Thursday, May 6, 2010

Introductory Notes to the Bhagavad Gita

1.1 Before we begin our examination of the Bhagavad Gita, it will be helpful to consider a few preliminary questions. Firstly, in light of the three quintessential yogas, what is the structure of the Gita? Secondly, if we are meditating upon the mahavakya (Aham Brahmasmi – from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda), how does this structure relate? And, lastly, is there any superiority between these three yogas?

1.2 Regarding our first question, we first of all want to note that the three quintessential yogas are karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. It is because the Gita addresses each of these yogas that it is the most beloved scripture for Hindus in general and for Vedantins of every variety. Advaitins see in it verification for their precious advaita doctrine. Vishishtadvaitins support for their middling course. And dvaitins, too, find justification for their striving toward unity with Krishna amid the chaos of the world.

1.3 This being said, the structure of the Gita, which consists of 18 sublime chapters, is as follows: chapters 1-6 cover karma yoga, chapter 7-12 cover bhakti yoga and chapters 13-18 cover jnana yoga. As already mentioned, it is this beautiful inclusivity (but not only this!) that has endeared so many souls to this unparalleled Scripture.

1.4 Now we want to look at the relation of this structure to our mahavakya. First of all, however, we want to look at the meaning of the words “Aham” and “Brahmasmi”. “Aham” means “I” and “Brahmasmi” means “Brahman am”. We can translate this from the Sanskrit into English with the more euphonious phrase “I am Brahman”. But to relate our mahavakya with the Gita’s structure, we want to keep in mind the order of the Sanskrit.

1.5 “Aham” correlates with karma yoga, which is to say, the yoga of action. This is because karma yoga has to do with “I”, with myself. Since the world is a confusing place, how do I navigate through it in a beneficial manner? How do I improve myself? How do I make myself suited for the spiritual path? These kinds of questions are answered in the first section of the Gita.

1.6 “Brahmasmi” correlates with “bhakti-jnana”, or love-knowledge. In the view of Vedanta, love and knowledge are both considered valid means for realizing the Self, whereas action, important though it is, is not such a means. This is how the structure of the Gita relates to our mahavakya. In this very deep way.

1.7 We have already learned that karma yoga is not a valid means for realization. In this sense we can rightly say that it is inferior to both bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. Be that as it may, we do not want to say it is irrelevant in relation to these other two yogas. All of our work, on the spiritual path, toward increased goodness and truthfulness, is important, including, of course, our actions toward such ends. In fact it is basically impossible, generally speaking, for us to grow in love or knowledge if we are behaving in a tamasic manner, for example, in our daily conduct. As a result, we can safely say that karma yoga provides the necessary foundation for our engagement in either bhakti or jnana yoga.

1.8 Regarding the two yogas which are valid means to realization, can we say that one or the other is superior? The answer to this question is no. It is a matter that is between God and the individual as to which yoga is appropriate, since God (as Ishvara) is the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of all. However, we can say that bhakti yoga is the means for the many and that jnana yoga is the means for the few.

1.9 Nonetheless, it is to some degree acceptable for each of these yogas to affirm superiority, but this is only the case for individuals who adhere to the given yoga. For example, in Narada Bhakti Sutras sage Narada states, “(Devotion is superior to other paths) because even God hates pride and loves humility.” Similarly, Adi Shankara has declared in Atma Bodha, “Knowledge alone is the direct means for liberation.” As we might expect, both of these sages are correct.

1.10 With these points in mind, we are ready to begin our reflection upon the sublime and unparalleled Bhagavad Gita, which is to say, the Song of Lord Krishna.

om tat sat

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