By Kalakantha Dasa
A concise refresher on Lord Krishna’s immortal teachings.
In 1968 His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada published the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which has since sold tens of millions of copies in dozens of languages. As a lifetime devotee of Krishna and a consummate Sanskritist, Srila Prabhupada spells out the clear conclusions of the Gita that are often obscured by arms-length commentators with their own agenda. Srila Prabhupada’s purports (commentaries) illuminate for us the verses spoken by Krishna and Arjuna. The following condensed version of their historic conversation combines key points from the verses and purports in the same sequence as the original. These are not direct quotes and thus cannot replace the complete Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Instead, this version provides an overview of the philosophical thread of the Gita. It is consistent with Srila Prabhupada’s comprehensive edition and can be used for introduction or review.
Part 1: Action
Arjuna: Krishna, please drive my chariot between the two armies. Let me see which followers of that criminal Duryodhana have come here to fight.
Krishna (Steering the fine golden chariot between the two huge armies facing each other on the vast, flat battlefield): Just see, cousin, all the great warriors assembled here.
Arjuna (aghast): Krishna, I can’t fight all these dear relatives, teachers, and elders. My whole family would be destroyed. I’d rather die, or just live as a beggar.
Krishna (smiling kindly) : You forget that everyone is an eternal soul, not a physical body. You can kill the body but not the soul.
Arjuna: Krishna, how could I kill these worshipable men? Any victory would be tainted with their blood. I don’t know what to do. Please instruct me.
Krishna: My friend, you’re a warrior. Fight, but not for yourself. Fight for the Supreme. Then you’re acting as the eternal soul you truly are. Fight all varieties of materialism and be a yogi.
Arjuna: What do yogis do? How do they behave?
Krishna: Yogis perform their external duties without attachment because they have mastered their mind and senses. They enjoy an inner happiness that is lost to most people.
Arjuna: You’re telling me to be happy within and fight at the same time. That’s a contradiction.
Krishna: You can’t live without acting, Arjuna. Instead of acting for yourself, turn what you do into a sacrifice for the Supreme. Then you’ll be happy.
Arjuna: What is this power pushing me toward acting selfishly?
Krishna: Lust, Arjuna, born of festering desire. Lust destroys your ability to think clearly. For a long time I’ve been teaching people how to use yoga to conquer lust. I taught the Sun-god, who taught his son, who started a long chain of teachers. Somehow, though, the original knowledge has been lost, so today, dear friend, I’ll teach it to you Myself.
Arjuna: How could You teach the Sun-god, who’s so much older than You?
Krishna: Ordinary bodies age and die, Arjuna, but My body is spiritual and never deteriorates. From time to time I appear in society to help the good people and to vanquish the bad. Good people get rid of their lust and turn their love to Me. But there are many kinds of people, and I respond to everyone individually.
Act for My sake, Arjuna. When you do, everything involved—your work, your equipment, your knowledge—becomes part of a blissful offering, a sacrifice for the Supreme. There are many ways to sacrifice, Arjuna, so you need to find a truly enlightened guru to help you sort them out.
Acting without attachment and acting for Me are both forms of yoga. However, by acting for Me you automatically act without attachment. Remember that I’m your friend, that I own everything, that all action is meant for Me. Then you’ll have endless inner peace. You’ll do your duty in perfect yoga, or union with Me. To do this you may find it helpful to perform the long austerities involved with the mystic process of yoga and meditation.
Arjuna: Making the mind sit still is like trying to control the wind. Mystic yoga seems too hard for me.
Krishna: Yes, it is hard, but it’s possible.
Arjuna: What if I start the path of yoga and fail? Then I’m a loser, materially and spiritually.
Krishna: If you do the right thing, how can you lose? At least in your next lifetime you’ll be better off. On the other hand, if you simply learn to serve Me with love, at death you’ll come to Me and leave this horrible world.
Part 2: Devotion
Krishna: Arjuna, just listen. You’re one of the rare souls who want to know the truth. Just try to understand these points:
Everything comes from Me, Arjuna, even the three types of materialism, which affect everyone except Me, their creator.
People who are materialistic, arrogant, falsely wise, or dull ignore Me. People turn to Me when they’re curious, desperate, sad, or wise.
People who think I’m just a mouthpiece for Brahman, the formless spirit, never get to know Me personally. But wise people who serve Me come to Me after death.
Arjuna: Tell me about this formless spirit, please, as well as the gods, the soul, karma, and Your presence in my heart. And, please, how do I know You at death?
Krishna: The formless spirit, or Brahman, is my spiritual effulgence, and the spark-like individual spirit souls are of the same spiritual substance. By nature, the individual souls serve, but if they choose to serve this endlessly changing world of matter they suffer karma. As for the gods, I create them to manage this material world. And yes, I do live in your heart as the Supersoul, Arjuna.
As for remembering Me at death, practice by thinking of Me as you fight. At other times think of Me as both ancient and fresh, grand and minuscule, but always as a person, shining like the sun. Mystic yogis train themselves with long, deep, mechanical meditation to leave their bodies at just the right time. That helps them proceed to Me in the spiritual world–the only world free of the extended misery of birth and death. But you can get there simply by remembering Me. In fact, by serving Me you gain whatever you might achieve from study, austerity, charity, renunciation, or any sort of religion.
Let Me tell you more. These lessons comprise the king of education, Arjuna. Because you have no envy toward Me you’re able to understand them. You must simply listen with faith.
I create the universe and everything in it, but I remain an individual, untouched by My creation. Fools see Me as an ordinary man, but great souls bow to Me and serve Me with love. Some offer great sacrifices to the gods instead, for they like the material enjoyment the gods can give them. But if one lovingly offers Me a little water or a flower or some vegetarian food, I accept it.
Even if you make a mistake, I’ll still accept you; I’m equal to everyone but partial to My devotees. Be My devotee, and I promise you’ll come to Me.
In short, just know that I create everything. Always serve and speak about Me, and you’ll be happy, for I, sitting in your heart, shall shine the lamp of knowledge and destroy all the ignorance in your life.
Arjuna: I love listening to You, Krishna. It seems that only You can truly know Yourself. How can I know You?
Krishna: When you see the best of anything—the shark among the fish, or lion among beasts, for example—think of Me. Yet anything wonderful you see in this world is just a spark of My true splendor.
Arjuna: Krishna, You have kindly dispelled my illusion. Although I see You now as You are, if You think I am able to behold it, please show me Your form in which You are the universe and everything within it.
Krishna: Yes, Arjuna. I shall give you divine eyes to see this divine vision.
Arjuna (amazed): Krishna, I see the huge gods with their weapons and jewels, dispersed on every planet, dazzling with every imaginable color. The blazing glory of it all surrounds and blinds me. And yet the gods bow in fear before You. Truly You are everything, Krishna! You see everything with your eyes, which are the sun and moon.
(fearful) Now I see You crushing the bodies of every living being with Your terribly sharp teeth. My relatives, my enemies—everyone is rushing into Your mouth! Why are You doing this?
Krishna: I am time, the death of all. All these warriors are already as good as dead, Arjuna. Fight as My weapon and win your fame!
Arjuna (trembling): Almighty Lord, I bow to You from every side! Every living thing should glorify You, but I have foolishly treated You as a friend. Please forgive me, as a father forgives a son or a wife forgives a husband. And please, let me see You again as Krishna.
Krishna: My universal form has frightened you, Arjuna. Be calm. Now see Me in the form you hold dear. Arjuna, even by performing every kind of good deed, a person will not see Me like this, as I am, as Krishna. Only by loving devotion can I be truly seen.
Arjuna: My Lord, should I contemplate You as Krishna or as infinite, formless spirit?
Krishna: Some people meditate on Me as an endless spirit. That kind of meditation is troublesome, but eventually they may achieve Me. But if you directly think of Me, I swiftly rescue you from the sea of birth and death.
If you can’t always think of Me, then hear and chant about me in the practice of bhakti, or devotional yoga. If you can’t do that, then work for Me, or at least work for charity, because detachment brings peace—more so than mere knowledge.
Those who think of Me in devotion show wonderful qualities of kindness, tolerance, steadiness, and determination. They love Me, and I love them.
Part 3: Spiritual Knowledge
Arjuna: Krishna, what is the relationship of the body and the soul?
Krishna: The body is like a field of action for the soul. An ordinary soul interacts with the body by using the senses and by feeling emotions such as lust and hate. However, taking help from a guru, a wise soul becomes detached from the material body. Such a person is humble, equipoised, and truly independent.
As the Supersoul, I offer guidance to all souls, however wise or unwise they may be. Each soul can choose between Me and materialism. Those who choose materialism suffer repeated birth and death in different species. Those who choose Me come to see the whole situation—the compassionate Supersoul and the plight of a spiritual soul encased in dull matter.
Let me tell you more about matter. It comes in three varieties, or modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. As the seed-giving father, I bring dead matter to life by implanting the soul. Then the modes take over. Goodness forces the soul to happiness, passion to ambition, and ignorance to delusion. The three modes compete for supremacy, knocking you, the eternal soul, from one material situation to the next. Only when you are free of their control can you taste real happiness.
Arjuna: How does one rise above the three modes, and having conquered them, how does one behave?
Krishna: To conquer the modes and be free of karma, simply love and serve Me in every circumstance. Then as the modes come and go you’ll observe them without loving or hating them. At that point you’ll be unshakably calm and treat everyone equally.
Arjuna, imagine this world as a great, ancient banyan tree with branches that grow down to become roots. No one can figure out where such a tree begins or ends. If you want to escape its entangling branches, you must cut it down. Then you can enter My self-illumined abode, where there is no need of sunlight or electricity. When you go there, you won’t miss this mortal banyan tree.
I want everyone to come to My abode, so I sit in every heart as the Supersoul, offering guidance. I also write the Vedic literature so that people can understand Me. I exist beyond both the materialist and the enlightened soul. If you know Me, you’ll be wise and everything you do will come out perfect.
I’ve told you something about enlightened souls; they’re honest, pure, self-controlled, and detached. You are such a person, Arjuna, but I’d like you to hear something about the materialistic, atheistic demons.
Demons don’t know what to do or what not to do. They’re unclean, dishonest, and preoccupied with sex. Thinking My creation to be their personal property, they build costly, destructive weapons and feel powerful and proud. Their occasional pretenses of religion or charity are meaningless, for lust enslaves them. Chained to materialism by greed and anger, they fall into lower species of life birth after birth.
The Vedic scriptures, which could save them from such a fate, are of no interest to demons.
Arjuna: What becomes of those who don’t refer to the Vedas but make up their own ways of worship?
Krishna: Religion by imagination is a product of the three modes. In goodness one worships the gods, in passion, powerful demons, and in ignorance, ghosts.
The three modes affect everything, even your food. Juicy, fatty, wholesome foods are in goodness; bitter, salty, pungent foods are in passion, and stale, cold, putrid foods are in ignorance. The modes also influence what kind of charity you give and what kind of discipline you impose on yourself. Still, you should not renounce charity or penance.
Arjuna: What does it mean, then, for one to be renounced?
Krishna: Renunciation means detachment from the fruits of your work. One in the mode of goodness works dutifully but renounces the result. One in the mode of passion renounces work when it grows troublesome. One in ignorance renounces work out of laziness or confusion.
By seeing others as souls and acting with that understanding, you will stay in goodness. That takes a determined mind, but the initial trouble will later bring you happiness. Happiness in passion seems splendid at the start but ends up being painful. Happiness in ignorance, such as taking intoxicants, is bitter from beginning to end.
Those who work in goodness, or brahmanas, are often judges, teachers, or priests.
Kshatriyas, those who work in passion, are often administrators, police or soldiers. Passion and ignorance combine to produce vaishyas, businesspeople or farmers. Those largely in ignorance are called shudras, and they work as artisans, laborers or servants.
Regardless of the kind of work that best suits you, by doing your work for the Supreme you turn it to yoga and become enlightened. For that reason it’s better to do your own work imperfectly than someone else’s perfectly.
My dear Arjuna, here is a final summary of what I have been teaching you.
By serving Me you will learn to act and live in simple wisdom, controlling your mind and senses and renouncing the fruits of your work. Soon you will enjoy peace and insight as you achieve unprecedented happiness and appreciation for everyone. In such a state of mind you will attain My abode.
Think about Me and stay with My devotees; I will clear every obstacle from your path. If you become egoistic and think that you can make it on your own, you’ll be lost.
You’re a warrior, Arjuna; because of your nature you’ll fight no matter what. Fight for Me and you’ll return to your original home in My abode.
Now I’ve told you the secrets of perfection. Think over what I’ve said, and then do whatever you wish to do.
Since you are very, very dear to Me, I’ll conclude with this:
Think about Me always. Become My devotee. Worship Me and give Me homage, and you will return to Me. Give up all other duties, Arjuna, and submit yourself to Me. Don’t worry; I’ll free you from the results of any past mistakes.
Please, repeat these words of Mine, but only to pious people. That too shall ensure that you will return to Me, for no one is more dear to Me than one who shares this message. And anyone who hears it faithfully, without envy, attains to the worlds of the pious.
Arjuna, do you understand?
Arjuna (firmly): Infallible Krishna, You have destroyed my illusions and doubts. By your kindness I have remembered who I really am. Now, according to Your instructions, I shall fight.