Ever since Sri Sankaracharya's time, the Bhagavad Gita has been recognized as one of the three authoritative and basic source books (prasthana-traya) of Vedic religion. Though Sri Sankara's Introduction to his commentary on the Gita bemoans the misinterpretation of this Text by others, we have no extant commentary or any kind of writing on the Gita that precedes him. So it is reasonable to surmise that it was Sri Sankara who for the first time lifted it up from the vast ocean of Mahabharata literature, and fixing its verse-contents at seven hundred, wrote an authoritative commentary on it, which is still studied with respect even by those who do not subscribe to his interpretation of it. We may also surmise that it must be he who gave recognition to it as an Upanisad and as Brahma Vidya - a scripture that shatters ignorance and gives the knowledge of Brahman - as it calls itself in the colophon.
It is customary to discuss the date and authorship of Hindu texts in their modern publications. We are not doing so here, as it is a futile exercise - a veritable counting of the leaves in place of eating mangoes after entering a mango garden, discussing all the numerous modern views on these questions, Robert N. Minor, a learned and impartial modern exegetical commentator on the Gita, concludes: "In summary, then, in the current state of Gita studies there is no solid evidence to show that the Gita is other than a basic unity. On the other hand, as many such as Edgerton and Zaehner have shown, the Gita when understood in its own terms, is quite consistent and its parts on further study are interrelated. However, it is also not possible to identify the Gita's author with any probability, and then another question in the introductory matter remains unsolved." And regarding the date of the Gita from the modern point of view, he concludes after taking into account all existing speculative theories: "We must tentatively date the Gita to 150 B.C. without much evidence." Under the circumstances, the Indian tradition of these subjects remains intact, and it consists in this: the Gita is a revelation given by Sri Krsna, the purnavatara, to humanity through his friend and disciple Arjuna at a critical moment of his life, and it has been put into its present form by Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa. As the well-known Sanskrit couplet says: "The Gita is the most excellent nectarine milk, drawn by the cowherd's son Krsna as its milker, from the cow of the Upanisads, using Arjuna as the calf. Al men of purified intellect are the consumers of that milk."
Presenting as it does a credible world-view and a faith that is both broad and inspiring its appeal is to the conscience of spiritually sensitive sections of humanity everywhere, irrespective of their religious affiliations. We have therefore described it as the scripture of Mankind. It is for this reason that it has become one of the most oft-translated works, English itself having more that fifty translations, besides other in all the Indian languages and in some of the other foreign languages as well. A recognition of this universality of the Gita is made in a slightly garbled form by Farquhar, the well-known Christian missionary scholar of conservative views, when he says that 'Jesus is the reality of which the Gita would have been a Christian, had he known Jesus. Far more correct it would have been to say that had the author of the Gita and the deliverer of the Sermon on the Mount met, they would have recognized in each other a kindred spirit teaching an identical message, only with modifications as necessitated by variations in time and place.
The Gita teaches man the goal to be attained by him and the means for attaining it. The goal is the Supreme Personal-Impersonal Brahman and the means, the paths of knowledge, work, psychic control and devotion. Differences in the interpretations of the Gita among the Acaryas, both ancient and modern have arisen due to their varying perceptions on the relations between Brahman and the Jiva and on the relative importance of the four paths.
Critics may find in this a vein of inconsistency and unreliability that stands in the way of recognizing the value of the Gita as a guide to man and as a universal scripture. It is, however, forgotten by such critics that a universal scripture must contain in it several strands of teachings suited to men of different stages of development. These varying strands are not mutually contradictory or incompatible. They are the visions of the same Reality from the points of view of Jivas at different stages of development, dominated by different dispositions. The presence of this feature, in place of being a disqualification, is a proof of the genuineness of the inspiration behind this Text. For, God's gifts are not for a few only but for all who have need of them, and everyone can understand something from them provided one has spiritual sensitivity. That is why the Gita has several interpretations coming from Acaryas representing different spiritual traditions. In spite of their differences, they have to be accepted as embodying the varied views included in the inspired literature that is the Gita.
In the annotations given in the present volume, comments have been confined to technically important verses for limiting the size of the volume. The comments have got only the Text as such in view, without identification with any particular school of thought. But help has been sought from classical interpretations as well as from the modern exegetical commentators like Zaehner and Minor. The overall point of view adopted is what is contained in Swami Vivekananda's famous restatement of the Vedanta in the following aphoristic dictum:
Every soul is potentially Divine.
The goal of life is to manifest this Divine within by controlling Nature, external and internal.
Do this either by work, or worship, or by psychic control, or philosophy, by one or more or all of these- and be free.
This is the whole of Religion. Doctrines or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms are but secondary details.
Amidst the numerous extant translations of the Gita, a new edition of it like the present one may not in any way look very significant. It has, however, this much significance: it provides an economy edition of the Text, with all facilities for serious students to study the verses - these facilities being introductory summary of each chapter, the Text in Devangari, its transliteration into Roman script, the prose order with word for word meaning in Roman script, running translation and annotations wherever necessary. It is hoped that this edition will meet the need of a large cross section of spiritual enquirers who want to study the Gita in the original.
The Appeal of the Gita
Among the world's scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular texts. Its popularity is demonstrated by the fact that next to the Bible it is perhaps the most widely translated of scriptural texts, and in several languages, both Indian and foreign, its translations are to be counted in dozens. This tremendous general appeal of the Bhagavad-Gita "vas voiced forth in prophetic words by Warren Hastings, the first British Governor- General of India (1773-85)-a personality one would least expect to deal with such a subject. In his Introduction to the first-ever English translation of the scripture by Charles Wilkins (1784), Hastings has remarked that "works as the Gita would live long after the British dominion in India has ceased to exist" and that it contains passages "elevated to a track of sublimity into which our habits of judgement will find it difficult to pursue."
In India it has attracted the attention of all the Acaryas (teachers) of the Vedanta philosophy, of which it is recognised as one of the three source books, ever since the great Sankaracarya wrote his commentary on it. Following Sankara, all the Acaryas of the different schools of Vedanta wrote commentaries on this great text, each interpreting it in support of his own thesis. It has been given the status of an Upanishad, a revealed scripture embodying the quintessence of the Vedic. revelation, as enunciated in the following- oft-quoted verse: "All the Upanishads are the cows, the cowherd boy Krishna is the milker, Arjuna is the calf, the pure-minded are the consumers, and the ambrosial Gita is the delicious milk".
It is not the ancient Indian thinkers alone, but also the leaders of modern times, that have taken it as a text for the exposition of their highest thoughts. Thus we have got in modern times Tilak's Gita Rahasya, Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita and Mahatma Gandhi's Annsakti Yoga as examples of the continuing preference and admiration of the Indian mind for this great scriptural text of seven hundred verses.
What is the secret of this tremendous appeal of the Bhagavad-Gita? Probably it consists in the fact that it deals with a practical problem of life, namely, how a man could discharge his duties as a member of an imperfect social order and at the same time realise his highest spiritual destiny envisaged by the sublime metaphysics and theology enshrined in the Vedic revelation. The Gita, therefore, begins with an ethical problem, and in solving this problem, a noble devotional philosophy is expounded.
The Ethical Problem in the Gita
The ethical problem is graphically depicted at the outset through the predicament of Arjuna. Arjuna is the leader of the Pandava host, and his whole life has been a preparation to meet his cousins, the Kauravas, in battle, defeat them, and wrest from them the kingdom they had usurped' from himself and his brothers. The Gita scene is cast in the battlefield of Kuruksetra where the armies of both the sides have gathered, and Arjuna is called upon to fulfil his historic mission by leading his men against the army of the Kauravas. Arjuna realises at this critical moment that it is a fratricidal war, and that its consequence will be the destruction of the very friends and relatives for the sake of whom men usually seek wealth and kingdom, as well as the social chaos consequent on the holocaust of the flower of Kaurava and Pandava chivalry. A war-weariness and a world" weariness together come upon him with dramatic suddenness. Under their impact he forgets all his social and family obligations, and wants to take to an ascetic life instead of indulging in what he conceives to be a senseless carnage under the guise of duty (Swadharma). He becomes a pacifist and a quietist all of a sudden.
The conflict here is between a sudden and purely personal inclination bursting on one's mind and a social duty, the avoidance of which under that inclination would have meant ruin to a whole community that had laid its trust in one. Sri Krsna, though God incarnate, is Arjuna's friend, charioteer and spiritual counsellor, and he is called upon to resolve the conflict in Arjuna's mind and restore him to a sense of moral equilibrium by finding a new sanction for action.
Inevitability of Action in Life
In the protracted dialogue between the teacher and the disciple, the final answer to the problem is given only at the end, out the mind of Arjuna is prepared for it by a series of talks on the inexorable nature of work in the life of man and on the utter futility of Arjuna's resolve to withdraw from a life of action. Man's body and mind are parts of Prakrti (Nature) which is dynamic in its constitution. As a product of Prakrti , action is the law of life for the mind and the body, and the very process of living is impossible without it. And so its elimination can only mean practice of idleness according to one's convenience, and he who attempts it under a false impression- of his spiritual greatness, will end in rank hyprocrisy and spiritual stagnation. Only one, who has overcome the body idea completely and is established in the sense that he is not the body but the immortal, ever- conscious and ever-blissful Atman, can be actionless; for, he no longer identifies himself with the body, the product of Nature.
Besides, from the ethical point of view, every one with body- consciousness has to remember that he is living in a community of similar beings governed by a cyclic law of mutual exchange of services and commodities. If he does not contribute his share to it by means of work but enjoys the benefits of others' work for the maintenance and comfort of his own body, he lives the life of an exploiter and a thief. He has no moral basis and hence no spiritual progress.
Even in the case of a person who has been emancipated from identification with the body, it is better that he works. He has not the compulsion of duty as in the case of the ignorant man, but he may feel the compulsion of love, which makes one work for lokasamgraha or world-welfare. His actions are not self-centred and so have no binding effect on him. Work there-fore is the law of life for the ignorant, and an expression of love for the enlightened, the work of the former being self-centred and of the latter God-centred.
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