A Thread Through the Eighteen Gems
The Srimad Bhagavad Gita

A. V. Srinivasan

Great men and women from many continents around the world have, over hundreds of years, written about the contents, meaning, essence and significance of Srimad Bhagvad Gita. One wonders therefore, if there is anything more that can and need be written, especially by those of us who are no match to the wise and the great of the past or present. And yet the great as well as the rest walk the beaches of great oceans and swim in it. Srimad Bhagvad Gita is such an ocean and this paper is merely an attempt to collect a handful of beautiful shells lying on that ocean as one takes a leisurely stroll.

To those scholars who have dived deep into that ocean and brought out the most intriguing, most penetrating and most basic truths about life - we bow our heads in reverence. The purpose of this overview is more in the nature of sharing a joy with friends and family as it grew out of monthly meetings held in the Greater Hartford region in the state of Connecticut between the years 1971 and 1977. The majority of those attending were from Gujrath. In those 70 meetings, we had an opportunity to chant every shloka in the Gita completing all the eighteen chapters by June 1977.

First of all, assembling over 70 times with a common interest, and in the process of chanting, singing, feeling, wondering and discussing together we developed a sense of belonging to one family. Secondly, most of us were quite familiar with the scripture even as we started this systematic study. This should not be surprising if one is born in India or to Indian parents. In restudying the scripture along with references to commentaries by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Swami Chidbhavananda, Swami Nikhilananda, Swami Prabhavnanda, Swami Venkateshananda, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada among many others, I was struck by the depth, the subtlety and the sheer beauty of the poem in Sanskrit. While some chapters and some stanzas are much too complex and beyond the reach of those without the prerequisite knowledge on the subject, I was in general, amazed at the frankness with which certain aspects of life and death were taught to Arjuna. Above all, I must confess to reflecting often how the relevance of Srimad Bhagvad Gita has increased with time. This study revealed that, popular myth notwithstanding, an understanding of the philosophies presented in the Gita should be attempted at an early age. Given the complexity of the subject matter treated in the Gita, it takes years of study and practice to comprehend the meaning and scope of many shlokas in the text. Therefore, it is obvious that the study be started early enough so that an individual has time to develop in the process even as he/she learns to cope with problems that confront him/her. Thirdly, by reciting the shlokas in the Gita we followed the conversations between Sri Krishna and Arjuna as reported by correspondent Sanjaya to King Dhritarashtra. In doing so, we transported ourselves back several thousand years and lived with our ancestors, heard their voices, felt their pleasures and pains and marveled at their strengths and weaknesses.

The goals of life set in the Gita: the insistence on doing one's duties, the emphasis on knowledge, the need for Bhakti, all these are timeless and therefore the Arjuna in the scripture is none other than you and me and the generations to follow. Arjuna was chosen as the medium to impart certain instructions to mankind. The goal is to train oneself to be a spiritual hero without tampering with or weakening one's station in life. The goal is to nourish and strengthen faith in us. The goal is to recognize enemies within us and fight to win over them.

The battlefield of Kurukshetra is the battlefield of life in this modern world. Just as we have to recognize first who our enemies are before we organize to fight them, Arjuna wanted to take a good look at his enemies just before the war was about to commence. So he asks his charioteer to place the vehicle in the middle of the armies. In stanza 21 of Chapter 1, Arjuna asks

senayor ubhayor madhye ratham sthapaya me 'cyuta (l-21)

If Sri Krishna had simply given Arjuna a guided tour of the front lines and returned the chariot to its assigned place the whole thing would have been over. There would have been no Bhagvad Gita. But where do you suppose Krishna placed the chariot? Exactly where it would provoke the innermost emotions in Arjuna. Krishna parks the vehicle in such a way that Arjuna can get a good close look at the two men for whom Arjuna had the greatest love and respect: Bhishma and Drona. It was a trick and it worked. The ideal stage for the inner conflict was thus set. And Arjuna who until then considered the Kaurava army as his enemy is now suddenly overcome by grief and lectures Sri Krishna about the foolishness of all this fight between kith and kin. In stanza 32, Chapter 1 Arjuna asks the fundamental question of the Gita - the question that sets the ball in motion:

kim no rajyena govinda kim bhogair jivitena va (l-32)

Arjuna begins by wondering about the usefulness of all this fight for the sake of a kingdom - then continues to question the relevance of pleasures and finally includes the relevance of this very life. So life itself is being questioned lock, stock and barrel. Arjuna is prepared to forget the miseries and humiliations Duryodhana subjected the Pandavas to. He is willing to forget the attempt by Duryodhana to shame Draupati in public. He is ready to forgive and forget Duryodhana's tricks to destroy the Pandavas even when they lived in the forests -such as for example when Duryodhana persuaded Durvasa, the sage with a short temper and a large number of disciples - 10,000 the legend says, to please pay a visit to his cousins in the forest. Imagine feeding 10,000 uninvited hungry Brahmins when you are trying to eke out a living in a forest constantly fearing for your life from the Kauravas. The idea was to make sure the Pandavas would incur some dreadful curse from the hungry Durvasa. You know the rest of the story. But for the Akshayapatra the story would have been complete then and there. The point is that Arjuna is now ready to sweep aside all these cruelties inflicted upon his dear family, all the encroaches upon Dharma, all the attributes that are sacred to a Kshatriya, and is ready to lay down his arms and quit.

What follows, of course, is the teaching of Arjuna by Krishna exhorting Arjuna to do his duty and set aside all temptations that may come in the way of its performance. It is this aspect of the Gita that renders it simply timeless in its appeal and application. It is when the Lord diagnoses the ailment in Arjuna that he says in Ch.II, stanza 3:

klaibyam maa sma gamah partha naitat tvayyupapadyate;
kshudram hridayadaurbalyam tyaktvottishtha paramtapa. (2-3)

"Yield not to impotence, O Arjuna. It does not befit you.
Cast off this mean weakness of heart. Stand up."

Let us never forget that the Arjuna of this contest is none other than you and me. This particular shloka represents the very core of the Gita's message. It speaks of strength. It condemns weakness. It re-emphasizes the Upanishadic pronouncement: nayamatma balaheenena labhyaha -- "The Atman cannot be attained by the weak", The entire message of the Gita is based on this fundamental principle.

Then, in Chapter II, stanza 11, Sri Krishna strikes the keynote:

asocyan anvasocastvam prajnavadams ca bhasase, i.e. - "Grieve not".

Do not simply worry. Think as much as you want, but for God's sake do not worry. Swami. Venkateshananda says that we should use this verse as a mantra. When worry knocks at the door -which it does, when grief threatens -- as it does, let us visualize Sri Krishna standing before us, saying, "You are worrying unnecessarily". Thinking is essential. Worrying is not only unnecessary but it actually prevents thinking.

In Chapter III Sri Krishna delivers a stunning blow to the popular misconception about religion. World and work are not opposed to reality and religion. Lack of appreciation of this simple fact has led to much confusion. But how else can you read his injunction in Chapter III, stanza 4:

na karmanam anarambhan naiskarmyam purso snute
na ca samnyasanad eva siddhim samadhigacchati

"Not by nonperformance of actions does man reach actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection".

To add to this, in Chapter IV, Lord Krishna introduces the concept of knowledge: na hi jnanena sadrsam pavitram iha vidyate (stanza 38), ("There is no purifier in this world like knowledge".) So by now the ideas of tyaga, jnana and karma are all presented. Confused by this introduction of both Yoga and Tyaga on an equal basis, Arjuna wants to know conclusively which is the better of the two. His answer comes in Chapter V, stanza 2:

sanyasah karmayogas ca nihsreyasakarav ubhau
tayos tu karmasamnyasat karmayogo visisyate

"Renunciation and the Yoga of action both lead to the highest bliss. But, of the two, the Yoga of action is superior to the renunciation of action."

Later this is made even clearer when Arjuna is told that renunciation is hard to attain without Yoga. And the practice of this Yoga implies DYNAMIC LIVING. Again, it is a blow to the popular misconception. The only way you can recognize a true Yogi or sanyasi is that more often than not he is busy, much busier than a householder like you and me. It is in the sixth chapter that this lesson is driven in deeper when the Lord declares in stanza 1:

anasritah karmaphalam karyam karma karoti yah
sa sanyasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca kriyah

"He who performs his duty without depending upon the fruits of his actions, he is a sanyasi and a Yogi -- not he who is without fire and without action."

What more proof is needed? Krishna has declared that a true sanyasi is one with dynamism -- detached dynamism, of course.

The Lord is worshipped by different types of people, distinguished by their motivation: the seeker after knowledge, the seeker of wealth and, of course, the wise. Krishna has a preference among these. Just like the special affection he had for Arjuna, although he loved all the Pandavas. This preference is underlined in Chapter VII, stanza 17:

priyo hi jnanino tyartham aham sa ca mama priyah

"For I am exceedingly dear to the wise and he is dear to me".

Again the emphasis is on knowledge that is not motivated in the ordinary sense, that comes about through adherence to one's own duty performed without any attachment to its fruit.

The eighth chapter concentrates on samskaras and their effect. Samskara means tendencies developed by repeated action. Life is explained as an aggregate of samskaras. Of the thousands of repeated actions we perform everyday, every month, every year over many days, weeks, months and years of our lives, only those most vivid and distinct leave a lasting impression on the mind's eye. Of all the actions we perform, only a few lasting samskaras remain, and these form our capital. The emphasis in this discourse is on developing a good plan for our lives; to accumulate thousands of good samskaras so that at the end a look back will reveal a spiritual strength, a certain peace and poise.

In Chapter IX the subject matter shifts to the consideration of knowledge in the form of devotion or BHAKTI. According to Ramanuja this knowledge exhibits four remarkable features:

1. To a devotee God reveals himself in the very process of devotion. In other words Bhakti involves a vision of God in its very essence.

2. It is an effective means to the final end.

3. It is of the nature of love -- joyous from the very inception and hence extremely pleasing to adopt and practice.

4. It is imperishable because the end it brings about is its own development and maturation.

Therefore, the secret is to relate every action to the Lord. If we do, we recognize a wonderful new energy flowing into our lives. Once the mind is ready to consecrate all our actions to the Lord, our lives become full of beauty and value. What a direct and easy way! One's ordinary life, what one does as Svadharma, one's acts of service -- this itself is made into a Yajna, a sacrifice. There is no need for any other Yagas or Yajnas. This is indeed the Royal Road, on which even "if you run with eyes closed there is no danger of stumbling or falling". Relate to the Lord whatever service you perform -- this is the Rajavidya Rajaguhyam, the supreme knowledge, the supreme secret.

All these teachings have now aroused the curiosity of Arjuna and in Chapter 10, stanza 20, he asks a basic question: Tell me in detail who you are? Sri Krishna replies:

aham atma gudakesa sarvabhutasayasthitah
aham adis ca madhyam ca bhutanam anta eva ca

"I am the Self, O Arjuna, seated in the hearts of all beings; I am the beginning the middle and also the end of all beings"

From stanza 20 through 42 of Chapter 10 comes the roll call of special manifestations by which the Lord allows us to meditate upon and approach the sight of him. By now Arjuna has looked, re-looked, examined reexamined, questioned and questioned again. Now he is fit and ready, willing and able to take the leap. He desires to see the Lord's form as Ishwara if Krishna thought it was possible for Arjuna to view the Almighty in that form. That is of course the Vishwa Roopa. If you recall in Chapter 11, stanza 8, Krishna says:

na tu mam sakyase drastum…

Mere mortal eyes could not have been adequate to see the Cosmic form, the Vishwa Roopa. Arjuna is granted divyam chakshuhu the divine eyes. In spite of it Arjuna is simply terrified and we learn that when Sanjaya reports divi suryasahasrasya bhaved yugapadutthita… (11-12) "...if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth in the sky" that would approximate the splendor of the mighty One. What a fantastic sight it must have been! Arjuna is naturally and completely overwhelmed and begs to see Krishna in his earlier gentle form. Duly humbled Arjuna seeks and probes Bhakti again in Chapter 12. An entire code of proper conduct, the immortal Dharma is taught in this chapter and Sri Krishna summarizes it in stanza 20

ye tu dharmyamrtam idam yathoktam paryupasate
sraddadhana matparama bhaktas te tive me priyah (12-20)

"dear to me are those who walk along this immortal dharma, faithful and devoted, considering Me the supreme goal"

Chapter 13 deals with the complex subject of Prakriti and Purusha, true understanding of which alone constitutes knowledge in the context of Gita. Understanding of Prakriti (Kshetra) constitutes apara vidya or lower knowledge. Knowledge pertaining to the Purusha (Kshetrajna) is termed para vidya or knowledge superior. Jnana therefore comprises a harmonious combination of the understanding of the gross manifestation of Prakriti in its 24 elements along with an understanding of the subtle manifestation i.e. the mind and its psychological effects. In Chapter 14 various gunas are treated with emphasis on satvika mode. Most Hindus think of attaining moksha through the satvika approach. But Srimad Bhagvad Gita is not soft on us. Nothing but total and complete perfection is the aim. The requirement is that we raise ourselves higher than that ideal of moksha. The prescription is that we cross over the boundaries of even the finest of fine qualities and not even be aware of the attainment of that high state.

In Chapter 15 life is compared to a pepul tree which appears to have no end. The branches of this majestic tree reach down and go deeper into the ground. The roots come up and become one with the drooping branches. In a way it symbolizes our entanglement in this world. Only the strong axe of detachment can cut down this tree of entanglement. Disciplines necessary for the attainment of that goal of liberation are summarized in stanza 5

nirmanamoha jitasangadosa adhyatmanitya vinivrttakamah
dvandvair vimuktah sukhaduhkhasamjnair gacchanty amudhah padam avya yam tat. (15-5)

"free from pride and delusion, victorious over the evil of attachment, constantly dwelling in the self, their desires having completely turned away, freed from the pairs of opposites known as pleasure and pain the undeluded reach the eternal goal"

Three stanzas in the beginning of Chapter 16 convey the prerequisites for the divine state in straightforward and human terms. Apparently Swami Sri Sivananda used to suggest to his disciples that they cultivate these qualities, one by one, to perfection. Sri Krishna lists a total of 26 with ABHAYAM or fearlessness as the commander of this army of divine qualities. The quality of courage is not just desirable but essential. Fear breeds weakness, timidity dehumanizes us and "creates us into moral monsters with an exaggerated sense of right and wrong, quick to judge, slow to forgive, legal in ethics and lacking in compassion, rigid in demand and unyielding in understanding". Swami Vivekananda recognized strength of mind as the keystone of the character when he declared: "Know that all sins can be summed up in that one word -- weakness." "Fearlessness leads to strength and manhood - to Kshatravirya and Brahma Teja."

Commenting on the relevance of rituals, austerities and sacrifices, Lord Krishna strikes a note of warning in Chapter 17 when he sums up that discourse in stanza 28:

asraddhaya hutam datt m tapas taptam krtam ca yat
asad ityucyate partha na ca tat pretya no iha

"Whatever is sacrificed, given or performed, and whatever austerity is practiced without faith, it is called 'asat', O Arjuna, it is of no use here or hereafter."

This underscores the uselessness of action performed without faith.

Finally, Krishna warns Arjuna not to reveal these truths to anyone who is devoid of austerities, who has no devotion, who does not render service or who does not desire to listen or who annoys the Lord by being a mere nuisance. It is somewhat perplexing that this precept

idam te na tapaskaya na bhaktaya kadacana
na ca susrusave vacyam na ca mam yo bhyasuyati

is suggested at the end, but may be understood in the context of the flow of events on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

So the message of the Gita is detached dynamism, egoless activity, efficiency, courage and self- realization. Know yourself i.e. atman viddhi. These objectives, practical as they are, are also totally consistent with our philosophy that allows us to shout at the tops of our voices: aham brahmasmi (I am Brahma). This message is present in all the eighteen chapters of the Gita, and therefore serves as a thread through those eighteen gems.

What we have in our hands is not a mere book. It is a treasure which has well withstood the tests of time. But because it is also a book, it must be picked up and read. Read it and re-read it, along with the many commentaries available. As with a gem or a work of art, as you see, hear, read it or recite it, you begin to see various aspects of its beauty and significance each time. So it is with the Srimad Bhagavad Gita. This unique Gospel does not require us to leave our jobs or our homes, does not ask us to tamper with our positions, does not disturb the faiths we may have chosen. Its principal object is to illuminate our paths and strengthen our faith. The object of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is to free us from worry and anxiety, and to protect us from ourselves, that is, from the lower self. The object of Srimad Bhagavad Gita is to remove our ignorance. I am convinced that the study of this scripture allows us in these modern ties to live a life free from anxiety, fear and frustration. Therefore let us, the Arjunas of today pledge:

karisye vacanam tava.

We shall abide by your word.

May Bhagavan Sri Krishna continue to provide that possibility for us as long as we live and may this majestic poem continue to inspire the millions now and the millions yet to be born.


Grateful acknowledgements to the following publications from which I have borrowed extensively:

Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Los Angeles, California, 1975

Talks on the Gita, Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Rajghat, Varanasi, 4th Ed. 1970

The Bhagavad Gita, Swami Chidbhavananda, Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Tiripparaitturai, Tamil Nadu 1972

The Bhagavadgita trascreated by P.Lal. Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1965

"Overcoming Fear", Dr. Jitsuo Morikawa, National Radio Pulpit, New York, N e w York, April-May-June 1977

The Bhagavad Gita , Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1969

The Bhagavad Gita , Swami Sivananda. The Divine Life Society, Sivanandanagar, U.P., India 1969

The Song of God, Swami Venkatesananda. The Chilten Yoga Trust, Cape Province, South Africa, 1972