The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of India’s most famous epic poems. It’s unclear exactly when the Gita was composed—estimates vary widely, but a number of scholars suggest it was completed around 200 CE and then inserted into the larger work; many see it as the first fully realized yogic scripture. Curious though it may seem that such an ancient text from a foreign culture has been so enthusiastically received by Westerners, the Gita, like all truly great works of literature, can be read on many levels: metaphysical, moral, spiritual, and practical; hence its appeal.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it, the Gita recounts a dialogue between Arjuna, one of five Pandava princes, and the Hindu deity Krishna, who in this epic serves as Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna and his brothers have been exiled from the kingdom of Kurukshetra for 13 years and cut off from their rightful heritage by another faction of the family; the Gita takes up their struggle to reclaim the throne, which requires that Arjuna wage war against his own kinsmen, bringing his considerable military skills to bear.
The story begins on the dusty plains of Kurukshetra, where Arjuna, a famed archer, is poised to fight. But he hesitates. He sees arrayed against him friends, teachers, and kin, and believes that to fight—and likely kill—these men would be to commit a grievous sin and could bring nothing good even if he were to win the kingdom back. Krishna chides him for his cowardice—Arjuna is from the warrior caste after all, and warriors are meant to fight—but then goes on to present a spiritual rationale for battling his enemies, one that encompasses a discussion of the karma, jnana and bhakti yogas, as well as the nature of divinity, humankind’s ultimate destiny, and the purpose of mortal life.