Bhagavad Gita integrates various schools of thought, notably Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga, and other theistic ideas. It remains a popular text for commentators belonging to various philosophical schools. However, its composite nature also leads to varying interpretations of the text and historic scholars have written bhashya (commentaries) on it. According to Mysore Hiriyanna, the Gita is "one of the hardest books to interpret, which accounts for the numerous commentaries on it–each differing from the rest in one essential point or the other".
According to Richard Davis, the Gita has attracted much scholarly interest in Indian history and some 227 commentaries have survived in the Sanskrit language alone. It has also attracted commentaries in regional vernacular languages for centuries, such as the one by Dnyaneshwar in Marathi language (13th-century).
The Bhagavad Gita is referred to in the Brahma Sutras, and numerous scholars including Shankara, Bhaskara, Abhinavagupta of Shaivism tradition, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya wrote commentaries on it. Many of these commentators state that the Gita is "meant to be a moksa-shastra (moksasatra), and not a dharmasastra, an arthasastra or a kamasastra", states Sharma.
Śaṅkara (c. 800 CE)
The oldest and most influential surviving commentary was published by Adi Shankara (Śaṅkarācārya). Shankara interprets the Gita in a monist, nondualistic tradition (Advaita Vedanta). Shankara prefaces his comments by stating that the Gita is popular among the laity, that the text has been studied and commented upon by earlier scholars (these texts have not survived), but "I have found that to the laity it appears to teach diverse and quite contradictory doctrines". He calls the Gita as "an epitome of the essentials of the whole Vedic teaching". To Shankara, the teaching of the Gita is to shift an individual's focus from the outer, impermanent, fleeting objects of desire and senses to the inner, permanent, eternal atman-Brahman-Vasudeva that is identical, in everything and in every being.
Abhinavagupta (c. 1000 CE)
Abhinavagupta was a theologian and philosopher of the Kashmir Shaivism (Shiva) tradition. He wrote a commentary on the Gita as Gitartha-Samgraha, which has survived into the modern era. The Gita text he commented on, is slightly different recension than the one of Adi Shankara. He interprets its teachings in the Shaiva Advaita (monism) tradition quite similar to Adi Shankara, but with the difference that he considers both soul and matter to be metaphysically real and eternal. Their respective interpretations of jnana yoga are also somewhat different, and Abhinavagupta uses Atman, Brahman, Shiva, and Krishna interchangeably. Abhinavagupta's commentary is notable for its citations of more ancient scholars, in a style similar to Adi Shankara. However, the texts he quotes have not survived into the modern era.
Rāmānuja (c. 1100 CE)
Ramanuja was a Hindu theologian, philosopher, and an exponent of the Sri Vaishnavism (Vishnu) tradition in 11th- and early 12th-century. Like his Vedanta peers, Ramanuja wrote a bhashya (commentary) on the Gita. Ramanuja's disagreed with Adi Shankara's interpretation of the Gita as a text on nondualism (Self and Brahman are identical), and instead interpreted it as a form of dualistic and qualified monism philosophy (Vishishtadvaita).
Madhva (c. 1250 CE)
Madhva, a commentator of the Dvaita Vedanta school, wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which exemplifies the thinking of the "dualist" school (Dvaita Vedanta). According to Christopher Chapelle, in the Madhva's school that there is "an eternal and complete distinction between the Supreme, the many souls, and matter and its divisions". His commentary on the Gita is called Gita Bhāshya. Madhva's commentary has attracted secondary works by pontiffs of the Dvaita Vedanta monasteries such as Padmanabha Tirtha, Jayatirtha, and Raghavendra Tirtha.
Vallabha (1481–1533 A.D)
Vallabha the proponent of "Suddhadvaita" or pure non-dualism, wrote a commentary on the Gita, the "Sattvadipika". According to him, the true Self is the Supreme Brahman. Bhakti is the most important means of attaining liberation.
Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Commentaries
- Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (b. 1486 CE) commentaries on various parts of the Gita are in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism Bhakti (acintya bhedabheda)[note 21] Vedanta tradition; in part a foundation of the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) interpretation of the Gita
Other classical commentators include
- Bhāskara (c. 900 CE) disagreed with Adi Shankara, wrote his own commentary on both Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras in the Dvaita-advaita tradition also called as the Bhedābheda tradition. According to Bhaskara, the Gita is essentially Advaita, but not quite exactly, suggesting that "the Atman (soul) of all beings are like waves in the ocean that is Brahman". Bhaskara also disagreed with Shankara's formulation of the Maya doctrine, stating that prakriti, atman and Brahman are all metaphysically real.
- Yamunacharya, Ramanuja's teacher summarised the teachings of the Bhagavadgita in his "Gitarthasangraha".
- Nimbarka (1162 CE) followed Bhaskara, but it is unclear if he ever wrote the commentary; the commentary Gitatattvaprakashika is generally attributed to a student named Kesava Bhatta in his tradition; the text states that Dasasloki – possibly authored by Nimbarka – teaches the essence of the Gita; the Gita tattva prakashika interprets the Gita also in a hybrid monist-dualist manner.
- Dnyaneshwar (1290 CE), the commentary is titled Dnyaneshwari also called Jnaneshwari or Bhavarthadipika; it is the oldest surviving literary work in the Marathi language, one of the foundations of the Varkari tradition in Maharashtra (Bhakti movement, Eknath, Tukaram); the commentary interprets the Gita in the Advaita Vedanta tradition Dnyaneshwar belonged to the Nath yogi tradition. His commentary on the Gita is notable for stating that it is the devotional commitment and love with inner renunciation that matters, not the name Krishna or Shiva, either can be used interchangeably.
- Vallabha II, descendant of Vallabha (1479 CE) commentary Tattvadeepika is in the Suddha-Advaita tradition
- Madhusudana Saraswati commentary Gudhartha Deepika is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Hanumat's commentary Paishacha-bhasya is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Anandagiri's commentary Bhashya-vyakhyanam is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Nilkantha's commentary Bhava-pradeeps is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Shreedhara's (1400 AD) commentary Avi gita is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Dhupakara Shastri's commentary Subodhini is in the Advaita Vedanta tradition
- Purushottama (1668-1781 A.D), Vallabha's follower, also wrote a commentary on Bhagavadgita
- Raghavendra's commentary Artha samgraha is in the Dvaita Vedanta tradition
- Vanamali Mishra (1685 CE), Gitagudharthacandrika is quite similar to Madhvacharya's commentary and is in the Dvaita Vedanta tradition
Modern era commentaries
- Among notable modern commentators of the Bhagavad Gita are Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Vinoba Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi (who called its philosophy Anasakti Yoga), Sri Aurobindo, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Chinmayananda. Chinmayananda took a syncretistic approach to interpret the text of the Gita.
- Tilak wrote his commentary Shrimadh Bhagavad Gita Rahasya while in jail during the period 1910–1911 serving a six-year sentence imposed by the British colonial government in India for sedition. While noting that the Gita teaches possible paths to liberation, his commentary places most emphasis on Karma yoga.
- No book was more central to Gandhi's life and thought that the Bhagavad Gita, which he referred to as his "spiritual dictionary". During his stay in Yeravda jail in 1929, Gandhi wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in Gujarati. The Gujarati manuscript was translated into English by Mahadev Desai, who provided an additional introduction and commentary. It was published with a foreword by Gandhi in 1946.
- The version by A.C. Bhaktivēdānta Swāmi Prabhupāda, entitled Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, is "by far the most widely distributed of all English Gīta translations" due to the efforts of ISKCON. Its publisher, the Bhaktivēdānta Book Trust, estimates sales at twenty-three million copies, a figure which includes the original English edition and secondary translations into fifty-six other languages. The Prabhupada commentary interprets the Gita in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition of Chaitanya, quite similar to Madhvacharya's Dvaita Vēdanta ideology. It presents Krishna as the Supreme, a means of saving mankind from the anxiety of material existence through loving devotion. Unlike in Bengal and nearby regions of India where the Bhagavata Purana is the primary text for this tradition, the devotees of Prabhupada's ISKCON tradition have found better reception for their ideas by those curious in the West through the Gita, according to Richard Davis.
- In 1966, Mahārishi Mahesh Yogi published a partial translation.
- An abridged version with 42 verses and commentary was published by Ramana Maharishi.
- Bhagavad Gita – The song of God, is a commentary by Swami Mukundananda.
- Paramahansa Yogananda's two-volume commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, called God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, was released 1995 and is available in 5 language. The book is significant in that unlike other commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita, which focus on karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga in relation to the Gita, Yogananda's work stresses the training of one's mind, or raja yoga. It is published by Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society of India.
- Eknath Easwaran's commentary interprets the Gita for his collection of problems of daily modern life.
- Other modern writers such as Swami Parthasarathy and Sādhu Vāsvāni have published their own commentaries.
- Academic commentaries include those by Jeaneane Fowler, Ithamar Theodor, and Robert Zaehner.
- A collection of Christian commentaries on the Gita has been edited by Catherine Cornille, comparing and contrasting a wide range of views on the text by theologians and religion scholars.