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The Bhagavadgita is a self-contained episode in the Mahabharata, which is a vast collection of legends and metaphysical doctrine that reflects the history and culture of the whole of Hindu civilisation.

At the bottom of the page is a book list. It includes Maharishi's translation and wise commentary on the first six chapters, seven more translations of the whole poem, and Dr. P. Sinha's claimed pristine Gita (1987) of just 86 verses. In the 9th century the poem consisted of 700 verses, and has since become one of the best known works of world literature. For example, 273 English translations of it were counted in 1982, "And new translations have appeared . . . in the three decades since their study," Richard Davis informs (2015, 155).

Setting

Dhritarashtra and Pandu were brothers and local kings in ancient India. Pandu, married to Kunti and Madri, was cursed for a sin while hunting. Kunti begot three children, Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna. Madri had twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. Pandu passed away and his sons, the Pandavas, were brought up by the blind Dhritarashtra along with his sons known as Kauravas.

Dhritarashtra had a hundred and one children by his wife Gandhari, the poem says. She could have been fertile for many, many years and had twins and triplets "in the bargain" too.

The Pandavas and Kauravas grew up together, but the Kauravas were unable to tolerate the Pandavas. At last a war was at hand. When both sides were prepared to commence the battle, the sage Veda Vyasa approached Dhritarashtra and said,

"If you wish to see this terrible carnage with your own eyes I can give you the gift of vision."

The king replied, "I have no desire to see this slaughter with my own eyes, but I should like to hear all the details of the battle."

Then Vyasa conferred divine sight on a man called Sanjaya, and told the king, "Sanjaya will describe to you all the incidents of the war. He will directly see, hear or otherwise come to know everything exactly as it happens."

After the ten days of continued war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, when the great warrior Bhishma was thrown down from his chariot by Arjuna, Sanjaya told the news to Dhritarashtra. In agony the king asked Sanjaya to narrate the full details of the previous ten days war, from the very beginning and in all detail as it happened.

Alternatives

"Bhagavad Gita" means the song of the Lord, the words of the Lord, the words of the Blessed One, and so on. The Gita is a part of the very long Mahabharata epic. Some words in it are translated differently, among other reasons because they can mean several things.

Krishna is called Bhagavan, or "the blessed or fortunate one". The Sanskrit word comes from the noun from the noun bhaga, which means "fortune, wealth". Added meanings are "owning fortune, blessed, prosperous, illustrious, divine, venerable, holy". "(the) Blessed Lord" and "the Blessed One" are among the translations of Bhagavan.

The word 'Bhagavan' may take on different meanings to different people and in different traditions. In some Hindu traditions it is used to indicate the Supreme Being having a personal side (a personal God). Bhagavan may also be used as a title of veneration, often translated as "Lord", as in "Bhagavan Krishna". Buddha is also venerated with this title, which is often translated into "the Blessed One".

"Loka", realm, plane, plane of existence, is another term worth telling of. Prabhupada translates it into "planet", while Sivananda tends to use "world" and "worlds" for it. The meaning not to be missed is "realm". For example, swargaloka is heaven (swarga = heaven, loka = plane (realm, region, place, space, company etc).

Names of Krishna

There are forty different Krishna names used by Arjuna. Each name refers to an exploit, a characteristic, an attribute or a quality. The different names may not help a first-time reader who is unfamiliar with the Mahabharata. Names and meanings are in the Gold Scales glossary or in Chidbhavananda's text and commentary, pp. 1007 and 1008. [Various names of Krishna and Arjuna]

The Little Gita

The presumed "Post-Vedic" Bhagavad Gita, or "Little Gita" of ca. 85 verses are contained in the three first chapters. The singled out, presumably first verses without Dr. Phulgenda Sinha's detailed verse commentaries are here: [A Post-Vedic Bhagavad Gita]

Words by W. J. Johnson

The Gita translator W. J. Johnson writes (2008, ix):

Some of the Gita's teachings have, in a generalized form, become cornerstones of belief for many . . .

Even within scholarly Sanskritic circles, there have been almost as many interpretations as interpreters or schools of thought. The history of the meaning of the text, so far as we can trace it, has therefore always been that of its commentaries and interpretations. . .

Study of the Gita continues to be instructive . . . the Gita touches on and develops in its own way many key themes . . . and it attempts to reconcile diverging world views.

Also:

[T]wo armies are facing each other. Arjuna, the great warrior, the great archer, is in his chariot, driven by Krishna, and the battle is about to start. Suddenly Arjuna is overcome by apparently disabling moral scruples . . . This is totally unexpected . . . Krishna addresses the reluctant warrior.

If the way Arjuna is portrayed in the Gita is unexpected in the context of the rest of the Mahabharata, the treatment of Krishna is astonishing. More than an ally or even a teacher (although he is both those), he reveals himself as the universal God . . . so overwhelming is it that Arjuna finds it not only too much to bear but also apparently too much to remember.

The Bhagavad Gita finishes . . . at the moment in the epic when total war begins. After eighteen days of carnage, the Pandavas [Arjuna, brothers and friends] emerge victorious and Yudhishthira becomes king. Later, . . . Krishna is killed in a hunting accident in the forest. The Pandava brothers hand on their hard-won kingdom [to their relative Parikshit] and set off for the Himalayas in search of the king of the gods' heaven, but only Yudhishthira, the embodiment of Dharma, reaches it alive. The others, including Arjuna, the troubled warrior of the Gita, perish on the way. (Ibid. xix)

Finally, in this round:

Technically the Gita does not belong to the uncreated, beginningless and self-authenticating or revealed category of Vedic literature (the Veda itself). Rather it belongs to that tradition (literally, 'what has been remembered') which implicitly derives its authority from the Veda. But by Vaishnavas in particular, and increasingly by most Hindus, the Gita came to be regarded as having the same religious authority as a revealed text that is to say, to all intents and purposes it was accorded an autonomous authority worthy of commentarial exegesis. . . .

[A]ll translation inevitably involves interpretation, and any translation which seeks . . . to render most of the Sanskrit technical terminology into English, interprets more than others. Where the Sanskrit original may remain open to a variety of readings, the English translation fixes on one, not arbitrarily so in the eyes of the translator . . . (Ibid, xx)

One more version of the Bhagavad Gita follows. Swami Sivananda's Sanskrit transliteration of the verses is freely used, and an English translation is devised.

Sublimity has many outlets (A tale)

Pride once entered into the heart of Arjuna, a friend of Krishna. Krishna, reading the heart of his friend, took him one day for a walk. They had not gone far when Arjuna saw a strange Brahmin eating dry grass as food, while carrying a sword.

Arjuna went up to the man and said: "Sir, you live on dry grass. Why then do you carry this sharp sword?"

The Brahmin: "It is to punish four persons if I chance to meet them."

Arjuna: "Who are they?"

The Brahmin: The first is the wretch Narada."

Arjuna: "Why, what has he done?"

The Brahmin: "Why, look at the audacity of that fellow; he is perpetually keeping my Lord awake with his songs and music. He has no consideration whatever for the comfort of the Lord. Day and night, in and out of season, he disturbs the peace of the Lord by his prayers and praises."

Arjuna: "Who is the second person?"

The Brahmin: "The impudent Draupadi."

Arjuna: "What is her fault?"

The Brahmin: "Look at the inconsiderate audacity of the woman. She was so rash as to call my beloved Lord just at the moment he was going to dine. He had to give up his dinner and go to the Kamyaka Vana to save the Pandavas from the curse of Durvasa. And her presumption went so far that she even caused my beloved Lord to eat the impure remnant of her own food."

Arjuna: "Who is the third?"

The Brahmin: "It is the heartless Prahlada. He was so cruel that he did not hesitate for a moment to ask my Lord to enter the boiling cauldron of oil, to be trodden under the heavy feet of the elephants and to break through an adamantine pillar."

Arjuna: "Who is the fourth?"

The Brahmin: "The wretch Arjuna."

Arjuna: "Why, what fault has he committed?"

The Brahmin: "Look at his felony. He made my beloved Lord take the mean office of a charioteer of his car in the great war of Kurukshetra."

Arjuna was amazed at the depth of the Brahmin's devotion and love, and he gave up thinking that he was the best devotee of all.

(Ramakrishna 1974, tale 77, retold)

  Contents  


Bhagavad Gita, Literature  

Chidbhavananda, Swami. 2012. The Bhagavad Gita. 25th impression. Tirupparaitturai, IN: Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam ⍽▢⍽ The Sanskrit text is explained in detail, verse by verse.

Davis, Richard H. 2015. The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Fosse, Lars Martin. 2007. The Bhagavad Gita: The Original Sanskrit and An English Translation. Woodstock, NY: YogaVidya.com ⍽▢⍽ Accurate and accessible.

Johnson, W. H. 2008. The Bhagavad-Gita. Oxford World's Classics. Reissue ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press ⍽▢⍽ Up-to-date, clear and accurate, scholarly - with an introduction and notes, including notes on metre, on the pronunciation of Sanskrit names, and a list of Sanskrit names and terms.

Nikhilananda, Swami. 1952. The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center (1944). ⍽▢⍽ A literal translation with Adi Sankara's commentary in direct and simple notes to each verse.

Patton, Laurie L. 2008. The Bhagavad Gita. London: Penguin Classics ⍽▢⍽ Professor Patton has tried to make each verse a poem by breaking up the lines a lot.

Ramakrishna. Tales and Parables of Sri Ramakrishna. 5th ed. Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1974.

Rosen, Steven J. 2007. Krishna's Song A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita. London: Praeger ⍽▢⍽ A compilation of short essays written by Rosen over the years on Bhagavad Gita.

Sinha, Phulgenda. 1987. The Gita as It Was: Rediscovering the Original Bhagavadgita. Paperback ed. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company ⍽▢⍽ The 86 verses included relate to Samkhya and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

Sivananda, Swami, tr. 2003. The Bhagavad Gita. Shivanandanagar: The Divine Life Trust Society

van Buitenen, J. A. B., tr., ed. The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata. London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. ⍽▢⍽ A widely acclaimed translation - clear, simple, and scholarly.

Yogi, Maharishi Mahesh. 1990. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation and Commentary with Sanskrit Text. Chapters 1 to 6. Reprint ed. London: Arkana / Penguin Books (1969). ⍽▢⍽ A translation with a wise commentary to the verses in the six first chapters.

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