The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu spiritual text. It was supposedly one of the books that Henry David Thoreau took with him on his retreat to Walden Pond. It’s a beautiful book, with a sublime message comparable to the Tao Te Ching.
I very much enjoyed Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, so it felt only natural to seek out his translation of the Gita. Given the similar subject matter and the same translator, it’s not surprising that reading the Bhagavad Gita gave me a similar feeling to reading the Tao Te Ching. They are both spiritual texts that contain universal truths about how to live wisely.
Written as an allegorical story, it tells the tale of the warrior Arjuna, about to enter the field of battle. But before it begins, he sees a vision of Lord Krishna, who proceeds to drop wisdom on Arjuna through the book.
Take the following verse, as an example:
You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction.
These three short sentences, if understood, contain profound wisdom. More importantly, if such wisdom is applied, it could cure much of the neurosis that plagues “normal” people in society today. And there are many more nuggets of wisdom like it below.
Here are some of my highlights:
Chapter 2: The Practice of Yoga
Only the man who is unmoved by any sensations, the wise man indifferent to pleasure, to pain, is fit for becoming deathless.
These bodies come to an end; but that vast embodied Self is ageless, fathomless, eternal. Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.
As unnecessary as a well is to a village on the banks of a river, so unnecessary are all scriptures to someone who has seen the truth.
You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction.
Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.
Action is far inferior to the yoga of insight, Arjuna. Pitiful are those who, acting, are attached to their action’s fruits.
The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad, and is focused on the action alone. Yoga is skill in actions.
The wise man whose insight is firm, relinquishing the fruits of action, is freed from the bondage of rebirth and attains the place beyond sorrow.
Chapter 3: The Yoga of Action
The superior man is he whose mind can control his senses; with no attachment to results, he engages in the yoga of action.
Do any actions you must do, since action is better than inaction; even the existence of your body depends on necessary actions.
The whole world becomes a slave to its own activity, Arjuna; if you want to be truly free, perform all actions as worship.
By worship you will nourish the gods and the gods will nourish you in turn; by nourishing one another you assure the well-being of all.
Nourished by your worship, the gods will grant whatever you desire; but he who accepts their gifts and gives nothing back, is a thief.
Without concern for results, perform the necessary action; surrendering all attachments, accomplish life’s highest good.
Whatever a great man does ordinary people will do; whatever standard he sets everyone else will follow.
Chapter 4: The Yoga of Wisdom
Thus, many forms of worship may lead to freedom, Arjuna. All these are born of action. When you know this, you will be free.
Better than any ritual is the worship achieved through wisdom; wisdom is the final goal of every action, Arjuna.
Chapter 5: The Yoga of Renunciation
The man who has seen the truth thinks, “I am not the doer” at all times – when he sees, hears, touches, when he smells, eats, walks, sleeps, breathes.
Offering his actions to God, he is free of all action; sin rolls off him, as drops of water roll off a lotus leaf.
The resolute in yoga surrender results, and gain perfect peace; the irresolute, attached to results, are bound by everything they do.
Chapter 6: The Yoga of Meditation
The man who sees me in everything and everything within me will not be lost to me, nor will I ever be lost to him.
You are right, Arjuna: the mind is restless and hard to master; but by constant practice and detachment it can be mastered in the end.
Neither here nor hereafter, Arjuna, is that man lost; no one who does good work will come to an evil end.
Chapter 8: Absolute Freedom
Freedom is union with the deathless; the Self is the essence of all things; its creative power, called action, causes the whole world to be.
Chapter 9: The Secret of Life
Always chanting my praise, steadfast in their devotion, they make their lives an unending hymn to my endless love.
I am the ritual and the worship, the medicine and the mantra, the butter burnt in the fire, and I am the flames that consume it.
I am the beginning and the end, origin and dissolution, refuge, home, true lover, womb and imperishable seed.
Chapter 10: Divine Manifestations
The source of all things to come; of feminine powers, I am fame, wealth, speech, and memory, intelligence, loyalty, forgiveness.
Chapter 11: The Cosmic Vision
Look: the sun gods, the gods of fire, dawn, sky, wind, storm, wonders that no mortal has ever beheld. Look! Look, Arjuna!
But since you are not able to see me with mortal eyes, I will grant you divine sight. Look! Look! The depths of my power!
I am death, shatterer of worlds, annihilating all things. With or without you, these warriors in their facing armies will die.
Therefore stand up; win glory; conquer the enemy; rule. Already I have struck them down; you are just my instrument, Arjuna.
He who acts for my sake, loving me, free of attachment, with benevolence toward all beings, will come to me in the end.
Chapter 12: The Yoga of Devotion
Concentrate every thought on me alone; with a mind fully absorbed, one-pointed, you will live within me, forever.
If you find that you are unable to center you thoughts on me, strengthen you mind by the steady practice of concentration.
If this is beyond you powers, dedicate yourself to me; performing all actions for my sake, you will surely achieve success.
If even this is beyond you, rely on my basic teaching; act always without attachment, surrendering your actions fruits.
Knowledge is better than practice; meditation is better than knowledge; and best of all is surrender, which soon brings peace.
He who has let go of hatred, who treats all beings with kindness and compassion, who is always serene, unmoved by pain or pleasure.
He who neither disturbs the world nor is disturbed by it, who is free of all joy, fear, envy – that man is the one I love best.
Chapter 13: The Field and Its Knower
The body is called the field, Arjuna; the one who watches whatever happens within it – wise men call him the Knower.
Humility, patience, sincerity, nonviolence, uprightness, purity, devotion to one’s spiritual teacher, constancy, self-control.
An unwavering devotion to me above all things, an intense love of solitude, distaste for involvement in worldly affairs.
He who sees that all actions are performed by Nature alone and thus that the self is not the doer – that man sees truly.
Chapter 14: The Three Gunas
If a being dies in a state where the quality of sattva prevails, he goes to the stainless heavens of those who have seen the truth.
The fruit of action well done is sattvic and without a stain; but the fruit of rajas is suffering, and ignorance the fruit of tamas.
From sattva, knowledge is born; from rajas, restlessness and greed; dullness and confusion arise from tamas, and ignorance also.
Men of sattva go upward; men of rajas remain in between; men of tamas, lowest of all, sink downward.
Chapter 16: Divine Traits and Demonic Traits
Fearlessness, purity of heart, persistence in the yoga of knowledge, generosity, self-control, nonviolence, gentleness, candor.
Integrity, disengagement, joy in the study of the scriptures, compassion for all beings, modesty, patience, a tranquil mind.
Dignity, kindness, courage, a benevolent, loving heart – these are the qualities of men born with divine traits, Arjuna.
The divine traits lead to freedom; the demonic, to suffering and bondage. But do no be concerned, Arjuna: the traits you have are divine.
Tormented by a vast anxiety that continues until their death, convinced that the gratification of desire is life’s sole aim.
Chapter 17: Three Kinds of Faith
Every man’s faith conforms with his inborn nature, Arjuna. Faith is a person’s core; whatever his faith is, he is.
Sattvic men worship the gods; rajasic, demigods and demons; tamasic, the hordes of dark spirits and the ghosts of the dead.
Foods that the sattvic are drawn to promote vitality, health, pleasure, strength, and long life, and are fresh, firm, succulent, and tasty.
Worship that is offered according to scripture, for the sake of the worship, without any thought of reward- this kind of worship is sattvic.
Honouring the gods, the priests, the teachers and sages, purity, nonviolence, chastity, uprightness – all this is control of the body.
Speaking the truth with kindness, honesty that causes no pain, and the recitation of scripture – this is control of speech.
Serenity, gentleness, silence, benevolence, self-restraint, purity of being, compassion – this is control of mind.
When these three levels of control are practices with faith and diligence and with no desire for results, such control is called sattvic.
Om Tat Sat: these words stand for the liberated mind by which priests, scriptures, and rituals were appointed in ancient times.
Therefore, the word Om is always chanted, by those who expound the scriptures, to begin an act of worship, control, or charity.
Chapter 18: Freedom Through Renunciation
To give up desire-bound actions is what is meant by renouncing; to give up the results of all actions is what the wise call to relinquish.
Some sages say that all action is tainted and should be relinquished; others permit on acts of worship, control, and charity.
Here is the truth: these acts of worship, control, and charity purify the heart and therefore should not be relinquished but performed.
Now I will teach you the five elements that must be present for an action to be accomplished, as philosophers have declared:
The physical body, the agent, the various organs of sense, the various kinds of behaviour, and divine providence as fifth.
Since this is so, when a man of limited understanding sees himself as sole agent, he is not seeing the truth.
Knowledge, the known, and the knower are the three things that motivate action; instrument, action, and agent are the three components of action.
Knowledge that sees in all things a single, imperishable being, undivided among the divided – this kind of knowledge is sattvic.
An agent who is free from attachment and the I-sense, courageous, steadfast, unmoved by success or failure – this kind of agent is sattvic.
The unswerving will that controls the functions of mind, breath, senses by the practice of meditation – this kind of will is sattvic.
Now, Arjuna, I will tell you about the three kinds of happiness. The happiness which comes from long practice, which leads to the end of suffering, which at first is like poison, but at least like nectar – this kind of happiness, arising from the serenity of one’s own mind, is called sattvic.
Rajastic happiness comes from contact between the senses and their objects, and is at first like nectar, but at last like poison.
Serenity, control, austerity, uprightness, purity, patience, knowledge, piety, and judgment are the natural duties of priests.
Boldness, the ability to lead, largeheartedness, courage in battle, energy, stamina, and strength are the natural duties of warriors.
It is better to do your own duty badly than to perfectly do another’s; when you do your duty, you are naturally free from sin.
No one should relinquish his duty, even though it is flawed; all actions are enveloped by flaws as fire is enveloped by smoke.
Self-mastered, with mind unattached at all times, beyond desire, one attains through renunciation the supreme freedom from action.
Learn from be briefly, Arjuna, that when a man gains success he also gains perfect freedom, the ultimate state of knowledge.
With a purified understanding, fully mastering himself, relinquishing all sense-objects, released from aversion and craving, solitary, eating lightly, controlling speech, mind, and body, absorbed in deep meditation at all times, calm, impartial, free from the “I” and “mine,” from aggression, arrogance, greed, desire, and anger, he is fit for the state of absolute freedom.
Serene in this state of freedom, beyond desire and sorrow, seeing all beings as equal, he attains true devotion to me.
By devotion he comes to realize the meaning of my infinite vastness; when he knows who I truly am, he instantly enters my being.
Relying on me in his actions and performing them for my sake, he reaches, by my great kindness, the eternal, unchanging place.
Give up all actions to me; love me above all others; steadfastly keep your mind focused on me alone.
Focused on me at all times, you will overcome all obstructions; but if you persist in clinging to the I-sense, then you are lost.
And even if, clinging to the I-sense, you say that you will not fight, your intention will be in vain: Nature will compel you to act.
The Lord dwells deep in the heart of all beings, by his wondrous power making them all revolve like puppets on a carousel.
Devoted to him, Arjuna, take refuge in him alone; by his kindness, you will attain the state of imperishable peace.
Now listen to my final words, the deepest secret of all; I am speaking for your own welfare, since you are precious to me.
If you focus your mind on me and revere me with all your heart, you will surely come to me; this I promise, because I love you.
Relinquishing all your duties, take refuge in me alone. Do not fear: I will free you from the evils of birth and death.
He who teaches this primal secret to those who love me has acted with the greatest love and will come to me, beyond doubt.
No one can do me a service that is more devoted than this, and no one on earth is more precious to me than he is.
Whoever earnestly studies this sacred discourse of ours – I consider that he has worshipped and loved me with the yoga of knowledge.
Have you truly heard me, Arjuna? Has my teaching entered your heart? Have my words now driven away your ignorance and delusion?
Krishna, I see the truth now, by your immeasurable kindness. I have no more doubts; I will act according to your command.