The Gita is the linchpin of a great epic, and that epic is the Mahabharata, or Great Story of the Bharatas. With nearly one hundred thousand verses divided into eighteen books, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world—fully seven times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or three times longer than the Bible. It is in fact a whole library of stories that exerted a tremendous influence on the people and literature of India.
The central story of the Mahabharata is a conflict over succession to the throne of Hastinapura, a kingdom just north of modern Delhi that was the ancestral realm of a tribe most commonly known as the Bharatas. (India was at that time divided amongst many small, and often warring, kingdoms.)
The struggle is between two groups of cousins, the Pandavas or sons of Pandu, and the Kauravas, or descendants of Kuru. Because of his blindness, Dhritarashtra, the elder brother of Pandu, is passed over as king, the throne going instead to Pandu. (See glossary of names and terms)
However, Pandu renounces the throne, and Dhritarashtra assumes power after all. The sons of Pandu—Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva—grow up together with their cousins, the Kauravas. Due to enmity and jealousy, the Pandavas are forced to leave the kingdom when their father dies. During their exile, they jointly marry Draupadi and befriend their cousin Krishna, who from then on accompanies them. They return and share sovereignty with the Kauravas, but have to withdraw to the forest for thirteen years when Yudhishthira loses all his possessions in a game of dice with Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas. When they return from the forest to demand their share of the kingdom back, Duryodhana refuses. This means war. Krishna acts as counselor to the Pandavas.
The Gita is found right here, with the two armies facing each other and ready for battle. The battle rages for eighteen days and ends with the defeat of the Kauravas. All the Kauravas die; only the five Pandava brothers and Krishna survive. The six set out for heaven together, but all die on the way, except Yudhishthira, who reaches the gates of heaven accompanied only by a small dog, who turns out to be an incarnation of the god Dharma. After tests of faithfulness and constancy, Yudhishthira is reunited in heaven with his brothers and Draupadi in eternal bliss.
It is within this enormous epic … well less than one percent of the Mahabharata that we find the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of the Lord, most commonly referred to simply as the Gita. It is found in the sixth book of the epic, just before the great battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The greatest hero of the Pandavas, Arjuna, has pulled up his chariot in the middle of the battlefield between the two opposing armies. He is accompanied by Krishna, who acts as his charioteer.
In a fit of despondency, Arjuna throws down his bow and refuses to fight, deploring the immorality of the coming war. It is a moment of supreme drama: time stands still, the armies are frozen in place, and God speaks.
The situation is extremely grave. A great kingdom is about to self-destruct in internecine warfare, making a mockery of dharma, the eternal moral laws and customs that govern the universe. Arjuna’s objections are well founded: He is the victim of a moral paradox. On the one hand, he is facing persons who, according to dharma, deserve his respect and veneration. On the other hand, his duty as a warrior demands that he kill them.
Yet no fruits of victory would seem to justify such a heinous crime. It is, seemingly, a dilemma without solution. It is this state of moral confusion that the Gita sets out to mend.
When Arjuna refuses to fight, Krishna has no patience with him. Only when he realizes the extent of Arjuna’s despondency does Krishna change his attitude and start teaching the mysteries of dharmic action in this world. He introduces Arjuna to the structure of the universe, the concepts of prakriti, primordial nature, and the three gunas, the properties that are active in prakriti. Then he takes Arjuna on a tour of philosophical ideas and ways of salvation. He discusses the nature of theory and action, the importance of ritual, the ultimate principle, Brahman, all the while gradually disclosing his own nature as the highest god.
This part of the Gita culminates in an overwhelming vision: Krishna allows Arjuna to see his supernal form, the Vishvarupa, which strikes terror into Arjuna’s heart. The rest of the Gita deepens and supplements the ideas presented before the epiphany—the importance of self-control and faith, of equanimity and unselfishness, but above all, of bhakti, or devotion. Krishna explains to Arjuna how he can obtain immortality by transcending the properties which qualify not only primordial matter, but also human character and behavior. Krishna also emphasizes the importance of doing one’s duty, declaring that it is better to do one’s own duty without distinction than to do another’s duty well.
In the end, Arjuna is convinced. He picks up his bow and is ready to fight. Knowing a couple of things will make your reading easier. The first is that the Gita is a conversation within a conversation. Dhritarashtra begins it by asking a question, and that is the last we hear out of him. He is answered by Sanjaya, who relates what is happening on the battlefield. (It is actually more dramatic and wondrous than the previous sentence indicates. Dhritarashtra is blind. Vyasa, his father, offers to restore his sight so he can follow the battle. Dhritarashtra declines this boon, feeling that seeing the carnage of his kinsmen would be more than he could bear. So instead, Vyasa bestows clairvoyance and clairaudience upon Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s minister and charioteer. As they sit in their palace, Sanjaya relates what he sees and hears on the distant battlefield.) Sanjaya pops up now and again throughout the book as he relates to Dhritarashtra the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. This second conversation is a bit one-sided, as Krishna does almost all of the talking. Thus, Sanjaya describes the situation, Arjuna asks the questions, and Krishna gives the answers.
Source: Excerpted from 'The Bhagavad Gita' translated by Lars Martin Fosse.
About the Author
Lars Martin Fosse holds a master’s and doctorate from the University of Oslo, and also studied at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Cologne. He has lectured at Oslo University on Sanskrit, Pali, Hinduism, text analysis, and statistics, and was a visiting fellow at Oxford University. He is one of Europe’s most experienced translators.