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Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita



The Bhagavad-Gita is an intelligent response to a perennial human predicament which other religions and philosophies also tried to resolve in their own way. Human beings often stood perplexed and mystified as they confronted paradoxical situations in life that demanded action. Discerning right from wrong often became an existential predicament. The Pandava prince Arjuna found himself standing on the shaky ground of Kurukshetra not knowing the way forward. Lord Krishna outlines for him the path towards gaining flawless self-knowledge and self-mastery from his sorrowful state of confusion and opened his eyes to perceive the truths beyond appearances. Krishna instructs him that, when a person is capable of watching everything that happens within and around him dispassionately and acting with an attitude of detachment, he attains sthithaprajna (equanimity) and samadhai (liberation).
K. Perumpallikunnel
The Bhagavad-Gita is an intelligent response to a perennial human predicament
which other religions and philosophies also tried to resolve in their own way.
Human beings often stood perplexed and mystified as they confronted paradoxical
situations in life that demanded action. Discerning right from wrong often became
an existential predicament. The Pandava prince Arjuna found himself standing
on the shaky ground of Kurukshetra not knowing the way forward. Lord Krishna
outlines for him the path towards gaining flawless self-knowledge and self-mastery
from his sorrowful state of confusion and opened his eyes to perceive the truths
beyond appearances. Krishna instructs him that, when a person is capable of
watching everything that happens within and around him dispassionately and acting
with an attitude of detachment, he attains sthithaprajna (equanimity) and samadhai
The subject matter of the Bhagavad-Gita (The song of God) is nothing
other than discernment (Ramacharaka 2010:3). According to the Gita,
discernment is all about nityanithya vastu viveka (discernment of the
eternal and temporal realities) (Kaji 2001:27). Lord Krishna, the supreme
Guru, tutors his confused disciple, Arjuna, to lead him from the state of
maya (illusion) to the perfect understanding of satyasya satyam (really
real). Krishna outlines for Arjuna the path towards gaining flawless self-
knowledge and self-mastery from his sorrowful state of confusion (1:47).
Being a part of the epic Mahabharatha, which falls under the category
of ithihasas (epics), the Bhagavad-Gita technically belongs to the smrti
literature (recollected/reflected/remembered: all human wisdom and
knowledge belong to this category). However, since it is the utterance of
the incarnated God Lord Krishna himself, the Bhagavad-Gita is approved
as a part of shruti (heard/revealed: Vedas and Upanishads) and is often
Acta Theologica
2013 Suppl 17: 271-290
ISSN 1015-8758
Dr K. Perumpallikunnel, Research Fellow, Department of New Testament, University
of the Free State, Bloemfontein. E-mail:
Produced by SUN MeDIA Bloemfontein
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
called Gitopanishad.
According to its devotees, the Bhagavad-Gita is the
essence of the Vedic knowledge and one of the most important Upanishads
in the Vedic literature.
The Bhagavad-Gita was written to lead Arjuna from the slavery and
obscurity of avidya (ignorance) to the freedom and splendour of jnana
(wisdom). Moksha (liberation/enlightenment) is the purging of the illusory
thoughts and beliefs about this transitory world – thus entering a state
of pure consciousness and realising and accepting reality as it is. The
instructions of the Bhagavad-Gita are designed to awaken this pure
consciousness; therefore, in the final section of the Gita, Krishna asks
Arjuna if he is now in pure consciousness (18:72). Pure consciousness is
being in a state of samadhi (equanimity), being in control of one’s mind and
body. Impure consciousness is a state of being blinded and disturbed by
the ego. In the last section of the Bhagavad-Gita (18:66), the Lord Krishna
reiterates sarva-dharman parityajya, mam ekam saranam vraja, aham
tvam sarva-papebhyo, mokshayisyami ma suchah. (Abandon all religions
[beliefs and concepts] and take recourse in me. I shall liberate you from
all sins. Do not be afraid.) Many people such as Mahatma Gandhi found
solace in this Celestial Song:
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 the Bhagavad-
Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile
in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the
Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.
The Mahabharata, often known as the Hindu bible, is the story of a great
war. It is one of the two Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India (the other
being the Ramayana). The poem is made up of nearly 100000 couplets
(approximately seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey
combined or 12 times the length of the Bible) or approximately 1.8 million
words in total. Its authorship is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa,
although it is unlikely that a single person wrote the poem (Chaturvedi
2006:24). The author Vyasa himself appears in the work as the grandfather
of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Mahabharata not only displays
a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure, but is also full of
1 Even in the Gita, at the end of every chapter, while assigning a title to each, the
catechesis of Krishna is mentioned as Gitopanishad.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
wisdom. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality
that is unmatched in any other story humanity has ever conceived. The
Mahabharata contains numerous mythological and didactic material
arranged around a central heroic narrative that tells of the struggle for
sovereignty between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The traditional date
for the war that is the central event of the Mahabharata is 1302 BCE, but
most historians assign it a later date. The best scholarly evidence indicates
that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000
years ago. The oldest preserved parts of the text are not thought to be
appreciably older than 400 BCE, although the origins of the story probably
fall between the 8th and the 9th centuries BCE. The text reached its
present form by 300-400 CE. According to the Mahabharata itself, the tale
is an extended text from a shorter version of 24000 verses called simply
Bharata. The present poem is divided into 18 books or parvas.
The central plot constitutes little more than one fifth of the epic. The
remainder of the epic addresses a wide range of myths and legends.
Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fate of the
Kauravas and the Pandavas, the Mahabharata contains a great deal of
philosophical and devotional material. The Mahabharata itself proclaims
its comprehensiveness confidently:
As the sun dispels the darkness, so does the Mahabharata by its
discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the
ignorance of men (1.1.73).
He who knows the four Vedas with all the Angas (subdivisions)
and Upanishads, but does not know this history (Mahabharata),
cannot be regarded as wise … As the formation of the three worlds
proceeds from the five elements, so do the inspirations of all poets
proceed from this excellent composition (1.2.572).
The Mahabharata uttered by the lips of Dwaipayana is without a
parallel; it is virtue itself and sacred (1.2.584).
The Mahabharata incorporates most of the lore and legend of the Classical
Hindu Tradition (Ganguli 2012). It is a plot large enough to encompass all
categories, yet it is not a random collection of tales. Every story in the
Mahabharata sheds light on the central story which is the great battle
that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King
Pandu and their allies, on the one hand, and the hundred sons of King
Dhritarashtra and their allies, on the other. The war broke out. And it was
devastating. In its plain sense, it was a tragic war that pitted brothers
against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against
brave noble men. Though initially keeping to chivalrous notions of warfare,
both sides soon began adopting disreputable tactics. At the end of the
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
ferocious 18-day battle, though the Pandavas and Krishna managed to
survive, it was not a victory for them, for the war had destroyed the world
that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won tainted the rest
of their lives. After “seeing” the carnage, Gandhari
who had lost all her
sons, cursed Krishna to face a similar death and to witness an equivalent
eradication of his own family for, although divine and capable of stopping
the war, he did not do so. Krishna accepted the curse, which befell on him
in the course of time. The Pandavas who gained their kingdom through
bloodshed and fratricide chose to renounce everything and set off on a
pilgrimage to Indraprasta (heaven), their destiny. On the way, one by one
the brothers and Draupadi, their wife
fell. As each one fails, Yudhishtira
(the elder brother) gave the other brothers the reason for their fall (Draupadi
was lenient towards Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva who were vain and
proud of their looks, and Bhima and Arjuna were proud of their strength
and archery skills, respectively). Only the virtuous Yudhishtira, who had
tried everything to prevent the carnage, and the stray dog that joined the
group prevailed. The dog reveals itself as Yama (god of death/underworld),
and then takes Yudhishtira to the underworld where he sees his siblings
and wife. After explaining the nature of the test, Yama takes Yudhishtira
back to heaven and explains that it was necessary to expose him to the
underworld, because any ruler has to visit the underworld at least once
(Rajyante narakam dhruvam). Yama then assures him that his siblings
and wife would join him in heaven after they had been exposed to the
underworld for measures of time according to their vices (Nadumuri 2010).
The Bhagavad-Gita opens with the blind King Dhritarashtra requesting his
secretary, Sanjaya, to narrate the battle between his sons, the Kauravas,
and their cousins, the Pandavas (1:1). Out of affection for his devotee, the
Pandava prince Arjuna, Lord Krishna, the mighty incarnation of Vishnu,
one of the Hindu Trinity (the others being Brahma and Siva), agreed to
drive his chariot. As Arjuna takes up his bow and prepares to fight, he
faces his great-grandfather Bhishma and his teacher Drona on the other
side with the sons of Dhritarashtra (1:26). His mind reels as he foresees the
imminent death of his teachers, relatives, and friends (1:45). Developing
doubts about the battle, he requests the glorious Krishna to draw his
2 The Queen Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas, blindfolded herself when she
wed the blind king Dhritarashtra and opted for “blindness” all through her life.
3 Draupadi was the wife of all the five Pandava brothers, as mandated by their
mother Kunthi.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
chariot between the two fighting forces (1:24). From there he observes the
imminent devastation. Overtaken by grief, he lays down his weapons and
decides not to fight (1:47). In that decisive moment, Krishna delivers his
magnificent instruction to enlighten and embolden him to wake up to his
call of duty.
The Bhagavad-Gita is thoroughly practical and free of any intellectual
gymnastics, or vague, abstract philosophy. It offers diagnostic solutions
to every challenging situation that we face in our daily life that calls for
discernment and action. The Gita is not rigid either. At the end of his
instruction, Krishna tells Arjuna:
Now I have taught you that wisdom which is the secret of secrets.
Ponder it carefully. Then act as you think best (18:63).
No coercion, no promises, no threats. It is up to the listener to decide.
The Gita simply shows us the way forward.
Just as the epic Mahabharata contains 18 books that narrate a war that
was fought between 18 Akshuhinis
for 18 days, the Gita also contains
18 chapters. Each chapter is envisioned as a kind of yoga in itself. The
function of yoga is to train our body and mind until it reaches samadhi
(equanimity/liberation/enlightenment). The chapters have a progressive
order to their teachings, whereby Krishna raises Arjuna up the ladder of
yoga one rung at a time. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, every aspect of
our life can be salutary, even those aspects that seem negative.
Chapter 1: Arjuna-Vishada yoga (The yoga of the dejection of Arjuna)
– 47 verses. Arjuna’s depression is presented as a system of yoga.
When Arjuna sees his near and dear ones on the opposing army side
of the Kurus, he loses morale and decides not to fight (1:20-27). Arjuna
4 An Akshauhini was an ancient battle formation that consisted of 21870 chariots;
21870 elephants; 65610 cavalry and 109350 infantry as per the Mahabharata
(Adi Parva 2.15-23). The ratio is 1 chariot : 1 elephant : 3 cavalry : 5 infantry
soldiers. In each of these large number groups (65610, etc.), the digits add up
to 18.
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
presents Krishna his arguments for refusing to fight (1:28-47). Basically,
he fears the sinful reactions of killing.
Chapter 2: Samkhya Yoga (The yoga of knowledge) – 72 verses.
Concluding his reasoning and yet confused, Arjuna turns to Lord
Krishna for discernment (2:7). Krishna begins countering Arjuna’s
objections. Krishna tells Arjuna that the eternal self is immortal and the
body is designed to pass away (2:12-30). Explaining the three principles
dharma, (right action) atman (individual self) and sarira (body), Krishna
reminds Arjuna that, as a warrior, his duty is to uphold the path of
dharma through warfare (2:31-38).
Chapter 3: Karma Yoga (The yoga of action) – 43 verses. Confused
by listening to Krishna’s exaltation of samkhya (jnana) yoga (The yoga
of knowledge), Arjuna questions why he should engage in fighting if
knowledge is more important than action (3:1-2). Krishna then explains
nishkama karma (performing one’s duties without desiring its fruits
– detached activity) as the appropriate course of action (3:3-8). He
explains that both improper action and neglect of duty are impelled
by desire and lack of knowledge. Krishna counsels Arjuna to act with
knowledge and detachment without falling victim to his own attractions
and aversions (3:29-30).
Chapter 4: Jnana-Karma-Sanyasa Yoga (The yoga of knowledge,
discipline of action and knowledge) – 42 verses. Krishna reveals to
Arjuna his many incarnations for the defence of the virtuous and the
destruction of the wicked (4:7). The chapter ends with Krishna glorifying
transcendental knowledge and appealing to Arjuna to arm himself with
this knowledge, which burns the evil effects of every action to ashes
Chapter 5: Karma-Sanyasa Yoga (The yoga of action and knowledge) –
29 verses. Arjuna wants to know if it is better to renounce action or to
be involved in action (5:1). Krishna answers that one who is detached
from his works’ fruits is the one who is truly detached (5:2-6). He will
be in a position to see action in inaction and inaction in action (4:18).
Such a person knows that, while the body acts, he, the soul, actually
does nothing (5:7).
Chapter 6: Dhyana Yoga, or Atmasamyama Yoga (The yoga of self-
control) – 46 verses. Krishna explains the correct posture for meditation
(6:11-15) and how to achieve samadhi (6:24-27).
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Chapter 7: Jnana-Vijnana Yoga (The yoga of knowledge of Nirguna
Brahma and manifest divinity) – 30 verses. Krishna instructs the path of
knowledge (Jnana Yoga).
Chapter 8: Akshara-Brahma Yoga (The yoga of indestructible Brahma)
– 28 verses. Krishna tells Arjuna that, by remembering him at the time of
death, one can attain his supreme abode (8:5-7). He pinpoints devotion
towards him as the easiest way to attain liberation (8:14).
Chapter 9: Raja-Vidya-Raja-Guhya Yoga (The yoga of the sovereign
science and the sovereign secret) – 34 verses. Krishna discloses to
Arjuna how all beings find their existence in him (9:4-8). He reveals his
self, although independent and aloof, as that which pervades, creates
and annihilates the entire cosmos through his material energy (9:9-10).
This awareness is recommended as a way to remember him in all
circumstances. Krishna affirms that he will take care of his devotees,
compensate for their deficiencies, and preserve their strength. And all
he asks of his devotees is an offering of a leaf, a flower, or some water
– if it is offered with devotion (9:26). Even if a devotee unintentionally
commits a dreadful sin, he will be rectified, for Krishna promises that
his devotee will never perish (9:30).
Chapter 10: Vibhuti-Vistara-Yoga (The yoga of divine glories) – 42
verses. Krishna explains his grandeur more specifically and thereby
reveals himself the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the source of all
(10:2-8). Krishna also tells how his pure devotees know that he is the
unborn Supreme Lord, the source of all sages, the source of the material
and spiritual worlds, and the source of all qualities and attitudes. Arjuna
recognises Krishna as the Supreme Being, as the great sages have
done in the past.
Chapter 11: Visvarupa-Darsana Yoga (The yoga of the vision of the
universal form) – 55 verses. On Arjuna’s request, Krishna displays his
visvarupa (universal form), a theophany of a being facing every way
and emitting the radiance of a thousand suns, containing all beings
and substances in existence (11:9). In this astounding effulgent, all-
expansive form, Arjuna sees all soldiers on both sides dying within it
(11:10-30). Krishna explains his form as time, the destroyer of all worlds,
and requests that Arjuna, knowing in advance the inevitable death of all
the warriors, become his instrument (11:32-34).
Chapter 12: Bhakti Yoga (The yoga of devotion) – 20 verses. It describes
Bhakti Yoga in detail. Krishna extols the benefits of devotion (12:1-12).
He also explains different forms of devotions and spiritual disciplines.
Arjuna inquires whether it is better to worship Krishna (incarnate God)
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
through devotional service or the impersonal God (Ningana Brahma).
Krishna clarifies that one who is engaged in active service is the highest
Chapter 13: Kshetra-Kshetrajna Vibhaga Yoga (The yoga of
discrimination between the field and the knower of the field) – 34
verses. Krishna describes the human body as kshetra (temple/field),
stating that one who knows this fact is a kshetrajna (knower) (13:1-18).
Krishna describes prakrti (nature/matter), the purusha (enjoyer/spirit)
and consciousness (13:19-34). Unassumingly advancing in knowledge,
one can become free from worldly entanglement.
Chapter 14: Gunatraya-Vibhaga Yoga (The yoga of classification of the
three gunas) – 27 verses. Krishna explains the three gunas (qualities/
traits) of material nature, namely satvaguna, rajoguna and tamoguna
(goodness, passion and ignorance), respectively (14:5-10). These three
forces control all conditioned persons within this world. A discerning
person is of satva nature (14:11). It is possible to transcend the
bondages of these gunas through devotion (14:26).
Chapter 15: Purusottama Yoga (The yoga of the supreme person) –
20 verses. It explains the ways and means to free oneself from the
grip of the three gunas of matter. Krishna compares the material
world to a gigantic banyan tree with its roots in the heavens and its
foliage on earth. Krishna invites Arjuna to fell this tree with the “axe of
detachment”, in order to progress towards his supreme abode (15:3).
Chapter 16: Daivasura-Sampad-Vibhaga Yoga (The yoga of
discrimination between the divine and the demonical properties) – 24
verses. Krishna indicates the divine and the demonic traits present in
human nature. After mentioning twenty-six godly qualities, Krishna
explains the demoniac nature which degrades the soul through arrogant,
ignorant, and conceited pursuits of sense gratification and power
(16:1-18). He counsels that, in order to attain the supreme destination,
one must give up lust, anger and greed (16:21-22). Assisted by buddhi
(intellect) and supported by scriptural confirmation, one should discern
right and wrong and act appropriately (16:24).
Chapter 17: Sraddhatraya-Vibhaga Yoga (The yoga of the classification
of the threefold faith) - 28 verses. Krishna mentions three divisions of
beliefs, thoughts, deeds and even eating habits corresponding to the
three gunas (17:4-10).
Chapter 18: Moksha-Sanyasa Yoga (The yoga of liberation through the
path of knowledge and self-surrender) – 78 verses. It is a review of the
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truths already presented (18:6). In conclusion, Krishna advises Arjuna
to abandon all forms of dharma and simply surrender unto him (18:66).
He describes this as the ultimate perfection of life. After listening to
the instructions of Sri Krishna, Arjuna is confirmed and gets ready to
fight (18:73). After narrating this conversation to Dhritarashtra, Sanjaya
regards Krishna with enormous admiration and predicts victory for
Arjuna, the supreme archer, for he is surrendered to Krishna, the master
of all mystics (18:78).
Some people insist that Sacred Scriptures can have only one meaning and,
therefore, eschew interpretations and even translations (Frein 2012:12).
However, this is a mistaken assumption with regard to the Hindu Sacred
Scriptures in Sanskrit. Hindu scriptures are intended to have multi-level
messages and subtle nuances. Their literary style (sutras and shlokas:
aphorisms and versifications) demands, necessitates, and provides room
for any number of commentaries and interpretations. Words that carry
several relevant ideas are ideal for the profound wisdom of the Gita and
the Upanishads, in particular. The Hindu scriptures consist of unlimited
layers, many symbolic in nature (Knapp 2012). In addition, the meanings
of the symbols are not fixed. They may change according to the level on
which they occur.
While attempting to explore the allegorical realms of the Bhagavad-
Gita, we should not fail to notice a metaphor portrayed in the first chapter
of the Kathopanishad:
Body is the chariot, soul the traveler, intellect the charioteer, mind
the bridle, five senses are five horses, while desires are the paths on
which those horses gallop. (Kathopanishad 1:3:3, 4).
Over the centuries, numerous attempts have been made to figure out
and attribute symbolic meanings to the events and personalities in the
Bhagavad-Gita. Leaving aside the complex issue of assigning symbolic
meanings to every person named in the battle narrative, it is not difficult
to figure out the basic symbolism. This world in which we live is a
5 The Kathopanishad is a widely known Upanishad and is counted among the
principal Upanishads. It consists of two chapters, each divided into three
sections that contain between 15 and 29 verses. It belongs to the Black
Yajurveda. It was likely composed after the fifth century BCE. Central to the
text is the story of Nachiketa, son of sage Vajasravasa, and his encounter with
Yama, the Hindu God of death.
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
dharmakshetra, a field upon which we act out our svadharma (vocation/
duty/inherent obligation) according to our character or our innate
constitution. The quality of our emotions, mind, intellect, and will depends
on our present level of evolution. It is not merely in the world, but even within
ourselves that we find all kinds of negative impulses, conflicts, confusions,
fears, and ignorance. Although, at times, deep within ourselves, we could
sense an attraction towards divinity, it is often overruled by a multitude
of impulses to delusion. However, it is to be noted that all the warriors of
ignorance and delusion are children of a blind ego (Dhritarashtra), whereas
the inner soldiers of truth and higher consciousness are the children of
the Spirit-Self, the divine Atman. Kurukshetra is the personality. Buddhi
(mind/intellect) of the individual is the charioteer who tries to lead the true
self to attain enlightenment. This aspiration for truth evokes opposition
from within one’s own mind and body, governed by the blind ego. Thus
begins the war between Pandavas and Kauravas, good and evil, truth
and falsehood, ignorance and wisdom, trying to annihilate each other.
The most surprising feature of this inner war is that many insightful and
honest “virtues” are lining up in support of the “worthless”. For example,
the ego, which is the creation of ignorance and delusion, torments the
individual self as a result of his/her fears, desires and illusions. It manages
to line up the bona fide human qualities to defend and ensure its survival
under the pretext that the individual’s survival is intertwined with his/her
own survival. Individuals who use their intellectual faculties to achieve
the goals dictated by their blind instincts are yet another example of this
phenomenon. As a result, along with the Kauravas, most of the “Pandava”
army is also eliminated in the eventual transformation of the individual into
a higher state of being.
Krishna (literally, the dark one) and Arjuna (literally, the white one)
represent the unknown and the known (God and human person), as well
as our own dual nature as immortal and mortal. From this standpoint, the
dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna can be regarded both as God’s
communication to human beings and the communication of our own
divine Self with our human self, the intention of which is moksha/samadhi
or liberation from sufferings (equanimity). Accordingly, Arjuna and Krishna
are the indwelling atman (individual self) and Paramatman (immortal self)
riding the chariot, which is Arjuna’s body. The Mundakopanishad speaks
of two birds of golden plumage; inseparable companions, the individual
self and the immortal self, as perched on the branches of the same tree.
The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree, whereas the
latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes. The individual self, deluded
by forgetfulness of its identity with the divine self, bewildered by its ego,
grieves and is sad. However, when it recognises Paramatman as its own
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
true self, and beholds its glory, it grieves no more (Mundakopanishad
3:1:1, 2). These verses are a perfect summary of the Gita. Arjuna is the
bewildered and sorrowing atman, the individual self, and Krishna is the
divine Paramatman, the supreme self from which the atman derives
its very being and existence. Forgetful of its true nature as part of the
cosmic/universal/immortal self, the finite atman passes through countless
experiences that confuse and pains it, producing utterly false conclusions
that compound and perpetuate the illusion and sorrow. Only when the
perspective of the divine self is entered into, will its plight fade away.
The ego (blind Dhritarashtra) is the false self that reigns on the throne
of our body and mind, blinding us to everything else, and making us think
that it is the essence of our being. However, this is not true. Buried deep
within us is our true self, awaiting its liberation and the recapturing of its
rightful kingdom. Duryodhana (dirty fighter), the elder son of Dhritarashtra
(one who holds the kingdom), is a dangerous evolution of his blind father
since he is no longer blind. He is capable of consciously choosing evil if he
believes that it serves his ambition. He is coercing the virtuous to commit
self-sacrifice in order to gratify his hunger for power. This shows that the
virtues serving the ego and working to ensure its preservation are certainly
risking their lives. It is amazing to note how the ego devours people,
sapping their energy, turning them into blind brutes, while they themselves
believe that they are really living a great life. This is the fatal delusion in
which human beings often dwell. Only those who have glimpsed the truth
of their inner divinity are likely to escape this milieu of death.
In the Kurushetra war, conchs play not only a battle announcement role
but also a very significant symbolic role. The war is declared by sounding
conchs. Suddenly, there is a riot of conch sounds, conchs vying each other,
in the battlefield. Conchs are not man-made, but the product of the ocean
and are mere empty shells. However, they can transform human breath into
mighty sounds. Conchs thus represent human words, the condensation of
their breath. In the final analysis, all known realities can be reduced to, and
are acknowledged as mere vibrations (e = mc
). Hinduism considers Aum,
the eternal sound, as the source and the sum of everything. Every sound
we produce is the echo of the eternal Aum. The sound of the Kaurava
conchs represents the vibrations of maya (delusion), ignorance and the
ego. But the sound of the Pandava conchs represents the divine sound of
Aum intoned by yogis. We are told that
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
Krishna blew his Panchajanya; Arjuna blew Devadatta, while
Bhima, terrible in action, blew the great conch horn Paundra. King
Yudhishthira, son of Kunti, blew Anantavijaya; Nakula and Sahadeva
blew Sughosha and Manipushpaka (1:15,16).
These names are highly symbolic. Panchajanya (five victories) points to
the spiritual victory of Aum over the five elements (bhutas), mastery over
the five bodies (koshas) and control over the five sense organs (indriyas).
Devadatta (God-given) proclaims Aum as the key to liberation given by God
himself to human beings. Paundra (mighty sound) announces Aum as the
supreme Word of Power. Anantavijaya (unending victory) states the effect
of the recitation (japa) of Aum. Sughosha (great/excellent sound) makes
known the ecstatic experience of those who recite Aum. Manipushpaka
(could mean jewelled bracelet, flowery mind, aerial chariot of the mind,
and so on). Through the recitation of Aum, the mind is transformed into a
precious jewel. At the recitation of Aum the mind blossoms like a flower.
Aum causes the mind to open up and soar in the Chidakasha (sky of
consciousness). The sounding of the conchs thus symbolically portrays
the yogi, engaged in the interior battle, who has brought under control
all his faculties in meditation and united them in the constant invocation
of Aum, causing it to vibrate throughout his being. By its continual
intonation, Aum resounds throughout the “sky” (mind) and “earth” (body)
of the yogi, and bursts apart the hearts of all the foes of the self, for the
consciousness arising from its invocation first renders them powerless,
and then annihilates them (1:19).
As mentioned earlier, the core of the Bhagavad-Gita is the enlightening
response to the confused and puzzled Arjuna, who was unsuccessful in
discerning his svadharma (personal duty). Arjuna appeals to Krishna:
With my very being tainted by the vice of faint-heartedness and
my mind puzzled with regard to duty, I am asking you. Tell me that
which is decidedly good; I am your disciple. Pray, instruct me, who
have put myself into your hand (2:7).
Most of the commentators, including Mahatma Gandhi, were of the opinion
that the Bhagavad-Gita is not concerned with actual warfare and opted for
allegorical or metaphorical interpretation. In his commentary on the Gita,
Gandhi interpreted the battle as “an allegory in which the battlefield is the
soul and Arjuna, man’s higher impulses struggling against evil”. One of
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
the great modern Indian mystics, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, stated that
the essential message of the Gita can be obtained by repeating the word
several times: one begins by saying “gita, gita, gita”, but then one finds
oneself saying “ta-gi, ta-gi, ta-gi”. Tyagi in Sanskrit means one who has
renounced everything for God (Nikhilananda).
The Bhagavad-Gita presents Arjuna as an embodiment of the human
predicament as he enquires: “How Krishna, shall I fight Bhisma and Drona
with arrows on the battle-field? They are worthy of deepest reverence.”
(2:4) Bhishma is his grandfather and Drona, his beloved teacher. He
We do not know which is preferable for us – to fight or not to fight;
nor do we know whether we shall win or whether they will conquer
us. Those very sons of Dhrtharashtra, killing whom, we do not even
wish to live, stand in the enemy ranks. (2:6).
By way of clearing the confusion of Arjuna, Lord Krishna first tries
to shed some light on the mental state of Arjuna who was arguing with
Krishna like a learned person. However, Krishna points out that his sorrow
and grief indicate that he is not yet wise, because “wise men do not sorrow
over the living or the dead” (2:11). Krishna again clarifies that, for a wise
man, pain and pleasure are alike (2:15). This is because
[t]he unreal has no existence, and the real never ceases to be; the
reality of both has thus been perceived by the seers of the truth
Krishna clarifies to Arjuna that the soul is eternal, omnipresent,
immovable, constant and everlasting (2:24); so there is no need for him to
mourn for this transitory body which is designed to perish sooner or later.
Krishna reminds Arjuna of the duty that is assigned to him as a soldier:
“… there is nothing more welcome for a man of the warrior class than
a righteous war” (2:31). Krishna continues: “Now, if you refuse to fight
this righteous war, then, shrinking your duty and losing your reputation,
you will incur sin” (2:33). According to Krishna, Arjuna, being a warrior by
profession, should be ready to accept both life and death:
Die, and you will win heaven; conquer, and you will enjoy sovereignty
of the earth; therefore, stand up, Arjuna, determined to fight. Treating
alike victory and defeat, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, get ready
for the fight, then; fighting thus you will not incur sin (2:37-38).
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
Lord Krishna helps Arjuna to discern the true cause of suffering. “… those
who are deeply attached to pleasure and worldly power cannot attain the
determinate intellect concentrated on God” (2:44). Krishna clearly instructs
Your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof. Be
not instrumental in making your actions bear fruit, nor let your
attachment be to inaction. Arjuna, perform your duties established
in yoga, renouncing attachment, and even-temperament in success
and failure; evenness of temper is called yoga (2:47-48).
For a person who has attained equanimity, even the scriptures are
useless. Krishna makes a most daring statement:
A Brahman, who has attained enlightenment, has the same use of
all the Vedas as one who stands at the brink of the sheet of water
overflowing on all sides has for a small reservoir of water (2:46).
He assures Arjuna that, “he who has given up all desires and move free
from attachment, egoism and thirst for enjoyment attains peace” (2:71).
Krishna reminds Arjuna of his obligation to act:
Surely none can ever remain inactive even for a moment; for
everyone is helplessly driven to action by nature-born qualities.
He who outwardly restraining the organs of sense and action, sits
mentally dwelling on the objects of senses, that man of deluded
intellect is called a hypocrite (3:5-6).
However, Krishna points towards the possibility of acting without any
attachment, which is sacrifice (3:9). Krishna points towards God as the
best example for this kind of “perfect action”. According to Krishna, God’s
creative activity in itself was a sacrifice:
Having created mankind with sacrifice at the beginning of creation
the Creator, Brahma, said to them, ‘You shall prosper by this; may
this yield the enjoyment you seek’ (3:10).
Arjuna is made to understand that every act of the Creator is a sacrifice.
The world has originated, is sustained and supported through sacrifice.
Our vocation as human beings is to collaborate consciously and actively in
this ongoing divine sacrifice:
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
Foster the gods through sacrifice, and let the gods be gracious
to you. Each fostering the other disinterestedly, you will attain the
highest good. (3:11).
Feed gods and get fed by gods – be a conscious collaborator in this
eternal feeding-chain. Krishna calls those who refuse to engage in self-
sacrificing activities, thieves (3:12). Acting with a desire for its fruit is a
disgraceful act like a cow that drinks its own milk. It already had its share
of milk as a calf and now her milk is for her calf. Krishna demands from
Arjuna action without attachment, seeking only the maintenance of the
world order (3:25).
Krishna instructs Arjuna about the inherent gunas (qualities) of prakrti
(nature/matter). Being material, we have inherited those qualities. Yet, we
are not destined to be governed by those natural qualities (3:28). However,
having transcended the control of nature does not give anyone the right
to scorn the ignorant, who are still under its yoke. The liberated should be
compassionate towards them and should be willing to help them:
Those who are completely deluded by the gunas of prakrti remain
attached to those gunas and actions; the man of perfect knowledge
should not unsettle the mind of those insufficiently knowing fools.
It is the forgetfulness of the past that makes people proud. Presenting
himself as an example; Krishna clarifies the difference between an
enlightened person and an ordinary person: “Arjuna, you and I have
passed through many births, I remember them all; you do not remember.”
(4:5). It is the forgetfulness of the past that makes people proud, arrogant,
and cold towards others. Krishna then reveals another fact about action
to Arjuna: “He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise
among men; he is a yogi, who has performed all actions.” (4:18). Running
away from action or finding false justification for our failures to act will not
make us wise or masters of our nature:
On the earth there is no purifier as great as Knowledge; he who has
attained purity of heart through a prolonged practice of karma yoga
(action without attachment) automatically sees the light of Truth in
the self in course of time, assures Krishna (4:38).
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
In an attempt to lead him to the royal path of discernment, Krishna says
to Arjuna:
He who acts offering all actions to God, and shaking off attachment,
remains untouched by sin, as the lotus leaf by water (5:10).
The wise look with the same eye on a Brahman endowed with
learning and culture, a cow, an elephant, dog, and a pariah too (5:18).
According to Krishna, when the disciplined mind of a person is firmly
established in God and is actively engaged in the service of all beings, it
attains Brahma, who is all peace (5:25). He will be in a position to regard
stone, earth and gold alike (6:8):
He who looks upon well-wishers and neutrals as well as mediators,
friends and foes, relatives and objects of hatred, the virtuous and the
sinful with the same eye, stands supreme (6:9).
This state of mind is attainable if one could perceive the universal self
to be present in all beings, and all beings existing within it (6:30):
Arjuna, he who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self,
and looks upon the joy and sorrow of all with a similar eye, – such a
yogi is deemed the highest of all (6:32).
The awareness that all beings have emerged from the same source
and their destination is also the same will enable one to overcome one’s
irrational responses of attachment and aversion (7:6). Krishna offers Arjuna
an easy way to reach this state of equilibrium through bhakti (devotion):
Arjuna, whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as
oblation to the sacred fire, whatever you bestow as a gift, whatever
you do by way of penance, offer it all to me (9:27).
As a powerful means to convince his beloved disciple, Krishna is
transfigured in front of Arjuna and reveals his glorious divine form with an
effulgence of a thousand suns where he could see the universe, its past,
present and future, gods and goddesses, even the terrible conclusion
of the battle they are about to wage and the looming mass destruction.
Krishna reveals himself as the embodiment of Time (kala) and warns him:
Even without you all these warriors arrayed in the enemy’s camp
must die … These warriors stand already slain by me; be you only
an instrument, Arjuna. Do you kill Drona, and Bhishma, Jayadratha
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
and Karna and even other brave warriors; who stand already killed
by me; fear not. You will surely conquer the enemies in this war;
therefore, fight (11:32-34).
Krishna assures Arjuna that
[t]he Spirit dwelling in this body, is really the same as the Supreme.
He has been spoken of as the Witness, the true guide, the Sustainer
of all, the Experiencer (as the embodied soul), the Overlord and the
absolute as well (13:22).
When a person is capable of watching everything that happens within
and around him dispassionately and acting with an attitude of detachment,
s/he has reached sthithaprajna (equanimity) and attained Samadhi
(liberation). According to Krishna,
He alone really sees, who sees all actions being performed in every
way by prakrti (nature) alone, and the Self as the non-doer (13:29).
When light and discernment dawn in this body, as well as in the mind
and senses … (14:11),
one will be free from every turbulence of mind and body:
He who sitting like a witness, is not disturbed by gunas, and
who, knowing that the gunas alone move among gunas, remains
established in identity with God, and never falls off from that state
Krishna’s final warning is even more authoritative: “If taking your stand
on egoism, you think, ‘I will not fight’, vain is this resolve of yours; nature will
drive you to the act. That action too which you are not willing to undertake
through ignorance, – bound by your own duty born of your nature, you
will helplessly perform.” (18:59-60). After his extensive and magnificent
discourse on discernment, Krishna leaves everything to the discretion of
Arjuna saying: “Thus has this wisdom, more secret than secrecy itself,
been imparted to you by me. Fully pondering it, do as you like” (18:63).
Being fully enlightened, Arjuna responds:
Krishna, by your grace my delusion has fled and wisdom has been
gained by me. I stand shorn of all doubts. I will do your bidding.
At last, a happy ending to a long walk to discernment.
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
In a context that explores the biblical roots of discernment, one may reflect
on what would be the role and relevance of a study on discernment according
to a non-Christian scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita. The answer is quite
simple. Such an exploration is not only relevant, but also exceptionally
helpful and enormously valuable for a deeper understanding of this concept
from a fundamentally different perspective. Discernment is after all not
merely a Christian concern, but also a perennial human obsession. As Celia
Kourie rightly concludes in her article in this volume, an inter-scriptural
soul-searching will “contribute to greater insights into the many-faceted
splendor of the Ultimate”. In our multicultural society, no religion or society
can isolate or insulate itself and survive like a living fossil. According to
Kourie, tapping into the wisdom of other cultures and religions for mutual
understanding and enrichment should be our way forward. For example,
the literary style of the Bhagavad Gita, which demands, necessitates,
and provides room for any number of commentaries and interpretations,
becomes an eye-opener and a challenge to those who support and practise
scriptural idolatry that takes away the growth potential, plasticity, freedom,
and the life of their Sacred Scriptures. A generous attitude will keep our
windows open to new perspectives and doors to new dives into the ever-
deepening realms of divine revelations. Scriptural idolatry can blind people,
sapping their energy, turning them into bullies while believing themselves
to be defenders of orthodoxy and truth.
An occasional glance into analogous concepts found in other religions
will, in addition to revealing the complementarities and mutual agreements,
save us from forgetting the past that makes people proud, arrogant,
and cold towards others. Moreover, as Krishna instructs Arjuna, such
comparisons can be regarded as part of our intellectual discernment cum
scriptural validation (16:24). For example, the Bhagavad Gita treats sacrifice
– a concept that people often demarcate as a Christian contribution to
the milieu of spirituality – from a radically different perspective. Krishna
tells Arjuna that acting without attachment is in itself a sacrifice (3:9). He
points towards God as the best example for this kind of “perfect action”.
According to Krishna, God’s creative activity was in itself a sacrifice. The
world has originated, sustained and is supported through sacrifice. Our
vocation as human beings is to collaborate consciously, actively and
collectively in this ongoing divine sacrifice.
Acta Theologica Supplementum 17 2013
Even a casual reading of the Bhagavad-Gita will convince a person that
our ancestors have left a great treasury of wisdom for us, their posterity,
from which to derive some benefit and become enlightened. Thinking that
it belongs to the Hindu Sacred Scripture, people of other religions and
cultures need not be too nervous about the Gita, as it is part of the epic
Mahabharatha (a part of smrti [reflections]) and does not belong to Vedas
or Upanishads (shruti [revelations]). The Bhagavad-Gita is an intelligent
response to a perennial human predicament which other religions and
philosophies tried to resolve in their own way. As the Veda would state,
Ekam sat vipra behudha vadanti (Reality is one, learned people speak of
it differently) (Rigveda 1:164, 46). The superiority-inferiority complexes
emerging from blind egos will not benefit humanity. Any answer given,
any discovery made in any corner of the world belongs to the entire
human species and to the entire universe. Therefore, turning a blind eye
towards, or refusing to open up to the available truths and resources is
a crime against oneself, others and God. According to the Gita, there
are three margas (ways) available to us to attain freedom, namely karma
(action), bhakthi (devotion) and jnana (knowledge). They are not watertight
compartments. They are merely three stages of the one and the same
path, the goal being transcendence from the servitude of the known
and the unknown. Transcendence is a human potential, even though all
have nama-rupa (name and form); only those who attempt to realise this
potential can be considered truly human in its proper sense. The proud
and the arrogant are still struggling in the pit of ignorance, self-deception
and brutality. What they need is the discerning capacity disseminated by
the Bhagavad-Gita!
Chaturvedi, B.
2006. The Mahabharata: An inquiry in the human condition. New Delhi: Orient
Frein, B.
2012. Fundamentalism and narrative approaches to the Gospels. Biblical
Theology Bulletin 22:12-18.
Gandhi, M.K.
[s.a.] Influence of Bhagavad Gita. [Online.] Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.
org/wiki/Influence_of_Bhagavad_Gita [20 November 2012].
GanGuli, K.M.
[s.a.] Mahabharata of Vyasa. [Online.] Retrieved from: www.mahabharataonline.
com/translation/mahabharata_01002.php. [20 November 2012].
Perumpallikunnel Discernment: The message of the Bhagavad-Gita
GoyandaKa, J.
1994. The Bhagavad-Gita or The Song Divine. Gorakhpur: Govind Bhavan
GriFFith, r.t.h.
[s.a.] Rigveda. [Online.] Retrieved from:
rigveda/index.htm [20 November 2012].
Guruparananda, S.
[s.a.] Katha Upanishad. [Online.] Retrieved from:
KathaUpanishad [20 November 2012].
KaJi, d.S.
2001. Common sense about uncommon wisdom: Ancient teachings of Vedanta.
Honesdale: The Himalayan Institute Press.
Knapp, S.
[s.a.] Vedic Culture/Hinduism: A short introduction. [Online.] Retrieved from:
[20 November 2012].
KriShnananda, S.
[s.a.] Mundakopanishad. [Online.] Retrieved from: http://www.swami- [20 November 2012].
naduMuri, J.
2010. Bharatha. [Online.] Retrieved from:
mbh:bharata [20 November 2012].
niKhilananda, S.
[s.a.] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. [Online.] Retrieved from: www.belurmath.
org/gospel/index.htm [20 November 2012].
raMaCharaKa, y.
2010. The Bhagavad Gita’s teachings on spiritual discernment. Whitefish:
Kessinger Publishing.
[s.a.] Mahabharata. [Online.] Retrieved from:
Mahabharata [20 November 2012].
Keywords Trefwoorde
Discernment Onderskeiding
Detachment Afstand
Liberation Bevryding
Equanimity Onversteurdheid
Karma Karma
... "Body is the chariot, soul the traveller, intellect the charioteer, mind the bridle, five senses are five horses, while desires are the paths on which those horses gallop" (Kathopanishad 1:3:3, 4) (Perumpallikunnel, 2013). "Bhagvad Gita refers 'Supreme' as "Kshetra (the field of manifestation or experience) & Kshetrajna (the knower/observer of the field of manifestation). ...
... This study described how human functioning from different levels of that hierarchy yielded different outcomes. (Ray U., 2018), (Taware et al., 2016), (Perumpallikunnel, 2013), (Sri Baldev, n.d.), (Cohen, 2015), (Bhar, 2018) ...
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Action-outcome outline is established in the Yoga Science. It is a practical work related application of Yogic philosophy. It discusses the outcomes when root of actions lies within the lower material field to higher transcendental fields. There are ample classical examples illustrating the phenomenon in detail. Action rooted in Yoga is the blessing to any workmen & the same needs to be easily communicated. Current study aims at demystification of the action-outcome outline using classical & modern examples. The study used mathematical modelling method. For the corporate audience this will enable easier understanding of the concept.
... This helps in remaining stoic even under extremely emotional circumstances thus not clouding our judgement. Perumpallikunnel (2013) expressed that the Lord convinces Arjuna to fight the battle for the sake of it as it is he who desires the same on the lines of Nishkaam Karma which emphasizes fighting for a cause which is noble and just. It is to be understood and ingrained that it is he who is to be kept in mind when performing any such act which we might perceive as something which we would not do otherwise. ...
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The paper aims to understand and expand the idea of ardent devotees of the Hindu Dharma who devoutly follow the Bhagavad Gita, inarguably the epitome of principles of Hinduism, having imbibed it in their way of living, be it professionally or personally, thereby adhering to the learning out of it, both directly and indirectly thus resulting in decisions which are rational. The present research paper delves on the four levels, namely obedience, anticipation, creation and fulfilment of the public expectation towards Gita, and how the same is relevant in today’s extremely competitive corporate environment. This paper establishes the rationality of teaching of various tenets of Bhagavad Gita while striving for excellence by corporate leaders so as to gain competitive edge as well as the viability of scriptures like Bhagavad Gita so as to carve a niche for the corporate to ensure sustainable development. Keeping the professional challenges of corporate world in consideration, the shlokas of Bhagavad Gita produce a unique solution. The teachings of Bhagavad Gita, as a holy scripture, at one side prepare the managers of today to strive for excellence and on the other side emphasize on importance of humanitarian touch in today’s business world. The paper acts as a catalyst for leaders and managers to facilitate better decision-making in competitive corporate environment as key for organizational excellence, which reinforces to work with self-consciousness and ensures how one can create happiness for their stakeholders.
... People will tell of your undying shame and for a man of honor, shame is worse than death. (Miller, 2004, p. 36) This allegory is not to be used to justify shame or violence (see Perumpallikunnel, 2013); rather, we would like to show that enacting duty is hard, but its alternative, desertion of duty, discards virtue and public trust (Garfield, 2011). In Indian tradition, dharma, not wealth, is a primary goal of life (Salagame, 2013), based on the premise that "greed destroys dharma" (Menon, 2006, p. 482). ...
As reports increase of scandals and unethical behavior in Western corporations and organizations, public faith in leadership has declined, indicating the need for a reevaluation of what makes a good leader. We propose a transformational style of ethical leadership, supplemented by traditional Indian values, for leadership that focuses on duty, selfless service, and nonviolence. We address Indian cultural values of dharma, karma-yoga, and ahimsa in reference to transformational leadership, highlighting the contributions of influential Indian leaders like Mohandas K. Gandhi. We describe the consonance of these values and counseling psychology ideals, as well as their applications for leadership practice, training, and research. © Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association.
Common sense about uncommon wisdom: Ancient teachings of Vedanta
  • D S Kaji
KaJi, d.S. 2001. Common sense about uncommon wisdom: Ancient teachings of Vedanta. Honesdale: The Himalayan Institute Press.
Vedic Culture/Hinduism: A short introduction
  • S Knapp
Knapp, S. [s.a.] Vedic Culture/Hinduism: A short introduction. [Online.] Retrieved from: [20 November 2012].
s.a.] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
  • S Krishnananda
KriShnananda, S. [s.a.] Mundakopanishad. [Online.] Retrieved from: [20 November 2012]. naduMuri, J. 2010. Bharatha. [Online.] Retrieved from: mbh:bharata [20 November 2012]. niKhilananda, S. [s.a.] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. [Online.] Retrieved from: www.belurmath. org/gospel/index.htm [20 November 2012]. raMaCharaKa, y.
Fundamentalism and narrative approaches to the Gospels
  • B Frein
Frein, B. 2012. Fundamentalism and narrative approaches to the Gospels. Biblical Theology Bulletin 22:12-18.
Influence of Bhagavad Gita
  • M K Gandhi
Gandhi, M.K. [s.a.] Influence of Bhagavad Gita. [Online.] Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Influence_of_Bhagavad_Gita [20 November 2012].
Mahabharata of Vyasa
  • K M Ganguli
GanGuli, K.M. [s.a.] Mahabharata of Vyasa. [Online.] Retrieved from: www.mahabharataonline. com/translation/mahabharata_01002.php. [20 November 2012].
The Bhagavad-Gita or The Song Divine
  • J Goyandaka
GoyandaKa, J. 1994. The Bhagavad-Gita or The Song Divine. Gorakhpur: Govind Bhavan Karyalaya.
The Mahabharata: An inquiry in the human condition
  • B Chaturvedi
Chaturvedi, B. 2006. The Mahabharata: An inquiry in the human condition. New Delhi: Orient Longman.