Essay On The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the more recent books in Hinduism as compared to the Vedas and the Upanishads that are hoary in antiquity. However, the Gita is unique in a sense that it encompasses most of the wisdom of the Vedas and the Upanishads in the form of a conversation between the prince Arjuna and the Supreme God, Lord Krishna. This essay will examine the manner in which the Gita views life, Dharma, karma and other social aspects that the book reinforces. In addition, the essay would also examine the relationship between Gandhi’s philosophy and that of the Gita.
One of the primary aims of the Gita is to educate an individual about the purpose of life as well as teach one about the values of the good life. As per Swami Prabhupada (2014), many people firmly believe that having a human body and sensory pleasures that accompany it are the source of all pleasures and, hence, the purpose of life. However, the human life is meant for understanding the divine knowledge (Absolute Truth or Tattva) In fact, the Gita says that one acquires a human birth primarily to enhance one’s knowledge of the Supreme Truth. The values of a good life lie in complete surrender to the Supreme God, whereby one performs one’s assigned duty and moves ahead on the path of liberation. (Prabhupada, 2008, v 3.30) Therefore, the values that determine a good life as per the Gita are a steadfast adherence to one’s duty, following one’s Dharma, devotional service to God and the performance of one’s karma without expectations.
Dharma is the very first word in the original verse version of the Bhagavad-gita. (Prabhupada, 2008, v 1.1) However, the concept of Dharma is slightly complex since it stands for two different aspects depending on the contexts. The Gita teaches Dharma through the medium of performance of one’s duty that is necessary to preserve the prescribed law and order. While Arjuna views the war as destructive, Krishna convinces Arjuna to fight the war since it is righteous in nature and an essential act to preserve the Dharma (law) on earth. To this end, Krishna tells Arjuna, Thus the Lord says: “One’s own Dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s Dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own Dharma is better, for to perform another’s Dharma leads to danger.” (Prabhupada, 2008, v 3.35) One must understand the Indian social system of classification (varnashram) in order to realize the context. Varnashram has four levels of classification running across age and occupations. Across age, the varnashram classifies stages as Brahmacharya (student life), Grihastashram (married life), Vanaprasthashram (retired life) and Sanyaashram (renunciation of material things). Similarly, across occupations the Varnashram divides people into Brahmins (priests, teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors, princes), Vaishyas (traders, businessmen) and Shudras (servicemen, artisans, workers). (Devidasi, 2013) The Bhagavad-gita prescribes adherence to these varnashram classifications in order to uphold Dharma. Thus, the Gita is very clear that one cannot perform another person’s duty since Dharma is preserved only when one does one’s own duty, albeit even though the performance of such a duty may not necessarily be perfect. Therefore, the Bhagavad-gita teaches that Dharma lies in the performance of one’s own duties with sincerity and with intent to preserve law (Dharma). Therefore, in most cases, Dharma stands for both - one’s duty as well as the prescribed law combined with an adherence to the varnashrama rules.
On the other hand, karma is much more clearly defined with a whole chapter devoted to this concept. In the Gita, Krishna defines Karma as the performance of one’s prescribed duty without any attachment to the results of the same. (Prabhupada, 2008, v 3.25) As per the Gita, when one performs duties with expectations, one is disappointed and also tends to suffer as a result. Also, most people who believe they are themselves performing the duty are doing so under the influence of the material modes of nature, when, in fact, such duties are executed by nature herself. (Prabhupada, 2008, v 3.27) On the other hand, performance of one’s duties without expectations or by devoting the results to the Supreme Lord one gains freedom from egoism, lethargy and the taint that one might acquire during the performance of one’s karma.
According to Hindu teachings, dharma, artha (wealth), kama (pleasure, in the form of love) and moksha (liberation) are the four purusharthas or the qualities that one needs to lead a good life on earth. However, as compared to other religions such as Buddhism that advocates monasticism, Hinduism does not necessarily look at artha and kama to be incompatible with moral development. This would be primarily because both kama and artha are required for the smooth functioning of human society. However, the canonical codes of Hinduism, such as ‘Manusmriti’ do put certain restrictions on the same. For instance, in Hinduism, ‘kama’ within the limit of marriage is sanctioned, while the same act outside marriage would be considered immoral. Similarly, artha is considered fundamental for one lead to a happy life, however artha is also considered an impediment to spiritual progress when it is utilized for immoral purposes. In the context of the Gita, both these factors when pursued for the benefit of society are not immoral, but when pursued to please one’s own senses they become immoral. (v3.41) But, on the whole, Hinduism does not consider artha and kama as immoral since the religion views both these factors as an essential component of a good and well led human life.
The key paths to enlightenment in monotheistic Hinduism are the karma yoga, bhakti yoga and the jnana yoga. As stated, moksha (liberation) that one achieves through performance of one’s duty in the spirit of upholding dharma is called karma yoga. Similarly, bhakti yoga involves devotional service to the Supreme God that leads one to the path of liberation. The practitioner of this path is called a Yogi since he sees the Supreme God Krishna in everyone and everything and continues to serve everyone in this spirit. (v6.29) If one cannot follow these two paths, jnana yoga is prescribed for those who are intelligent enough to grasp and practice the knowledge of the absolute truth. Such practice can also lead to moksha upon successful culmination(v7.19) However, as per the Gita, a person performing devotional service is greater than an ascetic (jnana-yogi), and the worker who works with expectation of results (karma yogi), in that order. (v6.46) One can observe that each of these yogas is unique, however, their paths are interrelated, since a karma yogi must perform his work with bhakti (devotion) for the work to be considered within the parameters dharma and karma. Similarly, a jnana yogi must also have some level of bhakti (devotion) in order to succeed in his penance. Therefore, the paths of jnana and karma inevitably merge into bhakti which, in turn, leads the emancipated soul to the path of liberation.
One of the most fervent advocates of the Gita was Gandhi – the pioneer of the non-violent struggle. His concept of Dharma within Hinduism consists of belief in the Vedas, belief in the varnashrama dharma, belief in protection of the cow, and a belief in idol worship, all of which were very close to the ancient concepts of Dharma. (Gandhi, 2005, p. 9) Gandhi’s philosophy comes close to the ancient view of Dharma, since his principles were grounded in right conduct, observance of truth and non-violence. (Gandhi, 2005, p. 22) Thus, Gandhi found instant solace in the Bhagavad-gita that drew heavily from these ancient principles.
Although the Bhagavad-gita appeals to most readers as a book that endorses war, it is quite the opposite. Most Hindus, including Gandhi view the epic battle in the book as a conflict between one’s senses (including the mind) and one’s consciousness against the multiple temptations and evil that threatens to destroy humanity. As a pacifist, Gandhi preferred to take the subtle message that the book provided rather than the literal interpretation of a call for a war. The method of non-violence was Gandhi’s duty to society in order to restore Dharma, something that is the central theme of the Bhagavad-gita.
In conclusion, the Gita is a book that advocates the proper use of one’s life towards realization of the Supreme. One’s life should be aimed at living in dharma and upholding the principles of dharma by performing one’s duties in a manner that benefits others. One should perform such karma by renouncing the results of those actions. Of the four purusharthas, kama and artha are not necessarily viewed as immoral in Hinduism, although the religion does prescribe limits for these. In doing so, the book advocates three yogas, namely bhakti yoga, jnana yoga and karma yoga, of which bhakti yoga is the best according to Lord Krishna. Due to the real life message of the Gita, eminent personalities such as Gandhi were inspired by the book. In fact, Gandhi’s non-violence movement was inspired in part by the messages of the Gita.
Gandhi, M.K. (2005). Hindu Dharma. New Delhi, India: Orient Paperbacks.
Devidasi, H.K (2013). What do we mean by Varnashrama Dharma? Krishna – Bhaktivedanta Book Trust Online. Retrieved from http://www.krishna.com/what-do-we-mean- varnashrama
Prabhupada, B.S.P. (2008). The Bhagavad-Gita: As it is. Mumbai, India: ISKCON Foundation.