The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God”) focuses on the devastating war described in the Mahabharata, a sweeping saga about the Kuru dynasty of India. This story of a 3,000-year-old battle—which many scholars say is interwoven with myth—is considered a foundational text for the practice of yoga. Perhaps you’re wondering, “How can reading about war lead to inner peace? And what does this have to do with yoga today?” Whether seemingly dated or contradictory, one of the century’s greatest peacemakers, Mahatma Gandhi, believed that the Gita’s overall message was that of non-violence—a powerful message for contemporary living. Learning the true meaning of ahimsa (non-harming)—and interpreting this into present-day context—is only one of many reasons yoga students should read the Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita takes place as a conversation between Prince Arjuna and Krishna before the battle between factions of the Kuru clan. Arjuna, reluctant to face friends and family on the battlefield, is counseled by Krishna, who is disguised as his chariot driver. Scores of philosophers have likened the battlefield of Kurukshetra—the great war of its day—to the battleground that lies within each of us.
If, like Arjuna, you’ve ever experienced self-doubt or wondered about where your path lies, the Gita is helpful guide. Though Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna is deeply personal, it touches on topics of concern to people everywhere: Confusion, stress, addiction, restlessness, depression, exploitation, civil rights, greed, anger, alienation—issues that continue to trouble us today. To Gandhi, “Mother Gita” was a source of comfort and wisdom: “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me.”
For students of yoga, the Gita brings to life its foundational principles and methods—discernment, equanimity and non-attachment. Whenever Arjuna doubts his ability to master his emotions and impulses through a particular method, Krishna gives him another option, describing various paths (margas) of yoga, including Karma Yoga (service), Bhakti Yoga (devotion) and Raja Yoga (meditation).
In the West, where most of us practice Hatha Yoga, reading the Gita can add depth to asana, fleshing out the bones of the postures with the stories, archetypes and personages they are named for—gods, kings, warriors, sages and heroes. During workshops and immersions at 7 Centers Yoga Arts, director Ruth Hartung incorporates the Gita as a collection of entertaining and illuminating stories, sometimes recounting them by candlelight in the school’s yurt.
“Storytelling is a traditional way to teach life skills, and the Bhagavad Gita helps give students direction for exploring their personal dharma,” says Hartung. She suggests students begin with Jack Hawley’s translation, though she finds Swami Rama’s commentaries especially useful for aspiring yoga therapists. Though most of us won’t be reading the Gita’s 700 verses in the original Sanskrit, the wide variety of translations means that there’s something relevant and interesting for everyone.
For instance, if you want to know more about Samkhya and yoga’s cosmology and symbolism, the Paramahamsa Yogananda’s translation is thorough and illuminating. Like poetry? Try Stephen Mitchell’s spare but lovely translation. If you’re interested how the Gita applies to the challenges of everyday modern life, Eknath Easwaran’s commentaries add social and family context.
As Gandhi said, “With every age the important words will carry new and expanding meanings. But its central teaching will never vary.” One of the timeless teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is swadharma—the idea that it is better to follow one’s own path perfectly (in other words, be authentic) than another’s imperfectly. We can apply this important lesson to the way we practice asana—as well the way we live our lives.
What lessons have you learned from the Bhagavad Gita?