Srimathe Ramanujaya Nama:
The Bhagavad Gita is the most popular and the most significant scripture in Vedic tradition. Nestled inside the voluminous book of Mahabharatha, the Gita bears the uniqueness of having emanated directly from the lips of God who was manifest as Krishna, playing the role of a preceptor(acharya) while donning the guise of a chariot chauffeur.
The Gita is easily the most commented and translated Vedic message. Various philosophers and religious enthusiasts have ventured to have their say on this text. There is great interest the world around in understanding the message of the Gita.
A discourse on Vedic faith is usually dominated by the opinions of three philosophers – Sri Adi Sankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva – called Trimathacharyas. Their opinions shaped the philosophical discourse of medieval India, giving birth to numerous philosophical derivatives and theological expressions.
While the current presentation of the purport of Bhagavad Gita is largely based on the interpretation of Sri Ramanuja, efforts will be made to highlight the significant points in the interpretations of Sri Sankara and Sri Madhva as well.
Salutations to the Supreme Brahman, Narayana
Sankara commences his commentary with a hymn on Lord Narayana,
nārāyaṇaḥ paro~vyaktādaṇḍam-avyakta-saṃbhavam |
aṇḍasyāntastvime lokāḥ saptadvīpā ca medinī ||
The world is made of the seven dvīpas, these worlds are formed from within the Brahmanda, the Brahmanda is formed from Avaykta. Beyond the Avaykta is Narayana.
According to Vedic tradition, Nārāyaṇa is the supreme lord who creates the universe. He is identified with the causal being by Vedantins. Krishna is an incarnation of Narayana. The details of creation and Krishnavathara can be found in Itihāsas and Purāṇas.
At the outset of his commentary, Ramanuja dwells into the fine details of the essential character, nature and attributes of the Lord Srimannarayana, His divine consort Sri, the magnificent weapons and ornaments, the Nitya Sūris and the abode of Vaikunta.
Srimannarayana is free of all blemish and the repose of auspiciousness. He is different from everything else and is unique. His essential character is infinite, knowledge and bliss. He is an ocean of natural and excellent auspicious qualities such as knowledge, strength, sovereignty, valour, power and radiance. His divine form is appropriate to His greatness, is unthinkable, divine, wonderful, eternal, blemish-less, excellent, radiant, beautiful, fragrant, delicate, charming, youthful and endowed with other such favourable characteristics. His ornaments, raiment and weapons are equally superior, wonderful and in accordance to His greatness. His beloved consort is Sri who is possessed with attributes that make Her worthy of Him and together they form a divine couple. The lotus feet of the divine couple is forever served by the pure souls who eternally reside in the magnificent and highest world of Vaikunta. On the other side of Vaikunta is Samsara with souls and material objects that are subject to His sport of creation, sustenance and destruction. Such is the Para Brahman, the Supreme Person, Narayana. Though He is great and beyond the faculties provided to the souls on the material side of the divide, He makes Himself available to them in suitable forms, so as to be easily worshipped by them, and become the object of their meditation.
Madhva’s initial verse in both his Bhashya and Tatparya Nirṇaya are similar to that of Sankara.
He starts off the Bhashya thus,
devaṃ nārāyaṇaṃ natvā sarvadoṣavivartijam paripūrṇaṃ … gītārthaṃ vakshyāmi
Bowing to God, who is Nārāyaṇa, who is complete and devoid of all defects, I explain the meaning of the Gīta
The Tatparya Nirṇaya starts as,
samasta-guṇa-saṃpūrṇaṃ sarvadoṣavivarjitam |
nārayaṇam namaskrutya gītā-tātparyam-ucyate ||
The purport of the Gita is explained after offering obeisance to Lord Nārāyaṇa who is full of all auspicious attributes and devoid of all blemish.
Essence Of The Gita
The essence of the Gita is beautifully captured by Sri Yamuna Muni who wrote Gitartha Sangraha –
svadharma-jñāna-vairagya-sādhya bhaktyeka gocaraḥ
nārayaṇaḥ paraṃbrahma gītāśāstre samīritaḥ
In the Gītā, it is explained that Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Brahman is realized only through Bhakti which is achieved by performing one’s duties, by knowledge and by detachment.
According to Sankara, the Gita can be summarized as follows,
imaṃ dviprakāraṃ dharmaṃ niḥśreyasa-prayojanaṃ paramartha-tattvaṃ ca vāsudevākhyaṃ paraṃ brahmābhidheyabhutaṃ viśeṣato~bhivyanjayadviśiṣta-prayojana-sambandha-abhidheyavad-gitā-śāstram
The Gita explains the two fold path of knowledge and action for the purpose of the highest benefit of liberation. It specifically explains the Supreme Entity and Reality, who is known by the name of Vasudeva, the Para Brahman, who forms the distinct subject of the discourse.
Why Krishna? Why Gita?
Commenting on the reason for the Lord’s appearance as Krishna and the teaching of Gita, Sankara says,
sa ādikartā nārāyaṇākhyo viṣṇuḥ bhaumasya brahmaṇo brāhmaṇatvasya rakṣanārtham devakyāṃ vasudevādaṃśena kila saṃbabhūva
The Original Creator Nārāyaṇa or Viṣṇu was born as the son of Devaki and Vasudeva in order to protect spiritual discipline on this earth.
sa ca bhagavān jñāna-aiśvarya-śakti-bala-vīrya-tejobhiḥ sadā saṃpannaḥ triguṇātmikāṃ vaiṣṇavīṃ svāṃ māyāṃ mūlaprakṛtiṃ vaśīkrutya ajaḥ avyayo bhūtānām īsvaro nitya-śuddha-buddha-mukta-svabhāvo~pi sansvamāyayā dehavāniva jāta iva ca lokānugraham kurvanniva lakṣyate |
sva-prayojana-abhāve~pi bhūtānujighṛkṣayā vaidikaṃ hi dharma-dvayam arjunāya śoka-moha-mahodadhau nimagnāya upadideśa guṇādhikaiḥ hi gṛhīto~nuṣṭhīyamānaḥ ca dharmaḥ pracayaṃ gamiṣyatīti |
This Bhagavan Narayana is eternally endowed with knowledge, sovereignty, prowess, strength, valour and radiance. The Mula Prakrti, composed of three gunas, which is called Vishnu Maya or Vaishnavi, is controlled by Him. Narayana is unborn, indestructible, the God of all beings, eternal, pure, enlightened and free. Yet, as He descends to grace the world, He appears as if He is born and embodied like others.
With no selfish interest, for the only sake of helping the beings of the world, He taught the two fold Vedic path to Arjuna who was immersed in the deluge of sorrow and delusion. He taught Arjuna because He considered that the path would gain wider acceptance if it is practised by a noble person like Arjuna.
While establishing the purpose of Krishnavathara and the Gita, Ramanuja says,
bhūbhārāvatāraṇāpadeśena asmadādīnāmapi samāśrayatvāyāvatīryovyāṃ sakala-manuja-nayana-viṣayatāṃ gataḥ,
pūtanā-śakaṭa….-kamsādīn nihatya anavadhika-dayā-sauhārda-anurāga-garbhāvalokanālāpāmṛtaiḥ viśvamāpyāyan,
niradiśaya-saundarya-sauśīlyādi-guṇagaṇa-āviṣkāreṇa akrūra-mālākārādīn parama-bhāgavatān kṛtvā, pāṇḍu-tanaya-yuddha-protsāhana-vyājena parama-purushārtha-lakṣaṇa-mokṣa-sādhanatayā vedāntoditaṃ svaviṣayaṃ jñānakarmānugṛhītaṃ bhakti-yogam-avatārayāmāsa
To make Himself accessible to us, Srimannarayana descended as Krishna taking the excuse of removing the metaphorical burden of the earth. He became the object of everyone’s vision, from the learned man to the commoner. He performed wondrous actions that captivated the hearts of all walks of people. By revealing His extra-ordinary beauty and auspicious qualities, He made great devotees out of Akrura, Malakara and others. Again, under the pretext of encouraging Arjuna to engage in war, He revealed the secret path of Bhakti which is directed towards Himself, which is born from Karma and Jñāna, and which is taught in the Vedanta.
A few observations …
The commentators are in agreement that Narayana(Vishnu) is the ultimate cause of the universe. Adi Sankara makes this clear by taking about the sequence of creation of the worlds and showing that Narayana is beyond matter both manifest and unmanifest. He is distinguished from the rest of the world and is the Saguna Brahman and Para Brahman. The opinion of modern advaitins equating several gods with the Brahman and considering all of them equivalent is not part of Sankara’s philosophical system. He makes this clear by using only the words Narayana, Vishnu and Vasudeva synonymously with the Brahman. These are the names mentioned in the Vishnu Gayatri of the Vedas.
Yamuna Muni refers to Narayana as Para Brahman. Both Ramanuja and Madhva identify Narayana as the Brahman and see Him as the repository of all auspicious attributes and devoid of all blemish.
Narayana or Vishnu is praised at the outset because He is the Para Brahman and it is He who is manifest as Krishna. Adi Sankara considers that the purpose of Krishnavathara and the teaching of Gita is to establish spiritual discipline on earth. Ramanuja’s answer provides insights into the love of God towards all souls. He makes numerous excuses to reside alongside them. He reveals His extraordinary beauty and auspicious qualities to His devotees. His actions are wondrous and they serve the purpose of charming the heart of the world. Through these, He cultivates Bhakti in them and leads them to liberation. Even in the Gita, He reveals the path of Bhakti which is the paramount secret of the Vedanta to uplift the souls of the earth. Ramanuja unifies the purpose of incarnation as Krishna and teaching of Gita into the loving grace of God.
The Theory of Sadhana (from Gitartha Sangraha)
The commentators also agree that the overall purpose of the Gita is to teach sādhana or means to liberation or moksha though they differ on the specifics. All other concepts are allied to this central theme. The Gita and the works of philosophers are filled with terms connected to sadhana.
The most important terms are defined by Sri Yamuna Muni in Gitartha Sangraha in the following manner –
(i) The Three Yogas
karmayogaḥ tapastīrtha-dāna-yajñadi sevanam |
Karma Yoga is the continuous indulgence in austerity, charity and rites.
jñānayogaḥ jitasvāntaiḥ pariśuddhātmani sthitiḥ
Jnana Yoga is the constant persistence of vision of the pure form of the soul to those who have conquered their minds.
bhaktiyogaḥ paraikāntaprītyā dhyānādiṣu sthitiḥ
Bhakti Yoga is the devotional love directed exclusively to the Supreme Being Narayana by engaging in actions such as meditation, worship, etc.
trayāṇāṃ api yogānāṃ tribhiranyonya-saṅgamaḥ
All the three yogas – Karma, Jnana and Bhakti are mutually interlinked with one another.
nityanaimittikānāṃ ca parārādhanarūpiṇām
ātmadṛṣṭeḥ trayo~pyete yogadvāreṇa sādhakāḥ
All the three yogas are means to the vision of the ātman(self). They cause this result by concentrating the thoughts in the mind into focussed contemplation. The duties of the individual – those that are routine and those that are contingent upon certain events – are of the form of worshipping God and are connected to all the three yogas.
Some explanation may be necessary at this stage. There are three means to obtain vision of the self. Vision of the self is not possible as long as the mind is wavering and is absorbed by distractions. The thoughts need to be concentrated on the specific object of interest. All the three yogas – karma, jnana and bhakti – are capable of producing this result. There are some people who choose the easiest of the methods mainly due to their laziness. For example, even the uninitiated may claim that they practise jnana yoga and hence they need to do nothing but revel in the jnana. Such statements are absurd. All the three yogas are mutually interlinked. One cannot proceed on (say) Bhakti yoga without jnana. Nor can one claim to follow jnana without bhakti. Also, one cannot abstain from one’s duties giving the excuse that he is a practitioner of some yoga. All the yogas require worship of God. The individual’s duties are of the form of worship. Hence, duties are not to be relinquished under any circumstances.
This teaching makes practical sense as well. Many philosophies connected to religion require one to give up one’s duties, even for the commoner who is still not fully enlightened. However, for the world to function, we observe that all kinds of people are required. It is necessary that people behave responsibly and discharge their duties for harmonious existence. It is not possible for everyone to walk off to the forest one morning and become yogis. Nor is yoga an excuse to emerge above law and behave irresponsibly. Every yogi is attributed by the intelligent performance of duties, by austerity, by charity, by knowledge and by devotional love. He, who is without these, is not a yogi.
(ii) Vision of the Supreme
Superior to the vision of the self is the vision of the supreme.
nirasta-nikhila-ajñāno dṛṣṭvātmānaṃ parānugam
pratilabhya parāṃ bhatiṃ tayaivāpnoti tatpadam
When ignorance is destroyed, one sees the self as it is. The self in its pristine state is realized as one who serves God with love. Endowed with this vision, one attains superior states of devotional love and through that love, one attains the lotus feet of God.
The vision of the self is only a transit point, an essential one, in the progress towards God. Unless the self is seen as it is, it will not be clear what is worth to be done by it. By yoga, the mind is focused on the self and sees it as it is. The soul, thus seen, is realized as the loving companion of God who serves His purpose. The knowledge of the self and the connection with God instill greater devotion and by the maturity of devotional love, one attains the lotus feet of God.
(iii) The three types of devotees
In addition to the highest benefit of attaining the Brahman, the three yogas also serve other purposes depending on their intentions of the practitioner.
bhaktiyogaḥ tadarthī cet samagraiśvarya-sādhakaḥ
ātmārthī cet trayo~pyete tatkaivalyasya sādhakaḥ
For those who desire wealth, bhakti yoga is capable of providing the same. For those who want to enjoy the self, all the three yogas are useful.
aikāntyaṃ bhagavatyeṣāṃ samānamadhikāriṇām
yāvatprāpti parārthī cet tadeva atyantaṃ aśṇute
For all the three types of persons – those interested in material wealth, experience of the self and the experience of the supreme – exclusive devotion to the Lord is common. However, the superior devotee who is not disillusioned by wealth or even the self, but seeks only the Brahman, attains the Lord for ever.
(iv) The jnani
Who is this superior devotee? Krishna calls him the truly realized one or jñānī. This type of devotee is very rare.
jñānī tu paramaikāntī tadāyattātma-jīvanaḥ
The truly realized one is ever focused solely on God. His existence is sustained by the thought of the Lord. He is constantly conscious of God. The association and separation of spiritual experience alone constitute his joy and sorrow.
The enlightened jnani also achieves fullness of purpose of his faculties.
bhagavaddhyāna yogokti vandana-stuti-kīrtanaiḥ
By meditation on God, by seeing Narayana, by speaking about Krishna, by worshipping Vishnu, by singing the glory of Vāsudeva, the jnani sustains himself and attains fullness of purpose of his life, mind, intelligence and senses by their constant participation in the above actions.
As the jnani matures thus, he attains the highest point of enlightenment –
nijakarmādi bhaktyantaṃ kuryāt prītyaiva kāritaḥ
upayatāṃ parityajya nyasyed-deve tu tāmabhīḥ
At the highest point of enlightenment, the jnani becomes completely fearless as he realizes that nothing is contingent on his efforts but only on the loving grace of God. He realizes that it is distasteful and unworthy of himself to barter love for salvation, for the Lord is supremely blissful and is worthy of being loved unconditionally. Devotional love, worship and meditation are natural responses to the greatness of God and one is always in relationship with Him. As in the case of the relationship between husband and wife, between mother and child, etc. , all actions are spontaneous and are born out of love and knowledge about the relationship. As long as one is unaware of the relationship, one’s actions are plastic and motivated by external reason. On knowing the relationship, and the nature of God and self, external reason goes to the winds and is substituted by spontaneous love. The enlightened jnani performs all the three yogas not as sadhana but purely out of love to please the Lord. He discards their role as means. He surrenders to His loving father unconditionally and remains without a care under His protection as a baby lives carefree protected by the care of the mother.
Yamuna Muni concludes his treatise that the knowledge of Gita would transform one into a paramaikanti jnani (an enlightened being focused only on Narayana) who will attain the Lord and serve Him in order to please Him. The theory of sadhana starts with the true nature of atma and paramatma, and ends with the loving grace of Narayana.