The epic Mahabharata is traditionally ascribed to the Sage Ved Vyasa; the Bhagavad Gita, being a part of the Mahabharata's Bhisma Parva, is also ascribed to him.
Date of composition
Theories on the date of composition of the Gita vary considerably. Scholars accept dates from the fifth century to the second century BCE as the probable range. Professor Jeaneane Fowler, in her commentary on the Gita, considers second century BCE to be the likely date of composition. Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, a Gita scholar, on the basis of the estimated dates of Mahabharata, Brahma sutras, and other independent sources, concludes that the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the fifth or fourth century BCE.
It is generally agreed that, "Unlike the Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-perfect, the Gita was a popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to changes in language and style", so the earliest "surviving" components of this dynamic text are believed to be no older than the earliest "external" references we have to the Mahabharata epic, which may include an allusion in Panini's fourth century BCE grammar. It is estimated that the text probably reached something of a "final form" by the early Gupta period (about the 4th century CE). The actual dates of composition of the Gita remain unresolved.
Hindu synthesis and smriti
Due to its presence in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is classified as a Smriti text or "that which is remembered".[note 2] The smriti texts of the period between 200 BCE-100 CE belong to the emerging "Hindu synthesis", proclaiming the authority of the Vedas while integrating various Indian traditions and religions. Acceptance of the Vedas became a central criterion for defining Hinduism over and against the heterodoxies, which rejected the Vedas.
The so-called "Hindu synthesis" emerged during the early Classical period (200 BCE-300 CE) of Hinduism. According to Alf Hiltebeitel, a period of consolidation in the development of Hinduism took place between the time of the late Vedic Upanishad (ca. 500 BCE) and the period of the rise of the Guptas (ca. 320–467 CE) which he calls the "Hindu synthesis", "Brahmanic synthesis", or "orthodox synthesis". It developed in interaction with other religions and peoples:
The emerging self-definitions of Hinduism were forged in the context of continuous interaction with heterodox religions (Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas) throughout this whole period, and with foreign people (Yavanas, or Greeks; Sakas, or Scythians; Pahlavas, or Parthians; and Kusanas, or Kushans) from the third phase on [between the Mauryan empire and the rise of the Guptas].
The Bhagavad Gita is the sealing achievement of this Hindu synthesis, incorporating various religious traditions.[web 1] According to Hiltebeitel, bhakti forms an essential ingredient of this synthesis, which incorporates bhakti into the Brahmanical fold. According to Deutsch and Dalvi, the Bhagavad Gita attempts "to forge a harmony" between different strands of Indian thought: jnana, dharma and bhakti. Deutsch and Dalvi note that the authors of the Bhagavad Gita "must have seen the appeal of the soteriologies both of the "heterodox" traditions of Buddhism and Jainism and of the more "orthodox" ones of Samkhya and Yoga", while the Brahmanic tradition emphasised "the significance of dharma as the instrument of goodness". Scheepers mentions the Bhagavat Gita as a Brahmanical text which uses the shramanic and Yogic terminology to spread the Brahmanic idea of living according to one's duty or dharma, in contrast to the yogic ideal of liberation from the workings of karma. According to Basham,
The Bhagavadgita combines many different elements from Samkhya and Vedanta philosophy. In matters of religion, its important contribution was the new emphasis placed on devotion, which has since remained a central path in Hinduism. In addition, the popular theism expressed elsewhere in the Mahabharata and the transcendentalism of the Upanishads converge, and a God of personal characteristics is identified with the brahman of the Vedic tradition. The Bhagavadgita thus gives a typology of the three dominant trends of Indian religion: dharma-based householder life, enlightenment-based renunciation, and devotion-based theism.[web 1]
Raju too sees the Bhagavad Gita as a synthesis:
The Bhagavadgita may be treated as a great synthesis of the ideas of the impersonal spiritual monism with personalistic monotheism, of the yoga of action with the yoga of transcendence of action, and these again with yogas of devotion and knowledge.
The influence of the Bhagavad Gita was such, that its synthesis was adapted to and incorporated into specific Indian traditions. Nicholson mentions the Shiva Gita as an adaptation of the Vishnu-oriented Bhagavat Gita into Shiva-oriented terminology, and the Isvara Gita as borrowing entire verses from the Krishna-oriented Bhagavad Gita and placing them into a new Shiva-oriented context.
The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Prasthanatrayi, which also includes the Upanishads and Brahma sutras. These are the key texts for the Vedanta, which interprets these texts to give a unified meaning. Advaita Vedanta sees the non-dualism of Atman and Brahman as its essence, whereas Bhedabheda and Vishishtadvaita see Atman and Brahman as both different and non-different, and Dvaita sees them as different. In recent times the Advaita interpretation has gained worldwide popularity, due to the Neo-Vedanta of Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan, while the Achintya Bheda Abheda interpretation has gained worldwide popularity via the Hare Krishnas, a branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.
Although early Vedanta gives an interpretation of the sruti texts of the Upanishads, and its main commentary the Brahman Sutras, the popularity of the Bhagavad Gita was such that it could not be neglected. It is referred to in the Brahman Sutras, and Shankara, Bhaskara and Ramanuja all three wrote commentaries on it. The Bhagavad Gita is different from the Upanishads in format and content, and accessible to all, in contrast to the sruti, which are only to be read and heard by the higher castes.
Some branches of Hinduism give it the status of an Upanishad, and consider it to be a Śruti or "revealed text". According to Pandit, who gives a modern-orthodox interpretation of Hinduism, "since the Bhagavad Gita represents a summary of the Upanishadic teachings, it is sometimes called 'the Upanishad of the Upanishads'."