This is a study of 40 selected verses of the Bhagavad-gita, which has 700 verses. The Bhagavad-git is perhaps the most important ancient text for those seeking self-realization and God-realization.
This introduction provides some background and sets the scene for this great transcendental literature.
Namaste and welcome.
So we’re going to be doing a study of the Bhagavad-gita. This Bhagavad-gita is probably one of the most widely read of all Vedic or yogic texts. Even amongst the intellectuals in the Western world for the past hundred plus years at least, it’s been widely read and studied. The book is comprised of 700 verses or slokas. And so what we’re going to do is, we’ve chosen 40 of these verses in order to make it so that we can maybe understand what is the essential message. And for this reason we’re calling it the Bhagavad-gita Chalisa. Chalisa in Hindi means 40.
So in our study of the Bhagavad-gita we won’t be covering all of the different topics that are contained there. There’s actually quite a large number of different things that are covered in the Bhagavad-gita which many of them are very unfamiliar to the Western mind, if I can put it that way. And so we won’t deal with all of them. We’ll be just dealing with the essential message to—in the hope to make it so that people can come to appreciate the actual essential message of the Bhagavad-gita.
The Bhagavad-gita is actually one chapter from a much vaster work, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is one of the great epics that have come out of India since Vedic times. It was compiled by Srila Vyasadeva, the compiler of the Vedas, and it tells the story of a tremendous family rivalry. This rivalry starts with three brothers. The eldest brother, his name was Dhritarastra (Don’t worry, you don’t have to remember names.) Dhritarastra was born blind in a royal family. The second son was Pandu, and the third son was Vidura.
So, as was the tradition, normally the eldest son in a royal family assumed the throne upon the death of the father or when the father retired. But in this case, because Dhritarastra was born blind, it was considered that he would not be able to actually rule effectively and efficiently, and so the second son Pandu was made the king. There was a certain amount of animosity or some feeling of—towards Pandu by his elder brother because of this. And Pandu eventually had five young sons. Dhritarastra had a vast number of children.
And Pandu died in an untimely fashion, at an early age, when his children were still very small so they were considered, of course, unfit as young princes to be able to rule the kingdom. And so Dhritarastra stepped in and became the regent, with the understanding that he would administer the kingdom until the sons came of age.
But during their childhood there was this envy and animosity of the sons of Dhritarastra towards the sons of Pandu (known as the Pandavas) and there was even—it came to the point where there was an assassination attempt on the strongest of the young princes, and the family had to—then there was an attempt to kill all of the family members including the widow (her name was Kunti) their mother. And so they had to flee into hiding, and they lived for many, many years in situations of tremendous difficulty and danger. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear what happened.
And they did resurface when the boys were already young men and made a demand to—for the return of the kingdom. The sons of Dhritarastra, headed by Duryodhana, did not like this idea, in fact refused and insisted that the father not do this. But eventually there was a compromise, and part of the kingdom (which was considered a useless part, semi-desert area) was turned over to the Pandavas. When that happened the climate suddenly changed, and the area that they had to rule now became extremely fertile and a good percentage of the population of the kingdom moved under their protection because they were greatly loved.
And so there was all this intrigue going on, and enviousness, and this feeling of, they may come to take the rest of the kingdom from us, on the part of the sons of Dhritarastra (known as the Kurus) and so there was an attempt to manipulate them and to cheat them, and they actually did, through a process, cheat them from the balance of the kingdom, and created a situation where they were driven into exile, where they had to go and live in the forest in exile for 12 years. And then part of the deal was that on the 13th year, if they were discovered, they would have to go into exile for another 12 or 13 years. So it was this pretty horrible situation that was arising.
So, when the brothers finally were able to live incognito in the 13th year, and now resurface to reclaim the kingdom, Duryodhana, the elder son of Dhritarastra had rigidly refused to hand over anything. And so now a situation came about where a war was going to take place. And we saw the kings and princes from different kingdoms, along with their armies, begin to take sides in what was to be one of the greatest battles in India.
So it was during this time that this—you had these two armies facing each other, that the second son of Pandu, his name was Arjuna—so Arjuna, he had asked Lord Sri Krishna, Who had appeared on the earth at that time and was a friend of the Pandavas, and actually a family member also, He had volunteered to be the chariot driver of Arjuna, who was the one of the greatest bowmen of his time, to assist him in this way but not to fight Himself in the battle.
And Arjuna asked Krishna to please bring the chariot down into the middle of the battlefield so that he could view on both sides the armies that were arrayed against each other; and driving through these battle formations Arjuna suddenly became incredibly overwhelmed, seeing that we had intimate relatives that were about to do battle and kill each other, and he became utterly overwhelmed by this situation and lost all his composure. And so we see in the Bhagavad-gita, in setting the scene, we have this situation where Arjuna says to Krishna,
“Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of miserly weakness. In this condition I am asking you to tell me for certain what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple, and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.”
So this is the back story, if you like, of what was going on in the situation of the Bhagavad-gita.
And so the Bhagavad-gita: this word Bhagavat gita – Gita means, literally, means song, and Bhagavat, of Bhagavan, so literally translated it is called “the song of God.”
The instructions that Sri Krishna was going to give to Arjuna were so extraordinary, and covered a vast array of topics, but it was largely in response to Arjuna’s confusion and his request of what should he do, “In this condition I am asking You to tell me for certain what is best for me,” not knowing what his duty should be in these circumstances.
The Bhagavad-gita has been widely translated. There are so many translations around, and sometimes people in looking at that, will see that some of them are presenting certain types of ideas, and other translations may be in parts offering a translation that is contradictory to some of the other ones. So what we need to understand is that in translating the Bhagavad-gita many people will translate it through the lens of a particular philosophy, or a particular school of thought, or a personal worldview.
One of the things we need to understand in the whole yoga system is that we all have the tendency to see the world, and to see things, through different lenses. These lenses are fundamentally states of consciousness, our state of consciousness; and often people are not appreciating how much their state of consciousness affects their ability to hear and see things, because we tend to colour that which we hear and see through these different filters or states of consciousness.
In the Bhagavad-gita there is actually a very interesting concept that’s taught at one point, and it deals with this subject, and it references the “what is night for all living beings…” So the verse is:
“What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is the night for the introspective sage.”
So we’re not going to talk at any length on this, just raising this point, that it’s possible for ten people to see or to hear something, and for each of them to hear or see something slightly different, or even very different, from each other, and it’s our own state of consciousness that affects that.
So we also have to recognize that all human beings in the conditioned state suffer from what is considered four defects. The first is called bhrama. Bhrama means that we have a tendency to commit mistakes. Everybody in the world, anyone in a conditioned state will have that tendency.
The second defect is called pramada. Pramada literally means illusion. We can be subject to illusion. We know this from magicians or, as they are now called, illusionists, who understand how people’s brain and sensory perception works, and are able to do things to make you think something has happened that has not actually happened.
Then there is the third defect vipralipsa. Vipralipsa means we have a propensity to cheat, both ourselves and others.
And then there is the final defect which is called kara-napatava. This means sensory inefficiencies or limitations, that my sense organs which I use for acquiring knowledge are not all powerful, and because there are deficiencies, there will be always limitations on the nature of the knowledge that I can acquire through them.
So this kind of leads us now into this, okay, if this is our state, if we recognize that we have these things, that we can be put into illusion, that I do have biases, I do have ways of seeing things that can make it so I don’t see things as they actually are, this leads us into what in the yoga terms they speak of two ways of approaching the acquisition of knowledge.
One of them is, through what is called the ascending process, the aroha-pantha, the ascending path, where I try—it’s like when somebody climbs a mountain, and they try to do it just through their own power and their own strength. They try to claw their way to the top of Mount Everest, for instance, with their own skills and training and conditioning, and through their own power. But this is considered not a reliable way to try and gain truth, because once again, it—we are not eliminating the four defects and the different states of consciousness that can determine how we look at the world and how we hear and how we understand.
The other path is known as the descending path or descending process avaroha-pantha, and this is the path where one receives from higher authority that which is transcendental, or spiritual knowledge, just as Arjuna had turned to Krishna and said in his state of confusion, that,
“Now I’m confused about my duty, and I’ve lost all composure because of miserly weakness; and in this condition I’m asking You to tell me for certain what is the best for me. Now I am Your disciple and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.”
So this was the Vedic process, where one took instruction from a higher source, from a perfect source, and then endeavoured to come to appreciate and see that for themself. And this process is pointed out in the Bhagavad-gita, where Krishna references the system in the second verse or shloka in the fourth chapter, with the opening line, “evam parampara-praptam imam.”
This parampara is a system by which one can acquire actual transcendental knowledge. So in this verse the English translation is:
“This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken and therefore the science as it is appears to be lost.”
So in speaking to Arjuna He was saying that He was now re-establishing one of these lineages through the system of parampara. Parampara literally means the handing down of teachers, from a perfect spiritual teacher to a disciple, who becomes mature in their realization and is able to likewise pass down. These disciplic lineages were considered of, not just importance, but paramount importance, in acquiring spiritual knowledge in the Vedic system. When somebody asked a person—or a person was going to speak on a spiritual subject, somebody would ask them what is their lineage, and if a person did not belong to what was considered an authentic lineage one didn’t waste their time listening to what it is that they had to say, knowing that what they were going to say is in all likelihood simply mental speculation.
So in our attempt to penetrate the great truths of the—the transcendental truths of the Bhagavad-gita, it means to try and understand what is the intent and the actual message of the speaker. So one has to put aside all material consideration, all personal bias and conditioning, and be open to actually hearing this message, and understanding what it really is to hear the message as it really is, not as an interpretation.
My initiating spiritual master, my diksha guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, he did a very famous translation of the Bhagavad-gita which he called the Bhagavad-gita As It Is because he stressed the importance of us actually understanding both the intent and the message of Krishna in His speaking.
So within the Bhagavad-gita itself, Lord Krishna speaks about why Arjuna was pre-eminently qualified to actually receive this message. Receive the message doesn’t mean just for it to fall on your ears but to actually be able to understand what that message is and to be able to act on it. And so some of these qualifications were laid out in the Bhagavad-gita, for instance in the fourth chapter in the third shloka it states,
“That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend and can therefore understand the transcendental mystery of this science.”
So here we see these two words which I’ve highlighted, the bhaktah, or the devotee, one who is following the process or the path of devotion, the process of bhakti-yoga, but He specifically also uses this other term sakha. Sakha means a friend in the deepest sense. So this connotes a certain attitude towards Krishna in being able to hear His message.
He also states in another verse, in chapter 9 verse 1,
“The Supreme Lord said, ‘My dear Arjuna, because you are never envious of Me, I shall impart to you the most secret wisdom, knowing which you shall be relieved of the miseries of material existence.”
So drawing your attention to the highlighted word anasuya. Anasuya, or non-enviousness, is really a profound spiritual principle, which we will get into as we deal with things. It was something that in my early years I had great deal of difficulty trying to understand, how one could be envious of God, if we put it in the most simplest way. And of course, this consciousness manifests in our desire to be the centre of things. Even in my own life I see everything in the world in relation to me. I see myself as the centre of things, my desires, my wishes are central to my life. And this was all part of this corrupted condition that makes it very difficult for people to come to the platform of actual self-realization.
So this is a big subject, but going on; in the 18th chapter in the 64th sloka Krishna says,
“Because you are My very dear friend I am speaking to you the most confidential part of knowledge. Hear this from Me for it is for your benefit.”
And again drawing your attention to the Sanskrit term ishtah asi. This really means like, really beloved. It is a state of deep and loving friendship. And so these things point to—they direct one as to how one needs to become situated in order to be able to actually hear the message of the Bhagavad-gita, and to benefit from it.
One of the realities with the Bhagavad-gita is that in studying it, it is unavoidable that a person will come to understand that this is a deeply devotional work. It cannot be accurately understood in any other way, unless somebody is really stretching meaning—which people do! People like to render all types of fanciful interpretation to the Bhagavad-gita, to say it is just an analogy for something, it was something made up by someone. People don’t actually accept the reality of this powerful, spiritually powerful instruction, and the tremendous effect that it can have on our life.
So in going through this work and these 40 verses that I’ve chosen, and that we will deal with we will—I’m going to present things where we will chant the Sanskrit because there are actually, I was quite surprised, a good number of people who are very interested in learning some of the Sanskrit. We will also explore the synonyms, the Sanskrit synonyms in English, and meanings. We won’t do it all the time but in certain cases. We will also, from time to time, reference commentaries of great spiritual luminaries from ancient times so that we can benefit from these very ancient understandings and authentic understandings of this great transcendental message.
So I really hope that you will join me in this journey, and that you will derive great benefit from doing it. So we’ll be releasing the talks from time to time. And I’m not sure, some of them we will do two verses or perhaps even three verses together, because they’re all very much connected. So I’m not sure exactly how many videos that we’re going to end up having here, but I hope that you enjoy this study.
Before ending this introduction, I would ask you to allow me to offer my most humble obeisance to my spiritual teachers, to our lineage, to these significant spiritual personalities, to Bhagavan Sri Krishna Himself, who is the speaker of the Bhagavad gita.
aum ajnana timirandhasya jnananjana salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri gurave namah
bhaja sri krishna caitanya prabhu nityananda
sri advaita gadadhara srivasadi gaura bhakta vrnda
he krishna karuna sindho dina bandho jagat pate
gopesa gopika kanta radha kanta namo ‘stu te
aum namo bhagavate vasudevaya