The Bhagavadgita is a religious classic of perennial worth. It is an inexhaustible source of divine inspiration and a guide to holistic living. It occurs in the Bhishma-Parvan of the Mahabharata and has eighteen chapters in dialogic form. Its seven hundred verses were chanted by the all-pervasive Vishnu in his incarnation as Lord Krishna to provide inner strength and spiritual insight to Arjuna at the battlefield of Kurukshetra . American Transcendentalists like Ralph W. Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were greatly influenced by the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita.
From Alberuni’s Arabic rendering of its contents in the 11th century to its Persian translations commissioned by emperors Zain-ul’ Abidin (1420-70) and Akbar 1556-1605), and its Sufi interpretation by Shaikh ‘Abdu’r Rahman Chishti (d. 1683) and Dara Shukoh (1628-58); from Charles Wilkins’ first translation of the scripture into English (1785) to those of Demetrios Galanos into Greek (1809), Fredrich von Schlegel into Latin (1823), Wilhelm von Humboldt’s into German (1826) and Christian Lessen into French (1846), there have been serious efforts to understand and explore the quintessential of the Bhagavadgita in its religious, intellectual, ethical, social and spiritual dimensions.
Mahatma Gandhi read the Bhagavadgita first time in 1890 through the English rendering of the scripture, titled The Song Celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold. To him the Bhagavadgita was not just a scripture to be recited and adored but more than that – it was like mother. ‘I lost my earthly mother who gave me birth long ago; but the eternal mother has completely filled her place by my side ever since.’ He appreciated its lucidity, poetic diction, philosophical profundity and ethical values. He believed that it helps one to transform love into devotion (bhakti), worldly deeds into divine acts, and understanding into enlightenment.
When doubt haunted Mahatma Gandhi, sorrow overwhelmed him, and hope forsook him, he found a verse or two from the Song Celestial to comfort him. While in transvaal prison in October 1908, he kept his composure by reading verses from the scripture. In the evenings and on Sundays he pored over the Bhagavadgita and other holy books.
Mahatma Gandhi saw no difference between the Bhagavadgita and the Sermon on the Mount. ‘What the Sermon describes in a graphic manner, the Bhagavadgita reduces to a scientific formula.’ ‘Earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow’, says the Bible. He who eats without performing sacrifice(yajna) eats stolen bread, says the Bhagavadgita. However, he once told a group of Christian missionaries that he found solace in the Bhagavadgita which he missed ‘even in the sermon on the Mount.’
He argued that the Bhagavadgita does not have dogmatic, sectarian or incendiary content. It distinguishes between the powers of light and of darkness and demonstrates their incompatibility. ‘The divine author has used a historical incident for inculcating the lesson of doing one’s duty even at the peril of one’s life.’
Mahatma Gandhi’ adherence to truth, to yoga in all its aspects, to the laws of nature, to swadharma – performance of one’s duty-and to sarvodaya - welfare of all – as also his will never to submit or yield before injustice, derive largely from the Bhagavadgita. The ideal person in his eyes, was a sthitaprajna - one who is stable in mind, is above fear and human vices, and is attuned to humanity, and thereby to the Supreme Being. Initially, Mahatma Gandhi described God as Truth but subsequently he came to believe that Truth is God.
The Bhagavadgita represents the spiritual heritage of India as it reconciles different schools and strands of thought - the life-affirming philosophy of the Vedas, the metaphysical formulations of the Upanishads and the Aranyakas, the ontological crux of the Sāmkhya, the logical realism of Nyaya, the meditativeness of Yoga and the devotional disciplines of the bhakti tradition.
Metaphysical bipolarities such as monism and dualism, Purusha and Prakriti – spirit and matter, male and female principles, the Absolute Reality and the concept of personal God, harmonize in the Bhagavadgita, the true import being to help the seeker to realise God by any one of the three paths – Jnana Yoga, way of knowledge, Karma Yoga, way of action and Bhakti Yoga, way of devotion, which supplement and compliment one another.
Eminent saints, scholars, mystics, yogis, psychologists, social scientists, reformers, politicians and administrators gained fresh perspectives from the Song Celestial and interpreted it accordingly. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) perceived in the Bhagavadgita, philosophy of action; Śrī Aurobindo (1872-1950), philosophy of Being; Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), philosophy of human awakening; Swami Yogananda (1893-1952), philosophy of synergistic kinship with god, and Mahatma Gandhī (1869-1948), philosophy of truthful living.
Jnaneshvara’s (Dnyandeo’s) commentary on the Bhagavadgita (Bhavartha Dipika, popularly called the Jnanehvari) in Marathi (1290), redacted and made authentic by Ekanatha (1548-99) in 9000 ovi-stanzas, brought about a spiritual revival in Western India, and continues to be the sacred text of the Varkari sect.
The Bhagavadgita continues to influence the course of human thought across the globe. Its age-old wisdom is being increasingly used for self discovery, self empowerment, and self management.
Dr Satish K Kapoor, a former British Council Scholar, is a noted educationist, spiritualist and religion-writer. He was formerly, Principal, Lyallpur Khalsa College and Registrar, DAV University, Jalandhar City. His latest book is : Hinduism: The Faith Eternal published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.