John Davies (translator) – Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is a poem, written in the usual verseform of the Hindu epic poems, and is an episode in the sixth book, or Bhishma Parvan, of the Mahabharata, an epic poem devoted mainly to the deeds of the rival princes, who, though descended from ' a common ancestor, Kuru, fought as Kauravas and Pandavas for the kingdom of which Hastinapura was the capital. The facts which preceded the opening scene of the poem are briefly these: — Dhritarashtra and Pandu, the sons of Vyasa, were brought up, after the death of their father, by their uncle Bhishma, who carried on, in their minority, the government of Hastinapura. Dhritarashtra was the first-born, but being blind, he renounced the kingdom in favour of Pandu. The former married Gandhari, daughter of Subala, king of Gandhara, and had one hundred sons, of whom Duryodhana was the eldest. Pandu married Kunti, also called Pritha, the daughter of a Yadava prince, Sura, who gave her in charge to his childless cousin, Kuntibhoja. She bore three sons, Yudishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna; the eldest (Yudishthira), being born before Duryodhana, was installed by Dhritarashtra as Yuvaraja, or heir-apparent,and soon distinguished himself by his warlike exploits, in which his brothers assisted him. The renown which the Pandu princes acquired excited in Dhritarashtra and his son Duryodhana a jealous desire to supplant them. The latter formed a plan to destroy them by setting fire to their house, and to obtain the throne for himself. This plan failed, and then he plotted with a skilful dice-player, called Sakuni, to take advantage of Yudishthira's love of gambling, and by leading him to stake his kingdom, to win it from him.
Dhritarashtra was induced to call an assembly (sabha) at Hastinapura, 'which the Pandavas were invited to attend. They came, and Duryodhana persuaded Yudishthira to play with 6akuni. He consented, and in the excitement of the game he staked successively his kingdom, his private possessions, and then his wife, Draupadl. He lost them all, and Draupadl was seized, and treated with great indignity as a slave. A compromise was, however, made: Duryodhana was to have the kingdom for twelve years, and during this time the five Pandavas (including two sons, Nakula and Sahadeva, whose mother was Madri) were to live in exile. When the time of exile had expired, they determined to regain their kingdom by force; for Duryodhana, who is represented as being crafty and unprincipled, refused to restore it. Each party made preparations for the contest, and sought to gain allies among the neighbouring kings. A large army was collected by each, the army of Duryodhana being commanded by his great-uncle Bhishma, and that of the Pandavas by Bhima, the second son of Pandu and Kunti The two armies met on the sacred plain, the plain of the Kurus, and were drawn up in array against each other.
It is at this point that our poem begins. Arjuna occupies his war-chariot as one of the leaders of the Pandavan host, and Krishna, disguised in human form, is his suta, or charioteer. Then, looking upon the two hosts, in each of which he had many relatives, the fortitude of Arjuna gave way. He directed his charioteer to drive between the two armies, that he might regard them more closely, Krishna obeyed the command, and Arjuna, overcome by pity and sorrow at the idea of killing his kinsmen, let fall his bow and arrow, and refused to fight.
Here the first book closes, and Krishna, who makes himself known at length as the Supreme Spirit (Paramatman), meets the objections of Arjuna by unfolding a philosophical system, which is a skilful union of the systems of Kapila and Patanjali, with a large admixture of the prevailing Brahmanic doctrines.
Its base is the theistic form of the Sankhya, as set forth by Patanjali, and this treats mainly of the One Supreme Being, eternal, infinite, the source and maintainer of all things, in whom all things are from time to time absorbed at the end of a kalpa, or period of creation; and of man, compounded of soul and body, whose highest state is a profound abstraction from all external things and union by meditation (yoga) with the Supreme. This is completed for ever by nirvana, or absorption into the very nature of Brahma, as a drop of water is absorbed or lost in the sea. In the Bhagavad Gita the Supreme Being is represented under five different forms or manifestations of being: — (i.) As Adkydtman, or Supreme Sgirit: this spiritual essence is his proper nature (swabhdva). In his relation to gods and men he is (2.) the Supreme Deity (Adhidaiva), as being both their origin and their ruler. Of the existing kosmos, including men and mere forms of matter, he is (3.) the Indivisible (AJcsJiara), the living energy which animates all living things, in which form he is sometimes called Jwabhuta, the Principle of Life; and (4.) the Divisible (Kshara), the limited and various forms or individualities of men and things. Lastly, as the object and cause of religion, he is called (5.) the Lord of Sacrifice (Adhiyajna), and in this respect he is incarnated as Krishna, since it is difficult for flesh-encumbered mortals to rise to the conception and worship of a purely spiritual being (viii. 3, 4). As the Supreme Deity, Adhidaiva, he is also called Purusha, which means both soul and a male being, for in this form he is the creator of gods and men.
This is a wide departure from the system of Kapila, who limited his speculations to the visible world, and what might be inferred by human reason, or known by the facts of consciousness. Like Fichte, he held apparently that man can know nothing above himself by any mental effort of his own, and can therefore have no direct knowledge of God. Sacrifice and religious worship found, therefore, no place in his system, or if it was accepted for some reason apart from his system, it was subordinate in itself and its results to philosophical knowledge. The author of the Gita takes a wholly different position on the question of a Supreme Being, and approaches more nearly the Vedantist system; but yet he differs very widely from the commonly received doctrines and ritual. In his view the Supreme Being is One, without a rival, without such attributes as were assigned to the gods in the popular belief, and unstained by any of their passions or vices. From whatever source his ideas were derived, whether from some knowledge which came from a system lying wholly apart from the Hindu creed, or from the working of his own mind, he rose here to a height of conception far beyond the level of his age or his race. The unity of the divine nature was not wholly unknown to the Hindu mind, but practically this idea was buried under a mass of ritual, whose offices were assigned to many gods, of varying degi'ees of power and goodness. The One Supreme Spirit appears, indeed, incarnate as Eiishna, and here our author's Brahmanic training appears; but in his proper spiritual nature he is "the supreme Brahma, the supreme abode, the highest purification (the holiest of the holy, Telang), the Eternal Creative Power (Purusha) Divine, the Lord of Gods, Unborn, the mighty Lord (Vibhu) (x. 12). He is the source of all things, whether spirit or matter, the efficient and material cause of the whole universe. Here our author comes very near the pure Pantheism of the common Hindu creed. AU souls are a part of Brahma's spiritual nature, individuated by their connection with bodily forms; but yet, having issued from him, they rejourn, at least in their highest state, to him, to be absorbed in his infinite being. The existence and the immortality of the soul are asserted as truths which could be denied only by narrow-minded worldlings, in whom the pleasures of the senses had dulled every nobler faculty. The soul never began to be; it can never die, nor can it ever grow old (ii. 12, 13). At the death of the body, which is only the soul's fleshly covering, it enters into a new body. Taking with it the subtle body (lingo), a surrounding frame composed of the subtler forms of matter, with this it enters another womb, where only the coarser animal frame is developed. This latter utterly perishes when the soul abandons it. The doctrine of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls, is therefore distinctly taught. It is a doctrine nrhich, more than any other, has gained a generrJ acceptance in Eastern countries: it belongs equally to the system of Kapila and the most advanced Yedantist school.
The Supreme Being is also the source of all material existences (x. 2, xiv. 3). In his exposition of this doctrine our author differs widely from the Sankhya system, and from the Mimansa or Yedantist view. Eapila taught that Prakriti (Nature) was the material source of all beings or corporeal forms; soul being entirely distinct and eternal both as to the future and the past. In the Vedantist school all bodily forms or material existences are mere illusion (maya); a temporary appearance, like an image of the moon in water, with which it has pleased the One Sole Being to veil for a time his purely spiritual nature. The watchword of this school is adwaita, or "non-dualism." Its creed is simplicity itself In the Chhandogya Upanishad (iii. 14) it is thus expressed: "All the universe is Brahma; from him it proceeds; into him it is dissolved; in him it breathes." It is comprised in the simple formula, Ekam exadwitiyam, "One thing (essence) only, without a second." There is therefore properly neither cause nor effect All that exists, or that seems to exist, is only Brahma. The difficult, or rather the impossible, problem of the origin of matter and of existing forms is set aside by a mere negation of matter, the only existence being the One Eternal Spirit Here is a doctrine which li in the absolutely opposite pole to that of many modem scientists, who can see in the varied forms of existence, and in the will, the intellect, and the affections of men, only different phases of matter. The system of our author, however, did not accord with any of these. In his view, Prakriti, or material Nature, was a part of the Supreme Being, in whom there was a duality in this respect, Prakriti being his lower nature. The term which Kapila applied to primeval matter, the ὕλη of the Greeks — Avyakta, the Unmanifested or Undeveloped — is assigned to this element of the divine nature (ix. 4); hence all things are said to be from him (x. 8); all things are said to be in him, but he is not in them, ie,, as a spiritual being; in that which gives him his peculiar name he is not in them.
He is, however, in all as the Principle of Life (Jivabhuta), the living energy by which all beings are animated (vii. 5); the undivided spiritual force which corresponds to the anima mundi of Western philosophers. Hence there are said to be two spiritual existences (purusha) in the world, the Divided, or the individual soul in each body, and the Undivided, the universal, vital principle referred to. "But," it is added, "there is another Spirit (purusha), the Highest, called the Supreme Soul" (paramdtman); and Krishna, speaking as of this Supreme Being, continues: "Wherefore, since I surpass the Divided and am above the Undivided, I am called in the world and in the Vedas the Highest Spirit" (purushottama) (xv. 13, 17, 18). The Vedantist, who admits only one existence, affirms that the Jivabhuta, or Principle of Life, and the Paramatman, or Supreme Spirit, are absolutely one and the same; for the whole phenomenal world, and that which animates it, are only manifestations, and, with regard to phenomena, illusive manifestations, of the One Being. The Vedantist doctrine of illusion (mayo), which denies all true reality to the phenomenal world, is of late introduction. The word appears in the Gita, but not in the Vedantist sense. The outer world is an illusion, not because it has no real existence, but because it veils the Spiritual Being who pervades all things; and men are thus deluded so far as to maintain that nothing exists except that which meets the senses. "I am not manifest to every one," Krishna says, "being enveloped by my mystic illusion. This deluded world does not recognise Me, the Unborn and Eternal" (vii. 25).
This Supreme Spirit is, then, the source of all existences, whether spiritual or material; they are portions of himself, but they are separate existences for the present, being divided by the limits of corporeal existence. All souls are from him, and their highest happiness is to be reabsorbed into his essence. How, then, can this great blessing, this highest of all blessings, be obtained ? Here, in: answering this question, the method of our author is, in the main, that of Patanjali; differing from Kapila, who taught that the soul gained an eternal deliverance from matter by gaining a knowledge of itself, in knowing both soul and matter; and from the common Vedantist view, in giving an objective reality to material forms, and thus making the separation of the imprisoned soul more distinctly expressed. The Vedantist, however, is compelled to speak of bodily forms as if they were realities. In the Atmabodha (Knowledge of the Soul), attributed to Sankara, the soul is spoken of as being enveloped in five investing sheaths, and as being divested of them "by force of meditation." Here the writer seems to be influenced by the system of the Bhagavad Gita, and a commentary on the book is ascribed to him; but the common Hindu idea of gaining any blessing is by sacrifice and ritual. Though Brahmans speak of deliverance (moksha), it is difficult to give a consistent meaning to the word, for the phenomenal world only exists in appearance, and every soul is even now absolutely one with, or part of, the One sole Existence. In the system of Patanjali, the union of the soul with the Supreme is the result of long-continued pious meditation. An elaborate system of rules is provided, by which the passions may be subdued, the soul may be kept in a state of complete indifference with regard to external things, and fixed in meditation on the Supreme. A very exalted idea, but too high for human nature to carry out to perfection. Yet it was supposed that a state might be attained even here in which the soul would rise above the control or the limitations of the body, and become, in a certain sense, incorporeal (videha). Our author had evidently been trained in the school of Patanjali, or had studied his system with admiration. His own views of the nature and powers of the soul are very elevated, and are grandly expressed (c. ii.) The soul is immortal; it is capable of rising to communion with God; its highest state is to enjoy that communion; its proper destiny is to return to that eternal source from which it sprung and be lost in Him. The man who leaves even his wife and children and goes as a recluse (muni) to the recesses of a forest, that in silence and solitude he may meditate on the Supreme with unfailing devotion, has attained to the highest state of man. But it is evident that this overstrained ideality is not suited to the mass of mankind, and that it is incompatible with the duties that our several relationships bring upon us. It is an idea, an aspiration, that has fascinated many noble minds, without the pale of the Christian Church as well as within it. But in India, as in Europe, the attempt to rise above our human nature has resulted only in failure. The Yogin, or devotee, became a mere hypocrite or charlatan, leading an idle life, and supporting himself by a useless show of religious austerities or by more immoral devices. This result seems to have been manifest in our author's time. The true system of yoga had been lost, and must be revived. But the disciple differed from his master in one important point. He saw that the pure abstraction of a religious devotee was not possible for all men, and that it was opposed to the just claims of family and caste. He contended still that mental devotion (buddhiyoga) was the best, but that devotion by work (karmayoga) might also lead to the great blessing of nirvana.
But all work must be done without "attachment" (the Sanskrit term sanga having the same double meaning as this word), that is, it must be done simply as duty, without any emotion, with indifference to all attendant circumstances, and especially without any desire for reward (phala, fruit). To do even religious acts in the hope of gaining heaven, even the heaven of Indra, bound the soul still to the prison of the body in successive births. Its highest destiny, absorption into the Supreme Being, might be gained, or at least promoted, by works, but the necessary condition of such works was their absolute freedom from all selfish hope of gain. If done in this spirit, then action was even laudable, especially such action as was required by the particular caste to which a man might belong. It was the duty, therefore, of his hero, Arjuna, to fight, for he was of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, and this duty is enforced by much ingenious casuistry, by which renunciation (of works: sannyasa) is reconciled with devotion by work (karmayoga), which is done by renouncing all the "fruit" of works. This kind of renunciation is called tyaga (forsaking). Works done in this spirit of absolute indifference to all external things might lead to the great blessing of nirvana; but if done from any desire of gain, they were imperfect, and could only lead to a temporary abode in one of the heavens of the gods, however good or useful they might be relatively. But though works are so far admitted into his system, the highest state below is that of perfect repose, with constancy in meditating on the Supreme; and his highest type of man is the recluse (muni), taking up a solitary resting-place far from the haunts of men, renouncing all the blessings of this world, and even hope itself, holding the mind in check until thought ceases, and thus waiting in pious abstraction for the happy hour when he will be absorbed into the infinite Brahma.
The material world was not, however, ignored by our author as an object of speculation. In treating of physics he adopts the system of Kapila, which has been generally adopted or acquiesced in by Hindu writers, though of different schools of thought in other respects. In the Sankhya system, Prakriti, or primordial matter, is assumed as the source of all material things: it is eternal, both as to the past and the future; uncreated, and having in itself a potentiality of issuing forth and forming all material existences. It is acted upon unconsciously by a desire or purpose to set soul free from all contact with matter, that the former may know no longer the pains of this mortal life, by regaining its primal state of unconscious repose. This primal matter has three constituent elements, called gunas or threads, which are (i.) Sattwa (goodness), which is of a fine and elastic nature; (2.) Rajas (passion), the element of motion, active and restless, of which things animate (except the gods) are chiefly formed; and (3.) Tamas (darkness), the source of inanimate things and of stupidity and delusion. Nature, when undeveloped, is called Avyakta (unmanifested), and Vyakta (manifested) when developed in the manifold forms of the existing world. The nature and excellence of these forms depend on the nature of the; guna that prevails in it, and the manner in which each may be modified by the other.
The first production of Nature is (i.) Baddhi (intellect), which is the first link in the chain of agencies by which the soul becomes cognisant of the external world; (2.) Ahankara (consciousness), the seat of our sense of being or self-consciousness. From Ahankara (which corresponds to the "mind-stuff" of Professor Clifford) proceed (3.) the five subtle elements (tanmatra), which underlie (4.) the five gross elements (mahabhuta). The former bear the technical names of sound, tangiblenegs, odour, visibleness, and taste. The gross elements are ether (akasa), connected with the subtle element called sound; air (vayu), from the element tangibleness; earth, from the element called smell; light or fire, from the element visibility, and water from that of taste. From Ahankara proceed the five senses (indriya — both the faculty and the bodilyorgan), which are the senses of hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, and tasting; and the five organs of action, the voice, the hands, the feet, and the organs of excretion and generation. A third internal faculty, called manas, is usually placed, in the order of enumeration, after the senses and the bodily organs, from its connection with them. It is the faculty by which the sensations are individually received and formed into concepts of a primary form: these are transmitted to consciousness (Ahankara), by which they come into a clear, conscious state, as into the light, and then they are borne to intellect (Buddhi), by which they are formed into complete conceptions, which the soul sees as in a mirror, and thus becomes cognisant of an external world. The manas, as the seat of sensibility, is supposed to be also the seat of our passions or emotions; for the soul never acts: it is a pure light, existing in and for itself; it knows nothing of those desires that men have for earthly enjoyments, for these are as purely material as the objects of desire.
These twenty-three products are the whole of the Vyakta, or matter in a manifest, developed form, and, with the opposite natures of Prakriti (primal matter) and Soul (Atman) form the twenty-five principles of the Sankhya system. The physical theory of Kapila had an extensive influence on Hindii modes of thought, being found 'in such different works as the Institutes of Manu, the Svetasvatara Upanishad, and the Puranas. Parts of it were incorporated into other systems, in which Prakriti (Nature) occupies a subordinate position.
In the Sankhya system the soul is invested with a linga or subtle body, formed of the three internal organs, Intellect (buddhi), Consciousness (ahankara), and the Manas or receptive faculty and seat of desires, with the five subtle elements. This is peculiar to each soul, and forms the distinct disposition (bhava), the separate nature of each individual. It accompanies the soul in its successive transmigrations to other bodies until a final separation from matter has been obtained; (by knowledge, according to Kapila; by pious meditation, according to Patanjali); and then the linga is absorbed for ever in the primal matter (Prakriti) from which it sprung; the only source of existing things, according to the Sankhya school.
Another part, and one that is obscure, in this system, is the theory of vital airs, which are supposed to dwell in the body, and to perform important functions there. These are (i.) Pram, ordinary breathing; (2.) Apana, downward breath, acting on the lower parts of the body;,(3.) Samana, collective breath, forming the function of digestion and the transmission of food through the body; (4.) Udana, ascending breath, the vital force which causes the flow of blood upwards to the head; and (5.) Vyana, separate breath, which is connected with the skin, and seems to denote a kind of nerve-force by which sensations are conveyed to the manas, or receptive and distinguishing faculty. These inventions are not more crude than that of the vital spirits, of which physicians and men of science used to speak, even in the last century. They denote that Kapila had a dim perception of the fact that there are vital forces at work in the human system more subtle than mere inanimate matter.
But all bodies, and all their separate faculties or endowments, and the constituent elements or gunas of Nature (Prakriti), which now are variously distributed in existing things, shall finally cease to be in their separate or individual forms. The gross body, formed in the womb of the mother, perishes absolutely at the time of death, the particles being absorbed again in Nature (Prakriti). When the soul has gained complete deliverance from matter, then the subtle body or linga will be absorbed for ever in Prakriti Finally, according to Kapila, all things will be absorbed into it. Only soul and unformed matter will exist. In the system of the Bhagavad Gita, all things will be absorbed into Prakriti at the end of a kalpa, or period of creation, which is a day of Brahma, or 1000 mahayugas, each of which contains 4,320,000 days; then the sum of all existences being absorbed in Prakriti, the latter, being an inferior part of Brahma, will be also absorbed in him. At the close of the same period of non-creation, a new day will open, and there will be another emanation (sarga) of the material part of the Divine Being into the manifold forms of individual life.
The metre used for the most part in the Bhagavad Gita is the common heroic form, called Sloka or Anushtubh, consisting of two lines of sixteen syllables each, with a caesura at the end of the eighth foot. Its form is this —
each line being the same.
In the more lyrical parts another form is used, called Trishtubh, containing eleven syllables in each half line or pada. A common variety is of the following form —
a caesura being generally found at the fifth syllable (Williams' Gram. p. 350).
In preparing this translation of the Bhagavad Gita, I have had before me the Greek translation of Galanos, and the Italian version of Stanislao Gatti, both supplied by Dr. Reinhold Rost, the learned librarian of the India Office. I have also consulted the French version of Burnouf, the Latin version of Lassen, and the English versions of Mr. Thomson and K. T. Telang. The notes of Lassen have given valuable aid, and I am indebted to a paper on the Bhagavad Gita, read before the "Akademie der Wissenschaften" of Berlin in 1826, by W. von Humboldt, for a scholarly review of the doctrines contained in the poem. I have also consulted a MS. copy of the Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, written by Sridhara, which is in my possession, and by the kindness of Dr. Rost another commentary, attributed to Sankara, but written by Sankara Ananda Saraswati (quot. as Ananda), and called Tatparya Bodhini. By the kindness of Dr. Rost, I have had from the India Office a MS. copy of the commentary of Sankara. This I have consulted also, and have referred to it. The former commentary was supposed for a time to be Sankara's, and extracts from it were assigned to him; but I hope that in every such case the error has been corrected.
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