On Understanding Bhagavad Gita
Although in principle every soul is meant to understand and apply the teachings of Bhagavad Gita, certain qualifications for understanding it are required. Actually, to understand any book (especially books of wisdom), it is important to understand the author’s intention for writing it, as well as his or her intended audience. We find that in the world of books, there are many genres, which attract certain people who can appreciate the themes and style of the author. For example, there are books with themes of mystery, adventure, sci-fi or thriller, romance, or many kinds of non-fiction, which include personal growth, spiritual subjects, political exposé, or biographies, etc., and many subdivisions. Each genre requires a certain kind of sensitivity to enter into the proper mood, and receive the most benefit from the book.
Understanding the Gita or any spiritual book requires even more preparation than with secular books in adopting a particular mood, with the attempt to understand the author’s intention. Prabhupada compares the proper understanding of the Gita to how one should take a medicine given by a physician. One has to follow his instructions which are given on the label, and not according to one’s whim or the recommendation of a friend. The Gita is a potent medicine for curing our disease of false ego, which considers the body as the self, material possession as ours, and the world as our field of enjoyment and exploitation.
One way we can properly “take” the medicine of the Bhagavad Gita is to study how Arjuna accepted it as revealed in the book itself, and why he was chosen to hear it (by the Supreme Spiritual Doctor, Shri Krishna). Both teacher and student or doctor and patient are required--there is no meaning of one without the other. Additionally, we see from the first and second chapter, that Arjuna had a strong necessity to understand answers to his life’s pressing questions. The first chapter is titled, “Yoga of Despair” in the ancient commentary of Shridhar Swami. Even though Arjuna showed himself to be conversant with the principles of religion, he realized that neither these principles, his material relationships, or opulent, kingly facilities, could solve his dilemma. In his intense distress at the thought of having to kill his kith and kin, he surrendered to Krishna has his spiritual master, to gain clarity as to his best course of action and duty, and put an end to his indecision and inaction.
In a similar way we must have a certain necessity for understanding the Bhagavad Gita to derive the most benefit, rather than being an armchair philosopher. One measure of human life given in the Vedas is to not only be aware of the miseries of terrestrial life, but to also seek a transcendent solution, knowing at least to some extent that material adjustments are only marginally helpful (at best) in finding happiness—and certainly not for eternal bliss. Those who are materially overstimulated and absorbed in the pursuit of material things and facilities will likely derive little benefit from reading the Gita, if they even try.
Shrila Prabhupada mentions in his introduction, that one has to at least accept in theory that Krishna is the original, supreme personality of Godhead in order to gain spiritually from reading the Bhagavad Gita. Or we could also say that one has to suspend disbelief in this theory to be able to understand what is being said, and its implications for our life. For example, Krishna says he is the greatest living being, the source of everything, the Supreme enjoyer, owner and friend of all, and so many statements that we might take exception to if we think Krishna is just an ordinary man, or even a great statesman or philosopher. Often those of other religions do just that, as they believe that only they are worshipping the true God—and it couldn’t possibly be Krishna, since his name isn’t mentioned in their scripture, and they are bewildered by his pastimes.
Besides Arjuna’s being conversant with the principles of religion, his softheartedness, and his existential crisis, he also had other qualifications we should take note of. It is mentioned in the Gita’s fourth chapter that Arjuna was selected to hear this secret knowledge of yoga, because he was a non-envious devotee and friend of Krishna. Arjuna wasn’t afraid of presenting his doubts to Krishna, and was confident that following Krishna’s direction would bring clarity and auspiciousness to his life. He questioned Krishna in a mood of humility with a service attitude, which are the proper qualifications of a disciple seeking knowledge, and the blessings to understand it.
Arjuna’s need of a teacher to explain spiritual knowledge, teaches us that anyone who wants to understand the Gita today, also requires a guru. This point is often missed, as obvious as it is. In the early days of his preaching, when Prabhupada would hear that someone had read the Gita, he would ask them, “What is the conclusion of Bhagavad Gita?” They were surprised at this concept thinking that the Gita was a “spiritual book,” or a collection of inspiring statements which one could cherry pick according to their whim—and certainly not something to live their life by. Before Prabhupada’s Gita translation, no one in the West understood that the Gita’s purpose was just that, to give us a way to live in the world and center our life on making spiritual advancement, by surrendering to Krishna and his representative, and to associate with those who follow Krishna's instructions.