The Bhagavad Gita: the leading text in yoga philosophy


The BhagavadGita is a historya poema text that is sometimes referred to as a sacred text for some groups. It is a story within a story since it is the sixth chapter of the Mahabharata, a great Hindu epic. It is also a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. Finally it is a text difficult to qualify because it can be categorized into several things.

Find in this article :

Historical context of the BhaGavadGita

  • Georg Feuerstein has divided the history of yoga philosophy into 9 periods. According to his chronology, he will place the Bhagavad Gita in the period he calls “epic” or “pre-classic. “Pre-classical”, because it is in the “Classical” period that we find the yoga Sutra of Patanjali . And “epic” because it is at this time that we see appearing the two great epics of Hinduism that are the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
  • We can place the Bhagavad Gita, a small part of the Mahabharata, but considered as a text in its own right, between the 3rd and 2nd century BC according to Georg Feuerstein.
  • It is difficult to place historically, especially because of the oral tradition from the Vedas . The Vedas were transmitted orally by the Rishis, and the Upanishads continue this oral tradition. The Mahabharata will be part of these epics, and is also part of an oral tradition.
  • The Bhagavad Gita was born in a very rich rich context of cultural exchanges and questionings. Many philosophical questions arise in this very rich period since the Upanishads, because one begins to criticize what happens in the Vedic culturein these fire rituals, which are conducted by the priestly class (the Brahmin class).
  • In the Bhagavad Gita we will see the influence of these texts called the Upanishads. The style of the Vedas is very affirmative, like hymns, whereas from the period of the Upanishads, we will enter a style of dialogue. This is also the case for the Bhagavad Gita which is a dialogue between two characters that are Krishna and Arjuna.
  • On the other hand, there is also the influence of the Upanishads, because as in some Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita will criticize certain aspects of the priestly culturewhich is for rite and sacrifice.
  • At that time, something else is also happening: the way of renunciation is becoming more and more popular. Because, in the Hindu logic, we will have this cycle of rebirth which is the Saṃsārawhich will be linked to our actions. It is linked to Karma and the fruits of our actions.

The path of renunciation: One of the answers to stop this cycle of rebirths, and therefore the effects of Karma, is to stop acting, the inaction. We’re going to see quite quickly in the Bhagavad Gita a dialogue that will question this and will clearly say that it is not in inaction that one will attain liberation from the Saṃsāra.

  • Another important element, which will have a huge impact on the interpretations and interpretations and translations afterwards When the Bhagavad Gita appeared it is also in a context where the orthodox philosophical schools of Hinduism, and what will later be called the Darshanas (worldviews) are not yet crystallized. Many things are in progress, but there is nothing definitive that is classified. This is very important because, later on, in the translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, and depending on the person who translates it, one will be able to interpret the Bhagavad Gita according to one tradition or another. This will lead to different conclusions and we will arrive at visions that are sometimes opposed.
  • As we saw earlier, the Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharataof which it is the sixth chapter. Within the Bhagavad Gita, we find 18 chapters. This is not a coincidence: the number 18 is a sacred numberwhich has an importance in Hindu traditions.
The Bhagavad Gita: the leading text in yoga philosophy

What does the BhagavadGita mean?

  • Gita means “song”.
  • Bhagavad comes from the root bhaj . This one translates as “give a share”, “redistribute”, “receive”. Bhagavant is the present participle of bhaj and defines a supreme God who has this sharing nature. There is a reference to a God who would be Supreme, because he offers his gracious and benevolent nature.
  • Often, when we talk about the Bhagavad Gita, we will encounter this title: “The Song of the Blessed.”. We designate this blessed person who will be a key character of the Bhagavad Gita : Krishna.

The history of the Bhagavad Gita

We find ourselves at a moment in the Mahabharata, this great great epic of Hinduismat a time when there is a battle which is key. This battle opposes Good and Evil.

On the eve of this great battle, where the fate of the universe is at stake, Arjuna, a warrior who belongs to the “good camp”, will observe what is happening in front of the battlefield. He will ask his coachman and friend Krishna to take him to the center, between the two camps.

The Bhagavad Gita: the leading text in yoga philosophy

Krishna, was a good coachman and a good friend, he takes him to the center. And there, Arjuna will realize that his enemy, or at least the people he will kill during the battle, are his family, his former friends, his former masters and his cousins. Arjuna, at that moment saw a dilemma that is very deepand that will be linked to his Dharma.

Arjuna is going to be taken of panic so much he is in an existential dilemma. He will tell Krishna that he is not not able to fightthat it is impossible for him. Krishna replies that he has to fight and explains why.

Krishna then launches into a philosophical treatiseHe starts to talk to him about the existence of our human nature, why we exist, our duty in this world…

He will really go into a very philosophical debate, and it is this dialogue that will give birth to the Bhagavad Gita. It is really the dialogue of Krishna that tries to convince Arjuna to fight.

The three key concepts

Let’s move on to the three concepts that Laura believes are key to understanding the Bhagavad Gita.

According to Laura, it is always important to approach these kinds of texts in their historical contextand in their original meaning. Even if it will always be difficult for us to grasp its true meaning, being neither of the same time, nor of the same culture as this text. Then, the idea is to to make it our own and to form our own idea of it. Only then can we try to interpret itand adapt it to our modern life.

The following three concepts help us to understand the historical meaning of this text.

The notion of Dharma

Dharma is this notion of dutybut not only. Dharma is probably one of the most difficult words to translate. For Scott Fitzgerald, who translated the Mahabharata, it was truly the the most difficult word to translate of the Sanskrit language. Because it evokes a sense of duty, but also from a moral (or religious in some contexts) point of view, which is correct. So there is also this sense of righteousness.

In this text, Arjuna is a warrior, who belongs to the class of warriors. Its duty is therefore to fightHe knows this because he has already been in combat. But what is special this time is that it will face your family. But family is another type of Dharma. For him, there is a dilemma between his warrior Dharma and his “family role” Dharma.

The notion of Karma

  • In this notion of Karma, there is the word karma which literally means “action”..
  • There is also this notion of the cycle of rebirths.
  • This notion of Karma that generates fruits that are good or bad.
  • Karma will be accumulated We do things in this life that will be transcribed in our next lives, so we are slaves to our cycle of rebirth.
  • There is this Karma that we accumulate from past livesand the Karma that we are generating in our present life in our present life.

In this vision, Arjuna is confronted with the dilemma of wanting to to fight (thus to act)or not to want to fight (not to act). So he wonders what the best way is: action or non-action.

Karma is one of the most important topics that Krishna will address, especially when we understand the context of the popularity of the path of renunciation.

The notion of the Atman

  • The Atman is a concept that will be defined by the UpanishadsThe Atman is a concept that will be defined by the Upanishads to answer the question “What happens after death? or “Who am I really?
  • The Atman is going to be a unique essence, in the sense of the Upanishads, which would be found inside all living beings. The particularity of the Atman in the Bhagavad Gita is that in Sanskrit there are no capital letters. So when we talk about Atman we refer to the self. When we refer to the self, we can refer to the “I”, or to the Self which refers to the notion of Atman in the sense of the Upanishads. We can see that already at the level of interpretation, we must question ourselves if we refer to the Upanishadic Atmanor to the Atman in short (me).

This essence of the Self will be Krishna’s first argument to tell Arjuna that he has not understood the question. For if he does not want to kill these people, it is because he has no understanding of reality. Indeed, he is not really killing them. For the Atman is a universal, immortal and timeless essence. So even if he kills bodies, their essence is eternal.

Krishna starts with this argument and then tells him what he should do.

What about yoga?

Even if one could say that it is only a story, the Bhagavad Gita is a yoga text. If only for the fact that more than 20% of the text will contain the word yoga or one of its derivatives.

So we can see that it is a text that speaks to us about yoga. To clarify, when we talk about yoga here, we are applying the definition of yoga as a path, a way.

Krishna, who is a teacher, will show us several ways of yoga, several paths to act.

Find out more about the history of yoga .

Among these paths of yoga (this is not exclusive) there are :

  • Karma which is the yoga of action it will form the argument of Krishna to tell Arjuna thatit is better to act than not to act. This is where Krishna introduces a very important notion: to act without waiting for the results.
  • The Jnana which is the yoga of knowledge. This one is not intellectual: it is rather the knowledge of reality.
  • The Bakhti which is the way of devotion. This one is really important in this text because it changes the game: with this path, Krishna cuts out the middleman which allowed us to get in touch with the deities and the Supreme God. Until then, this Supreme God was accessible only to Brahmins. But it will become accessible to all if one follows this path of Bhakti. We understand here thethe enormous influence that the Bhagavad Gita has had.
The Bhagavad Gita: the leading text in yoga philosophy

Laura’s book selection

It is a text which lends itself to many interpretations. On the one hand, by its historical context, according to the translation, according to the tradition in which the Bhagavad Gita is read and interpreted.

This results in slightly different conclusions. For Laura, the choice of translation is important when reading this book. Find in bookstores :

  • “Bhagavad Gita” by Stephen Mitchell who translated from Sanskrit to English. His book was translated from French by Aurélien Clause and Pierre Mallet. This is Laura’s favorite version, very fluid to read because there are no comments after each verse. It is an opportunity to read the text in one go and to be able to philosophize on it, without being influenced by one person at first.
  • “The Bhagavad Gita or the great song of Unitycommented by Gisèle Siguier-Sauné. This version is also very interesting.
  • “The Bhagavad Gita or the art of acting by Poggi Colette: This book offers a more modern interpretation, which will deconstruct the text and propose a very up-to-date interpretation with beautiful illustrations.
  • For English speakers : “Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song” by Graham M. Schweig’s
  • Also for English speakers: “The essence of the Bhagavad Gita” by Kriyananda and Paramahansa Yogananda, which is a contemporary version.

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A look back at the tenth “Light on Yoga Philosophy” teaching of the Yogom Academy. Laura Arley enlightens us on the Bhagavad Gita. She explains why this text is of great importance in the history of Yoga, and tells us about the historical context in which this text appears.


Laura Arley is a vinyasa, yin yoga, restorative and senior yoga teacher in Toulouse and online. Laura is also a teacher of yoga philosophy.

The Bhagavad Gita: the leading text in yoga philosophy