The Bhagavad Gita



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Themes and Colors
Detachment and Dharma Theme Icon
Krishna, the Absolute, and Human Knowledge Theme Icon
Reincarnation and the Self Theme Icon
Forms of Worship Theme Icon
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Detachment and Dharma Theme Icon

The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the sixth book of the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic that recounts a war between two sides of the Bharata family—the Pandavas and Kauravas—over their kingdom of Hastinapura. At the beginning of the Gita, as the Pandava warrior Arjuna prepares for battle, he grows despondent after realizing that he will have to kill his cousins and friends. Fortunately, his charioteer Krishna turns out to be a worldly incarnation of Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s most important gods, who is generally credited with preserving the world by intervening in human affairs to sustain dharma, or the proper moral order of the universe. (Many forms of Hinduism, including the most pervasive form, consider Vishnu the primary god and source of all others, and the Gita is often employed to support such interpretations.) Krishna persuades Arjuna to fight by arguing that people should undertake action only in accordance with their own proper station in life, rather than because of their emotional attachments, desire for a particular outcome, or fear of error. By persuading Arjuna that his true dharma is to fight as a warrior, Krishna convinces him to pick up his weapon and go on with the battle, as well as suggesting to all Hindus that they should prioritize their social obligations in their everyday decision-making rather than, as he puts it, clinging to the fruits of action.

Arjuna is afraid to fight because of his emotional attachment to the Kauravas, who are his cousins but also his enemies in the war over Hastinapura. At the beginning of the Gita, after coming face-to-face with them on the battlefield, Arjuna breaks down, realizing that he values his family above the kingship and would take no pleasure in fighting them. He conceives his dharma in terms of family: he believes that killing his cousins would undermine his entire family’s moral standing. But, when Krishna confronts him at the beginning of the second discourse, Arjuna admits that his vision of dharma is clouded by his sense of pity and anticipation of grief. Krishna argues that, as a warrior charged with defending his kingdom and honor, Arjuna is ethically required to kill his cousins and disregard in his reservations.

Krishna first argues that ethical action must be undertaken for its own sake, rather than because of any prospective benefit or emotional attachment on the part of the actor. He explains that the soul is eternal and the body inevitably dies one way or another, so killing another does not truly mean destroying their true self (which lies in the soul). Moreover, because pain and pleasure are mere sensory feelings, which reside in the worldly lower self rather than the higher eternal self, they should not influence action; indeed, Krishna wants Arjuna to free himself from all dualities like pleasure and pain, and instead the unity of all being (Brahman). Moreover, to Krishna, worldly actions do not result from any individual intention on the part of the actor, but rather simply the interplay of the gunas, the qualities or strands of matter that make up the physical world. For all of these reasons, an enlightened person or tyagi does not decide what to do based on their senses, emotional biases, or expectations about what will result from action—in Krishna’s words, a tyagi does not “cling to the fruits of action” but rather realizes that their true self does not control their actions and therefore relinquishes a sense of ownership over them. Accordingly, if Arjuna were to defeat the Kauravas, he would not truly be responsible for their deaths, for the body that kills is not his true self and the bodies he kills are not the Kauravas’ true selves.

Instead, the moral rightness of action consists in following dharma, a sacred moral code of individual action based in one’s duties to others and the gods, which is necessary to maintain balance in the universe. While Krishna’s arguments against action for the sake of worldly ends might seem to suggest that people should relinquish all action altogether, he rejects this solution because it is simply impossible to avoid action—a living being is always compelled to action by the gunas, refusing to act actually means clinging to inaction (usually out of fear), and some actions (like eating and performing religious rituals) are entirely worth taking. Therefore, a tyagi must continue to act, but not for the sake of any desired end. Rather, they must learn to recognize and perform their duties without fear, passion, or desire; they act simply for the sake of duty (dharma) and devotion to the Supreme Being (which, of course, Krishna incarnates in the Gita). All of the tyagi’s actions are forms of sacrifice to the divine. Specifically, this dharma is a function of social context and caste (the traditional system of social stratification that divides families into brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras). In the final discourse of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains that caste expresses someone’s nature, or the balance of the three gunas in their body, which carries over from their previous lives; the warrior’s dharma consists of fighting valiantly in battle. Arjuna violates this dharma by refusing to fight and risks bringing “eternal disgrace” upon himself. But Krishna suggests that, should he choose to fight, Arjuna stands to enter heaven if he dies and rule the earth if he lives.

Arjuna’s initial reluctance to fight demonstrates that he falsely blamed himself for the duty to which he was called by the divine and failed to recognize the fundamental nature of the self as eternally unchanging; Arjuna was unaware of his true dharma, and Krishna’s intervention serves to demonstrate the true nature of dharma. Accordingly, in the closing verse of his dialogue with Krishna, Arjuna agrees to fight, thanking the god for helping him focus his thinking and overcome his previous state of ignorance and confusion. By realizing that his actions are not his own and learning about the true nature of the self, Arjuna gains the courage and mental clarity he needs to act in accordance with his dharma, putting aside his worldly attachments to the Kauravas. In turn, Arjuna’s realization suggests that all Hindus should undergo a parallel one by learning about their true dharma and abandoning their false attachments to pleasure, status, and the outcomes of action in order to act for the sake of the gods alone.

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Detachment and Dharma Quotes in The Bhagavad Gita

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bhagavad Gita related to the theme of Detachment and Dharma.
Discourse 1 Quotes

I see no good
in killing
my people
in battle,
Lovely-Haired Krishna!

Krishna, I long
neither for victory
nor kingship
nor pleasures.
Lord of the Cows,
what is kingship to us,
what are delights,
or life itself?

Related Characters: Arjuna (speaker), Krishna
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The dharma of caste,
and the eternal dharma
of family,
are uprooted
by these wrongful acts
of family-destroyers,
since they create
a blending of caste.

Related Characters: Arjuna (speaker), Krishna
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 2 Quotes

Son of Bharata,
the embodied self
which exists in the body
of everyone
is eternally
free from harm;
so you should not grieve
for any living beings.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Your authority is
in action alone,
and never
in its fruits;
motive should never be
in the fruits of action,
nor should you cling
to inaction.

Abiding in yoga,
engage in actions!
Let go of clinging,
and let fulfilment
and frustration
be the same;
for it is said
yoga is equanimity.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 4 Quotes

just as the lit fire
makes the kindling
into ashes,
in this same way
the fire of wisdom
makes all actions
into ashes.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 5 Quotes

This master
creates neither agent
nor action
in this world,
nor the linking
of action with its fruit.
But his own nature
keeps on evolving.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 64-5
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 8 Quotes

Brahman is
the highest imperishable;
the highest self
is said to be
one’s own nature, giving rise
to all states of being;
action is understood
as ‘sending forth’.

Among the embodied,
the highest being
is finite existence;
the highest god
is the great spirit;
I am the highest sacrifice
here in this body,
Chosen One.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 15 Quotes

The form of the ashvattha
is not to be discerned here,
neither its end,
nor beginning,
nor ongoing life.
When its fully grown roots
are cut by the strong axe
of non-clinging,

then that place must be sought
where, once they have gone,
they will not turn back again,
and they think,
‘I take refuge
in the first spirit
where activity flowed forth
in ancient times.’

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Related Symbols: Ashvattha Tree
Page Number: 163-4
Explanation and Analysis:
Discourse 18 Quotes

The poets know
that the leaving aside
of action based on desire
is renunciation;
and the clear-sighted see
that the giving up
of all fruit of such action
is called letting go.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

One who learns
and recites
this conversation of ours
so filled with dharma
would sacrifice to me
with the sacrifice of knowledge.

Related Characters: Krishna (speaker), Arjuna
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis: