The Bhagavad Gita (also called the Gita for short), which translates roughly to “The Song of God,” is a 700-verse scripture that explains some of the primary teachings related to yoga, meditation and Hindu (or Vedantic) spiritual practice. It’s not entirely known when it was written but Hindu scholars believe it was around the third or fourth millennium B.C.E.
Krishna, one of the main characters of the Gita and its lessons, actually predates most other central figures in the world’s leading religions. For example, Krishna is believed to have been born sometime before 3000 B.C.E., many years prior to the birth of Abraham, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad. Krishna is considered the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu, a direct descendent of God that has come to earth in human form to teach lessons and help restore dharma. Incarnations of God (Vishnu), including Krishna, are often described as an analogy of evolution, since Vishnu was believed to have been first incarnated as fish, then amphibians, then other land animals, all the way up to humans living among animals (Krishna). (Learn more in Who is Lord Krishna?)
The Gita was originally written in Sanskrit, one of the earliest surviving Indo-European languages that was used in many major Hindu texts as well as texts important to the Jain and Buddhist traditions. The word, Sanskrit, doesn’t have a direct translation to English, but is said to mean something very similar to “purified” or “refined.” The sounds of Sanskrit words themselves are said to be manifestations of God and their sounds are a source of expressing divinity.
Within the "Mahabharata" (epic Sanskrit text) is the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita recounts a conversation between Lord Krishna and a Pandava prince named Arjuna. It takes place on a battleground just prior to a war beginning. Lord Krishna is Arjuna's charioteer and guru, but he is also an incarnation of Vishnu who has important wisdom to impart. In the Gita, Arjuna has many questions for Krishna regarding morals, virtue and the Self. The battleground setting of the Gita is said to be an analogy or allegory of the many ethical and moral struggles of human life.
Arjuna is torn for several reasons over the battle. He is fighting against his own family members, harming people at a disadvantage to himself and harming other humans who are "fathers, grandfathers, teachers, brothers, uncles, grandsons, in-laws and friends.” He has no desire to fight and doesn’t wish to rule a kingdom won by violence.
Krishna tells Arjuna to go forward and recognize that duty (dharma) is more important than a human body, which is temporary, made of mere flesh and to be used for rightful action. He explains that doing one’s personal duty is the highest good and what brings a human closer to God. Krishna says, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection....The embodied soul is eternal in existence, indestructible, and infinite, only the material body is factually perishable, therefore fight O Arjuna.”
Krishna answers some of Arjuna’s most important questions and clears up his confusion regarding the moral dilemmas he is having about battling others in the war. Krishna carefully explains to Arjuna that he is a warrior and a prince; therefore, he has certain duties that justify the battle. Krishna tells Arjuna to fulfill his "Kshatriya duty as a warrior and establish dharma." Although battle scares Arjuna and he struggles with the idea of harming others, this is actually a way for Arjuna to attain liberation (moksha). Arjuna learns that something bigger than himself, a divine and infinite source, senses and experiences all the events of the battlefield and he ultimately recognizes that this is what he must do.
While Krishna explains to Arjuna his role and responsibilities, he describes the four different yogic paths (margas) and elaborates on many Hindu/Vedantic philosophies. Through the 18 chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains much about dharma, self-doubt and fear, rightful action, morals, seeking truth and the Divine. (Read more about fear in The Nature of Fear.)
Four Paths of Yoga
The four yogic paths all deal with problems of the mind (citta) and stem back to concerns over the Self. What we learn through the margas is that yoga is ultimately about overcoming obstacles of the mind and learning to experience one’s true nature. Krishna explains how, as humans, we are constantly locked into false beliefs and identities, but that these are only temporary and don’t tell the full story about who we really are. (Learn more in How to Master Your Mind.)
The four yogic paths include: Karma yoga (yoga of action), Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), Jnana yoga (yoga of intellect and mind) and Raja yoga (yoga of physical and mental control).
The teachings of the four paths all bring us back to the Divine. This makes them similar to other religious texts, since they explain how the human body is impermanent, suffering in life is unavoidable and it is crucial to escape wrongful doing to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth. They are different in terms of what they require and teach us, but they have the same fundamental purpose of helping us know the ultimate Truth and bringing us closer to the Infinite, or Supreme Soul (Purasha).
- Karma yoga: karma means “to do” and is the path of action. It describes the action we take in our lifetime and also the consequences of our actions, which we receive. Karmic yoga is a way of thinking about our actions carefully, choosing our actions wisely in accordance with our virtues and being willing to act out our rightful duties in our lifetime (our dharma). In karmic yoga we are intended to act in a way that is moral, without self-interest or considering our own likes, dislikes and preferences and in a way that serves others. Krishna explains that service and giving are natural for us, so our dharma is to serve without becoming attached to the rewards of our service.
“He who has let go of hatred, who treats all beings with kindness and compassion, who is always serene, unmoved by pain or pleasure, free of the "I" and "mine," self-controlled, firm and patient, his whole mind focused on me --- that is the man I love best.” -Krishna
- Bhakti yoga: bhakti means “loving devotion.” In Bhakti yoga, we practice loving others and forming unions, which we do through devotion, practice and our dharma. We form meaningful human relationships with loving partners/spouses, friends, parents and children. We also devote our love to a spiritual teacher (our guru) and to God through our devotion. Our loving relationships becomes a way of showing our respect for the Divine.
“He who is rooted in oneness realizes that I am in every being; wherever he goes, he remains in me. When he sees all being as equal in suffering or in joy because they are like himself, that man has grown perfect in yoga.” -Krishna
- Jnana yoga: jnana yoga means "spiritual knowledge" or "spiritual wisdom." Although it is described in different ways, it is the cognitive events that help us recognize our experiences and come to learn knowledge, wisdom, virtues and truth. Through meditation, inquiry, awareness and introspection into our own minds, we practice Jnana yoga and exercise our will to understand the truth. Of the four paths, Jnana yoga is often said to be the hardest to follow because it requires facing difficulties honestly and taking responsibility for our actions. This takes strength, perseverance and intellect. It is also said to be the most important path because it helps us connect with our true nature.
“The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results; all his selfish desires have been consumed in the fire of knowledge. The wise, ever satisfied, have abandoned all external supports. Their security is unaffected by the results of their action; even while acting, they really do nothing at all. Free from expectations and from all sense of possession, with mind and body firmly controlled by the Self, they do not incur sin by the performance of physical action. They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved.” -Krishna
- Raja yoga: raja means "king" and Raja yoga is about learning to control our physical and mental environments. It’s linked most closely to Ashtanga yoga and the eight limbs of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras. Part of Raja yoga is practicing meditation, relaxation, asanas, chants and mudras, which help us gain control over both the physical body and mind. (Learn more in The 8 Limbs of Yoga.)
“The happiness which comes from long practice, which leads to the end of suffering, which at first is like poison, but at last like nectar - this kind of happiness arises from the serenity of one's own mind.” -Krishna