Hinduism Bhagavad-Gita and Bhakti-yoga
Shyam Ranganathan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0237


Disagreements about ethics, morality, or dharma (as described in the South Asian tradition) are disagreements about the right or the good. There are four basic theories. The teleological options are Virtue Ethics (the Good character causes the Right action), and Consequentialism (the Good outcome justifies the Right action). These options are teleological because they prioritize the Good (the end) over the Right (the means). The commonly known procedural option that prioritizes the Right over the Good is Deontology (the Right considerations justify the Good action). However there is a fourth option unique to the South Asian tradition that is also procedural. This is Bhakti/Yoga (the right action which consists in devotion to the procedural ideal of the Right—the Lord/Sovereignty—causes a Good outcome, namely the perfection of this devotion). This is a theory defended systematically (likely for the first time) in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (YS). There the procedural ideal of being a person, Sovereignty (Īśvara), is defined by the traits of being untouched by past choices (karma) and unimpeded (without afflictions or kleśa-s) (YS I.23–25): and this is approximated by the practice of Unconservativism (Tapas) and Self-Governance (Svādhyāya) (YS II.1). The theory is also explored dialectically in the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, and especially in its chapter 18, the Bhagavad Gītā (Gītā). Here Arjuna (the protagonist) is faced with the prospects of a fratricidal war and articulates three reasons to avoid the conflict. Consequentialism: if he were to fight the war, it would result in sorrowful outcomes for all concerned (Gītā 1.34–36). Virtue Ethics: though the enemy is evil, fighting would render him (Arjuna) no better than the opponent rendering it the wrong, virtue destroying choice (Gītā 1.38–39). Deontology: war undermines good social practice that, among other things, protects women and children, and war, hence, constitutes a wrong consideration in justifying practice (Gītā 1.41). The three approaches to ethics share a commonality: they define Right action in some way by way of the Good, and they constitute Conventional Morality, which gives rise to Moral Parasites (those who wish others to be bound by Conventional Moral expectations, but do not intend to do so themselves). In response, Krishna, who is Arjuna’s charioteer, teaches Arjuna two procedural responses that prioritize the Right over the Good: karma yoga, a form of Deontology that emphasizes the rightness of duty, and bhakti yoga, known as “Īśvara Praṇidhāna” in the Yoga Sūtra. Yoga/Bhakti is unique among the four ethical theories in defining the right by way of the procedural ideal (Īśvara), and not the Good. This allows Yoga/Bhakti to play an instrumental role in resetting the moral order, by abandoning Conventional Morality. Krishna as the figure of Īśvara in the Mahābhārata subsequently leads Arjuna and his brothers (the Pāṇḍava) to victory over Moral Parasites (the Kauravas). Conventional approaches to bhakti that interpret it by way of familiar beliefs of the Western tradition (such as Theism, a version of Virtue Ethics) do not reveal the philosophical controversies that motivate Bhakti/Yoga or its contribution to philosophy.

Translations, Editions, and Commentaries

The primary place to begin a literature review of the topic of bhakti yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā is in traditional commentaries on the Gītā, where the topic is discussed as a matter of course. The topic of bhakti yoga is of special importance for philosophers who base their theorizing on the Gītā. The salient authors in this group are proponents of Bhakti (devotional) Vedānta. Vedānta is a philosophy based on the Yoga-inspired latter part of the Vedas that places a priority on the self and identifies a universal Self with a procedural ideal of Development (Brahman). This connection with the self, the project of Yoga, and the deity Viṣnu (the preserver) is apparent in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (where success in Yoga, described by way of the model of a chariot, echoed in the setting of the Gītā, is explicitly described as arriving in the realm of Viṣnu). Bhakti Vedānta, often drawing on the Gītā’s assimilation of the Vedānta tradition, places a premium on devotion as a practical means of problem solving. Krishna, the teacher in the Gītā, an incarnation of Vishnu, delivers the teachings of bhakti. The most influential philosopher in the tradition to draw on these teachings is Rāmānuja, famous systematizer of the Viśiṣṭādvaita (Qualified Monism) school who is notable for attempting to square tensions in the Gītā: between its rigorous rule-following arguments for karma yoga and the demands of bhakti. These demands of bhakti lead to comments toward the end of the Gītā where Krishna recommends “Relinquishing all Dharma,” and to seek Me alone for refuge. I will release you from all faults” (Gītā 18.66)—advice, noted in Rāmānuja 1991, that runs contrary to the theme of dharma. Rāmānuja 1968 weaves themes from and references to the Gītā in a bhakti-based philosophy. Noteworthy too is Madhva 2011, which prioritizes bhakti in its account but, in sharp contrast to competing Indic approaches to personal identity, argues that personal character is eternally fixed, which means, infers Madhva 1993, that most will never be able to participate in a life of bhakti yoga. Also noteworthy is the influential Śaṅkara 1991. Recently, Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is, the Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava–inspired commentary, is worth noting given the global influence of A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmi’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

  • Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is. Translated by A. C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmi.

    This is an html Sanskrit edition and translation by Bhaktivedānta that stresses bhakti yoga. While not comparatively classic like the preceding commentaries, it does put into explanatory effect the difference and non-difference (Bhedābheda) position of A. C. Bhaktivedānta’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava tradition.

  • Madhva. Bhagavada Gita Bhashya and Tatparya Nirnaya. Translated by Nagesh D. Sonde. Mumbai: Nagesh D. Sonde, 2011.

    Sanskrit text of Madhva’s pluralist Gītā commentary (bhāṣya) and summation (Tatparya Nirnaya), c. 1300. Of special interest is chapter 12, “Bhakti Yoga.” Madhva reappraises the Sāṅkhya/Yoga explanatory distinction between nature (prakṛti) and persons (puruṣa) but identifies Lakṣmī with nature and Viṣnu as the supreme person. Devotion to Vishnu is mediated by devotion to Lakṣmī. See online.

  • Madhva. Mahabhārātatātparyaṇirnaya. Translated by K. T. Pandurang. Edited by K. T. Pandurang. Vol. 1. Chirtanur, India: Srīman Madhva Siddhantonnanhini Sabha, 1993.

    This summation of the import of the Mahābhārata sets out a fivefold difference among things, persons, and Brahman (MT I 43–44) and states that devotion (bhakti) alone, and not ethics (dharma), leads to freedom (mokṣa). Madhva expresses his characteristic doctrine of the eternality of character, which places limits on devotional success (MT I.85–88).

  • Rāmānuja. Śrī Rāmānuja Gītā Bhāṣya. Edited and translated by Swami Adidevanada. Madras, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1991.

    In this c. 1120 CE influential Qualified Monism commentary on the Gītā, Rāmānuja defends the primacy of dharma, especially in the form of karma yoga and bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is depicted as the more challenging moral practice, but nothing to worry about so long as one is devoted to Īśvara.

  • Rāmānuja. Vedārthasaṅgraha. Edited and Translated by S. S. Ragavachar. Mysore, India: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1968.

    Though not strictly speaking a commentary on the Gītā, this summary of Rāmānuja’s philosophy, accessible to students as well as scholars, expounds a bhakti-based philosophy that draws from the Gītā. Basic theses of the equality of persons and the organic structure of Brahman, of which we are modes, are articulated.

  • Śaṅkara. Bhagavad Gītā with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya. Edited and translated by Gambhirananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1991.

    In this c. 710 CE. commentary on the Gītā of historical note, Śaṅkara (a Monist) argues, contrary to the text that emphasizes karma yoga and bhakti yoga, that the right metaethical theory called jñāna yoga (that functions as a unifying frame for both) is the preferred normative theory that promotes epistemic detachment.

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