Bhagvad-Gita is one of the holiest books of Hinduism. It is a part of the Mahabharata, which was written on the banks of the river Saraswati somewhere in the Kurukshetra region of Haryana. The name Bhagvad-Gita means Song of the Lord. It is written in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. The Bhagvad-Gita is often called simply the Gita (song). Scholars such as Shankara (also known as Shankaracharya), who lived in India in the A.D. 700's, have written commentaries on it. The Bhagavad Gita is the archetype of Yoga scripture and constantly refers to itself as such, the 'Scripture of Yoga'. The Gita is part of Book Six of the Mahabharat, the great Indian epic poem. It consists of 700 verses divided into 18 chapters, and may have been added to the main work during the A.D. 100's and 200's.
Gita made little religious impact until Shankaracharya's commentary appeared. From this time onward, it had an important influence on Hinduism. Krishna, presented in the poem as Vishnu in the flesh, is the spiritual teacher who recited the Gita. The Bhagvad-Gita consists of a dialogue between Krishna and Arjun on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (in present day Haryana). That is where the royal cousins, the Pandavs and the Kouravs, face each other for the decisive battle to end their long-running feud. The Bhagvad-Gita debates the rights and wrongs of conflict. It also discusses a person's duty to himself or herself, to his or her fellow humans, and to God. It explores God's relationship to humans. It shows how people can begin to understand God and so free themselves from the burden of Karma (deeds done in previous lives and in this present life).
Krishna and Arjun are not the only speakers in the Gita. King Dhritarashter, the father of the Kouravs, asks his charioteer, Sanjay, to describe the course of the battle for him. The remainder of the Bhagvad-Gita deals with the report of Sanjay, who describes what he sees in a trance. Prince Arjun watches his cousins and brothers preparing for battle and is greatly troubled. He asks Krishna, who acts as his charioteer, how he can justifiably take part in the battle because it must be wrong to slay his kinsfolk for the sake of power. He would rather die than kill his relatives, so he throws down his weapons and gives up the fight.
Krishna at first thinks Arjun is merely showing signs of weakness. But when he realizes that the prince is genuinely anxious about where his duty lies, he speaks as the god Vishnu, and explains the nature of the atman (soul). The atman can never be killed nor can it kill. When the body dies, it simply passes into another body and continues to live. Death must come to all who live, and rebirth must come to all who die. Why mourn for that which cannot be avoided? It is Arjuna's duty to fight in a just war. He is a soldier and his responsibility is to fight. Real sin lies not in the killing of his enemies, but in failing in his Dharma (duty).
Krishna instructs Arjun on the three ways to union with God. The first is Karma-Yoga (the Way of Action). Each person should do his or her duty according to caste, without hope of personal benefit or ambition, but with faith in God. Those who go through the motions of performing rituals without care or interest, or do their work only for profit, will never achieve release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Only if a person acts with his or her mind fixed on Brahman (God) will he or she become free, at peace, and at one with God. Anyone in that state feels no disturbing desires. Where there is no desire there is no disappointment, and there are no competitive stirrings of ambition. In work one's sole ambition should be to serve as an example to others, so that they too may do their duty.
The second way is Jnana-Yoga (the way of Knowledge). By this means, the contemplative person can best seek union with God. Such a person should have self-control and spend much of his or her time in meditation. Through God's grace, he or she will come to realize that Brahman and Atman are one. Arjun asks which of these two paths is best. Krishna replies that the result will be the same whichever path is followed. The end means absorption in Brahman, the unchanging, the eternal. The entire universe exists in and because of Brahman, but few are sufficiently advanced to perceive this Being. Most people are absorbed with their own petty, temporary concerns, which are only 'maya' (illusion), which cannot last but must pass away in time.
The third way is Bhakti-Yoga (the Way of Devotion). This is one of the most important contributions made by the Bhagvad-Gita to the development of modern Hinduism. Krishna becomes the Ishvara (personal God), who may be worshipped as a spirit or as an image by his followers. He will accept any offering, however humble, as long as it is made with love. Every worshipper who approaches with a loving heart is welcomed. Union with God, and release from the suffering of birth and rebirth, is available to all through devotion to Krishna.
Krishna then reveals himself to Arjun as Vishnu. Arjun is overwhelmed and bursts into a great hymn of praise. He is fearful and ashamed because he had addressed Krishna as 'friend'. But Krishna is merciful and returns to human form to comfort Arjun, explaining that God in majesty is too great for human beings to behold. Krishna continues to teach Arjun about the nature of man. He defines the qualities that bring people nearer to Brahman and those that tend to lead them astray. The individual nature of people decides what and how they worship. Some people look to God, others to worldly things. When people make an offering to God, it must be made in faith, otherwise it is unreal and cannot result in good.
The Bhagvad-Gita provides a summary of Hindu religious thought and practice, much of it based on the Upanishads. These are part of the Vedas, the oldest sacred books of Hinduism. It points the way to developing belief, forging a personal relationship between deity and worshipper. It offers a new approach to the full perception of, and absorption in, Brahman.