In the ancient India, about 3200 years back, the conflict between righteous Pandavas and non-righteous Kauravas reached the point of no compromise. The injustice done to the five Pandavas and their lone wife Draupadi by the Kaurava king Duryodhana crossed all limits of toleration. Lord Krishna who was always on the side of Dharma - righteousness - pleaded with the King Dhritarashtra and his son Duryodhana to avoid the war at any cost. The statesman Krishna advocated peace by encouraging the Kauravas to grant the Pandavas their legitimate right over half of the kingdom of Hastinapur.
But, no. The war of Mahabharata (or 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 Bhagavad-Gita. The brave warrior Arjuna with 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 himself. 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 battle field. Generation after generation, people would laugh at you and make fun of your unmanly flight."
Shrimad 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 or 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. [Actually Gita consists of the dialogue between our lower self and the Higher Self.]
Arjuna puts many 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 Yogas viz. Jnana-Yoga, Raja-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Bhakti-Yoga.
Chapters II through IX deal with Karma-Yoga - Yoga of selfless action - vis-?-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 Yogin 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.
Those persons should embrace the life of renunciation (monasticism) in whom impressions of the past lives have created such attraction. But other persons who have no such tendency, persons in whom the past impressions of sense enjoyment persist, such aspirants - sadhakas - are not yet fit to take to life of sanyasins. Such persons actually, after some progress on the path of spirituality, may get entangled in a tamasic inactivity - lazy life of hypocrisy. Such people do more harm than good to the cause of spirituality, religion, and social progress.
For such people, which are in majority at a given point of time, Sri Krishna advocates Nishkam Karma Yoga - Yoga of selfless action - as the ideal path to realize the Truth. Allotted work done without motives, the work done without expecting or thinking about its result, purifies the mind that makes the person gradually fit to see the value of reason and benefit of renouncing the work itself!. Unless all mental desires and tendencies to enjoy sense pleasures are controlled and rooted out, a person does not become fit for final stage of Liberation. Yoga makes the person fit through action, devotion, contemplation, meditation , and discrimination to sharpen his reason, develop intuitive power of acquiring knowledge, and to transcend the mind itself!
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. Materialism, excessive involvement in sense enjoyment, and identification of ourselves as body-mind complex means 'unrighteousness is in the ascendant'. This excess involvement in senses means 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.
Gradually the discussion centers around 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!"
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 upon 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 everyone of us to arise, awake, fight our unmanliness so that we emerge as active and strong Karma Yogins. 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."
Path of Devotion in The Gita
In XII chapter of the Gita (on Bhakti Yoga) in the first verse, Arjuna inquires of Sri Krishna:
"O Lord, the devotees,
i) who, with their minds constantly fixed in You, adore you as possessed of form and attributes,
ii) and those who adore only the imperishable, formless Brahman, of these who are the best knower of Yoga?"
And Sri Krishna answers: Both of them reach Me; but the path of those who have their mind attached to the Unmanifest is more rugged and full of struggle, for self-identification with the Unmanifest is attained with difficulty by those who are centered in the body. (Gita, XII, Verse 5.)
In the next verse the Lord maintains, "On the other hand, those who being solely devoted to Me, and surrendering all actions to Me, worship Me - the manifest divine - constantly meditating on Me with single minded devotion; these O Arjuna I speedily rescue from the ocean of birth and death." (Gita, XII, Verse 6, 7.)
In subsequent verses, Sri Krishna tells which devotee is most dear to Him:
1. The devotee who is free from malice, who is friendly and compassionate, who is free from egoism and idea of doership, who has firm resolve, who has surrendered his mind and intellect to the Lord, whose senses are under his control, 'that devotee of Mine is dear to Me'.
2. One who is not the source of annoyance to the world, one who never feels offended with the world, one who is free from both delight and anger, perturbation and fear, 'that devotee is dear to Me'.
3. One who craves for nothing, one whose mind and intellect are pure, one who is clever and impartial, who neither rejoices nor grieves, nor desires, one who has renounced both good and evil, 'such a devotee is dear to Me'.
4. One who is alike to friend and foe, honor and ignominy, pleasure and pain and is free from attachment; one who takes praise and reproach alike and is content with whatever comes to him unasked for, whose mind is full of devotion and engrossed in the Lord, 'such a devotee is very dear to Me'.
Bhakti (Devotion) and Jnana (Knowledge) not different
Thus, we see that path of devotion Bhakti Yoga as described in the Gita is, in fact, total surrender to the Lord. This somewhat dualistic approach suits the common mass psyche. It is difficult for majority of us to understand and accept that surrender to external Deity, Ideal, or Power is in essence surrendering to our own higher self! It is transcending our petty ego and getting established into Universal Ego. It is merging the idea of one body-mind complex into the reality of Cosmic Oneness.
Normally in our ordinary consciousness, we are aware of multitude of forms. The cosmic mind is divided into various forms: the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, human beings; this whole universe. Bhakti Yoga a stage is reached when all multiple forms merge into one cosmic form which is none other than sadhaka's Chosen Ideal.
Such conceptualization is not utopia nor faculty of imagination. This can be actualized. It is in fact experienced by many saints, sages, rishis, (Seers as we call them) in every religion. During all such experiences the aspirant has knowledge of only two existence: one, of himself, and the other of his Chosen Ideal. This chosen ideal may be a Form or an Idea. For instance, Arjuna and Sri Krishna. The mind of the spiritual aspirant is totally concentrated. The sadhaka has no knowledge of anything else other than these two. Still further by way of Advaita Jnana the sadhaka can consider and actualize his or her oneness with Universal Principle by transcending himself and the chosen ideal!
Christians have realized this Oneness with Jesus, Mary, Cross; Sufis experienced Universal Brotherhood on their path in Islam; Hindus have had visions of Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and their incarnations; Buddhists, though deny the existence of Atman and God, still believe in Nirvana -a state of transcendental Reality of stoical changelessness.
In the Gita, it is the Seer aspect of Sri Krishna which is giving us the approximate description of visions of realities of Arjuna as he progresses from lower truth to higher truth. Thus, as Sri Krishna is describing all the Yogas, Arjuna's mind is concentrated to actually experience those states or truths. Thus in eleventh chapter, Arjuna can actually visualize his Chosen Ideal - Sri Krishna - as the only Universal or Cosmic Reality. He is able to see Sri Krishna in everything, and everything in Sri Krishna!
This vivid visualization becomes non-effacing life time experience of the spiritual aspirant. Then, when the sadhaka returns to normal human consciousness, his experience still remains with him. Therefore, he understands that whatever he sees, feels, or thinks is all in the cosmic Consciousness. He is not the doer. He is not anything! Thus comes the idea of total surrender from an experienced soul to inexperienced masses.
Depending upon the preparedness of the aspirant, different advice and method of practice can be advocated for various sadhakas. This is the basis of idol or image worship. The Westerners, deeply influenced by scientific temper, are free from restrictive ignorance of faith, and as such are most benefited by the sadhana of Jnana Yoga. But to force others, who are not fully exposed to science, to follow the same path of objective rationality, reason, and discrimination would be like putting a student of first standard to the higher standard of, say, physics! How can he understand science when he is not yet introduced to its basics?
Bhakti is defined as unconditional love for personal God. It may appear lower form of sadhana and may lead to religious fanaticism; all the same Bhakti remains the best option for most of us, bound as we are to the body-mind complex.