reading paper


t h e b h a g a va d g i t a ╯

On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort

toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear. (2:40)

Also in Th is Series

t h e d h a m m a p a d a

t h e u p a n i s h a d s

Th e Bhagavad Gita ╭

Introduced &

Translated by

E k n at h E a s wa r a n

Nilgiri Press

© 1985, 2007 by Th e Blue Mountain Center of Meditation

All rights reserved. Printed in Canada

Second edition. First printing May 2007

i s b n – 1 3 : 978–1–58638–019–9

i s b n – 1 0 : 1–58638–019–2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2006934966

Printed on recycled paper

Eknath Easwaran founded the Blue Mountain Center of

Meditation in Berkeley, California, in 1961. Th e Center

is a nonprofi t organization chartered with carrying on

Easwaran’s legacy and work. Nilgiri Press, a department

of the Center, publishes books on how to lead a spiritual

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retreats worldwide.

For information please visit, call

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╭ Table of Contents

Foreword 7

Introduction 13

1 The War Within 71

2 Self-Realization 83

3 Selfl ess Service 99

4 Wisdom in Action 111

5 Renounce & Rejoice 123

6 The Practice of Meditation 133

7 Wisdom from Realization 147

8 The Eternal Godhead 157

9 The Royal Path 169

10 Divine Splendor 179

11 The Cosmic Vision 191

12 The Way of Love 203

13 The Field & the Knower 211

14 The Forces of Evolution 221

15 The Supreme Self 229

16 Two Paths 235

17 The Power of Faith 243

18 Freedom & Renunciation 251

Notes 267

Glossary 277

Index 289

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7 ╯

f o r e w o r d

╭ The Classics of Indian Spirituality

I m a g i n e a va s t hall in Anglo-Saxon England, not long aft er the passing of King Arthur. It is the dead of winter and a fi erce snowstorm rages outside, but a great fi re fi lls the space within the hall with warmth and light. Now and then, a sparrow darts in for refuge from the weather. It appears as if from nowhere, fl its about joyfully in the light, and then disappears again, and where it comes from and where it goes next in that stormy darkness, we do not know.

Our lives are like that, suggests an old story in Bede’s medi- eval history of England. We spend our days in the familiar world of our fi ve senses, but what lies beyond that, if anything, we have no idea. Th ose sparrows are hints of something more outside – a vast world, perhaps, waiting to be explored. But most of us are happy to stay where we are. We may even be a bit afraid to venture into the unknown. What would be the point, we ask. Why should we leave the world we know?

Yet there are always a few who are not content to spend their lives indoors. Simply knowing there is something un-

known beyond their reach makes them acutely restless. Th ey have to see what lies outside – if only, as George Mallory said of Everest, “because it’s there.”

Th is is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not mountains or jungles but con- sciousness itself: whose real drive, we might say, is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower. Such men and women can be found in every age and every culture. While the rest of us stay put, they quietly slip out to see what lies beyond.

Th en, so far as we can tell, they disappear. We have no idea where they have gone; we can’t even imagine. But every now and then, like friends who have run off to some exotic land, they send back reports: breathless messages describing fan- tastic adventures, rambling letters about a world beyond ordi- nary experience, urgent telegrams begging us to come and see. “Look at this view! Isn’t it breathtaking? Wish you could see this. Wish you were here.”

Th e works in this set of translations – the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Dhammapada – are among the earli- est and most universal of messages like these, sent to inform us that there is more to life than the everyday experience of our senses. Th e Upanishads are the oldest, so varied that we feel some unknown collectors must have tossed into a jumble all the photos, postcards, and letters from this world that they could fi nd, without any regard for source or circumstance.

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Th e Bhagavad Gita ╯

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Th rown together like this, they form a kind of ecstatic slide- show – snapshots of towering peaks of consciousness taken at various times by diff erent observers and dispatched with just the barest kind of explanation. But those who have traveled those heights will recognize the views: “Oh, yes, that’s Ever- est from the northwest – must be late spring. And here we’re south, in the full snows of winter.”

Th e Dhammapada, too, is a collection – traditionally, say- ings of the Buddha, one of the very greatest of these explorers of consciousness. In this case the messages have been sorted, but not by a scheme that makes sense to us today. Instead of being grouped by theme or topic, they are gathered according to some dominant characteristic like a symbol or metaphor – fl owers, birds, a river, the sky – that makes them easy to com- mit to memory. If the Upanishads are like slides, the Dham- mapada seems more like a fi eld guide. Th is is lore picked up by someone who knows every step of the way through these strange lands. He can’t take us there, he explains, but he can show us the way: tell us what to look for, warn about missteps, advise us about detours, tell us what to avoid. Most important, he urges us that it is our destiny as human beings to make this journey ourselves. Everything else is secondary.

And the third of these classics, the Bhagavad Gita, gives us a map and guidebook. It gives a systematic overview of the territory, shows various approaches to the summit with their benefi ts and pitfalls, off ers recommendations, tells us what to

pack and what to leave behind. More than either of the oth- ers, it gives the sense of a personal guide. It asks and answers the questions that you or I might ask – questions not about philosophy or mysticism, but about how to live eff ectively in a world of challenge and change. Of these three, it is the Gita that has been my own personal guidebook, just as it was Mahatma Gandhi’s.

Th ese three texts are very personal records of a land- scape that is both real and universal. Th eir voices, passion- ately human, speak directly to you and me. Th ey describe the topography of consciousness itself, which belongs as much to us today as to these largely anonymous seers thousands of years ago. If the landscape seems dark in the light of sense perception, they tell us, it has an illumination of its own, and once our eyes adjust we can see in what Western mystics call this “divine dark” and verify their descriptions for ourselves.

And this world, they insist, is where we belong. Th is wider fi eld of consciousness is our native land. We are not cabin- dwellers, born to a life cramped and confi ned; we are meant to explore, to seek, to push the limits of our potential as human beings. Th e world of the senses is just a base camp: we are meant to be as much at home in consciousness as in the world of physical reality.

Th is is a message that thrills men and women in every age and culture. It is for such kindred spirits that these texts were originally composed, and it is for them in our own time that

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Th e Bhagavad Gita ╯

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I undertook these translations, in the conviction that they deserve an audience today as much as ever. If these books speak to even a handful of such readers, they will have served their purpose.

13 ╯

i n t r o d u c t i o n

╭ The Bhagavad Gita

M a n y y e a r s a g o , when I was still a graduate student, I traveled by train from central India to Simla, then the summer seat of the British government in India. We had not been long out of Delhi when suddenly a chattering of voices disturbed my reverie. I asked the man next to me if something had happened. “Kurukshetra!” he replied. “Th e next stop is Kurukshetra!”

I could understand the excitement. Kurukshetra, “the fi eld of the Kurus,” is the setting for the climactic battle of the Mahabharata, the vastest epic in any world literature, on which virtually every Hindu child in India is raised. Its char- acters, removed in time by some three thousand years, are as familiar to us as our relatives. Th e temper of the story is utterly contemporary; I can imagine it unfolding in the nuclear age as easily as in the dawn of Indian history. Th e Mahabharata is literature at its greatest – in fact, it has been called a literature in itself, comparable in its breadth and depth and character- ization to the whole of Greek literature or Shakespeare. But

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what makes it unique is that embedded in this literary mas- terpiece is one of the fi nest mystical documents the world has seen: the Bhagavad Gita.

I must have heard the Gita recited thousands of times when I was growing up, but I don’t suppose it had any special signifi cance for me then. Not until I went to college and met Mahatma Gandhi did I begin to understand why nothing in the long, rich stretch of Indian culture has had a wider appeal, not only within India but outside as well. Today, aft er more than thirty years of devoted study, I would not hesitate to call it India’s most important gift to the world. Th e Gita has been translated into every major language and perhaps a hundred times into English alone; commentaries on it are said to be more numerous than on any other scripture. Like the Sermon on the Mount, it has an immediacy that sweeps away time, place, and circumstance. Addressed to everyone, of whatever background or status, the Gita distills the loft iest truths of India’s ancient wisdom into simple, memorable poetry that haunts the mind and informs the aff airs of everyday life.

Everyone in our car got down from the train to wander for a few minutes on the now peaceful fi eld. Th ousands of years ago this was Armageddon. Th e air rang with the conch-horns and shouts of battle for eighteen days. Great phalanxes shaped like eagles and fi sh and the crescent moon surged back and forth in search of victory, until in the end almost every war- rior in the land lay slain.

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“Imagine!” my companion said to me in awe. “Bhishma and Drona commanded their armies here. Arjuna rode here, with Sri Krishna himself as his charioteer. Where you’re standing now – who knows? – Arjuna might have sat, his bow and arrows on the ground, while Krishna gave him the words of the Bhagavad Gita.”

Th e thought was thrilling. I felt the way Schliemann must have when he fi nally reached that desolate bluff of western Turkey and knew he was standing “on the ringing plains of windy Troy,” walking the same ground as Achilles, Odys- seus, Hector, and Helen. Yet at the same time, I felt I knew the setting of the Gita much more intimately than I could ever know this peaceful fi eld. Th e battlefi eld is a perfect backdrop, but the Gita’s subject is the war within, the struggle for self- mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious.


Historians surmise that like the Iliad , the Mahabharata might well be based on actual events, culmi- nating in a war that took place somewhere around 1000 B.C.

– close, that is, to the very dawn of recorded Indian history. Th is guess has recently been supported by excavations at the ancient city of Dvaraka, which, according to the Mahabharata, was destroyed and submerged in the sea aft er the departure of its divine ruler, Krishna. Only fi ve hundred years or so before

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this, by generally accepted guess, Aryan tribes originally from the area between the Caspian Sea and the Hindu Kush moun- tains had migrated into the Indian subcontinent, bringing the prototype of the Sanskrit language and countless elements of belief and culture that have been part of the Hindu tradition ever since. Th e oldest part of the most ancient of Hindu scrip- tures, the Rig Veda, dates from this period – about 1500 B.C., if not earlier.

Yet the wellspring of Indian religious faith, I believe, can be traced to a much earlier epoch. When the Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent through the mountains of the Hindu Kush, they encountered a civilization on the banks of the Indus river that archeologists date back as far as 3000 B.C. Roughly contemporaneous with the pyramid-builders on the Nile, these Indus-dwellers achieved a comparable level of technology. Th ey had metalworkers skilled in sheet-making, riveting, and casting of copper and bronze, craft s and indus- tries with standardized methods of production, land and sea trade with cultures as far away as Mesopotamia, and well- planned cities with water supply and public sanitation sys- tems unequaled until the Romans. Evidence suggests that they may have used a decimal system of measurement. But most remarkable, images of Shiva as Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yoga, suggest that meditation was practiced in a civilization which fl ourished a millennium before the Vedas were com- mitted to an oral tradition.

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If this is so, it would imply that the same systematic atti- tude the Indus Valley dwellers applied to their technology was applied also to study of the mind. Th is was brahmavidya, the

“supreme science” – supreme because where other sciences studied the external world, brahmavidya sought knowledge of an underlying reality which would inform all other studies and activities.

Whatever its origins, in the early part of the fi rst millen- nium B.C. we fi nd clearly stated both the methods and the discoveries of brahmavidya. With this introspective tool the inspired rishis (literally “seers”) of ancient India analyzed their awareness of human experience to see if there was anything in it that was absolute. Th eir fi ndings can be summarized in three statements which Aldous Huxley, following Leibnitz, has called the Perennial Philosophy because they appear in every age and civilization: (1) there is an infi nite, changeless reality beneath the world of change; (2) this same reality lies at the core of every human personality; (3) the purpose of life is to discover this reality experientially: that is, to realize God while here on earth. Th ese principles and the interior experi- ments for realizing them were taught systematically in “forest academies” or ashrams – a tradition which continues unbro- ken aft er some three thousand years.

Th e discoveries of brahmavidya were systematically com- mitted to memory (and eventually to writing) in the Upani- shads, visionary documents that are the earliest and purest

Th e Bhagavad Gita ╯

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statement of the Perennial Philosophy. How many of these precious records once existed no one knows; a dozen that date from Vedic times have survived as part of the Hindu canon of authority, the four Vedas. All have one unmistakable hall- mark: the vivid stamp of personal mystical experience. Th ese are records of direct encounter with the divine. Tradition calls them shruti : literally “heard,” as opposed to learned; they are their own authority. By convention, only the Vedas (includ- ing their Upanishads) are considered shruti, based on direct knowledge of God.

According to this defi nition, all other Indian scriptures – including the Gita – are secondary, dependent on the higher authority of the Vedas. However, this is a conventional dis- tinction and one that might disguise the nature of the docu- ments it classifi es. In the literal sense the Gita too is shruti, owing its authority not to other scriptures but to the fact that it set down the direct mystical experience of a single author. Shankara, a towering mystic of the ninth century A.D. whose word carries the authority of Augustine, Eckhart, and Aqui- nas all in one, must have felt this, for in selecting the mini- mum sources of Hinduism he passed over almost a hundred Upanishads of Vedic authority to choose ten central Upani- shads and the Bhagavad Gita.

Th e Gita, I would argue, is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my con- jecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer (tradition-

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ally Vyasa) and inserted into the epic at the appropriate place. Other elements were added in this way to the Mahabharata, and to other popular secondary scriptures; it is an eff ective way of preserving new material in an oral tradition. Th ere is also traditional weight behind this idea, for as far back as any- one can trace, each chapter of the Gita has ended with the same formula: “In the Bhagavad-Gita Upanishad, the text on the supreme science [ brahmavidya ] of yoga, this is the chap- ter entitled . . .”

Finally, by way of further support, we can observe that except for its fi rst chapter, which sets the stage, the Gita not only does not develop the action of the Mahabharata but is rather at odds with it. Battle lines are drawn – the climax of decades of dissension – and on the eve of combat, Prince Arjuna loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do. Th en what? Krishna – no ordinary charioteer, but an incarnation of God – enters into some seven hundred verses of sublime instruction on the nature of the soul and its relation to God, the levels of consciousness and reality, the makeup of the phenomenal world, and so on, culminating in a stu- pendous mystical experience in which he reveals himself to Arjuna as the transcendent Lord of life and death. He coun- sels Arjuna to be compassionate to friend and enemy alike, to see himself in every person, to suff er others’ sorrows as his own. Th en the Gita is over, the narration picks up again, and battle is joined – a terrible, desperate slaughter compromising

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everyone’s honor, by the end of which Arjuna’s side emerges victorious. But almost every man of fi ghting age on both sides has been slain. Only great genius would have placed the Gita in such a dramatic setting, but it stands out from the rest as a timeless, practical manual for daily living.

To those who take this dramatic setting as part of the spiri- tual instruction and get entangled in the question of the Gita justifying war, Gandhi had a practical answer: just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically and see if you fi nd killing or even hurting others compatible with its teach- ings. (He makes the same point of the Sermon on the Mount.) Th e very heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and act accordingly, and the scripture is full of verses to spell out what this means:

I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. Th ey worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me. (6:30–31)

When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union. (6:32)

Th at one I love who is incapable of ill will, who is friendly and compassionate. (12:13)

Th ey alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every

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creature, who see the deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Th us they attain the supreme goal. (13:27–28)

Scholars can debate the point forever, but when the Gita is practiced, I think, it becomes clear that the struggle the Gita is concerned with is the struggle for self-mastery. It was Vyasa’s genius to take the whole great Mahabharata epic and see it as metaphor for the perennial war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in every human heart. Arjuna and Krishna are then no longer merely characters in a liter- ary masterpiece. Arjuna becomes Everyman, asking the Lord himself, Sri Krishna, the perennial questions about life and death – not as a philosopher, but as the quintessential man of action. Th us read, the Gita is not an external dialogue but an internal one: between the ordinary human personality, full of questions about the meaning of life, and our deepest Self, which is divine.

Th ere is, in fact, no other way to read the Gita and grasp it as spiritual instruction. If I could off er only one key to under- standing this divine dialogue, it would be to remember that it takes place in the depths of consciousness and that Krishna is not some external being, human or superhuman, but the spark of divinity that lies at the core of the human personality. Th is is not literary or philosophical conjecture; Krishna says

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as much to Arjuna over and over: “I am the Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence” (10:20).

In such statements the Gita distills the essence of the Upa- nishads, not piecemeal but comprehensively, off ering their loft y insights as a manual not of philosophy but of everyday human activity – a handbook of the Perennial Philosophy unique in world history.


Th e Gita, naturally enough, takes for granted that its audience is familiar with the basic ideas of Hindu reli- gious thought, almost all of which can be found in the Upa- nishads. It also uses some technical vocabulary from yoga psychology. All this needs to be explained in contemporary terms if the modern reader is to grasp what is essential and timeless in the Gita’s message and not get bogged down in strange terminology.

First, however, the non-Hindu faces a third obstacle: the multiplicity of names used for aspects of God. From the ear- liest times, Hinduism has proclaimed one God while accom- modating worship of him (or her, for to millions God is the Divine Mother) in many diff erent names. “Truth is one,” says a famous verse of the Rig Veda; “people call it by various names.” Monastic devotees might fi nd that Shiva embodies the austere detachment they seek; devotees who want to live

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“in the world,” partaking of its innocent pleasures but devoted to service of their fellow creatures, might fi nd in Krishna the perfect incarnation of their ideals. In every case, this clothing of the Infi nite in human form serves to focus a devotee’s love and to provide an inspiring ideal. But whatever form is wor- shipped, it is only an aspect of the same one God.

In the Gita – in fact, virtually everywhere in Hindu myth and scripture – we also encounter “the gods” in the plural. Th ese are the devas, deities which seem to have come in with the Aryans and which have recognizable counterparts in other Aryan-infl uenced cultures: Indra, god of war and storm; Var- una, god of waters and a moral overseer; Agni, god of fi re, the Hermes-like intermediary between heaven and earth; and so on. Th e Gita refers to the devas as being worshipped by those who want to propitiate natural and supernatural powers, in much the same way that ancestors were worshipped. In mod- ern terms, they can best be understood as personifying the forces of nature.

Th is question out of the way, we can proceed to the Upani- shadic background the Gita assumes.

Atman and Brahman

Th e Upanishads are not systematic philosophy; they are more like ecstatic slide shows of mystical experience

– vivid, disjointed, stamped with the power of direct personal encounter with the divine. If they seem to embrace contra-

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dictions, that is because they do not try to smooth over the seams of these experiences. Th ey simply set down what the rishis saw, viewing the ultimate reality from diff erent levels of spiritual awareness, like snapshots of the same object from diff erent angles: now seeing God as utterly transcendent, for example, now seeing God as immanent as well. Th ese diff er- ences are not important, and the Upanishads agree on their central ideas: Brahman, the Godhead; Atman, the divine core of personality; dharma, the law that expresses and maintains the unity of creation; karma, the web of cause and eff ect; sam- sara, the cycle of birth and death; moksha, the spiritual libera- tion that is life’s supreme goal.

Even while ancient India was making breakthroughs in the natural sciences and mathematics, the sages of the Upa- nishads were turning inward to analyze the data that nature presents to the mind. Penetrating below the senses, they found not a world of solid, separate objects but a ceaseless process of change – matter coming together, dissolving, and coming together again in a diff erent form. Below this fl ux of things with “name and form,” however, they found something changeless: an infi nite, indivisible reality in which the tran- sient data of the world cohere. Th ey called this reality Brah- man: the Godhead, the divine ground of existence.

Th is analysis of the phenomenal world tallies well enough with contemporary physics. A physicist would remind us that the things we see “out there” are not ultimately separate

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from each other and from us; we perceive them as separate because of the limitations of our senses. If our eyes were sen- sitive to a much fi ner spectrum, we might see the world as a continuous fi eld of matter and energy. Nothing in this picture resembles a solid object in our usual sense of the word. “Th e external world of physics,” wrote Sir Arthur Eddington, “has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions we remove the substance, for indeed we have seen that sub- stance is one of the greatest of our illusions.” Like the phys- icists, these ancient sages were seeking an invariant. Th ey found it in Brahman.

In examining our knowledge of ourselves, the sages made a similar discovery. Instead of a single coherent personal- ity, they found layer on layer of components – senses, emo- tions, will, intellect, ego – each in fl ux. At diff erent times and in diff erent company, the same person seems to have diff erent personalities. Moods shift and fl icker, even in those who are emotionally stable; desires and opinions change with time. Change is the nature of the mind. Th e sages observed this fl ow of thoughts and sensations and asked, “Th en where am I? ” Th e parts do not add up to a whole; they just fl ow by. Like physical phenomena, the mind is a fi eld of forces, no more the seat of intelligence than radiation or gravity is. Just as the world dissolves into a sea of energy, the mind dissolves into a river of impressions and thoughts, a fl ow of fragmentary data that do not hold together.

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Western philosophers have reasoned their way to a simi- lar conclusion, but with them it was an intellectual exercise. David Hume confesses that whenever he was forced to con- clude that his empirical ego was insubstantial, he went out for a walk, had a good dinner, and forgot all about it. For these ancient sages, however, these were not logical conclusions but personal discoveries. Th ey were actually exploring the mind, testing each level of awareness by withdrawing consciousness to the level below. In profound meditation, they found, when consciousness is so acutely focused that it is utterly with- drawn from the body and mind, it enters a kind of singularity in which the sense of a separate ego disappears. In this state, the supreme climax of meditation, the seers discovered a core of consciousness beyond time and change. Th ey called it sim- ply Atman, the Self.

I have described the discovery of Atman and Brahman – God immanent and God transcendent – as separate, but there is no …