The Bhagavadgita occupies a unique place in the story of the Mahabharata and is regarded by many as a New Testament of Hinduism. To consider it in context we should start with the Vedas, which are said to be the foundation of Hinduism. They are four in number Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda; and each has two parts (a) Mantra or Hymns prayer and adoration, and (b) Brahmanas, consisting of Vidhi (directions relating to sacrifices) and Arthavada (explanations of legends connected with the Mantras).
Out of the Brahmana portion of the Vedas arose two substantial sections Vedic Literature (i) Sutras or aphoristic rules relating to the performance of sacrifices, and (ii) Upanishads, which deal with the secret meaning of the Vedas and questions relating God, Nature and the Soul; and these are regarded as the source of all the great systems of Hindu Philosophy. Then there are the eighteen Puranas, which, like the Vedas, are said to have been compiled by Vyasa; these are generally divided into three groups of six each, related respectively to the three Gods of the Hindu Trinity Brahma, Siva and Vishnu. Next we have the Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of which the latter was said to embody all that was known in the world life and was called “The Fifth Veda”. There are also many other sacred books of the Hindus, which follow in the main the lines of thought contained in these major works. The four great systems of Hindu religion Jainism, Buddhism, Saivism and Vaishnavism all claim relationship to various parts of this large body of sacred literature; but there is no clear explanation the connections or of what the sacred books contain.
There is another body of Sanskrit literature called Vedanga, (literally, ‘limb of the Vedas’) consisting of six classes of works, which are regarded as auxiliary to the Vedas and generally believed to have almost equal authority with them. These are: (i) Siksha, (ii) Chhandas, (in) Vyakarna, (iv)Nirukta, (v)Jyotisha and (vi) Kalpa. Of these, Vyakarna deals with “the linguistic analysis of grammar”, and Nirukta with “the explanation of difficult Vedic words”. By applying the principles of Vyakarna and Nirukta, and the generally accepted meanings of letters and syllables (as given in Eka-Akshara Kosa or a standard dictionary of monosyllabic words) to the text of the Vedas and other ancient sacred books in a consistent and systematic manner we can find that these can indeed be understood as being in essence what they are claimed to be: that what is given In the form of Hymns addressed to different Gods in the Vedas corresponds to the great principles of life given in the Upanishads and rendered in more specific forms in the Darsanas or Systems of Hindu Philosophy. By applying the same method of interpretation to the Puranas and the Epics we find that what appear at first to be stories become a wonderful exposition of the great systems of Hindu Philosophy and religion.
The essence of the Mahabharata: The Mahabharata contains the Bhagavadgita in its sixth or Bhishma Parva; and it is generally accepted that the Epic has a close bearing on the character and content of the latter. It would be impractical to present, even in outline, the interpretation of the Mahabharata story as a picture of the systems of Hindu philosophy and religion in this brief introduction, and a bare statement of the author’s interpretation and findings must suffice here.
The Mahabharata should be understood as a presentation in story form of the inter-connections and conflicts of the principal systems of Hindu philosophy Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Yoga and Vedanta. The five Pandava brothers represent the constituent parts of Man Yudhishthira Buddhi; Bhima Mind; Arjuna Prana or Vital Breath; and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva the Limbs, Arms and Legs respectively.
Their story is a story of progress from the Known to the Unknown in the human quest for Truth. Starting in the Sankhya system of thought, they progress through the Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems to Yoga-Vedanta, while their cousins, the Kauravas, do not move beyond Nyaya-Vaiseshika thought. The two groups of cousins share a common upbringing under the guidance of Kripa (Sankhya) and Drona (Nyaya-Vaiseshika). The first conflict between them maybe understood as a contest within the range of the over-lapping Sankhya-Nyaya-Vaiseshika systems of thought; and with Brahma as the presiding deity of both groups there is scope for reconciliation between them.
Later, when the Pandavas progress to the Yoga system of thought, with comprehension of the role of Sacrifice and the idea of God as Supreme Deity, there has to be a division of the kingdom (of thought), recognizing that Sankhya and Yoga differ in essentials and are therefore mutually exclusive, even though both groups share common ground in Nyaya-Vaiseshika thought. In the “Gambling Match”, the Pandavas (who, at this stage believe in the Yoga system but retain affiliation to the Nyaya-Vaiseshika systems too) are pitted against Sakuni (who represents the Sankhya system, which has no place for God) and not against Duryodhana, chief of the Kauravas (who shares belief in Nyaya-Vaiseshika systems of thought with the Pandavas but does not accept Yoga); and the outcome at this stage of the conflict is “exile” for the Pandavas or a further quest for Truth. Subsequently, the great conflict at Kurukshetra is between the Kauravas (representing the Nyaya-Vaiseshika systems) and the Pandavas supported by Krishna (the Yoga-Vedanta systems); and the latter are completely victorious. Man has progressed to a full and proper understanding of God as Supreme Creator. But life is not static, and the Mahabharata story goes on to complete the cycle of thought through the descending cycle by telling of the decline of belief in Vedanta through Vaiseshika to Nyaya (the death of Krishna, followed by the death of Draupadi who represents Sacrifice and the four younger Pandavas). Then the immortal soul of man ascends to Heaven, where the Supremacy of God is once again perceived by Yudhishthira and all the believers are united.
The essence of the Bhagavadgita: The main idea of the Bhagavadgita is the same as that of the Mahabharata story a portrayal of the conflict and synthesis of the principal systems of Hindu philosophy. In its one line description at the end of the text, the Bhagavadgita is said to be “the essence of Brahman in the scripture of Yoga”. Brahman or Brahma in the masculine form is the supreme deity of the Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems of thought; and so the Gita as a whole may be said to examine the Nyaya-Vaiseshika systems in the light of the Yoga system of thought. To facilitate appreciation of the progression of thought in the Gita, it would be useful to note here the essential idea of each chapter as expressed in the respective end line description.
The first chapter is called Arjuna Vishada Yoga. This is popularly understood to mean "The grief of Arjuna", but may also be translated as "The grief of Arjuna at (the) Yoga (system of thought)".
Arjuna, personifying the Human Soul, is here presented in the Nyaya-Vaiseshika system of thought, which he shares with the Kauravas, holding that necessary actions have to be performed (as Sacrifice and for the time being) but should be renounced (in the end) as the final goal of life is believed to be Knowledge and not Action; he is therefore unable to enter the field of combat against the Kauravas and grieves over the idea of the Yoga system of thought which holds Action to be the goal of life.
The second chapter is called Sankhya Yoga. It consists of two parts; in the first Krishna tells Arjuna of the evanescent character of life as understood in Sankhya death following life and life following death endlessly; in the second part He explains in the light of Yoga how a person should act in life renouncing all attachment, undisturbed by failure or success, renouncing the fruit of action but not action itself, with senses subdued and soul controlled, and without self-conceit or selfishness.
In the third chapter, called Karma Yoga or "Action in the light of Yoga", Krishna further examines the two distinct paths of the Sankhya and Yoga systems. He explains that man cannot achieve freedom from action by merely not acting; indeed one cannot be totally inactive as the natural impulse for survival compels some minimal action. He then points out that action performed as Sacrifice does not make for bondage. With this idea we pass from Sankhya to Nyaya, as the latter embodies the idea of Sacrifice as action which does not entail bondage. Then we are told that God created the Universe by Sacrifice and that in every true sacrifice “the all-pervading Brahma dwells” This provides the link between the Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems of thought as Brahma is the supreme deity of these two systems.’ Krishna, supreme deity of the Yoga-Vedanta systems, then speaks of Himself as Supreme Actor in the Universe. Thus we are told that action is necessary under all the systems of thought, from Sankhya through Yoga, but must be performed as a Sacrifice if it is to lead to freedom from the bondage of action.
The fourth chapter is called Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga or "The application of Knowledge and Action to Yoga" Yoga is to be understood here as the first manifestation of Vedanta philosophy. Krishna, supreme deity of Yoga-Vedanta, tells Arjuna that He is born from age to age in this world; He is the Supreme Actor who is not tainted by action. He asks Arjuna to perform all actions as a Yogi, in the spirit of sacrifice, for if man renounces au desire for the fruit of his actions he is unaffected by his acts and incurs no sin. Krishna recounts the variety of sacrifices that maybe performed in the name of God which are all born of action. Finally He tells Arjuna that Sacrifice of Knowledge is better than sacrifice of wealth.
In the fifth chapter, called Sanyasa Yoga or "Renunciation in the light of Yoga" Krishna examines the idea of renunciation (of action) as enjoined by the Vaiseshika, Nyaya and Sankhya systems; and He tells Arjuna that action properly performed is superior to renunciation. He points out that both Sankhya and Yoga recognize that life is characterised by action and man cannot renounce it altogether; but when the soul is self-controlled, senses subdued and actions performed in the spirit of sacrifice, the actor receives no taint. The Sankhya system ascribes all action to Nature (Prakriti); and even if we assume that God has nothing to do with it (action), we cannot escape the necessity of action ourselves; but we can gain freedom from the bondage of action if we act as Yogis, with restrained senses, Buddhi and Mind.
The sixth chapter, described as Dhyana Yoga or "Adhyatma Yoga" is translated to mean "Knowledge of the Soul in the light of Yoga". Krishna tells Arjuna that Man may live in Prakriti (the world of manifest life) and yet "belong to God" if he performs actions without desire, by renouncing the fruits of the actions he performs, by controlling and elevating his soul, by combining knowledge with action, by performing actions for the benefit of all and by regarding all as alike. The soul of man attains equilibrium and peace through meditation, temperate action, understanding that everything is of God and God is in everything, and by striving for perfection "from birth to birth" until he attains it.
In the seventh chapter, called Jnana Vijnana Yoga or "Comprehension of Knowledge in the light of Yoga", Krishna describes the eight-fold division of Prakriti and explains the "higher concept" of Prakriti wherein it is itself created by God. Once again we are told that it is God who is everything in different forms, God whom we worship in different ways, and God whom we attain to in the end.
The eighth chapter is called Akshara Brahma Yoga or "The Imperishable Brahma in the light of Yoga". Krishna tells Arjuna about the five elements (Adhibhuta) of the physical world (which are the basis of Sankhya philosophy); then He explains what relates to God (Adhidaiva) and how the two concepts are linked together through the idea of Sacrifice (Adhiyajna). Those who follow the path of the physical world are born again and again for they have chosen to belong in the manifest world and so must become manifest repeatedly; but those who follow the path of God will cease to be reborn when they achieve perfection in their chosen path.
The ninth chapter is described as Raja Vidya Raja Guhya Yoga which may be translated as "Yoga in relation to the Knowledge and Secret of Rajas Guna". Herein Krishna reveals Himself to Arjuna as the Unmanifest Form that pervades the entire Universe, as Creator, Sustainer and Refuge. All who worship Him as such go unto Him, while those who do not have ‘this faith return to the path of mortal life.
The tenth chapter, called Vibhuti Yoga or "Glory of Yoga" contains a further description of the glory of Krishna. He is Without Source, Unborn, Lord of All the Worlds; All things arise from Hun and there is no end to His manifest forms. He supports the whole Universe with but a portion of Himself.
The eleventh chapter is called Visva Rupa Darshana Yoga or "Yoga in relation to Vision of The Universal Form". Krishna is here revealed as containing within Himself all forms of nature (Prakriti); He is The Whole Universe, divided and subdivided into many parts; The Imperishable Lord without beginning, middle or end; Creator and Destroyer of all.
The twelfth chapter, called Bhakti Yoga or "Yoga in relation to Devotion" examines the idea of the Supreme Creator according to Yoga and other systems of thought. Those who worship God are deemed most perfect in Yoga; but others who worship Prakriti with senses under control, intent on doing good to all, also attain to God; we have here an elaboration of the position stated in chapter nine. We are also told that the idea of Unmanifest Prakriti is difficult to comprehend, that it is easier to think of God by means of concentration, practice, performance of actions in His name and renunciation of the fruit of one’s actions.
The thirteenth chapter, described as Ksetra Ksetrajna Vibhaga Yoga or "Yoga in relation to the difference between the Field and the Knower of the Field", explains the difference between Purusha and Prakriti: the world is the field of action and the individual soul is the actor; Prakriti is the cause of action and Purusha of enjoyment. Purusha "seated in Prakriti" enjoys the Gunas born of Prakriti; the Supreme Purusha is Creator of, Abides in and Pervades Everything.
The fourteenth chapter, Guna Traya Vibhaga Yoga or "Yoga in relation to the division of three Gunas", tells us that Prakriti is "the womb of God" and He "the seed-giving Father". Prakriti consists of three Gunas or qualities Sattva, Rajas and Tamas and sometimes Sattva prevails while at other times Rajas or Tamas prevails; it is only when the individual soul understands God as “beyond the three Gunas of Prakriti that he gains immortality and attains to God.
The fifteenth chapter, called Purushottama Yoga or "The Supreme Purusha in the light of Yoga", tells us of Asvattha the great tree of life and of how God takes birth in Prakriti. We are also told of the three Purushas Jivatman (also called Bhutatman, mortal), the Individual soul (immortal) and the Supreme Purusha (Krishna Himself or God).
The sixteenth chapter is called Daivasura Sampad Vibhaga Yoga or "Yoga in the light of the division between Divine and Demoniac Qualities". Krishna tells us the distinction between what belongs to Prakriti and all that belongs to Purusha. He describes the qualities that characterize the two respective states and finally exhorts us to avoid the Asuric state of darkness and to follow the path of God.
The seventeenth chapter, entitled Sraddha Traya Vibhaga Yoga or "Yoga in relation to the Threefold Path" contains a discussion of the character of the three Gunas of Prakriti. It tells of the kinds of food associated with each of the three Gunas, examines the idea of Sacrifice, Penance and Gifts in the light of the three Gunas, and tells us how, while remaining in the world and acting in conjunction with the Gunas, one can still achieve freedom from the bondage of action. Ultimate Truth, we are told, consists in Faith, Penance, Gifts and Sacrifice.
The eighteenth chapter, with which the Bhagavadgita ends, is described as Sanyasa Yoga or "Yoga in relation to Renunciation". In it Krishna once again explains the true character of Action and Renunciation. We are told that some (followers of the Sankhya system) hold that all action should be renounced as evil; others (of the Nyaya-Vaiseshika school) believe that acts of sacrifice should be performed; Krishna commends acts of penance, sacrifice and gifts (which constitute the path of Yoga) for they "are purifiers of the wise"; these acts should be performed without desire for the fruit thereof. Embodied souls do not have the power to renounce all action, but they can renounce the fruits of their actions. Krishna explains the "five causes" of action and its “three constituents”. He examines them in the light of the "three Gunas" and explains how Buddhi and fortitude and happiness may also be considered in the light of the Gunas. All beings are associated with the three Gunas born of Prakriti; and the duties of each creature conform to the Gunas too. But it is only when a person goes beyond the three Gunas and worships God, from whom all creatures arise, that he attains perfection; and it is by His Grace that the individual soul attains eternal peace.
In conclusion, Arjuna declares that with delusion destroyed and doubts dispelled by the Grace of God, he stands firm in Yoga to do God’s bidding.