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