The war of Mahabharata (or War of Kurukshetra) was destined to follow. In this Dharma-Yuddha 'war for righteousness' there occurs an episode where Arjuna, the great and brave warrior, finds himself suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of mental depression, grief, and fear, when he realizes that he has to fight with his close relatives - brothers, uncles, and Teachers - present as his enemies. Arjuna is greatly disturbed about the outcome of the war; destruction and death that was sure to follow. He thought it 'prudent' to retire to forest rather than killing his own near and dear ones.
It is such a dramatic setting that we get as a start to the Bhagavad-Gita. The brave warrior ith Lord Krishna as his charioteer is standing between the two arrayed armies ready to start the battle, and Arjuna lays down his arms to retire at the back of his chariot. Trembling with nervousness and anxiety, unable to lift his mighty bow - Gandiva - he pleads to escape from the consequences of the war his emotions of love for the near ones, his concepts of duty and Dharma, all appear to be confusing to him. He is unable to determine the correct approach in this piquant situation of grave urgency and emergency.
Therefore he turns to Sri Krishna, his friend, his teacher, and his all:
"How can I kill them? Will it not be proper to give up this whole kingdom, smacking of blood of my own relatives, and retire to forest in peace? O Krishna, I am unable to decide my further plan of action. I surrender myself at your holy feet. O Lord, please guide me through this difficult uncertainty as I am your disciple and you are my Teacher."
Thus when Arjuna surrenders himself at the feet of the Lord, Sri Krishna says,
"O Brave one, why this infatuation at this hour! Why have you given yourself to this unmanliness and cowardice? Do not think that by your 'high talk of renunciation and retiring to forest' people would adore you and call you brave and intelligent. On the contrary, for centuries to come the blame would be put on you of running away from the battlefield. Generation after generation, people would laugh at you and make fun of your unmanly flight."
The Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter II, verse 2 and 3:
"In such a crisis, whence comes upon thee, O Arjuna, this dejection, un-Arya-like, disgraceful, and contrary to the attainment of heaven?"
"Yield not to unmanliness, O son of Kunti! Ill doth it become thee. Cast off this mean faint-heartedness and arise, O scorcher of thine enemies."
On listening to this rebuke, Arjuna steadies himself, and further dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna follows in subsequent chapters. Thus the Gita consists of eighteen - 18 - chapters and a total of 700 verses contained in them.
Arjuna puts lots of question about the goal in life, aim of human birth, about the nature of Duty and Work, about the Self - Atman - and about the four Yoga viz. Jnana, Raja, Karma, and Bhakti Yoga.
In precise and clear terms, Sri Krishna answers all the queries raised by Arjuna.
Chapters II through IX deal with Karma Yoga - Yoga of selfless action - vis-a-vis Jnana-Yoga. Sri Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight the war without thinking of the consequences. "Your duty is, and you have right only, to fight, you do not have control over the outcome," says the Lord. The duty of a person as a Karma Yogi is to do the allotted work as worship without expecting any definite fruits thereof. Selfless work done with full heart and perfection is the best way for the worldly person to realize his inner Self.
Gradually the discussion centers on the real nature of man and paths to seek the same. Says Sri Krishna, "O Arjuna, you are not this body, you are not this mind; you are ever pure, unchanging eternal Self, Atman. This Atman is covered with delusion/illusion of ignorance and comes to identify itself as body-mind complex. Therefore, when you say 'you will kill them, or get killed by them, you are actually telling a lie. The Atman is never killed, nor does it kill anybody.'
This body is like worn out clothes which the Atman changes as we change our old garments!
In chapter IV, verse 7 and 8, Sri Krishna says:
"O Arjuna, whenever there is decline of righteousness, and unrighteousness is in the ascendant, then I body Myself forth";
"For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evil-doers, and for establishing Dharma (righteousness) on a firm footing, I am born from age to age."
This concept of Divine Incarnation - Avatar - is at the very root of religiosity prevalent all around in India. This hope that the Lord will come to the help and rescue of his devotees, and corrupt and greedy would be punished; that the Truth alone would prevail in the end and not the untruth, has had kept the flame of spirituality burning through the dark ages of foreign aggression and servitude. One should understand that Dharma here means to attempt to seek our own higher self; from animal tendencies to divine tendencies through human growth, this is the journey. 'Unrighteousness on the ascendant' means materialism, excessive involvement in sense enjoyment, and identification with the body-mind complex. This excess involvement in senses leads to evil, greed, and corruption. Sri Krishna shows us the path as how to rise above these senses and transcend them to realize our higher state of consciousness - Atman.
Then the Lord goes on elaborating the ways to realize self as Self by undertaking various spiritual disciplines. By proper control of senses, by way of renunciation and discrimination, and by constant practice it is possible to steady and control the mind and realize the higher reality. The same end can be reached by yoga of action and yoga of devotion.
In chapter XI there is a wonderful description of Lord Krishna revealing Himself to Arjuna as "Virat" - all pervading Reality. This Universal Form or Sri Krishna is composed of all three aspects of Shristi - creation, Sthiti - maintenance, and Vinash - destruction of all the worlds. The terrifying aspect of this Self makes Arjuna shudder with fear, and hence the Lord also reveals His most beautiful form that is full of bliss, beatitude, and serenity.
Thus, the Gita is a summary of all knowledge contained in the Vedas and Upanishads. The Gita is translated in many languages including the English. Many learned scholars and spiritually illumined souls have written commentaries on this Universal Gospel of Perennial Philosophy. Depending on the priority and emphasis, some advocate Jnana Yoga as the essence of Gita; while majority of the people thinks that the Gita expounds doctrine of Karma Yoga at its best.
In recent times Swami Vivekananda has commented that the Gita exhorts every one of us to arise, awake, and fight our unmanliness so that we emerge as active and strong Karma Yogis. We become true spiritual seekers to realize our true nature as Atman and thereby do immense good to the world.
In the last chapter XVIII, Sri Krishna asks Arjuna,
"Are your doubts cleared? O Arjuna, are you freed from the delusory ideas regarding your true nature?"
And the grateful Arjuna, full of bliss with recent realization of the true knowledge declares, "Yes, my lord. My ignorance has vanished. Destroyed is my delusion, and I have gained my memory through Thy Grace. O steadfast, I am firm; my doubts are gone. I will do thy word."