A brief introduction toThe Bhagavad-Gita

by Michael G. McKimmy, PhD.


This book, the “Song of the Lord,” is actually chapter six of a very lengthy epic of India- longer than any of the West- the Mahabrata. It tells the story of two related clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Arjuna (pronounced AR-szhoo-nah) is the third son of King Pandu, of the Pandavan dynasty. Their kingdom had been lost to the Kauravas, and the epic builds to the battle referred to in the first chapter of the Gita, Kurukshetra. Arjuna is one of the main heroes of the epic and has already shown his courage and prowess as a warrior many times over. It is then very surprising that at the moment before the battle begins, he decides not to fight, even if that means his defeat and death. After the conversation with Krishna, he will fight and it is his skill, and a little deception, that wins the battle.

The destruction and death on both sides, though, is horrendous and neither side will fully recover. Krishna is an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu. This god takes on human form when necessary to guide humans. He agrees to advise Arjuna by becoming the driver of his chariot. Just before the battle begins- as both sides face each other and blow their conch shells signaling readiness for battle, Arjuna has Krishna drive his chariot between the two sides.

The conversation begins, and time seems to freeze. Everything fades except these two and their conversation about life, death, meaning and enlightenment. Arjuna sees in this battle the possibility that all ethics, tradition, meaning in life will be destroyed as relatives kill relatives. And this is exactly what happens. Several Kauravas heroes have said they will fight for the Kaurava out of obligation, but know the Pandavas should and will win. Morality, duty, the very fabric of life, all seem to be unraveling.

A major theme of the Mahabrata is that human actions are morally ambiguous. Another is that the cycle of creation is now at the point of kaliyuga. This is a stage in the universe, including human history, when the dharma, the truth or foundational virtues begin to fail. When values and traditions begin to decline, how does an individual make moral decisions? The unavoidable question is- how should we live? The unavoidable problem- how can we know?

The Gita’s Answer: Act without concern for result. It will take us on a journey through many themes of the Gita to understand this, but the basic message is that acts have value and meaning as sacrifice, not as efforts towards solutions and goals.



It means “action, deed.” It is the thought that all of our actions have a ripple effect beyond what we can know. Our actions also effect us and how we develop, what we see as real, what we will be drawn to in the future of this life, and what lives we will be drawn to in the future. I have not come across a better statement of this doctrine than the following by Sri Chinmoy, “Cause is the effect silently and secretly involved and effect is the cause actively and openly evolved. Evolution, according to the Samkhya philosophy can never come into existence from zero. The appearance of ‘is’ can be only from the existence of ‘was.’”(The Three Branches,149)

Our actions flow from pervious actions, our present actions determines the course of future actions. Whether you accept the notion of reincarnation, it seems valuable to me to think of this principle even within one lifetime- how we create our environment, how we determine, to some degree, our fate.


Krishna is clear, the wise person knows , “I am not the doer. ....This is merely sense objects acting on the senses.” This statement involves maya- the principle of ignorance and illusion, and the concept of the three constituent principles or gunas. The gunas are dynamics operating within us and organizing us and our experience. Together they are responsible for our daily experience of the multiplicity of the world around us. Because we mistake what is passing for what is permanent, what is false for what is real and true (maya), we think, “I am doing this action, seeing this situation, deciding to say these words.

“In reality it is the coming together of a set of dynamics that results in sense objects acting on senses. The gunas determine the general set of perceptions and values that we deem most real and most desirable. Sattvais wisdom and virtue, raja values passion, tamas accepts the illusions as real and is therefore dull and deluded. In each person, while all three gunas are operative, one is dominant. Arjuna, for example, is rajasic- his life has been guided by his passions. This has served him well, but he sees it limitation and seeks to cultivate the sattva guna or wisdom in his life.

Again, regardless of what you might think of the “metaphysics” of this concept, it is worth thinking about what set of experiences you tend to value the most and what strengths and what limitations that may put on your view of life.


Indian culture is perhaps most often taken to task for maintaining a caste system, a very rigid and universal hierarchy of social classes. Even today, though illegal, the tradition has great influence in social relations. The Gita clearly sees the caste system as basic to an orderly society and world. How should we think of this? A difficult question. Perhaps we should begin with knowing more about the system and its place in Hindu philosophy.

There are four castes (the outcasts are not numbered among the castes) Brahman- the priest, Kshatriya- the warrior (this is Arjuna’s caste), Vaishya- the farmer, and Shudra- the laborer. In some of the earliest recorded human speculation about the world and humanity’s place in creation- the Vedas and the Upanishads- the cosmos is often thought of as a cosmic person, the Purusha.

The Brahman is the mouth of this cosmic person, the warrior is his arms, the farmer his thighs and the laborer his feet. In other words, the caste system was thought to be an example of the connectedness of humanity and nature. As there is a hierarchy that runs throughout all of creation, so it is present in human society.

Maintaining this system- Arjuna presumes- means maintaining order and harmony. Also, karma is a factor in understanding this system. One is attracted to a particular life, family and nation when seeking reincarnation. My caste represents the life I am ready to live and the lessons I need to be learning. It speaks of my level of awareness gained through countless previous incarnations.

Finally, there is yet another important concept to explore if we are to understand the caste system. We are about to consider Atman/Brahman in some detail. What is relevant to this section on castes is that this way of thinking about the world sees us all as part of the unfolding of the single Self that is everything. This is a monistic philosophy. What is ultimately real is the unity of all things. The caste system, then, is a temporary, yet essential part of the process of the cycle of creation and destruction which is the life of the universe. Much abused by cultures which embrace the caste system, much maligned by those that do not, there seem at least a few questions provoked by the castes.

Do we have castes in our nation- in our subcultures- among groups of friends- that exist without ever being named as hierarchies? If so, how did this happen? Also, if we find the frank and rigid hierarchy of the caste system repugnant, how should we think of the physical, mental, economic and perspectival differences between us? What makes something better or worse? Are all opinions on a topic, are all theories of what is true and what has value, are they all equal? Difficult questions to answer. Well worth some thought.


The Gita is particularly eloquent in speaking of Brahman when Krishna describes himself. While ultimate reality is beyond description- the god that can be described is not the true god- yet at another level, much is revealed by Krishna. God manifests itself in many forms. In fact, all that is- including each human- is a manifestation of the divine. The divine is the excellence of everything, as Krishna describes in chapter 10. He is the sweetest, the choicest, the most memorable among all things. Also, not to be missed, among warriors, Krishna is Arjuna. Krishna is saying, I am you and you are me.

The source of all knowledge and action within you is the silent and unmoving source of all that is. Atman- your true self- is Brahman- your true self beyond yourself. The language can sound contradictory or circular, and perhaps it is intentionally so. Yet, follow the thought that Krishna is saying among warriors he is the most excellent, therefore he is Arjuna and that as Arjuna he should fight this battle.

In effect Krishna is saying, “ Fight. It is your destiny and it is your moral obligation. You by nature are rajasic- you express your passion even as you seek to be wise. Follow your passion and fight. Even if you decide not to, you still will fight. It is your destiny and part of the unfolding of the created order. In this way, you are separate from me, yet part of me. The eternal process of the cosmos includes this moment of conversation and a future moment of union.”

This is rich and yet very difficult thinking about the unfolding of the eternal plan of Vishnu, Brahman. All that occurs is the unfolding of god's manifestation. On another level, the one Arjuna is most comfortable with, it is the outworking of god’s plan.

“All” means all in a monism. In other words, what we call evil as well as good is a part of god and god’s plan. Both sides of warriors, those who live, those who die, those enlightened, those deluded by maya. Chapter 11 of the Gita is a difficult chapter for western readers. It describes an aspect of god missing in the Judeo-Christian tradition- the destructive aspect of the divine. Arjuna sees the warriors of both sides falling into countless mouths of Vishnu, torn to pieces. God is creator and destroyer. Arjuna cannot bear this vision long and seeks again only the benevolent vision of god as Krishna.

Some rich insights to consider. What would it mean to think of the “true” self to be a universal self? Would it make a difference in how you lives? In what you valued? Also, why might we reject the depiction of god as having a destructive side? Can we hold to a monotheism without accounting for the dynamics of destruction and evil? Why do humans of all cultures seem to struggle as Arjuna does with the possibility that ultimate reality is not entirely loving and creative?

Interpreting the Gita:

There are so many commentaries on the Gita it is very difficult to summarize the basic interpretations. Here are a few of the most important points made by a number of writers.

Perhaps, as Ghandi says, we should not read this literally. Perhaps the battle field is the struggle that goes on in each of us and Krishna’s instruction is about how to find meaning in life and enlightenment. What to make of the many seeming contradictions? This may be the result of centuries of retelling the stories and adding to them. It may also be that some truths advanced in the Gita are truths for certain levels of understanding, but those truths do not apply to other levels. For example, that Arjuna should fight, or, that there is no free will.

Human actions are morally ambiguous. There are most often both positive and negative consequences to our actions. Also, our motives- apologies to Kant- seem mixed most of the time. A basic point that seems to apply to every level- do what is authentic for you. “Better to do your own duty imperfectly than another’s perfectly.”

Be genuine. Act out of devotion, not to achieve a particular result. If your life and all of history is cyclical, no action gets you any further along. Offer up your acts as a sacrifice to god.