With Introduction, Translation and Authorized Purport by
A. C. BHAKTIVEDANTA SWAMI
ACHARYA, INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY
FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS
COLLIER BOOKS, NEW YORK
COLLIER-MACMILLAN LTD., LONDON
SRILA VALADEVA VIDYABHUSANA
who presented so nicely
Govinda Bhashya" Commentary
SETTING THE SCENE
SETTING THE SCENE
THE BHAGAVAD GITA IS a battlefield dialogue between Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and Arjuna, His friend, devotee, and disciple. The dialogue consists of seven hundred verses, in which the Lord brings Arjuna from the dark bewilderment of material consciousness to the stage of serene and joyful enlightenment regarding everything—literally.
Krishna’s purpose in coming into this world is nicely described in the Fourth Chapter, and there is no need to go over that here. But a note regarding the activities of Krishna and Arjuna, explaining how They came to be on that battlefield, ought to be quite helpful to the reader whose knowledge of Vedic literature is scant or nil. That literature is the most extensive, comprehensive, scientifically precise and ancient scriptural material now existing in the world. It presents the paths of knowledge of the Absolute Truth in all aspects and from all angles of vision, clearly and elaborately.
Srila Vyasadeva is an incarnation of God Who appeared on earth at about the same time as Krishna, the Original Person. Vyasadeva’s purpose was to reconstruct and compile the Vedic wisdom so that it could be understood by the people of the coming age—the Kali Yuga, or Age of Quarrel. It is to Vyasadeva that we can attribute all the Vedic knowledge now in existence, for it was He Who put it into writing. The people of previous times having the capacity for perfect memory of such topics, writing was until then unnecessary.
Part of Vyasadeva’s work includes The Mahabharata, a chronicle of events leading up to the initiation of the Age of Kali. "Mahabharata" means, literally, "Great Bharata," Bharata being a ruler of the world during a now forgotten past epoch. The Mahabharata traces not only the doings of Bharata the Great, but of his descendants as well, coming ultimately down to the story of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, the sons of King Vichitravirya. Now, Dhritarashtra was the elder son, but he was born blind, and so the throne that otherwise would have been his devolved upon his younger brother, Pandu. Pandu had five sons—Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva; and Dhritarashtra had a hundred, chief amongst whom was Duryodhana, a great politician and administrator.
Dhritarashtra never came to accept his brother’s pre-eminence over him, and he raised his sons with the determination that they—and not Pandu’s offspring—should someday reign over the world. Duryodhana and his many brothers thus grew to manhood in possession of their father’s ambitions, his pride, and his greed. What’s more, Pandu died at an early age, and his five boys came under the guardianship of Dhritarashtra, his other brother Vidura, and the venerated "grandfather" of the clan, Bhisma. Dhritarashtra plotted against the lives of the Pandavas (the sons of Pandu) and their mother Pritha, also called Kunti. But the blind conspirator’s plans were foiled by a variety of people and circumstances: chiefly the saintly intervention of Vidura, and the loving protection of Krishna, Kunti’s Nephew, thus also a Relative.
Now, the warrior-politicians of that time were called Kshatriyas, and they lived by a code of chivalry, much as the warrior class of Europe did only recently. Part of the Kshatriya code forbade them to turn away from a challenge to a fight—or to a gambling match. In this way, ultimately, the brilliant Duryodhana was able to cheat the five brothers of their kingdom, their wife Droupadi—and even their freedom, forcing them to spend twelve years hiding. When this time was up, the Pandavas returned to the court of Duryodhana and asked him to grant them some kind of administrative post—for it was also part of the Kshatriya code that a warrior might not enter into service or business, but must make his living as a ruler of some kind. The Pandavas were willing to accept a village each from their now magnificent cousin, but Duryodhana had no mercy or regard for them. He informed them that he couldn’t spare so much as enough land in which to drive a needle.
Thus rebuked, Arjuna and his brothers resorted to arms, and a global war of tremendous scope was initiated. Yudhisthira was the eldest of the Pandavas, and it was to place him upon the throne—or to oppose him—that great warriors from all the corners of the earth assembled. According to Vedic sources, the Battle of Kurukshetra lasted for eighteen days, and took the unimaginable toll of 640 million lives! This becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we recognize that the Vedic civilization was a highly advanced society, possessed not only of nuclear weapons more subtle than ours today, but also of air, water, and psychic weapons of devastating power.
As the armies were gathering, Sri Krishna, Cousin to both sides in the fight, attempted to mediate on behalf of the Pandavas, but He found Duryodhana determined to rule the world in his own way, and anxious to be done forever with these bothersome men, whose very existence challenged his right to the crown.
Whereas the Pandavas, pure devotees of the Lord and men of the highest moral stature, recognized Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Dhritarashtra’s sons had no such qualifications, and no such powers of recognition. Yet Krishna offered to participate in the war according to the desire of the antagonists. As God, He would not Personally take a hand; but whoever so desired might avail himself of Krishna’s army—and the other side could have Krishna Himself, as an advisor and helper. Duryodhana, the genius politician, snatched at the armed forces of his Cousin, while Yudhisthira was equally anxious to have Krishna Himself.
In this way, Krishna became the Charioteer of Arjuna, taking it upon Himself to drive the fabled bowman’s chariot. This brings us up to the point at which The Bhagavad Gita begins, with the armies arrayed and ready for combat, and Dhritarashtra anxiously inquiring of his secretary Samjaya, "What did they do?"
The scene is set, with only the need for a brief note regarding this translation and the accompanying commentary:
The general pattern in translating The Bhagavad Gita into English—followed by so many writers of so many such works—is to brush aside the Personality of Krishna in order to make room for the translator’s own concepts and philosophies. The history of The Mahabharata is taken as quaint mythology, and Krishna becomes a poetic device, an instrument for the presentation of some anonymous genius’ concepts, or at best a historical minor personage. But the Person Krishna is both the goal and the substance of The Gita, so far as The Gita speaks of Itself. This translation, then, and the commentary which accompanies it, has as its purpose the determination to direct the reader to Krishna, rather than away from Him. In this, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s work is unique among all the translations and commentaries available in this language. Unique also is the fact that The Bhagavad Gita is thus made wholly consistent and comprehensible. Krishna being the Speaker of The Gita, and Its ultimate goal as well, this is necessarily the only translation that can present this great scripture in Its true terms.
My special thanks are due to my God-brothers Sri Hayagriva Das Brahmachary (Howard Wheeler, M.A.) for his assistance in polishing the manuscript and to Sri Brahmananda Das Brahmachary (Bruce Scharf) for arranging publication, and my thanks are due to Mr. James O. Wade of The Macmillan Company, New York, for his willing co-operation in presenting this great contribution of our beloved Spiritual Master.
RAYARAMA DAS BRAHMACHARY
16 August 1968
(Appearance Day of Lord Krishna)
Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple
26 Second Avenue
New York, N.Y.
SWAMI BHAKTIVEDANTA CHANTING GOD’S SONG IN AMERICA
CHANTING GOD’S SONG IN AMERICA
Kali Yuga we really are in it, heavy metal Age, where Spiritual common sense seems like magic because we’re ensnared in brainwash network—the mechanical conditioning of our unconditioned consciousness.
I grow old, and see that renunciation is what happens. The “action” leads there—calm realization of sense-desire illusoriness in youth, or on deathbed at worst.
Even Tantric path (exploration of sensory limits) leads to liberation (relaxation) from sensory grasping (i.e. desire). Because senses are mechanical and repetitious. Infinite in sensation during their apparent minute, in that sense Blakean Eternal.
But trapped in that Infinite, who needs it? As bad as being Srivaka Buddha, the Nirvana-junkie.
neither life nor death is the answer
—Ezra Pound, Canto 115
How terrible to be trapped (Ourselves!) in that worst the Kali Yuga. Well, at least nothing more bad can happen, we’re at the bottom of the material barrel. All them rotten apples of knowledge!
How funny, also, given the illusory nature of all this cosmic planet-history. America, Rome, China, Maya! And how lovely, that nobody else in other Yugas will suffer as much as we! Everybody else already saved but us! What an honor! And even we’re saved by Vishnu the Preserver if not Shiva the Great Changer or Buddha the Great Emptiness or Christ the Great Sufferer-for-us or Chango the Great Red Creator or Allah the Great Compassionate One or Jaweh the Great Unspeakable Word or Tao the Great Undefinable or Whitman the Great Self Contradictor!
And here is Krishna with his Magic Mantra, sung by Swami Bhaktivedanta in America, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 100 years after the Emersonian Transcendentalists.
Before this Age of linear media conditioned our minds, nobody had to learn to read and pore over Ancient Tomes describing the Ignorant Blissful Mind—from Vedas to Einstein the same waves of Illusion are described in detail as relative Illusion. In fact, the first printed text on earth, Chinese version of Prajna Paramita, announced that all language to be printed and multiplied henceforth was a giant Vanity inasmuch as the Great Phenomenon as we see it neither exists nor does not exist.
Now XX Century, many versions of Bhagavad Gita appear on our shores, sophisticates such as Sri Isherwood and other princes of prose help turn the Wheel of doctrine-teaching.
We’ve reached the end of Matter:
do they think they will attain
by their ships
that death has not
them? Their ships
should be directed
inward upon . But I
am an old man. I
have had enough."
W. C. Williams, for Eleanor & Bill Monahan
The Text (Bhagavad Gita) is awesome. The vision of the Universal Form (Chapter XI) is equal to any Sublime poesy of the West, superior in detailed image to Dante’s final Cantos’ Paradise vision. Many bellies, many leaves.
The purports or explanations of Swami Bhaktivedanta are transparent and exquisitely detailed—expositions presented here for the first time to common public Western mind—a storehouse of devotion, learning, scholarship, Hindu granny-wisdom, sincerity, gaiety and sweet transcendental insight.
Condemnation of the World is harsh, Transvaluation or transcendental transformation is unutterable relief. Swami Bhaktivedanta came to USA and went swiftly to the Archetype Spiritual Neighborhood, the New York Lower East Side, and installed intact an ancient perfectly preserved piece of street India. He adorned a storefront as his Ashram and adored Krishna therein and by patience and good humor singing chanting and expounding Sanskrit terminology day by day established Krishna Consciousness in the psychedelic (mind-manifesting) center of America East. He and his children sang the first summer through in Tompkins Park. Upaya—skillful means—is the Sanskrit word for this divine Tact. To choose to attend to the Lower East Side, what kindness and humility and intelligence! And a second center for chanting Krishna’s Name was thereafter established in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury at the height of the spiritual crisis and breakthrough renowned in that city, mid-sixties twentieth century.
The Hare Krishna Mantra’s now a household word in America (through the appointed Beatles among other Musicians and Bards). Or will be before the end of present decade, "this Prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time." "Covers The Earth," said an old media advertisement for a household paint. The personal vibration set up by chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare is a universal pleasure: a tranquillity at realization of the community of tender hearts; a vibration which inevitably affects all men, naked or in uniform.
It seems like Magic because we are so locked into our heads, so hung up in the metallic illusions of Kali Yuga that manifestation of our natural Sacred Heart desire is a rare fortune. This rare fortune (as Thoreau and Whitman our natural-hearted forefathers prophesied) is our heritage, our own truest Self, our own community of selves, our own true America.
A NOTE OF APPRECIATION FOR THIS VOLUME FROM DENISE LEVERTOV
A NOTE OF APPRECIATION FOR THIS VOLUME
FROM DENISE LEVERTOV
Swami Bhaktivedanta’s disciples in New York dance and chant Hare Krishna—Hare Rama with an honest, simple fervor that is very moving. Talking to a young devotee, I was somewhat appalled by his fundamentalism, yet at the same time I felt a reverence for his gentleness, and saw an unassailable radiance in his eyes. I listened to the recording of the Swami himself chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and recognized that he pronounced each syllable with what in Hebrew is called Kavronah—that is, prayerful understanding, the opposite of a mere mechanical repetition. What lies in back of these evidences of a strong spiritual life?
Most people of any education know at least the name of The Bhagavad Gita, and many have read at least some of it in one of the several available translations. But it is not as yet, I think one can agree, a common part of our cultural milieu—that is, it is not absorbed and incorporated into our lives to any extent. And this is probably less because it is alien per se than because we have lacked just the kind of close interpretive commentary upon it that Swami Bhaktivedanta has here provided, a commentary written from not only a scholar’s but a practitioner’s, a dedicated lifelong devotee’s, point of view.
Being, myself, what could best be described as a syncretist, I cannot subscribe to the belief in the exclusive wisdom of The Bhagavad Gita which some, at least, of the Swami’s adherents seem to hold (I am thinking here of the same young man whose gentleness and shining eyes impressed me so favorably). And as a believer in political activism I naturally wonder if the disciples of the Krishna Consciousness movement, who believe as I also do in non-violence, are not nevertheless too passive in their at titude to the war and to social injustice. But even if that is so, I feel certain that they do have something in their lives that is of inestimable value: an inner serenity that makes them better, kinder human beings than, in all probability, they were before they arrived at their present beliefs. And though I cannot believe that any one religion or any of the "wisdom books" of any cultural tradition possesses a monopoly of the truth, yet my sense that the study of The Bhagavad Gita would be valuable for thinking people, in this time of extreme crisis especially, arises more from the little I have seen of the changed lives of those who do study it than from the mere received knowledge that it is considered one of the great spiritual texts.
Apparently devotees take quite literally the story of the Battlefield of Kurukshetra where Arjuna receives divine wisdom directly from Krishna, who has taken on the form of his Charioteer. Many—like myself—will take this symbolically, not literally, and look on it as a soul-story, in which the battlefield is interior and the God who speaks is the God within us. It surely doesn’t matter very much whether one is a fundamentalist or, instead, considers this book to be yet another of mankind’s metaphors of individuation and regeneration, if through it we live more fully.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BHAGAVAD GITA
The word Gita means "Song." Just as in the Bible the Song of Solomon has traditionally been known as "The Song of Songs" because it was interpreted to symbolize the ultimate union of Israel with God (in terms of human married love), so The Bhagavad Gita is, for Hinduism, the great and unsurpassed Song that finds the secret of human life in the unquestioning surrender to and awareness of Krishna.
While The Vedas provide Hinduism with its basic ideas of cult and sacrifice and The Upanishads develop its metaphysic of contemplation, The Bhagavad Gita can be seen as the great treatise on the "Active Life." But it is really something more, for it tends to fuse worship, action and contemplation in a fulfillment of daily duty which transcends all three by virtue of a higher consciousness: a consciousness of acting passively, of being an obedient instrument of a transcendent will. The Vedas, The Upanishads, and The Gita can be seen as the main literary supports for the great religious civilization of India, the oldest surviving culture in the world. The fact that The Gita remains utterly vital today can be judged by the way such great reformers as Mohandas Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave both spontaneously based their lives and actions on it, and indeed commented on it in detail for their disciples. The present translation and commentary is another manifestation of the permanent living importance of The Gita. Swami Bhaktivedanta brings to the West a salutary reminder that our highly activistic and one-sided culture is faced with a crisis that may end in self-destruction because it lacks the inner depth of an authentic metaphysical consciousness. Without such depth, our moral and political protestations are just so much verbiage. If, in the West, God can no longer be experienced as other than "dead," it is because of an inner split and self-alienation which have characterized the Western mind in its single-minded dedication to only half of life: that which is exterior, objective, and quantitative. The "death of God" and the consequent death of genuine moral sense, respect for life, for humanity, for value, has expressed the death of an inner subjective qualityof life: a quality which in the traditional religions was experienced in terms of God-consciousness. Not concentration on an idea or concept of God, still less on an image of God, but a sense of presence, of an ultimate ground of reality and meaning, from which life and love could spontaneously flower.
Realization of the Supreme "Player" whose "Play" (Lilä) is manifested in the million-formed, inexhaustible richness of beings and events, is what gives us the key to the meaning of life. Once we live in awareness of the cosmic dance and move in time with the Dancer, our life attains its true dimension. It is at once more serious and less serious than the life of one who does not sense this inner cosmic dynamism. To live without this illuminated consciousness is to live as a beast of burden, carrying one’s life with tragic seriousness as a huge, incomprehensible weight (see Camus’ interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus). The weight of the burden is the seriousness with which one takes one’s own individual and separate self. To live with the true consciousness of life centered in Another is to lose one’s self-important seriousness and thus to live life as "play" in union with a Cosmic Player. It is He alone that one takes seriously. But to take Him seriously is to find joy and spontaneity in everything, for everything is gift and grace. In other words, to live selfishly is to bear life as an intolerable burden. To live selflessly is to live in joy, realizing by experience that life itself is love and gift. To be a lover and a giver is to be a channel through which the Supreme Giver manifests His love in the world.
But The Gita presents a problem to some who read it in the present context of violence and war which mark the crisis of the West. The Gita appears to accept and to justify war. Arjuna is exhorted to submit his will to Krishna by going to war against his enemies, who are also his own kin, because war is his duty as a Prince and warrior. Here we are uneasily reminded of the fact that in Hinduism as well as in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, there is a concept of a "Holy War" which is "willed by God" and we are furthermore reminded of the fact that, historically, this concept has been secularized and inflated beyond measure. It has now "escalated" to the point where slaughter, violence, revolution, the annihilation of enemies, the extermination of entire populations and even genocide have become a way of life. There is hardly a nation on earth today that is not to some extent committed to a philosophy or to a mystique of violence. One way or other, whether on the left or on the right, whether in defense of a bloated establishment or of an improvised guerrilla government in the jungle, whether in terms of a police state or in terms of a ghetto revolution, the human race is polarizing itself into camps armed with everything from Molotov cocktails to the most sophisticated technological instruments of death. At such a time, the doctrine that "war is the will of God" can be disastrous if it is not handled with extreme care. For everyone seems in practice to be thinking along some such lines, with the exception of a few sensitive and well-meaning souls (mostly the kind of people who will read this book).
The Gita is not a justification of war, nor does it propound a war-making mystique. War is accepted in the context of a particular kind of ancient culture in which it could be and was subject to all kinds of limitations. (It is instructive to compare the severe religious limitations on war in the Christian Middle Ages with the subsequent development of war by nation states in modern times—backed of course by the religious establishment. ) Arjuna has an instinctive repugnance for war, and that is the chief reason why war is chosen as the example of the most repellent kind of duty. The Gita is saying that even in what appears to be most "unspiritual" one can act with pure intentions and thus be guided by Krishna consciousness. This consciousness itself will impose the most strict limitations on one’s use of violence because that use will not be directed by one’s own selfish interests, still less by cruelty, sadism, and mere blood lust.
The discoveries of Freud and others in modern times have, of course, alerted us to the fact that there are certain imperatives of culture and of conscience which appear pure on the surface and are in fact bestial in their roots. The greatest inhumanities have been perpetrated in the name of "humanity," "civilization," "progress," "freedom," "my country," and of course "God." This reminds us that in the cultivation of an inner spiritual consciousness there is a perpetual danger of self-deception, narcissism, self-righteous evasion of truth. In other words the standard temptation of religious and spiritually minded people is to cultivate an inner sense of rightness or of peace, and make this subjective feeling the final test of everything. As long as this feeling of rightness remains with them, they will do anything under the sun. But this inner feeling (as Auschwitz and the Eichmann case have shown) can coexist with the ultimate in human corruption.
The hazard of the spiritual quest is of course that its genuineness cannot be left to our own isolated subjective judgment alone. The fact that I am turned on doesn’t prove anything whatever. (Nor does the fact that I am turned off.) We do not simply create our own lives on our own terms. Any attempt to do so is ultimately an affirmation of our individual self as ultimate and supreme. This is a self-idolatry which is diametrically opposed to "Krishna consciousness" or to any other authentic form of religious or metaphysical consciousness.
The Gita sees that the basic problem of man is his endemic refusal to live by a will other than his own. For in striving to live entirely by his own individual will, instead of becoming free, man is enslaved by forces even more exterior and more delusory than his own transient fancies. He projects himself out of the present into the future. He tries to make for himself a future that accords with his own fantasy, and thereby escape from a present reality which he does not fully accept. And yet, when he moves into the future he wanted to create for himself, it becomes a present that is once again repugnant to him. And yet this is precisely what he has "made" for himself—it is his own karma. In accepting the present in all its reality as something to be dealt with precisely as it is, man comes to grips at once with his karma and with a providential will which, ultimately, is more his own than what he currently experiences, on a superficial level, as "his own will." It is in surrendenng a false and illusory liberty on the superficial level that man unites himself with the inner ground of reality and freedom in himself which is the will of God, of Krishna, of Providence, of Tao. These concepts do not all exactly coincide, but they have much in common. It is by remaining open to an infinite number of unexpected possibilities which transcend his own imagination and capacity to plan that man really fulfills his own need for freedom. The Gita, like the Gospels, teaches us to live in awareness of an inner truth that exceeds the grasp of our thought and cannot be subject to our own control. In following mere appetite for power, we are slaves of our own appetite. In obedience to that inner truth we are at last free.