Numerous translations exist rendering the Sanskrit original of the Bhagavad Gita into English. The following introduction to the Gita draws on translations by Swami Rama of the Himalayas and by Graham M. Schweig.

The Bhagavad Gita is framed as a dialogue between the Lord of Life, Krishna, and his devoted student, Arjuna. The opening two chapters of the Gita chart a pathway from Arjuna’s intense suffering to a peaceful and enlightened mind. Perhaps there is no sacred scripture that portrays the journey to enlightenment with such variety and human richness. Clear, practical, and framed with universal appeal, the dialogue exchanged in the Gita opens the way to spiritual wisdom.

The Gita takes place on a battlefield. There Arjuna struggles to explain to Krishna his deep-seated conflicts. Arjuna is grief-stricken by the killing he will cause and the lives he will destroy, and he turns to Krishna for guidance and advice. Should he fight or should he renounce the role he is destined to play in the great battle ahead?

Who might wish to read the Gita? To whom is it intended? Many yoga students encounter the Gita as part of their yoga training, but it is also a teaching intended for everyone—for anyone sorting out the inner conflicts that occur when we are thrown into uncertainty by actions we do not wish to perform, but seem forced upon us.

Arjuna’s Sorrow

Despite the history of cruelty Arjuna and his brothers have encountered with their evil cousins, Arjuna remains committed to good will and kind thoughts. Arjuna’s sorrow arises from his desire to preserve love and peace in the face of those cousins arrayed in battle against him. For us to share in the benefits of Krishna’s teaching, we must clearly understand Arjuna’s suffering. 

Arjuna has been deluded by an emissary sent by his enemy, who pleaded with him to turn away from violence. The arguments were false, intended only to delude Arjuna. But Arjuna is overwhelmed by the inner conflict they provoked, and he turns to Krishna for relief.

Here, then, are verses from chapter 1 of the Gita that illustrate Arjuna’s painful train of thought: 

Possessed by pity toward his cousins, feeling very sad, Arjuna says these words: I see these kinsmen, these cousins, present here with the intent to fight. (1:28)

My limbs are frozen, my mouth is drying up. My body trembles, and hairs stand on end. (1:29)

Gandiva, the great bow, is slipping from my hand; my skin is burning, nor can I even stand up; my mind is as it were, whirling. (1:30)

And I see inauspicious omens. Nor do I see any good accruing upon killing my own kinsmen in battle. (1:31)  

It does not behoove us to kill the enemy, our kinsmen. How can we be happy after killing our very own relatives? (1:37)                                                

Even though they are impaired by greed and so are not seeing the fault accrued by the destruction of the family and the sin in the desire to injure friends. (1:38)

If the sons of Dhritarashtra, our enemy, with weapons in hand, kill me in the battle, while I am unarmed and unavenging, that will be more beneficial to me. (1:46)

Having spoken thus in the middle of the battle, Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot, putting away his bow and arrows, his mind agitated with grief. (1:47)

These verses dramatically portray the degree to which Arjuna’s suffering has become magnified. As chapter 2 opens, Arjuna remains stricken with doubt. How can his role of killing be the right choice? His thought is overwhelmed by pity and depression. Finally, the Gita reaches a pivotal point, verse 7 of chapter 2. In this verse Arjuna expresses how deeply uncertain he has become regarding what he must do if he is to carry out his duty. This verse and the two that follow it read:

My pity is an error that harms my being, my mind is deluded as to righteous conduct. I ask you, do tell me whatever is definitely better for me; I am your student—do teach me and guide me. (2:7)

I do not see anything that might remove this grief that is drying up my senses, not even a prosperous kingdom without enemies, nor sovereignty over the entire universe. (2:8)

Having spoken thus, Arjuna said, “I will not fight,” and lapsed into silence.( 2:9)

Samkhya teachings declare that with every individual being is a permanent self, termed the Atman.

Krishna’s Teaching

In the verses that follow these, Krishna’s response to Arjuna is decisive. He refers to Arjuna’s state of mind as unbefitting a noble person and as a cause of disgrace. But his harsh criticisms fail to relieve Arjuna, and they lead him to pity those he is about to slay on the battlefield. It is at this point that the penetrating teachings of the Bhagavad Gita begin to take form.

Krishna now begins to deliver important words to Arjuna—words that are based on a system of philosophy called Sankhya. Sankhya teachings declare that within every individual human being is a higher Self, called the Atman. Arjuna’s grief and pity do not reflect a clear understanding regarding this higher Self. And so Krishna declares in three decisive verses:

You are grieving about those over whom one should not grieve; and yet you are speaking words of pretended wisdom. The wise do not grieve about those who are yet breathing, nor about those who have ceased to breathe. (2:11)                            

There never was a time, indeed, when I was not, nor you, nor these kings who protect the people. Nor shall we all from this moment on ever cease to be. (2:12)

As in the body of this body-bearer (Atman) there occurs childhood, youth, and old age, so there occurs  the transfer to another body. A wise person does not become confused in this matter. (2:13)

Krishna reframes Arjuna’s understanding of the essence of human nature. The core of every being is permanent. The essence of being, the Atman, is enduring and not subject to death or destruction, as Arjuna fears. Krishna continues in chapter 2:

Know the Atman to be indestructible, by which all this tangible world is permeated. No one has the power to bring to destruction this entity— the Self. (2:17)

He is never born, nor does he die, nor having been does he ever again cease to be. Unborn, eternal, perennial, the ancient One is not killed when the body is killed. (2:20)

As a man taking off worn-out garments later puts on new ones, similarly, the Owner of the body, abandoning worn-out bodies, enters new ones. (2:22)

Thus Krishna clarifies both the error of Arjuna’s thought and the reassurance derived from a wiser point of view. 

Krishna’s train of thought continues through verse 40 of chapter 2, where he brings his discussion of Sankhya to a temporary close. Arjuna has falsely feared the killing of war, and death itself. In the deep resources of Krishna’s teaching, Krishna is guiding Arjuna beyond his fears to a place of transcendence. 

Finding Equanimity 

But there is another theme raised by Krishna in these opening chapters of the Gita. Krishna continues:

The contacts of the senses with the elements, O Arjuna, are the causes of heat, cold, pleasure, and pain. Being non-eternal, these come and go; learn to withstand them, O Arjuna. (2:14)

The person to whom these do not cause any suffering, the person who is alike in pain and pleasure, he alone is ready for self-realization. (2:15)

The flow of human experience is measured by the senses—by one’s perception of heat and cold, sweet and sour, soft and hard. Similarly, experience may show itself in degrees of happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain, confidence and insecurity. In every case a measure of one thing is made against its opposite. Such pairs of opposites are termed dvandvas (literallytwo-twos), and they play a significant role in the Gita from here to its end.

Through self-awareness it is possible to discipline one’s mind and acquire balance in the midst of the mind’s attachments to the outer world.

In his confusion on the battlefield, Arjuna has become bound by his attachment to the dvandva of birth and death. But as we have already seen, Sri Krishna is introducing us to a higher state of awareness. Without awareness of this higher sort, experience is bound both by the limitations of the dvandvas, which confine us to what we want and what we don’t want, and by our limited understanding of the higher Self. Through the dvandvas we are constantly thrown back against the bewildering nature of the vast universe.

How, as Krishna suggests, is it possible to tolerate the subtle influences of the dvandvas and thus gain spiritual balance? Yoga itself, as the Gita teaches, is the means. Through self-awareness, it is possible to acquire balance in the midst of the mind’s dualities. And Krishna says directly to Arjuna:

Acting the same in happiness and suffering, gain and loss, victory and defeat, prepare for battle – thus you shall not suffer misfortune. (2:38)

Perform your actions dwelling in yoga; acting without attachment, O Arjuna, be alike in success and failure, for equanimity is yoga. (2:48)

To read more by Rolf Sovik on the Bhagavad Gita, please see his Voice of the Infinite series.

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