The “Bhagavad Gita” is undoubtedly both one of the most influential religious writings and epic poems of all time. The book is a work of philosophical importance for any Christian seeking fluency in public discourse, as it has shaped the thought life of many. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by the story and wrote his own commentary on the Gita expounding on his vision of non-violent resistance.
The story follows a prince named Arjuna who finds himself caught in a civil war between rival branches of his family. As Arjuna prepares for battle, Krishna, an incarnation of the divine godhead of Hinduism, accompanies the prince in his chariot. Krishna has taken interest in the prince and decides to reveal himself to Arjuna and teach him how he is to achieve enlightenment and properly navigate between duty to his immediate family and love for his entire family.
The title is often translated “The Song of the Lord,” as it teaches through epic poetry the philosophical religion of Krishna. Krishna systematically teaches Arjuna the nature of reality as passing and vapid, illusory at its core, a concept called samsara. Ultimately, an individual’s eternal soul—represented by Arjuna—returns to the primal soul of the universe, of which Krishna is a bodily appearance. The nature of suffering and passing is such that the individual soul undergoes refinement and trial by ordeal, whereby they either return to the primal soul of the universe in nirvana or fall off in annihilation.
Krishna explains that the way forward for Arjuna through the ethical predicament is to realize the essential nature of the universe as fleeting. Arjuna must reject selfishness and perform his expected task, to fight, while renouncing the consequences of his action. This means Arjuna is justified, in that he is not sending souls to their immediate ultimate death. Instead, Arjuna is playing his role, embracing his true path of devotion to his Lord, seeking enlightenment by pursuing his calling. “Whatever you do—what you take, what you offer, what you give, what penances you perform—do as an offering to me, Arjuna,” Krishna says in the 9th teaching. And of the soul who is devoted he says, “If he is devoted solely to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”
In the Gita, the way towards enlightenment lies beyond right and wrong, good and evil, or love and hate. The way towards enlightenment is recognition of one’s state as a piece of the universal soul’s consciousness going on an adventure only to return back to rest. The reason any Christian should bother with the Gita and go through the trouble of studying this ancient piece of Sanskrit is because it’s the language the Christian needs to learn to navigate the context. What a wild and exciting language it is.
When faced with the Gita, the Christian must consider how they use “…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (2 Cor 10:31) to justify whatever means for the end of God’s glory. In the end, if Christians all go to heaven, does it matter if they’re beneath the poverty line, without adequate healthcare, or in some way unsupported by the Church? Do we renounce the fruit of our actions because ultimately the nature of this world is passing… or is that too harsh?
Christians might be tempted to critique the Gita for upholding a philosophy that undergirds the class system of warring family tribes. This of course would be a legitimate critique, but only if Christians are willing to explore how their own beliefs prop up their own class systems.
For example, consider how passages about integrity and obedience might be construed in such a way that keeps workers toiling without access to the very grain they help produce. Or am I just imagining the stereotype that nonprofits systemically underpay their low-level employees while overpaying their executives just like corporations do? Christians need the Bhagavad Gita because it exposes them to another cosmology and ordering of the universe. It also challenges their assumptions about people’s conception of reality.
Yet, most importantly, Christians need the Gita because it painfully brings them face to face with their own sins. Our face is reflected in the face of our indigenous neighbors. Perhaps discovering the log in our own eye comes only after we’ve carefully observed the spec in our neighbor’s.