Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Bhagavad Gita

I'm not a very devotional person, and I normally don't talk about God, but every time that I read The Bhagavad Gita I just feel like God himself came down to the world and wrote this book with His/Hers/Its own hand. It was the first and the best yoga philosophy book that I’ve ever read. It has literally change my life and I hold it very dear to my heart.

The Baghavad Gita is like the Hindu Bible. It's one of the episodes of the Mahabharata, an epic poem that tells the story of the two tribes, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both descendants from the king Kuru.

The Bhagavad Gita starts just when the two tribes gather in the field of Kurukshetra to start a war over a dispute for the throne of Hastinapura. When Arjuna (the third of the main Pandavas) sees his relatives, teachers and friends in the opposing army he feels discouraged. He thinks that this war is senseless and that he rather let himself get killed.

"If the sons of Dhritarashtra, with weapons in hand, kill me in the battle while I am unarmed and unavenging, that will be more beneficial to me." Verse 46. Chapter I

"Sanjaya said:
Having spoken thus, in the middle of the battle Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot, putting away the bow together with the arrows, his mind agitated with grief."Verse 47. Chapter I

This is when Krishna (Hindu deity, Arjuna's personal charioteer and adviser) intervenes and explains to Arjuna the whole philosophy of Yoga. He explains him the different paths to reach the state of yoga: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Krishna talks about what is life and dead, what is our real nature, what is karma, what is this world, what is the ultimate reality and what is the best action. Krishna motivates Arjuna to stand straight, with courage and determination and to fulfil his duties as a warrior without caring for the fruits of his actions.

"Do not lapse into impotency, O Son of Pritha; it does not well behoove you. Abandon this littleness and weakness of the heart and rise, O Scorcher of Enemies." Verse 3. Chapter II

"There never was a time, indeed, when I was not, nor you, nor these rulers of people, nor shall we all from this moment on ever cease to be." Verse 12 Chapter II

"As in the body of this bodybearer (Atman) there is childhood, youth, and old age, so there occurs the transfer to another body. A wise one does not become confused in this matter." Verse 13. Chapter II

"Know that as indestructible by which all this tangible world is permeated. No one has the power to bring to destruction this unalterable entity." Verse 17. Chapter II

"Belonging to the immeasurable, imperishable, eternal owner of the body, these bodies are said to be perishable; therefore fight, O Descendant of Bharata." Verse 18. Chapter II

"He is never born nor does He die, nor having been, does He ever again cease to be. Unborn, eternal, perennial, this ancient One is not killed when the body is killed." Verse 20. Chapter II

"He who knows this as imperishable, eternal, unborn, unalterable—how can that person, O Son of Pritha, kill, and whom can he kill or cause to be killed?" Verse 21. Chapter II

The Bhagavad Gita itself is a very small text, just a few pages long which you could probably read in a few hours. But the commentaries on it can be quite extensive, and the problem is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of commentaries.

Which one to choose? I think the best way is to choose a commentary written by a master that you follow, that you have respect for or at least that you know something about so you will have some trust in the interpretation that is given.

I can recommend the commentary written by Paramhansa Yogananda, which is called "God talks with Arjuna". This is a magnificent book where Yogananda give in depth explanations of the exoteric and esoteric meaning of each of the stanzas.

I find very impressive the interpretation of the meaning of each of the characters of the Mahabarata based on the Sanskrit root of the words used for their names (e.g. Arjuna: Divine Self Control; Pandavas: discriminative forces; Drona: Samskaras, habits; Dhritarashtra: the blind sense mind) and also the comparative analysis between the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yogananda's commentary is also an excellent study book because it includes in-depth explanations of different aspect of the yoga science. It covers subjects such as:
  • The yoga sutras of Patanjali
  • The eight essential steps of Raja Yoga
  • The science of Kriya Yoga
  • Pranayama
  • The five koshas or bodies that covers the soul
  • The yugas or ages

Swami Rama of the Himalayas, one of my main guides on the spiritual path, has a more concise and easy to read commentary called "Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita."

If you are looking for something not so extensive, simpler and from a source that you can trust then I would recommend the one written by Mahatma Gandhi, "The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi". It is just about 220 pages long. I actually haven’t read this one, but just looking at the Amazon’s extracts you can get a good feeling of it.

"The battle described here is a struggle between dharma [Duty, right conduct] and adharma [its opposite]."(page 3)
"The Kauravas represent the forces of Evil, the Pandavas the forces of Good."(page 3)

Another famous commentary is called "The Bhagavad Gita - As it is" written by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This is the text used by the Hare Krishnas. From my point of view the main difference between this interpretation and Yogananda's is that according to Swami Prabhupada the best practice for this age of Kali Yuga (the dark or material age) is Bhakti Yoga, the devotional path.

This is reflected in the way of living of the Hare Krishnas. On the other side, Paramahansa Yogananda's emphasis is on the Raja Yoga Meditation and Kriya Yoga, the mystic path, probably also because according to his guru we are no longer in the age of Kali Yuga but in the Dwapara Age (the electric or atomic age).

Which interpretation is right? I think each one of us will have to make our own conclusions. Swami Prabhupada's commentaries are very easy to read and they are usually supported by comparative analysis to other ancient scriptures.

If you are searching for answers, looking for the meaning of life and trying to transform yourself then I strongly recommend you to read The Bhagavad Gita.

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