The dramatically stirring philosophical landscape of the Bhagavad Gita has inspired the imaginations of thinkers, poets, philosophers, and spiritual seekers across the spans of both history and cultures. For over 5,000 years, the Bhagavad Gita has been considered by most scholars of religion and philosophy to be one of the most important philosophical/religious dialogues ever written in world history.
The Sanskrit word “gita" can be literally translated as “song”. The term “bhagavad” refers directly to the Absolute. The Bhagavad Gita is, therefore, known in English as the “Song of God.” This is the case because God literally sung these beautiful and profound teachings to His disciple and friend, Arjuna. This ancient work, which is often described as the “Bible” of Yoga spirituality and Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), has directly influenced and inspired a large number of eminent Western intellectuals, in addition to innumerable generations of yogis and sages in South Asia.
Included among these important European and American thinkers who were inspired by the profound words of the Gita have been Schopenhauer, Emerson, Thoreau, Huxley, and Einstein. When experiencing the awe-inspiringly horrific wonder of the first atomic explosion, J. Robert Oppenhiemer, the father of the atomic bomb, is known to have quoted aloud from the Gita - "Death am I, the destroyer of all worlds". So profound and thought-provoking are the contents of this classic of world literature considered to be, that it has been translated into nearly every language on earth, with over 600 translations in the English language alone. Multiple thousands of commentaries have been written in an ongoing attempt to uncover the true purport of this short work; and myriad cultural, literary, and philosophical allusions have been made, both directly and indirectly, to this great work in many of the world’s diverse cultures. There was even a recent major motion picture called “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, starring Will Smith and Matt Damon, that was based directly on the themes of the Gita. How has this ancient work of philosophical thought, written so long ago, come to be considered of such profound importance by so many of our contemporary intellectuals, cultural icons, and spiritual seekers? We will explore the precise reasons for this phenomenon of the Gita’s importance in the coming pages of this work.
Despite its overwhelming influence over so many people throughout history, the Bhagavad Gita is itself, surprisingly, not a very large work. It’s only 700 verses in length, and can probably be read in a good sitting of about 3 hours or so. Contained within the Bhagavad Gita’s brief 700 verses of text, however, are several closely interrelated paths of Yoga which, if systematically and sincerely understood and practiced, have the ability to lead you to liberation(moksha) from the pangs of suffering (duhka) and ignorance (avidya) so seemingly common to the human experience. The goal of this short, yet powerful, work of philosophical literature is spiritual freedom!
Yoga is a unitary and comprehensive system designed to awaken its practitioner to the reality of her true self. There is in reality only one Yoga system, though this one system is often seen as multiple in accordance with what the particular emphasis might be. As we encounter the stunningly diverse reality of the world Yoga scene today, however, there appear to be a myriad of different schools of Yoga. Some of these emphases are quite ancient and authentic in nature, such as Kriya-yoga, Hatha-yoga, Raja-yoga and Bhakti-yoga. Others, such as the modern schools of K. Pratabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and other innovators with large Western audiences, are of much more recent and dubious origins. Of the many different branches of the traditional and authentic discipline of Yoga, only four are discussed at any great length by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. We will now closely examine the different approaches, philosophical outlooks and aims of these four Yoga systems of the Bhagavad Gita.
The speaker of the Gita, Shri Krishna, describes four types of Yoga, or spiritual disciplines that ensure liberation. These four dimensions of Yoga are 1) jnana-yoga, or the Yoga of wisdom, 2) karma-yoga, the Yoga of dynamic meditation 3) bhakti-yoga, the Yoga of devotional consciousness, and 4) the formal classical Yoga system, also known as ashtanga-yoga or raja-yoga. While these various systems of Yoga are all intimately allied as ultimately different spokes of the one wheel of Yoga, they are not presented in the Bhagavad Gita as being all of equal value. After giving a detailed description of the fourth type of Yoga (ashtanga-yoga) in the sixth chapter, for example, the Bhagavad Gita seems to then imply that this form of Yoga may be too difficult and demanding if it is practiced in a vacuum, unaided by the other three dimensions of Yoga. Indeed, the vast majority of the verses in the Gita, both previous to, as well as proceeding this chapter, focuses primarily on the practice of the other three aspects of Yoga (jnana, karma and bhakti) as being of necessary importance for a proper understanding of, and a practical technical grounding for, the classical ashtanga-yoga system.
While these four Yoga paths differ slightly as far as their respective technical emphases, they are all similarly oriented in their over-all approach and goal, and are thus really only one path. All of the Yoga systems taught in the Bhagavad Gita are in complete agreement that devotional mediation on, and realization of, the Absolute is the central overriding activity of any real importance in human existence. The Bhagavad Gita presents us with a unitary system of Yoga, one clear and systematic path, wherein all four Yoga techniques of jnana, karma, bhakti and Classical ashtanga are - together – all considered crucial for spiritual realization. These four supposedly different paths, in actuality, represent four aspects of one, unified, integral Yoga system. They are akin to the four sides of a square. If one of the sides of the square is missing, then the very structural integrity and being of the square is itself compromised. Indeed, it no longer is logically qualified as a "square" at all. Similarly, the complete and authentic path of Yoga spirituality must include all these four components of Yoga in order to be fully appreciated.
It is true that these four Yogas are linked by their common emphasis on devotional meditation upon, and the ultimate absorption of our awareness in, the Absolute. However, it is also inarguably clear that Krishna considers bhakti-yoga, or the discipline of focused devotional consciousness, to be not merely one component of these four branches of Yoga, but as the very essence and goal of all Yoga practice itself. Unlike the other aspects of the Yoga path, bhakti (devotional meditation) is distinguished by the fact that it is not only a means (upaya) for knowing God, but it is simultaneously also the goal (artha) of all human existence. At no time does one abandon the practice of bhakti, even upon achieving liberation. Rather, devotional consciousness focused with one-pointed awareness upon the Absolute represents the very goal of the entire Yoga system. This is not true of any other system of Yoga.
The Unity of Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita’s ultimate conclusion is that it is the integration of all four Yogas, with bhakti being both the unifying factor, as well as the goal of all forms of Yoga, that represents the highest form of Yoga. Krishna insists repeatedly that it is through this bhakti-based integral Yoga system presented by Him in the Bhagavad Gita, through the yogic path of devotional contemplation, that one can attain knowledge of, and union with, the Absolute. He says:
bhaktya mam abhijanati yavan yas casmi tattvatah
tato mam tattvato jnatva visate tad-anantaram
“One can understand Me as I am only by devotional contemplation. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, he can enter into My truth.” (18:55)
The great importance of devotional contemplation as the primary means for attaining realization of the Absolute is stressed repeatedly throughout the entirety of the Gita.
Further evidence of the primacy of bhakti as the unifying factor underlying all four Yoga systems can be seen in regard to the vishva-rupa vision of Arjuna in the eleventh chapter. After revealing to Arjuna the beatific vision of His wonderful universal form, Krishna tells him that:
bhaktya tv ananyaya sakya aham evam-vidho’rjuna
jnatum drastum ca tattvena pravestum ca parantapa
“...only by devotional meditation can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. In this way you can enter into the mysteries of My being” (11:54). The beatific epiphany of the transcendent Absolute as the source and ground of all existence was revealed to Arjuna, not because he was a great ascetic, philosopher or renunciate. Rather, Krishna showed Arjuna this divine vision for one reason alone: because of the advanced level of the bhakti, or devotional yogic absorption, that Arjuna had achieved. (11:53-55) Thus, again, one's inner contemplative state takes precedence over one's external ability to perform physical asanas.
In the Gita, bhakti is seen to culminate in the final, supreme stage of total self-surrender to the Absolute. In the last chapter of the Gita, Krishna informs Arjuna that He is now explaining “...the most confidential part of knowledge” (jnanam guhyataram). (18:64) This certainly seems to indicate that Krishna is about to reveal to Arjuna His most definitive statement thus far on the subject of Yoga. He then proceeds to illustrate the kind of thoroughly theocentric consciousness necessary for one who wishes to know the Absolute:
manmana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru
mam evaisyasi satyam te pratijane priyo’si me
“Always think of Me and become My devotee,” declares Krsna, “worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.” (18:65). According to Krishna, the yogi’s consciousness is to be completely absorbed in devotional contemplation upon the Divine. With her mind intently meditating on God, the yogi will achieve final liberation, coupled with all the freedom, peace, knowledge and fulfillment that such liberation implies. Complete, loving self-surrender to the Absolute - in sincere faith and trust - is the highest path to be traversed by the yogi, explains Krishna:
sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah
“Abandon all varieties of lesser dharmas [duties, lesser paths] and simply surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (18:66)
With this culminating verse, the Bhagavad Gita declares bhakti, or devotional meditation on the Absolute, to be the highest and foremost of all Yogas. In his commentary on this verse, Sri Ramanuja Acharya (1017–1137), the greatest philosopher in Sanatana Dharma’s very long history of religious and philosophical attainment, interprets the advice in this verse as calling for “...the complete relinquishment of the sense of agency, possessiveness, fruits, etc., in the practicing of karma, jnana and bhakti yogas in the way instructed, and the realizing of ...[God]...as the agent, object of worship, the means and the end” (Ramanuja, 1991). Thus, for the yogi nothing less than full surrender to the Absolute, in all of her words, thoughts and actions will suffice if self-realization is her goal.
All four of the Yogas discussed in the Bhagavad Gita are intimately united in that they all involve different degrees of mediation on the Absolute. Indeed, meditation, and the requisite mental discipline necessary for its practice, are integral elements of any Yoga process (Yoga Sutras, 1.2). This similarity, however, must not allow us to overlook the important distinctions in emphasis between the integrated path of the ashtanga/jnana/karma/bhakti yoga system. The ashtanga system described in the sixth chapter focuses on the important mechanics of practice. The jnana system helps the yogi to acquire the wisdom and intellectual acumen necessary to guide the yogi safely along the path. The path of Karma-yoga transcendentalizes the yogi’s every action. Finally, bhakti provides the meditative content, as well as reveals the goal of the very practice of Yoga itself. It seems quite apparent that Krishna considers bhakti, the state of loving devotion, to be both the underlying essence and goal of Ashtanga-yoga, Karma-yoga and Jnana-yoga. All four Yoga systems are thus united into one integral path, having bhakti as both their essence and goal.
The Bhagavad Gita’s recommendation is that the yogi should develop a loving, devotional state of consciousness toward the Absolute, finally culminating in full self-surrender (sharanam) to that Absolute, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. It is the final conclusion of the Bhagavad Gita that if one truly desires real happiness, peace and fulfillment, one must know one's true self. And this is to be done in conjunction with knowing the Supreme Self. As paradoxical as it may at first appear, it is as a direct result of this surrender of self that one realizes the self. If the goal for the yogi is self-realization, and if this is to be achieved only by reducing the seemingly insatiable demands of the ego, then what faster and more powerful way is there to eliminate all sense of false possessiveness that to relinquish control over even her very self by surrendering that self to the mercy and loving care of God, the Supreme Self (paramatman)?
The yogi must be prepared to plunge deeply and fearlessly into the ecstatic reality of the sweet Absolute. Nothing less than this sweetness of devotion will suffice. Nothing greater than this sweetness is to be attained.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
Sri Acharyaji has been practicing and teaching Dharma for over 40 years. With a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is the Founder-Acharya of the International Sanatana Dharma Society and the Director of the Center for Dharma Studies.
Sri Acharyaji is currently recognized as one of the world's foremost scholars on the Yoga tradition, Dharma and meditation, as well as being a truly authentic spiritual teacher.
With a very large international following, Sri Acharyaji is especially renowned for his highly authentic approach to spirituality, his authoritative and scholarly method of teaching, and his clear emphasis on serious spiritual practice and direct experience of self-realization. He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
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