The term dharma has a number of meanings. Fundamentally, it means "what is right". Early in the text, responding to Arjuna's despondency, Krishna asks him to follow his swadharma,[note 3] "the dharma that belongs to a particular man (Arjuna) as a member of a particular varna, (i.e., the kshatriya)." Many traditional followers accept and believe that every man is unique in nature(svabhava) and hence svadharma for each and every individual is also unique and must be followed strictly with sole bhakthi and shraddha.
According to Vivekananda:
If one reads this one Shloka, one gets all the merits of reading the entire Bhagavad Gita; for in this one Shloka lies imbedded the whole message of the Gita."
क्लैब्यं मा स्म गमः पार्थ नैतत्त्वय्युपपद्यते । क्षुद्रं हृदयदौर्बल्यं त्यक्त्वोत्तिष्ठ परंतप॥
klaibhyaṁ mā sma gamaḥ pārtha naitattvayyupapadyate, kṣudraṁ hṛdayadaurbalyaṁ tyaktvottiṣṭha paraṁtapa.
Do not yield to unmanliness, O son of Prithā, for it does not befit you. Shake off this petty faintheartedness and arise, O scorcher of enemies! (2.3)
Dharma and heroism
The Bhagavad Gita is set in the narrative frame of the Mahabharata, which values heroism, "energy, dedication and self-sacrifice", as the dharma, "holy duty" of the Kshatriya (Warrior). Axel Michaels in his book Hinduism: Past and Present writes that in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is "exhorted by his charioteer, Kṛiṣhṇa, among others, to stop hesitating and fulfil his Kṣatriya (warrior) duty as a warrior and kill."
According to Malinar, the dispute between the two parties in the Mahabharata centres on the question how to define "the law of heroism".[note 4] Malinar gives a description of the dharma of a Kshatriya (warrior) based on the Udyogaparvan, the fifth book of the Mahabharata:
This duty consists first of all in standing one's ground and fighting for status. The main duty of a warrior is never to submit to anybody. A warrior must resist any impulse to self-preservation that would make him avoid a fight. In brief, he ought to be a man (puruso bhava; cf. 5.157.6; 13;15). Some of the most vigorous formulations of what called the "heart" or the "essence" of heroism (ksatrahrdaya) come from the ladies of the family. They are shown most unforgiving with regard to the humiliations they have gone through, the loss of their status and honour, not to speak of the shame of having a weak man in the house, whether husband, son or brother.[note 5]
Michaels defines heroism as "power assimilated with interest in salvation". According to Michaels:
Even though the frame story of the Mahabharata is rather simple, the epic has an outstanding significance for Hindu heroism. The heroism of the Pandavas, the ideals of honor and courage in battle, are constant sources of treatises in which it is not sacrifice, renunciation of the world, or erudition that is valued, but energy, dedication and self-sacrifice. The Bhagavad Gita, inserted in the sixth book (Bhishmaparvan), and probably completed in the second century CE, is such a text, that is, a philosophical and theistic treatise, with which the Pandava is exhorted by his charioteer, Krishna, among others, to stop hesitating and fulfill his Kṣatriya (warrior) duty as a warrior and kill.
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 UdP [Udyoga Parva]". According to Malinar, the UdP emphasises that one must put up with fate and, the BhG personalises the surrender one's personal interests to the power of destiny by "propagating the view that accepting and enacting the fatal course of events is an act of devotion to this god [Krsna] and his cause."
Modern interpretations of dharma
Svadharma and svabhava
The eighteenth chapter of the Gita examines the relationship between svadharma and svabhava.[note 6] This chapter uses the gunas of Shankya philosophy to present a series of typologies, and uses the same term to characterise the specific activities of the four varnas, which are distinguished by the "gunas proceeding from their nature."
Aurobindo modernises the concept of dharma and svabhava by internalising it, away from the social order and its duties towards one's personal capacities, which leads to a radical individualism, "finding the fulfilment of the purpose of existence in the individual alone." He deduced from the Gita the doctrine that "the functions of a man ought to be determined by his natural turn, gift, and capacities", that the individual should "develop freely" and thereby would be best able to serve society.
Gandhi's view differed from Aurobindo's view. He recognised in the concept of swadharma his idea of swadeshi, the idea that "man owes his service above all to those who are nearest to him by birth and situation." To him, swadeshi was "swadharma applied to one's immediate environment."
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.
"The Field of Dharma" is also called the "Field of action" by Sri Aurobindo, a freedom fighter and philosopher. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a philosopher 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. The choice of such an unholy ambience for the delivery of a philosophical discourse has been an enigma to many commentators.[web 25] 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", and that "The language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long, drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow."
Jorge Angel Livraga also sees the battle as a reflection of the human condition, a necessary inner battle to overcome one's faults. "Arjuna is the image of all humanity. Each one of us wages, or one day will wage, the same battle of Arjuna."
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 7]
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".
Swami Vivekananda also emphasised that the first discourse in the Gita related to the war could be taken allegorically. Vivekananda further remarked,
This Kurukshetra War is only an allegory. 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.
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 "an allegory of the inner life, and has nothing to do with our outward human life and actions":
... That is a view which the general character and the actual language of the epic does not justify and, if pressed, would turn the straightforward philosophical language of the Gita into a constant, laborious and somewhat puerile mystification ... the Gita is written in plain terms and professes to solve the great ethical and spiritual difficulties which the life of man raises, and it will not do to go behind this plain language and thought and wrest them to the service of our fancy. But there is this much of truth in the view, that the setting of the doctrine though not symbolical, is certainly typical.
Swami Chinmayananda writes:
Here in the Bhagavad Gita, we find a practical handbook of instruction on how best we can re-organise our inner ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in our everyday life and draw from ourselves a larger gush of productivity to enrich the life around us, and to emblazon the subjective life within us.
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.
According to J. N. Farquhar:
"Even the Gita was used to teach murder. Lies, deceit, murder, everything, it was argued, may be rightly used. How far the leaders really believed this teaching no man can say; but the younger men got filled with it, and many were only too sincere."
Liberation or moksha in Vedanta philosophy is not something that can be acquired or reached. Ātman (Soul), the goal of moksha, is something that is always present as the essence of the self, and can be revealed by deep intuitive knowledge. 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 occasionally hinting at impersonal Brahman as the goal, revolves around the relationship between the Self and a personal God or Saguna Brahman. A synthesis of knowledge, devotion, and desireless action is given as a prescription for Arjuna's despondence; the same combination is suggested as a way to moksha. Winthrop Sargeant further explains, "In the model presented by the Bhagavad Gītā, every aspect of life is in fact a way of salvation."
Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita refers to the skill of union with the ultimate reality or the Absolute. In his commentary, Zaehner says that the root meaning of yoga is "yoking" or "preparation"; he proposes the basic meaning "spiritual exercise", which conveys the various nuances in the best way.
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 Gyaana yoga:
- Chapters 1–6 = Karma yoga, the means to the final goal
- Chapters 7–12 = Bhakti yoga or devotion
- Chapters 13–18 = Gyaana yoga or knowledge, the goal itself
As noted by various commentators, the Bhagavad Gita offers a practical approach to liberation in the form of Karma yoga. The path of Karma yoga upholds the necessity of action. However, this action is to be undertaken without any attachment to the work or desire for results. Bhagavad Gita terms this "inaction in action and action in inaction (4.18)". The concept of such detached action is also called Nishkam Karma, a term not used in the Gita. Lord Krishna, in the following verses, elaborates on the role actions, performed without desire and attachment, play in attaining freedom from material bondage and transmigration:
To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction
Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O Winner of wealth (Arjuna), abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga. (2.47–8)
The yogīs, abandoning attachment, act with body, mind, intelligence, and even with the senses, only for the purpose of purification. (5.11)[web 26]
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi writes, "The object of the Gita appears to me to be that of showing the most excellent 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". To achieve true liberation, it is important to control all mental desires and tendencies to enjoy sense pleasures. The following verses illustrate this:
When a man dwells in his mind on the object of sense, attachment to them is produced. From attachment springs desire and from desire comes anger.
From anger arises bewilderment, from bewilderment loss of memory; and from loss of memory, the destruction of intelligence and from the destruction of intelligence he perishes. (2.62–3)
The introduction to chapter seven of the Bhagavad Gita explains bhakti as a mode of worship which consists of unceasing and loving remembrance of God. Faith (Śraddhā) and total surrender to a chosen God (Ishta-deva) are considered to be important aspects of bhakti. Theologian Catherine Cornille writes, "The text [of the Gita] offers a survey of the different possible disciplines for attaining liberation through knowledge (Gyaana), action (karma), and loving devotion to God (bhakti), focusing on the latter as both the easiest and the highest path to salvation." M. R. Sampatkumaran, a Bhagavad Gita scholar, explains in his overview of Ramanuja's commentary on the Gita, "The point is that mere knowledge of the scriptures cannot lead to final release. Devotion, meditation, and worship are essential." Ramakrishna believed that the essential message of the Gita could be obtained by repeating the word Gita several times, "'Gita, Gita, Gita', you begin, but then find yourself saying 'ta-Gi, ta-Gi, ta-Gi'. Tagi means one who has renounced everything for God." In the following verses, Krishna elucidates the importance of bhakti:
And of all yogins, he who full of faith worships Me, with his inner self abiding in Me, him, I hold to be the most attuned (to me in Yoga). (6.47)
For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pṛthā, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death. (12.6–7)[web 27]
Radhakrishnan writes that the verse 11.55 is "the essence of bhakti" and the "substance of the whole teaching of the Gita":
Those who make me the supreme goal of all their work and act without selfish attachment, who devote themselves to me completely and are free from ill will for any creature, enter into me.(11.55)
Jnana yoga is the path of wisdom, knowledge, and direct experience of Brahman as the ultimate reality. The path renounces both desires and actions, and is therefore depicted as being steep and very difficult in the Bhagavad Gita. This path is often associated with the non-dualistic Vedantic belief of the identity of the Ātman with the Brahman. For the followers of this path, the realisation of the identity of Ātman and Brahman is held as the key to liberation.
When a sensible man ceases to see different identities, which are due to different material bodies, he attains to the Brahman conception. Thus he sees that beings are expanded everywhere. (13.31)[web 28]
One who knowingly sees this difference between the body and the owner of the body and can understand the process of liberation from this bondage, also attains to the supreme goal. (13.35)[web 29]
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 8] 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.