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Bhagavad Gita Further Reading

Here is some additional material about the Gita: a link to the Electronic Mahabharata, our Gita in a curated bookshelf, corrections, a chapter-by-chapter summary, notes on verse 1.10, a very brief comparison of Indian and French epics, and a bibliography. It’s a bit rough and will be updated from time to time.


Page xiv, line 6. Two sentences should be replaced with the following: All the Kauravas die; only the Pandava brothers and Krishna survive. Krishna is later mistakenly killed by a hunter. At the end, the Pandavas and Draupadi set out for heaven together, but all die on the way, except Yudhishthira, who reaches the gates of heaven accompanied only by a small dog, who turns out to be an incarnation of the god Dharma.

Page 31, verse 3.15 should read: Know that action springs from Brahman, and that Brahman springs from the immutable. Therefore, the omnipresent Brahman is always firmly based on sacrifice.


Chapter 1: Standing with his horses and chariot on the Kuru field between the two armies and accompanied by his charioteer, Krishna, Arjuna has a sudden bout of bad conscience. He realizes that he is about to engage in lethal battle with men who should normally command his greatest respect, and that he may be about to cover his head in shame and evil. He protests to Krishna, pointing out the immoral acts he is about to commit and sits down on his seat in despondency.

Chapter 2: Arjuna refuses to fight, but gets only scorn in return. Krishna has no patience with a warrior who will not do his duty. Only when he realizes the extent of Arjunas despondency, does he change his attitude and start teaching the mysteries of dharmic action in this world. Krishna argues against Arjunas moral scruples, playing upon the warriors sense of honor as well as philosophical ideas about transmigration, the impermanence of the body and the eternity of the soul. He argues in favor of actions performed unselfishly for their own sake.

Chapter 3: Krishna continues his teaching, discussing the merits of sacrifice as a way to achieve good things. He introduces the concepts of prakriti, primordial nature, and the gunas, or the properties that operate on primordial nature. He emphasizes the importance of carrying out one's own duty. Arjuna should first learn to control his senses, as they confuse the mind.

Chapter 4: Krishna points out that both he and Arjuna have had many births in the past. Krishna is born through his wizardry, resorting to primordial nature, to save dharma, or universal law, in times of crisis. Krishna is not defiled by action. He explains the nature of action to Arjuna and the importance of mental discipline and knowledge.

Chapter 5: Theory and practice lead to the same goal. Action is just the senses acting on the sense-objects. It is assigned to brahman. Final peace is achieved by renouncing the fruits of action. The steady-minded man has his foothold in brahman. The sage controls his intellect and senses and thus achieves beatitude, forever released.

Chapter 6: Renunciation is mental discipline. The mentally disciplined renounces all intentions. His self remains always composed. He has the same attitude towards everyone and everything. He concentrates his self to purify it, and thus he obtains peace. The master of discipline, whose passions are at rest, becomes brahman. And he sees Krishna in all things. But a virtuous man fallen from mental discipline is reborn in the house of good people. Eventually he will reach the highest state.

Chapter 7: Krishna explains his primordial nature, both his lower and his higher. He is the origin and dissolution of the world, the best in everything. He explains the properties and their illusory power. The man of wisdom, however, is not deluded and eventually reaches Krishna. Krishna is behind every divine form. But those who sacrifice to the gods, go to the gods, those who are devoted to him, come to him. He knows everything, but no one knows him. He is brahman, the material substratum and principal sacrifice.

Chapter 8: Krishna explains brahman and the individual self. At the time of death, a man will reach any state of being he is thinking of. Therefore, one should think of Krishna alone all the time. Those who reach him do not return. All manifestations arise from the unmanifest at the dawn of an eon and return to the unmanifest when the eon is over; creatures are born and dissolve, only to be born again with a new eon. But there is a higher being beyond this that does not perish, called the imperishable. This is the ultimate state, Krishnas supreme abode, the supreme spirit.

Chapter 9: Krishna tells Arjuna the royal secret. In his unmanifest form he has pervaded the whole world. His self is the source of all creatures, but does not exist in them. All creatures return to his primordial nature at the end of an eon. Great-souled men seek refuge in him. He is the ritual and the sacrifice, the father and supporter of the world, the origin and the dissolution. Even people of lowly origin reach the highest state when they take refuge in him.

Chapter 10: Krishna is the unknown source of the gods and sages. He is the first god, brahman, the supreme abode. He is the self, dwelling in the heart of creatures. He is identified with a number of gods as well as other persons and phenomena.

Chapter 11: Arjuna asks Krishna to see his supernal form, and Krishna reveals this form to him. Arjuna trembles at the sight of this dreadful appearance as all the sons of Dhritarashtra rush into the gods mouths to be crushed. Krishna tells Arjuna that all have already been killed by him; Arjuna will just be his enforcer. Arjuna asks him to assume his usual, less intimidating form.

Chapter 12: Those who worship Krishna in complete faith while controlling their senses come to him. They should resign all their acts to him. The devotee who neither rejoices nor hates nor mourns nor desires, but who relinquishes good and evil, is dear to Krishna.

Chapter 13: Krishna is the knower of the field. He summarizes for Arjuna what that field is, and explains what one has to know to achieve immortality: the supreme brahman, which envelops the whole world. He explains primordial nature, its evolutes and its properties. Only primordial nature acts, the self does not act. The supreme self is imperishable. Those reach the supreme who know the distinction between the field and the knower of the field.

Chapter 14: Krishnas womb is the great brahman. There he puts an embryo, and from this all creatures have their origin. The three properties bind the embodied soul in the body. Krishna explains their effects. When the embodied soul has transcended the properties, it is released from birth, death, old age and sorrow, and becomes immortal. The man who has transcended the properties is characterized by equanimity and disciplined devotion to Krishna. This makes him fit for becoming brahman.

Chapter 15: Krishna describes the Asvattha, or peepal tree, a cosmic symbol. This must be cut down with the sword of unattachment, so that one can seek the abode whence people do not return. When Krishna enters the earth, he upholds creatures through his power. He is embedded in everybodys heart, and from him spring tradition, knowledge and reason. He is the knower of the Vedas. Krishna describes the two spirits in the world, the perishable and the imperishable. Krishna transcends them both; therefore he is the supreme spirit.

Chapter 16: Krishna describes the different qualities that men are born to. There are two kinds of creation: the divine and the demonic. The behavior of the demonic is detailed: they are greedy, self-conceited and deluded. This leads to perdition: Arjuna should let religious science be his authority, which will teach him how to perform actions in the world.

Chapter 17: The faith of the human soul is characterized by the three properties. So is food. The three properties also dominate the sacrifice, as they dominate the different kinds of austerities and gifts.

Chapter 18: Arjuna wants to know the truth about renunciation. Krishna defines it as the rejection of agreeable actions and the relinquishment of all fruit of action. But prescribed actions should not be renounced. Krishna teaches Arjuna the five factors of the doctrine of Samkhya: the substrate of the action, the agent, the instruments, the different kinds of activities and fate. Knowledge, action and agent are threefold. Furthermore, intellect, resolution, and happiness are threefold. There is no being in the universe which is free from the three properties. The actions of the four classes of men are born of their nature, and men achieve perfection by devoting themselves to their separate tasks: it is better to do ones own duty without distinction than to do another mans duty well. Krishna then tells Arjuna how a man attains brahman and introduces him to the concept of devotion. Arjuna should seek refuge in him. Arjunas doubts are dispelled, he is ready to fight.

The Problem of Verse 1.10

In verse 1.10, the Gita offers us a text critical problem which deserves a closer look. The Poona edition has the following version:

aparyAptaM tad asmAkaM balaM bhISmAbhirakSitam |
paryAptaM tv idam eteSAM balaM bhImAbhirakSitam ||

That force, protected by Bhishma, is not a match for us, but this force, protected by Bhima, is a match for them. The text as it stands is a paradox. Duryodhanas army was not at all insufficient in number, and Indian commentators were fully aware of this fact. The commentator Vedantadesika suggests that the text is corrupt, and that Bhima and Bhishma have been transposed. Now Bhaskara's text has in our stanza another reading, which is the oldest available and which eliminates all the problems found in our line. He reads:

aparyAptaM tad asmAkaM balaM bhImAbhirakSitam |
paryAptaM tv idam eteSAM balaM bhISmAbhirakSitam ||

That force, protected by Bhima, is not a match for us, but this force, protected by Bhishma, is a match for them. There is no evidence that Bhaskara tampered with his text, and van Buitenen suggests that we should prefer this reading: it has the authority of the most ancient text version; it removes the inexplicable anomaly of tad and idam; it does justice to the universally accepted superiority of Bhishma to Bhima as a warlord; it fits the tongue of Duryodhana addressing his columns, who are superior in numbers, on the first day of battle, and it explains the recurrence of the same line in what is evidently an exhortatory address by Duryodhana in 6.47. On this argument van Buitenen accepts Bhaskara's reading, with good reason, and I have translated according to this correction.

Indian vis a vis French epics

It is interesting to compare the origin of the Mahabharata as we have it with the Old French chansons de geste, songs of deeds, which mostly deal with Charlemagne and his paladins. There are about 80 such lays, varying from 1,500 to some 18,000 verses in length, the most famous of which is the Song of Roland. If France in the Middle Ages had had a group of editors who had combined these separate songs into one great epic and for good measure added some of the didactic and religious poetry that flourished in the same period, Europe would have had an epic of the same impressive size and character as the Mahabharata, an Epic of Charlemagne. But this didn't happen. Still, the character of the chansons the geste may indicate to us the situation that obtained before the Indic epic material was merged into the enormous text collections we now have.


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