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P.M.

Vasudev
Oct 2014
The Bhagavad Gita A Modern Companion
The Bhagavad Gita can be justifiably cited as one of the great ancient texts of humanity. Composed
in Sanskrit with a total of 700 verses, or slokas, divided into 18 chapters, the Gita is a lengthy text
rich in philosophical content and literary beauty. It offers an abundant menu of ideas, ranging from
the immortality of the spirit (atma) and doing ones duty to the omnipotent nature of the cosmic
spirit (the pervasive Paramatma) and the inevitability of actions wrought by the characteristics or
qualities (gunas) of the individual self (jeevatma) derived from nature.
In structure, the Bhagavad Gita is designed as a conversation between a mortal, individual self and
the immortal, all-pervasive, cosmic spirit. The two are characterized respectively in Arjuna, a prince,
and Krishna, his friend and mentor. The individual or mortal self, personified by Arjuna, poses
questions on a variety of subjects to which the universal spirit, represented by Krishna, provides the
answers.
The conversation of the Gita is set in a battlefield where rival factions of Arjunas royal clan have
gathered for war. Arjuna is torn by the reality of having to wage a bloody battle against his kin and
declares to Krishna his intention to withdraw from the field. Krishna dissuades him from doing so,
and uses the opportunity to explore a range of philosophical issues. Although set in the limited
context of strife in a royal family and war among the clan, the Bhagavad Gita travels beyond this
narrow brief and covers a wide array of topics.
The Bhagavad Gita, which literally means divine song, is rendered in an aphoristic style. The
verses are mostly couplets, but some are a little longer. They are in Sanskrit, an ancient and complex
language whose name means the perfectly-formed. The Gitas language and style of rendition
restrict access to its treasures and nuggets of wisdom. To reach them, a reader must have some
training in literary traditions and be able to devote significant time and effort to a study of the text.
This is a common issue with most classical treatises, including the Bhagavad Gita.
The aim of this volume is to present some of the major teachings of the Gita in a style appropriate
for non-expert readers. Its idiom is designed for the contemporary world to present the ideas
enunciated in an ancient text and explore their relevance for the current age. The time gap is a
significant issue considering that the Bhagavad Gita was composed in a different age and setting,
when ideas and values were different from many of those now prevailing. The quantum of material
is another consideration. The Gita, as pointed out, has a copious offering. This volume, designed
as an introductory guide, has chosen 10 of the major ideas expounded in the Bhagavad Gita and
attempts to explain how their wisdom can be applied in present-day life.
In the recent times, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), and later Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), have
made use of the Bhagavad Gita to great effect. Tilaks classic commentary, Gita Rahasya, written
when he was in prison for his nationalist activities pointed out that the emphasis of the Bhagavad
Gita is on action, rather than renunciation. The Gita was a great source of inspiration for Mahatma
Gandhi in his struggles for social justice, communal amity and political independence. Following in
this tradition, this volumes concern is with how the ideals of the Gita can be applied for an active,
meaningful and fulfilling life characterized by dharma, or right conduct.

P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
a. The Bhagavad Gita how relevant is it now?
A preliminary issue is how an ancient treatise like the Bhagavad Gita relates to the present age. It is
trite to describe the message of the Gita as timeless. This may be true of many of its parts, yet it
cannot be denied that human life, perceptions and values have changed considerably over time
particularly in the recent centuries. For instance, we must reconcile the references to the order of
castes, or varnas, occurring more than once in the Gita, with the prevailing notions about human
equality and affirmative action in favour of the underprivileged.
Despite some discordant notes, it is possible to detect in the Bhagavad Gita substantial material that
would be of great relevance to the contemporary world. This volume explores how the Gita can
provide guidance in dealing with many of the complexities of the present age which is characterized
by a high level of interconnectedness at the economic, cultural, social, and institutional levels.
Undoubtedly, the subject of the Gita is the individual. But in focusing on the individual, the
Bhagavad Gita adopts an approach that is Universalist. Its emphasis on the unity of the whole is
particularly relevant for the present age in which a consolidating or agglomerating tendency has
become stronger and more prominent. The relative insularity that existed at the level of the nationstate has been undermined, and different parts of the world have developed a degree of
interdependence and connectedness not seen earlier. The lives and fortunes of individuals, families
and societies are increasingly determined by events in which they might not have had any active
hand. The connections and relationships are not merely episodic but institutional as the recent
Credit Crisis showed. Defaults in residential mortgages in America could cause bank failures and
economic collapse in Iceland.
How does the Bhagavad Gita fit into this scheme of things? The Gita, as I have pointed out, is
Universalist in approach and stresses the unity of the whole. A survey of history reveals that the
process of human development is leading to convergence among the different races and societies
that originated in different parts of the planet and inhabited them. These groups were, historically,
divided by physical distance, language, race and cultural barriers. The barriers have been weakened
in the recent times and a more global consciousness appears to be on the rise.
These developments can find some resonance in the Bhagavad Gita. Ideas such as the pervasive
Universal Spirit, personified in the vision of Vishwaroopa (the universal form), and the reference to
unity in diversity can offer useful insights into the unifying trend. They can significantly improve our
understanding of the phenomenon, and in this sense, the Gita can provide a theoretical foundation
for the emerging epoch. A solid philosophical base can, in turn, be valuable in giving better shape to
the ongoing processes of convergence and unity, and in promoting its healthy development. This is
at the macro level.
The Bhagavad Gita is equally significant at the micro level for the individual. Here it is about the
consciousness of the individual and improving the understanding of oneself, those around us and
the world in which we live. To begin with, our consciousness or level of awareness (chit in Sanskrit)
is shaped by the environment in which we live, the ideas to which we are exposed and the training
we receive. Some of the significant forces shaping contemporary habits of thought are:

P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
the economic system, which is largely dependent on consumerism, and treats financial
incentives as decisive
the utilitarian structure of education at the elementary, secondary and even university
levels
constant stream of messages emanating from the mass media, which is driven mostly by
commercial considerations and competitive pressures
the political system based on the principles of power and competition, without a substantive
underpinning of moral or ethical values
an archaic system of laws, dispute resolution and justice which does not adequately reflect
the needs of the present age and is designed, apparently, more for the benefit of the legal
establishment
the social pressure to conform to the competitive and commercialistic standards
The resulting milieu constrains our thinking and confines our imagination to the mundane. It would
be quite difficult for people absorbed in everyday life and its pressures to break out of the shell
imposed by the prevailing milieu, lifestyles and value systems. They encourage a tendency to
identify oneself completely with the physical body and develop an exaggerated self-consciousness or
ego that does not sufficiently recognize the connection between the individual self and the rest of
the cosmos. The result is a degree of emotional disconnection. The limited level of awareness and
self-consciousness, or ego, prevent us from gaining a deeper and fuller understanding of life,
ourselves and the world around us a level of understanding that can carry us towards the goal of
becoming Jeevan Mukta, or attaining liberation even while leading a temporal life.
According to Varahapurana, the goal of the Bhagavad Gita is the attainment of the state known as
Jeevan Mukta, which can be roughly translated as liberated life. In this state, human
consciousness becomes unbound or unshackled, as it were, and strives to attain oneness with the
universal spirit or the cosmic consciousness. In the idiom of the Gita, it is about diffusing the
individual spirit in the cosmic whole a state in which one sees the unity of everything and gradually
loses the egoistic sense of self-consciousness. It is a transformation of the confined or constrained
consciousness into a diffused or universal state.
Another interpretation of the impact of the Bhagavad Gita can be in terms of Ananda, or joy. The
Gita has the potential to elevate the consciousness, or chit, to a state of joy chidananda. If we
add to this a touch of goodness, purity or truth (sat), it becomes satchidananda, or true joy of
existence or consciousness. In more mundane terms, it can be compared to the lightness or the
heady feeling one gets on imbibing alcohol. Ultimately, the Bhagavad Gita can help us in reaching
and maintaining a high emotional and physiological without consuming intoxicants.
The Bhagavad Gita can be a great aid in the endeavour to expand and elevate human consciousness,
and guide it towards liberation or mukti. Gurudev Tagore pointed out this state of mukti or moksha
is a result of fulfilment and liberation, rather than renunciation or withdrawal. The latter will lead to
nirvana or emptiness.i The effort in this volume is to show how the Gita can help in attaining this
ambitious goal of liberation within the constraints of contemporary life, rather than by overcoming
them.

P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
It is debatable how far the prevailing lifestyles and human pursuits, whatever their other merits,
have been successful in providing a meaning to life. There is a need to pause and reflect on the
current living conditions in most large cities in India, the rise in stress levels, and the increased
prevalence of illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes even among relatively young people. They
can be cited as proof of some of the deficiencies in the status quo.
The question is whether the material progress seemingly achieved in the recent decades is sufficient
in or by itself? Or is there a need to look for something more, or something else? The answer is,
apparently, yes. There is evidence of greater awareness about what may be termed the needs of
the soul or the spirit, and meaningful physical activity. The large followings developed by nontraditional and non-sectarian movements such as those of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living
Foundation and Yogi Ramdev of Divya Yog Mandir suggest a yearning, especially among the young,
for finding a fuller and more satisfying life beyond the mundane and the materialistic.
The Bhagavad Gita can play a signal role here, by providing content and substance to human life and
taking care of needs temporal, moral and spiritual. With its stress on karma (action) and dharma
(right conduct), and the need to balance them, the Gita can provide valuable guidance especially in
contemporary India where recent ideas about economic growth and development, conceived in
narrow terms, have almost submerged all other considerations.
The Bhagavad Gita blends a Universalist approach with an individualist orientation. In essence, its
aim is the perfection of the individual self. However, in the present world human life is more
interconnected than ever before, and it is necessary to travel beyond individual effort and
perfection. We must be equally concerned with issues of harmony, cohesion and amelioration at
the family and social levels. The Bhagavad Gita, despite its individualist focus, makes quite a few
references to the society and social welfare. Admittedly, these are not near the level of social
consciousness found in the New Testament, nor do they present a code of social conduct. Yet they
are evidence that a sense of social consciousness informs the ideology of the Gita.
The transformational effect of the Bhagavad Gita lies in the change it can bring about in an
individual. Being oriented in the Gita, the individuals perception of the world and those around
him/her change significantly, and this change is reflected in his/her behaviour patterns. The
environment, in turn, responds to the altered behaviour of the transformed individual, and by this
process, incremental progress can be achieved at the individual and societal level. More and more
individuals at peace with themselves and those around them, absorbed in the performance of karma
without passionate attachment, or stress, can have a transformational impact in the society. In this
sense, the effect of the Gita would be bottom-up, rather than top-down. It is not based on the
principle of commands from the above, supposedly to bring about desired changes or results.
b. Why do we need a guide for the Gita?
The Bhagavad Gita, as pointed out earlier, is presented in a pithy, aphoristic style. It is lengthy (700
verses), but it does not offer significant explanation of the ideas contained in it. It lacks significant
padding. Though rich in literary beauty, the verses in the Gita are not exactly simple in language, nor
direct in their message. Understanding the verses is the first step in grasping their message and
practising it. Given the literary style of the Gita, a guide or commentary can be helpful in improving
our understanding of the text. This is the first justification for this volume.
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P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
A second issue is about our state of consciousness and the conditioning of our minds issues to
which I made a reference a little earlier. The prevailing environment and the influences to which we
are subject are constraining; they do not permit the degree of intellectual and spiritual freedom, and
a touch of the metaphysical, necessary for a better understanding of a mystical work such as the
Bhagavad Gita and in making sense of its message.
There have been significant advances in the material sciences in the recent centuries, and the
educational system reflects this development by relying almost entirely on the scientific method or
approach. The emphasis is on sensory perception, or knowledge about things derived from contact
with the sense organs, and logical deduction. There is great reliance on these techniques, which are
treated almost as the only pathways to gain an understanding of ourselves and the world in which
we live. Not long ago, S. Radhakrishnan pointed out that science is only a secondary system of
causes which cannot explain the world adequately.ii
An important influence in shaping our consciousness is the prevailing education system. Its
emphasis on the scientific approach has, on the one hand, been successful in demystifying many
concepts and facilitated greater objectivity in our understanding of issues. At the same time,
education has evolved, especially in the recent decades, predominantly as a means to employment
in the consumer-industrial society. The system is utilitarian. In the early stages elementary and
secondary education the focus is on training the students in language, mathematics and science.
Higher education is mostly geared towards enhancing their skills in one of the branches of these
three fields of knowledge. The techniques are sensory perception and logical validation, and the
goal is improving employability in the consumer-industrial-technological society.
On completing formal education, or acquiring a degree, in this utilitarian system of education, an
individual is expected to participate in the consumer-industrial society and contribute to its
development. Development is measured in financial terms, with the now-ubiquitous GDP (Gross
Domestic Product) as almost the only criterion. At the individual level, the goal is increasing ones
earnings and being able to afford the variety of products, services and opportunities for travel and
enjoyment that are now available. At the collective level, it is about the growth of the national or
the regional economy. The following are some important elements in this arrangement.
i.
ii.

Economic growth, measured in percentage terms, is an infinite, inevitable and natural


process, and
It is human destiny to pursue this ideal.

This being stated, it would be unfair to characterize materialistic pursuits more precisely, the
pursuit of money as greed. In wanting money, a large number of us long more for the economic
security and freedom it can give us, rather than wielding power or for showing off. Economic
security is important as emphasized by the great philosophers, John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas
Jefferson (1743-1826). This is, however, not the entire truth.
There are problems both systemic and philosophical with the money-centric style of pursuit that
has now become common. Undoubtedly, the importance of money in human life has increased.
This can be traced to recent trends such as the high costs of education and medical treatment, the
opportunities for travel and enjoyment, and the power of consumerism. Together, they hold out the
promise that money can open the doors to a good life, understood mostly in a materialistic sense.
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P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
This is quite consistent with the commercialistic ethos of the present age that has the media as its
powerful representative. The unending messages we receive from mainstream media the
commercials as well as the feature programs leave most of us with a feeling of wanting money.
We feel that our lives are incomplete without more of it.
However, the pursuit of money itself creates imbalances that need correction. Acquisitiveness,
possessiveness, ego and an exaggerated sense of individualism are some inevitable consequences of
the mores of the present age, but they leave us with a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. A
cure can be found through exposure to ideas and thoughts that are less centred in the humdrum of
contemporary life and its values. The Bhagavad Gita can play a signal role in facilitating such a
broadening of the mind and vision.
Ecology of the planet and depletion of natural resources are recognized as serious issues, but no
meaningful alternatives have been identified. On the contrary, the emphasis on growth is designed,
willy-nilly, to promote consumption of goods and services and consumerist lifestyles. Our survival
instincts appear to be strong enough to keep us away from nuclear warfare and other methods of
mass destruction. But they seem to fail before the alluring, enticing power of consumerism. While
paying lip service to the environment and the importance of preserving it, in truth we display little
restraint in our habits and practices.
Perhaps the recent trends bear out the truth in T.S. Eliots observation that the world will not end
with a bang; it will only end with a whimper. Apparently, Eliot envisioned the industrial-commercialtechnological lifestyle of the recent times coming to a grinding halt because we run out of gas. The
adoption of consumerist lifestyles by more societies in particular, China and India seriously
aggravates the problem. The continuing consumption of non-renewable resources and the trail of
environmental degradation appear to be leading us along the path predicted by T.S. Eliot.
People trained in the educational system and living in the environment just described might find
difficulties in coming to grips with the Bhagavad Gita, its ideas and even more, the idiom in which
they are presented. Stated in mystical and somewhat obscure terms, the ideas may not readily
appeal to persons who have no training in philosophical traditions and no exposure to the
metaphysical dimension. The major impediments are a near-complete reliance on the senses for
gaining an understanding of things and a heightened sense of self-consciousness that tends to
isolate individuals. The effort made here is to interpret the message of the Gita in terms accessible
to contemporary readers, with due sensitivity to the ethos of the present age namely, the
prevailing method of training, habits of thought and predispositions. This is another justification for
the present volume.
c. Selection of contents for the volume
The Bhagavad Gita, as pointed out earlier, is rich and diverse in content. It is capable of catering to
the needs of individuals in different stages of intellectual and spiritual development. In it there is
material appropriate for a yogi who has turned, decisively, from the path of pursuit. Equally, the
Gita can provide important lessons to grihastas, or householders leading a normal family life, and
even students who have developed basic skills of comprehension.

P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
Messages from the Bhagavad Gita, selected for inclusion in this volume, are presented in an idiom
appropriate for grihastas and students. This being stated, it must be clarified that the essence of the
Gita is a degree of detachment. Its sophistication lies in its thesis about action without passionate
involvement, which incidentally is the breeding ground for that modern affliction known as stress.
The Bhagavad Gita is not about performing action with less commitment or dedication, but doing so
with less passion and expectation about reward.
Even a grihasta performing the duties of a householder must act more out of a sense of duty
grihasta dharma rather than just love and affection. In the case of family, the love is usually just
an extension of the ego of an individual. Love of this variety would be constraining, rather than
liberating. This is because the love is for what is one treats as ones own, and creates expectations.
Disappointment is inevitable when the expectations are not fulfilled. Love of this variety, therefore,
creates bonds and is an inherently inhibiting influence for the spirit. But love can be a liberating
influence when it is universal and unconfined of the variety advocated by Jesus. In this case love is
purer and mostly without expectations.
It is rather glib to speak about dispassionate action, or nishkama karma. Undoubtedly, there are
difficulties in attaining the state of development that is required before one can act purely out of a
sense of duty without being concerned with the fruits or reward. To attain this state of mental and
emotional equanimity, it is necessary to train the physical body, and Yoga can be an expedient in this
task. Yogic techniques namely, flexing and stretching the body, training to still the body and mind
and regulation of breathing can help in achieving the state of being suited for performing the
dispassionate action advocated in the Gita, leading onto liberation.
It is one thing to understand an idea or a concept such as dispassionate action at the intellectual
level, but quite another to be able to inculcate it in practice. The potential gap between the two can
be bridged by the regular practice of Yoga. For the committed, who have grasped the message of
the Gita and appreciate its value yet unable to practise its precepts, Yoga can be a route. As Georg
Feuerstein has pointed out, the Bhagavad Gita is essentially a text of Yoga.iii However, its message
has more universal application. This is my conviction and the inspiration for this volume.
This guide is both descriptive, or positive, and normative. It describes the present or the is, and
also suggests possibilities for the future the ought. The method consists of referring to a set of
verses in the Bhagavad Gita which present an idea or develop a specific line of thought, and explore
how they can be applied in contemporary life. With this approach, the following are the messages
selected from the Gita for inclusion in this volume:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

Action, right action and inaction


Ego, natural qualities and their understanding
Attachment, aversion and consequences
Life temporal and life immortal
Idol worship and the formless brahman
Social consciousness and affirmative action
Individual self, universal self and their relationship
Action, destiny and duty

P.M. Vasudev
Oct 2014
9. Matter and spirit
10. Human life and its perfection
The guide has ten chapters dealing with each of the topics listed above. The chapters also include
the related verses in Sanskrit and their reference numbers in the original text. This will facilitate
readers to gain familiarity with the Sanskrit original and provide guidance for more detailed study.
Complex conjoined words, or sandhis, have been broken into their component parts, which makes
the Sanskrit text easier to read and comprehend. It also reveals that many of the key words in the
Bhagavad Gita, such as dharma, atma, guna, buddhi and janma, continue to be commonly used in
most Indian languages. Personally, I found that this made the task of understanding the original text
easier and more interesting.
This volume is not lengthy or forbidding. Its modest goal is to entice the curious whose interests
stretch beyond the mundane, and provide them an introduction to the Gita for use as a guide in
everyday life. It is not a reference point for committed readers who wish to scour the depths of the
Gita for its rich philosophical offerings. An earnest hope in writing this short volume is to improve
contemporary familiarity with the classics and promote the inculcation of their vision and wisdom in
the humdrum of ordinary life. Lessons from the Gita can facilitate more wholesome and balanced
development both at the individual level as well as the collective or social.
Not being trained in Sanskrit, I have relied on the excellent transliteration of the Bhagavad Gita by
Annie Besant and Bhagavan Das.iv
******
i

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ed., The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore,
1915-1941 (New Delhi: National Books Trust, 1997) at 57.
ii
See generally S. Radhakrishan, An Idealist View of Life (1930) (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2001).
iii
Georg Feuerstein, Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary (Rochester, Vermont: Inner
Traditions, 1989).
iv
Annie Besant & Bhagavan Das, The Bhagavad Gita (1905), 2d ed. (Chennai: Theosophical Society, 1997).