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Introduction to Bhagavad Gita — its origin, background story, its significance and greatness – FAQ on Bhagavad Gita

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1.  Is Bhagavad Gita part of Vedas, the Hindu scripture?

No. Bhagavad Gita is not part of Vedas. Vedas are the original and ancient source books of Hinduism and they are called Shruti (as heard). They are believed to be originated from God and no specific authors are attributed to Vedas.

Bhagavad Gita is one very important and widely read and acclaimed book of Hindu spiritual wisdom coming under the group of scriptures known as Smritis (as remembered). Smritis came much later to Vedas and they have their allegiance to Vedas, written by specific authors. Smritis are meant to explain, elaborate and interpret Vedic knowledge.

2.  Where exactly is Bhagavad Gita written?

Ramayana and Mahabharata are two great Sanskrit poetic works known as Itihasas which means ‘thus happened’.  They contain the historic stories of ancient Kings who lived and ruled in India thousands of years ago. The stories are interwoven with teachings of dharma.

Bhagavad Gita is part of the great Hindu epic Mahabharata, authored by Maharishi Vyasa.

Bhagavad Gita appears in the middle of the story of Mahabharata. According to some historians, the period of Mahabharata was around 2500 BCE. It is in the form of a discourse given by Sri Krishna, an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, to Arjuna, who one of the prime characters in the story of Mahabharata as part of their discussions in the middle of a war field, just before the epic war at Kurukshetra was to begin.

3.  In which language was Bhagavad Gita Written? At what period of time?

All ancient scriptures of Hinduism (Shruti and Smiritis) inclusive of Mahabharatam were written in Sanskrit language.

Some Historians assign the period of Kurukshetra war to the year 3067 BCE. (i.e. about 5085 years ago). Of course such time period estimates are debated by other Historians; there have been many theories assigning the time period from 1000 BC to 4500 BC.

4.  Who was the author of Bhagavad Gita? Was it God, Krishna?

As said earlier, Bhagavad Gita essentially is a discourse of spiritual wisdom given by Lord Krishna to his friend Arjuna at the war front to clear Arjuna’s confusion in taking part in the war. Since the Mahabharata was authored by Maharshi Vyasa, he was indeed the author/recorder of Bhagavad Gita portions too.

5.  What was the cause of the grand war at Kurukshetra? Who was fighting against whom?

The Kurukshetra war was actually considered a war of dharma (righteousness) against adharma (anarchy). Five Pandavas (sons of Pandu, headed by Yudhisthira) who were on the side of dharma were fighting against 100 Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, a blind king of the Kuru clan ruling Kuru Jangala kingdom) headed by Duryodhana.

Pandu and Dhritarashtra were brothers and hence  Pandavas and Kauravas were cousins. Thus, virtually, it was a war within a family and Pandavas fought for getting back their rightful share of their land and kingdom, confiscated by Kauravas by a treachery, in a game of dice. Kauravas tried to humiliate pandavas by disrobing Pandava’s wife Panchali (Draupadi) after their defeat in the game. Kauravas sent Pandavas to forest and put some stringent conditions on them, if they ever wanted to get back their land. Pandavas fulfilled them successfully, but still Kauravas did not want to return the land and rule back to Pandavas. A war between them became inevitable.

Pandavas lost their kingdom, wealth and their wife Draupati too by betting in the game of dice to Kauravas. Draupati was brought to the court and Duschasan tried to disrobe her. Lord Krishna came to her rescue. It was then Pandavas took vow to avenge Kauravas for the insult.

Practically all the kings who ruled so many countries across the length and breadth of Bharata Varsha (Indian Subcontinent) took part in this war siding with one of these two warring groups. Arjuna was the brother of Yudhisthira and was the most valiant warrior and a great archer. He was virtually the hero of the Pandavas.

Krishna (an Avatar of Lord Vishnu) was a great warrior and a kingmaker at the kingdom of Yadavas and was a distant cousin of Pandavas. Krishna and Arjuna were bosom friends. Before the war, both Arjuna and Duryodhana wanted Krishna’s support for their respective group. Krishna offered his entire army to one side and his physical and moral support without taking up arms to another side;  he asked them to choose what they preferred. Arjuna chose Krishna’s support only and Duryodhana was happy to receive the huge Army of Krishna for his side. Krishna offered himself to be the charioteer for Arjuna.

Actually, well before the war began, Krishna did his best to avert the war; he used all his diplomatic skills to mediate between Pandavas and Kauravas. He offered several compromises and concessions to Kauravas from the Pandava’s side so that a war between brothers could be avoided. But he failed in all his attempts as Duryodhana was extremely adamant and arrogant; he totally rejected any compromise and was bent upon going ahead with the war and was confident of finishing off Pandavas in the war.

Thus such a massive war became totally unavoidable. The pandavas too were very determined to fight and annihilate the adharmic Kauravas and re-establish a kingdom based on dharma, with Krishna’s divine and moral support at their side.

6.  Why did Arjuna get confused about participating in the war?

When they were boys, Pandavas and Kauravas played together and studied together.  Though, as boys, Kauravas did not like Pandavas and created lots of troubles for them, they were also getting beatings from Bhima (one among the Pandavas) who was an extremely strong and powerful bully. Both the groups received the love and care of their mighty Pitamaha (Grandfather) Bhishma; Bhishma was the elder brother of their grandfathers; he was indeed the real heir of Kuru Jangala kingdom, but he had relinquished it based on an oath.

Guru Dronacharya was very fond of young Arjuna who excelled in Archery, under his teaching.

Both the groups studied together and learned archery and other war skills from Gurus Kripacharya and Dronacharya.  Dronacharya’s son Ashwathama too studied with them and was a good friend to Pandavas. The Acharyas were particularly fond of Arjuna who was extremely skilled in archery.

Despite the undercurrent of enmity, the Pandavas had maintained some sort of cordiality and entertained their brothers well when they became owners of their own kingdom with Indraprastha as capital. Everything turned sour afterwards.

But Arjuna did possess a soft heart for his erstwhile relatives deep down his heart and also lots of respect and love for his acharyas. Unfortunately, the mighty grandfather Bhishma and his teachers Kripacharya and Dronacharya (and his son Ashwathama) sided with Kauravas in the war on account of their loyalty to the Kuru Jangala Kingdom. Some other kings who were their relatives too were at the side of Kauravas.

Just before the war began, Arjuna wanted to see at close quarters who were the people ganged up against them in the war. Krishna took the chariot to the front, facing the opponents.

It was then Arjuna suddenly became very weak-hearted. He saw his own cousins, his most respected Grand father Bhishma, his masters Kripa and Drona standing up in the war against his side. With Lord Krishna on his side, he was sure that the war would be won by Pandavas, but all the people who were his relatives and beloved teachers now standing in front of him would get killed in the war. He was caught by the emotions of attachment and he felt very bad about such an outcome of the war.

Arjuna becoming weak and disheartened to see his dear ones in the other camp in the war. He dropped his bow.

Suddenly the whole war looked meaningless to him. He was gripped by a sudden inexplicable feeling of renouncing all his cherished desires to win back and rule their kingdom.

7.  How did Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer became his counsellor?

Though Arjuna was very friendly with Krishna and was so close to call him ‘Yadava’ (Krishna’s caste as a cowherd) and was free to talk with him without using respectful words, he was fully aware of the fact that Krishna was a divine personality (avatar) and a personification of universal wisdom. He knew that at the time of his confusion and dejection, it was Krishna who could counsel him and guide him towards dharma and rightful course he had to follow in order to come out of his predicament.

Thus Arjuna had no qualms to openly express his thoughts and worries to Krishna and seek His guidance. He was humble enough to surrender to Krishna as a disciple and seek Krishna’s guidance from His stature as a Sadguru.

Krishna not only taught dharma to Arjuna, but also showed him his Vishvarupa (cosmic) form.

It was then Lord Krishna too shed his pretences of behaving like a friend or an obedient charioteer and took up Guru Bhava (the mood of a Guru).  When Krishna spoke, he did not speak as a human being, but as the Supreme Being, the lord of the entire universe — the creator, protector and destroyer of the whole creation and at the same time, in-dweller in all the souls; in order to wipe out any trace of doubt that may appear in the faith of Arjuna, Krishna even showed him His Vishvarupa (Universal cosmic form) which awed Arjuna.

8.  If the Bhagavad Gita discourse took place right at the middle of a massive war field between Krishna and Arjuna as a dialog, how exactly was it brought to other’s knowledge?

Actually, it is highly interesting how this ‘recording’ of the conversations happened at the centre of a battle field.

Maharshi Vyasa was one of the most prime characters in Mahabharata. He was a rishi having many mystic powers. According to Bhagavata Purana, he was also an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He was the one who fathered Dhritarashtra and Pandu, which he did conceding to very compelling reasons for the sake of continuation of progeny in Kuru Kingdom, upon his mother’s request. Thus he was the grandfather of both Kauravas (Sons of Dhritarashtra) and Pandavas (sons of Pandu). He was one central personality who was a knower of trikala (past, present and future) and he would present himself physically at most critical places and times amidst his kin in order to give them solace when in trouble and guide them on dharma. Thus he was an eye-witness and also a historian of the entire Mahabharata story.

Since the King Dhritarashtra was blind, he could not participate in the War; in order to keep him informed of the day to day developments and happenings in the war, Vyasa gave special powers of visualization (‘doordarshan‘) to Sanjaya, a personal assistant/ minister of blind Kaurava King Dhritarashtra to remotely witness all that happened in the Kurukshetra war in order to narrate them to the blind king. The power also included reading the thoughts of the people who were engaged in the war.

During the first ten days of war, Dhritarashtra was not too keen to know the details of what happened in the war except for the information on which side was having the upper hand at the end of each day. When on the 10th day, the grand old Bhishma, the commander of the Kaurava Army was defeated and grievously wounded by Arjuna, Dhritarashtra became extremely concerned. He wanted Sanjya to narrate every detail of the war right from the beginning.

Thus, Sanjaya using the divine powers given to him, narrated every minute details of the happenings at the war front (as a flashback) to the blind king.

The Bhagavad Gita portion of the Mahabharata in fact starts with Dhritarashtra asking Sanjaya to tell him what his own sons and the Pandavas assembled at the battle field were doing. Sanjaya begins his narration of the scenario where both sides were ready to begin the attack. It was then that Arjuna asks Krishna to take his chariot to the middle where he could see his opponents standing fully geared up to fight against them. Subsequent happenings and the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna (which formed Bhagavad Gita) was narrated to Dhritarashtra by Sanjaya. Sanjaya continued with the narration of every detail and happenings in the war subsequently.

Vyasa dictating Mahabharata for Lord Ganesha to write it.

Much later after life the period of Pandavas and Kauravas, Sage Vyasa formed in his mind the entire story of Mahabharata as a grand Itihasa which was too monumental a work for him to put into writing. Conceding to his prayers, Lord Brahma engaged Lord Ganesha to do the writing of this grand epic on palm leaves based on the dictations of Vyasa.

While the present version of Mahabharata as available to us contains some 24000 verses, Bhagavad Gita comes in the middle of Mahabharata as part of the Book 6 – Bhishma Parva, spreading across 18 chapters (Chapters 25 to 42). The Gita contains 700 slokas (verses) each of two line length.

Interestingly, Vyasa’s Mahabharata text as we have today is not a direct narration of Vyasa but appears as narrated by the Pouranika (Purana exponent) by name Ugrasrava, son of Romaharshana Rishi, surnamed Souti to the rishis of Naimisharanya! How did Ugrasrava come to know of the entire story of Vyasa for narration to others?

Souti (Ugrasrava) narrating Mahabharata to the sages at Naimisaranyam.

The Vyasa Bharata story was heard by him from Maharishi Vaisampayana (a disciple of Vyasa) as he narrated it to King Janamejaya (Grandson of Abhimanyu and great-grandson of Arjuna ) during a Sarpa Yagna in the august presence of Sage Vyasa himself.

We cannot help but get wonderstruck by the power of memory and transmission our rishis of the past had possessed on account of their severe austerities (Tapas).

Thus, the Bhagavad Gita (and Mahabharata) as the authentic Sanskrit script available in the present form is indeed from Souti (Ugrasrava) as heard by him from Rishi Vaisampayana. Thus this specific text’s period of origin is at least about 60 to 100 years after Kurukshetra war.

9.  How did Krishna manage to convince Arjuna?

Krishna primarily emphasized the role of Arjuna as a Kshatriya (warrior/ruling class) whose prime dharma was to fight and annihilate evil people. Having exhausted all avenues of reconciliation already and having made all preparations for the war, backing out at that juncture would amount to cowardice for ruling class.

Regarding killing of the near and dear ones, Krishna went about explaining the relationship between human body, jivatma (soul) and further higher truths about Atman (Self) and God. He explained the idea of selfless action surrendering fruits to God, which would make him free from any guilt of wrong perception of killing people in a war.

As Arjuna asked several doubts and sought clarifications, Krishna explained the various deep spiritual wisdom from Upanishads and other scriptures in a simple way that Arjuna could grasp; he revealed to Arjuna about His divinity and how he was the mastermind behind all happenings including the war and the impending deaths. He revealed his Vishvarupa (cosmic divine form) to Arjuna that cleared him of all doubts. It convinced Him of Krishna’s all-encompassing power, made him surrender to Krishna unequivocally and act as per his instructions.

He got back his lost confidence and stood up valiantly to fight the war to its logical finish.

10.  Why is this discourse called Bhagavad Gita?

Bhagavad Gita means God’s song. It means Gods’ teachings here. Though the conversation took place as prose, Vyasa Mahabharata and the Gita are in poetry form only.

11.  What is the source and authenticity of Bhagavad Gita/ Mahabharata  text as it is available today, if it is indeed several thousand years old?

It is hardly possible to preserve the original manuscript of the Bhagavad-Gita written by Vyasa himself or by Souti (Ugrasrava), for the last 5000 years. However many ‘Pothis’ (religious poetic works) of the Bhagavad-Gita as well as Mahabharata were there in palm leaves all over India as preserved in manuscript tradition with some ‘path bhedas’, ( variant readings).

It was Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune that took a monumental project of compiling a Critical Edition of Mahabharata. This edition was prepared with painstaking efforts of scholars by the likes of V. S. Sukhtankar, S. K. Belvalkar, S. K. De, Prof. Dr. R. N. Dandekar for about five decades consulting 1,259 manuscripts and the task spread across 50 years starting from 1917.

Taking into consideration these available manuscripts, and particularly Prof. Shripad Krishna Belvalkar has published ‘Authentic Version‘ (critical edition) of the Bhagavad-Gita in November, 1941.

12.  How and why did Bhagavad Gita acquire such a prominence as a Hindu spiritual scripture, if it was only a private conversation between Arjuna and Krishna?

Whatever Sri Krishna taught to Arjuna was not something meant specifically for Arjuna’s understanding. Actually, Bhagavan Sri Krishna utilized the opportunity to teach mankind about the highest truths of spirituality with Arjuna  as a ruse.

It is so because Bhagavad Gita contains the quintessence of the Vedic knowledge of doing Karma with dharma (righteousness) and attaining Moksha (liberation), the role and purpose of them in life, how to face the ups and downs of life by proper understanding of these and how to lead a balanced life, keeping moksha as the ultimate goal.

While in the Vedas, the Karma Kanda (earlier part of Vedas) emphasizes pravritti (external actions to fulfil worldly desires through ritualistic worship of Gods), the Jnana Kanda (Upanishads) gives thrust to Nivritti (relinquishing Karma) and seeking true Jnana.  It is Bhagavad Gita that brings in a synthesis between the two, by advocating selfless engagement in action, by relinquishing the fruits at the feet of God.

While Upanishads are somewhat more difficult to comprehend, Sri Krishna taught the essence of Upanishads through Bhagavad Gita in a much simplified way for the consumption of all classes of people. It must be remembered that in the olden days, Vedas were learned, memorized and propagated only by Brahmins; Kshatriyas and Vaishyas had access to Vedic knowledge, but Shudras were prohibited from knowing Vedas.

But Bhagavad Gita, as a Smriti was open to all for knowing and learning the greatest spiritual wisdom of Sanatana Dharma.

Bhagavad Gita also qualifies to be one of the best sources of spiritual wisdom of Hinduism for the following additional reasons:

  • The idea of Karma Yoga (doing selfless action, without aspiring for the fruits of action) gets expounded for the first time.
  • By emphasizing the indestructibility of the Atman which is One without second, but existing as jivatmans (individual souls) in living beings, Sri Krishna reiterated the basics of Advaita expounded in Upanishads. It is with this very first thought flow, Krishna started convincing Arjuna to engage in war and kill the opponents’ bodies because only bodies perish and not Atman.
  • The idea of Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion to God) too gets stressed as a very valid path and gets elaborated for the first time. This paved the way for evolution of Dvaita School of Philosophy in future.
  • The idea of God being the in-dweller in the hearts of all souls is also expounded in Bhagavad Gita. This paved the way for the evolution of Vishishtadvaita school of philosophy of the Vaishnavism sect in the future. Bhagavad Gita shows Saranagati (total surrender to God) as the simplest course which became the best ideal of attaining liberation for Vaishnavas of the Vishishtadvaita school.
  • In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna unequivocally expounds His all-encompassing nature as the Ishwara (the creator, protector and destroyer of the universe) and his stature as the Parabrahman – God beyond names and forms, past present and future. This lead to the concept of Krishna as the ultimate God (not just an avatar of Vishnu) and paved the way for the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect. According to this sect including its followers under ISKCON), Krishna is the only God/ Paramatman and Bhagavad Gita is the most authentic scripture for reference.
  • In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna criticized the practices of conducting Yajnas (fire sacrifices) with fulfilment of desires as goal. Thus, Krishna underplayed the significance of Purva Mimamsa school of thought and advocated Vedanta (Upanishads) thoughts better. This paved the way for future generations to wean away from worshiping devatas (celestial beings) and getting entangled to Vedic Karmas, without aiming for spiritual progress. In other words, Krishna emphasized the need for progressing from Karma (actions) to Jnanam (wisdom).
  • Krishna emphasized the importance of becoming “a man of steady wisdom” as an ideal. Such a person would be totally aligned with God and do all his worldly activities without getting affected by ups and downs, failures and successes in life, be keeping himself totally detached from the fruits of all actions.
  • Krishna quoted concepts and ideas from Samkya School of Philosophy of Hinduism in Bhagavad Gita (like Purusha and Prakriti and the ideas of Trigunas). Thus he gave his stamp of approval to those sections of philosophy too as valid.
  • The Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita are the three ancient scriptures that form the core of essential Hindu philosophy. Hence the three together are called Prasthana Traya.

Thus Bhagavad Gita, as a spiritual scripture of Hinduism, is a re-emphasis on the existence and approval of the various facets and tenets of Hinduism. All these facets are valid for establishing a relationship with God/ Ultimate Truth to progress towards Moksha.

Going one step further, Bhagavad Gita has also become a book of wisdom for universal reference, cutting across religious barriers.

Swami Sivananda says:

This holy scripture is not just an “old scripture”, nor is it just a book of “religious teachings”, nor even a Hindu holy book. It transcends the bounds of any particular religion or race, and is actually divine wisdom addressed to mankind for all times, in order to help human beings face and solve the ever present problems of birth and death, of pain, suffering, fear, bondage, love and hate.

It enables man to liberate himself from all limiting factors and reach a state of perfect balance, inner stability and mental peace, complete freedom from grief, fear and anxiety. Within its eighteen chapters is revealed a human drama. This is the experience of everyone in this world, the drama of the ascent of man from a state of utter dejection, sorrow and total breakdown and hopelessness to a state of perfect understanding, clarity, renewed strength and triumph.

The study of the Gita alone is sufficient for daily Swadhyaya (scriptural study). You will find here a solution for all your doubts. The more you study it with devotion and faith, the more you will acquire deeper knowledge, penetrative insight and clear, right thinking.

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Was Bhagavad Gita directly written by God / Sri Krishna?

No. Bhagavad Gita was a verbal discourse given by God (Sri Krishna) to Arjuna just before the beginning of Kurukshetra war.

Since no other person was around except the two, how was it recorded? Maharshi Vyasa (who was one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu as per Bhagavata Purana) had given special powers of visualization (‘dhoordarshan‘) to Sanjaya, a personal assistant/ minister of blind Kaurava King Dhritarashtra to remotely witness all that happened in the Kurukshetra war in order to narrate them to the blind king.

Maharshi Vyasa was one of the most prime characters in Mahabharata. He was a rishi having many mystic powers. He was the one who fathered Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Thus he was the grandfather of both Kauravas (Sons of Dritarashtra) and Pandavas (sons of Pandu). He was one central personality who was a knower of trikala (past, present and future) and he would present himself physically at most critical places and times amidst his kin in order to give them solace when in trouble and guide them on dharma. Thus he was an eye-witness and also a historian of the entire Mahabharata story.

Much later after the period of Pandavas and Kauravas, he formed in his mind the entire story of Mahabharata as a grand Itihasa which was too monumental a work to put into writing. Conceding to his prayers, Lord Brahma engaged Lord Ganesha to do the writing of this grand epic on palm leaves based on the dictations of Vyasa.

Bhagavad Gita is part and parcel of Mahabharata, and it comes in the middle of Mahabharata as part of the Bhishma Parva/

Interestingly, Vyasa’s Mahabharata text as we have today is not a direct narration of Vyasa but appears as narrated by the Pouranika (Purana exponent) by name Ugrasrava, son of Romaharshana Rishi, surnamed Souti to the rishis of Naimisharanya!

He narrated it as heard by him from Maharishi Vysampayana (a disciple of Vyaasa) to King Janamejaya (Grandson of Abhimanyu and great-grandson of Arjuna ) during a Sarpa Yagna in the august presence of Sage Vyaasa himself.

We cannot help but get wonderstruck by the power of memory and transmission our rishis of the past had on account of their severe austerities (Tapas).

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Why did Krishna choose Arjuna instead of any other Pandava to teach Bhagavad Gita at the war front?

Nakula and Sahadeva were less significant characters amidst the Pandavas. They were not shown to be too aggressive nor too inquisitive; they were rather duty minded and content to do whatever Yudhishtra ordained them to do. So, we can say, Krishna perhaps discounted them.

Now, we are left with Yudhishtira, Arjuna and Bhima.

Late Swami Chibhavananda (Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Thiruparaithurai) in his book on Bhagavad Gita, at the introductory chapter, gives the reason for Krishna choosing Arjuna for delivering Gita in the following way:

Swami Chitbhavananda, Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Tiruparaithurai.(Disciple of Swami Shivananda who was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa)

As regards Yudhshitira, we was already a knower of dharma. He was basically satvic, knew pretty well about what is dharma and adharma and he was spiritually quite evolved. He does not really need a sermon.

As regards Bhima, he was thirsting for the war. He was just waiting for the time to plunge headlong into the war. Animal impetuosity was still dominant in him. Such a man was not not fit for receiving the teaching of or practicing any form of yoga.

But Arjuna’s personality stood somewhat in between these two characters. He was more evolved from animal tendencies but not to the level of knowing the higher realms of spirituality and dharma. He is like a normal man where both virtue and vice are intermingled, who has nagging doubts about what is right or dharma and what is wrong or adharma. Thus Arjuna represented the normal man who is fit for receiving the evolved subject of the Yoga for his spiritual betterment.


From another point of View…

An Avatara Purusha, Mahatma or Satguru is interested in the welfare of all, but they would rather exchange pleasantries with you and take care of your needs when your purpose of going to them is just for mundane existential needs. Only when someone genuinely surrenders and seeks sincere guidance and advice from them on the matters of dharma, God or spirituality, they would opt to teach them by donning the role of a guru.

All along, Arjuna had more of a friendly relationship with Krishna; but when he saw the potential destruction the impending war was going to cause by way of annihilating his own blood relations and teachers, he got scared and jittery. It was at that point that he surrendered with humility to Krishna as his guru and sought his guidance. None of the other pandavas were in such a mental turmoil or confusion as Arjuna was. That’s how Krishna took up His Guru bhava to teach Arjuna the Bhagavad Gita.

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The story of Krishna – Krishna Avatar – The enchanting avatar of Vishnu

One of the very basic and important aspects of Hinduism is the concept of Avatar. It is the fundamental belief in Hinduism that God descends to earth from time to time to take birth as Human or other forms; it happens whenever good and pious people suffer and evil ones have an upper hand. God protects the good, destroy the evil and restore dharma (righteousness). Such a divine being / person is known as an Avatar.

The 10 Avatars

In Hinduism, Lord Vishnu is the “God who protects”. He is attributed with taking 10 such avatars. They are Matsya, Varaha, Koorma, Vamana, Narasimha, Rama, Parasurama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalki. Rama and Krisha Avatars are considered to be the two greatest Avatars of Vishnu in human form.

The Greatness Of Krishna

The Avatar of Krishna is said to have taken place in Dwapara Yuga (a time period dating back to thousands of years). Very elaborate holy mythologies (Srimad Bhagavatam, Brahma Vaivarta Purana and Mahabharata) are available in Hindu scripture which contain the wonderful life history and details of the divine play enacted by Lord Krishna. Plenty of folklores and wonderful literary works too are available practically in all languages of India eulogizing Lord Krishna’s divine play, particularly His enthralling childhood pranks.

The avatar of Krishna is considered a “Poornavatar” — an avatar in which Godly qualities were found manifested in full. Lord Krishna is perhaps the most widely loved, adored and worshiped Avatar by Vaishnavaites (devotees of Vishnu) across the length and breadth of India. In fact, worship of Krishna has even transcended the boundaries of India, considering the global appeal of the ISKCON movement (International Society of Krishna Consciousness), spearheaded by Swami Prabhupada. It has happened because he is personification of love; Krishna is sweetness personified.

His attraction to devotees is magnetic. He is ever joyful; He is the preacher of Karma Yoga (the path for unification with God through work without attachment) and he is a perfect Karma Yogi himself, performing work ceaselessly all through his life with joyous detachment and abandonment, seeking no fruits of his actions for himself. It is with this practical authority that he delivered discourse to his disciple and close friend Arjuna on the eve of a grand Mahabharata war is Bhagavat Gita — one of the greatest scriptures of Hinduism; it is a philosophical treasure very widely read and adored by people across the world, cutting across religious barriers.

Unlike Rama, a greatly revered Avatar of the previous Yuga, Krishna was fully conscious of his divinity and he never tried to hide his divine prowess. At every right and opportune occasion, Krishna demonstrated his divinely attributes and super-human powers. He utilized them to humble his opponents, destroy the evil doers and to instantly come to the rescue of his devotees in distress.

He was all at once the player by the rules and also the lord of the rules — and by virtue of this lordship, a breaker of the rules too, for the goodness of the world.

The divine play of Krishna is something that can not be written across a few pages. It is extremely difficult to comprehend Krishna by a mere intellectual study of his life or through analysis of his speeches and actions. Krishna is more amenable for comprehension to those who love and surrender to him rather than to those who analyze him.

Krishna’s Birth

Let us now see very briefly, the life history of Lord Krishna:

In DwaparaYuga, the demon-like king Kamsa ruled the kingdom of Mathura (that belonged to the Yadava clan) by overthrowing his father and the king Ugrasena. He became too powerful and people on earth as well as Devas (the celestial beings) suffered immeasurably under his tyrannical rule. Moved by the earnest prayers of the sufferers, Lord Vishnu decided to take birth in human form and annihilate the evil forces headed by Kamsa.

Another reason for the descent of God as avatar was the problem of excessive population at that period (particularly accentuated by higher proportions of the wicked and evil ones over the righteous ones) and the Mother Earth suffered on account of it. God came to earth as Lord Krishna and one of his roles was to initiate large scale destruction of human race, in order to bring a manageable balance to the earthly resources and establish dharma.

The King Kamsa was forewarned by his astrologers that his death would be caused by the eighth son who would be born to his cousin Devaki. To prevent such a happening, Kamsa arrested Devaki and her husband Vasudeva and incarcerated them in his prison.

Immediately on birth, Krishna was carried stealthily by his father Vasudeva to Gokulam. It was a stormy night. The divine snake Adhisesha was there to act as an umbrella to protect the lord.

As and when a child was born to the couple, he would go to the jail and kill the child then and there. When the eighth child was born, it was Lord Krishna. By a dramatic divine play, at the midnight when the birth took place, the child was miraculously and secretively transported to Gokula (a community of cow herds belonging to Yadava clan at the banks of river Yamuna) to become the foster son of mother Yasoda and King Nanda. A female child born to them (Maya) at the same time was transported back to the prisons. It was Vasudev, Krishna’s father, who did the exchange of the babies at the behest of a divine command. All these took place without the knowledge of Devaki and Yasoda.

When Kamsa came to know of the birth of the eighth child, he came to the prison as usual and as he lifted the child to kill it, the girl child (Maya) got freed from his clutches and flew away laughing aloud that the king was cheated squarely and the child meant to kill him was safe and alive elsewhere. Kamsa was shell shocked.

 

The Child Krishna Brought up at Gokula

The baby Lord Krishna grew up joyfully in the company of cow herds at Gokula. He was dark skinned and was the most beautiful and charming boy of the community. Whoever came across him fell in instant love with him. He was full of childhood pranks. He loved to steal butter and eat it in the company of fellow cow herd boys. He became the prince charming for all the young girls and women folk (Gopis) of the community.

 

Little Krishna, so calm and charming in the affectionate embrace of Yasoda…

In the meanwhile, Kamsa sent several powerful demons in varying disguises to search for, locate and kill the boy-who-escaped from the prison. Little Krishna encountered all of them (Putana, Sakatasura, Bakasura, Trinavarta, Vatsasura, Aghasura etc) and killed them all as a matter of child play.

Child Krishna kills Putana, a woman demon sent by Kamsa to kill him by feeding him her breast milk. But Krishna suckled and sucked her life!

 

Krishna is not all that nice boy after all! He loved butter and never hesitated to steal it from the house of Gopies…

 

at times, he gets shocked when he is noticed…

 

and when the Gopis complain to Yasoda about Krishna’s behavior, can she afford to leave him scot free?

 

Krishna kills Bakasura

Further, little Krishna killed a very ferocious and poisonous Snake Kaliya who lived in the river Yamuna. He extracted the snake from the river and danced at his hood to the awe of one and all. When the celestial lord Indra created heavy rains at Gokula because a worship due to him was denied at the behest of Krishna, Krishna protected the entire community by lifting up the hill Govardhan by holding it like an umbrella at his little finger.

He killed the most dreaded poisonous snake Kaliya who lived in Yamuna.

 

Liffting Govardhan Hill is just a child play for him.

Krishna and Gopis

Right from his boyhood, Krishna started playing flute. His music was exremely captivating. Not only human beings, but animals too were attracted by his flute.

When the young boy Krishna played his flute, none can resist his musical charm.

When Krishna was in his early teens, his attraction to the womenfolk of Gokula (Gopis) was divine. Their love towards Krishna was so intense that they even ignored their duty and allegiance to their husbands and went madly behind Krishna. Hindu spiritual masters interpret that this love of Gopis towards Krishna was never carnal, but it was the spiritual longing of the individual souls (jivatmas) towards the divine soul (paramatma).

Krishna and Radha 

It was during this phase that Radha (or Radhika) of Brindavan developed a deep rooted love for Krishna. The divine love between Radha and Krishna (which was never consummated in a marriage), though not found mentioned in Srimad Bhagavata, is dealt with elaborately in Brahma Vaivartha Purana and several folklore and Sanskrit literary works. Radha-Krishna love has always been a source of inspiration for the Bhakti movement of Vaishnavaites (worshipers of Vishnu) of eastern India as this love symbolically represents the longing for “yoga” (union) of the individual soul with the Supreme soul.

According to Brahma Vaivartha Purana, Krishna is considered the Paramatma (Chidatma) and Radha his Chit Sakthi.  He is the creator-Sustainer-Distructor of the Universe and he is verily tha Brahman (Ultimate God).  He is not considered as an Avatar of Vishnu unlike other Purnas.

No wonder the Gopis were mad after him.

 

But it was Radha who stole the heart of Krishna. Radha-Krishna love transcends human love. On this unique painting, at the right side, is Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Gouranga, who spread bhava bakthi on Krishna) and at the left, Sri Prabhupada (ISKCON movement).

Krishna Returns to Mathura

When Krishna became a matured boy, it was time for him to go to Mathura and take the bull by its horns — to face his uncle Kamsa and destroy him for all his vengeful deeds. Krishna overcame several obstacles at Mathura and finally killed his uncle in a ferocious combat. He released his parents from the jail and re-throned Ugrasena as the king.

Krishna killed Kamsa in a ferocious battle.

Over a period of time he got married to Bhama and Rukmini. The story goes that Krishna later got married to 6 more women. At later period of his story, he killed a demon king by name Bhaumasura and he had to marry 14000 women who were earlier abducted by the demon king. This he did at the behest of the women, who would otherwise lose their honor in society for having been in the custody of the demon king. The story goes that Krishna used his divine maya to be simultaneously present with all his wives in their respective homes and lead happy life with all of them.

 

Rukmini lovesKrishna; Krishna abducts Rukmini against stiff opposition from her brother and warriors.

Krishna with his consorts – Bhama & Rukmini

Krishna And The Pandavas

In the meanwhile, his maternal cousins — the Pandavas (5 sons of the kind Pandu headed by Yudhishtira) of the Kuru clan at the kingdom of Hastinapur were facing lots of difficulty in claiming their rightful share to their kingdom. It was due to certain acts of omissions and commissions done by themselves as well as due to the vengeful and treacherous acts of their unrighteous cousins — the Kouravas headed by Duriyodhan (who too claimed the throne of Hastinapur) that the peace-loving Pandavas were facing insurmountable difficulties in life.

Krishna and Arjuna developed close friendship. Krishna later became his spiritual guru at the battle field.

Krishna developed a bosom friendship with Arjuna the most powerful archer and the younger brother of Yudhishtra. Whenever they found time, they spent time together and enjoyed the friendly company of each other. Arjuna fell in love with Krishna’s sister Subhadra and Krishna arranged their marriage secretively against stiff resistence from his clan.

The Pandavas were fairly knowledgeable of the divinely nature of Krishna;  The Pandavas surrendered to Krishna and sought his help and guidance in overcoming their problems. Krishna intervened frequently in the lives of Pandavas to protect them from innumerable personal problems. He also used his diplomatic skills and tried his best to bring in a truce between the Pandavas and Kouravas. But Kouravas had neither respect for Dharma nor for Krishna’s counseling.

The Kurukshetra War And The Birth Of Bhagawad Gita

Finally a grand war erupted between Padndavas and Kouravas. Numerous kings of the entire subcontinent virtually sidelined and supported either Pandavas or Kauravas according to their relationships and temperament and took part in the great Mahabharata war. Dharma was obviously on the side of Pandavas. Krishna, as the king of Mathura and a blood relative of both Pandavas and Kouravas, offered his entire army to take part in the war on one side and he himself without taking-up arms on the other side. He left the choice to Arjuna (of the Pandavas) and Duryodanan (of Kouravas) to choose any one between the two. While Arjuna instantly and gladly opted to have Krishna on their side as a non-fighting companion, Duryodanan was too happy to accept the huge and powerful army of Krishna. Krishna offered his services to be the charioteer of Arjuna during the war.

Just before the beginning of the war at Kurukshetra, Arjuna became jittery. He felt it was futile to wage war against his own blood relations and other seniors, respectable elders and teachers and masters in the opposite camp. It was at this juncture, that Lord Krishna gave one of the greatest sermons to Arjuna. His utterances form the holy scripture Bhagavat Gita. In this great spiritual discourse, Lord Krishna predominantly teaches Karma Yoga – the path of attaining the greatest goal of life though self-less action by surrendering all the fruits of actions at the feet of lord. In Bhagavad Gita, he also elaborates the other spiritual paths — Bhakti Yoga and Gnyana Yoga.

Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna at war front – Bhagavad Gita

 

Vishwarupa Darshanam – Krishna revealing his cosmic form.

Krishna, as part of his effort to teach Arjuna during his discourse, gave a divine vision to Arjuna an revealed his Vishwarupa (his cosmic form that transcended the creation, births deaths and time, space and causation) and Arjuna was overwhelmed with awe to see this form of the Supreme Lord Krishna.

Krishna acted as a charioteer to Arjuna and saved his life under many tricky situations. In a couple of occasions Krishna even used dubious means (that his enemies accused him as acts of adharma) in order to tilt victory in favor of the righteous Pandavas. The war ended with the annihilation of Kouravas and the rule of the Pandavas was established.

Krishna – the overseer of massive destruction

The Kurukshetra war, though ended as a victory to Padnavas, in fact turned to be a divine act supervised by Krishna without his direct participation to result in the destruction of millions and millions of soldiers and warriors, thousands of kings / people of ruling class, and countless numbers of horses and elephants.

Despite the win, Pandavas too were virtually emotionally wrecked, as practically all their offspring (5 children born to their wife Draupati) and several other children born to them from other wedlock got annihilated. Arjuna’s brave young son and a wonderful archer Abhimanyu (born to Arjuna-Subhadra)  too got killed in the war.  Lord Krishna ensured that the progeny of Pandava’s clan was not cut, by using his divine power to protect a fetus in the womb of Arjuna’s daughter-in-law Uttara, wife of Abhimanyu. Later in history, her son Parikshit became the king.

Krishna And Dwaraka

At his own Kingdom at Mathura ruled by Ugrasena, Krishna had to face a very tough war against Jarasandha, the father-in-law of the slain king Kamsa. The war was waged 18 times by the extremely powerful king Jarasandha and Krishna had to play hide and seek with the king.

After the last attack, Krishna convinced King Ugrasena and his father, Crown-Prince Vasudeva to rescind the land and establish a new Kingdom at Dwaraka, due to strategic reasons. All the Yadava subjects were shifted to Dwaraka and Krishna lived and ruled there for about 38 years. Krishna utilized the services of Bhimasena (one of the Pandavas, who was extremely strong and powerful) to finally kill Jarasandha.

Bhima kills Jarasandha with Krishna’s tactical support.

The End Of Krishna

Yadavas fight with each other in line with a curse they received from a sage and the entire clan gets annihilated.

As Krishna advanced in age, the Yadava clan grew too arrogant, morally weak and got in the grip of vices. By an act of mischief, Krishna’s descendants and their clan got a curse from sages that paved for their annihilation. Lots of bickering happened between the members of families and the ruling class and they grew out of control of Krishna’s divine and moral influence. Time soon came when they were destined to get wiped out entirely on account of a verbal dual that started between two drunken relatives of Krishna. It grew into a bloody fight and Krishna took up the role of a destroyer now and he personally killed many yadavas using pestles that grew out of wild grass near seashore.

Krishna knew that it was time to draw curtains to his divine plays in his present Avatar. He retired to forest and was engaged in deep meditation. He was finally slain by an arrow which was mistakenly aimed at his foot by a hunter who thought it was a deer.

 

 

Krishna was attacked unknowingly by a hunter. The hunter gets blessed by Krishna before he leaves the earth.

Soon a great tsunami came and the surging sea waters submerged the entire city of Dwaraka.

Krishna’s entire life was one of an exuberant display of divine play. Krishna’s childhood life at Gokula and Vrindavan where he became the very soul of all the lives of Gopas and Gopis and his divine love with Radha continues to be the source of inspiration of Bhakti movment for the Vaishnavites.

Krishna’s Bhagavat Gita reins as a supreme reference book of all the various paths of Yoga (Karma, Bhakti, Gnyana and Raja Yoga) for earnest seekers of Hinduism for guidance and enlightenment.

 

A note of thanks:

The beautiful pictures appearing in this article are all sourced from various websites and since all of them appear to belong to public domain and found freely used in several sites, I too have used them accordingly. I sincerely thank the various websites that have posted these pictures.

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