The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most revered of Indian scriptures. Though it is much later than the Vedas, and does not constitute part of the revealed literature of the Hindus, it occupies a distinct and in some respects unrivaled place in Indian philosophical and religious literature. While it is almost conventional to view it is a separate text, it is in fact a part of the Mahabharata, and relays the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna. The occasion for these teachings was furnished by the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who are also related to each other. As the battle is about to begin, Arjuna, one of the five Pandava princes, throws down his bow and arrow, and confesses his inability to kill his own cousins and kinsmen, as well as those revered teachers who had been the common tutors of the Kauravas and Pandavas. Krishna then delivers an oration, urging Arjuna to perform his duty, to be the warrior that he is, and it is these teachings that are encapsulated in the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord.

The teachings of the Gita have been the subject of much interpretation. The Gita counsels us to retain our equanimity, and says unequivocally that the sthitha-prajna , or the being preserved in wisdom, is moved to neither excessive joy nor excessive sorrow. Krishna is understood as recommending that we must fulfill our duties, but never with an eye to being rewarded for our activities; and that whatever travails the flesh may be heir to, the soul is always immortal. Thus, truly speaking, we do not have it within our power to kill anyone, nor can we be killed by anyone; and if Arjuna should imagine that he has such power, he has failed to understand the nature of the divine. The Gita lays out several paths to emancipation: for those inclined towards activity or service to humankind through works, there is karma yoga, just as those inclined towards devotion can practice bhakti yoga. The intellectually inclined can veer towards jnana yoga, the path of knowledge and intellectual discrimination. The eleventh chapter contains some of the most celebrated verses of the Gita. As these teachings have been delivered by Krishna, who however appears in human form, and that too as as the humble charioteer of Arjuna, the Pandava prince must be brought to the realization that he is in the presence of the Lord himself. Krishna consequently reveals to Arjuna his cosmic form, and Arjuna is dazzled by the vision of the Supreme Deity.

There are hundreds of commentaries on the Gita, and in modern times no great Hindu figure has failed to leave behind an interpretive work on this philosophical poem. The earliest, and still most moving, of the commentaries is the twelfth-century work by Jnaneshvar, a Marathi poet-saint, called the Jnaneshvari. From the purely literary and devotional standpoint, this work is without comparison. In the late nineteenth century, the Gita was put to different use. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his magisterial interpretation, the Gita-Rahasya, suggested that the Gita urges us to action. It is the devotionalism of the Hindus that, Tilak was to argue, made them incapable of defending the country against foreign invaders. Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna to take up arms and perform his duty as a warrior was taken literally by the armed revolutionaries who now declared the Gita to be their indispensable bedside companion. But Mahatma Gandhi, who was inclined to view the teachings of the Gita as an allegorical representation of the conflict between knowledge and ignorance (rather than good and evil, if I may add that caveat) within each person, insisted upon the centrality of the Gita’s teaching that we must perform our duties without expecting the fruits of our labor. Gandhi called the Gita the ‘Gospel of Selfless Action’. Among the modern commentaries, the most notable ones, besides those by Tilak and Gandhi, are by Aurobindo, Vinoba Bhave, Vivekananda, and Ramana Maharishi. There are numerous recitations of the Gita as well, and the Gita has drawn the attention of many prominent Western writers, such as T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood.

There are many English translations of the Gita: perhaps the most readable of these is one by Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood, though the translations of Swami Nikhilananda, S. Radhakrishnan, and Barbara Stoller Miller are both scholarly and literary. Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita is a trifle too ponderous but still unmatched.