The Bhagavad Gita, also known as The Song of the Lord, articulates the fundamental truth of life, as expressed in the Vedanta. It elaborates on the concept of the “self” and the “I”, of awareness and that of God and all his creations; it also emphasizes on the philosophy of “tat tvam asi”, which teaches that man is infinite. The Bhagavad Gita is an episode of the Hindu epic, Maha-Bharata, and is in the form of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna; it takes place in a war chariot and depicts Arjuna’s dilemma (Arnold 2017). However, it is often wrongfully assumed that the Bhagavad Gita is one dimensional in terms of meaning; on the contrary, the interpretations can be multifaceted. Each chapter of the Gita comprises certain allegories, all of which point towards the perennial predicament plaguing man in his day to day struggle for existence. The following paper studies five significant chapters of the Bhagavad Gita and provides an analysis of the symbolism present in each.
In the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjunavi??da-yoga, the background for the epic is set in the Kurukshetra battlefield. This is an introductory chapter, and does not delve too deep into the philosophy. Yet, it certainly provides some insight into the main characters and their personalities. The readers are introduced to Dhritarashtra, the blind king and father of Kuravas, who is fixated on his perspective and refuses to acknowledge other points of view. In a way, it can be said that he represents spiritual blindness which prevails even today. Arjuna is also introduced in the first chapter, where he tries to assess the preparations for war by both armies, following the orders of Krishna. However, the stark reality is staggering as Arjuna faces conflicting emotions on encountering relatives in the battlefield and eventually breaks down. A reference is made to the chariot in the first chapter, where it is believed to symbolize the human body. Basically, the wheels of the chariot signify the wheel of life and karma. The spokes of the wheel indirectly symbolize the various contradictions and diversities that shape human existence.
In the second chapter, S??khya-yoga, a transformation is seen coming over Arjuna. The grief stricken man in the first chapter is replaced by a calm and composed warrior, who has found a solution to his problems. Arjuna, in this chapter arrives at the conclusion that war is futile, and withdrawing from it would restore his peace of mind. He understands that attachment is a weakness, which forms the foundation of his grief, and that only a guru can help him out of his misery. The guru - ?i?ya relationship can be used to signify the dualities observed in creation in the universe. For instance, Arjuna can be said to stand for individual self, while Krishna points towards a supreme self. Arjuna, the student, represents ignorance, delusion, egoism and worldliness, while Krishna symbolizes the indestructible and immortal soul of man. In other words, Krishna has been used by Sage Vyasa to depict man’s eternal self.
The thirteenth chapter of the Gita, K?etrak?etrajñavibh?ga-yoga, is extremely important, for it highlights the importance of embracing one’s true self. It is divided into six sections, namely k?etram, jñ?nam, k?etrajña, puru?a, jñeyam and prak?ti. This chapter segregates man into body and spirit, where the body is described as a field, or kshetra. One’s intellect or mind forms the internal matter that makes up the body, while requires the spirit to exist. A field is used to symbolize the body – a battleground, where all the events of one’s life occur. The physical essence of man is prone to decay, meaning one will have to suffer the consequences of his actions. The infinite soul, on the other hand, consists of feelings and perceptions and is completely immune to the impending threats posed by the material world.
The fifteenth chapter, Puru?ottama-yoga, is allegorical in nature. From an entirely philosophical stance, Krishna uses the analogy of a banyan tree to perversion of the spiritual world with the material. The roots of the banyan tree represent the spiritual essence of the universe, which goes largely ignored. The canopying banyan tree, on the contrary, symbolizes material world which has completely taken over the life of man. Comparing it to a tree, Krishna also emphasizes on the ephemeral nature of such a life since the tree of material existence is bound to perish someday. This chapter of the Gita can thus be interpreted as a call back to one’s real self, or the spiritual world that forms the basis of all existence.
The final chapter, Mok?asanny?sa-yoga, is a culmination of all the philosophies underlying the Gita. Here, as an answer to Arjuna’s question, Krishna attempts to distinguish between ty?ga and sanny?sa. Krishna opines that an act can only be considered sacrifice when it is free of selfish intent. This means that the individual cannot call giving up obligatory work sacrificial for the sake of achieving something. He needs to free his soul of the outcome, if his act is to be deemed one of true sacrifice. Renunciation of worldly pleasures and attachment is the only way to achieve true ty?ga. The chapter ends with Krishna eliminating Arjuna’s doubts, and clearing him of any delusion. Being a dutiful student, Arjuna complies and vows to abide by his guru’s teachings.
The Bhagavad Gita holds a superior position in the canon of religious literature. Man should remain focused on his work, without paying heed to the final outcome. In other words, the outcome should not predetermine man’s actions. The various aphorisms, versifications, shlokas and sutras in the Gita render it multi layered. Every character and personality in the Gita has a symbolic significance; man’s life is depicted as dharmakshetra, where he is expected to stay true to his duties. There is divinity hidden in every man, but often suppressed under layers of delusion and ignorance. Led by blind ego, like Dhritarashtra, man descends into negative impulses. Man’s personality can be compared to Kurukshetra, a battlefield, and he embarks on a chariot, on a quest for enlightenment. Eventually, it is a realization of his virtues and spirituality that transcends his soul and leads him on a path to salvation.
To conclude, Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Song of the Lord, gives a detailed translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and also explains the philosophy behind it. The five chapters, presented in the section above, show the allegorical interpretations behind each event in the Gita. To the Western world, the sayings of the Gita might appear illogical and simply an example of poetic genius, but it is much more than that. It demonstrates with sublimity the concepts of matter and spirit, of action and inaction and man’s journey towards salvation. The fundamental concept underlying the Gita is that man is a manifestation of God, of one divine spirit. References:
Arnold, E., 2017. Routledge Revivals: The Song Celestial or Bhagavad-Gita (1906): From the Mahabharata. Routledge.