The Bhagavadgītā of the Mahābhārata is a post-Vedic text seeking to affirm Brahmanism. It achieves it through a revision of the religious and philosophical doctrines of its milieu. It is the first material to comprehensively promote worldly activity by adopting yoga—appropriated from ascetic-renunciatory settings. The modernised yogic methods and orientations, weaved into Vedic dharma, are the prime focus. This research examines their composition by relying on a selection of academic translations.

Additionally, as the Bhagavadgītā laid a foundation for Yoga and Sāṃkhya of the post-epic period, the essay emphasises vocabulary retained by other classics.

Origins, agenda and critique

The late-Vedic Upaniṣads scarcely recognise yoga, whereas Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras offer its first codification (Hopkins 1901: 333-334; Whicher-Carpenter 2003: 1). The intermediate stepping-stone is the Mahābhārata; presumably, the world's longest poem spread over eighteen books. This great Sanskrit epic borrowed ideas from various contemporary traditions and is the first to single yoga out and elaborate on it as a philosophical path. The tradition was far from a developed system. However, the text is fundamental in tracing its historical development. One of the Mahābhārata books succinctly exposing the yoga teachings is the Bhīṣma comprising the Bhagavadgītā—completed around the second or third century CE. Despite the shared narrative, the Bhagavadgītā is often studied as a separate text. Translated into English in the eighteenth century by Wilkins, the book was quickly labelled ‘the Hindu version of the Bible’—readily fitting the unifying ideology of the colonising project (King 1999: 121). Presently, Bhagavadgītā is the most influential work in Hinduism, one of the most translated books in the history of literature, and has a primary position in the curriculum for yoga teachers.

Many scholars consider the Bhagavadgītā a late insertion in the Mahābhārata. Moreover, it is an ‘interruption’ in the great epic without which the overarching narrative would still be conceivable (Malinar 2007: 5). Others point to its skilful formulation, effective conveyance of meaning, consistency with other books in the series and mutual enrichment (Malinar 2007: 2-5). However, just as the book’s content exposes a vast collection of positions in a ‘henocretic’ manner, that is, “allowing various practices and positions to be pursued” (Chapple 2009: xxv), so are scholars differing in their analyses. The Bhagavadgītā is open to numerous interpretations and falls into a ‘fatal relativism’—accounting for the book’s popularity. Over centuries, the material was used to assert a host of divergent positions: monism, dualism, theism, nontheism, determinism, Gandhi’s ‘anasaktism’ and more (Chapple 2009: xxiv; Chapple 1993: 94-96). On the surface, such multivalent content reflects the uniquely Hindu worldview requiring multiple simultaneous positions. However, the text advocates inclusivism to fulfil the agenda it is infused with (Wilkins in King 1999: 121, 137; Malinar 2007: 5). Its authors sought to weave together material of Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical origins. The traditions were fundamentally incompatible as the latter aimed to renounce the former. Thus, the amalgamation involved selective acceptance, modification, rejection and introduction of new paths (Connolly 2014: 111). Hence, the mediated positions presented in the book do not compete but complete one another – Vedāntic monism and dualistic (or pluralistic) Sāṃkhya and Yoga, particularly (Whicher-Carpenter 2003: 2; Connolly 2014: 99). The process produced multiple yogas—the number of which varies per analysis—and rendered spiritual advancement towards salvation readily available to all people and castes without renunciation. Therefore, the spiritual methodologies of the Bhagavadgītā must be considered Brahmanical elaborations seeking to appropriate yoga of the rivalry renunciation milieu (Bronkhorst 2007: 35; Mallinson-Singleton 2017: xvi).

Nonetheless, despite extensive presentation, yogas of the Bhagavadgītā do not refer to carefully considered philosophical positions comparable to the yoga of Patañjali. Yogas of Action, Knowledge, Devotion, and Meditation are all diffused, presenting a broader and different understanding than the later classical. Thus, modern scholarship proclaims the absence of established systems upon the book completion (Edgerton in Brockington 2003: 14).

The teachings of yoga

The overarching narrative of the epic is concerned with a dynastic dispute. The book documents one event – Arjuna’s crisis of confidence, followed by a debate with Lord Kṛṣṇa. The source of the dilemma is consequences—karmic and emotional. Thus, the Lord philosophically questions Arjuna’s doubts and attachments and expertly guides his focus away from the Vedic frame of reference (Connolly 2014: 111-102; Chapple 2009: xxii). The traditional approach relied on assessing values of actions by their outcome – pleasure, power or rebirth in heaven (Malinar 2007: 228). Meanwhile, the new path exposes yogas with a new notion of action, intent, nonviolence and consequence. The proposed mindset resembles Sāṃkhya and Yoga of later classics, presented as one two-faceted teaching: "Fools hold that the way of Sankhya and the practice of yogic action are different, but not those who know. Through either one of them, carried out properly, one attains the reward of both" (BhG 5.4 in Johnson 1994). Using the combination of the two, Kṛṣṇa leads Arjuna to a revelation: “Such is the knowledge I have imparted to you, the mystery of mysteries; consider it fully, then do what you will” (BhG 18.63 in Johnson 1994). The instructions (BhG 2-10), vision (BhG 11) and elaborations on devotion (BhG 12-18) transform Arjuna: “My delusion has been obliterated, and through your grace (...) I have remembered myself. I stand, my doubt dispelled” (BhG 18.73 in Johnson 1994).

The story offers considerable insight into the practice of yoga as a path to liberation. Kṛṣṇa represents the supreme soul dwelling in each individual, such as Arjuna. His prescribed yogas are many, each sufficient for Arjuna's dilemma. Nevertheless, despite nearing to the insight, none of them convinces him. Therefore, Kṛṣṇa continues to expose new perspectives. They serve different temperaments and tendencies of yogins. For Smith (2009), the easily identifiable ones—activeness, reflectivity, and affection—correspond to karmayoga, jñānayoga, and bhaktiyoga, respectively (xii). Additionally, certain scholars identify rājayoga, with Smith prescribing it for the inclination towards experimentality. However, the text does not mention it explicitly.

Karmayoga is one of the two innovative and superior disciplines exposed in the Bhagavadgītā. It is built upon the premise that “no one ever, even for a moment, exists without acting” (BhG 3.5 in Johnson 1994) while ‘travelling’ in the body. This Yoga of Action promotes the “do, don’t think” attitude claiming that “[t]he man who (...) has given up attachment to the results of action, (...) even though engaged in action (...) does nothing” (BhG 4.20 in Johnson 1994). Otherwise, desire—which eliminates indifference—brings about consequences. To renounce desire is to practice asceticism through the detached performance of duties—gaining peace, liberation and maintaining the cosmic order (Malinar 2007: 5, 229-230). Thus, the book prescribes to “always do whatever action has to be done” (BhG 3.19 in Johnson 1994) in internal renunciation. The text further elaborates on this mechanism through the lenses of Sāṃkhya. It is not the self “deluded by egotism” which performs actions, “actions are performed by the constituents [(guṇas)] of material nature [(prakṛti)]” (BhG 3.27 in Johnson 1994). By choosing this yogic practice, Arjuna can avoid the karmic bondage and remain active within his kṣatriya realm.

Jñānayoga, also called buddhiyoga or sāṃkhyayoga, on the other hand, is the discipline for theorists who wish to adopt Sāṃkhya philosophy to generate insights. This alternative road to liberation promotes the spiritual bliss of a steady detachment over creative power and transient pleasures of daily life. Its followers see through sense objects: “contacts with matter (...) give rise to cold and heat, pleasure and pain. They come and go (...); they are impermanent and you should endure them” (BhG 2.14 in Johnson 1994). If all sensations characterise sameness and impermanence, the object of focus is the unmanifested self, separate from the body and actions: “Blades do not pierce it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, and the wind does not parch it” (BhG 2.23 in Johnson 1994). The Bhagavadgītā considers this Yoga of Knowledge, or Insight, difficult and suitable for people of intellectual orientation: “Nothing on earth has the purificatory power of knowledge; eventually, the man who has perfected his disciplined practice discovers it in himself” (BhG 4.38 in Johnson 1994).

The central theme is bhaktiyoga. It enables casting one’s actions onto Kṛṣṇa, who maintains the cosmic dharma: “Giving up all actions to me, with your mind on what relates to the self, desireless and not possessive, fight! Your fever is past” (BhG 3.30 in Johnson 1994), or Brahman (BhG 5.10). The supremacy and accessibility of this path are stated several times – “no devotee of mine is lost. For whoever depends on me (...) however low their origins (...) they go by the highest path” (BhG 9.31-31 in Johnson 1994). In this Yoga of Devotion, loyalty to god and what he represents becomes a guarantee of liberation from rebirth by employing both disinterested action and devotional attachment. Such innovation largely recontextualises renunciation and promotes positive feelings towards the world, in contrast to depictions of pain and suffering characteristic of śramaṇas. As the highest transcendental method, it is the culminating answer to Arjuna’s dilemma. However, whether bhaktiyoga is a separate discipline or complementary path to karmayoga is a matter of dispute among scholars as Kṛṣṇa does not employ the term (Connolly 2014: 109). Alternatively, it is a generalisation of yoga (Brockington 2003: 16).

Lastly, the sixth chapter of the book propounds Yoga of Meditation, dhyānayoga or—more recently labelled—rājayoga. The verses are pragmatic insertions prescribing discipline in its various forms. They render yoga similar to the older practice of tapas but surpassing it. The restrain of senses, mind and intelligence collates with the purification of the mind, cultivation of clear thinking, and one-pointedness. The “thought ceases” (cittaṃ niruddhaṃ) as one with the “mind in the self, (...) should not think of anything at all” (BhG 6.20-25 in Johnson 1994). Nevertheless, “the mind is hard to control” and requires “repeated practice” to be “held in check” (BhG 6.35 in Johnson 1994). In support, the text necessitates solitude, possessionlessness and moderation for cultivation of freedom “from longing for any desirable objects” (BhG 6.18 in Johnson 1994). Noteworthy, despite multiple assertions on the practice of tapas, the Bhagavadgītā’s exposition differs from the later classical “stoppage of the turnings of thought” (yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ) (White 2014: 45-48). The overarching narrative of the ‘song of the Lord’ continues to prioritise the union with god. 

Further remarks on the practice of yoga feature firm seat (sthiram āsanam) (BhG 6.11), breath control (prāṇāyāma) (BhG 4.29), ingoing breath (prāṇa) (BhG 5.27), outgoing breath (apāna) (BhG 5.27), person (puruṣa) (BhG 8.4), self (ātman) (BhG 6.5), deep meditation (samādhi) (BhG 2.52), equanimity (samatva) (BhG 2.48), and release (mokṣa) (BhG 5.28). These terms and concepts either draw upon the Upaniṣads or create the foundation for the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

The overarching ideology

The discourses of the Mahābhārata expose cosmic order and indicate the place for human actions within it. Meanwhile, the caste system of Hindu society pre-determines which worldly activities to perform. The Bhagavadgītā puts forward the substitution of one’s agency in action with the cosmic one – on the basis that duties and body are separate from the self. The text calls for a non-involvement-based attitude where results of one’s activities are renounced: “He who performs that action which is his duty, [w]hile renouncing the fruit of action, [i]s a renunciant and a yogin” (BhG 6.1 in Sergeant). Such execution of one’s dharma within the monotheistic framework is a direct pathway to the realisation of union within the universe of supposed diversity. God is accessible through the world of his appearances, while activity within it is a sacrifice. Thus, yoga is “lighting the fire of the practice and offering it along with absolutely everything else to the fire” (Freeman 2020: 60). Nonetheless, activity belongs to the material world and, thus, offering it up does not contribute to liberation (Bronkhorst 2007: 38).

The numerous paths of the yogic roadmap lead to the same summit and god. Scholars identify three, four, five, sometimes nine yogas within the book. Karmayoga and bhaktiyoga are the most effective. They serve to accept what is inevitable, along with the illusory nature of autonomous decisions (Connolly 2014: 114-115): “[Kṛṣṇa:] I am (...) to annihilate worlds. Regardless of you, all these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks, (...) have already been hewn down by me" (BhG 11.32-33). Thus, Kṛṣṇa controls everything and encourages Arjuna to “enjoy the thriving kingship” (BhG 11.33), having already conquered the enemies. Further, the theological doctrines make liberation in Kṛṣṇa—the highest realm—final and superior. Therefore, according to this hierarchy, all yogins of all pathways are ultimately required to reach him (Malinar 2007: 232).

In conclusion

The Bhagavadgītā presents a matrix of yogic paths for spiritual realisation, significant in later modes of thought and practice in Indian society. Īśvara of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra compilation corresponds to Lord Kṛṣṇa of the Bhagavadgītā. So is Sāṃkhya-Yoga. However, the system is thus far underdeveloped. The epic equates ‘yoga’ with a collection of ordinary meanings – goal, practice, process, mindset and more, whereas the complete system considers it synonymous with ‘samādhi’. In addition, the text does not elaborate on the experience of liberation. Nevertheless, the book helps delineate the historical—or, more accurately, political—transition of yoga from the śramaṇic milieu to the later ‘responsible engagement’ with the world, enriches understanding of the Mahābhārata and complements yoga of its twelfth book—calling for additional analysis.


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Paula Kaminska
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