A Reading, in Christ, of the Bhagavad Gita

(Editor’s Note:  We desire to be followers of Jesus who walk alongside Hindu people in love, kindness, and gentleness, as we ourselves follow Jesus.  As we walk alongside Hindu people, we should desire to develop our own understanding of the various spiritual teachings found within the many Hindu traditions.  Amongst Hindu scriptures, no other single text is more publicly esteemed or widely influential in modern life than the Bhagavad Gita.  Please read this summary, below, in the style of which it is intended; that of an honest and good-hearted effort to read the Gita as it says it is.  Critique and comparison between the Gita and the Bible is broadly withheld; followers of Jesus themselves are encouraged to compare and contrast new ideas and concepts described herein with the Bible.  

Why Read the Bhagavad Gita?

The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred text for Hindus. Yet this potentially domesticates, or at least makes parochial, one of the great compositions of human history. The Gita is a product of Indian civilization and has impacted and molded that civilization as well. Yet in a true sense it belongs to the world, and so needs to be read by the world.

The Gita is a small part of the massive epic poem, the Mahabharata (chapters 23 to 40 of the Bhishma Parva). The text comes down to us without naming an author; this is not unusual in Indian civilization. Truth is more important than whatever individual might be stating the truth, and the Mahabharata itself is clearly a multi-authored work with collective oral tradition rather than merely singular human genius behind it.

To read the Gita in Christ is a daunting challenge. The world has not yet transcended (perhaps will not, or even cannot) divided camps where Christendom is posited in conflict with alternative civilizations. To read the Gita in Christ is not to read it from a Christendom perspective. It is not to mine the Gita for truths amenable to Christianity; much less to seek fodder for attacking “Hinduism.”

To read the Gita in Christ, according to this reader, is to read under the direction of the pre-eminent over all things Jesus Christ of the New Testament, who modeled spiritual mindedness. It is to read with the spiritual-minded sensitivity of the “greater to serve than be served” mindset of Jesus rather than that of the “kingdoms of this world”. A basic assumption is that all truth is God’s truth; but also that, as God himself cannot be grasped by human comprehension, so too God’s truth is multi-faceted and cannot be properly grasped by casual approaches. To truly read the Gita in Christ will be transformative even for the understanding of God and Christ, as new facets of truth from new perspectives are uncovered.

The Gita is set in the context of war, and the initial philosophical discussion is related to life and death and killing. But the text presents a dialogue that goes far beyond this initial issue. Arjuna is central to the text, a warrior who has many questions for his charioteer, who is the divine Krishna. Most of the Gita is presented as the words of Krishna; the battlefield discussion of Krishna and Arjuna is witnessed from afar by vision and reported to Dhritarashtra, patriarch of Arjuna’s enemies.

The Gita is full of terminologies and concepts with long and complex histories in Indian religio-philosophical thought. Picking up some of the nuances of these terms (dharma, maya, brahman, atman, etc. etc.) is one of the most useful and necessary aspects of Gita study. Since all the terms have varying shades of meaning in the different Hindu schools of thought, no simple list of definitive meanings can be produced.

Chapter by Chapter Highlights

Early chapters of the Gita outline the setting and introduce the dialog. The first great problem is that Arjuna does not want to fight his kinsmen; how could anything good come from such slaughter? Central to Krishna’s answer is a reincarnation philosophy; chapter 2 verse 19 points out that the soul or self ultimately is neither slayer nor slain. But also, Arjuna should fight because this was his fundamental duty; by caste and occupation he is a warrior. (It is not explicit in the immediate context of this discussion, but it is clear from the broader context that this is a just and necessary war.)

But there is a still deeper philosophical problem involved in this matter, and it leads to one of the central themes of the Gita. Why should humans act at all? Especially in light of renunciation teachings, why engage with the messiness of life, why not rather renounce and go to the jungles or hills?

This question of renunciation and what renunciation entails runs throughout the Gita, and there is a weaving of various ideas and approaches. The Gita certainly opposes a hedonistic approach to life, a grabbing of pleasure and wealth. At numerous places there seems to be a commendation of a yogic renunciation of even basic human emotions and attachments. Yet the Gita also certainly opposes the extremes of asceticism that could be misread into such passages. It is essential for one to do one’s duty and not renounce life. The Gita’s middle way is a powerful emphasis on nishkāma karma, doing works (duty) without regard for rewards or consequences. Chapter 2 verse 47 is one of the classic statements of this position; but 3:9, 19 and 18:5-6 are other clear statements. (The central concepts of the Gita, avatāraand nishkāma karma, are words that are in fact not present in the Gita, just like “incarnation” and “trinity” are not present in the New Testament.)

The early part of chapter four gives the first clear insight into the person of Krishna in the Gita. Although the word avatāra is not in the text, the classic statement of avatāra doctrine is Gita 4:7-8; when unrighteousness abounds, God comes to earth time after time to make matters right. The current war is clearly such a situation, and Arjuna is part of the means by which righteousness will prevail.

5:18-25 illustrates the tensions in Gita teaching on renunciation; 19 and 20 seem to suggest an emotionless state; but 21 shows the end is happiness, and 25 points out that concern for the welfare of all beings is a fundamental assumption, so NOT something to be renounced.

6:5-6 indicates a basic spiritual problem in the heart of man; the conflict between the innermost being and itself. 6:34 states the challenges of self-control and of a disciplined mind. This chapter is strong on yogic restraint and detachment; see verses 9-15 for example. But chapter 7 opens with a striking contrast; be attached to God. The revelation of Krishna as supreme person begins to develop here; note especially from verse five on; verse seven is a clear statement of supremacy. Note also particularly verse 11 where Krishna is proper human desire (which again shows that there is a proper desire and Gita statements against desire should not be read absolutely). Verse 26 states clearly that no one can know God; yet 30 speaks of those who know him, a tension not unlike that seen in the Bible.

Chapter 8 continues the revelation of Krishna and begins the emphasis on our response, which is devotion or bhakti (verse 22). Chapter nine continues this, pointing out that Krishna is immanent in all things (4) yet not recognized (11). The philosophical problem of how God can create and control creation, while being untouched by its pollution and contingencies, is resolved on the pattern of nishkāma karma; Krishna acts, but without attachment. The key here, however, is that people of insight recognize and worship Krishna with devotion (13-15, 29). Note that verse 19 says Krishna is both existence and non-existence, a very different way of affirming his supremacy than is normal in biblical and Christian thought. Verse 23 says that all worship is finally of Krishna, and he accepts even the most humble expressions of devotion (26). Verse 27 calls the devotee to the same attitude the New Testament commends, and verses 30-32 extend grace to evildoers and people of low caste.

Chapter 10 begins the grand crescendo towards the vision of Krishna of chapter 11. There is a clear call to a God-centered life (8-10), strong affirmations of the supremacy of Krishna (verse 12 says he is supreme brahman; 15 god of gods), including affirming that he is Vishnu (21) and Shiva (23). He upholds the universe with but a fraction of his being (41, 42). Chapter 11 rises yet higher; Arjuna requests a vision of this supreme form of Krishna (verse 3). Krishna says this cannot be seen, but grants Arjuna a supernatural eye to make it possible (verse 8). Most of this chapter with the highest revelation of God is not spoken by Krishna, but by Arjuna or the seer Sanjay who is reporting the vision. Krishna’s form is infinite (16), vastly superior to all gods (21). Arjuna trembles in fear as the destructive aspect of the divine is also manifest (24-31). Krishna responds that he is Time, or Death; thus also Arjuna can go to war. Arjuna responds again on the supreme majesty of Krishna (37) before confessing that he had spoken too casually, for which he begs forgiveness (41-42). Verse 45-46 sums up Arjuna’s mixture of joy and fear, with the request to see Krishna again in his human form. Krishna complies and points out (verse 48) that nothing can earn such a divine vision. Even the gods desire this level of insight (52). This comes only with bhakti (devotion); the word GRACE is not used here (that comes only in chapter 18) but the idea is certainly everywhere here. Verse 55 of this magnificent chapter is a brilliant summary of the main teaching of the Gita.

Chapter 12 begins with Arjuna asking which is better, bhakti for Krishna or meditation on the unmanifest supreme Brahman (1). Krishna answers that the end of both is the same (4), but the way of knowledge and meditation is difficult (5). So bhakti is clearly the preferred way (6-8). The true yogi (spiritual person) is described in verses 13-19; bhakti is the most essential element, along with detachment.

Chapters 13 to 17 contain a lot of fascinating philosophical material, particularly expositions on human nature as made up of goodness, passion and darkness. Chapter 15 verses 22 to 25 again describe the ideal yogi in strongly renunciatory terms; yet verse 26 comes back to bhakti, and 27 shows that Krishna is the foundation of the supreme, of immortality, of dharma, and of happiness (verse 15 is also emphatic on the supremacy of Krishna, as even the Vedas point only to him).

Chapter 16 verses 12, 18 and 21 give the Gita’s basic understanding of sin, which is desire and anger, or desire, anger and greed (kāma, krodha, lobha). One could read much of this chapter in a fatalistic manner, but note that verse 21 has a clear call to abandon evil, and verse 19 shows Krishna personally sending people to bad rebirths in judgment; karma is only the principle by which this personalistic judgment is handed down.

Chapter 17 verses 5 and 6 contain the strongest denunciation of extreme austerities. True austerity is described in verses 14-17, as humility, purity, and self-control.

Chapter 18 develops to a magnificent and breath-taking conclusion. There is first a summary statement on true renunciation (verses 5-11 in particular). Verse 17 then states again that fighting this battle is right and will not kill the essential self. This leads again into a philosophical discourse on knowledge related to the goodness, passion and/or darkness in all things. This is linked to caste in verses 41-44. The yogi who attains to true renunciation arrives also at true devotion (bhakti). Verses 54-56 stress grace and bhakti; verse 57 makes clear that the renunciation of action and its fruits is attained by focus on God, and by grace (58) this will enable one to arrive at salvation. Verse 61 affirms the immanent control of Krishna over all things (clearly not a fatalistic control), so obviously (verse 62) one should take refuge in him, and by his grace salvation will be attained. This is the secret doctrine (63, 64); know this secret and do as you wish. Devotion! (65) God loves you (65); abandon all else and turn to Krishna alone; from all sin he will deliver you (66). Teach this supreme secret only to those who are worthy to hear it (67, 68), but teach it to all Krishna-bhaktas. Even the mere hearing without complaint of this marvelous doctrine will prove salvific (71). Arjuna now confesses that by grace he understands and will obey (73).

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