— Swami Vireshananda —
Bhagavadgita is termed traditionally as Brahmavidyā, knowledge of Brahman, and also Yogaśāstra, the scripture of Yoga. The former indicates the goal of the Gita, that is, the Knowledge of Atman or Brahman, while the latter in general points out the method to be adopted to reach the goal as taught in the Gita, that is, yoga. In traditional language, Brahmavidyā is sādhya, which is to be attained, and the yoga is sādhana, the mode to be adopted.
However, in the Gita, the word Yoga is used to represent both the means and the end of spiritual pursuit. And either one of these ideas is reflected in every chapter. Hence, it is not hyperbolic to say that each chapter of the Gita is a yoga itself.
According to Sri Shankaracharya, the Gita presents two kinds of goals and the two ways of achieving them. The first one is abhyudaya or material prosperity that can be accomplished through pravritti dharma, the virtuous path characterised by action (rites and duties). The second goal is of higher nature called nishreyasa, ultimate spiritual freedom that can be realised through nivritti dharma, which is characterised by renunciation and marked by knowledge and detachment. Sri Shankaracharya says that Sri Krishna taught these two kinds of dharma to Arjuna, who was suffering from two fundamental defects of human existence: śoka, sorrow, and moha, delusion. However, the Acharya emphasises that the main purpose of the Gita teaching is nishreyasa that leads to the complete annihilation of samsāra, the transmigratory existence with its roots like avidyā, ignorance, and kāma, desire. It can be achieved only by the knowledge of Atman or Brahman through complete detachment and renunciation. Sri Shankaracharya also points out that the greatness of the Gita lies in being the essence of the entire theme of the Upanishads, which in turn represent the ultimate teachings of the Vedas.
The Interpretation of Yoga in the Gita
We find three definitions of yoga in the Gita: 1. ‘Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate; equanimity (of mind) is called yoga’ (2.48); 2. ‘Yogaḥ karmasu kauśhalam; yoga is skillfulness in action’ (2.50); 3. ‘Taṁ vidyād duḥkha-saṁyoga-viyogaṁ yogasaṅjñitam; one should know the severance of contact with sorrow to be what is called yoga’ (6.23). In the first and last definitions, yoga is presented as sādhya, that which is to be attained. In the second definition, the sādhana or the method to be followed is made clear.
Yoga as Jñeya, to be Known
In the Gita, yoga is considered to be jñāna, the knowledge, as well as jñeya, that which is known through knowledge. Jñāna is the sādhana or means, and the jñeya is sādhya, the goal of spiritual endeavour. We find various accounts of jñeya in the Gita:
- Atman: In the Sānkhya Yoga, the second chapter of the Gita, the characteristics of Atman or the spiritual Reality are described in detail.
- Dhyeya, the Object of Meditation: In the seventh chapter called Jñāna Vijñāna Yoga, the object of meditation is enumerated. Sri Krishna teaches in this context in the last verse of the 6th chapter (6.47) that ‘Madgatena antarātmanā; (among all the yogis) he who adores Me with his mind fixed on Me (is considered by Me to be the best of all the yogis)’. Here, Sri Shankaracharya comments that the term ‘fixed on Me’ means ‘concentrated on Me, who am Vāsudeva’ (commentary to 6.47). The cosmic principle called Vāsudeva is extolled here as the object of meditation.
- Vibhūti, the all-pervading nature: Vāsudeva, the supreme principle, pervades everything. His Aishwari Shakti, the Cosmic Power, and Vibhūti, the majesty of immanence, are enumerated in the Rājavidyā Rājaguhya Yoga (the 9th chapter), Vibhuti Yoga (the 10th chapter), and Vishwarūpa Darshana Yoga (the 11th chapter).
- Khetrajña, the indwelling spirit: In the Kshetra-Kshetrajña Yoga, the 13th chapter, the parā prakriti or the superior nature of the Lord is termed as Kshetrajña, the spiritual entity in all the beings, and the aparā prakriti or the inferior nature of the Lord is pronounced as kshetra, the combination of body, senses, and the mind.
Yoga as Jñāna, the Means of Attaining the Goal
We find elaborate instruction in the Gita of the yoga as jñāna, which is the mode of attaining the jñeya or spiritual goal indicated in the previous section.
In the second chapter of the Gita, Sri Krishna teaches sāṅkhya buddhi, the yoga of knowledge, and yoga buddhi, the yoga of action, in a general manner, which he enumerates in detail in the succeeding chapters. The third chapter appropriately called ‘Karma Yoga’ teaches the ideas of nirāsakti, detachment, and yajña, the outlook of sacrifice, which are the essential elements of selfless action or Karma Yoga. ‘Jnana Yoga’, the fourth chapter, speaks of Brahma Karma, in which one sees all ingredients of one’s action to be the manifestations of Brahman, the Supreme Principle. Numerous characteristics of a jnana yogi are spelt out in this chapter and also in the next chapter. In the fifth chapter called ‘Sannyāsa Yoga’, characters of detachment and tranquillity are emphasised to be the true signs of renunciation.
The external aspect of yoga is Karma Yoga, while the internal aspect of yoga is meditation, which is the theme of the 6th chapter called ‘Dhyāna Yoga’. The importance of abhyāsa or incessant practice of Karma Yoga combined with meditation is underscored in the ‘Abhyāsa Yoga’, the 7th chapter, which also highlights the importance of the practice of the presence of God everywhere. The Dhyana Yoga or the path of meditation, as well as Karma Yoga or the path of selfless action, require emotional attachment to the Supreme Lord. God is not only the object of meditation but also the One to whom an aspirant should surrender one’s fruits of action. ‘Bhakti Yoga’, the 12th chapter, demonstrates the way to develop bhakti, the loving devotion to the Supreme Lord, which is essential to sustain and strengthen the practice of both meditation and Karma Yoga.
Characteristics of One Proficient in Yoga
Every aspirant needs an ideal personality to emulate and follow, so as to reach the higher realms of spiritual eminence. The detailed enumeration of Sthitaprajña or the person of steady wisdom in the 2nd chapter gains importance in this context. The description of the excellent qualities of a bhakta or devotee, found in the 12th chapter; of a jñāni or the knower of Brahman described in the 13th chapter; and of triguṇātīta or the one who transcends the three qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas that form Prakriti or Nature as enunciated in the 14th chapter—they all describe in glowing terms the state of highest spiritual realisation in various ways.
The Gita also teaches the necessary sahakāri sādhanas or the accessory ethical disciplines for achieving proficiency in the supreme knowledge. They are enumerated in detail in the Daivāsura Sampad Vibhāga Yoga (16th chapter) and Shraddhā Traya Vibhāga Yoga (17th chapter).
Unified Structure of the Gita
We have so far discussed in brief how every teaching of the Gita is centred on yoga, either as a means or as the end of the spiritual journey of a human being. It is corresponding to each spike of the bicycle wheel pointing towards a central hub. Now, we give a short description of all the chapters of the Gita to show how it is appropriate to call each of them a ‘Yoga’. It shows that the whole Gita has a single theme; and all apparently diversified ideas found here are actually invariable components of an integrated idea that the Gita stands for.
1st Chapter: Arjuna Vishāda Yoga: Sri Shankaracharya says that the whole of the first chapter and the first ten verses of the second chapter ‘is to be explained as revealing the cause of the origin of (human) defect in the form of sorrow, delusion, etc., which are the sources of the cycles of birth and death of creatures’.[i] The recognition of this significant fact is the first step for one to move forward in the path of yoga. Hence, it is not unbecoming to say that Arjuna’s sorrow also forms a yoga, that is, a prominent step towards proper yoga disciplines.
2nd Chapter: Sāṅkhya Yoga: In the second chapter, Sri Krishna teaches both sāṅkhya buddhi or Jñāna Yoga as well as yoga buddhi or Karma Yoga. The former constitutes the knowledge of the true nature of the absolute Reality called Atman or Brahman, which annihilates the cause of grief and delusion expressed in the first chapter. According to Sri Shankaracharya, yoga buddhi is the means of attaining sāṅkhya buddhi.
3rd Chapter: Karma Yoga: In this chapter, the emphasis is given on doing work with a detached state of mind, controlling the senses. Also, the idea of yajña or sacrifice, that is, doing all works in obedience to a great cosmic law is highlighted.
4th Chapter: Jñāna Yoga: Jñāna Yoga advocates the ideal state of complete detachment and renunciation. What is striking is that as a result of knowledge, one performs all actions seeing the Reality in all the paraphernalia of action. Such a person of wisdom, extolled in the Gita, having transcended all kinds of duality, burns away one’s past impressions and is completely contented in whatever one gets. Appropriately, the Gita adores this Knowledge of Atman: ‘Na hi jñānena sadṛśaṁ pavitram iha vidyate; indeed, there is nothing purifying here compared to Knowledge’ (4.38).
5th Chapter: Sannyāsa Yoga: An invariable element of spiritual knowledge is renunciation. Sri Krishna says that a true state of renunciation is difficult to attain without undergoing the discipline of Karma Yoga. Sannyāsa is a state where all the actions are dedicated to Brahman and one remains unattached as a lotus leaf in the water. Who is a real Sannyāsi? The Gita answers:
ज्ञेय: स नित्यसंन्यासी यो न द्वेष्टि न काङ्क्षति ।
निर्द्वन्द्वो हि महाबाहो सुखं बन्धात्प्रमुच्यते ॥
He who does not hate and does not crave should be known as a man of constant renunciation (Sannyāsi). For, O mighty-armed one, he who is free from duality becomes easily freed from bondage (5.3).
Krishna also stresses that it is the mental renunciation that really matters rather than physically abstaining from the objects of desire.
6th Chapter: Dhyāna Yoga: Sri Krishna says that a man adept in meditation is endowed with sama buddhi, sameness towards all, including evil people. A yogi should constantly concentrate his mind, being alone in a solitary place, with his body and mind controlled. What is imperative in the practice of meditation is well-restrained thoughts, with no craving for the objects of desire. To this effect, Sri Krishna gives the illustration of an unwavering lamp kept in a windless place. The practice of Dhyana Yoga will make one free from sorrow. But, Sri Krishna cautions: ‘Sa niścayena yoktavyo yogo’nirviṇṇa-cetasā; yoga has to be practised with perseverance and with an undepressed mind’ (6.23).
7th Chapter: Jñāna-Vijñāna Yoga: This chapter is complementary to the earlier chapter dealing mainly with the object of mediation. Here, jñāna means the knowledge of the Supreme Lord, while vijñāna means personal realisation or experience. The core teaching of this chapter, according to Sri Shankaracharya, is that Lord Vāsudeva, who is the inner Controller of all beings, should be adorned with one’s mind concentrated on Him. The Lord’s power (prakriti) is two fold: parā, the higher Nature which forms all the living beings, and the aparā, the lower Nature that constitutes all the non-living entities. Prakriti is but the cosmic Maya or the illusory power of the Lord with three constituents of sattva, rajas, and tamas, and is difficult to cross over. A devotee of the Lord, who takes refuge in Him, alone will be able to overcome Maya.
8th Chapter: Abhyāsa Yoga: Abhyāsa, a constant practise of contemplation on the Lord, is essential to effectively practise Karma Yoga and Dhyana Yoga. Hence, Sri Krishna asks the aspirant to become sadā tad-bhāva-bhāvitaḥ, that is, to always remain engrossed in Its thought (the thought of the Supreme Lord) (8.6). To achieve this state, one should undergo Abhyāsa Yoga or the yoga of constant practice. It primarily means not to allow one’s mind to stray away from the thought of the Supreme Lord. Sri Krishna assures that by this uninterrupted effort, one will be able to reach the Supreme Lord residing in the effulgent region (8.8). The central message of this chapter is crystal clear: ‘Tasmāt sarveṣu kāleṣu mām anusmara yudhya ca; therefore, think of Me at all times and fight’ (8.7).
9th Chapter: Rājavidyā Rājaguhya Yoga: Abhyāsa or spiritual practice involves contemplation on the immanence of the Supreme Lord, which is the topic of this chapter. Sri Krishna venerates this teaching as the best (Rājavidyā) and the most esoteric (Rājaguhya) of all types of knowledge. It is meant to celebrate the Divine Glory of the Supreme Lord found in His numerous manifestations. The Lord explains this Aishwari Shakti, His mysterious power in this verse:
मया ततमिदं सर्वं जगदव्यक्तमूर्तिना ।
मत्स्थानि सर्वभूतानि न चाहं तेष्ववस्थित: ॥
The whole world is pervaded by Me in my unmanifest form. All beings exist in Me, but I am not contained in them! (9.4)
The ignorant people are unable to fathom this mystery. However, Sri Krishna assures that the Supreme Lord is easily accessible through devotion. Also, he teaches the essence of Karma Yoga and devotion most practically:
यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत् ।
यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम् ॥
O Son of Kunti, whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as a sacrifice, whatever you give and whatever austerities you undertake, (all) that you offer to Me (9.27).
10th Chapter: Vibhūti Yoga: This chapter is a continuation of the seventh chapter and the ninth chapter in which the glory of the Lord in its immanent aspect has already been discussed. In this chapter, these manifestations (Vibhūti) are presented in more detail for the sake of meditation. After the detailed enumeration, the Lord states that there is no end to His divine manifestations as whatever object is verily endowed with majesty, possessed of prosperity, or is energetic, is a part of His power (10.41).
11th Chapter: Vishwarūpa Darshana Yoga: At the end of the 10th chapter, the Lord says that He sustains the whole creation by His one part. Arjuna, therefore, requests Him to show ādyam-aiśwaram, the primal form of God manifested as the Universe. The Lord shows him His jagadātmarūpam, the form constituting the whole universe. This divine glory in the form of Vishwarūpa is for the sake of Upāsana or meditation, and such a divine form can be seen only through bhakti or loving devotion. At the end of this chapter, there is an important verse, which, according to Sri Shankaracharya, contains the essence of the whole Gita and is meant for liberation:
मत्कर्मकृन्मत्परमो मद्भक्त: सङ्गवर्जित: ।
निर्वैर: सर्वभूतेषु य: स मामेति पाण्डव ॥
O son of Pandu, he who works for Me, accepts Me as the supreme Goal, is devoted to Me, is devoid of attachment, and free from enmity towards all beings—he attains me (11.55).
12th Chapter: Bhakti Yoga: Bhakti or the loving devotion to the Lord is the primary requisite for the contemplation of the Lord. It is elaborated in this chapter. The essence of bhakti is captured in the instruction: ‘Mayyeva mana ādhatsva mayi buddhiṁ niveśaya; fix the mind on Me alone, and in Me alone rest the intellect’ (12.8). Also, in this chapter, the characteristics of an ideal devotee are enumerated in wonderful verses, which prevail as outstanding qualities of a spiritual personage.
13th Chapter: Kshetra-Kshetrajña Yoga: Two kinds of prakriti or nature of the Supreme Lord are briefly explained in the 7th chapter. In this chapter (13th), the inert nature is explained as kshetra, the field, and the sentient nature is termed as kshetrajña, the knower of the field. At the microcosmic level, the body is the kshetra and the spiritual entity of a being, which is the Supreme Lord Himself, is the kshetrajña. Sri Krishna makes it clear when he says: ‘Kṣetrajñaṁ cāpi māṁ viddhi sarva-kṣetreṣu bhārata; O scion of Bharata dynasty, understand Me to be the “Knower of the field” in all the fields’ (13.2). The whole creation is but the combination of sentient and non-sentient parts of the prakriti, presided over by the Ishwara, the Supreme Lord. The Gita says:
समं सर्वेषु भूतेषु तिष्ठन्तं परमेश्वरम् ।
विनश्यत्स्वविनश्यन्तं य: पश्यति स पश्यति ॥
He (alone) sees who sees the Supreme Lord as existing equally in all beings, and as the Imperishable among the perishable (13.27).
14th Chapter: Guṇa Traya Vibhāga Yoga: This chapter emphasises the importance of transcending the triguṇas, three basic constituents—sattva, rajas, and tamas, born out of prakriti. Sri Krishna says that this will lead to immortality, where one will be free from birth, death, old age, and sorrow. He also stresses that through unswerving Bhakti Yoga, one can go beyond these qualities and qualify for becoming Brahman (14.26).
15th Chapter: Purushottama Yoga: In this chapter, samsāra or transmigration is depicted in the form of a tree to generate dispassion. Only the one who develops detachment towards it will be eligible for the supreme knowledge.
16th Chapter: Daivāsura Sampad Vibhāga Yoga: The nature of all beings as having divine qualities and demonic qualities are described in detail in this chapter. One who develops the divine characters will get released from the samsāra and one who is with evil traits will be entangled in it. Sri Krishna gives a remarkable message in this context:
त्रिविधं नरकस्येदं द्वारं नाशनमात्मन: ।
काम: क्रोधस्तथा लोभस्तस्मादेतत्त्रयं त्यजेत् ॥
This door of hell, which is the destroyer of the soul, is of three kinds: passion, anger, and also greed. Therefore, one should forsake these three (16.9).
17th Chapter: Shraddhā Traya Vibhāga Yoga: In this chapter, three kinds of shraddhā, faith, Dāna, charity, and Yajña, sacrifice, are enumerated in detail outlining the importance of developing sattva quality in all these spiritual disciplines.
18th Chapter: Moksha Sannyāsa Yoga: Sri Shankaracharya says that whatever is taught in the earlier chapters of the Gita is condensed and retold in this chapter. The true sannyāsa is defined here as: ‘Kāmyānāṁ karmaṇāṁ nyāsaṁ sannyāsaṁ kavayo viduḥ; the learned ones know sannyāsa to be the giving up of actions done with a desire for reward (18.2). Ishwara, the Supreme Lord, resides in the heart of all. As such, bhakti is an important discipline to attain the state of knowledge through which one finds one’s union with God.
In conclusion, Sri Krishna says that surrendering to God is the ultimate panacea for moksha or liberation. The last verse is illustrative, which indicates that human life will be successful and meaningful only when one has God as the centre of one’s life. This signifies the true import of the Gita.
यत्र योगेश्वर: कृष्णो यत्र पार्थो धनुर्धर: ।
तत्र श्रीर्विजयो भूतिध्रुवा नीतिर्मतिर्मम ॥
Where there is Krishna, the Lord of Yogas, and where there is Partha, the wielder of the bow, there are fortune, victory, prosperity, and unfailing prudence. Such is my conviction (18.78).
A careful and unbiased study of the Bhagavadgita opens up a new vista of spiritual understanding to every aspirant. It will also show that the Gita, though with multiple ideas, has a central theme of attaining liberation through detachment and renunciation achieved by the incessant practice of selfless service, meditation and loving devotion to the Divine. Therefore, the explanations which try to undermine the intrinsic spiritual purpose of the Gita deviate from its message of practical spirituality that forms the bedrock of this great teaching.
Sri Ramakrishna embodies the true spirit of the Gita in modern times. His life and teachings serve as a wonderful commentary on Sri Krishna’s nectarine words. Hence, naturally, it is Sri Ramakrishna who is best qualified to show us how to approach the Gita. He says:
What is the significance of the Gītā? It is what you find by repeating the word ten times. It is then reversed into ‘tāgi’, which means a person who has renounced everything for God. And the lesson of the Gītā is: ‘O man, renounce everything and seek God alone.’ Whether a man is a monk or a householder, he has to shake off all attachment from his mind.[ii]
Through these words, Sri Ramakrishna is reverberating the ‘ideal of Yoga’, which Sri Krishna has taught in every chapter of the Gita.
[i] Commentary of Sri Shankaracharya as introduction to the Gita, trans. Swami Gambhirananda.
[ii] M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 104.