Authors born between400 and 200 BCE
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Preparations for Battle
The Sin of Killing
Defilement in Distress
Grief for the Dead
The Self does not Die
Follow the Warrior’s Code of Honor
Act Without Attachment
Memory At the Hour of Death
The Universe and Krishna
The Good Person
The Evil Person
The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata, the epic poem of India relating the struggles between the Kuru and Pandu dynasties descended from King Bharata. The Gita starts with a battle about to occur over the possession of a few villages. One of the heroes of the Pandu faction, Arjuna, looks at his relatives and friends on the opposing side and decides that even though he is certain of victory, he has no desire for bloodshed. He denounces war as leading to the destruction of families and to lawlessness, adding that only those whose wits are blinded by greed would not experience guilt in destroying a family line or betraying friends. Attributed to Vyasa, "the arranger", the Bhagavad Gita was probably compiled by a number of writers some time between 500 and 200 BCE.
The introductory section of the Bhagavad Gita, portraying Arjuna’s compassionate human feelings, is followed by the elaboration of a Hindu theology that includes a justification for warfare and slaughter, put forward by Lord Krishna (the incarnation of the universal Hindu God, Vishnu). Krishna’s argument relies on beliefs concerning transmigration of personal identity into other bodies (reincarnation), rejection of worldly desires, achievement of egoless tranquility of mind, exercises in yoga, and adherence to a strict caste system. From these tenets, Krishna argues that people should not be concerned with the results of deeds but merely with ensuring that the deeds are done properly.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna contends, first, that every class of person has a code of social-religious work incumbent upon it (a caste); and, second, a person's religious duty is to bring one's soul into unity with the Supreme Self (of which Krishna is a manifestation). Enlightenment can be reached by casting off social ties and dwelling alone in meditation, or by performing all the social and religious duties of one’s assigned caste, without regard to results. Krishna recommends the second way as appropriate for Arjuna. His caste-duty is to be a fighting man; he ought to kill people without remorse.
Dhritarashtra is the blind king of the Kurus; his charioteer, Sanjava, reports the progress of the battle to him. Arjuna, a warrior in the opposing Pandu army has Krishna as his charioteer. In the original text, the participants are given a variety of honorific names. For clarity, these have been replaced by the given names, except where they help in delineating character. Most of Krishna's extensive theological argument that follows the battle is omitted.
But short extracts are given to indicate the main points of the argument and to give the flavor of the rhetoric employed to convince Arunja. Krishna is takes pains to show that his pronouncements are authoritative.
The Bhagavadgita is a theological work of 18 Lessons that represented a new synthesis of the elements of ancient Hindu Vedic religion, turning it into a new theism. The warrior god Krishna comes to the fore, transformed to take the place of all previous gods, requiring the devout to come with loving faith to him alone. Furthermore, it is a more democratic religion than the previous Brahmanism: even those of low birth—women, traders, and laborers—are offered hope of reaching the supreme path. In addition, "action" is no longer to be avoided as inevitably leading to bondage. Instead it is made clear that action free from desire, carried out without selfish ends in view, can set a person free. The end section contains the description Krishna gives of the moral qualities that distinguish good and evil.
In getting ready for battle in the Kuru-field, what did my men and Pandu's men do, Sanjava?
Your son, King Duryodhana, when he saw Pandu's army ready for battle approached his commander and spoke as follows.
Look, Master, at this mighty army of Pandu’s sons marshaled by Drupada’s son, your wise disciple. In it are men of valor, mighty archers the equal of Bhima and Arjuna in battle; formidable fighters like Yuyudhana, Virata, and Drupada; Dhrishtaketu, Chekitana, the brave king of Kasi, Purujit, Kuntibhoja, and the lord of the Sibis, mighty among men, bold Yudhamanyu, brave Uttamaujas, Subhadra's son, and Draupadi's sons, all lords of great chariots.
But look also, Noblest of Brahmans, at the outstanding captains of the army; I will go over their names for you. As well as you, there are Bhishma, Karna, Kripa the winner of wars, Asvatthaman, Vikarna, and Somadatta's son. Also there are many other mighty men that have offered up their lives for me, wielding many sorts of weapons, all with great skill in fighting. Protected by Bhishma, our army is invincible; protected by Bhima, their army can be overcome.
So to battle stations, each in his place, and guard Bhishma.
Overcome with joy, the Kuru elder, the courageous grandfather, blew his war conch, ringing out the high blast of a roaring lion. At this, drums, tambours, gongs, and trumpets immediately sounded and a tumultuous din assaulted the sky.
On the other side, Krishna and Arjuna, standing in a great chariot yoked with white horses, each blew on his glorious conch. Krishna blew on Panchajanya, Arjuna blew 'God's gift'; Bhima, known for grim deeds, blew the great conch Paundra; Kunti's son, Prince Yudhishthira, blew 'Eternal-victory'; Nakula and Sahadeva blew 'Sweet-sound ' and 'Gem-blossom'; the Kasi king, unmatched in archery, Sikhandin, lord of the great chariot, Dhrishtadyumna, Virata, and Satyaki, the unconquered, Drupada and Draupadi's sons together, and Subhadra's powerfully-armed son, each blew his conch. The wild roar made the heavens and the earth ring and drove into the hearts of Dhritarshtra's men.
Then Arjuna, Pandu's son, seeing Dhritarashtra's people standing in battle order with all weapons at the ready, bent his bow to shoot.
At that moment, Lord of earth, he spoke to Krishna.
Drive my chariot, Never-Vanquished One, midway between the two armies, so that I might see those who come together here to do battle, those whom I must strive against in this turmoil of war. Let me identify those who are arrayed here for war, at the pleasure of Dhritarashtra's evil-minded son.
Hearing Arjuna’s request, Descendent of Bharata's race, Krishna steered the matchless chariot midway between the two armies. In front of Bhishma, Drona, and all the princes of the earth, Krishna said "Cast your eyes over all the Kurus assembled here, Arjuna"
There Arjuna recognized fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, and comrades, fathers-in-law and friends, standing in both armies. Seeing all these kinsfolk arrayed against each other, he was stricken with great compassion, and in despair spoke as follows.
As I look, Krishna, upon these kinsfolk meeting for battle, my limbs go weak and my face withers. Trembling comes upon my body, and my hair stands upright, my bow Gandiva falls from my hand, and my skin burns. I cannot stand upright; my mind is whirling. I see evil ahead, Krishna, I see no blessing from slaying kinsfolk in battle.
I no longer desire victory, Krishna, nor kingship, nor the delights that come from it. What good will kingship do me, Krishna, or pleasures, or life? They for whom I desired kingship, pleasures, and delights stand here in battle-array, offering up their lives and substance—teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and also kinsmen. Even if they attack me, I will not attack them, Krishna, not for the sake of empire over the three worlds, much less for the sake of the earth. What pleasure can there be to us, Troubler of the People, from slaughter of Dhritarashtra's people? Truly, guilt will live with us for ever in doing these to death with armed fist.
It is not right that we slay Dhritarashtra's people, our kinsmen; for if we do to death our own relatives how can we walk in joy, Krishna? True, those whose wits are blinded by greed do not experience guilt in destroying a family line or in the sin of treason to friends. Yet how, Troubler of People, shall we with clear insight not recognize the sin of destroying a family and be free from this guilt? In the destruction of a family line the ancient laws of the family perish; when the law perishes, lawlessness falls upon the whole family line.
Lesson 1, verses 1-40
Alas! We are committed to sin heavily in striving to kill our kinfolk because of lust after the sweetness of kingship! I would prefer that Dhritarashtra's folk with armed fist should slay me in battle, unresisting and weaponless.
So spoke Arjuna, and he sank down on to the seat of his chariot in the field of war; and let his bow and arrows fall, for his heart was heavy with sorrow.
Lesson 1, verses 45-47
So was he struck by compassion and despair, with eyes clouded and full of tears; and the Slayer of Madhu spoke to him these words.
Why, Arjuna, have you suffered defilement in your distress, such as is felt by the ignoble and leads not to heaven but brings dishonor? Do not fall into unmanliness, Pritha's son, it does not become you. Get rid of this degrading faintness of heart. Rise up, Terror of the Foe!
Krishna, how shall I let fly my arrows in battle against Bhishma and Drona, who are deserving of honor, Smiter of Foes? Truly it were more blessed to eat even the food of poverty in this world to avoid slaughter of my noble instructors. If I were to slay those who have taught me, I should enjoy here but wealth and affection—delights tainted with blood. I do not know which is the better for us, whether we should overcome them or they overcome us. Arrayed before us stand Dhritarashtra's people, and if we slay them we shall have no more wish to live.
My soul is stricken with the stain of unmanliness, my mind all unsure of my duty. I beg you—tell me clearly which will be the more blessed way. I am your disciple; teach me, who stands before you seeking refuge. I see nothing that can cast out the sorrow that makes my limbs wither, even though I might win lordship without rival on earth, and even empire over the gods.
I will not fight.
So spoke Arjuna, Terror of Foes, to Krishna; then held his silence. And as he sat in despair between the two armies, Krishna with a seeming smile spoke to him as follows.
You have grieved over those for whom grief is unmeet, though you speak words of understanding. The learned grieve not for those whose lives are fled, nor for those whose lives are not fled. . .
Lesson 2, verses 1-11
I have always existed, you too have always existed, and those princes have always existed. The time shall never come when we shall all cease to exist. Just as the self within the body goes through childhood, manhood and old age, so also it passes to other bodies; a wise man is not puzzled by this.
Activation of senses, Arjuna, gives rise to cold and heat, pleasure and pain. These come and go, and do not exist for ever, and we must learn to bear with them. Truly the wise man who is not disturbed by these things, indifferent alike to pain and to pleasure is fit for eternal life.
What is not there cannot exist; what is there cannot be anything but existent. The distinction between these states has been recognized by those who study truth. That which pervades this universe is imperishable; no one can destroy that changeless being. It is these bodies that house the everlasting, imperishable, incomprehensible self that have an end. Therefore fight.
He who thinks the self can be a slayer, and he who thinks the self is slain, are both mistaken. The self does not kill, nor is it killed. For the self is never born and never dies, nor may it ever become non-existent. This unborn, everlasting, abiding self is not slain when the body is slain. Knowing the self to be unborn, imperishable, everlasting, changeless, Arunja, how can a man slay anyone or be slain?
As a man gets rid of worn out clothes and put on new ones, so the self puts away outworn bodies and puts on others that are new. Weapons do not cut up the self, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, the wind does not dry it. Not capable of being cut, burned, wetted, or dried, the self is everlasting, present in all things, unchangeable, unmoveable, for ever the same.
Knowing that the soul is immaterial and unalterable, you should not grieve, Arjuna.
Lesson Two, verses 12-25
Considering your own code of honor as a warrior, you should not hesitate. For a warrior there is no greater good than a lawful war. Happy are the warriors, Arunja, who find such a war coming to them unsought, like an open door to Paradise. But if you will not wage this lawful battle, then you will fail your personal law and code of honor, and will sin.
Furthermore, men will tell the story of your steadfast dishonor; and to a man of repute dishonor is more than death.
Lesson Two, verses 31-34
Your commitment is to action alone, not to the fruits of action. That must never be: you must not be motivated by the fruits of your actions. Yet you must not become attached to inaction. Perform your duties as a warrior and cast off attachment, Arjuna, indifferent alike whether you gain or gain not. This indifference is called yoga.
Action is far lower than the rule of understanding, Arjuna. Seek refuge in wisdom. They are unworthy who are moved only by gain.
Lesson Two, verses 47-49
If you consider understanding more excellent than action, O Troubler of People, why do you assign me this grim mission? You appear to contradict yourself, and puzzle my mind.
In this world I have declared a two-fold division of men: one contemplative, the other men of action. But abstaining from work does not mean that a man is free from action; nor does mere renunciation of action enable him to attain perfection. For no man can ever, even for a moment, be free of action; everyone is made to act by the inborn impulses of his nature.
True, a man may refrain from acting to satisfy his sensory desires but if he dwells on them in his mind he is deluded and engaged in deceitful conduct. But the superior man keeps his sensory desires under control, and engages himself in his work free from attachment.
Lesson 3, verses 1-7
Men who always follow my teaching, in full faith without reservation, become free from the bondage of actions. But know that those who dispute my teaching and do not carry it out are confounded in all understanding, becoming mindless and lost. Therefore, pledge all your actions to me, fix your mind on the eternal self, be without any thought of mine, put away your agitation, and fight.
Lesson 3, verses 30-32
What is Brahman? What is the Self? What is action? What is the material of born beings? What is that called" One over Gods" ? What is the basis of sacrifice here in this body, and how may it be? And how at the hour of death may devoted men know you?
Brahman is the imperishable, the supreme. The self is the essential nature of each person; the creative force that makes those born rise into existence bears the name Karma.The basis of beings that are born is perishable nature. The basis of the gods is the cosmic spirit. The basis of sacrifice is me in this body, Arjuna.
He who at his last hour casts off the body and goes hence remembering me, assuredly goes into my being. Whatever a man at his end remembers in leaving the body, to that he always goes, Arjuna, being ever inspired by that thought forever. If your mind and understanding are devoted to me, you will assuredly come to me. Therefore, at all times remember me, and fight.
Lesson 8, verses 1-8
This whole universe is filled by me in immaterial form; all beings are in me, but I am in them. Yet those born are not within me. Behold my kingly rule: my self sustains all beings, is not in them but creates them. Just as the mighty wind everlastingly occupies the space above us and moves throughout it, so do all created beings occupy me. When an age dissolves away, Arjuna, all beings enter into my nature; when an age begins again, I remold them and send them forth. [An age is about 3.14 trillion years]
Lesson 9, verses 4-7
I am the sacrifice. I am the offering.
I am the father’s oblation. I am the healing herb.
I am the spell. I am the butter-libation,
I am the fire, I am the offering.
I am father of this universe,
the mother, the organizer, the old ones,
the thing that is known and the purifier,
the word Om, the Rig Veda,
the Sama Veda and Yajur Veda;
I am the way, the supporter, the lord,
the witness, the dwelling, the refuge,
the friend, the origin, the dissolution,
the resting place, the changeless seed.
I give heat; the rain I unleash
and stop at will. I likewise am
the power of immortality and death,
being and non-being.
Lesson 9, verses 16-19
I am alike to all those who are born: there is none whom I hate, none whom I love. But they that worship me with devotion, are in me, and I in them. Even though he should be a doer of exceeding evil that worships me with undivided worship, he shall be deemed good, for he is of right purpose. Speedily he becomes righteous of soul, and comes to lasting peace. Arjuna, be assured that none who is devoted to me perishes.
For even they that are of low birth, Arjuna—women, traders, and laborers—if they turn to me, they will achieve the supreme path.
Lesson 9, verses 29-32
Fearlessness, purity of heart, holding fast
to knowledge of the spirit,
charity, restraint of the senses, sacrifice,
study of religious texts,
Harmlessness, truth, freedom from anger,
renunciation, tranquility of spirit,
lack of malice, compassion towards all living things,
freedom from covetousness,
tenderness, modesty, steadfastness,
Vigor, patience, constancy, purity,
freedom from hatred, lack of conceit.
All these are in him that is destined for goodness, Arjuna.
Hypocrisy, arrogance, pride, wrath, rudeness, and ignorance
These are found in one that is destined for evil, Arjuna. Evil leads to bondage, goodness to deliverance. Have no fear, you are destined for goodness, Arjuna.
There are two orders of beings born in this world, the good and the evil. The good I have fully described; I will now describe the evil ones, Arjuna.
Evil men have understanding neither of action nor of inaction. Purity, right conduct, or truth are not found in them. They say the universe is unreal, without foundation, without governance, arising in no set order, with nothing but desire for its motive force. Perverse in spirit, lacking and understanding, cruel in the things they do, the followers of this creed stand as enemies of the world, set on its destruction.
Filled with insatiable desire, possessed of hypocrisy, pride and lust, they seize mistaken ideas and act from deluded motives. Relying on a feverish imagination that leads to ruin, they are enmeshed in enjoyment of appetites, convinced that this is all there is. Imprisoned in a hundred bonds of desire, given over to lust and anger, they try to accrue wealth by illegitimate means to satisfy their appetites.
Confused by ignorance, one says, "I have grasped what I wanted today; I will go after more tomorrow. This wealth is mine; I will grab more in the future. This enemy I have slain; others I will likewise slay. I am lord; I live for enjoyment; I am successful, strong, and happy. I am wealthy and noble; who is my equal? I will make offerings and give to charities. I will exult".
Bewildered and erring from a web of delusions, chained to enjoyment of desires, they descend into a foul hell. Self-conceited, stubborn, intoxicated with pride in their wealth, they make offerings that are offerings in name only, hypocritical and not in accord with propriety. Possessed by egoism, given over to violence, pride, desire, and wrath, they jealously bear hate against me, the divine principle in their own and others' bodies.
These that hate me, foul, cruel, and basest of men, I hurl into the wombs of demons when they pass through the cycle of lives. Falling into demonic wombs and bewildered in birth after birth, they never achieve union with me, Arjuna. They descend to the lowest condition of living things.
Desire, wrath, and greed, these are the triple gates of hell that destroy the self; therefore one should abandon these three. Released from these three gates of darkness, Arjuna, a man can do what is good for the self within him and achieve the highest condition. He who walks under the guidance of desire, forsaking what is written concerning right and wrong, does not achieve perfection, nor happiness, nor reach the supreme way.
Therefore you should know the written rules for achieving good or evil, and so distinguish right from wrong.
Lesson 16, verses 1-24
Adapted from The Bhagavadgita or The Lord’s Song, translated by L. D. Barnett. Temple Classics, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1905. This translation is also found in Hindu Scriptures, edited by Nicol MacNicol. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1938.
An on-line translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Ramanand Prasad of the American Gita Society, Fremont, California is provided by Evansville University.
The context of the Bhagavad-Gita within Indian philosophy as a whole is discussed in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1957.
A translation of the Bhagavad-Gita that has each original verse, its rendering in the English alphabet, word-for-word Sanskrit-English equivalents, and a commentary, is contained in Bhagavid-Gita As It Is, by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Los Angeles, 1983. This book has an excellent index.
Those who study reincarnation may be familiar with the suggestion by novelist E. L. Doctorow that divine judgment has chosen a bacterium in the anus of an ancient hatchet fish at the bottom of the ocean as "the reincarnation of the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler". As a member of a colony of bacteria whose light blinds predators to the rear, he is " glimmering miserably through the cloacal muck in which he is periodically bathed and nourished." Perhaps he is joined there by other tyrants of the Twentieth Century.
Selection, adaptation and Introduction Copyright © Rex Pay 2003, 2006