Bhagavad Gita

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) (ca. 200 B.c.)

The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) has long been the treasured scripture of devout Hindus. A moral guidebook known simply as the Gita, the Sanskrit narrative is the sixth volume of the Mahabharata, the epic of the Bharata dynasty and the world's longest poem, attributed to Vyasa; earliest known references to the Mahabharata are around the fourth century B.c. In 700 verses, the Gita echoes the moral thinking of northern Indian Brahminism, a monotheism espoused by a brotherhood of disciples of Vishnu, the supreme god. As tribes migrated across the Indian subcontinent, they spread the influence of the Gita to the Maurya Empire, an amalgamation of petty kingdoms. Like the Greek and Roman stoics, Hindus chose forbearance over anguish at ongoing power struggles and personal calamities. Devotees of the Gita gained serenity of body and spirit by contemplating the soul's release from its cyclical reincarnation into the pain and uncertainty of the material world, an action it shares with the Akkadian-Sumerian epic of GILGAMESH (ca. 1800 B.c.) and the samurai tales of Japan.

The Elements of Conquest

The Gita centers on a conversation between Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, and his friend and charioteer, Lord Krishna, prior to a major battle. Prince Duryodhana has seized territory from the Pandava princes, initiating the standard taking of sides through a series of alliances among lesser rulers across India. In the first stave, Arjuna, the mighty archer, captains his followers with the help of Krishna, who steers while the bowman aims and shoots. As the two advance toward their enemy on the plain of Kurukshetra in northern India, they reach a site of past struggles of over-confident conquerors. Arjuna regrets the cost of territoriality in bodies strewn across the battlefield. Many of his army are friends and relatives, notably, Karna, his enemy and half brother, whom Arjuna beheads in the Mahabharata. Arjuna admits, “I can find no means to drive away this grief… . I will not be able to dispel it even if I win a prosperous, unrivaled kingdom on earth with sovereignty like the demigods in heaven” (Bhagavad Gita 1989, 76). A model of the neophyte warrior-king, he begs his mentor, Krishna, for perspective on power gained through slaughter.

Like Moses in the Hebrew epic Exodus or like Phoenix, the wise Myrmidon adviser of Achilles in Homer's Iliad, Krishna establishes his role as the politico-religious sage of India. Before the battle begins, the mentor differentiates between material goals and the imperishability of the soul. He insists that a noble leader must think of war as a duty rather than as the source of glory or conquest. The driver reveals that he is really Vishnu in human form—the “friend of the distressed and the source of creation” (2). Through measured advice, he weans Arjuna away from terror and despair by declaring fate as the master of human affairs and death as the ultimate end for all living things. The godly voice exhorts the commander to carry out his destiny to restore order among his people. Similar in tone to the apocalyptic The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness in the DEAD SEA SCROLLS (27 B.c.), the Hindu motif of the battle of good versus evil covers 18 days of combat before the Pandavans defeat Prince Duryodhana.

Touching the Sublime

Krishna's outline of spirituality in chapter six of the Gita transcends earthly desire by directing the spirit toward a form of detachment or selflessness called yoga (yoking). He urges daily meditation, a cessation of yearning, a silent contemplation of God, an embrace of serenity, a life of balanced diet and rest, and self-control based on spiritual merger with holiness. Krishna alerts the warrior to worldly delusions, a common strand in literatures of empire that feature commanders and conquerors inflamed by greed and self-aggrandizement—for example, in WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S tragedy Julius Caesar (1599) and in William Beckford's Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1782). In place of temporal desire, Krishna recommends meditation on the all-encompassing energy that fuels the world, a mysticism that Hindus share with animists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Arjuna prays for enlightenment, “O Lord of lords … I want to know about You” (509).

The focus of godhood steadies the neophyte charioteer. With a simplicity replicated by Allah's revelation of godhood to Muhammad and by Yahweh's confrontation of Moses at the burning bush, Krishna reduces the nature of divinity to two words: “I am” (510). By reassuring Arjuna that he can never be separated from God, Krishna strips away the commander's fears: “Wherever there is Krishna … there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality” (761). The covenant with Vishnu echoes the formulaic “last words of David,” which links rule with justice: “He that ruleth over man must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Samuel 23:3).

The recounting of the Gita in subsequent literature and art includes the 1977 film Daana Veera Soora Karna, filmed in Hyderabad, India, which dramatizes Karna's relationship with Arjuna.


The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. Translated by A. C.

Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1989.

Chatterjee, Suhas. Indian Civilization and Culture. New Delhi: M. D. Publications, 1998.

2 Samuel. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986.