Bhagavad–Gita
Antecedent Words

[For the Disciple—A Guide]


The Bhagavad-Gîtâ is an episode of the Mahábhárata, which is said to have been written by Vyasa. Who this Vyasa is and when he lived is not known.

J. Cockburn Thomson, in his translation of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, says: "The Mahábhárata, as all students of Sanskrit well know, is the great epic of India, which from its popularity and extent would seem to correspond with the Iliad among the Greeks. The theme of the whole work is a certain war which was carried on between two branches of one tribe, the descendants of Kuru, for the sovereignty of Hástinapura, commonly supposed to be the same as the modern Delhi. The elder branch is called by the general name of the whole tribe, Kurus; the younger goes by the patronymic, from Pandu, the father of the five principal leaders.

"This war between the Kurus and Pandavas occupies about twenty thousand slokas, or a quarter of the whole work as we now possess it....In order to understand the allusions there [in the Bhagavad-Gîtâ] a knowledge is requisite of the previous history of the tribe, which will now be given as follows.

"Of the name Kuru we know but little, but that little is sufficient to prove that it is one of great importance. We have no means of deriving it from any Sanskrit root, nor has it, like too many of the Hindû names, the appearance of being explanatory of the pecularities of the person or persons whom it designates. It is therefore in all probability a name of considerable antiquity, brought by the Aryan race from their first seat in Central Asia. Its use in Sanskrit is fourfold. It is the name of the northern quarter or Dwipa of the world, and is described as lying between the most northern range of snowy mountains and the polar sea. It is further the name of the most northern of the nine varshas of the known world. Among the long genealogies of the tribe itself it is known as the name of an ancient king to whom the foundation of the tribe is attributed. Lastly, it designates an Aryan tribe of sufficient importance to disturb the whole of northern India with its factions, and to make its battles the theme of the longest epic of olden time.

"Viewing these facts together we should be inclined to draw the conclusion that the name was originally that of a race inhabiting Central Asia beyond the Himalaya, who emigrated with other races into the northwest of the peninsula and with them formed the great people who styled themselves unitedly Arya, on the noble, to distinguish them from the aborigines whom they subdued and on whose territories they eventually settled...

"At the time when the plot of the Mahábhárata was enacted, this tribe was situated in the plain of the Doab, and their particular region, lying between the Jumna and Sursooty rivers, was called Kurukshetra, or the plain of the Kurus. The capital of this country was Hastinapura, and here reigned, at a period of which we cannot give the exact date, a king named Vichitravirya. He was the son of Shantanu and Satyavati; and Bhîshma and Krishna Dwaipayana, the Vyasa, were his half-brothers; the former being his father's, the latter his mother's son. He married two sisters—Amba and Ambalika—but dying shortly after his marriage . . . he left no progeny; and his half-brother, the Vyasa, instigated by divine command, married his widows and begot two sons, Dhritarâshtra and Pandu. The former had one hundred sons, the eldest of whom was Duryodhana. The latter married firstly Pritha, or Kunti, the daughter of Sura, and secondly Madri. The children of these wives were the five Pandava princes; but as their mortal father had been cursed by a deer while hunting to be childless all his life, these children were mystically begotten by different deities. Thus Yudhishthira, Bhîma, and Arjuna, were the sons of Prîtha by Dharma, Vayu, and Indra, respectively. Nakula was the son of Madri by Nasatya the elder, and Sahadeva, by Darsa the younger of the twin Ashwinau, the physicians of the gods. This story would seem to be a fiction, invented to give a divine origin to the five heroes of the poem: but, however this may be, Duryodhana and his brothers are the leaders of the Kuru, or elder branch of the tribe; and the five Pandava princes those of the Pandava or younger branch.

"Dhritarâshtra was blind, but although thus incapacitated for governing, he retained the throne, while his son Duryodhana really directed the affairs of the State. . . . he prevailed on his father to banish his cousins, the Pandava princes, from the country. After long wanderings and varied hardships, these princes collected their friends around them, formed by the help of many neighboring kings a vast army, and prepared to attack their unjust oppressor, who had, in like manner, assembled his forces.

"The hostile armies meet on the plain of the Kurus. Bhîshma, the half-brother of Vichitravirya, being the oldest warrior among them, has the command of the Kuru faction; Bhima, the second son of Pandu, noted for his strength and prowess, is the general of the other party [Arjuna's]. The scene of our poem now opens, and remains throughout the same—the field of battle. In order to introduce to the reader the names of the principal chieftains in each army, Duryodhana is made to approach Drôna, his military preceptor, and name them one by one. The challenge is then suddenly given by Bhîshma, the Kuru general, by blowing his conch; and he is seconded by all his followers. It is returned by Arjuna, who is in the same chariot with the god Krishna, who, in compassion for the persecution he suffered, had become his intimate friend, and was now acting the part of a charioteer to him. He is followed by all the generals of the Pandavas. The fight then begins with a volley of arrows from both sides; but when Arjuna perceives it, he begs Krishna to draw up the chariot in the space between the two armies, while he examines the lines of the enemy. The god does so, and points out in those lines the numerous relatives of his friend. Arjuna is horror-struck at the idea of committing fratricide by slaying his near relations, and throws down his bow and arrow, declaring that he would rather be killed without defending himself, than fight against them. Krishna replies with the arguments which form the didactic and philosophical doctrines of the work, and endeavors to persuade him that he is mistaken in forming such a resolution. Arjuna is eventually overruled. The fight goes on, and the Pandavas defeat their opponents. . . ."

This quotation from Thomson's edition gives the student a brief statement of what is more or less mythological and allegorical, but if the story of the Mahábhárata be taken as that of Man in his evolutionary development, as I think it ought to be, the whole can be raised from the plane of fable, and the student will then have before him an account, to some extent, of that evolution.

Thus looking at it from the theosophical point of view, the king Dhritarâshtra is the human body which is acquired by the immortal monad in order to go through the evolutionary journey; the mortal envelope is brought into existence by means of Tanha, or thirst for life. He is blind because the body without the faculties within is merely senseless matter, and thus is "incapacitated for governing," and some other person is represented in the Mahábhárata as being the governor of the state, the nominal king being the body—Dhritarâshtra. As the theosophical scheme holds that there is a double line of evolution within us, we find that the Kurus spoken of in the poem represent the more material side of those two lines, and the Pandava princes, of whom Arjuna is one, stand for the spiritual side of the stream—that is, Arjuna represents the immortal Spark.

The learned Brahmin theosophist, Subba Row, says in his Notes on the Bhagavad-Gîtâ:

"Krishna was intended to represent the Logos, . . . and Arjuna, who was called Nara, was intended to represent the human monad." (The Theosophist, VIII, 299)

Nara also means Man. The alleged celestial origin for the two branches of the family, the Kurus and Pandavas, is in perfect consonance with this, for the body, or Dhritarâshtra, being solely material and the lower plane in which the development takes place, the Kurus and Pandavas are our inheritance from the celestial beings often referred to in Mme. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, the one tending towards materiality, the other being spiritual. The Kurus, then, the lower portion of our nature earliest developed, obtain the power on this plane for the time being, and one of them, Duryodhana, "prevails," so that the Pandavas, or the more spiritual parts of our nature, are banished temporarily from the country, that is, from governing Man. "The long wanderings and varied hardships" of the Pandavas are wanderings caused by the necessities of evolution before these better parts are able to make a stand for the purpose of gaining the control in man's evolutionary struggle. This also has reference to the cyclic rise and fall of nations and the race.

The hostile armies, then, who meet on the plain of the Kurus are these two collections of the human faculties and powers, those on one side tending to drag us down, those on the other aspiring towards spiritual illumination. The battle refers not only to the great warfare that mankind as a whole carries on, but also to the struggle which is inevitable as soon as any one unit in the human family resolves to allow his higher nature to govern him in his life. Hence, bearing in mind the suggestion made by Subba Row, we see that Arjuna, called Nara, represents not only Man as a race, but also any individual who resolves upon the task of developing his better nature. What is described as happening in the poem to him will come to every such individual. Opposition from friends and from all the habits he has acquired, and also that which naturally arises from hereditary tendencies, will confront him, and then it will depend upon how he listens to Krishna, who is the Logos shining within and speaking within, whether he will succeed or fail.

With these suggestions the student will find that the mythology and allegory spoken of by Thomson and others are useful instead of being merely ornamental, or, as some think, superfluous and misleading.

The only cheap edition of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ hitherto within the reach of theosophical students of limited means has been one which was published in Bombay by Brother Tookeram Tatya, F.T.S., whose efforts in that direction are entitled to the highest praise. But that one was simply a reprint of the first English translation made one hundred years ago by Wilkins. The great attention of late bestowed on the poem . . . in America has created an imperative demand for an edition which shall be at least free from some of the glaring typographical mistakes and blind renderings so frequent in the Wilkins reprint. To meet this demand the present has been made up. It is the result of a careful comparison of all the English editions and of a complete retranslation from the original wherever any obscurity or omission was evident in the various renderings consulted.

The making of a commentary has not been essayed, because it is believed that the Bhagavad-Gîtâ should stand on its own merits without comments, each student being left to himself to see deeper as he advances. The publisher of this edition holds that the poem can be read in many different ways, each depending on the viewpoint taken, e.g., whether it is considered in its application to the individual, or to cosmogenesis, or to the evolution of the astral world, or the hierarchies in nature, or to the moral nature, and so on. To attach a commentary, except such an one as only a sage like Sankaracharya could write, would be audacious, and therefore the poem is given undisfigured.

The Bhagavad-Gîtâ tends to impress upon the individual two things: first, selflessness, and second, action; the studying of and living by it will arouse the belief that there is but one Spirit and not several, that we cannot live for ourselves alone, but must come to realize that there is no such thing as separateness, and no possibility of escaping from the collective karma of the race to which one belongs, and then, that we must think and act in accordance with such belief.

The poem is held in the highest esteem by all sects in Hindustan except the Mohammedan and Christian. It has been translated into many languages, both Asiatic and European; it is being read today . . . in every part of the world. To those and to all others who truly love their fellowmen, and who aspire to learn and teach the science of devotion, this edition of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ is offered.

—W. Q. Judge
New York, October, 1890.





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