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The Bhagavad Gita INTRODUCTION ‘The Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of the Lord" or "Song of God") was probably composed between 100 BCE and 100 CE, ‘This eighteen-chapter segment of the sixth book of a vast Sanskrit epic called the Mahabharata is viewed as an authoritative scripture in its own right, particularly in the modem period, though ‘numerous premodern commentaries were written upon it as well. Many Hindus see this text as a comprehensive summary of Hindu philosophy. As a scripture, it serves a function in contemporary Hinduism closer to that of the Bible in Christianity than do the ‘venerable, but less popular, Vedas. ‘Occurring at the point in the Mahabharata's narrative when the climactic battle of Kurukshetra is about to take place, the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue between the hero, Arjuna, and his best friend and cousin, Krishna, who has agreed to act as ‘Arjuna‘s charioteer in the battle, and who is also an avatara, or divine incarnation. Deeply troubled by the moral dilemma that he faces, having to fight in a war that will require him to slay such revered persons as his grandsire Bhishma and his teacher Drona, Arjuna falls into p despair. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna at this point takes the form of @ conversation that ranges over a great variety of topics and views Current in Indian philosophy at the time of the text's composi- ‘tion. Currents of thought that are discernible in the Bhagavad Gita include Samkhya, yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well san early articulation of the theistic philosophy of the bhakti, or devotional, movement, which became highly popular in the cen- tuties to follow. a7 Hinduism Later Hindu tradition gives the text an increasingly privi- leged status as a summary of all Hindu thought. It is often called simply “the Gita”—“the Song’ —despite there being many texts in the Gita genre. With the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita forms part of the Prasthana Traya, or threefold foun- dation of Vedanta philosophy, upon which all the major histori- cal Vedantic sages have commented. Mahatma Gandhi referred to this text as his “dictionary of daily reference” and cited it as a ‘major influence on his philosophy of active engagement with the ‘world as an important component of the spiritual quest. ‘The most controversial aspect of the text is its location on a battlefield, coupled with the fact that Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight in battle, rather than taking a path of nonviolence—although Krishna, somewhat paradoxically, does commend nonviolence to Arjuna as one of the virtues of an enlightened person. In one of the selections from this text in this volume, when Arjuna says to Krishna, “Why are you telling me to do these terrible deeds?” itis to this battle and the bloodshed it will entail that he is referring. Commentators have responded to the question of violence and nonviolence in the Bhagavad Gita in a variety of ways: ignor- ing it, frankly accepting the violence entailed as a part of life in ancient India or of life in general, viewing the entire episode in terms of the symbolism that the text itself suggests—with the body as the field of battle and the real enemies being negative qualities such as ignorance, desire, and egotism—or, in the case of Gandhi, seeing the violence of the epic context as finally irrele- vant to and even incompatible with the deeper spiritual message of the text, which becomes abstracted from its literary context. A related issue on which scholars disagtee is whether the Gita is a later interpolation, inserted into the Mahabharata at a later date— and in disagreement with it on the issue of violence—or whether it should be seen as integral to the epic and the issue of violence merely a secondary consideration, ‘The central emphasis of the Gita’s teaching is not primarily in regard to violence, despite its setting, but in regard to mysticism ‘The Bhagavad Gita and the spiritual quest. How does one reach the ultimate goal of Hindu thought and practice: the realization of the identity of the Self and Brahman, which leads to liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth? Is it through the yoga, or spiritual dis pline, or action—performing good works and offering them as a sactifice at the feet of God, analogous to the sacrificial rituals of the Vedast Is it through the yoga of knowledge, the path of real- ization taught in the Upanishads? Is it through devotion to Brahman as the personal deity, the Ishwara of the Yoga Sutras? Is it through the yoga of contemplative practice and meditation? Or is it in a combination of all of these practices that the path to the est bliss can be found? Various teachers and traditions within Hinduism differ among themselves in their interpretation of the Gita, some saying it emphasizes one or the other of the paths listed here as the primary one, with the others playing merely sup- porting roles, and others arguing for a synthesis, It is a hard text to interpret in a conchusive way, given that, whenever itis describ ing a specific path, it also endorses this path as the best way to the ultimate goal. And it is also possible that even this fact is signifi- cant, and that the Gita is pluralistic in regard to how the spiritual quest might be accomplished—but this is of course just one more interpretation! Jeffery D. Long 49