Spiritual texts that have stood the test of time continually reveal the truths they embody through the hearts and minds of those who apply their teachings in daily life. The fact that a teaching lives this way allows it to endure.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the great scriptures that reveals itself in this manner. It was Mahatma Gandhi’s “bible,” and is both an inspirational text and manual for living, for millions of people in many different countries. Perhaps one of the reasons its message is so relevant to our time is that it is the story of human nature: about freedom and individual responsibility, about ethics and morality, about action and nonaction, and about the nature of God and the individual.
The story of the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of God,” is part of a larger work, called the Mahabharata. It has been said of the Mahabharata that if one cannot find reference to a particular aspect of human nature in its pages, it probably does not exist at all. What makes these seven-hundred verses unique is that, though they are spoken by God, embodied as Krishna, it is not a system of thought offered by an individual, but rather, as Dr. S. Radhakrishnan writes: “It is set forth as a tradition which has emerged from the religious life of mankind.”1 The original work is said to have arisen around 200 BC. The scene begins on a battlefield, in which the opposing sides, related to each other, are rival claimants to the throne. Arjuna, who surveys the battlefield, becomes despondent. He does not want to fight his relatives and feels that he will incur sin as a result of his actions. Krishna, his charioteer, councils him and exhorts him to fight the good fight, for it is appropriate to follow one’s nature. Krishna chides Arjuna for avoiding his task and indulging in self-pity.
As the dialogue unfolds, Krishna reveals to Arjuna the operation of divine will and the nonidentification with the doership of deeds. He takes Arjuna on a metaphorical journey of the soul, which reveals the ways to self-knowledge through the integrated disciplines of devotion, knowledge, and action.
The great twentieth-century sage, Ramana Maharshi, wrote and spoke very little. Seated in a small hall in a South Indian hamlet, people came from all over the world to sit in his powerful presence. The peace they experienced in his presence provided a glimpse into the potential that lies within their own being.
A visitor who had come to see Maharshi began speaking about the remarkable truths contained in The Bhagavad Gita. During this conversation, another person sitting nearby complained that it was difficult to remember all seven-hundred verses of this great scripture and asked if there was a single verse that captured the essence of its spirit. Ramana, without hesitation, recited the following verse from Book 10, verse 20, “I am the Self, Oh Gudakesa, dwelling in the Heart of every being; I am the beginning and the middle and also the end of all beings.” Later, he selected forty-two verses and arranged them in a specific order. Naming this selection The Song Celestial, it reflects the essential message of this classic text—the way to self-knowledge.
1. To him (Arjuna) thus filled with compassion and in despair, his eyes distressed and full of tears, spoke Madhusudana these words:
2. The Blessed Lord said: This body, Oh son of Kunti, is called the kshetra (Field); Him who knows it, the Sages call, the kshetrajna (Knower of the Field).
3. Know Me also as the Knower of the Field in all the Fields, Oh Bharata: knowledge of the Field and of the Knower of the Field I deem to be true Knowledge.
4. I am the Self, Oh Gudakesa, dwelling in the Heart of every being; I am the beginning and the middle and also the end of all beings.
5. Of those born the death is certain, and certain the birth of those dead: therefore for what none can prevent thou shouldst not grieve.
6. Never is He born nor does He die; nor, having been, ceaseth He any more to be: unborn, abiding, eternal, ancient, He is not slain when the body is slain.
7. Not to be cleft is He, not to be burnt is He, not even to be wetted nor yet to be dried is He: abiding He is and all-pervading, stable, immovable, and everlasting.
8. Know That to be indestructible whereby all this is pervaded; of this Immutable none can work destruction.
9. Of the nonexistent there is no being, and of what exists there is no not-being; the definite ascertainment of both is seen by the Seers of the Essence of Truth.
10. As ether everywhere present is not polluted by virtue of its subtlety, even so the Self-abiding everywhere is not polluted in the body.
11. Nor sun nor moon nor fire illumines It: and whither having gone men return not, That is My Supreme Abode.
12. Unmanifested, Imperishable is, this called; and this they proclaim the Supreme State, from which when once attained they return not, That is My Supreme Abode.
13. Without pride, without delusion, victorious over the blemish of attachment, ever abiding in the Self, their desires abandoned, released from the pairs called pleasure and pain, they go undeluded to that Immutable Abode.
14. He who forsakes the ordinances of the Scriptures, and acts under the influence of desire, attains not perfection, nor happiness, nor the Supreme State.
15. He who sees the Supreme Lord dwelling alike in all beings, perishing not as they perish, he it is who sees aright.
16. By devotion alone, without “otherness,” Oh Arjuna, can I be known and seen and in essence entered, Oh Parantapa.
17. The faith of every man, Oh Bharata, accords with His essential character; man is instinct with faith: as that wherein a man has faith, so is he.
18. He that has intense faith, and to that faith being devoted has the senses controlled, gains Knowledge; and having gained Knowledge he swiftly attains Supreme Peace.
19. To those who are self-attuned and who worship Me with loving devotion I give that union with understanding whereby they come to Me.
20. Out of compassion for them and abiding in their Self I destroy with the resplendent Light of Knowledge their darkness born of ignorance.
21. In those in whom ignorance is destroyed by Knowledge of the Self, Knowledge like the sun illumines That Supreme.
22. High, they say, are the senses; higher than the senses is the mind; and higher than the mind is the understanding; but one who is higher than understanding is He.
23. Thus knowing Him to be higher than the understanding, steadying the self by the Self, Oh thou strong of arm, slay the enemy in the form of desire, so hard to overcome.
24. Just as a burning fire makes ashes of its fuel, Oh Arjuna, even so does the Fire of Knowledge make ashes of all works.
25. Him whose every enterprise is without desire or motive, whose actions are burnt up in the Fire of Knowledge, the wise call a Sage.
26. All around the austere Sages, free from desire and wrath, who have subdued their mind and have realized the Self, radiates the beatific Peace of Brahman.
27. Little by little should one realize tranquility, by judgment with a steadfast purpose; making the mind abide in the Self, one should think of nothing at all.
28. Towards whatsoever the mind wanders, being fickle and unsteady, therefrom it should be withdrawn and brought under the sway of the Self alone.
29. The saint who devoutly seeks Liberation, with the senses, mind, and intellect subdued, without desire, fear, or wrath, is indeed ever Liberated.
30. He who is steadfast in yoga and looks on everything impartially, sees the Self dwelling in all beings, and all beings in the Self.
31. I undertake to secure and protect the welfare of those who without “otherness” meditate on Me and worship Me, and who ever abide thus attuned.
32. Of these the Jnani, who is ever attuned, whose devotion is centered in One, is the most excellent; because to the Jnani I am exceedingly dear and he is dear to Me.
33. At the end of many births the Jnani finds refuge in Me, recognizing that Vasudeva is all. Such a high Soul is very hard to find.
34. When one puts away, Oh Partha, all the desires that are in the mind, and in the Self alone, by the Self, is well satisfied, then is one called a man of steadfast Wisdom.
35. That man attains Peace who, having cast away all desires, remains without longing, devoid of “I” and “mine.”
36. He by whom the world is not disturbed, and who is not disturbed by the world, free from exultation, impatience, fright, and agitation—he is dear to me.
37. He who holds honor and dishonor equal, equal the friendly party and the foe, who has renounced all enterprise—he is said to have transcended the gunas.
38. The man who revels here and now in the Self alone, with the Self is satisfied, and in the Self alone is content—for him there is no work to do.
39. For him there is no purpose either in doing work or in leaving it undone; nor is there in all beings anything which serves him as a purpose.
40. Content to take what chance may bring, having transcended the pairs of opposites, free from ill will and even-minded in success or failure, though he works he is not bound.
41. The Lord, Oh Arjuna, dwells in the Heart of every being and His mysterious power spins ‘round all beings set on the wheel.
42. To Him alone surrender, Oh Bharata, with all thy being; by His Grace shalt thou obtain Peace Supreme, the Abode Eternal.
From The Song Celestial. © 1945 by Sri Ramanasramam. Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India. www.sriramanamaharshi.org
1 The Bhagavad Gita, by S. Radhakrishnan. HarperCollins Publishing, New York. p.12.