The Bhagavad Gītā
The Bhagavad-Gītā (or the Gītā, as it is generally called) forms a part of the Mahābhārata.
Its value has been differently estimated by critical scholarship; but it has never been denied that it ranks, as it really does, as one of the greatest religious documents of ancient India and holds a unique place in its religious life.
That it contains echoes of the different voices of the past admits of little doubt, but its strong and unmistakable religious note supplies the ultimate stimulus for their synthesis, which is not merely speculative but also practical.
A greater and more ardent attempt is nowhere made to turn philosophy into practical religion and bring the individual and the universe into personal relation with a living god.
As the various earlier streams of fluid philosophical thought meet in the work, the uncertainty of its philosophical position has presented opportunities for the exercise of subtlety of interpretation, on the one hand, and scepticism regarding its consistency, on the other;
but this unique combination also explains the vital influence which the work has exercised over many types of the Indian mind.
While philosophers of diverse Schools interpret it in accordance with their own conceptions, and critical scholars quarrel over the question of its consistency,
its deep ethical and religious fervour lifts it above sectarian and scholastic considerations and supply nourishment to devout minds as a gospel of deliverance.
With regard to the original form and character of the work, it has been alleged that it went through a process of remodelling; but critical scholarship has not been unanimous on this question.
Holtzmann maintains that the Gītā is a Vaiṣṇava remodelling of an originally pantheistic or Vedāntic poem; Hopkins thinks that it is a Kṛṣṇa-ite version of an older Vaiṣṇava poem, which in its turn was originally a late unsectarian Upaniṣad;
Garbe regards it as a popular devotional Bhagavata tract revised in a Vedāntic sense by Brāhmanism; Deussen is of opinion that it is a late product of decadent Upaniṣadic thought;
Barnett believes that it is a document of the Vāsudeva cult, but that the different streams of tradition became confused in the mind of the author; Keith takes it as an Upaniṣad of the Śvetāśvatara type adapted later to the Kṛṣṇa cult;
while Belvalkar puts forward the view that it represents the last elaborate attempt made by the Śrauta religion to defend orthodox Brāhmanism against the disruptive forces of the popular religion.
It is not necessary to accept any of these conjectures; but it must be made clear that it is neither scientific nor is it possible to split up the text convincingly and separate the alleged additions on these or similar preconceived grounds.
It is not denied that, like the other portions of the Epic and like some of the Upaniṣads, the Gītā probably suffered occasional interpolations or that it existed in different recensions;
but to maintain that the work is a poor patchwork, or to deny that it is a vital synthetic expression of a particular trend of religious thought is to miss the essential significance of the work,
as well as to go directly against the testimony of Indian tradition which has always attempted, even from different points of view, a synthetic interpretation of the work as a whole.
We have said above that if we investigate the traces of devotional ideas in the Upaniṣads, we can see that, within their intellectual theosophy, distinctly theistic and devotional tendencies were gradually developing.
This may have been due partly to an innate theistic strain in the Upaniṣads themselves and partly to individual spiritual illumination of particular seers;
but it must have been also due to an inevitable compromise between the high philosophy and speculation about the impersonal Brāhman, on the one hand,
and the vivid popular faiths which, on the other, must have been gathering round the devout worship of personal gods.
As the impersonal Brāhman was more and more personalized and brought nearer to popular consciousness, the larger devotional emotions and sentiments of popular faiths began to be justified and reinterpreted by the philosophy and practices of hieratic Brahmanism.
The Gītā, as we possess it, is neither a purely priestly product nor a purely devotional document of a popular faith. Such deliberate theological artifice, as some scholars have presumed, is hardly effective in controlling the tides of religious life.
It can produce a marvellous systematic theological treatise, but it is hard to believe that it could create a genuinely religious document like the Bhagavad Gītā.
Having regard to these considerations, it would be better and more historical to presume that the Gītā embodies a certain trend of religious thought or feeling as it finally crystallized itself, and therefore contains as much hieratic as popular elements, inseparably merged into one another.
The incongruities of such an alliance between the high philosophy of an intellectual aristocracy and the living fervour of popular sentiments are, however, so great that it is only natural that critical scholars have exercised themselves a great deal over the consistency of the compromise.
But one would be hardly justified in regarding these incongruities as extraneous and artificially connected:
they form a part and parcel of its peculiar theology, and cannot be isolated or rejected without detriment to the peculiar religious-historical significance of the work.
We have here a strange blending of divergent ideas and sentiments; but the speculative aspect of the Gītā is as much essential as the fervent religious aspect which enlivens its speculations.
The incongruities, such as they are, should thus be recognized and explained by a consideration of the probable circumstances under which the work originated.
Even admitting that there are heterogeneous doctrines, exaggerations and repetitions, they do not by themselves prove the actual fact of one or more revisions.
The theory of a recast document is founded for the most part on the fact that the work attempts to reconcile so many conflicting points of view; but there is nothing unusual in adopting this attitude in an age of genuine spiritual uncertainty.
It is superficial criticism which stigmatizes such a powerful work as “an ill-assorted cabinet of primitive philosophical opinions." Its purely philosophical position is perhaps not quite strong, but its object appears to be less philosophical than religious.
It is more a reconciliation of existing beliefs and speculations by the living warmth of a dynamic religious feeling than a careless throwing together or haphazard revision of an inconsistent medley.
In realizing its particular object, the work was merely giving expression to a particular tendency of its age, to a new situation that might have arisen out of conflict of views.
We must take the work in its total significance. Its unity lies in its general religious tendency and purpose, and the presence of heterogeneous ideas or of a fluid terminology is not in itself incompatible with consistent teaching, though it may be with systematic doctrine.
There is no doubt that divergent ways of thought meet in it, but it would be scarcely correct to regard it as a deliberate attempt at synthesis,
for the simple reason that these somewhat fluid doctrines themselves, as the Gītā itself as well as the various religious and philosophical documents in the Epic would indicate,
have not yet arrived at such a fully articulated stage as would place them in explicit antagonism.
But since the work aims at reaching a unity in the midst of such diversity by its undoubted religious power, it possesses a more synthetic character than most works of the same type.
We shall confine ourselves in this essay chiefly to the consideration of the Gītā as one of the earliest ethical-religious works which inculcate a clear and fundamental doctrine of bhakti.
The philosophical background is also important and cannot be ignored, but the deep ardent feeling with which it expresses certain aspects of an early bhakti religion is of much greater interest.
It has been already amply demonstrated by competent scholars that the Bhagavad Gītā shows a full knowledge of the earlier philosophical and religious literature.
The Brāhmanic ritualism and its dogmas, which must have by this time well-nigh spent their force, are recognized in many a scattered passages but there is an anxiety to reinterpret and reconcile them to its own peculiar teachings.
The formal conformity of the ritualist, who believes in the efficacy of a correct performance of the Vedic sacrifice, is disapproved, but the way of ritualism is not altogether rejected.
The cosmic purpose of the Vedic sacrifice is still admitted, but it is fully emphasized that the normal ritualistic acts should not be undertaken with the narrow object of specific rewards or for the mere purpose of attaining merit.
Those who desire lower ends, no doubt, attain them; but such ends do not carry them very far. Such merit is exhausted after a time, and there is no permanent release from the cycle of births and deaths.
Those, on the other hand, who abjure all desire for the fruits of action and dedicate them to God attain mental equipoise and elevation above their work, which lead them to true devotion and ultimate salvation.
An attempt is also made to rationalize the yajña or sacrifice by understanding it in a wider and more spiritual sense, a tendency which set in at the Upaniṣadic period but which is further developed in a new way.
There are many ways, we are told, of performing sacrificial acts, but we may distinguish the literal performance from the symbolical.
Restraint of the senses, attainment of knowledge, indeed all dutiful acts, all tapas, are spoken of as symbolical sacrifices. If they are done in a spirit of perfect selflessness they are Sāttvika; if with a selfish purpose, they are Rājasika; if in ignorance, they are Tāmasika.
The root idea of a yajña is the sacrificing of the lower for the higher good.
Generalizing this concept, the highest yajña is held to be that in which a man lays down all his cosmic desires and interests at the altar of God.
Thus, accepting the authoritativeness of the Brāhmanic ritualism, as well as the right performance of the prescribed duties of caste and class, the Gītā makes them subservient to its peculiar doctrine of rituals in relation to devotion.
In the same way, the Gītā shows a full knowledge of the diverse teachings of the Upaniṣads, but modifies them in its own light.
The Upaniṣadic doctrine of ātman-Brāhman, the conception of puruṣa, and the somewhat late idea of Īśvara are clearly represented in the Gītā, as well as the Yogic methods of self-realization,
the description of sacrifice as a form of Brāhman and its mystical explanation, the doctrine of deva-yāna and pitṛi-yāna ways and other minor technicalities made current by the Upaniṣads.
The Brahmā-vidyā is acknowledged and all religious implications are fully drawn out; but the impersonal Brāhman is fully personalized, and the efficacy of pure knowledge for release and of the quietist methods of the Upaniṣads is admitted only up to a certain point.
The Gītā assures us that all this is Sāṁkhya doctrine, but in reality it is Upaniṣadic, and does not resemble the Sāṁkhya of later times.
But by Sāṁkhya, which as a technical term in the Epic is contrasted with Yoga, is probably meant the reflective and meditative method of those who rely on knowledge for release; while Yoga is the practical attainment of self-control and balance of mind by a selfless performance of ordained duties.
Somewhat in the manner of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad the Gītā speaks of three aspects of god, admitting two parallel manifestations of prakṛti or Primal Matter and jīvātman or individual soul, and regarding them both as phases of the cosmic form of the Ātman or Brāhman, who is of course identified with the personal God.
The doctrine is metaphorically set forth in the well-known description of the kṣetra and the Kṣetrajña, where the kṣetra or the field is presumably the ceaseless area (in the Sāṁkhya manner) of the activity of prakṛti,
as the seat of the conditioned soul, i.e. of the Kṣetrajña, who is an aspect of the supreme Kṣetrajña, God (the Bhāgavat), indwelling in all Kṣettras.
Although the Gītā does not accept the Sāṁkhya theory of non-active puruṣa and its silence about God, the Sāṁkhya terminology of categories, which was apparently ancient, is introduced to explain the relation of the supreme self to the material and spiritual worlds of conditioned being.
The evolution of prakṛti is attributed to the five elements and the buddhi, ahaṁkāra etc., which correspond to the twenty-four principles of the Sāṁkhya as phases of energizing matter;
and the doctrine of the three guṇas is recognized in explaining cosmic causation and activity.
The Gītā also speaks of two puruṣas, the perishable and the imperishable, as well as a third Puruṣa or Puruṣottama, who transcends both the perishable and the imperishable, so that the three Puruṣas are really one Puruṣa in three aspects.
This theistic Puruṣa-doctrine is obviously a development of the Upaniṣadic teaching and not of the Sāṁkhya, which denies a supreme Puruṣa and believes in an infinite number of separate Puruṣas.
It will be thus seen that although the Gītā employs the Sāṁkhya terminology, it does not employ it always in its Sāṁkhya signification; nor does it accept all the implications of the classical Sāṁkhya metaphysics.
The Gītā is openly theistic, but the Sāṁkhya avoids the question of God.
The Sāṁkhya influence is recognized in its conception of prakṛti and puruṣa, but the dualism is reconciled by the existence of the Supreme Person (Uttama Puruṣa).
It would seem, therefore, that some forms of inchoate Sāṁkhya doctrine existed when the work was composed, but, as in the Epic generally, the later classical Sāṁkhya philosophy was probably unknown.
The Gītā does not appear to accept the specifically Vedāntic position of the unreality of matter, but holds firmly to the Sāṁkhya in this respect.
The term māyā is indeed employed, but the māyā is not material existence. It is rather the mode in which the matter is apprehended by the mind, both of which are eternal verities.
The Gītā appears to agree with the Śvetāśvatara in making Īśvara the creator of māyā, which however is not identical with prakṛti or with avidya. It is the divine power of cosmic illusion whereby, through the medium of prakṛti and the guṇas, the Īśvara veils his real being.
These and other instances of absorption and reconciliation of divergent philosophical ideas make it almost futile to seek in the Gītā a technically perfect philosophical system, promulgated with scholastic accuracy and precision.
Its philosophical teaching has all the characteristics of the confused philosophy of the Epic itself and its somewhat uncertain terminology.
The essentially religious, rather than philosophical, character of the work is also clear from the way in which certain older metaphysical ideas are harmonized, somewhat incongruously, with its clearly theistic and devotional attitude.
Its mystical devotional reconciliation is indeed often brilliant, but from the point of view of cold reasoning it does not always give us exact information as to how contradictory ideas are to be logically combined.
The problem, for instance, of the transformation of the impersonal Absolute into a personal God is solved by the supposition that it is due to māyā or cosmic illusion; in other words, it is a mystery.
In the same way is explained the relation of the Absolute to the world.
The final union of the individual self with the Supreme, which the Sāṁkhya explains by the action of the purified buddhi, is attributed in the Gītā to divine grace responding to human faith and love.
The Gītā accepts implicitly the Upaniṣadic Brahmā-vidyā in a somewhat modified form, but it hardly subscribes to the extreme Upaniṣadic standpoint of quietism or release through knowledge.
With its characteristic attitude of tolerance and compromise, the Gītā does not entirely reject the way of knowledge or jñāna-yoga,
which (designated as the practice of the Sāṁkhya) teaches the intellectual intuition of the Absolute by the casting off (sannyāsa) of all works and practising meditation on the distinction between self and not-self.
This intellectual gnosis of the old Upaniṣads and the Sāṁkhya is indeed recognized, but the method is not commended because of its difficulty and uncertainty of success.
Much easier, we are told, is the way of works (karma-yoga) which consists in the performance of all social and religious duties in a spirit of perfect selflessness and devotion.
Thus, while not rejecting Sāṁkhya or philosophy based on knowledge, it makes a special pleading for yoga or philosophy based on action; for it aims at teaching not so much a system of speculation as a rule of life.
The traditional doctrine of karma is accepted but with certain important modifications.
The Gītā disapproves, as we have seen, the method of those who act with a desire for reward,
but it does not also approve of the view of those who push the doctrine of karma to its misdirected logical extreme and teach that inasmuch as action binds the self to samsāra or repeated rebirth, release can be attained by a complete cessation from activity.
But meditative discipline, we are told, is as important for the way of knowledge as for the way of action.
A mood of detachment and equipoise (samatva) must be secured in order that works done under the rule of action become in the end no-works, and do not fetter the self.
Apart from practical Yogic methods, this is achieved, in the first place, by a conscientious discharge of all proper duties (dharma);
in the second place, works must be performed without “attachment,” that is, without egoistic consciousness of the agent (karttṛtvābhimāna) and desire for the fruit (phalāśā);
and lastly, devoid of selfish thought or purpose, all acts and their fruits must be dedicated to God, making every act an offering of devotion and love.
The complete abandonment of egoism and selfish ends destroys that element in action which fetters the self to material existence and causes rebirth, for works done in this spirit are really no-works.
He has truly abandoned action who has abandoned the interest and the fruits thereof. This is the true renunciation (sannyāsa), the true control (yoga), and prepares one infallibly for divine grace and salvation.
It involves no irresponsible renunciation of ordained duties, no break from wholesome social life, but brings into play the best elements of human nature.
It is not the meditative inactivity taught by some philosophers, for it is a state of freedom from action (naiṣkarmya) reached through right action.
The discipline thus prescribed is not only moral but also religious.
The universal order of things demands activity from man, but if his actions are disinterested he conforms to the categorical moral imperative of doing his duty because it is duty.
But he also performs his duty because it is the will of God, to Whom he dedicates all his acts and the fruits thereof.
The aspirant truly becomes a Yogin and sannyāsin, disciplined in sense and intellect; but the spirit of constant love and services gives a spiritual significance to his merely ethical acts.
Thus, the activism which the Gītā presents is not a formal conformity to a prescribed code, but is based upon a knowledge of philosophy of action arid a strong religious feeling.
This makes every act of life symbolically an act of sacrifice, frees the self from attachment and delusion, and absolves it from the polluting effect of action.
God Himself sets the highest example of work by incarnating Himself from time to time in a cosmic spirit of self-surrendering grace for the good of the world. His cosmic work is no-work because it is done in divine unselfishness, and does not involve Him in the bondage of karma.
By dedicating all works to Him, the devotee merges, as it were, his own individual action in His cosmic action, his own individuality in His cosmic life.
This ethical and theistic position gives a remarkable synthesis of the ancient fatalistic axiom of karma with the belief in a personal God of grace and love, admitting its inexorableness but tempering, moralizing and sanctifying it with the idea of divine cosmic work and grace.
Under this teaching, human activity, like the divine, does not transgress but transcends the law of karma.
This brings us to the special doctrine of the Gītā, the bhakti-yoga, the spirit of love and service to a personal god, which supplies the unifying principle to the alliance it seeks to establish between knowledge and work, renunciation and devotion.
The older philosophic speculation had already taught that knowledge alone is the way to release.
But the Gītā maintains that this knowledge partly won by intellectual and partly by practical activity of a certain kind, is the knowledge not of an unqualified entity, but of a Being of infinite good qualities and illimitable grace.
He is the Ātman, Brāhman, Īśvara, Puruṣa or Puruṣottama, but He is also really, though infinitely, qualified by all conceivable good attributes, endowing with reality the eternal but conditioned categories of matter (prakṛti) and individual self (Jīva), which emerge periodically from Him into manifestation.
The power by which He thus determines Himself into conditioned being is His own cosmic power of illusion or māyā which veils His true nature.
The way of approach may be found through knowledge or through austere works, but in all seekings there must be an undivided spirit of loving devotion and service, which alone is capable of finding what is even hidden from the sage or the yogi.
The Upaniṣads had already prescribed certain methods of symbolic meditation for turning the senses inward and attaining a mystical intuition of Reality,
but they had also gradually reached an almost theistic position of realizing an all-indwelling and all-transcending Brāhman, who is invested more or less with personal attributes and conceived as Īśvara.
The purely intellectualistic position of meditation on the unconditioned Non-manifest is characterized by the Gītā as avyakta-upāsanā, which is indeed a way of approach but which involves a long and arduous process of discipline, open only to the few.
It is easier to concentrate upon a concrete object of worship; and the vyakta-upāsanā, which is meditation upon the Absolute as a manifest and concrete personality, is not only open to all but also affords a scope for a direct personal relation of love and service.
This vital and vitalizing element of bhakti changes the emphasis from the speculative to the practical, and converts what would have been a merely philosophical treatise into a powerful religious document.
It teaches the love and service of a personal god of love and grace, probably in an age when God was being lost in divergent speculations.
It gives expression to a form of synthesis between the conflicting conceptions of previous thinkers and ritualists, on the one hand, and the popular worship of a personal God, on the other.
It presents the worshipper with a visible object of devotion approachable at all times and places, and teaches the value of a harmonious combination of knowledge, discipline and service in religious life.
As the teaching checks extreme rationalism, on the one hand, it tends, on the other, to rationalize blind sectarianism by placing it on the firm foundation of knowledge and discipline, and by preaching tolerance to all modes of worship as aspects merely of the worship of a supreme deity.
Whatever value its synthesis of traditional philosophical and religious views may be held to possess, there can be no doubt that it speaks of bhakti with no uncertain voice; and it is this element which supplies stimulus to its synthesis and gives it whatever unity it possesses.
There is no direct exposition or philosophical justification in the work of the doctrine of devotion and grace (prasāda), probably for the reason that the mutual relation of the devotee and the deity is regarded as an object of realization and not of description or discussion.
But the leading ideas are clear.
It may begin with belief or śraddhā, and belief implies the recognition of an object which is true and worthy of devotion;
but it is essentially a proper activity of the emotional possibilities of human nature in its striving after the supreme or the ideal which affords an escape from the limits of egoism.
As it is essentially an emotion, it implies a dualism, as well as the fact of a living personal relation. The supreme or ideal, therefore, cannot be an abstraction or a shadow of our own minds, but it must have a concrete individual existence, with which loving communion is possible.
At the same time, it cannot be entirely foreign to or entirely identical with, the consciousness of the aspirant, in order that it may be the object of attainment.
Sectarian gods are really different aspects of the Supreme Deity; and the Mahābhārata doctrine of avatara helped to absorb these other gods as aspects of or identical with the Bhāgavat.
The Gītā recognizes different kinds and grades of devotees, for a man’s faith is determined according as he is influenced by the qualities of goodness, activity or ignorance.
With the exception of scoffers and unbelievers, the Gītā shows an anxiety to throw the way of bhakti open to men of all castes and conditions,
even including the Śudras and women, who have been excluded by Brāhmanic orthodoxy, as well as to the feeblest seeker, the worst of sinners, and the ignorant who conforms blindly to śāstric injunctions and knows nothing higher.
The Gītā accepts the established social order, and approves of the injunctions regarding the duties of different castes and stages of life; but its sanctifying theory of desireless and devotional action does not make caste or condition a barrier, but an avenue to salvation.
The doctrine of bhakti, therefore, is presented in a very simple and comprehensive form, and does not show any such bewildering and unattractive display or analysis as the mediaeval exponents of the bhakti cult delight to elaborate.
Although various means are suggested for the realization of the devotional attitude, it is recognized that no fixed rules can be laid down.
The bhakta need not, like the followers of jñāna and karma kānḍas, practise his devotion singly or in solitude, nor need he engage himself in elaborate schemes of ritual; he may meet other devotees, and enlighten one another by religious discourses.
But the feeling must mould itself according to the habits and minds of men.
Thus, giving up of sensuous desires, turning the mind inward by means of symbols and discipline, yogic methods, realization of the supreme being in nature and self,
contemplation of divine attributes, constant remembrance, discourse and conversation on God, adoration and external worship, selfless performance of all acts as dedicated to God,
by mentioning these and other ways of spiritual experience and worship, the Gītā recognizes that the one Supreme God, revealing Himself in different ways, can be approached and worshipped by no fixed rule or method.
To all men the Bhāgavat is impartial, desiring in His infinite grace the welfare of all, and resorts to men in the way in which they resort to Him. All may approach Him, and these are only some of the means.
But supreme devotion in the end implies a complete self-surrender, not in inactivity but in selfless activity, not in ignorance but in the fullness of knowledge, merging one’s life in the cosmic life of the deity, dedicating all thought, action and feeling to Him.
As the doctrine seeks to establish a personal relationship between the deity and the devotee, it not only invests the deity with a personality and an infinitude of attributes, but it also emphasizes divine grace, on the one hand, and man's need of loving devotion, on the other.
One of the greatest acts of divine graciousness to the world is God’s coming to birth from birthlessness by His own cosmic power of illusion (māyā) and veiling His real nature by manifesting Himself as an individual at the time of the world's need.
The doctrine of avatāra or periodical descent of god, which should be distinguished from the Vyūha doctrine ignored in the Gītā, is generally acknowledged in the Mahābhārata;
but the fact of avatāra in this work is probably a necessary corollary to its proposed identification of Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva with the Bhāgavat.
The doctrine of repeated avatāras was also necessary to connect him with earlier myths and legends.
Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva is thus identified not only with Viṣṇu, the greatest deity in the Epic, as well as with his various forms and incarnations, but is also related to Śiva, Brāhma and other gods of rival sects, who are subsumed under one supreme name.
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In this way the doctrine attempts to establish a unity of the godhead and check blind sectarian attitude by its somewhat elastic and tolerant scope.
The meaning of the avatāra doctrine, however, is found in the recognition of the supreme deity as the upholder of the moral order of the world, and in the conception of repeated descents for setting the world right.
Looked at from another point of view, the doctrine implies the deification of the human, a belief in superior beings who become the embodiment of the divine. It affords, therefore, tangible and effective divine ideals towards which imperfect mortals may strive and grow.