Bhagavad Gita: Timeline
How old are the Vedas? Nobody really knows. One way of looking at it is to look at the Bhagavat Gita, the Mahabharata (of which the Gita is a part) as part of a historical work. If you are going to look at it as a historical work, you need external evidence to back it up in the current paradigm of history, but these events happened so far back that external evidences are not available. On the other hand, if you look at internal evidence, then the Vedas will be pushed back as far as 10000 BC. No one is going to accept that as a date simply because western historians cannot think of a civilization advanced enough to write a philosophical work so long back.
Traditional Indian scholars put the Vedas around 6000 to 4000 BC, western scholars and Indian historians influenced by British thought try to date it around 2000 to 1500 BC. Some American scholars though tend to support the traditional Indian view. So 2000-1500 BC is the timeline that is now being accepted in the world though there is enough evidence to suggest that it may be older. But more than looking at whether it is older or not, I think the subject matter is more important.
The Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, written by Vyasa, and the Ramayana are considered itihasas; meaning `thus indeed it was’. Therefore, these two works are looked upon as history in traditional India. The Mahabharata talks about the historical condition of India around 3000 BC; more specifically, it is about a war which started in a family and sucked in all the great kingdoms in India. It was a great civil war. The Gita is right at the centre of this work. The Mahabharata consists of about one lakh verses, which makes it twice the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. And right at the centre is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna called the Bhagwat Gita, the Lord’s song.
Why the Gita matters and other common misconceptions
Why should this historical work interest the modern man? At the most, it can interest some scholars of history who are interested in learning about the past. It is the problem of Arjuna on the battlefield, which was supposed to have been solved by Krishna…We are not faced with those problems, we are not at war with our relatives…Yes, we may have our own fights; fights with in-laws, outlaws, but that wouldn’t make the Gita applicable to us…..
Some also say that the Gita is solving a psychological problem, an anxiety neurosis that Arjuna had. If it is about that, we have better books on psychology right now. So why should we bother about a psychological dialogue? The Gita handles a very fundamental issue, which we will look at shortly.
Another misconception about the Gita is that it deals with the question of right and wrong. But right and wrong or Dharma are not the main subject matter of the Gita. If Dharma was the main subject matter of the Gita, it wouldn’t be studied as a spiritual text. A spiritual text goes beyond mere right and wrong.
Another misconception….The Gita teaches you to keep working without expecting results. That’s not what the Gita is about. If that’s what it is about, I don’t want it. Because I always focus on both—results and process as far as my work is concerned. I definitely wouldn’t want to work without expecting results; that would be something like a pastime activity and we don’t have time to waste. That is not what the Gita is about.
The Gita is popular because it is the word of Krishna who is presented as the Lord. And Krishna is someone who has captured the imagination, the psyche of the Indian population. But popular as the Gita is, very few people really study it. And anything popular can be much abused. Any discipline, knowledge or art form that becomes popular is very often corrupted. When a book becomes popular, various people start commenting on it. Many commentators on the Gita have not studied it as it is meant to be studied. In the Gita, it is said that wisdom has to be acquired from a guru, a teacher, who is both well- versed in the shastras and is rooted in oneself (brahmanishta). It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman, he or she has to be rooted in this truth. There are no restrictions on who can publish a book, but, unfortunately, a lot of commentaries on the Gita do not capture the spirit of the Gita. They deal with the verses but do not capture the spirit. What we are trying to do here is to capture its spirit.
Yes, the language of the Gita is Sanskrit which is anywhere between 3000 to 5000 years old. How will the young generation access it? There are a hundred and one translations available, most of them not up to the mark and, therefore, how does someone who wants to read the Gita and apply it to his life go into it? I’m afraid there is no simple answer to this, because the Gita is a technical text. Therefore, it is like someone asking me, `How do I study a medical book?’. There is a lot of information on medicine available on the internet, and, similarly, there will be a lot of information available on the internet on the Gita….including this blog. But this will only give you a general knowledge, a general awareness of the Gita.
In this blog, we will try to explain all the technicalities of the Gita as much as can be done through a medium like this. But, traditionally, it is held that if you really want to know the meaning of the Gita and apply it in your life, you have to study with a teacher. This is the traditional view. However, this blog will have a lot of information on the Gita including insights into the Gita…..We will attempt to make a casual reader into an informed one who will know enough to apply the Gita into his life, to start one’s spiritual journey until one finds a teacher one can relate to on a personal level.
This blog will not explain every verse but will deal with the key issues in each chapter. For every issue, there will of course be a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas from various chapters because the Gita has to be seen as a whole. That is why a teacher becomes important. The Gita is trying to give the vision of the whole to a person, and the vision of the whole cannot be given in parts even though specific topics concern themselves with specific parts. There will, therefore, be some back and forth movement between topics.
The beauty of the Gita is that the essential verses, the 700 core verses as spoken b y Krishna to Arjuna, are intact. Keeping this in mind, what makes it popular as a spiritual text is that it deals with a fundamental human problem .
The Gita is an ancient Indian text, a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior, and Lord Krishna who has taken upon himself the role of Arjuna’s charioteer on the battle-field. Sad and bewildered by the violence that lies ahead, Arjuna, faced with foes who are his closest and dearest relatives, is forced to ask the bigger questions about dharma, about what is right and what is wrong. This leads him further to ask about life itself , the purpose of life, the meaning of life, and death and Krishna answers them all. Krishna teaches him to look beyond his own self-imposed limitations, to look at himself as the infinite instead of as a small, limited being. Krishna shows him the road that lies beyond success, which is transient, to fulfillment, which is permanent.
Krishna’s answers are, of course, relevant for today and for all times and for everyone, which is what makes the Gita valuable; besides being a text that connects us with ourselves, its proper understanding can also teach us to manage and overcome our problems and lead a fuller life. To obtain this understanding and knowledge, one doesn’t have to retire to the woods; it is not exclusively for monks who live in caves, it is for all of us, and this knowledge can be sought and found in our present environment, whatever it is.
Most people associate spirituality with meditation and so let’s talk about that. In the Gita, Krishna talks about the meditator and the meditation; both are combined together because the meditator is more important than the meditation. Meditation is something a meditator does; therefore, the Gita talks about what it takes to be a meditator. It talks about spiritual wisdom, popularly known as `Jnana yoga’. But to divide it into these various yogas is really a misconception, which we will handle when we are going into the details of every chapter. Every chapter is nothing but a given topic. The word `yoga’ in the title of every chapter is said to be just a topic; each chapter has its own topic.
The first chapter talks about the grief that Arjuna felt, the second chapter is about pure spiritual wisdom, the third chapter about karma yoga, the fourth chapter about jnana-yoga which deals with it in even greater detail, fifth is sanyasa yoga talking about what sanyasa is, a commited pursuit of the truth to the exclusion of everything vis-a-vis karma yoga, the sixth chapter talks about meditation.
The seventh chapter comes back to how to validate this knowledge in your life, the eighth chapter is again a repetition of some of these ideas and is called abhyasa yoga. The ninth chapter will be talking about raja vidya, the king among the branches of knowledge, which is also the king among secrets. What is the secret about? People talk about the secret doctrine of the Upanishads etc, which is revealed in the ninth chapter….The tenth chapter talks about divine manifestation, the eleventh about Ishwara’s form being revealed, the twelfth chapter deals with bhakti, devotion…
The thirteenth chapter is about matter and spirit, about what is the world and who is the one who experiences the world and the reality behind both. The fourteenth chapter talks about various gunas– sattva, rajas, tamas, the fifteenth chapter talks about universal spirit or purushottama yoga, about what is ishwara. The sixteenth chapter will talk about what is spirituality, what is materialism, how far is it compatible, what is the difference etc. The seventeenth deals with sattva, rajas, tamas applied to devotion, action, eating– it talks about a lot of these in detail where we will see a lot of misconceptions of sattvic food etc being negated. The eighteenth chapter is the concluding chapter of the Gita.
When I am describing each chapter, the first six chapters are predominantly dealing with reality faced by an individual, the second group of six chapters deal with reality with respect to ishwara or God, the last six chapters talk about the relation between the individual and totality. I used the word `predominantly’ because in the second chapter ishwara does come into the picture and in the eighth chapter the individual comes into the picture. In the next upload, we will go into chapter 1 of the Gita.
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