The Song of God – A brief introduction to the Bhagavad-gita
No metaphysical treatise has a setting as intriguing as India’s ancient philosophical classic, the Bhagavadgita a battlefield. When Arjuna wanted peace, why did Lord Krishna, the Supreme Godhead playing as a human being, speak philosophy to impel him to fight?
The Gita asserts that lasting peace is possible only when we first make peace with God in our own hearts. Only when we are peaceful within can we act in ways that will promote peace without. And we can have internal peace only when we are in harmony with our internal nature, which is that we are neither gross bodies nor subtle minds, but nonmaterial souls, beloved children of God. Therefore we can achieve our right to real peace and happiness, not by making patchwork arrangements in this world of inescapable death, but by reviving our innate love for God and returning back to His eternal abode. All our worldly duties are of value only when they assist in our ultimate duty to love and serve God. Although the antagonist Kauravas were Arjuna’s relatives, by their nefarious activities, they were disrupting the law and order essential for human beings to practice spirituality and achieve love of God. So Arjuna’s duty to God required that he surgically divest the Kauravas of their sin contaminated bodies and positions so as to establish the social order that would usher in lasting peace.
Why did Krishna choose a battlefield to enlighten Arjuna? In addition to being a historical fact, the setting of the Gita signifies a deeper conflict within our own consciousness. Within every human psyche is a lower self – represented by the Kauravas and a higher self – represented by the Pandavas. The Kurukshetra war thus represents the strife between virtue and vice within our own hearts. Arjuna’s breakdown signifies our own bewilderment about right and wrong in the face of intractable perplexity and Krishna’s instruction illuminates for us the path of the highest morality based on selfless devotion to God. Arjuna’s eventual victory after enlightenment represents the potency of the divine wisdom of Gita to empower us to ultimately triumph over our lower nature and achieve inner fulfillment in this life and eternal joyful life thereafter.
Shripad Shankaracharya explains in his Gitamahatmaya, the unique position of the Gita within the vast Vedic library. He compares all the Vedic scriptures to a cow, Krishna to a cowherd boy milking the cow, Arjuna to a calf and the Gita to the milk of the cow. Thus the Gita is considered to be the essence of all the Vedic literature. Appreciation for the Gita is not limited to Vedic circles. Many Western scholars have found the Gita to be amazingly coherent and cogent. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s remark is a sample, “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavadgita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”
When Srila Prabhupada, founderacharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and leading exponent of the Gita in the modern times, was asked in the United Kingdom about the purpose of his visit there, he poignantly replied, “When you Britishers ruled India, you plundered her off all her wealth, but you forgot to take her most precious jewel. I have come to give you what you forgot – the wisdom of the Gita.”