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Bhagavad Gita

Composed around the 2nd century BCE the Bhagavad Gita (literally: Song of the Lord) is the part of the epic poem Mahabharata and is revered in Vaishnava[?] Hinduism. It tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior prince, and his friend Krishna who is steering his chariot through the beginnings of the great Bharata war[?] that forms the basis for the Mahabharata. Arjuna and Krishna have ridden out into the middle of a battlefield, with armies arrayed on either side of them. Arjuna's job is to blow a conch shell to announce the commencement of battle. Seeing friends and relatives in both armies, Arjuna is heartbroken at the thought that the battle will cost him many loved ones. He turns to Krishna for advice.

Krishna counsels Arjuna on a wide range of topics, beginning with a tenet that since souls are immortal, the lives lost in battle aren't really lost. Krishna goes on to expound on many spiritual matters, including the yogas (or paths) of devotion, action and knowledge. In the eleventh chapter, Krishna shows Arjuna that he is in fact an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and, fundamentally, both the ultimate ground of being behind the universe, and the material body of the universe, as well as the personal Lord who should be worshipped. This three-fold understanding of the nature of God has led to the Bhagavad Gita being interpreted as the basis for many varying manifestations of the Hindu faith.

The Gita was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, who interpreted the war - as have others - as a metaphor for the confusions, doubts, fears and conflicts that trouble all people at one time or another.

The Gita addresses this discord within us and speaks of the yoga of equanimity - a balanced outlook. The term yoga covers a wide range of meanings, but in the context of the Bhagavad Gita it describes a unified outlook, serenity of mind, skill in action, and the ability to stay attuned to the glory of the Self (Atman), which is ultimately one with the ground of being (Brahman). According to Krishna, the root of all suffering and discord is the agitation of the mind caused by desire. The only way to douse the flame of desire, says Krishna, is by stilling the mind through discipline of the senses and the intellect.

However, total abstinence from action is regarded as being just as detrimental as extreme indulgence. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the goal of life is to free the mind and intellect from their complexities and to focus them on the glory of the Self. This goal can be achieved through the yogas of action, devotion and knowledge.

In many ways a heterogeneous text, the Gita attempts, not always successfully, to reconcile many facets and schools of Indian philosophy of both Brahmanical (ie orthodox) origin and the ascetic tradition. It includes strands of, among others, the atheistic Samkhya philosophy, Yoga, Buddhism, Vaishnavite worship etc, as well as cults of devotion which were increasingly popular among lower sections of society at the time.

Since the 18th century it has become increasingly popular both within India and in European translations. Although not strictly part of the 'canon' of Vedic writings, many sects draw upon the Gita as authoritative. Recently, textual studies have indicated that it may have been inserted into the Mahabharata at a later date, but this does nothing to detract from one of the most compelling and important texts to come out of the Indian tradition.

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