Summary of the 18 Chapters
The Bhagavad Gita is an extraordinary articulation of the fundamental truth of Vedanta, that for all of us, the true nature of the ‘I’, the ‘self’, is wholeness. That means the formless and the world of form, God and creation, awareness and what arises in awareness, everything and no-thing. The Vedantic teaching is summarized in the famous mahavakhya “tat tvam asi”, that you are. Infinite, unbounded spaciousness, and all of creation moment by moment, is you! A simple equation. A quite radical statement. It takes the Gita 18 chapters to unfold this knowledge. The first six are about ‘tvam’, you, the student, the seeker of knowledge, with Arjuna serving as the student. The second six are about ‘tat‘, the infinite splendor of the divinity and creation in its fullness. The final six chapters are the equal sign, asi. The seeker is the sought. That Arjuna is no different from Krishna. Krishna understands this from the beginning, Arjuna understands at the end.
Chapters 1 – 6: Arjuna, the student, the seeker of wisdom
Chapter 1: Arjuna’s Despair
The story begins with the battle lines drawn between the armies of the warring cousins, the Dhaartaraastras and the Paandavas. Arjuna is one of the five sons of Pandu, the Pandavas and the good guys in the story. They are upholding dharma, what is right in the way of ruling a kingdom, while their cousins are using deceit and other forms of treachery to maintain power. The Pandavas have done everything possible to negotiate fairly, but the evil cousin Duryodhana still continued to hold the throne illegally. It rightfully belonged to the Pandavas. To uphold dharma, war was necesary.
But Arjuna, upon facing the reality of killing his cousins and family friends, throws up his hands in despair. He has Krishna drive his chariot out into the middle of the field between the two armies and he laments to Krishna that he cannot go through with this. Arjuna represents all seekers. Even Arjuna, raised as a prince, educated, renowned and accomplished is subject to sorrow and confusion.
Verse 28 and 29: Arjuna said: Looking at these people, my own people well stationed in battle position and desirous to fight, my limbs have lost all their strength, my mouth has gone dry, my body is trembling, and the hairs on my body are standing on end.
Chapter 2: Arjuna’s Enquiry
Krishna feels Arjuna’s pain and suffering, but calls him out for whimpering like a child. Arjuna, taken aback by this, explains his dilemma more concisely and finally asks Krishna to help him with this seemingly unresolvable inner conflict. “Sisyaste’ham“, I am your student. In sutra 2-11 the Krishna begins his teaching and the Gita officially commences.
Chapter 2 is the most important of all, as it contains the essence of the whole teaching. It begins with the immutability of aatmaa, which is beyond birth and death. If one were to only master this, success would arrive. From sutras 55 – 72, krishna describes stable wisdom, the living embodiment of an awakened one, a wise one who knows the ‘Truth’ of wholeness. All the knowledge that is needed for enlightenment is presented. Understanding the nature of desire is the key.
Verse 48: Remaining steadfast in yoga, oh! Dhanañjaya, perform actions, abandoning attachment, remaining the same to success and failure alike. This evenness of mind is called yoga.
Chapter 3: On the Nature of Action (Karma)
Arjuna recognizes that he wants total freedom, moksha, enlightenment, nothing less. And yet Krishna has told him to get off his ass and join the battle. In India, there is a strong tradition of sunnyaasa, a life renunciating worldly possessions and rsponsibilities to pursue knowledge. Sometimes this comes after raising a family, but it can come at any time in one’s life. Arjuna tells Krishna that he wants to be a sunnyaasi to gain knowledge. He definitely does not want to fight.
Krishna goes on to explain the nature of action or karma, and describes what ‘karma yoga is. Much of the Vedic tradition revolves around rituals and pujas, ceremonial actions and prayers. Krishna explains that action does not require a ‘doer’, that is a separate egoic self that thinks he or she is ‘acting’. The belief in this separate self is the source of suffering, leading to endless harmful actions in the world. The teaching returns to studying the nature of desire.of likes and dislikes. Not to try to eliminate them, which is just another desire, but to see them for what they are and not be held prisoner by them.
Verse 5: Indeed no one ever exists for even a second without performing action because everyone, being helpless, is made to perform action by the gunas (tamas, rajas and sattva) born of prakriti.
Chapter 4: Karma Yoga: The Renunciation of Action Through Knowledge
Krishna begins by explaining the history of the teaching, how it originated with Isvara (Krishna) and has been handed down from teacher to student over a multitude of generations. An avatar is the absolute divinity manifesting in human body, like Krishna, who appears on the planet when dharma has been disturbed to reawaken timeless knowlege. Krishna has a human form, but is also timeless wisdom. Birth and death are just transitory phenomena and as such he is beyond action. As we will see in the last 6 chapters, this is the truth of all beings. We just don’t know this.
To be truly free one has to recognize that one’s nature is free of all action, unbounded by time and space. (See Yoga Sutras I-2 and I-3). Krishna now goes into levels of reality. There is an empirical reality: the sun moon, stars, birds, bees, flowers and trees etc. Then there is a subjective reality, the projection we create in our mind from our experiences. But ultimately both are expressions of wholeness, a single reality, Brahman. Of interest to yogis, Krishna introduces the gunas, the three qualities of energy, specifically here relating to the types of human minds. Again we see parallels to Patanjali. Krishna explains to Arjuna that when acts in the world from knowledge, from wisdom, one is free. One does not have to drop out of the world to renounce the ‘false self that believes it is acting’. Don’t run off to the Himalayas! Stand up and live the life that is already unfolding.
Verse 24: brahmaarpanam brahmahavirbrahmaagnau brahmanaa hutam
brahmaiva tena gantavyam brahmakarmasamaadhinaa
The means of offering is Brahman. The oblation is Brahman, offered by Brahman, into the fire, which is Brahman. Brahman is indeed to be reached by him who sees everything as Brahman.
Chapter 5: Renunciation: Sannyaasa-Yoga
Arjuna still has doubts. He still believes that renuniciation is the key to liberation, moksha. Krishna has praised both karma yoga and sannyaasa yoga, so Arjuna asks “which is better?” Both lead to liberation but these paths present two very different life-styles. Krishna explains that sannyaasa, although it may look like an easier, faster path, is actually much more difficult, as there is a certain depth of understanding needed before one can truly be a sannyaasi. It is not for beginners. Karma yoga actually prepares one for sannyaasa, but it is not a particular practice, like pranayama. It is your whole life, moment by moment. You cannot spend every moment of your life doing pranayama!
In sutra 5-20 Krishna uses the term sthira-buddhi, one whose knowledge is unshakable. Variations on the Sanskrit root ‘stha’, stable, steady, appear all through the Gita and the Yoga Sutras. In sutra I-3, Patanjali says Tada drashtuhu sva’rupe avasthanam, Then, ones self-knowledge, the recognition of the true nature, the sva-rupe, of the ‘Self”, remains stable. We find in the Gita an 18 chapter elaboration on this sutra. At the end of chapter 5, Krishna introduces dhyana, meditation, as a way to develop stability in the mind. This will be the topic of Chapter 6.
Verse 11: Giving up attachment, karma-yogis perform action purely (without attachment) with the body, mind, intellect, and also by the senses, for the purification of the mind.
Chapter 6: On Meditation (Dhyana)
In Patanjalis first chapter, he distinguishes between two types of meditation (samadhi). The first is with a seed or form (sabija samadhi) to to sustain the mind and weaken the tendencies of the mind to wander into trouble some waters. The second is letting the mind rest in the infinite, nirbija or seedless samadhi. This latter is the meditation Krishna presents to Arjuna. It is resting in grace.
If liberation is giving up action, the sense that ‘I am a doer”, that requires giving up the urge to follow desires. And you can’t give those up unless you know you are already ‘whole’, so how do you break the cycle? One aspect of meditation is the process of noticing habits and tendencies that disturb the peace of the mind. We have been hypnotized by our own confusion and we have to de-hynotize ourselves. A disciplined approach has to be undertaken to overcome the confusion. Krishna describe sitting meditation, in a quiet, clean and uncluttered place, to purify the mind. He again uses the terms sthira and sthitah, to indicate a sense of unwavering steadiness. Thus the yogi becomes free from sorrow.
Verses 34 and 35: Arjuna says: “As we all know, Krishna, the mind is ‘agitation’, a strong, well rooted tyrant. I think of it as impossible to control as the wind.” Krishna replies “No doubt, O mighty-armed (Arjuna), the agitated mind is very difficult to control. But, oh son of Kunti, by abhyaasa (practice) and vairagyam (objectivity), it is mastered.
See PYS I-12 (abhyassa vairagyabyam tan nirodhah)
Chapter 7: Jñaana – Vijñaana Yoga (The complete knowledge of Brahman)
Here jñaana signifies an indirect knowledge, as differentiated from direct knowledge, vijnana, implying that Krishna is revealing the truth of himself, not some other kind of truth. It is immediate, absolute, no questions left, no doubts lingering. Krishna tells Arjuna that this knowledge is rare in the world. Very few seek it at this level, and of the ones who do, still fewer come to full realization. This is said not to scare Arjuna, but to intrigue him.
Krishan introduces the term prakrti but uses the term in a slightly different way from Patanjali. Krishna calls the manifest universe apara prakrti, the world of form, the elements etc. Para prakrti is the unchanging source or primordial cause of the apara prakrti. In the Yoga Sutras, Purusha is the unchanging unmanifest para prakrti but, as the sutras are primarily dualistic, is said to be separate from prakrti in moksha. In Vedanta, there is wholeness, not duality.
Next comes the nature of causation; how the universe comes into being. Krishna says “I am the cause of the entire creation and its ultimate dissolution.” This takes some explanation, teasing apart the unchanging from the transient forms that come and go, and yet seeing that they are not different or separate, but just different orders of reality. Krishna recognizes that is is easy to get lost in the world of form, maya, and lose the unchanging infinite source, and offers devotion as a way to find the divine in the ordinary.
Verse 1: Sri Bhagavan said: O Paartha, please listen to the way in which you will know me totally, without any doubt, by taking to yoga, with a mind committed to Me and having surrendered to Me.
Chapter 8 Askara Brahma Yoga (Limitless Brahman)
At the end of chapter 7 Krishna introduces the word Brahman and describes how a wise man, even at the time of death, recognizes ultimate truth. Arjuna begins chapter 8 by asking about Brahman and what happens at death. Krishna returns to contemplation on Parameshvara and adds the chanting OM to realize Brahman. A discussion of the nature the celestial realms (lokas) and cosmic time scales (yugas), and the cycles of birth and death help Arjuna distinguish between the world of change and the unchanging Brahman. Death does not grant moksha, only knowledge can do that. Prayers and rituals alone cannot grant moksha, even though they are desirable. Brahma-vidyaa, direct knowledge of Brahman alone brings freedom. This chapter is compared to the Upanishads, whose subject matter is also Brahma-vidyaa.
Verse 8: O! Partha, reflecting as he was taught, with a mind endowed with the practice of yoga, with a mind that does not stray to anything else, he reaches the limitless, self-effulgent person. (Purusha)
Chapter 9: The King of all Knowledge, The King of Secrets
In the previous chapter, Krishna mentions the brahma lokha, but wants to clarify that getting to heaven is not moksha. Only through knowledge, Brahma-Vidya, which Krishna has been unfolding since chapter 2 is this possible. But there is many ways to become confused or lost, in the world of time and space, of body, mind, ritual and desire. The knowledge is said to be secret because even if you hear the teachings, it is rarely understood. Also, it is not arrived at by the normal means of acquiring knowledge, like perception or inference. But with total commitment, compassion, faith, grace and devotion, success is near. A mature mind is needed for spiritual knowledge and these virtues, when cultivated, lead to maturity.
Verse 14: Those who are always appreciating Me, and amking the neccessary efforts, whose commitment is firm and who remain surrendered to Me with devotion, who are always united to ME (with a prayerful heart) seek Me.
Chapter 10: The Glories of Bhaagavan
Everything is Bhagavan, the Divinity, and the name used for Krishna throughout the Gita. Bhagavan means one who has bhaga, the six aspects of fullness, or the six absolute virtues. They are all riches, all strength, all fame, all beauty, all knowledge, and all renunciation. All pursuits are ultimately the pursuit of Bhagavan, atmaa, Brahman. Bhagavan is not only all forms, all manifestations, all creation, but also the source, the creator, who remains unmoved, aham sthitah, amidst the impermanence.
Verse 19: Well now, O! Best of the Kurus, Arjuna. I will tell you My divine glories in keeping with their importance; because there is no end to a detailed description of My glories.
At the end of Chapter 10, Krishna states that ‘Pervading the entire universe with one pada (foot), I remain.” Arjuna wants to see Krishna (Ishvara) as the entire Universe. Of course Arjuna wants a magic trick, or at least he thinks he does. Seeing the cosmic form requires knowledge, as it not available to the physical eyes, except in a highly limited sense. Krishna gives Arjuna a ‘special eye’ so that he may ‘see’ the ‘fullness’ of Bhagavan. Arjuna’s hair stands on end as he sees into infinity, endless forms, blazing suns, countless arms, mouths, devas, devils, saints and saddhus, heaven and hell. All the warriors. including Arjunas allies and enemies are seen being consumed. Ishvara is not only the creator but the destroyer of all as well. Arjuna expresses his fear as well as awe. He offers his salutations, his apologies for not seeing. And, he asks, ‘please return to your original form’. Krishna returns to his ‘human’ form and Arjuna relaxes a bit. In the final verse, Krishna again articulates the path of karma yoga to Arjuna.
Verse 55: Among all people, the one who does all action for My sake, for whom I am paramount, who is devoted to Me, free from attachment and free from enmity comes to Me, Arjuna.
Chapter 12: Bhakti – Devotion
The word bhakti comes from the root ‘bhaj’ meaning service. Dedicated action to Ishvara, who is in the form of dharma is called bhakti. The question arises because Arjuna is still confused about the difference between sannyaasa and karma. He wants knowledge, but is called to duty, to go to war to defend the dharma of the citizens. He still thinks sannyaasa is superior as a means of self knowledge. Krishna explains that it is the attitude with which one goes about hsi daiy activities that leads to self knowledge. This attitude is devotion or bhakti.
Verses 8 and 9: In Me alone you may place the mind; into Me you will make the intellect enter. Thereafter there is no doubt that you will abide in Me alone. Then (if) you are not able to absorb your mind steadily in Me, then through the practice of yoga may you reach Me Arjuna. See Patanjali Yoga Sutras, I-3.
Chapters 13 – 18: The Jiva is Ishvara
Chapter 13: The Nature of the Knower and the Known
What is the nature of purusha and prakriti, the knower and the known? Other terms that carry the same meaniing have been used and Arjuna has some confusion, so he also asks about the kshetra (prakriti), kshetrajña and jñeya (both purusha) and jñana (the means of knowing. We find a very similar discussion in the Yoga Sutras, but Krisha begins by discussing kshetra and kshetrajña because those words do not have the connotations imposed upon purusha and prakriti by the Sankhyas. Krishna also discusses jñaana, especially in relationship to the values and attitudes of a mind that is mature and ready for knowledge (brahma-vidya).
Verse 12: What is to be known, that I will tell clearly, knowing, which one gains deathlessness, that Brahman, which, it s said, has no beginning, is limitless, neither existent (as an object) nor non-existent.
Chapter 14: The Division of the Three Gunas
What are the gunas? How do they bind one ? How can one be released from them. As is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the understanding the nature of the gunas is fundamental in liberation. Krishna describes the coming into being of creation, the known universe, the birth of prakrti and the gunas. Vedanta however does not consider prakrti, the material cause, the substance, to be separate or independent from Purusha, the unchanging source. In Vedanta, the word Brahman describes the eternal unchanging presence who, in the form of maya, appears as Ishvara, the totality of creation in all of its dynamism and wisdom. Gunas appear and disappear. Brahman alone remains. Atman is Brahman. The Jiva is Brahman. This is Brahma vidya, seeing the Truth of Self.
Verse 9: O! Bhaarata, sattva binds in the form of pleasure, rajas in the form of action. But tamas, covering knowledge, binds indeed in the form of apathy.
Chapter 15: Everything is the Self (Sarvaatmaa)
This a short chapter, only 20 slokas. Included are the tree of samsara, the nature of the jiva, (the individual being), the subtle body and reincarnation, the need for maturity, the all illuminating light, perishable and the imperishable. Detachment is listed as the key to seeing through the delusion of samsara, that the “I” is limited and inadequate.
Verse 15: And I have entered the hearts of all. From Me (have come) memory, knowledge, and forgetfulness. I am alone the one to be known by all the Vedas and I alone am the author of the Vedaanta and the knower of the Vedas.
Chapter 16: Favorable and Unfavorable Dispositions
What is the mind set that naturally moves one toward spiritual enquiry, and what is the opposite mind set? Indian literature is full of stories of battles between the devas (angels) and asuras (devils), representing the inner conflict in the human mind between good and evil. In chapter 16 Krishna uses devas and asuras to high-lite qualities to aspire to and qualities to avoid. Spiritual wealth, the wealth of the devas, accumulates as one nurtures certain values and these values need to be understood, not just mindlessly followed. Krishna lists 26 of these in the opening verses, some to be repeated again in chapter 17. Then Krishna lists the qualities of someone ‘born to the wealth of the asuras’. These include hypocrisy with reference to dharma, pride, harshness, the tendency to demand respect and pretensiousness. He lists desire, anger and greed as the trinity to give up. He then explains how behaviors arise out of these qualities and how to cultivate the positive ones by following the teachings of the Vedas, the shastra.
Verse 22: A man who is free from these three gates to darkness, Arjuna, follows what is good for himself. Because of that he reaches the highest end.
Chapter 17: Three-Fold Sraddhaa
From chapter 16, Arjuna wants to know why people are drawn to behave the way they do. Krishna use the term ‘shraddhaa to help explain. Shraddhaa is more than faith, but includes an element of devotion, of dharma, or prayer. It does not translate easily into English, but it is the key word in chapter 17. The three-fold element refers to tamas, rajas, and sattva, in respect to the human mind. What is the shraddhaa of one with a tamasic temperment? a rajasic temperment, a sattvic temperment? What types of foods do they eat? What types of rituals do they perform? These questions and more Krishna answers Arjuna who asks about the performance of Vedic rituals. He wants to know if they are part of the yoga-shastra, the path of awakening. Krishna goes on the explain the moral and ethical imperatives of devotion, like the yamas and niyamas of the Sutras. Included are ahimsa (non-violence), sauca (cleanliness), straightforwardness (aarjava), brahmacharya (restraint in all actions) vaktapas (wise use of words), manahprasaadah (mental cheerfulness, like citta prasaadah in PYS I-33), maunum (not talking unnecessarily), dana (generosity). Finally Krishna explains ‘om tat sat’, the three fold expression of Brahman.
Verse 16: Mental cheerfulness, cheerfulness in expression, absence of pressure to talk, mastery over the mind, clean intent – this (these together) is called mental discipline.
This is the longest chapter, 78 verses and Krishna’s teaching ends with a restatement of the first teaching verse. “Giving up all karmas, take refuge in Me alone. I will release you from all karma; do not grieve”. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras also give ‘Ishvara Pranidhana‘, surrender to Ishvara, the Divinity , a mojor role on overcoming the impediments to ‘drashtuh svarupe avasthanam‘, resting in the True Nature of the ‘Self’, the definition of yoga in PYS I-3. Essentially this chapter summarizes all the major teachings in the Vedas.
The Fundamental teachings of the Gita involve karma, sannyaasa and moksha. The path of karma, or karma yoga, is being in the world, accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, keeping with dharma, performed with bhakti (devotion), not to acquire results, but for liberation, moksha. Sannyaasa is living a life outside of the normal worldly demands, solely in pursuit of knowledge to attain moksha. As Krishna repeats again and again, both are valid pursuits for gaining liberation, enlightenment, freedom from suffering, or however else we might describe knowledge of the True Self. Another way of describing the teaching is two-fold; brahma-vidyaa and yoga-shaastra. Brahma-vidya is direct knowledge of the Self, atman is Brahman. Yoga-shastra refers to the preparatory practices and actions that prepare the seeker for Brahma-vidya.
Verse 73: Arjuna said: By your grace, (my) delusion is gone; and I have gained recognition (of myself). Acyuta (Krishna), I remain as one from whom all doubts have gone. I will do what you say.