The nature of God
The Gita adopts the Upanishadic concept of Absolute Reality (Brahman), a shift from the earlier ritual-driven Vedic religion to one abstracting and internalizing spiritual experiences. According to Jeaneane Fowler, the Gita builds on the Upanishadic Brahman theme, conceptualized to be that which is everywhere, unaffected, constant Absolute, indescribable and nirguna (abstract, without features). This Absolute in Gita is neither a He nor a She, but a "neuter principle", an "It or That". Like some of the Upanishads, the Gita does not limit itself to the nirguna Brahman. It teaches both the abstract and the personalized Brahman (God), the latter in the form of Krishna. It accomplishes this synthesis by projecting the nirguna Brahman as higher than saguna or personalized Brahman, where the nirguna Brahman "exists when everything else does not", states Fowler. The text blurs any distinction between the personalized God and impersonal Absolute Reality by amalgamating their equivalence, using it interchangeably in the later chapters. This theme has led scholars to call the Gita as panentheistic, theistic and monistic.
The nature of Self
The Gita, states Fowler, "thoroughly accepts" atman as a foundational concept. In the Upanishads, this is the Brahmanical idea that all beings have a "permanent real self", the true essence, the soul it refers to as Atman (Self).[note 15] In the Upanishads that preceded the Gita such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the salvific goal is to know and realize this Self, a knowledge that is devoid of the delusions of instinctive "I, mine, egoistic" typically connected with the body, material life processes that are impermanent and transient. The Gita accepts atman as the pure, unchanging, ultimate real essence, experiencer of one's being.
The nature of the world
The Gita considers the world to be transient, all bodies and matter as impermanent. Everything that constitutes prakriti (nature, matter) is process driven and has a finite existence. It is born, grows, matures, decays and dies. It considers this transient reality as Maya. Like the Upanishads, the Gita focuses on what it considers as Real in this world of change, impermanence, and finitude. To build its theological framework about the world, the text relies on the theories found in Samkhya and Vedanta schools of Hinduism.
The Upanishads developed the equation "Atman = Brahman", states Fowler, and this belief is central to the Gita. This equation is, however, interpreted in a number of ways by different sub-schools of Vedanta. In the Gita, the soul of each human being is considered to be identical to every other human being and all beings, but it "does not support an identity with the Brahman", according to Fowler. According to Raju, the Gita supports this identity and spiritual monism, but as a form of synthesis with a personal God. According to Edgerton, the author(s) of the Gita rely on their concept of personalized God (Krishna) to ultimately arrive at an ultimate monism, where the devotee ultimately realizes that Krishna is the essential part, the Real, the fundamental element in him, everyone and everything. Krishna is all and One. According to Huston Smith, the Gita is teaching that "when one sees the entire universe as pervaded by the single Universal Spirit [Krishna], one contemplates, marvels, and falls in love with its amazing glory. [...] Having experienced that Truth oneself, all doubts are dispelled. This is how the flower of devotion evolves into the fruit of knowledge."
Means to God
The Gita teaches several spiritual paths – jnana, bhakti and karma – to the divine. However, states Fowler, it "does not raise any of these to a status that excludes the others". The theme that unites these paths in the Gita is "inner renunciation" where one is unattached to personal rewards during one's spiritual journey.
The Gita teaches the path of Karma yoga in Chapter 3 and others. It upholds the necessity of action. However, this action should "not simply follow spiritual injunctions", without any attachment to personal rewards or because of craving for fruits. The Gita teaches, according to Fowler, that the action should be undertaken after proper knowledge has been applied to gain the full perspective of "what the action should be".
The concept of such detached action is also called Nishkam Karma, a term not used in the Gita but equivalent to other terms such as karma-phala-tyaga. This is where one determines what the right action ought to be and then acts while being detached to personal outcomes, to fruits, to success or failure. A karma yogi finds such work inherently fulfilling and satisfying. To a karma yogi, right work done well is a form of prayer, and karma yoga is the path of selfless action.
According to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the object of the Gita is to show the way to attain self-realization, and this "can be achieved by selfless action, by desireless action; by renouncing fruits of action; by dedicating all activities to God, i.e., by surrendering oneself to Him body and soul." Gandhi called the Gita "The Gospel of Selfless Action". According to Jonardon Ganeri, the premise of "disinterested action" is one of the important ethical concepts in the Gita.
In the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti is characterized as the "loving devotion, a longing, surrender, trust and adoration" of the divine Krishna as the ishta-devata. While bhakti is mentioned in many chapters, the idea gathers momentum after verse 6.30, and it is chapter 12 where the idea is sustainly developed. According to Fowler, the bhakti in the Gita does not imply renunciation of "action", but the bhakti effort is assisted with "right knowledge" and dedication to one's dharma. Theologian Catherine Cornille writes, "The text [of the Gita] offers a survey of the different possible disciplines for attaining liberation through knowledge (Jnana), action (karma), and loving devotion to God (bhakti), focusing on the latter as both the easiest and the highest path to salvation."
According to M. R. Sampatkumaran, a Bhagavad Gita scholar, the Gita message is that mere knowledge of the scriptures cannot lead to final release, but "devotion, meditation, and worship are essential." The Gita likely spawned a "powerful devotionalism" movement, states Fowler, because the text and this path was simpler, available to everyone.
Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, and direct realization of the Brahman. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is also referred to as buddhi yoga and its goal is self-realization. The text states that this is the path that intellectuals tend to prefer. The chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita is dedicated to the general exposition of jnana yoga.
The Gita praises the path, calling the jnana yogin to be exceedingly dear to Krishna, but adds that the path is steep and difficult.
Synthesis of yogas, Raja yoga
Sivananda's commentary regards the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita as having a progressive order, by which Krishna leads "Arjuna up the ladder of Yoga from one rung to another." The influential commentator Madhusudana Sarasvati divided the Gita's eighteen chapters into three sections of six chapters each. Swami Gambhirananda characterises Madhusudana Sarasvati's system as a successive approach in which Karma yoga leads to Bhakti yoga, which in turn leads to Jnana yoga:
- Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
- Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
- Chapters 13–18 = Jnana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself
Some scholars treat the "yoga of meditation" to be a distinct fourth path taught in the Gita, referring to it as Raja yoga. Others consider it as a progressive stage or a combination of Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga. Some, such as Adi Shankara, have considered its discussion in the 13th chapter of the Gita and elsewhere to be an integral part of the Jnana yoga.
Asceticism, renunciation and ritualism
The Gita rejects ascetic life, renunciation as well as Brahminical Vedic ritualism where outwardly actions or non-action are considered a means of personal rewards in this life, after-life or a means of liberation. It instead recommends the pursuit of an active life where the individual adopts "inner renunciation", acts to fulfill what he determines to be his dharma, without craving for or concerns about personal rewards, viewing this as an "inner sacrifice to the personal God for a higher good".
According to Edwin Bryant, the Indologist with publications on Krishna-related Hindu traditions, the Gita rejects "actionless behavior" found in some Indic monastic traditions. It also "relegates the sacrificial system of the early Vedic literature to a path that goes nowhere because it is based on desires", states Bryant.
Dharma is a prominent paradigm of the Mahabharata, and it is referenced in the Gita as well. The term dharma has a number of meanings. Fundamentally, it means "what is right". Contexually, it also means the essence of "duty, law, class, social norms, ritual and cosmos itself" in the text, in the sense "the way things should be in all these different dimensions", states Fowler. According to Zaehner, the term dharma means "duty" in Gita's context, in verse 2.7 refers to the "right [and wrong]", and in 14.27 to "eternal law of righteousness".
Few verses in the Bhagavad Gita deal with dharma, according to the Indologist Paul Hacker, but the theme of dharma is important in it. In Chapter 1, responding to Arjuna's despondency, Krishna asks him to follow his sva-dharma, "the dharma that belongs to a particular man (Arjuna) as a member of a particular varna, (i.e., the kshatriya – the warrior varna)". According to Paul Hacker, the term dharma has additional meanings in the context of Arjuna. It is more broadly, the "duty" and a "metaphysically congealed act" for Arjuna. According to the Indologist Jacqueline Hirst, the dharma theme is "of significance only at the beginning and end of the Gita" and this may have been a way to perhaps link the Gita to the context of the Mahabharata.
According to Malinar, "Arjuna's crisis and some of the arguments put forward to call him to action are connected to the debates on war and peace in the Udyoga Parva." The Udyoga Parva presents many views about the nature of a warrior, his duty and what calls for heroic action.While Duryodhana presents it as a matter of status, social norms, and fate, Vidura states that the heroic warrior never submits, knows no fear and has the duty to protect people. The Bhishma parva sets the stage of two ideologies in conflict and two massive armies gathered for what each considers as a righteous and necessary war. In this context, the Gita advises Arjuna to do his holy duty (sva-dharma) as a warrior, fight and kill.
According to the Indologist Barbara Miller, the text frames heroism not in terms of physical abilities, but instead in terms of effort and inner commitment to fulfill a warrior's dharma in the battlefield. War is depicted as a horror, the impending slaughter a cause of self-doubts, yet at stake is the spiritual struggle against evil. The Gita message emphasizes that the personal moral confusion and struggle must be addressed, the warrior needs to rise beyond "personal and social values" and understand what is at stake and "why he must fight", states Miller. The text explores the "paradoxical interconnectedness of disciplined action and freedom".
The Field of Dharma
The first reference to dharma in the Bhagavad Gita occurs in its first verse, where Dhritarashtra refers to the Kurukshetra, the location of the battlefield, as the Field of Dharma, "The Field of Righteousness or Truth". According to Fowler, dharma in this verse may refer to the sanatana dharma, "what Hindus understand as their religion, for it is a term that encompasses wide aspects of religious and traditional thought and is more readily used for religion". Therefore, 'Field of action' implies the field of righteousness, where truth will eventually triumph, states Fowler. According to Jacqueline Hirst, the "field of dharma" phrase in the Gita epitomizes that the struggle concerns dharma itself. This dharma has "resonances at many different levels".
"The Field of Dharma" is also called the "Field of action" by Sri Aurobindo, a freedom fighter and philosopher. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a professor of Philosophy at the Oxford University and the second president of India, saw "The Field of Dharma" as the world (Bhavsagar), which is a "battleground for moral struggle".
Allegory of war
Unlike any other religious scripture, the Bhagavad Gita broadcasts its message in the centre of the battlefield. Several modern Indian writers have interpreted the battlefield setting as an allegory of "the war within". Eknath Easwaran writes that the Gita's subject is "the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious".
Swami Nikhilananda, takes Arjuna as an allegory of Ātman, Krishna as an allegory of Brahman, Arjuna's chariot as the body, and Dhritarashtra as the ignorance filled mind.[note 16] Nikhilananda's allegorical interpretation is shared by Huston Smith. Swami Vivekananda interprets the first discourse in the Gita as well as the "Kurushetra war" allegorically. Vivekananda states, "when we sum up its esoteric significance, it means the war which is constantly going on within man between the tendencies of good and evil".
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in his commentary on the Gita, interprets the battle as "an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, man's higher impulses struggling against evil".
In Aurobindo's view, Krishna was a historical figure, but his significance in the Gita is as a "symbol of the divine dealings with humanity", while Arjuna typifies a "struggling human soul". However, Aurobindo rejected the interpretation that the Gita, and the Mahabharata by extension, is only "an allegory of the inner life", and it has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions.[note 17]
Promotion of just war and duty
Other scholars such as Steven Rosen, Laurie L. Patton and Stephen Mitchell have seen in the Gita a religious defense of the warrior class's (Kshatriya Varna) duty (svadharma), which is to conduct combat and war with courage and do not see this as only an allegorical teaching, but also a real defense of just war.
Indian independence leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw the Gita as a text which defended war when necessary and used it to promote war against the British Empire. Lajpat Rai wrote an article on the "Message of the Bhagavad Gita". He saw the main message as the bravery and courage of Arjuna to fight as a warrior. Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw the Gita as defending killing when necessary for the betterment of society, such as, for example, the killing of Afzal Khan.
Liberation or moksha in Vedanta philosophy is not something that can be acquired. Ātman (Soul) and Self-knowledge, along with the loss of egotistic ignorance, the goal of moksha, is something that is always present as the essence of the self, and must be realized by each person by one's own effort.While the Upanishads largely uphold such a monistic viewpoint of liberation, the Bhagavad Gita also accommodates the dualistic and theistic aspects of moksha. The Gita, while including impersonal Nirguna Brahman as the goal, mainly revolves around the relationship between the Self and a personal God or Saguna Brahman. A synthesis of knowledge, devotion, and desireless action is offered by Krishna as a spectrum of choices to Arjuna; the same combination is suggested to the reader as a way to moksha. Christopher Chapple – a Comparative Theology scholar focusing on Indian religions, in Winthrop Sargeant translation of the Gita, states, "In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation."
According to Dennis Hudson, there is an overlap between Vedic and Tantric rituals with the teachings found in the Bhagavad Gita. He places the Pancaratra Agama in the last three or four centuries of 1st-millennium BCE, and proposes that both the tantric and vedic, the Agama and the Gita share the same Vasudeva-Krishna roots. Some of the ideas in the Bhagavad Gita connect it to the Shatapatha Brahmana of Yajurveda. The Shatapatha Brahmana, for example, mentions the absolute Purusha who dwells in every human being. A story in this vedic text, states Hudson, highlights the meaning of the name Vasudeva as the 'shining one (deva) who dwells (vasu) in all things and in whom all things dwell', and the meaning of Vishnu to be the 'pervading actor'. In Bhagavad Gita, similarly, 'Krishna identified himself both with Vasudeva, Vishnu and their meanings'.[note 18] The ideas at the center of Vedic rituals in Shatapatha Brahmana and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita revolve around this absolute Person, the primordial genderless absolute, which is same as the goal of Pancaratra Agama and Tantra.