No other Sanskrit work approaches the Bhagavadgita in the influence it has exerted in the West. Philosophers such as Emerson and the other New England Transcendentalists were deeply affected by its insights, a dozen or more scholars, including Annie Besant and Mahatma Gandhi, have attempted its translation, and thousands of individuals struggling with the problems divided loyalties have found comfort and wisdom in its pages.
The Bhagavadgita ("Song of the Lord") tells of the young and virtuous Prince Arjuna who is driven to lead his forces into battle against an opposing army composed of close relatives and others whom he loves. The Lord Krsna, appearing in the poem as Arjuna's friend and charioteer, persuades him that he must do battle, and we see Arjuna changing from revulsion at the thought of killing members of his family to resignation and awareness of duty, to manly acceptance of his role as warrior and defender of his kingdom.
The Bhagavadgita is a self-contained episode in the Mahabharata, a vast collection of epics, legends, romances, theology, and metaphysical doctrine that reflects the history and culture of the whole of Hindu civilization. The present edition forms a part of J. A. B. van Buitenen's widely acclaimed translation of this great work. Here English and Sanskrit are printed on facing pages, enabling those with some knowledge of Sanskrit to appreciate van Buitenen's accurate rendering of the intimate, familial tone and directness of the original poem.
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The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata
The Book of the Bhagavadgita (Bhagavadgitaparvan) begins with the blunt announcement by the bard Samjaya that Bhisma has fallen in battle. He reports this to his patron Dhrtarastra, the father of Duryodhana, of whose army Bhisma was the supreme commander.
Dhrtarastra, posthumous eldest son of the titular king of Kuruksetra, Vicitravirya, was born blind and therefore was excluded from the kingship which would otherwise have been his. Bhisma, whose death is reported, belonged to the generation immediately preceding Dhrtarastra's. Bhisma, too, was the eldest son of a king of Kuruksetra, Samtanu, and, like Dhrtarastra, would normally have succeeded to the throne; however, he had voluntarily given up all claims to the kingship. This peculiar affinity between the early lives of Bhisma and Dhrtarastra, which antedates the central story of the Mahabharata, and its consequences are the main causes of the war of which Samjaya reports the first victim, but which is yet to be faced in the Gita. It is not just a successful narrative device that the death of Bhisma is first reported as an accomplished fact, then juxtaposed with the prior teaching of the Gita which in the end seeks to justify the killing of him: each one is the condition of the other.
Bhisma renounced Samtanu's throne when his father became infatuated with a lower-class girl, Satyavati, whose own father insisted on the marital condition that the throne should descend in Satyavati's line, not Bhisma's. Bhisma's formal assent to this condition introduces all the later complications of succession. His oath, undertaken to aid his father, becomes a curse on his father's posterity.
Satyavati bears Samtanu two sons, the elder of whom dies afflicted by possession. The second, Vicitravirya, marries two princesses fetched for him from the court of the Kasis by Bhisma. He is a voluptuary and dies heirless. The line of Satyavati, for which Bhisma forswore the kingdom, seems extinct before it has begun. Satyavati, however, invokes the law of levirate, and her premarital son Krsna Dvaipayana, elder half-brother of Vicitravirya, begets for the latter the blind Dhrtarastra by the elder princess, and by the younger the possibly leukodermic Pandu. Since his blindness excludes Dhrtarastra from the kingship, his junior Pandu becomes king. To confuse matters further, Pandu soon leaves with his two wives for a hunter's life in the wilderness, where he has five sons, the eldest Yudhisthira, the middlemost Arjuna. Dhrtarastra begets a hundred sons, the eldest of whom, Duryodhana, is born a year after Yudhisthira. At Pandu's death the five Pandavas return to Kuruksetra to the court of Dhrtarastra, who has been regent in Pandu's absence at Hastinapura. While the Pandavas are recognized as legitimate, their title to succession is clouded; moreover, Duryodhana was already in place, though a minor. Duryodhana plots to send the Pandavas into exile. They go underground and later marry Draupadi, the daughter of the king of Pañcala, who thereby becomes their powerful ally. The Hastinapura Kauravas make their peace with the Pandavas by partitioning the kingdom. Yudhisthira settles in at Indraprastha and institutes a Vedic Consecration. As part of the ritual he engages in a game of dice with Duryodhana and loses all. The penalty for losing is thirteen years of exile. After their exile the Pandavas demand their share of the kingdom back; Duryodhana refuses; both parties prepare for war.
What has happened to Bhisma meanwhile? Very little. His function as regent of Kuruksetra came to an end with Pandu's ascension, and he lives in retirement at the court of Hastinapura, a grandfatherly presence, a counselor whose advice is ignored. The family teachers Drona and Krpa have similarly retired and stayed on. All subsist on Duryodhana's dole. Their sympathies are with the Pandavas, but when war comes, they have no choice but to side with their patrons. Besides, Duryodhana has now elevated Bhisma to supreme commander of his troops and allies. He is therefore the first target.
War is now at hand, and the abomination of it is unspeakable. In a royal joint-family the sons have first engaged in a partition of ancestral property, a procedure in itself of questionable morality, and are now about to wage war over the entire patrimony. While the Pandavas were clearly wronged, the only way to right the wrong is by committing the greater wrong of destroying the entire family. Indeed, the first to fall is Bhisma, the most venerable guru of the family, the only survivor of the grandfather generation, hence "grandfather" par excellence, who, by his lifelong honoring of his oath of celibacy, is the paragon of rectitude and truthfulness, the benefactor and sage adviser of all. He is the first to be sacrificed in this war, and is it a wonder that Arjuna shrinks from sacrificing him, as well as Drona, Krpa, etc.? Arjuna's dilemma is both a real one and, despite Krsna's sarcasm, an honorable one. In effect, on the level of dharma Arjuna will be proved to have been right; but in the Gita Krsna offers him the choice of another level of values, which will absolve him from guilt.
In the light of all this it cannot be reasonably argued that the setting of the Gita is a random choice dictated by purely dramatic (read: melodramatic) considerations. The preamble tells us that Bhisma is dead, that Arjuna's reluctance to fight in this war was therefore fully justified, and that consequently a need existed to override Arjuna's reluctance with a higher truth, so that in fact that will come about which we know is already the case. This is a very subtle narrative weaving that requires the preamble so often forgotten and that also masterfully contrasts the high dilemma of the Gita with the chapter following immediately–the formal approval-seeking by Yudhisthira.
Indeed, if the compilers had felt so inclined, they could have found other places for the Gita among the one hundred thousand couplets of the text. For instance there is MBh. 5.151, where not Arjuna but Yudhisthira himself voices the dilemma: "How can war be waged with men we may not kill? How can we win if we must kill our gurus and elders?" Here Arjuna provides the answer: "It is not right to retreat now without fighting," largely on his mother Kunti's authority. And Krsna adds: "That is the way it is." End of discussion. Again, the Gita might have been consigned to the Moksadharma section of the Mahabharata, where so many philosophical colloquies and indeed some gitas have been collected. For that matter anywhere else, as the self-styled Anugita, "Sequel to the Gita," shows: this text has been accommodated in MBh. 14, The Book of the Horse Sacrifice.
The fact is that the Gita occurs where it does for excellent reasons. Among the many ways of looking at the Gita is as a creation of the Mahabharata itself. At the time when all the materials that were to go into the final redactorial version of the great epic (which transformed the Bharata into the Mahabharata) were collected, materials that hailed from many milieus and many centuries, a change of sensitivity away from the war books had taken place, a change from the martial spirit toward a more reflective and in certain ways more quietistic mood. The war had ceased to be a glorious event for celebration and was to be regarded as a horrendous, bloodcurdling finale to an eon. The discussions concerning war and peace in MBh. 5, The Book of the Effort, uncover in the future combatants a reluctance to embark on armed conflict that overshadows a hesitant acceptance of it as a fate predestined for warriors. The ambivalence that tilts toward the negative culminates in the Gita, where it swings to the positive. The armies have now been drawn up and arrayed in battle formations. Warriors have been assigned their targets. The momentum can no longer be checked.
There were berserk men there, clutching their weapons–twenty thousand standards commanded by champions. There were five thousand elephants, all the chariot trains, footmen and commanders, carrying bows and swords and clubs by the thousands in front and by the thousands in back. The other kings were largely stationed in this sea of troops where Yudhisthira himself was positioned, with thousands of elephants, tens of thousands of horses, thousands of chariots and foot soldiers, relying on which he marched to attack Duryodhana Dhartarastra. Behind followed hundreds of thousands and myriads of men, marching and shouting in thousands of formations. And in their thousands and tens of thousands the happy warriors sounded their thousands of drums and tens of thousands of conches.
At this point the composers allow us one more moment of stillness before the tempest, in which we see both the reluctance of an Arjuna downing his bow Gandiva, and his acceptance of ksatriya duty and fate on the urging of Krsna. There will be no more happy warriors, only resigned ones.
The architects of the literature of the Mahabharata do not shy from showing their debts. The Gita is the final climax of reluctance and acceptance often voiced before. It is also the beginning of the war and it draws on the chapters that follow it to describe its own mise-en-scene, as, e.g., in 6.47, where Duryodhana gives the heartening speech amplified in Gita 1. Soon all the reluctant acceptance will, as these chapters show, be drowned in the oceanic tides of battle.
Who then is Krsna who persuades Arjuna to accept the warrior's fate? He is a Vrsni prince, for the nonce acting as Arjuna's charioteer, a seemingly subordinate role to which he has agreed in order to be a noncombatant in the thick of battle. Loyal to both warring parties, he has conceded his troops to Duryodhana and his presence to Arjuna. It is not atypical for the Krsna of the Mahabharata to be active on the sidelines, for, albeit important, he is not central to the main story. His first encounter with the Pandavas occurs when he recognizes them behind their disguise as young brahmins on the day they win Draupadi and, with her, the alliance with Pañcala. Later he brings a lavish wedding gift to their marriage. Together with Arjuna, but on two chariots moving as one, Arjuna and Krsna lay fire to the Khandava Forest. He encourages Arjuna to sue for his sister Subhadra, lends him his chariot to abduct her, and appeases her irate relatives. He is the guiding spirit in Yudhisthira's Consecration; in the killing of Jarasamdha; at the Consecration itself, when he slays his challenger Sisupala. There are more contacts, the most important his fruitless embassy to the enemy to ward off the war. An old comrade of Arjuna, his relative by marriage and uncle to his son Abhimanyu, Krsna comes well prepared as his friend's charioteer.
This role assumed by Krsna, because of the conventional camaraderie between warrior and driver, provides the intimacy which makes his exhortations possible and appropriate. Traditionally the suta, on the chariot of the warrior, is witness to the warrior's triumphs and occasional lapses; in danger he protects him. The triumphs of the warrior he celebrates in song, hence suta also means "bard" the lapses he condemns in private. The warrior Pradyumna berates his charioteer for withdrawing from battle; the other spiritedly replies that it is his duty to save his master Arjuna, acting as Prince Uttara's charioteer, scolds Uttara unmercifully when he tries to flee. Krsna does the same to Arjuna. There is an easy familiarity between Krsna and Arjuna born from dangers braved together, heightened by the old ties of friendship and marriage. There is more: not only are Arjuna and Krsna comrades in arms in this life; they are also the reincarnations or repersonifications of the ancient warrior pair Nara and Narayana, who have long since retired to a hermitage at Badari on the Ganges. Historically they might even be successors to the divine and heroic pair of Indra and Visnu. It does not matter; their association in the Mahabharata suffices to place them together now.
As a person Krsna oscillates between the heroic and the divine; in the Mahabharata he has until now been treated more as a hero than as God. There have been passing theophanies before, but the epic sees in him principally the hero, sometimes beleaguered, but always triumphant. His divine nature will need to be explained, and he will do so himself.
To sum up: The Bhagavadgita was conceived and created in the context of the Mahabharata. It was not an independent text that somehow wandered into the epic. On the contrary, it was conceived and developed to bring to a climax and solution the dharmic dilemma of a war which was both just and pernicious. The dilemma was by no means new to the epic, nor is it ever satisfactorily resolved there, yet the Gita provides a unique religious and philosophical context in which it can be faced, recognized, and dealt with. Whatever the further thrust of Krsna's teaching and its elaborations, the Gita addresses itself in the first place to a specific issue that the Bharata war posed to a more reflective age, whose attitude toward violence was changing.
The Bhagavadgita as Revelation
In the sacred literature of Hinduism the Bhagavadgita occupies both an extremely important and a very peculiar place. Its importance as a religious text is demonstrated by its uniquely pan-Hindu influence. There are other texts that have found a somewhat comparable universal acceptance in Hinduism, for example the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and some of the Dharmasadstras such as Manu and Yajñavalkya, but because of their subject matter, scope, and objectives their religious importance has not been felt so profoundly as that of the Gita. Although these works often bear on matters religious and ethical, their message is overshadowed by the Gita's. In later literatures expressing a religious inspiration the fundamental texts belong either to specific schools, like the great mimamsa and Vedanta commentaries, or to specific sects, like many of the Puranas; neither of these sets of works has the suprascholastic or suprasectarian relevance of the Gita. At the same time many of these texts, for instance in Vedanta, assert this relevance of the Gita, as witness Sankara's, Bhaskara's, and Ramanuja's commentaries, to mention only a few. However variously such scholars may interpret the Gita, its authority is not at issue. The devotional Puranas of course breathe with the life of the Gita.
It is this universal acceptance of the revelatory relevance of the Gita that makes it so unique. For even before it was composed or "revealed" (ca. 200 B.C. is a likely date), orthodox thought had defined the nature and scope of revelation in such terms as might well have excluded the Gita, or firmly consigned it to a lower level of authority where it would have withered away or at best been retained as a sectarian work of limited appeal.
What was "revelation" for the orthodox brahmanist thinker in 200 B.C.? Primarily the brahman, a word that in one of its connotations designates the Veda. The more general terms used were sruta, "that which is heard," and sruti, "knowledge by hearing." As the words indicate, revelation was conceived as a body of knowledge orally transmitted by a teacher to his pupil, who thus heard it. Although almost any teaching could be so described, the terms had the specialized meaning of that teaching which a srotriya, an expert in sruti, conveyed to a student who had passed through the second birth of initiation: that is to say, at best a student from the three twiceborn classes, but most commonly a brahmin. This teaching would ideally comprise the entire Vedic corpus from the oldest hymns to the Upanisadic texts, but practically limits were set upon it by the branch (sakha) of a particular Veda (e.g., Yajurveda) to which teacher and student belonged.
Despite these limitations of class and hereditary affiliation, this was the brahman that was heard. It was without beginning, for it stretched backward through the uninterrupted succession of teachers and students to the beginning, when it was given along with creation and then discovered by the primordial seers. It was without an author, human or divine, since it was part of creation; moreover, were it authored it would of necessity be flawed by the author's imperfections, and its authority diminished. It thus validated itself insofar as it was the sole source of knowledge about matters lying beyond the senses.
Excerpted from "The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata"
Copyright © 1981 The University of Chicago.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For me, this is the best Baghavad Gita translation. Van Buitenen does not seem to have as much of a philosophical agenda as many other translations. The Sanskrit is included (for those of you with a sanskrit dictionary) and the English on the facing page.
The reason why I purchased this translation is because it was recommended by Douglas Brooks in his book "Poised for Grace", which is a book of Annotations on the Bhagavad Gita from a Tantric view. I enjoyed how the left page is in Sanskrit; but, the right page is in English. Even though most of us can't read the Sanskrit, I still found it fascinating to see the ancient text. It took me a minute to figure out the numbering system, too, since this version is not broken down into chapters. This was different for me at first because one of the reasons why I purchased this book was for a Study Group/Yoga Book Club. When comparing with the others, their translations were broken down into chapters, yet this one is broken down by verses/paragraph form. However, this does add more of a poetic element to the story.