Bhagavadgita—A Personification of Vedic Vision

Swami Vireshananda

Bhagavadgita is often referred to be the essence of the Upanishads. The tradition gives equal status and importance to the Gita as to that of the Upanishads. However, on close examination, we find that the Gita also represents the whole Veda including its karma-kāṇḍa, the section on rituals, and upāsanā-kāṇḍa, the section on meditations; and its affinity to jñāna-kāṇḍa, the section on knowledge, is widely known.

Vedic Scheme of Teaching Humanity

The Veda is meant not just for a spiritually oriented person. The purpose of the Veda is to guide everyone on the path of Dharma. Sabara, the celebrated commentator of Jaimini Sutras on Mimamsa, defines Dharma: ‘Codanā lakṣaṇaḥ arthaḥ dharmaḥ; dharma is of the nature as prescribed by the Vedic sentence.’ It is natural for a human being to act in accordance with one’s basic passions like attachment and aversion. The karmas or rituals instructed by Veda are to control such instinctive cravings and also to direct a person to fulfil one’s desires for wealth and enjoyment in this world or hereafter through proper means, without going astray from the ethical path. Protection of Dharma is the motive behind karma-kāṇḍa or the section dealing with rituals in the Veda.

After having performed rituals for several years, gradually, some enlightened people will come to realise the transitory nature of worldly enjoyment. They eventually aspire to a life of contemplation and meditation. Veda helps them by recommending numerous modes of meditation that fit the temperament and spiritual aptitude of the aspirant. Such meditations called upāsanas or vidyās are found in Aranyakas and Upanishads, the two embedded portions of the Veda. These meditations are purely mental processes that aim at the identification of the aspirant with his or her chosen object of meditation. They can help an aspirant reach near Reality, but cannot get one the realisation of the Reality.

It is knowledge of the absolute principle that alone makes one identify with the Reality called Brahman and Atman in the Upanishads, which are the repositories of the highest and most sublime teachings of the Veda. When one is not satisfied even with the experience of higher spheres of awareness that one gets in meditation, and when one aspires for Reality alone—he or she would take recourse to the teachings of the Upanishads. Over time, through the three primary disciplines of śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana; hearing, contemplation, and absorption—one would realise the non-difference from Reality. This state is accomplished, according to the Upanishads, only when the aspirant has renounced all kinds of desires for temporal worldly objects.

Sri Krishna—A Revolutionary Teacher

Bhagavadgita is not a sudden eruption of revolutionary ideas that happened during the lifetime of Sri Krishna. It is the response to the degradation and corruption in the religious field of India over several centuries, in which extreme forms of rudimentary ritualism overpowered and penetrated every section of the society and resulted in unbridled and persistent persecution of common masses by the priestcraft in the name of religion. It is Sri Krishna who became the voice of this silent insurgence against such chauvinistic forces and reestablished the original Vedic spirit on firm feet that aimed at guiding humanity step by step to the ultimate realm of divine wisdom.

Sri Krishna departs from the then-prevalent orthodox Vedic system by outrightly denouncing the materialistic and utilitarian viewpoint that places worldly enjoyment and prosperity above all spiritual and philosophical endeavours. In no uncertain words, he ridicules such people, who profess the above covetous ideas, to be those who utter flowery talk. Such a worldly doctrine promises repeated births on account of rites and duties, and is full of special rites meant for only the attainment of enjoyment and affluence. Sri Krishna also denounces such people to be engrossed only in those teachings of the Veda as if nothing else exists. He asserts that the minds of those greedy ones are full of desires and they have only heaven as their goal. (Gita, 2.42–43).

Sri Krishna teaches that such an outlook will never generate a one-pointed conviction that is necessary for spiritual advancement. He also cautions against such people, who advocate it, to be those who delight only in enjoyment and material comfort. He makes his objective clear when he asks Arjuna to be free from such worldliness and pairs of opposites like happiness and sorrow, and remain ever-poised in a sattva state of illumination and self-control having no desires. (Gita, 2.45)

Ingenuity of Bhagavadgita

Sri Krishna puts an end to the degradation of the Vedic religion that overemphasises the performance of rituals for materialistic ends. He achieved this by positioning the popular religion for the sake of spiritual pursuit, which forms the central core of the Indian tradition from time immemorial. In this mammoth effort, he derived inspiration and sustenance from the philosophical doctrines and mystical realisations of the great Vedic sages of yore.

The ingenuity of Sri Krishna lies in the fact that he constructed a spiritual superstructure in the Gita, firmly on the foundation of the philosophy of the Upanishads, particularly the doctrine of Atman, the spiritual core of every being. However, unlike the Upanishads, he made provision for the spiritual upliftment of even a common person by offering him or her suitable ways and means of integrated spiritual development towards divinity. In all, Sri Krishna brought religion, philosophy, and spirituality embedded in age-old Vedic heritage to all sections of society and people of all temperaments and backgrounds. This is the greatest achievement of Sri Krishna in his teaching of the Gita. As we have already seen, this was also the vision and the purpose of the Vedic sages, who accommodated in the Vedic teachings the entire gamut of society from active people to meditative ones, up to those who are eligible for ultimate knowledge.

Spiritualised Action

Sri Krishna is in the real sense the jagad-guru, the world teacher, whose heart melts for the suffering of the ordinary people struggling with their daily problems of life. It is primarily for this section of society that his teachings in the Gita are intended, which is evident when we study the Gita from a sociological point of view. Sri Krishna teaches common people how to convert the work they are engaged in into a more meaningful and beneficial one by transforming it into karma-yoga. The central idea is to bring about a change in attitude while doing any work; not to switch over to any other form of work.

Sri Krishna condenses the principle behind karma-yoga as ‘asakta-buddhi sarvatra jitātmā vigata-spiha; he whose intellect remains unattached to everything, who has conquered his internal organs and desires’ (Gita, 18.49). To achieve this perfect goal, Sri Krishna advises the transformation of every action into yajña, a sacrifice, done as the veritable worship of the Supreme Lord. This is a revolutionary idea at a time when the idea of sacrifice was restricted to detailed rituals performed in the holy fire. It is to the credence of Sri Krishna that he universalised the concept of yajña and made it applicable to the everyday chores of one’s daily life.

There are mainly three requirements if one wants to transform one’s work into yajña: (1) The practice of detachment towards the results of work (Gita, 2.47). (2) Developing a devotional outlook that all the works belong to the supreme God (mat-karma-kit) and the goal of each of the works is God (mat-parama) (Gita, 11.55). (3) Surrendering body, mind, intellect, and all the works to the supreme Lord. This change in attitude while doing work leads to the purification of the mind called cittaśuddhi, which prepares an aspirant for the perfect concentration of mind and self-discipline that one requires to practise meditation.

Divinised Love

Bhakti, the loving devotion to God, as taught in the Gita is not a separate discipline, but is intertwined with karma-yoga and dhyāna-yoga. In the former, an aspirant dedicates all his actions to God in the spirit of devotion; while in the latter, it is love towards the Supreme Lord that gives impetus to the concentration on one’s chosen deity during meditation. Even an aspirant of a higher calibre who practices jñāna-yoga has to resort to the grace of God for knowledge. Sri Krishna explicitly says in the Gita:

तेषां सततयुक्तानां भजतां प्रीतिपूर्वकम् ।
ददामि बुद्धियोगं तं येन मामुपयान्ति ते ॥

To them who are ever devoted and worship Me with love, I grant that possession of wisdom by which they reach Me. (Gita, 10.10)

The finest expression of bhakti is the constant remembrance of the Divine Name and the glorious divine deeds of the Supreme Lord. By fixing the mind and intellect on God alone, one dwells in the Supreme Lord always (Gita, 12.8). The characteristics of those who practice bhakti-yoga have been spelt out by Sri Krishna in this beautiful verse from the Gita:

सततं कीर्तयन्तो मां यतन्तश्च दृढव्रता: ।
नमस्यन्तश्च मां भक्त्या नित्ययुक्ता उपासते ॥

Always glorifying Me and striving, the men of firm vows worship Me by paying obeisance to Me and being ever endowed with devotion. (Gita, 9.14)

Sublime Meditation

Meditation strengthens the spiritual attitude adopted in the karma-yoga and makes the mind one-pointed so that all actions are done efficiently in the spirit of dedication to the Lord. Sri Krishna emphasises the importance of such one-pointedness in the second chapter itself and calls it vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ, a one-pointed conviction which is natural for those persons of wisdom who are resolute in following their chosen path. In contrast, those who are devoid of discernment are in an unsteady state of mind, which wavers towards several distractions. (Gita, 2.41)

With this backdrop, Sri Krishna explains in detail the general features of meditation in the sixth chapter as an advanced discipline for those who are engaging in purifying their mind by performing karma-yoga. It does not mean that one should take up meditation only after attaining perfection in karma-yoga. The idea is that both are complementary to each other and adeptness in meditation can be achieved only when one becomes a perfect karma-yogi. The essence of meditation is to keep the mind tranquil and fix the mind on the Supreme Lord as stated by Sri Krishna in the verse:

प्रशान्तात्मा विगतभीर्ब्रह्मचारिव्रते स्थित: ।

मन: संयम्य मच्चित्तो युक्त आसीत मत्पर: ॥

He (Yogi) remains seated with a placid mind, free from fear, firm in the vow of a celibate, and with the mind fixed on Me by controlling it through concentration, having Me as the Supreme Goal. (Gita, 6.14)

Profound Knowledge

Although Sri Krishna teaches different spiritual disciplines in the Gita, it is the supreme knowledge that is in the milieu of all such teachings. Knowledge of Atman, as an indestructible, eternal spiritual entity is taught in the beginning of the Gita itself as an antidote to the ignorance, infatuation, and resulting suffering of Arjuna. However, more emphasis is given in later chapters to describe the features of a man of knowledge, to be adopted as spiritual disciplines by the aspirant. Such accounts are found in the description of sthita prajña (man of steady wisdom—2nd chapter), bhakta (devotee—12th chapter), jñāni (man of knowledge—13th chapter), triguṇātīta (one who transcends three guṇas of Nature—sattva, rajas, and tamas), and so on in the Gita.

Such a wise person finds inaction in action and action in inaction, and is devoid of all kinds of desires; since such desires which instigate actions have all been burnt away by the fire of knowledge (Gita, 4.18–19). He gives up attachment to the results, remains ever contented, depends on nothing, and most importantly, though engaged in action, has completely lost the sense of doership due to this knowledge (Gita, 4.20). Further, he solicits nothing from anyone, keeps his mind and organs under control, has no possessions and incurs no sin, for he performs actions merely for the maintenance of the body (Gita, 4.21). The man of wisdom is always satisfied with whatever comes unasked for, since he has transcended all kinds of dualities. He is devoid of jealousy and so, equipoised under both success and failure. He is not even bound to the performance of obligatory actions instructed in the Veda (Gita, 4.22).

In the seventh chapter of the Gita, we find the knowledge of the Supreme Lord and his twofold primordial power (prakṛti) that has evolved into all sentient individual beings (parā prakṛti) and the insentient external Nature (aparā prakṛti). The sentient individual entity is termed in the thirteenth chapter as kṣetrajña (the knower of the field or the indwelling spirit), while the insentient conglomeration of body, mind, and intellect is termed kṣetra (the field). Sri Krishna also reveals the supreme knowledge that the so-called individual being is not different from the supreme Reality:

क्षेत्रज्ञं चापि मां विद्धि सर्वक्षेत्रेषु भारत ।
क्षेत्रक्षेत्रज्ञयोर्ज्ञानं यत्तज्ज्ञानं मतं मम ॥

And, O scion of the Bharata dynasty, understand Me to be the ‘Knower of the field’ in all the fields. In My opinion, the knowledge of the field and the knower of the field is the real Knowledge. (Gita, 13.2)

Emphasis on Ethical and Noble Life

Sri Krishna very well knows that the spiritual disciples involving jñāna, bhakti, dhyāna and karma will be futile unless the aspirant is endowed with moral virtues and leads a noble life doing all the works with a sattva or pure state of mind. After having described in detail different spiritual disciplines and the glory of the Supreme God in the form of this whole universe and knowledge of discernment between kṣetra and kṣetrajña, Sri Krishna takes up the topic of classification of three guṇas in the fourteen chapter. The three qualities sattva, rajas, and tamas are born of Nature and it is they that bind the immutable embodied soul to the body (Gita, 14.5). The goal is to transcend these guṇas being a detached witness, knowing fully well that the guṇas are the real agents of any action, not the Atman, which is superior to these guṇas (Gita, 14.19).

In the sixteenth chapter, Sri Krishna enumerates divine as well as demonic qualities so that an aspirant may develop the former and give up the latter. The divine qualities lead to liberation while the demonic qualities will tie one to inevitable bondage. Here we find a clear distinction between moral and immoral lives and their subsequent consequences.

The discussion about three kinds of śraddhā, faith, is the subject matter of the seventeenth chapter. Sri Krishna makes a remarkable psychological observation highlighting the importance of śraddhā, faith in one’s conduct. He says:

सत्त्वानुरूपा सर्वस्य श्रद्धा भवति भारत ।
श्रद्धामयोऽयं पुरुषो यो यच्छ्रद्ध: स एव स: ॥

O scion of the Bharata dynasty, the faith of all beings is in accordance with their minds. The person is made up of faith as the dominant factor. He is verily what his faith is. (Gita, 17.3)

The purpose of Sri Krishna is to instruct the aspirant to raise one’s mental state to sattva state, which is of the nature of illumination, wisdom, and tranquillity, and perform all duties with that ennobling psychic state. This, according to Sri Krishna, constitutes the underpinning of a principled life that is based on rigorous ethical principles.

Two Cardinal Principles for an Illumined Life

Upon a detailed study of the Gita, we can trace two cardinal virtues repeatedly emphasised by Sri Krishna in different contexts. One is asakti, detachment, and another is samatva, same sightedness. Psychologically speaking, these are the two qualities, which when ingrained in our personality, bring about the tranquillity of mind and also make one efficient in managing the dualities of life.

Attachment, as explained by Sri Shankaracharya, is the liking for things arising from association. The absence of that is detachment (Gita, 13.9). The person who is established in perfect detachment will have steady wisdom, for he does not develop attachment for anything anywhere and also neither welcomes nor rejects anything whether good or bad, when he comes across it (Gita, 2.56).

The more one practises detachment while doing the action, one will remain in an equipoised state of mind in all states—happiness or sorrow, success or failure. Such a state of same-sightedness is called samatva, which Sri Krishna indicates to be the perfect state of yoga (Gita, 2.48). He further elucidates this state in this verse:

सुहृन्मित्रार्युदासीनमध्यस्थद्वेष्यबन्धुषु ।
साधुष्वपि च पापेषु समबुद्धिर्विशिष्यते ॥

He excels who has sameness of view with regard to a benefactor, a friend, a foe, a neutral, an arbitrator, the hateful, a relative, good people, and even sinners. (Gita, 6.9)


The Bhagavadgita is a wonderful spiritual work which harmonises several spiritual paths and philosophies and gives a coherent integrated view of one’s own personality and life on this earth. It gives a person, while doing his or her ardent duties, a golden opportunity to transform them into spiritual ones and strive to reach the Divine, without giving up one’s social responsibilities. The idea of God, found in the Gita, is an all-embracing one that can be accepted by everyone. This is how the intention and purpose of the Vedic culture have been crystallised in the Gita and Sri Krishna emerges as a rishi of this innovative Gospel. Truly, the Gita is the personification of Vedic wisdom—realistic, practical, all-accommodative, and intensely spiritual.