Bhagavad Gita, the song of the Lord, as it literally translates, is the very backbone of Hinduism. Not only Hindus, but also many others, read this great, ancient scripture. It contains the essence of the Vedic knowledge and spiritual philosophy in seven hundred verses (slokas), contained in eighteen chapters. The first English translation was in 1785. Sir Edwin Arnold’s version, The Song Celestial, later became the most popular. Innumerable commentaries have been offered on the Gita. Arguably, more people have read the Gita in English than in Sanskrit or any other Indian language.
Hinduism is truly an evolutionary religion. Each successive scripture contains the essence of many previous scriptures, with subtle changes and modifications. The Bhagavad Gita is the culmination of the Vedas and the Upanishads in the form of a dialogue between the seeker of guidance, Arjuna, and the fountain of knowledge, the Lord Himself. Before the war of Mahabharata, Arjuna, the Pandava prince in charge of leading his side, became disheartened. When he noticed the persons with whom he would have to fight, he was overcome with emotion. He declared that he would rather give up his right to the kingdom than to fight with his kith and kin. The Lord then gave the divine instruction to Arjuna in the form of Gita; it deals with the difficult issues of man’s spiritual journey.
Modern science recognizes the process of the evolution of man through gradual transformations, from the lowest forms to the highest. But it leaves the most vital step—the ethical or moral development of man—completely untouched. Modern science avoids the task of the accountability of man’s virtues and vices; the ancient Rishis addressed these questions in a meaningful way. Modern science has not even attempted to find what happens to man after his physical death; Hindu philosophy established the very vital link of man from one birth to another, through eons of life cycles. Modern science appears unconcerned with the very purpose of life; Hindu Rishis considered this to be the most pertinent question.
In Gita, the Lord gave the instruction of the highest worth—“detachment”. There is also a major, if subtle, departure from the philosophy of renunciation, or sanyasa, as had been preached earlier. After listening to the spiritual discourse of the Lord, Arjuna did not renounce the world and become a hermit; rather, he fought a fierce battle to uphold the cause of righteousness. Gita deals with the subject of detachment in a new philosophical manner. It is essentially the act of giving up something lower so we can be free to grasp the higher. All along, the Lord has prompted Arjuna, to be ever ready to do the righteous deed, and perform whatever duties he is allotted with courage and fearlessness. As a kshatria-soldier, he must not be afraid to fight for the right cause and uphold his honor. He may never be afraid of death, nor of any personal considerations. Only by performing his duties in a proper manner, would he earn the benefit of good merit-karma, which would fetch him spiritual rewards in this life as well as after his death. Gita has laid down clear distinctions between material benefits and the spiritual rewards of eternal joy-ananda, which one feels after performing the righteous deed. The Holy Scripture of Gita has also re-emphasized boldly that there would be good rewards in the here-after; that death in Hindu philosophy is merely an interlude in the long journey of the soul, and not an end by itself.