Most of us who study the Bhagavad Gita consider it a Hindu text and relate to its teachings in the context of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. This can lead to several misunderstandings and misinterpretations at a very foundation level and we end up missing its universal purport and application. To avoid these pitfalls we must understand some historical facts about the Gita. I have picked the top 5 things that I think we must know if we want to understand the import of the Bhagavad Gita correctly:
1. There was no concept of religious identity at the time when Gita was spoken. Today we take religious identities and conditionings as a given. During the time of the Kurukshetra war in India, there we no Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Jews. So, the word ‘Dharma’ has nothing to do with religion. Dharma refers to one’s duty or one’s obligations in life, based on one’s station (student, married, retirement or monkhood) in life.
2. When Gita was spoken (or composed), there were no temples. The concept of idol worship and temple worship in India dates back to 5th or 6th Century CE (AD) as places of worship is post 6th Century AD idea. Bhagavad Gita contains the essence of the Upanishads, that formed the end portions of the Vedas. The Vedic age was between 1500 BC and 600 BC. The Vedas were composed in this period and this gives this age the name. So clearly one must not relate the teaching of the Gita or the dharma it talks about to the current day format or practices of religion. The Bhagavadgita is an episode recorded in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic poem of ancient India. Historians date Bhagavad Gita to the 1st or 2nd Century CE. So, the wisdom it espouses dates back before the temple and idol worship era.
3. The Krishna of the Gita and the Krishna of the Bhagavatam are considered the same by the masses of India. Bhagavatam is a Purana, containing a collection of stories, anecdotes and could conversations which date back to the 6th Century CE. The Bhagavata Purana, like other Puranas, discusses a wide range of topics including cosmology, astronomy, genealogy, geography, legend, music, dance, yoga and culture. It has undergone several revisions and changes over the centuries. Manuscripts of the same are available only from the 18th century and they show many variations and inconsistencies. Everything the masses know about Krishna either comes from a part of Bhagavatam where his exploits as a person are described or from folk tales and poetic compositions written much later than Bhagavatam. So, it is not a good idea to identify Krishna of Gita with Krishna of Bhagavatam.
4. The idea of Bhakti taught in the Gita is not the same as the commonplace understanding of Bhakti or Devotion today. The present-day form of singing, dancing, and feasting Bhakti has its origin in the Puranas and was popularized by the Bhakti movement between the 15th and 17th Century CE(AD). Bhakti movement preached against the caste system using the local languages so that the message reached the masses. It served a key role in the national integration of India. Today, Bhakti refers to devotion to God, being a strong believer in God and making efforts to appease that God with or without seeking favours in return. In most cases it means being a member of a tribe who with common belief system. In Gita, Bhakti means ‘devotion to one’s duty aligned with one’s nature and occupation’ (svadharma).
5. When we study Bhagavad Gita, we study a Moksha Shastra, a guide to Moksha through karma yoga and Jnana yoga, and not enrol on a new sub-religion centred on Lord Krishna. Vedas, including Vedanta, are texts that neither mention their authors nor worship them- they only emphasize the teaching. Whether we believe Krishna was a historical person or not, whether the Krishna of the Mahabharata is the same as Krishna of the Bhagavatam or not, or whether Krishna was an Avatar of Vishnu or not- is immaterial and irrelevant to the study of the Gita. As the message of the Gita aligns with the message of the Upanishads, its teachings are timeless, and its appeal is universal and applies to people from all walks of life and times. I have discussed the Religion of Gita in a separate blog post that I have hyperlinked here.
Bhagavad Gita is a timeless spiritual conversation between a pupil and his teacher woven into poetry. Through this conversation, we learn that Arjuna’s despondency is similar to ours, and as his mind and intellect become clear so do our own. My journey of studying, pondering over and applying the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita has been very fulfilling. If there is one text that I would deem enough to find peace, freedom and love in life, it would be the Bhagavad Gita. It’s the only philosophy one need’s to live a happy, fulfilling and healthy life. I suggest you take this journey as well and bear the above five points in mind before you take off.
All the very best!