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date: 14 April 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Bhagavadgītā (‘ Song of the Lord’) 

An episode of seven hundred verses embedded in book six (Bhīṣmaparvan) of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata. As the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas prepare to fight, the Pāṇḍava hero Arjuna is stationed between the two armies in a chariot driven by his friend and ally, Kṛṣṇa. At this juncture Arjuna is suddenly overcome by disabling scruples at the prospect of killing his kinsmen and teachers. His dilemma is either to fight what appears to be a just but ethically disastrous war, or to renounce his inherent duty (svadharma) as a kṣatriya (a member of the warrior class), and withdraw from the battle altogether, with disastrous consequences for himself and his brothers. Kṛṣṇa intervenes and teaches him that it is his duty as a warrior to fight without further motivation, i.e. without desire for, or attachment to, the results of his actions (karma). Indeed, such a desire would be deluded, for Kṛṣṇa himself, who in the Bhagavadgītā is presented as God omnipotent, is the only real actor. It is therefore to God alone that the results of actions accrue, and the ostensible actor (in this case Arjuna) is merely his instrument. It follows from this that the solution to the problem of karma and its results is to act in a spirit of devotion (bhakti), offering the fruits of all one's actions to God, because they are his anyway. In a great theophany (Ch. 11), which is also an image of the end of a world age (yuga), Kṛṣṇa allows Arjuna to see him in his overwhelming universal form, as Time (Kāla), the destroyer of the universe, mangling the warriors on both sides between his jaws. The Bhagavadgītā ends with Kṛṣṇa's guarantee to Arjuna (and to devotees generally) that he will be released from all evils because he is dear to him. Arjuna takes up his bow ready to fight.

In addition to discussions of karma and bhakti as routes to liberation, the text also deals with knowledge (jñāna), and subsumes all three means under the discipline of yoga (hence the common assertion that the Bhagavadgītā teaches three kinds of yoga). Much of its underlying ontology and cosmology—what counts as ‘knowledge’—is derived from versions of Sāṃkhya theory. It also contains what is taken to be the earliest theological justification of the concept of the deity's avatāras, or incarnations. In general, the text internalizes some of the radical ideas that came out of the renouncer traditions, but argues for a socially conservative position, derived from orthodox Brahmanical values.

In its present form, the Bhagavadgītā (or Gītā for short) may have been composed in the 1st century ce, although its date, and its precise relation to the rest of the Mahābhārata, are disputed by scholars. In spite of the Epic's formal status as tradition (smṛti) rather than revelation (śruti), for many the Gītā is plainly the word of God, and from at least the 7th century ce it has been glorified as a religious text in its own right, notably in the Purāṇas. The Gītā has generated a large number of commentaries, starting with Śaṅkara's 8th-century Bhagavadgītābhāṣya. Since then, the Vedānta tradition has considered it one of the three essential texts (prasthāna traya) requiring commentary by anyone wanting to found a new (sub-)school. Notable commentaries in this line, which were increasingly coloured by a more emotional bhakti than that adumbrated in the original epic context, include those by Rāmānuja and Madhva. Such was its popularity that Śaivas too wrote commentaries on the Gītā, including one by Abhinavagupta exploring its esoteric meaning. At the other extreme, simply to recite the Gīta, or to hear it recited, regardless of how well or badly one understands the Sanskrit, has often been considered ‘meaning’ enough and the vehicle of God's grace.

Beyond the commentarial traditions, the Bhagavadgītā's teachings have, in a generalized form, become cornerstones of belief for most Vaiṣṇavas—the text is usually recited at Vaiṣṇava funerals—and for most modern Hindus in general. Indeed, it has proved particularly popular in modern India, where its teaching has been interpreted, inter alia, as a call for the restoration of Hindu dharma through violent political action, and an assertion of the non-violent struggle for truth. The former view was developed by the nationalist leader, B. G. Tilak in his widely read and influential Marathi commentary, Gītārahasya, the latter in the writings of M. K. Gāndhī. Other extensive modern commentaries include those by Aurobindo and Prabhūpada. The Bhagavadgītā has been subject to multiple translations, and as a result has become the best known Hindu text outside India. It was first translated into a modern European language (English) in 1785 by Charles Wilkins, and it has been estimated that over 300 further translations into English alone had appeared by the end of the 20th century. (It is interesting to note that Gāndhī was introduced to it through Sir Edwin Arnold's celebrated late Victorian version, The Song Celestial.) The Bhagavadgītā's status as the emblematic Hindu text is as strong now as at any time in its 2 000 year history. See also Bhagavān.