The Wisdom Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita
by Daniel McKenzie
The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God“) is one of the world’s most revered spiritual works due to its narrative approach, dispensing of practical guidance, and synthesis of non-dual wisdom teachings. However, the Bhagavad Gita is much more than an exemplar of ancient Hindu scripture, it’s a gift to humanity in the same way a comprehensive 700-verse compendium on modern medicine would be. It is the essence of the Vedas, an expounder of knowledge and a remedy for human sorrow. In The Wisdom Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the author takes a cue from traditional Advaita Vedanta to provide commentary on the Gita in a way that helps unlock the teaching in clear, modern and practical terms. As a result, the reader is offered the original intent and utility of the Gita as a guide for living a life free of suffering.
The Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God“) is one of the world’s most revered spiritual works due to its narrative approach, dispensing of practical guidance, and synthesis of non-dual wisdom teachings. However, the Bhagavad Gita is much more than an exemplar of ancient Hindu scripture, it’s a gift to humanity in the same way a comprehensive 700-verse compendium on modern medicine would be. It is the essence of the Vedas, an expounder of knowledge and a remedy for human sorrow.
The “Gita,” as it is often referred, is also one of the principle scriptures taught in Vedanta—one of the six traditional schools of Hindu thought. The word Vedanta refers to the knowledge contained at the end of the Vedas—Hindu scriptures concerning virtually every aspect of human life—and is often interpreted as “the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge.” In short, Vedanta is a wisdom tradition based on logic that is a proven means for understanding our experience.
When I began writing commentary on the Gita, I didn’t know what kind of book this would eventually come to be. People write books for many reasons, but for me it was an interest in gaining a complete understanding of the Gita that left nothing in question. Gaining this understanding held great personal importance because it felt like the culmination of a spiritual journey after many years of reading books on Eastern thought, practicing meditation, and relentlessly pursuing the truth. I also wanted to comprehend the structure of the Gita and why certain themes were emphasized. Along the way, I not only gained a greater appreciation for an ancient method of revealing Self-knowledge but to my surprise, a new understanding of the importance of religion during a time in history when interest in religion seems to be waning.
Through studying the Gita up close, I could also see how certain devotees and spiritual seekers lose their way and become victims to those who believe they teach the truth. Learning the truth is not free of perils. Besides a burning desire to know, it requires scripture, a qualified teacher, and knowing when it’s time to move to the next step; because in many ways devotion to the truth is like getting through one’s studies—there’s elementary school, a high school, and a university. If you are a sincere seeker with a genuine desire for liberation, the key is to not get stuck perpetually in high school. One who genuinely desires to know should want to reach the end and not be satisfied with simply learning “the ABC’s.”
Too many devotees and spiritual seekers never gain the knowledge needed for freedom because they confuse the means with the end. They spend years worshiping a particular deity believing it to be real, spend decades doing service in hope that it brings them salvation, or a lifetime wrapped in a meditative cocoon addicted to peace. It’s unfortunate that in many ways modern spirituality has relegated the use of the intellect. This is partly due to the West’s emphasis on and fascination with experiential practices. In many ways, our spiritual practice has become mindless rather than mindful as we commit to various disciplines in order to empty ourselves of thoughts. Practices such as meditation have their value, but instead of recognizing the mind as an amazing tool for liberation, by today’s standards the mind has become something of an annoyance—something that gets in the way of our pending “enlightenment.” In reality, the mind is both the problem and the solution. It can be either the small, dank cell we’ve psychologically created for ourselves or the key that gets us out—and keeps us out. However, to get out, we must use the key, trust (and test) the teachings and follow through to see the results.
Analyzing and writing commentary for each chapter of the Gita was like unlocking one door after another. Every chapter began with its own challenges and nuances. But with the help of previous commentaries from several reputable teachers of the Vedanta tradition, their meaning was methodically revealed. This is how the Vedic wisdom tradition has survived for centuries, by being passed on from one aspirant to the next, along with much study and clarification of concepts.
There is a certain elegance about the organization of the Gita’s text. In the beginning it feels somewhat chaotic with many of its principal themes introduced simultaneously—as if on the first day of math class, the teacher were to commence with algebra, geometry and calculus all at once! But as one progresses through the chapters, there’s a recognizable pattern with each one feeding into the next, slowly revealing with careful consideration, the process toward liberation. Once thoroughly understood, there’s nothing but immense appreciation for such an elegant approach to expounding the truth.
This is also why it’s important to have a good guide, because like studying any ancient text for which one has little or no frame of reference, it’s easy to miss its significance. One could spend a lifetime memorizing and reciting the Gita and yet, glean very little substance from it. In fact, the Gita ought to come with a warning: TEACHER REQUIRED! Otherwise, its verses appear as just a blur—one can kind of make out a few shapes and colors here and there, but not much more.
The subtitle to the book, “The Secret to a Life Free of Suffering,” is based on two ideas. From the very beginning of my own journey, I felt the Gita was something special. The more I learned about it, the more I realized it is comparable to a user manual for getting through life’s inevitable hardships. There’s something for everyone in the Gita and Arjuna’s teacher, Krishna, leaves out nothing and no one in describing the necessary steps to obtaining moksha (ultimate freedom). From the selfish and worldly artharthi, to the spiritually developed jnani, we are shown various degrees of understanding the truth. In the end, the Gita is about removing the ignorance that is the cause of our suffering.
Second, as explained in detail in the Gita, the knowledge really is secret. It’s not a secret in the sense that it’s purposely made encrypted or exclusive, but in the sense that it is counterintuitive and requires a certain maturity to be understood even once taught. In other words, not everyone is going to get it. In fact, this book might collect dust on a shelf for several years before you feel the time is right to pick it up again. Just know there’s something valuable here (even if you can’t see it yet).
In writing the commentary, I have deliberately chosen not to provide analysis of every verse. One of the biggest hurdles to reading some of the more important scriptural commentary is the shear length of the author’s discourse. Instead, I opted to select only those verses I felt were necessary to convey the knowledge revealed in each chapter. Some chapters required only a few verses, while others (especially those toward the end) required many more. That said, for a complete and modern translation of the Gita’s verses, I recommend Śrimad Bhagavad Gita by Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya Research and Publication Trust).
While I’m indebted to the tradition’s many teachers, I did take the liberty to write the commentary from a Westerner’s point of view. Throughout the Gita (because of the time and place from where it was written) it’s assumed that most seekers will eventually arrive at Vedanta through religious worship. While this still may be the case for some bhaktis, or those who have cultivated a special devotion to God, my assumption is most Westerner seekers find their way to Vedanta through non-devotional means. For the most part, these seekers are either looking for that which they find lacking in their current spiritual practice, or perhaps, just looking for the answers to life’s biggest questions. It’s for this reason that with this commentary I’ve tried to explain the value of devotion to a Western audience and why it’s an integral part of the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”) and taking the steps toward arriving at the truth.
Because I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, I relied on previous commentators’ translations of the verses in order to come up with my own edited version. Thus, there is no “new translation,” it’s simply a preference for certain words or a certain sentence flow in the hope that the verses will be made more easily understood. On that topic, Sanskrit words, as used in the Gita and other scripture, can have different meanings depending on the context. For example, Brahman, Ishvara, kshetrajna, purusha and atma all reference consciousness and yet, they are used differently depending on what consciousness is being compared to (e.g. as the absolute, the creator, the knower of the field, the spirit, or the embodied soul). For this reason, the Gita can be made confusing by the fact that it uses multiple words to describe, what is often, the same concept but seen from a different angle. Throughout the commentary, I’ve made an effort to not overburden the reader with excessive use of Sanskrit. Nevertheless, to understand the Gita and its profound message, it is necessary to know a handful of words. It’s my hope the reader will find the introduction to be a gentle initiation in the use of the Sanskrit terms most often used in the Gita and in Vedanta.
A word of advice on reading scriptural commentary: go slow. You will not gain anything by skimming or by being selective about which chapters to read. In fact, it’s advised that you understand one chapter before moving on to the next. Because even though the Gita might appear at times like a collection of random themes, it’s actually a very cohesive and thoughtful unveiling that slowly deepens one’s knowledge. Topics introduced in one chapter, resurface in another in order to provide greater detail and insight. So, the reader who progresses through the verses and commentary systematically and at a slow contemplative pace, will be the most rewarded.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that any inspiration and understanding I have gained from the Gita is due to those whom I consider the great wisdom teachers of our time, namely, James Swartz, who has tirelessly communicated the Vedanta teachings to a Western audience for years with clarity, integrity and grit; Swami Dayananda, whose Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course has become the quintessential source for understanding the Gita as taught in the context of traditional Advaita Vedanta; and Swami Paramarthananda, whose own lectures on the Gita beautifully summarize the traditional teachings, making them easier to understand. All three teachers come from the same lineage dating all the way back to Shankaracharya.