The Bhagavad-gita is a conversation between Arjuna, a supernaturally gifted warrior about to go into battle, and Krishna, his charioteer. In the course of giving Arjuna all manner of spiritual and material advice, Krishna explains karma, the self, the Supreme Self, the purpose of yoga, the difference between our self and our material body, how our environment affects our consciousness, and how to attain the perfection of life.
The Gita appears as a central chapter in the Mahabharata, the history of greater India. It is the essence of Vedic knowledge and one of the most important books of Vedic literature.
The Bhagavad-gita ("Song of God") is a conversation between the military commander Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Krishna, before the onset of the historic Battle of Kurukshetra. Topics they discuss include the immortality of the self, the ultimate goal of life, the perfection of yoga, and the original relationship between the self and the Supreme Self.
The Gita appears as a central chapter in the epic Mahabharata, which chronicles the history of greater India up to the start of the current Kali-yuga, the "age of quarrel," circa 3000 BCE. Kurukshetra is now a district in the state of Haryana, India.
As the conversation begins, Arjuna decides to walk away from battle rather than fight with those who had cheated his family of their kingdom. Krishna then enlightens Arjuna about the science of the self, the essence of dharma ("duty"), and the ultimate goal of life. Krishna reveals His identity as the Supreme Being, explaining that He had planned the battle, as well as pre-ordained the outcome. Finally, Arjuna surrenders to Krishna's supreme will and decides to fight.
In the Gita, Krishna explains the difference between spirit and matter, the goal of the yoga system, how one's vision becomes distorted by attachment to temporary things, and the superiority of devotional service to the Supreme Being to any other process of self-realization.
In the 1960s, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada wrote the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with English translation, Sanskrit transliteration, word-for-word synonyms, and commentary. His philosophical conclusions represent those of the succession of teachers (gurus) coming down through disciplic succession from Krishna Himself. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, Bhagavad-gita As It Is is unique among Gita translations as inspiring hundreds of thousands of its readers to take up the path of Krishna consciousness, or devotional service to Krishna (bhakti-yoga).
from Back To Godhead Magazine #23-08, 1988
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
When Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with translation and commentary by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was first published in 1968, a reviewer remarked, “The criticism of the world is harsh.” Since then many persons who have heard lectures or read articles by devotees of the Krishna consciousness movement have had a similar response. People are sometimes set back when they hear Krishna conscious speakers say, “The whole world is in ignorance” or “Most people are no better than cats and dogs.” Are these statements slanderous? Or is there a factual, philosophical basis for such condemnation?
One should know at least that the strong statements about the world’s ignorance are not the creations of Srila Prabhupada or his enthusiastic followers. Rather, the strong criticism comes straight from the scripture Bhagavad- gita and its speaker, Lord Krishna, who is accepted throughout Vedic literatures as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Therefore the criticism is compassionate and instructive. It is the reprimand of the experienced teacher who has every right to tell us, “Why don’t you learn? Stop making the same mistake!” Humanity’s big mistake is the failure to learn the most elementary lesson of spiritual knowledge—that the self is something different from the body.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna begins His discourse by informing His disciple Arjuna, “You are not your body; you are the soul within.” Therefore, from the viewpoint of the Gita all so-called knowledge that is unaware of this primary lesson is really ignorance. The mistake might be compared to an initial error made in simple arithmetic. If a serious mistake is made in the beginning of a calculation, then additional developments based on that model will also carry along the same mistake.
Similarly, when one thinks that his real self is his body, he makes his goal of life the satisfaction of his senses. Then all his endeavors, whether in building an empire or in pursuing less grand attempts at self-satisfaction, will be based on the bodily concept of life. But such endeavors, which include mental speculation based on identification with the body, cannot give true self-satisfaction, nor can they give knowledge of the Absolute Truth, which is beyond the mind and senses.
The teacher who possesses absolute knowledge therefore reprimands, “You are all ignorant fools.” For a further sampling of this, we can refer to the Vedic scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.84.13):
A human being who identifies this body made of three elements (mucus, bile, and air) with his self, who considers the byproducts of the body to be his kinsmen, who considers the land of his birth worshipable … is to be considered like an ass or a cow.
Similar statements about the animallike dullness of people who do not know the difference between the body and the spirit are available by the thousands in the pages of Vedic scriptures.
The criticisms made by Lord Krishna and the Vedic sages are not aimed at a particular class of person, and they are certainly not meant in a sectarian religious spirit. Rather, the instructions are offered as a universal science. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, “Krishna consciousness is not religion in the usual sense; it is science.” By “science” Srila Prabhupada meant the science of the self, the science of God consciousness.
In the Bhagavad-gita science. Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna that the spirit soul is the permanent self (atma) within the body, whereas the body itself is an external covering. Then by building on the primary lesson that we are not these bodies, Krishna goes on to teach that the soul continues to live even after the death of the body. This is called transmigration. Krishna teaches many further lessons, culminating in pure bhakti-yoga, or devotion to the Supreme Lord. But unless one learns the primary lessons, he cannot go on to the advanced studies.
By thoughtful self-observation anyone can become aware of the existence of the self beyond the body. For example, we don’t think of our foot or head or any part of our body as “me,” but as “my foot,” “my head,” “my body.” We should naturally ask, “Then who am I? Who is that self—myself—beyond the body and beyond even the mind?”
We get another indication that the self is different from the body when we attend a funeral. We may see a grieving widow crying out, “He’s gone! My husband is gone!” She says that her husband is gone, yet the body is lying there, looking much the same as it did a few days before. Who is gone at death? It is the real person, the self, who is different from the body it animates.
Thinking on our own, we can get a faint awareness or the higher, spiritual self, but because we are conditioned by material existence and because the science of the soul is a subtle science, we must receive guidance from the Supreme Lord and the spiritual master before we can gain more certain self- knowledge.
We do not expect that a hard-core materialist will switch his concerns from bodily to spiritual simply on the basis of this one brief essay. But we wish at least to make it clear why the Vedic teachers and the Bhagavad-gita do not bow to, or even respect, the activities or artists, scientists, politicians, and other welfare workers who are adored by the worldly. As long as a person makes such a basic mistake as thinking that the self is the body, how can a transcendentalist consider him intelligent?
Devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, are aware that this ignorance is deeply entrenched within the material consciousness. As Lord Krishna states, “Deluded by ignorance, the whole world does not know Me, who am above this material world and inexhaustible.” The devotees are not callous to the world’s ignorance but work to spread spiritual values, because they are aware that material life in the bodily conception is the source of all miseries.
Lord Krishna’s criticism of worldly illusion should not be seen as an exaggeration or a harsh insult but as calling a spade a spade. From the viewpoint of the Vedas, the world is full of sufferings, but these are actually needless. They are caused by a repetition of the same dumb mistake: the identification of the self with the body.
The Vedic sages ask us to give the Bhagavad-gita a patient, impartial hearing. They say that if we are honest, we may also come to the conclusion that we are among the fools and rascals, and from the humble admission we can take the first significant step toward correcting the big mistake. Then we can go on to find freedom from sufferings caused by ignorance.
The Bhagavad-gita has been translated many times since Krishna spoke it on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra thousands of years ago. Srila Prabhupada chose "Bhagavad-gita As It Is" as the title for his own translation and commentary, first published in the late 1960s. It has since attracted a worldwide following of spiritual seekers and scholars of Vedic culture.
Srila Prabhupada's aim in presenting this edition was to explain Krishna's words straightforwardly. Faithful to the spiritual tradition established by Krishna Himself, Prabhupada's commentary makes it possible for his readers to understand the Gita in its original devotional context.
For example, Krishna says, "surrender unto Me" (18.65), and "I am the source of all material and spiritual worlds" (10.8). Srila Prabhupada, a lifelong devotee of Krishna, plainly explains these statements: God is the origin of everything—including ourselves—and we're all God's inseparable parts, meant to cooperate with Him. Most commentators, lacking the devotional credentials required to understand Krishna's statement, "only by devotion can I be understood" (18.55), attempt to "explain" His words by claiming He didn't really mean what He said.
For example, one (in)famous Gita commentary tells us, "it is not to Krishna that one must surrender, but to the eternal, unborn within Krishna." Examples abound of such indirect interpretations which only muddle the direct meaning of the text. Considering this, it's no surprise that Bhagavad-gita As It Is has uniquely inspired so many of its readers to more deeply investigate the spiritual dimension of their lives.
From his Preface to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, here's what Srila Prabhupada himself has to say about his aim in presenting Krishna's teachings in the Gita without personally motivated (impersonal) interpretation:
"If personally I have any credit in this matter, it is only that I have tried to present Bhagavad-gita as it is, without any adulteration. Before my presentation of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, almost all the English editions of Bhagavad-gita were introduced to fulfill someone's personal ambition. But our attempt, in presenting Bhagavad-gita As It Is, is to present the mission of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Our business is to present the will of Krishna, not that of any mundane speculator like the politician, philosopher or scientist, for they have very little knowledge of Krishna, despite all their other knowledge.
"When Krishna says, man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru [ Bg. 18.65], etc., we, unlike the so-called scholars, do not say that Krishna and His inner spirit are different. Krishna is absolute, and there is no difference between Krishna's name, Krishna's form, Krishna's qualities, Krishna's pastimes, etc. This absolute position of Krishna is difficult to understand for any person who is not a devotee of Krishna in the system of parampara (disciplic succession).
Generally the so-called scholars, politicians, philosophers, and svamis, without perfect knowledge of Krishna, try to banish or kill Krishna when writing commentary on Bhagavad-gita. Such unauthorized commentary upon Bhagavad-gita is known as Mayavada-bhasya, and Lord Chaitanya has warned us about these unauthorized men. Lord Chaitanya clearly says that anyone who tries to understand Bhagavad-gita from the Mayavadi point of view will commit a great blunder. The result of such a blunder will be that the misguided student of Bhagavad-gita will certainly be bewildered on the path of spiritual guidance and will not be able to go back to home, back to Godhead."
"No work in all Indian literature is more quoted, because none is better loved in the West than Bhagavad-gita. Translation of such a work demands not only knowledge of Sanskrit but an inward sympathy with the theme and a verbal artistry. For the poem is a symphony in which God is seen in all things.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is, of course, profoundly sympathetic to the theme. He brings to it, moreover, a special interpretive insight, a powerful and persuasive presentation in the bhakti [devotional] tradition... The Swami does a real service for students by investing the beloved Indian epic with fresh meaning. Whatever our outlook may be, we should all be grateful for the labor that has led to this illuminating work."
- Dr. Geddes MacGregor
Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
University of Southern California
"Whether the reader be an adept of Indian spirituality or not, a reading of Bhagavad-gita As It Is will be extremely profitable, for it will allow him to understand the Gita as still today the majority of Hindus do. For many, this will be the first contact with the true India, the ancient India, the eternal India."
- Dr. Francois Chenique
Doctor of Religious Sciences
Institute of Political Studies, Paris
"There is very little question that this edition is one of the best books available on the Gita and on devotion. Prabhupada's translation is an ideal blend of literal accuracy and religious insight."
- Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins
Chairman, Dept. of Religious Studies
Franklin and Marshall College
"The Gita can be seen as the main literary support for the great religious civilization of India, the oldest surviving culture in the world.... The present translation and commentary is another manifestation of the permanent living importance of the Gita . Swami Bhaktivedanta brings to the West a salutary reminder that our highly activistic and one-sided culture is faced with a crisis that may end in self-destruction because it lacks the inner depth of an authentic metaphysical consciousness. Without such depth, our moral and political protestations are just so much verbiage."
- Thomas Merton
Late Catholic theologian, monk, author
"In this beautiful translation, Srila Prabhupada has caught the deep devotional spirit of the Gita and has supplied the text with an elaborate commentary in the truly authentic tradition of Sri Krishna Chaitanya, one of India's most important and influential saints."
- Dr. J. Stillson Judah
Emeritus Professor of the History of Religions and Director of the Library
Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley
"If truth is what works, as Pierce and the pragmatists insist, there must be a kind of truth in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, since those who follow its teaching display a joyous serenity usually missing in the bleak and strident lives of contemporary people."
- Dr. Elwin H. Powell
State University of New York
"Bhagavad-gita As It Is is a deeply felt, powerfully conceived and beautifully explained work... I have never seen any other work on the Gita with such an important voice and style. It is a work of undoubted integrity... It will occupy a significant place in the intellectual and ethical life of modern man for a long time to come."
- Dr. S. Shukla
Assistant Professor of Linguistics
(From the Foreword to the 1972 edition):
"The Bhagavad-gita is the best known and the most frequently translated of Vedic religious texts. Why it should be so appealing to the Western mind is an interesting question. It has drama, for its setting is a scene of two great armies, banners flying, drawn up opposite one another on the field, poised for battle. It has ambiguity, and the fact that Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna are carrying on their dialogue between the two armies suggests the indecision of Arjuna about the basic question; should he enter battle against and kill those who are friends and kinsmen?
"It has mystery, as Krishna demonstrates to Arjuna His cosmic form, It has a properly complicated view of the ways of the religious life and treats of the paths of knowledge, works, discipline and faith and their inter-relationships, problems that have bothered adherents of other religions in other times and places. The devotion spoken of is a deliberate means of religious satisfaction, not a mere outpouring of poetic emotion. Next to the Bhagavata-Purana, a long work from South India, the Gita is the text most frequently quoted in the philosophical writings of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school, the school represented by Swami Bhaktivedanta as the latest in a long succession of teachers.
"It can be said that this school of Vaishnavism was founded, or revived, by Sri Krishna-Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) in Bengal, and that it is currently the strongest single religious force in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. The Gaudiya Vaishnava school, for whom Krishna is Himself the Supreme God, and not merely an incarnation of another deity, sees bhakti as an immediate and powerful religious force, consisting of love between man and God. Its discipline consists of devoting all one's actions to the Deity, and one listens to the stories of Krishna from the sacred texts, one chants Krishna's name, washes, bathes and dresses the murti of Krishna, feeds Him and takes the remains of food offered to Him, thus absorbing His grace; one does these things and many more, until one has been changed: the devotee has become transformed into one close to Krishna, and sees the Lord face to face.
"Swami Bhaktivedanta comments upon the Gita from this point of view, and that is legitimate. More than that, in this translation the Western reader has the unique opportunity of seeing how a Krishna devotee interprets his own texts. It is the Vedic exegetical tradition, justly famous, in action. This book is then a welcome addition from many points of view. It can serve as a valuable textbook for the college student. It allows us to listen to a skilled interpreter explicating a text that has profound religious meaning. It gives us insights into the original and highly convincing ideas of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school. In providing the Sanskrit in both Devanagari and transliteration, it offers the Sanskrit specialist the opportunity to re-interpret, or debate particular Sanskrit meanings--although I think there will be little disagreement about the quality of the Swami's Sanskrit scholarship. And finally, for the nonspecialist, there is readable English and a devotional attitude which cannot help but move the sensitive reader. And there are the paintings, which, incredibly as it may seem to those familiar with contemporary Indian religious art, were done by American devotees.
"The scholar, the student of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and the increasing number of Western readers interested in classical Vedic thought have been done a service by Swami Bhaktivedanta. By bringing us a new and living interpretation of a text already known to many, he has increased our understanding manyfold; and arguments for understanding, in these days of estrangement, need not be made."
- Professor Edward C. Dimock, Jr.
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilization
University of Chicago
A chapter-by-chapter summary with links for further exploration:
As the opposing armies stand poised for battle, Arjuna, the mighty warrior, sees his intimate relatives, teachers and friends in both armies ready to fight and sacrifice their lives. Overcome by grief and pity, Arjuna fails in strength, his mind becomes bewildered, and he gives up his determination to fight.
Arjuna submits to Lord Krishna as His disciple, and Krishna begins His teachings to Arjuna by explaining the fundamental distinction between the temporary material body and the eternal spiritual soul. The Lord explains the process of transmigration, the nature of selfless service to the Supreme and the characteristics of a self-realized person.
Everyone must engage in some sort of activity in this material world. But actions can either bind one to this world or liberate one from it. By acting for the pleasure of the Supreme, without selfish motives, one can be liberated from the law of karma (action and reaction) and attain transcendental knowledge of the self and the Supreme.
Transcendental knowledge-the spiritual knowledge of the soul, of God, and their relationship-is both purifying and liberating. Such knowledge is the fruit of selfless devotional action (karma-yoga). The Lord explains the remote history of the Gita, the purpose and significance of His periodic descents to the material world, and the necessity of approaching a guru, a realized teacher.
Outwardly performing all actions but inwardly renouncing their fruits, the wise man, purified by the fire of transcendental knowledge, attains peace, detachment, forbearance, spiritual vision and bliss.
Astanga-yoga, a mechanical meditative practice, controls the mind and the senses and focuses concentration on Paramatma (the Supersoul, the form of the Lord situated in the heart). This practice culminates in samadhi, full consciousness of the Supreme.
Lord Krishna is the Supreme Truth, the supreme cause and sustaining force of everything, both material and spiritual. Advanced souls surrender unto Him in devotion, whereas impious souls divert their minds to other objects of worship.
By remembering Lord Krishna in devotion throughout one's life, and especially at the time of death, one can attain to His supreme abode, beyond the material world.
Lord Krishna is the Supreme Godhead and the supreme object of worship. The soul is eternally related to Him through transcendental devotional service (bhakti). By reviving one's pure devotion one returns to Krishna in the spiritual realm.
All wondrous phenomena showing power, beauty, grandeur or sublimity, either in the material world or in the spiritual, are but partial manifestations of Krishna's divine energies and opulence. As the supreme cause of all causes and the support and essence of everything, Krishna is the supreme object of worship for all beings.
Lord Krishna grants Arjuna divine vision and reveals His spectacular unlimited form as the cosmic universe. Thus He conclusively establishes His divinity. Krishna explains that His own all-beautiful humanlike form is the original form of Godhead. One can perceive this form only by pure devotional service.
Bhakti-yoga, pure devotional service to Lord Krishna, is the highest and most expedient means for attaining pure love for Krishna, which is the highest end of spiritual existence. Those who follow this supreme path develop divine qualities.
One who understands the difference between the body, the soul and the Supersoul beyond them both attains liberation from this material world.
All embodied souls are under the control of the three modes, or qualities, of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Lord Krishna explains what these modes are, how they act upon us, how one transcends them, and the symptoms of one who has attained the transcendental state.
The ultimate purpose of Vedic knowledge is to detach one self from the entanglement of the material world and to understand Lord Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One who understands Krishna 's supreme identity surrenders unto Him and engages in His devotional service.
Those who possess demoniac qualities and who live whimsically, without following the regulations of scripture, attain lower births and further material bondage. But those who possess divine qualities and regulated lives, abiding by scriptural authority, gradually attain spiritual perfection.
There are three types of faith, corresponding to and evolving from the three modes of material nature. Acts performed by those whose faith is in passion and ignorance yield only impermanent, material results, whereas acts performed in goodness, in accord with scriptural injunctions, purify the heart and lead to pure faith in Lord Krishna and devotion to Him.
Krishna explains the meaning of renunciation and the effects of the modes of nature on human consciousness and activity. He explains Brahman realization, the glories of the Bhagavad-gita, and the ultimate conclusion of the Gita: the highest path of religion is absolute, unconditional loving surrender unto Lord Krishna, which frees one from all sins, brings one to complete enlightenment, and enables one to return to Krishna's eternal spiritual abode.
Chaturatma Dasa talks about the Bhagavad Gita as a practical guide to spiritual development. Chaturatma is a Vedic priest and bhakti yogi.
Amrita Keli gives an enthusiastic explanation of the Bhagavad Gita. She is an interfaith chaplain at the University of North Florida and practicing bhakti yogini.