Comments on the
Bhagavad Gita

using the Juan Mascaró translation (Penguin Books, 1962), with references to the Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore translation (A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, Princeton, 1957)

The Bhagavad Gîta, , is a chapter in the Epic, the , Mahâbhârata. A gîta, , alone is a "song or poem," and there is actually more than one gîta just in the Mahâbhârata. However, anyone talking about "The Gîta" will almost certainly be taken to refer to the Bhagavad Gîta. Bhagavad is an interesting word. Bhaga, , alone means "lord" or "good fortune, grandure, loveliness," etc. This is a cognate of bog, , which is "God" in Russian, but also of phagein, , "to eat" in Greek. So the Indo-European meanings have drifted around a bit [cf. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Second Edition, revised and edited by Calvert Watkins, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, p.7]. In turn, bhagavat, , is "fortunate, blessed, adorable, venerable, divine, holy," etc. [A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary by Arthur Anthony MacDonell, Oxford, 1929, 1971, p.200]. So the Bhagavad Gîta, , is the "Song of God," or of the "Adorable One," "Blessed One," "Holy One," etc. The "Adorable One," of course, is Krishna, , who is an Incarnation of Vishnu, .

This page consists of "comments" on the Bhagavad Gîta, rather than a "commentary," because not every verse is disucussed. Also, the point of view here is not devotionalistic but historical and philosophical. The Gîta is a composite document, built over time, like the larger Mahâbhârata. Different parts of the Gîta reflect different and sometimes conflicting influences and values. The question that Arjuna asks at the beginning of Chapter 3, which asserts that Krishna has contradicted himself in Chapter 2, reflects no contradiction in Chapter 2, which was perfectly consistent, but does signal the conflict between action and renunciation that will emerge in Krishna's answer to Arjuna. This is a key issue in all of Indian religion, where the renunciation of the world is the ultimate value in Jainism and Buddhism, and is deeply engrained in Hinduism. But it is opposed or limited by the doctrine of karmayoga, , in the Bhagavad Gîta, where the conflict is evident in the text. Devotionalistic commentary on the Gîta may be found through the link to the Online Bhagavad Gîta at the bottom of the page.

The Shîmad Bhagavad Gîtâ Online -- with Devanagari, transliteration, grammatical analysis, translation, and commentaries

The Major and Minor Books of the Mahâbhârata and Synopsis

History of Philosophy, Indian Philosophy

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1997, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Comments of the Bhagavad Gita, Note


Karman.y evâdhikâras te mâ phales.u kadâcana /
mâ karmaphalahetur bhûr mâ te sango 'stv akarman.i

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. /
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.

I did not have a hope of understanding the grammar of this passage, or even of what words into which to divide it, without the help of the Sanskritist Herman Tull.

The first word is , karman, used in the locative case, karman.i. This means "action" or "work" (the familiar "karma"). The "i" gets written as a "y" at the beginning of the next word. That word is , eva, an emphatic particle, "so, just so," etc. Next is , adhikâra, "concern, striving, endeavour for" (which takes the locative, as here with karman). Next we get te, which is the genitive or possessive form of , tvam, the word for "you." , , is the negative, "not." Then comes , phala, "fruit, result, or reward," used as phales.u, the locative plural. The line ends with , kadâcana, "some time, ever," which with the previous negative will mean "never."

Thus, the first line of the verse, Juan Mascaró's "Set thy heart on thy work," we could render more literally as "your concern is with the act." "Never on its reward," substitutes "reward" for "fruit," which has the potential of sounding silly, and less to the point, in English. The most familiar example of something like this in English is Matthew 7:20, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." Jesus, however, appears to mean "consequences" rather than "reward."

The second line of the verse begins with again, and then , karmaphalahetur, a compound that would mean the "cause/impulse for the fruit of action," where karman and phala are already familiar and , hetu is "cause, motive." The next word, bhûr, is the aorist injunctive of , bhû, "be" (and a cognate of "be" itself). In both karmaphalahetur and bhûr the final "r" is a euphonic transformation (Sanskrit sandhi) of nominative "s" because of the labials ("bh" and "m") in the following words.

Then we get and te again, followed by sango, from , sanga, "desire, attachment" -- the "o" is another euphonic transformation of nominative "-as" followed by (elided) "a." Next is , astu, the third person imperative of as, "be," which is cognate to "is" in English (the Sanskrit "a" was an "e" in Proto-Indo-European, which turns up as "i" in Germanic languages). The "a" at the beginning of astu is elided with the avagraha sign, . As the "i" in karman.i above becomes a "y" on the following word, the "u" here becomes a "v" on the following "a." Finally, we find , akarman.i, the privative (with the prefixed a -- the "alpha privative" in Greek, making a negative) of karman in the locative again.

What Juan Mascaró translates as, "Work not for a reward," Dr. Tull suggests can be rendered, "Let there not arise the impulse for the fruit of action." "But never cease to do thy work," in turn, could be, "For you let there not be attachment to non-action." Mascaró's translation is not very literal, but it does not appear to distort the meaning at all.

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The Major and Minor Books of the Mahâbhârata and Synopsis

The J.A.B. van Buitenen translation of the , Mahâbhârata (Mhabhart in Hindi), at three volumes, for the University of Chiago Press remains incomplete due to his tragic untimely death. Completion of the project, which will render the unabridged Epic, is promised by the Press, but the release dates for subsequent volumes keep getting postponed. Volume 7, containing Books 11 and 12 (Part 1), translated by James L. Fitzgerald, was published in 2003. I cannot find any other volumes yet.

(1) The Book of the Beginning
  • (1) The List of Contents
  • (2) The Summaries of the Books
  • (3) Paus.ya
  • (4) Puloman
  • (5) Âstîka
  • (6) Descent of the First Generations
  • (7) The Origins
  • (8) The Fire in the Lacquer House
  • (9) The Slaying of Hid.imba
  • (10) The Slaying of Baka
  • (11) Citraratha
  • (12) Draupadî's Bridegroom Choice
  • (13) The Wedding
  • (14) The Coming of Vidura
  • (15) The Acquisition of the Kingdom
  • (16) Arjuna's Sojourn in the Forest
  • (17) The Abduction of Subhadrâ
  • (18) The Fetching of the Gift
  • (19) The Burning of the Khân.d.ava Forest
(2) The Book of the Assembly Hall
  • (20) The Assembly Hall
  • (21) The Council
  • (22) The Slaying of Jarâsm.dha
  • (23) The Conquest of the World
  • (24) The Royal Consecration
  • (25) The Taking of the Guest Gift
  • (26) The Slaying of Shishupâla
  • (27) The Gambling Match
  • (28) The Sequel to the Gambling
(3) The Book of the Forest
  • (29) The Forest Teachings
  • (30) The Slaying of Kirmîra
  • (31) The Battle Arjuna and the Mountain Man
  • (32) The Journey to the World of Indra
  • (33) The Pilgrimage
  • (34) The Slaying of Jat.âsura
  • (35) The War of the Yaks.as
  • (36) The Boa
  • (37) The Meeting with Mârkan.d.eya
  • (38) The Dialogue of Draupadî and Satyabhâmâ
  • (39) The Cattle Expedition
  • (40) The Deer in the Dream
  • (41) The Measure of Rice
  • (42) The Abduction of Draupadî
  • (43) The Theft of the Earrings
  • (44) The Fire Drilling Woods
(4) The Book of Virât.a
  • (45) Virât.a
  • (46) The Slaying of Kîcaka
  • (47) The Cattle Robbery
  • (48) Abhimanyu & Uttarâ's Wedding
(5) The Book of the Effort
  • (49) The Effort
  • (50) The Coming of Sam.jaya
  • (51) The Sleeplessness
  • (52) Sanatsujâta
  • (53) The Suing for Peace
  • (54) The Coming of Kr.s.n.a
  • (55) The Quarrel
  • (56) The Marching Out
  • (57) The Warriors and Greater Warriors
  • (58) The Arrival of the Messenger Ulûka
  • (59) The Narrative of Ambâ
(6) The Book of Bhîs.ma
  • (60) The Wonderful Installation of Bhîs.ma
  • (61) The Creation of Continent of Jambû
  • (62) The Earth
  • (63) The Bhagavadgîtâ
  • (64) The Slaying of Bhîs.ma
(7) The Book of Dron.a
  • (65) The Installation of Dron.a
  • (66) The Slaughter of the Sworn Warriors
  • (67) The Slaying of Abhimanyu
  • (68) The Promise
  • (69) The Slaying of Jayadratha
  • (70) The Slaying of Ghat.otkaca
  • (71) The Slaying of Dron.a
  • (72) Casting of the Nârâyan.a Weapon
(8) The Book of Karn.a
  • (73) Karn.a
(9) The Book of Shalya
  • (74) Shalya
  • (75) The Entering of the Lake
  • (76) The Battle of the Bludgeons
  • (77) The River Sarasvatî
(10) The Book of the Sleeping Warriors
  • (78) The Massacre of The Sleeping Warriors
  • (79) The Ais.îka Weapon
  • (80) The Offering of the Water
(11) The Book of the Women
  • (81) The Women
  • (82) The Funeral Oblation
  • (83) The Royal Consecration
  • (84) The Subduing of Carvâka
  • (85) The Distribution of the Houses
(12) The Book of the Peace
  • (86) The Peace
  • (87) The Law of Emergencies
  • (88) The Law of Salvation
(13) The Book of the Instructions
  • (89) The Instuctions
  • (90) The Ascent to Heaven
(14) The Book of the Horse Sacrifice
  • (91) The Horse Sacrifice
  • (92) The Anugîtâ
(15) The Book of the Hermitage
  • (93) The Sojourn in the Hermitage
  • (94) The Encounter with the Sons
  • (95) The Arrival of Nârada
(16) The Book of the Clubs
  • (96) The Battle of the Clubs
(17) The Book of the Great Journey
  • (97) The Great Journey
(18) The Book of the Ascent to Heaven
  • (98) The Ascension to Heaven
  • (99) The Appendix of Genealogy of Hari
  • (100) The Book of the Future

The Mahâbhârata ("Great Bharatas") is virtually the national epic of India. It is the story of a civil war in the Bhârata clan, and it contains the Bhagavad Gita (minor book number 63), which is used in my Introduction to Philosophy class. The Mahâbhârata is perhaps the largest epic in world literature, with 100,000 some verses. It is divided into 18 major and 100 minor books, listed at left.

Since "India" is Greek, and the other common name for the country, "Hindustan," is Persian (Hendustân), when India became independent in 1947, "Bhârat" was chosen to be the official name of the country. We get "Bhârat" rather than "Bhârata" because short final a's are not pronounced in Hindî:  thus you may see Arjuna called "Arjun," Bhîma "Bhîm," and the Mahâbhârata itself "Mahâbhârat."

After some background, the story begins when the heir of the Bhâratas, Bhis.ma, , whose mother is actually the goddess Gan.gâ, the Ganges River, renounces both the kingship and marriage. This is so that his father can be remarried to a woman who requires that the succession to the throne go through her children and that there be no conflict about it, i.e. no alternative heirs. The conflict comes later. After many curious events (later heirs are not conceived by their mother's husband, who has died), Bhis.ma ends up with two nephews, Dhr.tarâs.t.ra and Pan.d.u.  Dhr.tarâs.t.ra, who is blind, becomes the father of 100 sons, called the Kurus or Kauravas. These are born from the earth, since Dhr.tarâs.t.ra's wife, Gândhârî, who wears a blindfold to share her husband's blindness, gave birth to a large ball, which was divided into 100 pieces that were planted like seeds. These grew into babies. Pan.d.u, although the younger brother, succeeds to the throne because of his brother's blindness, but then he abdicates after falling under a curse that he cannot sleep with his two wives, or he will die. With his wives, Pan.d.u retires to the Forest, and Dhr.tarâs.t.ra becomes king after all.

Kuntî, Pan.d.u's elder wife, has a secret. She possesses a spell that enables her to call down the gods; and Pan.d.u agrees that she should conceive children by them. The god Dharma (duty) begets Yudhis.t.hira, Vâyu (the wind) begets Bhîma, and Indra begets Arjuna. Using the same device Pan.d.u's second wife, Mâdrî, calls down the twin gods the Ashvins who beget the twins Sahadeva and Nakula. Doubtlessly frustrated by all this, Pan.d.u then attempts to sleep with Mâdrî, and he dies. Mâdrî joins him on the funeral pyre, and Kuntî is left to raise the five sons, called the Pân.d.avas, in their uncle's court. Kuntî, as it happens, had used her spell before she was married. She had a son, named Karn.a, by Sûrya, the sun god. Fearing disgrace, she set Karn.a floating down the river in a basket (like Moses or the great Mesopotamian king Sargon of Akkad). Karn.a was raised by a royal chariot-driver. Sensing his power, Karn.a tries to participate in a royal tournament, but he is snubbed as a commoner by the Pân.d.avas. He is then accepted as a friend and equal by the eldest of the Kurus, Duryodhana, to spite the Pân.d.avas. This will have tragic results.

Besides the curious nature of their parentage, another odd feature about the Pân.d.avas is that they all share the same wife, Draupadî. Draupadî's father wanted her to marry Arjuna, so he set up a bride contest where suitors were required to string a bow that had been made so powerful that only Arjuna, presumably, could do so and then achieve a difficult shot, again, presumably, that only Arjuna would be able to do. This is reminiscent of a similar situation in the Odyssey, where Penelope, awaiting the long overdue return of Odysseus from Troy, requires that suitors for her hand string Odysseus's bow. They cannot do it; and when Odysseus does return (after twenty years), he strings the bow and then shoots them all. Arjuna, as it happens, strings the bow, makes the shot, and wins Draupadî's hand. But when he returns home and announces to his mother that he has won something, Kuntî, who thinks the boys have been out getting some food, says that he must share it with his brothers. Since Kuntî is a queen, she cannot take back her order, so Draupadî marries all five Pân.d.avas. Their agreement, however, is that only one husband sleeps with Draupadî at a time and that the other husbands cannot even enter the room when Draupadî is with one.

While they grew up together, the eldest Kuru, Duryodhana, became jealous of his cousins and over the years continually plots to kill or dispossess them. Eventually he tricks Yudhis.t.hira into a crooked dice game and cheats him out of the half of the kingdom that Dhr.tarâs.t.ra had bestowed on the Pân.d.avas and even out of their and Draupadî's own freedom. Then he insults Draupadî by asking his brother, Duh.shâsana, to pull off her clothes. In a famous scene, Draupadî's clothes are miraculously restored as they are pulled off. Although the text does not say so (and Kr.s.n.a is not even present), this miracle is believed by the pious to have been effected by the Lord Kr.s.n.a (, Krishna in Hindî), a king and friend of Arjuna. Arjuna had taken Kr.s.n.a's sister, Subhadrâ, as a second wife. But Kr.s.n.a is more than he seems:  He is really an incarnation of God -- as God is conceived in sectarian form as Vis.n.u. When Duh.shâsana gives up trying to strip Draupadî, Bhîma, the most physically powerful brother (who later will crush a man into a small ball for insulting Draupadî) vows that he is going to kill him, tear open his chest, and drink his blood. Draupadî herself vows that she will wash her hair in Duh.shâsana's blood. Gândhârî is shocked that things have been allowed to go this far, and Dhr.tarâs.t.ra restores the freedom of the Pân.d.avas and Draupadî. However, Duryodhana challenges Yudhis.t.hira to a last bet, that the Pân.d.avas must go into exile for twelve years and into hiding for one, or forfeit their kingdom. Yudhis.t.hira loses, but then the Pân.d.avas successfully complete the exile. Duryodhana refuses to restore their kingdom. That, and the recollection of the insults and humiliations of the dice game, results in war:  the eleven armies of the Kurus against the seven armies of the Pân.d.avas.

The Lord Kr.s.n.a offers a choice to Duryodhana, either he can have Kr.s.n.a's armies or Kr.s.n.a himself as a non-combatant advisor and charioteer. Duryodhana foolishly takes the armies; but Arjuna is wisely pleased to have Kr.s.n.a. The Bhagavad Gita takes place as the battle between the Kurus and Pân.d.avas is about to start. Arjuna asks Kr.s.n.a to drive their chariot out between the armies so he can see them all. But, seeing them, Arjuna decides that he does not want to fight and kill his relatives and friends after all. The entire Gita is then Kr.s.n.a explaining why Arjuna must fight and how he can fight and achieve salvation at the same time.

In the battle, the Pân.d.avas kill all the Kurus and win the whole kingdom. However, it is at great cost. All the sons of the Pân.d.avas and Draupadî, Draupadî's father and brothers, and Arjuna and Subhadrâ's son, are killed. Arjuna unwittingly kills his own brother, Karn.a. An intriguing feature of the battle is that at key points Kr.s.n.a advises the Pân.d.avas to gain advantages by violating the rules of the war. Thus, when Karn.a's chariot sinks into the ground (because of a curse), and Karn.a is on foot trying to dislodge it, which should, by agreement, make him immune to attack, Kr.s.n.a tells Arjuna to shoot him. Arjuna balks, but Kr.s.n.a taunts and exhorts him. Arjuna finally shoots and kills the luckless and tragic Karn.a. Later, Kr.s.n.a urges Bhîma, who has fared poorly in combat with Duryodhana, to break the Kuru's legs with his club. Again, by agreement, strikes below the belt have been ruled out; but Bhîma obeys, and so Duryodhana is disabled and left to die. Kr.s.n.a's willingness to break faith in order that the better side should win is reminiscent of the counsel of Machiavelli. Similarly, the willingness to go beyond the rules of war in a good cause, together with the other associations of the Bhagavad Gita with it, draw us back to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Indeed, the battle ends when Ashvatthâmâ, the son of Dron.a, the teacher of the Pân.d.avas and Kurus who was deceived by the Pân.d.avas (by Kr.s.n.a's instructions, again) and killed by Draupadî's brother, casts a celestial weapon, the As.îka weapon, powerful enough to destroy the universe, to kill, in revenge for his father, the grandson of Arjuna in the very womb of his mother Uttarâ. This is what happens. But Kr.s.n.a says that it cannot be allowed to be, and he brings the baby back to life.

The moral ambivalence of the Mahâbhârata, reminiscent of the fifth characteristic of mytho-poeic thought, and so true to life, contributes to its power. It is triumphant and tragic at once, where good wins out but at a great cost in fortune and conscience, and with some acknowledgement of the virtues of the enemy, especially with those like Bhis.ma and Dron.a, who are good themselves but honor-bound to fight on the wrong side.

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Copyright (c) 1998, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved