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14.3: The Bhagavad Gita

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  • The Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of the Blessed One,” is a fascinating story, with great religious significance if one accepts it at face value (Mitchell, 2000). It consists primarily of a conversation between Krishna, a great Avatar or divine incarnation, and Arjuna, a great warrior, on the eve of a battle. The battle is a civil war, with noble warriors and relatives split between both sides. Arjuna decides that no good can come of killing so many people in this battle, and he decides not to fight. Krishna, who is driving Arjuna’s chariot, instructs Arjuna in Yoga as he discusses what is right both for Arjuna and for all people. Many of the principles of Yoga derive from what Krishna told Arjuna, thus it is believed by many that these Yoga principles come from the mouth of God. This is similar to what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe about the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran: that they are divinely inspired texts.

    My favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita refers directly to the self:

    The Self is a friend for him who masters himself by the Self;

    but for him who is not self-mastered, the self is the cruelest foe.

    (pg. 89; Mitchell, 2000)

    This quote suggests that we can be our own best friend, or our own worst enemy. Indeed, Krishna tells Arjuna that what he must do is to be himself. It is only through his own actions that Arjuna can fulfill his potential. However, Arjuna must not remain attached to the consequences of his actions; he must simply act and allow the universe to move forward as it will. Only by truly understanding the nature of the universe, and the nature of ourselves, can we properly make this choice. The practice of Yoga helps us to see this reality, and the Bhagavad Gita helps to describe the essential practices.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The altar prepared for the ceremony when the author was initiated into Kriya Yoga.

    Together, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras contain all of the basic information on Yoga we will explore in this chapter. There is actually a fair amount of overlap between the books, but it is unclear which one may have been written first. Most scholars believe that the Bhagavad Gita was written between 500 B.C. and 100 A.D. (Mitchell, 2000), which falls right in the middle of when Patanjali is believed to have written down the Yoga Sutras. Since both philosophies seem to come from much older sources, it may well be that they owe their commonalities to some older tradition that can no longer be specifically identified.

    Placing Yoga in Context: An Ancient Plan for Self Development

    Yoga is much older than any other theory described in this book, with the exception of those parts of other theories that were borrowed from Yoga and Buddhism. The ancient Vedas, which provide much of the mythological and philosophical basis for Hinduism, are 4,000 to 5,000 years old (placing them amongst the oldest recorded literature in the world). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, which provide the basic teachings of traditional Yoga, were written as early as 600 B.C. (though there is little consensus on exactly when). Kriya-Yoga, the yoga believed by many to be the original Yoga of Patanjali, was lost to the world for many centuries, until it was reintroduced by Lahiri Mahasaya in 1861. Yoga continues to evolve today, with many different styles being introduced and revised, both in the East and the West.

    Although this ancient philosophy may not seem relevant to modern personality theory, it has actually been part of psychology from the very beginning. Most notably, Jung and Rogers were clearly influenced by their travels to India and China, respectively. The knowledge of Yoga and Buddhism they developed as a result of those and other experiences helped to shape their personality theories. Fromm also examined how psychoanalysis and Buddhist meditation compare to each other. Today, as positive psychology examines topics such as happiness and well being, and as spiritual psychotherapists examine the important role that spirituality plays in the lives of many people, those practices that Yoga, Buddhism, and other spiritual disciplines have in common are being examined more closely by psychologists. In the next chapter we will examine similar spiritual disciplines that exist within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

    Spirit, Nature, and Consciousness

    In the metaphysics of Yoga there is believed to be a duality between spirit and nature. Spirit is pure consciousness; nature is the opposite of spirit. Human beings are a combination of spirit and nature. The body and mind come from nature, but the transcendental self comes from spirit. A key point here is that it is the transcendental self that comes from spirit, not the self we are aware of every day. Our thoughts, feelings, sensations, indeed our mind itself, are all the result of neural activity in our brain, and our brain is part of our body. Thus, our awareness is not our consciousness.

    Our true self, the transcendental self, is a temporary manifestation of Spirit in essence. The great mistake in our lives is to confuse our body and mind with who we really are, to believe that this body and this mind are our self. The practice of Yoga, however, teaches us to still our minds, to eliminate all thought and sensation, so that we might be in union with our transcendental self and the universal spirit. Once we have accomplished this task, by subjugating our natural tendency to think and restraining our mind itself, we will know who and what we really are (Yoga Sutras I:2,3 [Bailey, 1927]). This is not an easy task, but it has a great reward. As Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda:

    The soul expanded into Spirit remains alone in the region of lightless light, darkless dark, thoughtless thought, intoxicated with its ecstasy of joy in God’s dream of cosmic creation (Yogananda, 1946; pgs. 489-490).

    William James, America’s foremost psychologist, is best known for his theory on the stream of consciousness. According to James, it is the continuity of consciousness that defines our self. This is in direct contradiction to Eastern philosophies, which consider the conscious mind to be derived from the natural world, and therefore only an illusion. Eastern philosophies consider the transcendental self to be real, but obscured from us by the distraction of the so-called conscious mind. Can we find some compromise between these points of view? No! However, such a contradiction would probably not bother James. James (1892) did talk about the soul, the transcendental ego, and spirit as possible sources for the conscious self, but considered that possibility to be outside the realm of psychological study

    discussion Question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Do you believe in a transcendental self (whether you call it self, spirit, soul…whatever)? What does this make you feel about your physical body? As for all of nature can you really believe it is just an illusion?

    Karma

    Karma is a difficult concept to grasp. We generally think of karma as the consequences of things we have done wrong, but karma does not apply simply to our misbehavior, it applies to all of our actions. An easy to understand discussion of karma has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The law of karma can be understood on two levels. First, karma refers to cause and effect. Whenever we perform an action, we experience some consequence at a later time. The second level of karma may be more important, as it refers to our state of mind at the time when we performed the action in question. Our intentions, or the motives behind an action, determine the nature of the consequences we experience. The importance of this point is that we control the nature of our karma. This, of course, has important implications for personality development. Once we understand the karmic law, it is only natural that we should begin to plant the seeds of healthy karma. In other words, we should be inclined to act only in ways that are healthy and socially beneficial, so that the consequences we then experience will lead to greater well-being for ourselves.

    The second level of karma, that it is our intentions and motivation that affect the outcome of our lives, seems quite similar to cognitive theories in psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the nature of our thought, and problems often arise when we are trapped in a series of automatic thoughts that create problems for us. In other words, when we view the world negatively, we react in negative and maladaptive ways. Similarly, our past karma influences the karma we create for the future. If we think and act in negative ways, we create negative karma, but it is also true that if we think and act in positive ways we create positive karma. Cognitive therapy resembles much of what is written in the East about recognizing the cause-and-effect pattern that our karma traps us within. Successful cognitive therapy is something like enlightenment: when we realize the truth of what we are doing we have a chance to break that pattern and move in a healthy direction.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Karma refers to the cosmic law of cause and effect, the idea that our past actions will someday affect our current and future lives. Do you believe this, and can you provide any examples of this happening to you?

    The Three Principles of Creation

    Would it be possible for us to avoid or circumvent the law of karma by remaining inactive? Sometimes many of us do just want to get away from everything and everyone. However, social withdrawal is often an early sign of psychological distress or mental illness, suggesting that this is generally not a healthy action. According to Yoga, all nature is composed of three aspects called the gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattva. According to Krishna, as recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, the three gunas “bind to the mortal body the deathless embodied Self” (pg. 158; Mitchell, 2000). Rajas (born of craving) binds us to action, tamas (born of ignorance) binds us to dullness, and sattva (untainted and luminous) binds us to knowledge and joy. Only through faithful Yoga practice can an individual transcend the gunas and achieve unity with God. Only then will the individual be free from any attachment to action and free from the law of karma.

    Another important and practical question that arises from an understanding of the three gunas is: what should we eat? In America we generally associate being vegetarian with practicing Yoga or being a Buddhist. But is there a good reason for this? Everything is made from the three gunas, but in different proportions. So we might say that a hot, spicy dish like Gang Garee from Thailand (a personal favorite) is predominantly rajas. Heavy food, with a thick sauce or gravy is predominantly tamas. Fruits and vegetables, however, are lighter and more refreshing; they are predominantly sattva. So a vegetarian diet should increase the relative amount of sattva in our body, thus making us a better person. This is just like the old saying: “You are what you eat!” This goes beyond diet, however, since diet only directly affects the body. What about the mind? Everything we take in is comprised of the three gunas: words and ideas that we hear, music, the emotions expressed by people we spend time with, and so on (Vivekananda, 1955a). It is important not only that we eat well, but also that we spend time in relaxing and healthy environments, associate with good people, and generally try to cultivate a life that moves more toward sattva than the other gunas.

    The Guru or Teacher

    Spirit vs. nature, consciousness, karma, the three gunas, it can all seem very strange to those of us who did not grow up with these concepts. Another common source of confusion is the distinction between the terms yogi and guru. A yogi is anyone who practices Yoga. A guru is a teacher, someone advanced in Yoga and capable of leading others on the path. A true guru is typically revered in the East, and in English they are often referred to as prophets, or saints.

    Many believe that a guru is essential to the practice of Yoga. The practice of Yoga can be difficult, and the principles can be confusing. Some argue that only through initiation by a guru can an individual truly and correctly use mantras such as Om. Otherwise, the would-be student of Yoga will not know the correct frequency or nature of the mantra. Perhaps most important, though, is the spiritual consciousness provided by the guru. As described by Yogananda:

    …If I entered the hermitage in a worried or indifferent frame of mind, my attitude imperceptibly changed. A healing calm descended at the mere sight of my guru. Each day with him was a new experience in joy, peace, and wisdom. Never did I find him deluded or emotionally intoxicated with greed, anger, or human attachment. (pg. 137; Yogananda, 1946)

    Another aspect involved in the importance of a guru is his or her lineage. In Western culture we are very individualistic, so it is common for each new teacher or leader to try establishing a new beginning. In the collectivist cultures of the East, however, they pay more attention to the earlier teachers of current teachers. Establishing this lineage is very important, not to suggest that one line of Yoga is better than another, but to connect the past to the present and, presumably, the present to the future. Recent research in the field of positive psychology has suggested that such a balanced time perspective, emphasizing the past, present, and future, is an important facet of psychological well-being (Boniwell, 2005; Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2003).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    In Eastern cultures they talk about gurus, in Western cultures we often hear about mentors. Do the words “guru” and “mentor” mean the same thing to you? Have you ever been inspired by someone you thought of as a guru or mentor?