The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of the Lord”) is is among the most important religious texts of Hinduism. The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of India’s most famous epic poems. The work is also known as the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Iswara Gita, the Ananta Gita, the Hari Gita, the Vyasa Gita, or simply the Gita. The Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, right before the start of the climactic Kurukshetra War in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
The Bhagavad Gita is a poem written in the Sanskrit language. It has a total of 700 verses which are structured into several ancient Indian poetic meters, with the principal being the shloka. It has 18 chapters in total. Each shloka consists of a couplet, thus the entire text consists of 1,400 lines. It’s unclear exactly when the Gita was composed as estimates vary widely, but several scholars suggest it was completed around 200 CE and then inserted into the larger work; many see it as the first fully realized yogic scripture.
In the Indian tradition, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the epic Mahabharata of which it is a part, is attributed to the sage Vyasa, whose full name was Krishna Dvaipayana, also called Veda-Vyasa. Another Hindu legend states that Vyasa narrated it while the elephant-headed deity Ganesha broke one of his tusks and wrote down the Mahabharata along with the Bhagavad Gita.
The Gita is a dialogue between the warrior-prince Arjuna and the god Krishna who is serving as his charioteer at the Battle of Kurukshetra fought between Arjuna’s family and allies (the Pandavas) and those of the prince Duryodhana and his family (the Kauravas) and their allies. Arjuna and his brothers have been exiled from the kingdom of Kurukshetra for 13 years and cut off from their rightful heritage by another faction of the family; the Gita takes up their struggle to reclaim the throne, which requires that Arjuna wage war against his kinsmen, bringing his considerable military skills to bear. This dialogue is recited by the Kauravan counselor Sanjaya to his blind king Dhritarashtra (both far from the battleground) as Krishna has given Sanjaya mystical sight so he will be able to see and report the battle to the king.
On the battlefield, the armies of the Pandavas and the Kauravas have gathered, ready to fight. The Pandava prince Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna to drive to the center of the battlefield so that he can get a good look at both the armies and all those who are going to fight on both sides. He sees that some among his enemies are his own relatives, beloved friends, and revered teachers. He does not want to fight to kill them and is thus filled with doubt and despair on the battlefield. He drops his bow, wonders if he should renounce and just leave the battlefield. He turns to his charioteer and guide Krishna, for advice on the rationale for war, his choices and the right thing to do.
The Bhagavad Gita is the compilation of Arjuna’s questions and moral dilemma, Krishna’s answers and insights that elaborate on a variety of philosophical concepts. The compiled dialogue goes far beyond the “a rationale for war”; it touches on many human ethical dilemmas, philosophical issues and life’s choices. The Gita has three major themes: knowledge, action and love. The setting of the Gita on a battlefield has been interpreted as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of human life.
The Gita combines the concepts expressed in the central texts of Hinduism – the Vedas and Upanishads – which are here synthesized into a single, coherent vision of belief in one God and the underlying unity of all existence. The text instructs on how one must elevate the mind and soul to look beyond appearances – which fool one into believing in duality and multiplicity – and recognize these are illusions; all humans and aspects of existence are a unified extension of the Divine which one will recognize once the trappings of illusion have been discarded.
The Gita inspired the Bhakti (“devotion”) Movement which then influenced the development of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Krishna explains the path of selfless devotion as one of the paths toward self-actualization, recognition of the truth of existence, and liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death; the other two being jnana (“knowledge”) and karma (“action”). The Hare Krishna Movement of the present day is an expression of Bhakti, and the Gita remains their principal text.
According to Flood and Martin, although the Gita is set in the context of a war epic, the narrative is structured to apply to all situations; it wrestles with questions about “who we are, how we should live our lives, and how should we act in the world”.