The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as the Gita for short, is an ancient Indian 700-verse scripture in Sanskrit that became an important work of Hindu tradition as part of the epic Mahabharata in both literature and philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita contains many key topics related to the Indian intellectual and spiritual tradition. Like the Upanishads and the Vedas, there is not concrete evidence about who exactly wrote the Gita. Credit is, however, given to Vyasa, a legendary man.
The Gita was written in response to a time of instability because of the changes India was going through. It provided a source of peace for its readers and it taught them how their religious values could be made part of their lives as well in a time in which it was crucial. The Gita then revolved around a couple of questions: How to live a spiritually meaningful life without withdrawing from society? How to live life the right way without giving up social and familial obligations?
The Gita presented viewers with Arjuna, a “supernaturally gifted warrior” going into war. Arjuna was faced with a moral dilemma about what was more important in his life- his family or his moral and spiritual duties? Arjuna’s dharma being a Kshatriya (warrior) meant that he had to defend his country or kingdom, but that also meant that he would be fighting against his family. While he had the option of ditching his kingdom duties to preserve his family, Krishna reminds him that doing so would be a “(violation) of (his) dharma”, making the sparing of his family not an option (Gita, line 33). Krishna then gave Arjuna reasons as to why killing his family was something he didn’t have to kill himself with worry over. Here are some of the reasons Arjuna was given:
- The atman (the self) is eternal, we do not actually kill a person, but instead send them to the next stage of reincarnation.
- The source of evil is not in actions, but in passions and desires and the intentions behind actions. Even though Arjuna may believe he is choosing the lesser of two evils by withdrawing, he is still motivated by his own passions and desires.
The Bhagavad Gita was thus extremely respected piece of text in Hinduism because its lessons brought the people through a time in which eternal wisdom was in great demand and, till today, Krishna’s teachings continue to be taught and followed through its different adaptations.
The Bhagavad Gita, which can be literally translated as ‘The Song of the Lord’, was written around 400 BCE and 200 CE. While one might argue that the Gita is only significant to India’s history, as it is part of the Epic Mahabharata, that isn’t true, because it provides us with solutions to our day-to-day problems like conflicts between duty and relation; our tendency to choose the easier (mostly wrong) path; worrying about the consequences of our actions, etc.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, The Gita impacted literature and philosophy around the time it was written. Social changes were taking place in India- kingdoms were increasing; urbanization was getting more popular; trade activities were growing; etc. With so many social changes occurring, this ancient Indian text gave insight about the search for tranquility, peace, and permanence in a rapidly changing environment, and how one should put together spiritual values into a regular life.
Around the time it was written, the concept of living a self-disciplined and non-indulgent life was gaining recognition. It was seen as THE ideal spiritual life. Ascetics from different religions, including Buddhists and Jains agreed that letting go of the material world and all other forms of attachment is the best way to lead life.
The Bhagavad Gita brought about change during its time of prominence. It was written with the intention of being a source of peace in a time of “important social change in India, with kingdoms getting larger, increasing urbanization, more trade activity, and social conflict...)” It taught or advised people how they should go about their everyday lives and implies that in the time in which it was written, there was significant instability and chaos that led people to seek something far removed from their daily struggles.
More importantly, the Gita’s teachings motivated Gandhi to “to drive the nonviolent resistance eventually causing Britain’s rule in India to cease.” Gandhi was inspired by the Gita to make use of non-violence, but instead gain independence through peaceful means. As a significant leader of the Indians, he was able to influence his people, bringing about significant impacts in the country’s fight against Britain.
IN THE WEST
The significance of the Bhagavad Gita can be seen through the number of people who were influenced by the text in the past. The Gita was influential not only in India but left lasting impact on foreigners too. For example, the Gita brought about lasting impact on people like scientist Albert Einstein and author Aldous Huxley and the way in which they thought about eternity.
The Gita also brought about change in the west, specifically, Europe. In 1785, the Gita made its way into the London when typographer Sir Charles Wilkins translated and printed it in English for the first time. Over time, the Gita was disseminated to various parts of Europe. In Germany, the Gita was extremely influential in “(shaping) the worldview of Germany” The Gita was then studied by various scholars like Friedrich von Schlegel and August Wilhelm von Schlegel. In England, the Gita also inspired the study of Indian philosophy.
The Gita was also incredibly influential in the study of literature outside of India- it was that significant. For example, American author Henry Thoreau’s view of literature was affected by what he read in the Gita. He “wrote in his book Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial” . Ralph Waldo Emerson also found great insight in the Gita and it could be seen in his poems. In his poem Maya, he even quotes the Gita. The Upanishads’ teachings can also be seen in poet T.S. Eliot's poems. Essays he wrote, like Murder in the Cathedral, reflected the messages of the Gita.
Over the years, the Gita never lost its importance in the world. Millions of copies of translated versions of the text have been widely distributed and can be found globally. It also remains as a book of wisdom for people, for example, practitioners of yoga seek to attain the four yogas and live according to what the Gita teaches.
Bhagavad Gita focuses on the fact of how one should work without attachment (because, nothing is permanent), and without any self- interest (not being selfish). A pond can’t be compared to an ocean. Similarly, after reading the Bhagavad Gita, people realize that they should move away from over-thinking about trivial issues, and focus more on doing the right duties, without worrying about the consequences, and without getting attached. It also implies that by fulfilling these criteria, actions can never be proven wrong, and hence one automatically gets closer to Moksha (salvation).
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