52. The Holistic Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita

Lord Krishna

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V


Synopsis: In this we examine the claim of the Bhagavadgita as a holistic teaching and Lord Krishna as a social and religious reformer of his times


The Bhagavadgita as a Collection of Different Yogas

The Bhagavadgita was not composed by Lord Krishna, but by Veda Vyasa, who was also the composer of the Mahabharata. However, the author believes that the scripture does reflect the teachings of Lord Krishna, who was a philosopher king. The earliest kings of Vedic India were mostly philosopher kings and men of great wisdom. They were the pioneers of the Upanishadic philosophy who provided the foundation for the spiritual knowledge of ancient India. Lord Rama, Vishwamitra, Janaka, Ajatashatru, Krishna, Balarama and several others were warriors as well as philosophers. The tradition continued later also. Both Mahavira, the last Thirthankara of Jainism and the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism were Kshatriyas, reverentially mentioned in the scriptures as Aryaputras or men of nobility. In the following discussion we will examine the contribution of Lord Krishna to the foundational knowledge of Hindu spiritualism.

The Incarnation of God as the force of change and reform

If we accept idea that God incarnates upon earth to restore Dharma, which is stated in the Bhagavadgita (4.7), it logically follows that an incarnation may also herald change and transformation upon earth as a reformer. This is more likely with regard to those incarnations in which Lord Vishnu appeared as a human being.

For example, when the world transitioned from the Age of Truth (Satya Yuga) to Treta Yuga, there was a decline of Dharma. From the Puranas we learn that people became less truthful and more materialistic as they came under the influence of desires and selfishness. Kings turned despotic, violent and aggressive. Deluded by power, they oppressed people rather than protecting them. Then, Vishnu appeared upon earth in the incarnation of Parasurama and ended their oppression and aggression. He also restored peace by killing many unruly warriors.

In the later part of Treta Yuga, there was a further decline in the moral standards of the world. Dharma stood only on two pillars instead of four which meant the forces of evil were as strong as the forces of good. People became more selfish and less truthful and virtuous. Ravana and his evil lieutenants challenged the rule of God and caused trouble everywhere. They regularly tormented pious people, seers and sages and interrupted their sacrifices and devotional services by defiling them.

Lord Rama then appeared upon earth as an incarnation to cleanse the earth of all the demons. He killed Ravana and restored the order and regularity of the world and people’s faith in God. By exemplifying the best of human values and character through his own conduct, he served as a role model for others to follow. Even today, he is revered by many as the best among humans who is worthy of reverence, honor and respect (Maryada Purushottama Rama).

Treta Yuga was followed by Dwapara Yuga, in which Dharma declined further. People developed evil habits, which often led to their own destruction. Gambling ruined the lives of many including that of Dharmaraja. Cheating and falsehood became common practices even among royalty. Polygamy was a standard practice. Women were disrespected and disrobed in public. They were often forcibly carried away and married against their will as in case of Amba. The rule of the might prevailed. Kings lost their discernment and became selfish. The five evils of lust, anger, greed, pride and envy consumed the minds of people and rulers such as Kamsa, Jarasandha, Kitchaka and Duryodhana. Revenge killing was a regular practice. Even teachers such as Drona lost their discretion and succumbed to feelings of partiality, attachment, bias and revenge.

In those circumstances Lord Krishna appeared upon earth. He slew many demons and freed the earth from their evil influence. He played an important role in the Mahabharata war and helped the Pandavas to regain their kingdom. In the process he also helped them restore Dharma by destroying all those who violated it or opposed it. He showed no ambiguity in supporting the righteous against the sinful or challenging the prevailing social order as was evident from his war with Indra or Kamsa or his stand against the unjustified actions of the Kauravas. He had many critics like Shishupala, Dhritarashtra, and Shakuni who constantly criticized him, while he was also revered by many as the personification of Supreme Brahman.

The Bhagavadgita is part of the Mahabharata. It not only contains the profound philosophy of liberation but also hints at the reformative nature of Krishna’s teachings and his attempts to integrate divergent ideas into a cohesive system. Lord Krishna seems to have reformed and revitalized the Vedic faith of his times, and in that process probably attracted appreciation as well as criticism.

Lord Krishna as a social and religious reformer

The Bhagavadgita is a collection or a compilation of diverse schools of thought, which prevailed in ancient India. It has a wider appeal, because it integrates both the ritual and spiritual aspects of Hinduism and appeals to both worldly people and those engaged in spiritual practice. It teaches a practical philosophy and contains the best of the ideas from various schools and sects of Hinduism. Although it was composed much later than Krishna or the Mahabharata times, as a memorial work (smriti) it probably contains the summary of his original teachings.

His life and works show clearly that as a reformer and upholder of Dharma he revived Vedism and elevated it into a spiritual tradition by combining the best of its ritual and spiritual dimensions. and integrating the diverse teachings of the Upanishads and approaches to liberation into a holistic system, which can be clearly discerned in the discourse of Bhagavadgita. The importance given to Krishna and the might of the Yadava rulers also suggest the changing social and political order of the times and the compromises made within the Vedic tradition to accommodate the contemporary challenges and the growing popularity of personal gods and devotional theism. While recorded history looks upon the Buddha as a great reformer of his times, clearly Lord Krishna was one of the earliest religious reformers of ancient India. He did not initiate a new religion, but his teachings must have led to many changes within the Vedic fold and broadened its appeal to the lay followers.

Since the earliest times India has been home to many faiths, schools of philosophy, spiritual and ascetic movements. People worshipped different gods and followed different paths to express their devotion or achieve liberation. There were differences among various sections of society. People often indulged in religious debates, mutual rivalry and even animosity, which was true especially in case of the higher castes. However, beneath that medley of voices, noises and conflicting opinions, there was an understanding, pragmatism and a subtle harmony at the grassroots level which helped common people to live in harmony and practise their faith.

The Bhagavadgita as a holistic system

The Bhagavadgita is a collection of yogas and liberation theories. Karma yogis who are engaged in actions, jnana yogis who are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, buddhi yogis who are engaged in contemplative and meditative practices, Sanyasis who have renounced the world and engaged in austerities, and pure devotees who have surrendered to God and fixed their minds in the contemplation of God can equally draw inspiration from it. A renunciant who is interested in spiritual quest, an erudite priest who is inclined to perform Vedic sacrifices and ritual worship, householders who want to find spiritual or religious solutions to their daily problems, common people or lay followers who want to find peace and solace, or those who are forced by circumstances to make tough choices in critical moments, they all can draw inspiration and guidance from the scripture according to their needs and aspirations.

The composite philosophy of Krishna blends the lower knowledge (avidya) of the sacrifices (karmakanda) with the higher knowledge (vidya) of liberation (jnanakanda) as complimentary rather than contradictory. The pragmatist who wants to find god in the most common places through his devotion to duty and the idealist who wants to pursue liberation in the most uncommon places by living in the forests and subsisting on leaves and tubers can both find solace in the teachings of Krishna. Karma yoga is an ideal solution for those who are engaged in worldly duties and the lower knowledge of the sacrificial rituals and ceremonies, while Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga measures up to the spiritual aspirations of those who want to rise above materialism and pursue the path of liberation by fixing their minds in the constant contemplation of God.

Thus, the Bhagavadgita is useful to people of all ages to pursue the four aims of human life namely Dharma (religious duties), Artha (wealth), Kama (sexual pleasure) and Moksha (liberation). It offers a holistic solution to people to fulfill both their materialistic and spiritual aspirations. It does not disengage people from their worldly duties and obligations, but cautions them against the perils and consequences of pursuing selfish desires and egoistic actions. Further, it cautions people not to resort to extremes, suggesting that the yoga is not suitable for those who eat or sleep too much or too little. In today’s world, as a guidebook the Bhagavadgita helps aspiring souls to integrate their minds, bodies and spirits to achieve the highest aim of human life namely, Moksha or liberation.

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