has already destroyed all these warriors and even without Arjuna they will cease to exist; Arjuna is merely the instrument, therefore take up the weapons, and fulfill your supreme destiny.
There is obviously a lot more in the Bhagavada Gita, and a lot of it is very difficult to understand and not really within my scope of interest at the moment. These are just some passages that I thought I would touch upon while going through the entire text.