My first encounter with the Gita was in 1968 when I caught a ride to Los Angeles from San Blas Mexico with two surfer dudes. As we headed north I discovered, much to my surprise, that they were both “sanyasi” with the Self-Realization Fellowship founded by Yogananda, a Yogi from India who had settled in LA.
When they dropped me off, one of them handed me a miniature paperback of the Bhagavadgita.
To this day, despite the multitude of translations available, that translation from the Sanskrit by Jayadayal Goyandka, issued by the Gita Society of Gorakhpur, India, is still my favorite. The English is reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible, which also has yet to be surpassed.
The Bhagavadgita, or “Lord’s Song,” is thought to have been written sometime between 500 and 250 BC, at about the same time as the Buddha is believed to have lived. It’s estimated that it didn’t reach it’s final form until about 300 years after it was first composed, with several different authors making contributions. This was not unusual in those times, when the concept of intellectual property was unheard of and most religious works were repetitive verses that could be easily memorized. Those who “carried” such books likely made their own contributions to the work. As a result, many sections and even entire chapters of the Gita vary in style and philosophy and practically all of the diverse spiritual practices of ancient India are presented.
With that in mind I don’t feel so shy about offering a condensed and discretely edited compilation of my own favorite verses.
Most commentators consider the two primary doctrines expounded in the Gita to be first of all Karmayoga, the yoga of disinterested action, and Sankhyayoga, the yoga of renunciation. Both are elucidated, but Karmayoga is recommended as easier to practice.
Sankhyayoga is associated with sanyasa, or ascetism and solitary meditation, while Karmayoga is a practical way of being in the everyday world of duty and action that is more suitable for householders. I think the distinction between the two is not so clear and there is much overlap. In the Gita both entail identification with God through relinquishment of the sense of “doership.”
The idea of transcending a separate, individual self can be found lurking in practically every religion and spiritual path. In fact “losing your ego” has become somewhat of a cliche in Western spiritual practices. But how that is done is not always clear. Apart from a vague non-attachment and disassociation, the usual way of throwing off the clinging to a separate self or ego-identity is by letting go of concepts and conditioned views through long practice of meditation.
In more traditional religions, transcendence, if it is even sought, is through devout faith in a supreme deity. However, because the deity is usually thought of as a distinct entity, apart from the devotee, that technique is not as effective as it might be.
In contrast to the above methods, self-transcendence in the Gita, whether through meditation or action, is accomplished by identification and consequent absorption into a larger, more Universal Self.
Such “identification” is a key concept that distinguishes the Bhagavadgita from most other holy books.
In my Meditation on Emptiness, the separate self is shown to be merely a conceptual framework acquired over time, with no essential existence of its own. Upon close examination it turns out the individual “self” is less fixed and more fluid than is generally thought. Thus it can identify with and take on different roles as circumstances warrant.
In the Bhagavadgita, absorption of the self into One Ultimate Being that transcends the birth and death of the individual can be accomplished through two different ways of identification. The first, which like Karmayoga, is recommended as easier and more efficacious, is identification with a personal incarnation of God — in this case, Sri Krisna, the main speaker and teacher in the Gita.
Identification with Krishna, a deity who is said to have assumed human form for the salvation of the world, is parallel to some ancient practices in Christianity. The manifestation of God in the body of Christ is strikingly similar, even in sound, to Krisna. I’ve always thought that the “Yoga of the Divine Person” as expounded in the Gita might be useful to open-minded Christians who want to become one with Christ in this very life — rather than putting it off until a presumed afterlife.
The second, more subtle doctrine, is identification with the Divine in a formless, unborn aspect that cannot be grasped by images or thought — a concept Buddhism goes to great lengths to maintain.
The objection many Buddhists have with the Gita’s approach is that it flirts with reification by thinking of the unmanifest and the manifest in dualistic terms that tend to turn the unmanifest into another object or separate essence. But Mahayana Buddhism, and Zen in particular, use concepts like “host” and “guest,” “big Mind” and “small mind,” in ways that are quite similar to the Gita in this regard.
Identification with an unmanifest absolute is described by the Gita as difficult to practice, probably because it is necessary to have some actual experience of the unmanifest in order to effectively identify with it. The Bhagavadgita maintains that identification with a personal deity such as Krishna is the quickest and easiest path.
Ultimately, as the Gita points out, both yogic methods lead to the same realization.
Personally, I haven’t found that identification with a specific incarnation of the Divine, such as Krisna or Christ, as manifested in another human form, is actually easier to practice than absorption in one, unmanifest Being, or impersonal “God” within everything. I can more readily conceive of something without form as existing universally in everything, than see a specific form as existing in other forms.
Thus I focus on those verses which are more universal in character and which do not emphasize worship of divinity as manifested in a personal, incarnate deity. That is not an easy task, given that most of the Gita is spoken by Krisna in the first person. The reader is exhorted repeatedly by Him to, “Fix your mind on Me, be devoted to Me, worship Me and bow to Me; so shall you without doubt reach Me.”
Focusing on the impersonal aspects of divinity and playing down the worship of an incarnation in the form of Krishna, makes the Bhagavadgita more accessible to those moderns like myself who are not so comfortable with a strictly theistic approach.
The Sankhya teachings, which figure prominently in the Gita, were originally non-theistic (atheistic) in character. It’s possible that the worship of a deity in the form of Krishna was inserted into the Bhagavadgita after its original composition.
In the interest of brevity and understandability I’ve left out most of the verses that specifically refer to Sankhya terminology such as “Purusa” (pure consciousnes) and “Prakṛti” (matter) as well as references to the “Three Gunas” (qualities).
I’ve tried to render the discourses impersonal by using such terms as “Supreme Spirit,” or “Eternal, Divine Being,” for personal pronouns. The Gita is not at all consistent in this regard, using every name imaginable for the Ultimate, including “God” and “Soul.” The impression I’m left with is that no one term is sufficient for something which is non-conceptual and manifests in a variety of forms.
I emphasize the concept of a “Higher Self” which I think is central to the Gita. But, like every designation, that can also lead to misunderstandings — but at least it indicates that it is to be sought within.
Despite my personal (impersonal) inclinations, I have a deep appreciation for the Bhagavadgita. It is a work of unique yogic character, unlike any other holy book, with an elevated, inspiring language and profound observations on the path to enlightenment.
Although I might be unsuited by temperament (or unqualified, as a Brahman would say) to practice the yoga of devotion to a Divine Personality, I can still appreciate the beauty and profound meaning of such a practice — especially as it applies to self-identification with a more universal, unmanifest Being.
This short, “epitomized” version, composed of carefully selected verses, without the theistic references and technical Sankhya terminology, makes reading and meditating on the Gita much easier and its central teachings more straightforward. Perhaps it will even inspire a reading of the original for those unfamiliar with this great book.
THE YOGA OF WISDOM
The unreal has no existence, and the real never ceases to be; the reality of both has thus been perceived by the seers of truth.
Know that to be imperishable by which all this is pervaded; for none can bring about the destruction of this indestructible nature.
The true self is never born nor dies; nor does it exist on coming into being, for it is unborn, eternal, everlasting and primeval; even though the body dies, it does not.
It is unmanifest; it is unthinkable; and it is spoken of as immutable. Residing in the bodies of all, it can never be killed, therefore, knowing it as such, one should not grieve for any being.
For all beings were unmanifest before they were born, and will become unmanifest again when they are dead; they are manifest only in the intermediate stage. What occasion, then, for lamentation?
Hardly anyone perceives this self as marvelous, scarce another likewise speaks thereof as marvelous, and scarce another hears of it as marvelous; while there are some who know it not even on hearing of it.
THE FIELD AND THE KNOWER OF THE FIELD
The truth about the Field as well as the Knower of the Field has been sung by the seers in manifold ways; it has also been stated separately in different holy books.
What this Field is, what it is like, what are its evolutes, and who that Knower is, hear all this now.
The five subtle elements, the ego, the intellect, Primordial Matter, the internal organs, the mind, along with the senses and their objects,
Desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, the body, consciousness, this is the field, with its evolutes, briefly described.
About that Knower of the Field, which ought to be known and knowing which one attains immortality; that beginningless Supreme Spirit is said to be neither being nor non-being.
It has hands and feet everywhere, eyes, head and faces everywhere, ears everywhere. It stands pervading all.
It is the perceiver of all sense-objects, though devoid of senses. Though unattached and empty, It is the sustainer of all and enjoyer of all.
It is within and without all beings and constitutes both animate and inanimate creation. By reason of its subtlety, it is incomprehensible; It is both at hand and far away.
Though indivisible, it stands as if divided among beings. This knowable essence is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of all.
The light of all lights, it is said to be beyond the darkness of illusion. It is knowledge itself, as well as the object of Knowledge, and is also worth attaining through knowledge; It is especially seated in the hearts of all.
Thus the Field as well as knowledge and the object of knowledge have been briefly described; knowing this in reality, one enters into the Supreme.
Know matter and Spirit to be both without beginning; and know all modifications and qualities to be Nature-born.
Spirit, when joined with Matter, enjoys the qualities of all objects born of matter; attachment to these qualities is the cause of birth in good and evil wombs.
Even when united with this body, Spirit is really transcendent. It has been declared to be the Witness, the Guide, the Sustainer, the Experiencer, the Supreme Self and Oversoul.
One who thus knows both Spirit and Matter — even though engaged in all sorts of activities, is not subject to birth and death.
He really sees, who sees all actions being done in all respects only by Nature, and the self as the non-doer.
Whenever one perceives the diversified existence of beings as rooted in the One Supreme Self, and the projection of all beings from that One Being, at that very moment enlightenment is attained.
Seeing the same One dwelling equally in all, one does not kill the Self by the self, and thereby reaches the supreme state.
Without beginning and without attributes, this Pure Being, though dwelling in the body, neither acts, nor gets contaminated.
As the one sun illumines this whole world, so the One Within illumines the whole Field.
Some by meditation behold the Supreme Self in their own heart with the help of their pure reason; others by proceeding along the path of Knowledge; and others again, by treading the path of Action.
Verily he is a seer, who sees the Self as the only imperishable substance abiding equally in all perishable beings.
Those who by the eye of wisdom thus perceive the Field and the Knower of the Field, and the negation of Nature with her evolutes, reach the supreme.
When your mind has crossed the mire of delusion, you will then grow indifferent to what has been heard, and what is yet to be heard, about this world and the next.
A person who has experienced enlightenment has the same use for all the holy books as one has for a small reservoir of water in a place flooded with water on all sides.
Even though you are confused by hearing conflicting statements, if you can remain steadfast and firm in meditation, your mind will become unified and stable.
Meditation is difficult for one whose mind is not subdued; but by one who has the mind under control and is ceaselessly striving, it can be attained through dispassion and practice.
The mind becomes stable when it is withdrawn from externals; like a tortoise which draws in its limbs from all directions.
External phenomena cease for one who does not enjoy them with the senses; but the taste for them persists. This relish also disappears in the case of one of stable mind upon seeing the Supreme.
Turbulent by nature, the mind, even of a wise man who is practicing self-control, is forcibly carried away by external circumstances. Therefore, collecting the mind and controlling the senses, one should sit for meditation.
For one whose senses have been mastered, the mind becomes stable. The self-controlled practicant, while enjoying the various sense-objects through the senses, which are disciplined and free from likes and dislikes, attains placidity of mind.
With the attainment of such placidity of mind, all sorrows come to an end; and the intellect of such a person of tranquil mind, soon withdrawing itself from all sides, becomes firmly established in the Absolute.
As the waters of different rivers all enter the ocean, which though full on all sides remains undisturbed, likewise, one in whom all enjoyments merge themselves, attains peace; not one who hankers after such enjoyments.
The yogi who has subdued mind and body and is free from desire, living alone in seclusion and bereft of possessions, should constantly engage the mind in meditation.
In a clean spot, having firmly placed a seat with kusa grass, covered with deerskin and a clean cloth placed on top, neither very high or very low.
And sitting on that seat, concentrating the mind and controlling the senses, one should practice meditation for self-purification.
Keeping the trunk, head and neck straight and steady, remaining firm and looking down the tip of the nose, without looking in other directions.
Pledged to a vow of continence and fearlessness, keeping perfectly calm and with the mind thoroughly brought under control and fixed on the Self within, the vigilant yogi should sit absorbed in the one eternal Being.
Thoroughly abandoning all cravings of the mind, and satisfied with the self through the Self, such a one is called stable of mind.
One should lift oneself up by one’s own efforts and should not degrade oneself; for oneself is one’s friend and one’s own self is one’s enemy.
One’s own self is the friend of that Self by whom the lower self is conquered; on the other hand, that very Self, of one who has not conquered their lower self, behaves inimically, like one’s own enemy.
When the mind is brought under complete control and focused on the One Being within, then that person who is free from concerns and yearning, is said to be established in yoga.
As a light does not shake in a place sheltered from the wind, analogous is stated to be the case of the subdued mind of the yogi practicing meditation.
The state in which the mind comes to rest, and in which, realizing the unborn and imperishable through meditation, one rejoices only in the Divine.
Nay, in which one experiences the eternal and super-sensuous joy that is apprehended only through subtle and acute reason, wherein the yogi moves not from truth.
And having attained which one does not reckon any other gain as greater than that and established in which one is not moved even by great sorrow.
That state called Yoga, which is transcendent and free from the contact of pain should be known. Nay, this Yoga should be resolutely practiced with an unwearied mind.
Completely giving up all desire arising from thoughts of the world and fully restraining the senses from all sides by the mind.
One should through gradual practice attain tranquility; and having established the mind in the absolute, through reason controlled by steadfastness, one should not think of anything else.
Restraining the restless and fidgety mind from all those objects after which it runs, one should repeatedly concentrate it on the One Within.
For to the Yogi, whose mind is perfectly calm, who is sinless, whose passion is subdued and who is identified with the unborn and imperishable within all beings, happiness comes as a matter of course.
The Yogi, who is united in identity with the all-pervading, infinite consciousness, and looks on all with an equal eye, sees the Self present in all beings and all beings existing in the Self.
He who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self, and looks upon the pleasure and pain of all with a similar eye, such a one is regarded as supreme.
One who takes sorrow and joy alike, is established in the Absolute, regards a clod of earth, a stone and a piece of gold as equal in value, receives both pleasant and unpleasant things in the same spirit and views censure and praise alike.
Who is alike to honor and ignominy, is equal to friend and foe, and has renounced the sense of doership in all undertakings, that one is said to be established in equanimity
The contacts between the senses and their objects, which give rise to the feelings of heat and cold, pleasure and pain, etc., are transitory and fleeting; therefore ignore them.
The wise one to whom pain and pleasure are equal, and who is not tormented by these contacts, becomes eligible for immortality.
Perform your duties dwelling in yoga, relinquishing attachment and indifferent to success or failure; equanimity is called yoga.
Action with a selfish motive is far inferior to this yoga in the form of equanimity. Seek refuge in this evenness of mind, for poor and wretched are those who crave for the fruit of action,
Endowed with equanimity, one sheds in this life both good and evil. Therefore exert yourself in this yoga of equanimity. Skill in action lies in the practice of this yoga.
The wise, endowed with equanimity, renouncing the fruit of action and freed from the shackles of birth and death, attain the blissful supreme state.
Since the Unmanifest is free from blemish and equanimous, even here is the mortal plane conquered by those whose mind is established in equanimity; hence they are established in the eternal.
One, who, with reason firm and free from doubt, rejoices not on obtaining what is agreeable, and does not feel perturbed on meeting with the unpleasant, that knower of the Absolute lives eternally in identity with it.
With the mind unattached to external enjoyments, deriving through meditation the unmixed joy, which is inherent in the Self; the yogi, completely identified through meditation with the divine, enjoys eternal bliss.
The pleasures which are born of sense-contacts are verily sources of pain (although appearing enjoyable to most). They have a beginning and an end (they come and go). For this reason the wise do not get attached to them.
He who is able to stand here on earth, before casting off this body, the urges of lust and anger, is a yogi — a harmonized soul; he is a happy man.
He, who is happy within himself, enjoys within himself the delight of the Self, and even so is illumined by the inner light, such a Yogi, identified with the one within all, attains the True Self which is perfect peace.
The seer whose sins have been washed away, whose doubts have been dispelled by Knowledge, whose mind is firmly established in the Divine and who is actively engaged in promoting the welfare of all beings, such a one attains the Supreme, which is all Peace.
To those wise ones, who are free from lust and anger, who have subdued their mind and have realized the One Within, for them the abode of eternal peace, is present all around.
The Yogi whose mind is sated with knowledge, who is unchangeable under all circumstances, whose senses are thoroughly subdued, and to whom a clod, a stone and a piece of gold make no difference, is spoken of as Self-Realized.
He, who regards well-wishers, friends, foes, neutrals, mediators, the objects of hatred, relatives, the virtuous and the sinful alike, stands supreme.
The Karmayogi who has fully conquered the mind and subdued the senses, whose heart is pure and who has identified his self with the Self of all beings; even though performing action, remains unaffected.
He who acts, offering all action to God and shaking off all attachments, remains untouched by sin, as the lotus-leaf by water.
Offering the fruit of action to the Supreme, the Karmayogi attains peace in the shape of God-realization; whereas one who works with a selfish motive, being attached to the fruit of action through desire, gets tied down.
Work for its own sake, never for the fruit thereof. Let not the fruit of action be your object, nor let your attachment be to inaction.
In this path of disinterested action there is no loss of effort nor is there fear of contrary result. Even a little practice of this discipline protects one from great fear of birth and death.
Even the wise are at a loss to know what is action and what is inaction, for mysterious are the ways of action. Knowing the truth about action, one is freed from its binding effects.
One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men; a yogi who has accomplished all action.
Having totally given up attachment to actions and their fruits, and given up dependence on the world and ever satisfied, although engaged in action, such a one does nothing at all.
Having subdued mind and body and given up all objects of attachment and craving, performing sheer bodily action; one does not incur sin.
One whose undertakings are all free of desire and thoughts of the world, and whose actions are burnt up by the fire of wisdom, even the wise call a sage.
Contented with whatever comes unsought, free from jealously and having transcended all pairs of opposites like joy and grief, and balanced in success and failure, the Karmayogi, though acting, is not bound.
Therefore, do you perform your allotted duty; for action is superior to inaction. Desisting from action you cannot even maintain your body.
It is through action (without attachment) that wise men in the past reached perfection. Having an eye to maintenance of the world order, you too should take to action.
For whatever a great man does, that very thing other men also do, whatever standard he sets up, the generality of men follow the same.
As the unwise act with attachment, so should the wise, seeking maintenance of the world order, act without attachment.
A wise man, established in the Divine, should not unsettle the mind of the ignorant attached to action, but should get them to perform all their duties, duly performing them himself.
He who does not follow the wheel of creation thus set going in this world (i.e. does not perform his duties, however sinful and sensual), he lives in vain.
He, however, who takes delight in the Self alone and is gratified with the Self, and is contented with the Self, has no duty.
In this world that great soul has no use whatsoever for things done or for things not done, nor does he have selfish dependence of any kind on any creature.
Therefore, always efficiently do your duty without attachment. Doing work without attachment, one attains the Supreme.
All actions are being done by nature, in the shape of the mind and senses that move among the objects of perception. The fool, whose mind is deluded by egoism, considers himself to be the doer.
The wise, who dedicate every action to God, they alone are freed from the binding effects of actions.
Man is bound by the shackles of karma only when engaged in actions other than work performed for the sake of sacrifice. Therefore, efficiently perform your duty, free from attachment, for the sake of sacrifice alone.
A person whose attachment has disappeared, whose mind is is established in knowledge and who works for the sake of sacrifice, all actions of that liberated one melt away.
The virtuous, who partake of what is left after sacrifice, are absolved of all sin. Those sinful ones, who cook for the sake of nourishing their body alone, eat only sin.
All beings are evolved from food; production of food depends upon rain; rain ensues from sacrifice, and sacrifice is rooted in action. Know that all action has its origin in the indestructible; hence, the all-pervading infinite is always present in sacrifice.
The sacrifice in which the ladle and the oblation are both the Self and even so the act of pouring into the fire, which is again the Self, by one absorbed in such sacrifice, verily, that one is the Supreme Self of all.
Many offer sacrifice in the form of worship of the Gods, while some pour into the fire of the Divine the sacrifice in the very shape of their individual self, through the sacrifice known as the perception of identity.
Others sacrifice all the functions of the senses and the vital airs into the fire of Yoga, in the form of self-control, which is kindled by wisdom.
Some perform sacrifice with material things and some offer sacrifice in the shape of penances, while others sacrifice through observing austere vows.
Still others practice breath-control. Having regulated their diet and controlled both the Prana and Apana energies, they pour life-breaths into life-breaths. All these have their sins destroyed by sacrifice and know the truth about sacrifice.
Those who partake of the nectar in the form of the remains of sacrifice, attain the Eternal. For the one who does not offer sacrifice, even this world is not happy; how then can the other world be happy?
Many such forms of sacrifice have been set forth; know them all as begotten of the actions of body, mind and senses. Knowing the truth about them one is freed from the bondage of actions.
Sacrifice that leads to knowledge is superior to sacrifice with material things, for all actions without exception culminate in knowledge.
Acquiring knowledge you will no longer be subject to delusion and will see all beings first in your own self and then in the Supreme.
Even if you are the most sinful of all sinners you will cross over all sin by the raft of Knowledge. For as a blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes, even so the fire of Knowledge reduces all actions to ashes.
In this world there is no purifier like Knowledge; one who has attained purity of heart through the Yoga of Sacrifice, automatically realizes the True Self in the course of time.
A person who is fully devoted to spiritual practice and is full of faith, inevitably attains Knowledge; having attained knowledge, supreme peace in the form of God-Realization is attained
One who is devoid of faith, and is possessed by doubt, is lost to the spiritual path. For the doubting soul in particular there is neither this world nor the world beyond, nor even happiness.
Those who dedicate all actions to the Supreme, according to the spirit of sacrifice, whose doubts are dispelled by wisdom and who are self-possessed, they are not bound by actions.
THE YOGA OF THE DIVINE PERSON
Unborn and immortal, and also the source of all beings, the One Supreme Self manifests through the divine potency of maya (illusion). One who knows this in reality attains that very Self.
Completely rid of passion, fear and anger, wholly absorbed in the pure being within, depending on that One alone and purified by wisdom, many have become one with it in the past.
There is nothing else besides. Like clusters of yarn-beads formed by knots on a thread, all this is threaded on that Primal Person, the eternal seed of all beings,
Whatever entities there are, however born, know them all as evolved from that original Self. In reality, however, it neither exists in them nor them in it.
Deluded by external phenomena they do not know the real self, which is transcendent and imperishable.
This wonderful illusion is extremely difficult to get over; those, however, who take refuge in the ever-present Self of all, they alone can cross over it.
Four types of virtuous men seek God — the seeker of worldly objects, the sufferer, the seeker for knowledge, and the man of wisdom.
All these are noble, but the best is the man of wisdom, who is constantly established in identity with the One Self and possessed of exclusive devotion.
Verily, the man of wisdom is the Divine itself; for that devotee, with mind and intellect merged with ultimate Truth, realizes that all this is God. Such a great soul is very rare.
This original Self, though the author of all creation, is a non-doer. Having no craving for the fruit of actions, it is not contaminated by actions. Knowing this in reality, one is also not bound by actions.
Thus was action performed by the ancient seekers of salvation; therefore, do you also perform actions as they were performed by the ancients in former times.
Identified with the absolute through exclusive devotion and practicing yoga with complete concentration and absorption, you will know the Supreme Self (the repository of all power) in full and freed from doubt.
Those whose wisdom has been carried away by various desires, being bound by their own nature, worship various gods, undertaking vows relating to each.
Whatever celestial form a devotee seeks to worship, the faith of that particular devotee is realized in that very form.
However, the worshipers of the gods attain the gods; whereas those who seek the Self, in the end they attain the Supreme.
Not knowing that unsurpassable and undecaying nature, the ignorant think the Self, that supreme spirit beyond the reach of mind and senses, the embodiment of truth, knowledge and bliss, to have assumed a visible form.
Veiled by maya, the True Self is not manifest to all. Hence people do not recognize it as the unborn and imperishable and take it to be subject to birth and death.
Those who strive for deliverance, ever absorbed in the universal Self of intrinsic awareness, they alone know the Unmanifest Divinity dwelling in the heart of all as their very witness. Possessed of a steadfast mind, even at the hour of death, they realize the Eternal.