The Best of the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an excerpt from the world’s longest ancient epic poem, the Mahabharata.

The Gita tells the story of a warrior named Arjuna, who feels a deep internal conflict between following his duty as a warrior to fight and following his inclination as a spiritually grounded human to not fight. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna discusses his inner conflict with an embodiment of the divine named Krishna, who ultimately tells Arjuna that he must use his wisdom to choose how to best proceed.

The text is best read as making yourself a stand-in for Arjuna. It’s speaking to you, whoever you are.

As the scholar and translator Eknath Easwaran writes, “Two forces pervade human life, the Gita says: the upward thrust of evolution and the downward pull of our evolutionary past. Ultimately, then, the Gita is not a book of commandments but a book of choices. It does mention sin, but mostly it talks about ignorance and its consequences. Krishna tells Arjuna about the Self, the forces of the mind, the relationship between thought and action, the law of karma, and then concludes, ‘I give you these precious words of wisdom; reflect on them and then do as you choose.’ The struggle is between two halves of human nature, and choices are posed every moment. … Thus the Gita places human destiny entirely in human hands. Its world is not deterministic, but neither is it an expression of blind chance: we shape ourselves and our world by what we believe and think and act on, whether for good or for ill.”

The Bhagavad Gita is arguably the most popular book in the Hindu wisdom tradition. Many people have spoken about how it has changed them. Here are a few:

  • Mahatma Gandhi: “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.” (Gandhi was particularly drawn to the sections of chapter two that we cite below.)
  • Sri Aurobindo: “Bhagavad-Gita is a true scripture of the human race a living creation rather than a book, with a new message for every age and a new meaning for every civilization.”
  • Aldous Huxley: “The most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind.”
  • Henry David Thoreau: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”

The excerpts below are translated by Eknath Easwaran, who sometimes uses the word Self, “spelled with a capital to distinguish it from the individual personality.” He writes “In the unitive state the Self is seen to be one, the same in everyone. This is not a reasoned conclusion; it is something experienced at the very center of one’s being, an inalienable fact. In all persons, all creatures, the Self is the innermost essence.

All sections here show the words of Krishna.

Chapter 2

“Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of their action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

“They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.

Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. … Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.”

“When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes. Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste. But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self.

The disunited mind is far from wise; how can it meditate? How be at peace? When you know no peace, how can you know joy? When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgment as storms drive a boat off its charted course on the sea.

Use all your power to free the senses from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self. Such a sage awakes to the light in the night of creatures. That which the world calls day is the night of ignorance to the wise.

As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage. But this is not so with desirer of desires. 

They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord. This is the supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.”

Chapter 3

“Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”

Chapter 4

“The goal of all work is spiritual wisdom.”

Chapter 5

“The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but wise see them as the same.”

Chapter 6

“When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, they have attained the highest state of spiritual union.”

Chapter 13

“Some realize the Self within them through the practice of meditation, some by the path of wisdom, and others by selfless service.”

Chapter 18

“By devotion to one’s own particular duty, everyone can attain perfection. … It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another.”

“I give you these precious words of wisdom; reflect on them and then do as you choose. These are the last words I shall speak to you, dear one, for your spiritual fulfillment. You are very dear to me.” 

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