The Bhagavad Gita forms a section of the sixth book of the Mahabharata, an important Sanskrit epic in the Hindu tradition that recounts a lengthy struggle and brief war between two sides of the Bharata family—the Pandavas and the Kauravas—over their kingdom of Hastinapura. The Gita recounts a dialogue in the moments leading up to the war between the Pandava warrior Arjuna and his charioteer and trusted advisor, Krishna, who turns out to be a worldly incarnation of Vishnu, a god who serves as the Supreme Being in many forms of Hinduism. However, Arjuna and Krishna’s dialogue is actually recounted through a frame story: Sanjaya, an advisor to Dhritarashtra (the Kauravas’ father and the blind king of Hastinapura), reports this dialogue to the king after the Pandavas have already won the war.
In the first of the Gita’s eighteen sections or discourses, Sanjaya describes the extensive Pandava and Kaurava armies that meet to fight on the “field of dharma.” While the Kauravas have more men, the Pandavas seem to have the gods’ favor, as they respond to the Kauravas’ impressive conch horns with divine ones that shake the earth and sky. As Krishna drives Arjuna’s chariot into the middle of the battlefield, Arjuna realizes that he cannot bear to kill his cousins, which he believes would destroy the dharma, or moral standing, of his entire family and poison any pleasure he might derive from victory. He lowers his weapon and begins to weep.
Krishna reprimands Arjuna at the beginning of the second discourse, calling him a coward and suggesting that he is blind to the fundamental truth that people’s souls do not die with their bodies. Rather, the eternal soul is reincarnated in another body, so Arjuna should not grieve for his family members but instead follow his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior) by fighting. If he wins the war, Arjuna will rule the earth; if he loses, he will ascend to heaven; but if he refuses to fight, he will disgrace himself. In addition to grasping these truths intellectually, Krishna says that people can learn to stop clinging to the fruits of action, turn away from the false realm of the senses, and free themselves from negative emotions by practicing yoga. Each of these routes promises to help people dissolve their sense of self, transcend the material world, and blissfully reunite with the absolute being called Brahman.
In the third discourse, Arjuna asks why Krishna wants him to act if he believes that enlightenment comes from restraining one’s impulse to action. Krishna argues that everyone must act by virtue of being in the world, but that these actions are the workings of material elements called gunas rather than the will of the individual soul. The only pure form of action is sacrifice to the gods, which leads the gods to sustain human life on earth.
Krishna begins to reveal his true nature to Arjuna in the fourth discourse: he is eternal, intervenes in the universe whenever necessary to maintain dharma, and dedicates himself to those who perform sacrifices for him—especially those who sacrifice their knowledge by surrendering it to him.
In the fifth discourse, Arjuna notes that the renunciation of action (samnyasa) and yoga (which is a form of action) seem to be opposites, yet Krishna considers both as viable means to enlightenment. Krishna replies that yoga is a means to renunciation, because it allows people to overcome their ignorant motivations for action. In the sixth discourse, Krishna explains that this meditative yogic discipline allows people to understand their unity in Brahman with all other beings, which can lead them to transcend the cycle of rebirth (samsara) or, at the very least, reincarnate into purer bodies.
In the seventh discourse, Krishna explains that he truly encompasses everything, from all the material things that comprise the earth to his higher being, the force that creates and dissolves the world. His true being is formless, timeless, and beyond all dualities; he loves the wise few who understand these fundamentals. In discourse eight, Krishna suggests that people can transcend rebirth and join him directly if they learn to fix their minds on him constantly, and particularly at the moment of death. The ninth discourse expands on Krishna’s all-pervasive nature, absolute power over the world, and providence over those who worship him.
In the tenth and eleventh discourses, Krishna turns from an intellectual explanation of his power to concrete demonstrations of it. The god professes his love for Arjuna, who in return acknowledges him as the highest being of all and asks about his divine forms. Krishna begins to enumerate these forms, declaring himself the greatest of each kind of thing, person, and force that exists in the world as well as the characteristics in virtue of which such kinds exist at all—he is wisdom among the wise and authority among rulers, silence among the hidden and “the ancient seed of all beings.” But Krishna’s numerous descriptions barely scratch the surface of his infinite power; he shows himself to Krishna in the eleventh discourse, taking on a form with innumerable eyes, mouths, and limbs that seems to contain everything, including infinite light, all the Bharata warriors, the entire world, and all the other gods. Arjuna worships Krishna with shock and fear, apologizing for his ignorance and asking the “Incomparable One” for mercy and patience. Krishna notes that nobody—not even the gods—has seen this form before.
After securing Arjuna’s eternal fealty, Krishna goes on to explain that it is easier for devotees to worship his embodied forms than to grasp his true, formless self and offers practical advice for Hindus of different dispositions in his twelfth discourse. In the thirteenth, he distinguishes the body from the eternal, immaterial soul that bears various bodies on its way to enlightenment. The gunas that comprise the body and bind the soul to it—sattva (purity), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance)—are the subject of Krishna’s fourteenth discourse. By relinquishing rajas and tamas for the sake of sattva, people can rise up toward disembodiment through the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). Krishna begins the following discourse with the image of a holy ashvattha tree whose roots can be severed by “the strong axe / of non-clinging”—again, by relinquishing one’s attachments to action, one can overcome even the most firmly rooted connections to the world and integrate oneself into the indestructible, eternal spirit that lies behind apparent reality.
In his sixteenth discourse, Krishna distinguishes characteristics of the divine person nearing enlightenment—like truthfulness, self-control, discipline, compassion, and courage—from those of greedy, angry, demonic people who turn away from Vedic laws and elevate desire above God. Arjuna asks Krishna to elaborate on Vedic rituals in the seventeenth discourse, and the Lord tells him that sattvic people perform sacrifices according to Vedic law in order to honor the gods and without any simultaneous material goals. He also outlines three forms of food, bodily discipline, and gift-giving in accordance with the three gunas.
In the final discourse, Krishna emphasizes the distinction between renouncing all action—which usually happens because of desire—and acting for action’s sake, without an attachment to consequences or desires. People who can relinquish this interest in the fruits of action are called tyagis, and in their actions, they perceive all beings as eternal dimensions of the same unified whole, following their dharma fearlessly and steadfastly. He notes that dharma often follows one’s position in the caste system—which in turn reflects people’s inner nature—and emphasizes that one must fulfill this prescribed role, even if imperfectly, in order to purify oneself.
Accordingly, Krishna implores Arjuna once again to fight the war but reminds him that the decision is his alone. Finally, Krishna requests Arjuna’s absolute devotion and charges him with spreading the Gita’s message to those sufficiently disciplined and devoted to properly receive “this highest, hidden truth.” Arjuna resolutely agrees; in the Gita’s closing lines, the minister Sanjaya expresses his gratitude and enthusiasm at hearing Krishna’s words and declares that Arjuna is blessed to bring “splendor, / victory, well-being, / and wise conduct” wherever he goes, which suggests that the Pandavas are destined to win back Hastinapura.