The messages within the Bhagavad Gita are often subtle, but most certainly they are profound and enduring. The preface by Eknath Easwaran helps the reader to understand the text that is the Bhagavad-Gita by explaining Indian philosophy, the context of the story, and the challenges associated with translation of the text. It should be noted that Easwaran himself translated the Bhagavad-Gita in this book. Easwaran seems to be fully aware that one cannot easily enter the world of Eastern thought without some understanding of the language and its associated concepts. At the end of the book, Easwaran provides a glossary of words translated from the Sanskrit.
Moreover, he offers detailed information in the notes section about certain translations to render fuller meaning to the reader who is not a Sanskrit scholar. Easwaran illumines the essence of Krishna’s teaching in the Bhagavad-Gita, and helps us to see that the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is not meant to be viewed literally; rather, it is a metaphor for the struggle within, that is the struggle for self-mastery (2000, p. xix).
In the forward, Easwaran hypothesizes that the seeds of Hinduism date back as far as 3000 B.C.E. Easwaran states: “Images of Shiva as Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yoga, suggest that meditation was practiced…a millennium before the Vedas were committed to an oral tradition” (p. xiv). The Vedas were eventually written down beginning in 1200 BCE approximately (Higgins, 2001, p. 42). Easwaran notes that “only the Vedas (including their Upanishads) are considered shruti, based on direct knowledge of God. All other Indian scriptures—including, by this criterion, the Bhagavad Gita—are secondary, dependent on the higher authority of the Vedas” (2000, p. xvi). However,
Easwaran argues that the Bhagavad-Gita, written between 200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. is also a great and sacred scripture akin to an Upanishad. He bases his argument on the fact that, according to Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad-Gita was also compiled by the sage Vyasa (p. xvi). Easwaran states that Vyasa was a rishi or “seer,” and that the seers of India were those who “analyzed their awareness of human experience to see if there was anything that was absolute”
Easwaran accurately characterizes Indian thought as a perennial philosophy. In other words, that which is true continues and remains true throughout time. Easwaran proposes that, within the Bhagavad-Gita, “there is an infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change” . According to Vedic thought, our everyday experience is maya or an illusion (Higgins, 2001, p. 41). Thus, that which is true cannot be seen or touched. According to the Samkhya school, both consciousness and nature are real (p. 36).According to this branch of Hinduism, then, mind and matter are both real. Both Vedic thought and Samkhya thought are unified in the belief that Brahman is “the supreme reality underlying all life”(Easwaran, 2000, p. 112). Within Hindu thought, we can see “the One underlying the many, the Eternal beneath the ephemeral” (p. xxiv). A passage in the Bhagavad-Gita that illustrates this view is when Lord Krishna says to the warrior Arjuna “the body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable” (p. 10).
The Bhagavad-Gita consists of a poetic dialogue between the avatar Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. Krishna subtly and artfully conveys his wisdom to Arjuna. In one passage, Krishna says:
I am the father and mother of this universe, and its grandfather too; I am its entire support. I am the sum of all knowledge, the purifier…I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all, the inner witness, the abode of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation; I am the womb and the eternal seed. I am heat; I give and withhold the rain. I am immortality and I am death; I am what is and what is not .
Krishna’s message to Arjuna, and to humanity, is to turn oneself toward Brahman, and to follow a spiritual path while we inhabit a physical self in this physical realm.
How do we lead a spiritual life? In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna directs us to practice karma-yoga or “the way of action; the path of selfless service” . Krishna advises Arjuna to “give freely. Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve…show goodwill to all” . At a glance, this advice would appear to contradict Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna that he move forward in battle against the Kauravas. Arjuna hesitates and questions why he should harm his kin, his neighbors, and his friends.
Krishna tells Arjuna he must live in accordance with his dharma, or “duty; the universal law that holds all life together in unity” (p. 113).Krishna says to Arjuna: “Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil” (p. 11). Viewed from the parameters of Western thought, arriving at an understanding of dharma can seem rather elusive.
To understand dharma, one must also understand the related concept of detachment. We must act without attachment to a particular outcome or interest associated with jiva, the individuated self. The reason we must do so is that we are also Atman, “the supreme Self, which is identical in everyone” (Higgins, 2001, p. 47).
Krishna’s message is that we are more than our physical self. We are Atman, and we continue on after death. Krishna says that “the Self cannot be pierced by weapons or burned by fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundations of eternity” .Attachment to a specific outcome is irrelevant, for we are always Atman, and thus a part of Brahman, regardless of any temporal circumstance.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says, “human nature is made of faith. Indeed, a person is his faith” . A primary message within the Bhagavad-Gita is that, although we apparently exist in a material world, our being-in-the-world transcends a merely physical existence. Through bhakti, or devotion, we come closer to living a life that is spiritually based. Each of us is a spiritual being, and it is shraddha or faith that brings forth our humanity.
To summarize, the Bhagavad Gita invites us to contemplate the profound and poetic words that are the Bhagavad-Gita. Eknath Easwaran aptly assists the reader to move toward an understanding of the text through a careful use of language that does not rely upon literal translations from Sanskrit into English. Instead, Easwaran creates a context for understanding, and he asks the reader to disengage from fixed paradigms that may limit understanding. The Bhagavad-Gita is best read, and reread, for with each reading, a previously hidden message unfolds and reveals itself. And there is great beauty and meaning to be found within the Gita.