The Bhagavad Gita is one of the supreme works of Sanskrit and indeed of all world literature. It is the most well-known and widely translated part of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata (constituting chapters 6.23 to 6.40 in the Poona edition of the Mahābhārata). In the great Mahābhārata war, on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra (Kuru’s field), Kuru’s descendants, split into two sides, fight over the ancestral kingdom. Arjuna Pāṇḍava is the most brilliant warrior on the winning side, and his chariot driver is his maternal cousin, brother-in-law, and great friend Krishna Vāsudeva, who is also, as Arjuna comes to realize, the great god Vishnu Nārāyaṇa in human form. Just before the war commences, Arjuna asks Krishna to drive him out between the massed armies, and at the sight of those opposing him, he suffers an existential collapse and declares he will not fight. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) consists mostly of Krishna’s response to Arjuna’s declaration; its eighteen chapters contain 700 verses, of which Krishna speaks 575. Krishna approaches Arjuna’s predicament from various angles, supplying him with a new understanding of himself and a new methodology of action. The turning point is Krishna’s revelation of his divine form to Arjuna—including as it does the future and the deaths of Arjuna’s principal adversaries—and Arjuna’s verbal response (Bhagavad Gita 11, Mahābhārata 6.33). At the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna declares that his crisis is over and that he will fight after all. The Bhagavad Gita’s popularity is due to the universality of Arjuna’s predicament, one in which different imperatives conflict, and of its solution, the method of acting without ego, without attachment to results, with awareness of the true, inactive self (ātman), and in a spirit of devotion. The text is beautiful poetry but also conveys core Hindu teachings that have been refreshed through new interpretations time and time again in the centuries since it was composed. The Bhagavad Gita’s importance is such that, for those with religio-philosophical ambitions, composing a commentary upon it has often seemed to be a required milestone accomplishment, and in modern times this has not just been the case within India. In many ways the Bhagavad Gita is as famous for the ways it has been interpreted as for its own sake; its champions have included Gandhi, Aurobindo, and Mandela.
The Bhagavad Gita is really too extraordinary for any full overview to be attained, as so many writers have found; but contained under this heading is a variety of general and typical scholarly side views drawn from different periods during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Lamotte 1929 and Heimann 1939 are reliable philological approaches to the text from the perspective of the history of ideas. Lamotte 1929 is a compact systematic monograph, and Heimann 1939 is a short but suggestive article. Bazaz 1975 is a much wider historical study of the text’s origin and destiny up to modern times and is passionately presented from a particular perspective in the wake of Indian national independence. Brodbeck 2003 is the introduction to a reprint of a popular English Bhagavad Gita translation. Sharpe 1985 and Robinson 2006 are overview surveys of the various engagements with the text in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Sharpe 1985 focuses on “Western images” of the Bhagavad Gita since it was published in English translation. Robinson 2006 is more international in scope and is particularly concerned with the relationship between Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita.
Bazaz, Prem Nath. The Role of Bhagavad Gita in Indian History. New Delhi: Sterling, 1975.
A grand national tale in three parts: “The Rise and Decline of Indian Philosophy” (160 pages, setting the scene), “The Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita” (100 pages), and “The Influence of the Gita on Indian History” (425 pages). Particular focus on the colonial and postcolonial periods; critical of the Brahmans.
Brodbeck, Simon. “Introduction.” In The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Juan Mascaró, xi–xxxii. London: Penguin, 2003.
Frames the reprint of Juan Mascaró’s popular poetic Penguin Classics translation. Introduces the text in the round, with particular attention to its philosophy and dramatic import.
Heimann, Betty. “Terms in Statu Nascendi in the Bhagavadgītā.” In A Volume of Indian and Iranian Studies Presented to Sir E. Denison Ross, Kt., C.I.E., on His 68th Birthday, 6th June 1939. Edited by S. M. Katre and P. K. Gode, 125–135. Bombay: Karnatak, 1939.
A sensitive paper discussing some of the text’s most important nouns, such as “bhakti,” “Yoga,” and yajña (sacrifice). Argues that overall they are not precise or technical terms, and that they are best understood by tracing them back to their respective verbal roots.
Lamotte, Étienne. Notes sur la Bhagavadgītā. Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1929.
Still one of the most elegant and trustworthy concise studies of the Bhagavad Gita, though like most studies it tends to treat jñāna-yoga, karma-yoga, and bhakti yoga as separable paths. The book is in three parts: “Le milieu d’éclosion,” “Les doctrines spéculatives,” and “Les doctrines morales.”
Robinson, Catherine A. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord. London: Routledge, 2006.
A broad and accessible overview of writings on the Bhagavad Gita analyzed under different categories in different chapters, including “Scholarly and Academic Writing” and “Social and Political Activism.” The book’s overall thesis is that the Bhagavad Gita has played a central and constitutive role in the construction of “the Hindu tradition.”
Sharpe, Eric J. The Universal Gītā: Western Images of the Bhagavadgītā; A Bicentenary Survey. London: Duckworth, 1985.
This popular book marked the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita (the first to have survived in any European language); it takes stock of European adventures with the text during the intervening period, through the Romantics and theosophists to the gurus of the American counterculture.
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