The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text, is a significant work of Hindu tradition. It contains both philosophy and literature. Between 400 BCE and 200CE, the Bhagavad Gita was composed. The authorship of the Bhagavadgita is not clear, just like the Upanishads and the Vedas.
The Bhagavadgita is an eternal message of spiritual wisdom that originated in ancient India. Gita is both song and word. Bhagavad is a Hebrew word that means God. The Bhagavad Gita is often called the Song of God. The Bhagavad Gita is a synthesis between Hindu ideas about dharma and theistic bhakti. It also focuses on the yogic ideals moksha. The text includes jnana and bhakti as well as karma and Raja Yoga, which are mentioned in the sixth chapter. It also incorporates ideas from Samkhya Yoga philosophy.
The Gita is told through the dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna, his guide and charioteer Krishna. Arjuna, who is amidst moral dilemmas and despair over the death and violence that the war against his own family will bring about at the Dharma Yudhha (righteous conflict) between Pandavas & Kauravas, is overcome by the Dharma Yudhha. The Krishna-Arjuna dialogs touch on a wide range of spiritual topics and discuss philosophical issues as well as ethical dilemmas.
The Bhagavad Gita is a synthesis between Hindu ideas about dharma and theistic bhakti. It also reflects the yogic ideals moksha. The text includes jnana and bhakti as well as karma and Raja Yoga, which are mentioned in the sixth chapter. It also incorporates ideas from Samkhya Yoga philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita, the most well-known and famous Hindu text, has a unique pan-Hindu influence.
The First Book of Yoga: The Lasting Influence of The Bhagavad Gita
Doctor Atomic was a John Adams opera that tells the story of the detonation and subsequent destruction of the first nuclear bomb. The verse isn’t Adams’s original work. It was respectfully taken from the Bhagavadgita (in this instance the 1944 translation by Swami Prabhavananda & Christopher Isherwood). This work is not a new one for Adams. He’s not borrowing from and appropriating, but rather, he is part of a long tradition. The Gita can be found in many of America’s most revered and beloved works of philosophy and literature, including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Brahma” and T.S. Eliot’s four Quartets and British pop songs that topped American charts are just a few examples. The Bhagavad Gita appealed to Westerners and Americans especially since the time they received an English translation in mid-century.
What is the Bhagavad Gita?
The sixth book of the Mahabharata is called the Gita. It is one of India’s most renowned epic poems. Although it is not clear when the Gita was written, many scholars believe it was around 200 CE. It was then added to the larger work. Many consider it the first fully realized yogic scripture. It may be a curious thing that such an ancient text, from a foreign culture, has been so eagerly received by Westerners. However, the Gita can be read on multiple levels, including metaphysical, spiritual, and practical. This is why it appeals to Westerners.
The Gita is a story about Arjuna, one the five Pandava princes and Krishna, the Hindu deity who serves as Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna and his brothers are exiled from Kurukshetra’s kingdom for 13 years. They have been cut off from their rightful inheritance by another faction of their family. The Gita takes up the struggle to reclaim their throne. This requires Arjuna to wage war against his own relatives, and bring his vast military skills to bear.
The story starts on the dusty Kurukshetra plains, where Arjuna is poised for battle. He hesitates. He is frightened by the sight of his friends, teachers, and family being beaten against him. Krishna criticizes him for being cowardly–Arjuna comes from the warrior caste, and warriors are meant for fighting–but then he presents a spiritual reason for fighting his enemies. This includes a discussion on the karma and jnana, as well the nature of divinity and humankind’s ultimate destiny and the purpose and meaning of mortal life.
Also see Looking for a good read? Start with these Yoga Books
Influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Writers
A work of luminous and startling intensity, the Gita offers what Henry David Thoreau described as a “stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy…in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” While no single thread has been picked up and woven into Western culture by the various thinkers, poets, songwriters, yoga teachers, and philosophers who have been drawn to the Gita, three main themes seem to have intrigued its readers: the nature of divinity; yoga, or the various ways of making contact with this divinity; and finally, the resolution of the perennial conflict between a renunciation of the world–often considered the quickest path to spiritual enlightenment–and action.
View The Paths to God: Living and Learning the Bhagavad Gita
Take Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson made one the most passionate declarations of love for the Gita in November 1857. He wrote a poem entitled “Brahma”, which was published in the inaugural issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The first stanza is:
“If the red slayer believes he slays,”
Or, if the slain believes he is slain
They don’t know the subtle ways
“I keep, and I pass, and then I turn around again.”
The Gita and the Katha Upanishad are both a major credit for the poem. Particularly, the first verse seems to have been taken almost verbatim out of chapter 2 of Gita when Krishna is trying persuade Arjuna not to fight.
Emerson’s journals prove the Gita’s influence on him. Emerson’s 1840s journal shows that he wrote the first lines of “Brahma” shortly after receiving Charles Wilkins 1785 translation. This was a decade later. “Brahma” is an exhalation of verse that Emerson had taken from the Upanishads.
The striking thing about this poem is that it differs from the dominant view of God, and even the more accepting Unitarian God of religious liberals who ruled in Concord and Cambridge, Massachusetts during Emerson’s lifetime.
“Brahma” was the title of the poem. It was a meditation upon what we call today Brahman or the “Absolute”, behind and above all deities…beings and worlds. In Emerson’s time, the names for this inclusive idea of divinity as well as the name of the creator god of the Hindu trinity could not be distinguished. However, his descriptions and sources reveal him. Emerson wasn’t simply trading one trinity in exchange for another. Emerson was celebrating the idea of a God who animated all things (both slayers and slain), and dissipated all opposites (“Shadow, sunlight are one”).
Emerson’s insertion of this fragment of the Gita in the Atlantic was more of an offense than a surprise to his audience. They found the poem incomprehensible and absurd. Newspapers published many parodies throughout the country.
This version of divinity, taken seriously, might seem like a great relief (if Brahman is the one behind all things, then humans have far less agency that we believe), or an incredibly troubling (what happens to morality if “shadow and sunshine” or good or evil are the same thing? .
Hand Carved Altar table
The Bhagavad Gita & the Atomic Bomb
The Gita’s 11th chapter is where Krishna reveals his true nature to Arjuna. This chapter is not the strongest. He must temporarily grant Arjuna mystic insight to enable him to see Krishna in all his glory.
Arjuna is struck by a multiform vision that cannot be described. It is boundless and contains all the gods and worlds. It is stupendously beautiful with garlands, jewels, and “celestial ornaments” and radiates with the radiance a thousand suns. This being is also terrifying because it “has many arms, bellies and mouths” and wields divine weapons. Arjuna was even more horrified when thousands of people rushed through the beast’s fangs, being crushed between his teeth. Arjuna believes the being is “licking at the worlds…destroying them with flaming lips” (these quotes are taken from the Barbara Stoler Miller translation). He sees unending violence and holocausts, which are untempered by any force known. Arjuna nearly faints.
This was the exact visage that J. Robert Oppenheimer incited on July 16, 1945, one of the most tragic days in history. Oppenheimer was the leader of the scientists who detonated first nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer was stunned to see the New Mexico desert burn in a fireball. He quoted Krishna as he revealed his true nature as Vishnu.
This quote has been immortalized in numerous articles, books, films, and other media. Oppenheimer was able to transmit a portion of the yogic scripture to another generation of Americans. Oppenheimer had been a long-time student of the Gita. He first read it in translation at Harvard, then in Sanskrit when he was a Berkeley physics professor. He described the experience as exhilarating and said that he found Sanskrit reading it “very easy” and “quite marvelous.” (Albert Einstein was, however, moved by the Gita’s portrayal of creation and once commented, “When you read the Bhagavadgita and think about God’s creation of this universe, everything else seems so unnecessary.”
What about seeing the divinity yourself? Krishna granted Arjuna the gift to see with a divine eye. Yoga is the only hope for all of us. The Gita can be read as a user’s guide to various types of yoga, all of which will lead to illumination and liberation. Thoreau was so intrigued by this possibility that he attempted to practice yoga solely on the basis of his readings of the Gita, and other Indic texts translated into English.
Thoreau was writing Walden in the late 1840s or early 1850s. He had some very precise ideas about yoga that he included in the essay’s conclusion, as if telling a Hindu parable. The American essayist recounts the story about Kouroo, an artist who had a singular and complete single-pointed focus and set out to carve the perfect wooden staff. Although he was done, it had taken him eons to finish the simple task. But the artist made the “fairest of all creations of Brahma.” He had invented a new method of making staff.
Ram Dass teaches ‘The Yogas of The Bhagavad Gita.
Photo courtesy of Petersimon.com
Ram Dass and contemporary yoga teachers have communicated this practical aspect of the Gita in a more accessible manner. Ram Dass, a Harvard professor of psychology, taught a course entitled the Yogas of the Bhagavadgita in 1974. It was a historic setting: a summer session at the Naropa Institute, which is now a university, in Boulder, Colorado. The institute was founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who is a Tibetan Buddhist.
Ram Dass was a teacher and a reader. Ram Dass viewed reading (and teaching!) the Gita as spiritual exercises and encouraged his students read it at least three times. He also gave exercises that were based on the Gita and could be “evolved into a complete Sadhana,” a program for spiritual practices. These included keeping a diary, meditation, kirtan (chanting), as well as “going to Church and Temple”.
Ram Dass worked through the Gita layer by layer, but he ended up stating that it was about the game of awakening and the coming into Spirit. Ram Dass described Karma yoga as an injunction that required you to do your work, but without attachment. He also said that you had to act ” , without considering yourself the actor.
Read The Subtle Body – The Story of Yoga in America
Ram Dass leaned heavily on bhakti (or devotional) yoga, particularly Guru Kripa. In this, the practitioner places their focus on Guru Kripa and relies on his grace. He gave his students tips on how to cultivate a devotional mindset that summer. He showed them how to create a puja (similar to an altar) as well as how to tell when they had found their guru. Ram Dass understood that every type of yoga had its pitfalls and traps. It was up to the practitioner to use these “traps” as tools for awakening.
The Bhagavad Gita is a guide to yoga
Many contemporary yoga teachers, including Mas Vidal, the spiritual director of Dancing Shiva Yoga and Ayurveda in Los Angeles, turn to the Bhagavad Gita to balance the overemphasis on the asana practice in the West. Vidal, like Ram Dass sees the Gita a practical guide to “raising consciousness.”
He also insists on the coherence and consistency of his approach. Vidal presents the “four main yoga branches” to his students as one system. “It wasn’t intended to be practiced in a fragmented way,” Vidal asserts. These are bhakti, jnana, karma and service. Raja is meditation. Vidal uses the Gita to teach spiritual struggle. The practitioner learns how to use the mind, body and soul as tools for awakening. These tools don’t have much intrinsic value.
Another aspect of the Gita is Krishna’s insistent on the importance of living in this world and not ignoring its demands. This value has appealed for a long time to Westerners. This idea underlies karma yoga, and Krishna insisting that Arjuna fight his Kinsmen, as terrible as it may seem. Arjuna must not only renounce the results of his actions but also the notion that it is possible to not act. Krishna explains this in chapter 3. (Berta Stoler Miller’s translation).
Man cannot escape the power of the force
You can take action but not to do anything…
There is no one who exists even for a moment
Without taking action
Historian James A. Hijiya claims that the teaching of the Gita solves Robert Oppenheimer’s mystery: He created the bomb and advocated for its use on Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Only to later become a prominent critic of nuclear weapons. As Krishna stated that abusing action is worse than taking disciplined actions (and this was in fact impossible), Oppenheimer rejected Oppenheimer’s ivory tower and its illusions of remove for the Manhattan Project.
Hijiya claims that Oppenheimer believed scientists had to “act selflessly and effectively in the world”. He once stated, “If your are a scientist, you believe…that it’s good to give mankind the greatest power to control the planet.” Oppenheimer was able to disengage himself from the untoward consequences, at least for the short-term. Oppenheimer believed that it was for humanity, and not him to manage the immense power he had helped unleash, “according its lights, values.”
American poets, thinkers, and yoga teachers have drawn so many inspirations from the Gita for more than 100 years. This is testament to the scripture’s power. It is remarkable that they have taken different strands of the Gita and integrated them into their lives and culture, despite how unapologetic the first English translator presented it. Charles Wilkins asked in the note to the Bhagvatgeeta that the reader “will have the liberty to excuse the obscured passages,” and “the confusion of sentiments running through the whole of the present form.”
Wilkins felt that he had not lifted the veil on the Gita’s mystery despite all his efforts. These difficulties did not deter Americans from singing this celestial song for many years, harmonising it with each era’s unique temperament.