Overview of the Gita through a Selection of 18 verses
The context of the Gita is well-known. The psychological collapse of Arjuna right on the starting day of the 18 days’ Mahabharata War prompts Lord Krishna to give a long sermon to him to bring him back to the the reality of the situation. It is in the second chapter of the Gita of eighteen chapters that this teaching starts, first with an enunciation of the universal fundamentals of Vedanta regarding the impermanence of the visible body and the permanence of the invisible soul. The major messages of Krishna follow one by one from thereon. Each of these messages is couched and repeated in different formats and shlokas. We select 18 such shlokas, some of them half-verses or quarter-verses, together adding up to 18 full verses, but all of them collectively giving an exhaustive overview of the entire Gita. The selection itself is presented in a tabular chart. The subjective factor of the author in selecting these shlokas and not some others, may be open to question, but the purport of these shlokas giving a total overview, it is hoped, cannot be questioned. In what follows, we shall deal only with these eighteen verses in the order in which they occur in the Gita. Doing a nididhyAsana of these verses should help us understand the full purport of the Gita To follow them in actual practice is to rise up to the apex of Spirituality.
Gita itself being a Plan of Action, the first major message is a plan of action as to how one fulfills one’s obligations and rightful duties, the discharge of which is certainly a must.
yogasthaH kuru karmANi sangam tyaktvA dhananjaya /
siddhy-asiddhyoH samo bhUtvA samatvaM yoga ucyate // 2-47.
kuru karmANi : Do your works, duties, obligations. How? YogasthaH : Being in Yoga, located in Yoga, anchored in Yoga. What is Yoga? The definition comes in the second half of the same verse. Siddhy-asiddhyoH samo bhUtvA. Siddhi is success (in the undertaking) and asiddhi is failure. Samo bhUtvA : being equanimous. Equanimity (samatvaM) in the face of success or failure is said to be yoga. So one should discharge his obligations irrespective of whether they are successful or not. To that extent one should be detached. Sangam tyaktvA: renouncing all attachment or passionate association. This shloka contains almost all the ingredients of the great karma yoga that Gita has enunciated for all the world. Irrevocable obligation to discharge one’s duties; attitude of detachment in that discharge; no expectation of success or worry about failure; equanimity with respect to both. These are the key ingredients of Karma Yoga, the first message of the Gita.
yogasthaH is the key word in this shloka. It says: Be anchored in yoga. And this anchoring oneself in yoga becomes the ‘logo’ of the Gita, if I may be permitted to adapt this usage.
yukta AsIta mat-paraH . 2 – 61, 2nd quarter
Anchored (remaining firm) in yoga, be seated still, thinking of Me only as the only Supreme – says this characteristic phrase, ‘Three words only which contain in seed the whole gist of the highest secret of the Gita’ remarks Aurobindo, commenting on this. The word ‘mat-paraH’ contains essentially the final message of the Gita (18 – 66, which we shall see as the last entry in our selection of 18 shlokas). ‘Me as Supreme’ also means, according to Shankaracharya, there is no other Supreme.
‘AsIta’ should not be interpreted as saying that one should sit in isolation in a corner all the time. Because anyway one has to discharge obligations. That means one has to use the senses and be involved in the activities of the outside world through the sense organs of cognition as well as of action. But this has to be done according to the oft-repeated norm of the Gita:
rAga-dveshha-viyuktaistu vishhayAn indriyaish-caran . 2-64, first half
vishhayAn indriyaish-caran – you certainly have to be occupied in the transactional world with the outside objects through your senses. But this has to be done without the play of attachment or hate. rAga is attachment; dveshha is hate, dislike or envy. Viyukta means ‘devoid of’. It is the opposite of ‘yukta’ which means united or anchored, - the first word in the logo: yukta AsIta mat-paraH. So rAga-dveshha-viyuktaiH indriyaiH is the normative prescription of the GitA. The senses have to be controlled so that they do not promote passionate attachment or its associate, a hateful dislike.
Incidentally note that in the list of the selections tabulated at the end, we have categorized the entries under six headings. The first five headings are: Equanimity (or brahma-bhAva, the attitude of seeing everything as Brahman, the Supreme Reality); Sense control; Karma; Bhakti; Surrender. These five are the only five facets of all the messages of the Gita. Every message contained in the Gita-shlokas can more or less be classified under one or more of these five. Of course there is a general category (which is the sixth heading) in which we classify statements that are mostly just Vedantic affirmations.
Continuing our overview, certainly great rishis may do work devoid of hate and attachment; but how are we ordinary people supposed to be following ‘rAga-dveshha-viyuktaiH indriyaiH vishhayAn caran’? For this the Gita gives its hallmark advice: Do everything as a yaj~na. And the reason is stated:
Yaj~nArthAt karmaNo.anyatra loko.ayaM karma-bandhanaH: 3-9, first half.
Yaj~na is one of a few technical words that Krishna uses as a jargon with special significance, peculiar to the Gita, of all Hindu scriptures.. Krishna gives the word yaj~na a profound meaning. Yaj~na means, in the Gita, any voluntary acceptance of suffering or discipline undertaken unselfishly and equanimously as an offering to one’s deity of dedication. This half verse says that anything done other than as a yaj~na, creates a bondage that will throw you back into the cycle of transmigration (birth and death). Only unselfish dedicated action will save you from this bondage. The deity of dedication could be the most intimate person like a father or a mother, or it could be a most revered person like a Guru or a boss, or it could be an abstract cause like one’s Nation or Society or Dharma.
And in doing one’s karma, which is nothing but the discharge of one’s prescribed obligations, one should not have the feeling that it is one’s own doing. ‘I am not the doer’ is another major message that the Gita underlines throughout in various formats. In other words ‘Actionlessness’ is the ideal to strive for. Only a person deluded by his ego thinks he is the doer. It is PrakRRiti that does everything through its GuNas. This is the content of the analysis of Karma that the Gita does through many of its shlokas. In the very beginning of this analysis we have this declaration:
prakRRiteH kriyamANAni guNaiH karmANi sarvashaH /
ahaMkAra-vimUDhAtmA kartAham-iti manyate // 3- 27.
PrakRRiti means Nature. But this is not the ‘Nature’ configured by rivers, mountains and the plant world as expressions of the five fundamental elements of God’s creation. PrakRRiti in this context means one’s ‘svabhAva’ – innate nature which each person brings from various thoughts and actions experienced in one’s previous lives. This PrakRRiti is nothing but a mixture of three guNas – satva, rajas and tamas – which express themselves in various combinations in man’s nature. These guNas – tendencies – are what contributes to the person’s doings. The ego-overpowered person thinks he is the doer of everything whereas it is his nature that dominates the doings. That is why the ultimate message for him is to monitor and control his nature. This controlling has to be done amidst all his transactional work in this world. So the Lord says:
nirAshIr nirmamo bhUtvA yudhyasva vigata-jvaraH / 3 – 30, second half.
This is a direction to Arjuna to do his fighting (yudhyasva) without hopes or expectations and without any thought of ‘I’ and ‘Mine’. For us ordinary people the same direction means we should continue our activities in the transactional world without any selfish desires or castles in the air and without any possessive orientation, hidden or otherwise. The further attribute ‘vigata-jvaraH’ is a pregnant phrase. To ask Arjuna to ‘fight’ without excitement is itself a tall order. And we, in our vyAvahAric life, are enjoined to eschew all excitement, inspite of the multifarious occasions that certainly will provoke us to be excited either positively or negatively.
One may ask: Why do I have to eschew my excitement? What is wrong in having desires and expectations? Because nothing is ours. Everything is brahman and we, as individuals, are almost a non-entity, unless we have the realisation of the truth that we are ourselves Brahman. Therefore all questions of possessing or giving or desiring are in the realms of fancy. All of them get dissolved in the vast permeating pervasion of Brahman, the supreme Reality. This is the majestic declaration of the Lord in one of the most famous shlokas of the GitA:
brahmArpaNaM brahama-haviH brahmAgnau brahmaNA hutam /
brahmaiva tena gantavyaM brahma-karma-samAdhinA // 4 -24
This says, with an imbedded ritualistic metaphor,
Brahman is the means of the sacrificial offering. Brahman is the oblation. The fire in which the oblation is offered is also Brahman. That agent, the sacrificer too is Brahman. His action, namely, the sacrifice or hutam, is also Brahman. The fruit he has to reap is also Brahman. The action of offering is Brahman. He who concentrates thereon is the agent who repairs to Brahman.
All actions therefore have to be thrown back onto Brahman as the repository or base of everything. That is why the concluding say on Karma yoga is given by the statement:
Sarva-karmANi manasA sannyasyAste sukhaM vashI /
navadvAre pure dehI naiva kurvanna kArayan // 5 – 13.
It must be said to the credit of the Gita that the words are so tightly and effectively placed, so that nothing is missed, even in a repetition. Note the word ‘manasA’ here. The renunciation of all works that is envisaged here is to be done (only) by the mind; it is not a physical stoppage of works. Mentally renouncing (manasA sannyasya) all works and remaining self-controlled (vashI), the embodied being (dehI) happily sits (sukhaM Aste) in the nine-gated city (nava-dvAre pure), that is, in the body, neither working (na kurvan) nor causing others to work (na kArayan). The whole shloka is an admirable affirmation of the attitude of Actionlessness (naishkarmyaM) that advaita vedanta proclaims as its key teaching on the methodology of action.
The description of karma yoga is over now. But the logo that was used in passing, namely, yukta AsIta matparaH, has not yet been elaborated. The sixth chapter takes this up step by step. The crux of the explanation comes as follows:\
Atma-samsthaM manaH kRRitvA na kimcid-api cintayet / 6-25, second half.
Anchoring the mind in the Self (Atman), think of nothing whatsoever. This ‘thinking of nothing’ does not mean that the mind is to be vacant or void. Thinking means there is a thinker and there is an object of thought. Here the process of ‘Atma-samsthaM’ (anchoring in the Self) consists of two steps. First the thought-waves in the mind are to be stilled by swallowing up all the many little waves of multiple thoughts in one great wave, one single object of concentration. When this concentration acquires a tremendous power – this is the second step of the process - it achieves oneness or identity with the anchor of the concentration, namely, the Self. Thus ‘Atma-samsthaM’ says: Be one with the Self; be the Atman!
Yes, it is a very difficult process. The mind wanders. It is fickle (cancala) and unsteady (asthira). It cannot stay with one thing and for the same reason, cannot hold on to anything steadily. This is human weakness. And nobody knows this better than Krishna. So to help us overcome this weakness He gives us the recipe, in the next shloka:
Yato yato nishcarati manash-cancalaM asthiram /
tatas-tato niyamyaitat Atmanyeva vashaM nayet //6 – 26.
Teachers of Yoga, all the world over, are likely to give various gimmicks as alternatives to this, but after all is said and done, one has to come back to this Krishna-recipe, the only recipe of its kind. There is no other. Whenever and in whatever manner the mind goes out, bring it back, says Krishna, to its anchor, that is the Atman. Atmanyeva vashaM nayet. Try and try again, ad infinitum. Na anyaH panthA ayanAya vidyate, (There is no other path for Salvation) say the Vedas.
But why does mind falter and wander like this? Why was it created fickle and unsteady? Krishna confesses that it is divine magic, mAyA:
daivI hyeshhA guNamayI mama mAyA duratyayA /
mAm-eva ye prapadyante mAyAm-etAM taranti te // 7 – 14.
Indeed this divine delusive power of Mine is hard to overcome (duratyayA); those who wholeheartedly surrender (prapdyante) themselves exclusively to Me cross over this mAyA, says the Lord. The ‘mat-paraH’ of ‘yukta AsIta matparaH’ is again emphasized here. And how does one do this surrender? Is there a methodology, a mantra? Yes, there is. There is the greatest mantra of all, namely, AUM. Using the monosyllable AUM representing Brahman and remembering Me, proclaims the Lord, whosoever goes forth leaving the body, he proceeds to the highest goal:
Om-ity-ekAksharaM brahma vyAharan mAm anusmaran /
yaH prayAti tyajan dehaM sa yAti paramAM gatim // 8 – 13.
Aum is the verbal expression indicative of both the unmanifested Brahman and the manifestations of Brahman. Brahman pervades the entire universe in its unmanifested form (avyakta-mUrtinA). This is the mystical phrase – a ‘form’, mUrti, which is not a manifestation! - which the Lord uses in his declaration of what He Himself calls the utmost secret in the 9th chapter. This itself is one of three great secrets mentioned by the GItA (in Chapters 9, 15 and 18):
mayA tatam-idaM sarvaM jagad-avyakta-mUrtinA /
matsthAni sarva-bhUtAni na cAhaM teshhvavasthitaH // 9 – 4
The entire world has been pervaded by Me in My unmanifest form. All beings dwell in Me, but I dwell not in them – says the Lord. This is the mystery of the mAyic world. In twilight when things are not seen clearly somebody sees a snake, but it is actually only a rope appearing to him like a snake. The snake ‘dwelt’ in the rope but the rope was never in the snake, because there was no snake ever! The world that appears to us is only an appearance on the base, Brahman. So all beings are located in the Supreme but the Supreme is not located in them. This mystical fact is the foundation for all that happens in the expressions of Bhakti. In the three words of ‘yukta AsIta matparaH’, the word yuktah has three connotations: one, that indicates communion with the Ultimate through the yoga defined by 2-48 (yogasthaH kuru karmANi ..), another, that indicates union of oneness with the Ultimate through ‘Atma-samsthaM manaH kRRitvA …’ of 6-25 and the third, through this concept of bhakti, that arises from the understanding of ‘mayA tatamidam sarvaM …’ of 9-4. But this third one needs more explanation, because it is not yet clear how one translates the spiritual fact of pervasion by Brahman of everything, into the activities of the transactional world.
The Lord Himself gives the methodology for such a translation. In other words this is the Lord’s own description of how to integrate bhakti as the summum bonum of everything in the day-to-day world of living. Here is that shloka, which is one more of the all-important shlokas of the Gita:
Yat-karoshhi yad-ashnAsi yaj-juhoshhi dadAsi yat /
Yat-tapasyasi kaunteya tat-kurushhva mad-arpaNam // 9 – 27.
Whatever you do (karoshhi), whatever you consume or experience (ashnAsi), whatever you offer to deities through fire or otherwise (juhoshhi), whatever you give away or renounce (dadAsi), whatever you perform as a discipline with or without an end in view (tapasyasi) – do all this in dedication to Me, says the shloka. Here five facets of man’s activities are mentioned. We shall take this together with 11-55, which is our next verse-selection, where the same five facets are referred to in a different format:
Mat-karmakRRin-mat-paramo mad-bhaktaH sanga-varjitaH /
nirvairaH-sarvabhUteshhu yaH sa mAm-eti pANDava // 11 – 55.
Whosoever does all his works for Me (mat-karmakRRit), makes Me his supreme goal (mat-paramaH), becomes My devotee (mad-bhaktaH), is devoid of all attachments (sanga-varjitaH) and, in respect of all beings, is free from enmity (nirvairaH), will come to Me, assures the Lord at end of the 11th chapter after He has shown His Cosmic Personality to Arjuna.
These two shlokas, 9 – 27 and 11 – 55, both enjoy a unique status in the Gita because each of them incorporates a summary of the Gita by encompassing the five facets of the total message of the Gita that we enunciated right at the beginning. Each lists the five facets in its own style.
Whatever you do, do it in dedication to Him. All your engagement in actions must be for Him. This is karma-yoga and this is the matkarmakRRit of 11 -55.
Whatever you consume or experience, dedicate it to him. There is nothing that you experience for yourself. Whether it is joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain, it is all His. This is the life of bhakti – corresponding to the madbhaktaH of 11-55.
Whatever you offer to deities, dedicate it to Him. This implies there is no other object for your worship, reverence or care. He is the goal, refuge. Keeping Me as your only destination – mat-paramaH – says 11-55. It is for Him you do everything; more, you are not the doer. You have renounced all doership in His favour. This is the ‘surrender’ facet among the five facets of messages.
Whatever you perform as a discipline, dedicate it to Him. This performance is tapas, meaning, a voluntary acceptance of suffering/pain/stress/strain for the sake of spiritual improvement. Tapas is another technical word, like yajna, which carries this more profound meaning in the Gita than what it ordinarily does in the scriptures. Tapas always involves a dedication. The whole process is a sAdhanA (spiritual practice) for detachment. So this facet corresponds to ‘sense-control’ among the five facets and therefore to the attribute ‘sanga-varjitaH’ of 11-55.
Whatever you give away or renounce, dedicate it as well as the action, to Him. Because nothing belongs to you, really. Everything belongs to Him. Even when you are giving or renouncing, you are renouncing only what you think you have. Nothing belongs to you or anybody. This is a combination of the equanimity idea – one of the five facets of messages – and of the Vedantic idea that everything is transient. So there is no reason to bear any ill-will to anybody. This corresponds to ‘nirvairaH sarvabhUteshhu’ of 11-55.
Shankaracharya says that this shloka (11-55) is the essential import of the entire science of the Gita aimed at liberation and summarised for practice.
We now go to the bhakti-type elaboration of yukta AsIta matparaH in shloka #8 of Chapter 12 which is itself an epitome of bhakti yoga:
Mayyeva mana Adhatsva mayi buddhiM niveshaya /
nivasihhyasi mayyeva ata UrdhvaM na samshayaH // 12 – 8.
Fix your mind on Me alone; let your understanding be absorbed in Me. And, henceforth, doubtless, you will dwell in Me alone.
Our next selection is the crisp statement:
Kshetraj~naM cApi mAM viddhi
forming the first quarter of 13-2. In some editions of the Gita this would be 13-3.
Here begins a deep abstract vedantic statement which means much. Kshetra is field of activity. One who cognises this field is kshetraj~na. Vedanta starts with a bang here. Understand Me as the kshetraj~na says the Lord. He is the resident in the body. But yet, He is not involved in the actions of the body or the mind or the intellect:
sharIrastho.api kaunteya na karoti na lipyate 13-31(or 32) 2nd half
Though He is ‘in’ the body, he does not do anything nor is stained by anything (that the body does). The implied message therefore is: Identify yourself (be one) with that resident of the body, so that you can stay clear of all the transitional happenings to the body, mind and intellect. This is the crucial Vedantic message of the Gita. Then you become a guNAtIta, that is, one who has transcended the GuNas of prakRRiti. And, automatically you become equanimous in all respects. This is effectively spelt out in
Sama-dukha-sukhaH svasthaH sama-loshhTAshma-kA~ncanaH /
tulya-priyA-priyo dhIraH tulya-nindAtma-samsthutiH // 14 – 24.
This is a masterly shloka on Equanimity or brahma-bhAva. There are four aspects of Equanimity. Equanimity with respect to events that happen to you is indicated by Sama-dukha-sukhaH svasthaH – Pain and pleasure are the same to him who abides in the Self. Equanimity with respect to objects (possession of property) is indicated by sama-loshhTAshma-kA~ncanaH – one who treats clod, stone and gold all alike. Equanimity with respect to our attitudes of like and dislike towards other persons is indicated by tulya-priya-apriyaH – same with respect to the pleasant and the unpleasant. Equanimity in terms of our reaction to the other person’s attitude towards us is indicated by tulya-nindAtma-samsthutiH – alike to censure and praise.
Now we come to the most important Vedantic declaration of the Gita:
dvAvimau purushhau loke ksharash-cAkshara eva ca / 15 – 16, first half.
There are two persons (purushhas) in this world (in each human manifestation), the perishable and the imperishable. The spark of life that makes life click is the jIva in the body. The JIva comes with all the vAsanAs of its previous lives. The Jiva now thinks and acts through the body, mind and intellect that it has acquired in this new life. It has the choice of either associating itself with the BMI or identifying itself with the resident of the body who is the imperishable purushha. When it identifies itself with the BMI, it is called the perishable purushha. In this state it experiences all the pleasures and pains of the BMI. The magnum opus message of the Gita is now clear. The Jiva has to identify itself with the aksharaa-purushha so that it will be unaffected by what happens to the BMI.
Therefore it is the attitude that the Jiva assumes while living in this body that matters. In fact in the entire Hindu religion it is the attitude that matters and not the external symbols and ritualistic actions. That is why in describing three types of tapas – that of the body, that of speech and that of the mind – the GIta emphasizes, in respect of the tapas of the mind, purity of attitude (bhAva-samshuddhiH) more than anything else:
bhAva-samshuddhir-ity-etat tapo mAnasam-ucyate . 17-16, 2nd half.
And that takes us to the 18th chapter which itself contains a complete recap of the Gita. We select only two shlokas, the first of which is karmayoga in a nutshell:
Muktasango.anahamvAdI dhrity-utsAha-samanvitaH /
Siddhyasiddhyor-nirvikAraH kartA sAtvika ucyate //18 – 26.
There are four things that characterize the right doer of actions: No attachment; Attitude of I-am-not-the-doer; bringing fortitude and zeal into the work on hand; and being unchanged and unaffected by success or failure.
And finally we have the great shloka that is well-known as the last and final message of the Gita, conveying the message of surrender:
Sarva-dharmaan parityajya mAm-ekaM sharaNaM vraja /
ahaM tvA sarva-pApebhyo mokshayishhyAmi mA shucaH // 18 – 66.
Abandoning all duties, come to me alone for refuge; do not grieve; I shall release you from all sins. Here the abandonment is that of doership of the duties rather than the duties themselves. Once the identification with the imperishable purushha, who is the non-participating witness, is done, there is nothing more to be done or to get done. And that is the release from everything that is transient. That is moksha.
Homepage ©Copyright V. Krishnamurthy February 2012