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Bhagavad Gita

Course overview

In this course we make a detailed study of the text and the principal religious ideas contained within the Bhagavad Gita's eighteen chapters and seven hundred verses.

We will look for the main themes of Krishna’s discourse and to try to establish the principal ideas presented in each chapter.

The Bhagavad Gita appears as a section of the Bhishma Parvan, the sixth book of the Mahabharata, at the point just prior to the eighteen-day battle at Kurukshetra. The hopes of the Pandava faction rest largely on the martial prowess of Arjuna, the third of the five brothers, but at the start of the Bhagavad Gita we find the hero disconsolate and unwilling to wage war against his own family members. At this point Krishna begins to offer instruction to Arjuna. The initial intention of the discourse is to persuade Arjuna that waging war is not necessarily an act of wickedness, but the full treatise goes far beyond this initial thesis, developing into a full exposition of belief and practice that has had an immeasurable influence on the formation of Hindu Dharma.

In this course we will consider the Bhagavad Gita chapter by chapter and try to establish the main themes it pursues in its teachings, thereby seeking to identify the full significance of this famous scripture.

For each of the sessions you will be provided with an English translation of the chapters under consideration and discussions of the meaning and significance of these verses in relation to the text as a whole. At certain points attention will be drawn to significant Sanskrit terms and some use will be made of traditional commentaries on the Gita, particularly those of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya.

We will also try to expand our discussion so that at certain junctures it is possible to reflect on the contemporary significance of the teachings and how they can be of relevance to the modern world.

Our course is divided into seven areas of study. These study sessions begin with an introduction, which provides information about the role of the Bhagavad Gita within the 

Mahabharata, its status within the Hindu tradition and the views of contemporary scholars. The study sessions will then be based on a progressive reading of the text, taking each of its eighteen chapters in turn.

Course structure

The course consists of seven sessions delivered on a weekly basis.

Session One: Introduction to the Gita

In this first session we will consider the position of the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata and its status within the Hindu tradition before looking briefly at some of the views of contemporary scholars. We will then read through the first chapter and consider Arjuna’s lamentation, which prompts Krishna to begin his teaching.

Session Two: Karma Yoga

In the second session we will first read through Chapter 2 and consider Krishna’s initial responses to Arjuna’s refusal to fight. We will then concentrate on the idea of a Karma Yoga, which Krishna offers as a direct response to Arjuna’s fear of sinful action. This notion is very important for Hindu Dharma as a whole as it reveals how a person can simultaneously fulfil his social obligations whilst striving to attain the highest spiritual goals. We will look at the explanation of Karma Yoga whilst reading through Chapter 3 in which it is specifically considered.

Session Three: Karma Yoga and Dhyana Yoga

Karma Yoga and Dhyana Yoga. In the third session we note further discussion of Karma Yoga in Chapter 4 and the progression in the teachings from Karma Yoga, concluded in Chapter 5, to the explanation of dhyana or meditation presented in the sixth chapter. Here we find another form of spirituality advocated by the Gita, the process of meditational yoga by which one acquires direct perception of the inner self, the atman, a realisation that leads to liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Session Four: The Way of Bhakti

In the fourth session we will read through Chapters, 7,8, and 9 of the Bhagavad Gita and here consider the text’s emphasis on monotheism and devotion to God as a spiritual path. The final verse of Chapter 6 marks a dramatic turn in Krishna’s teaching as he introduces the idea of a Supreme Deity who creates and controls the world and is able to deliver those who are devoted to him. This is another very important idea that is central to Hindu Dharma as a whole, and it is in the Bhagavad Gita that we find one of its clearest expositions.

Session Five: Revelation of the Divine Nature

The revelation of the divine. In this middle section of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna not only teaches Arjuna about the nature of the Supreme Deity but reveals that he himself is that Deity. And in response to Arjuna’s prayer he also reveals his divine identity as that which is all things, that which pervades the entire creation. In this session we will read through Chapters 10, 11, and 12 and consider the revelation of the Vishva Rupa and the concluding teachings on the way of bhakti.

Session Six: A Variety of Topics

In this session we will read through Chapters 13, 14, 15, and 16 and discuss the specific teachings they provide. After the great revelation of the divine in Chapter 11 and the emphasis placed on devotion to God, the Bhagavad Gita diversifies its teachings and covers a variety of topics that serve to reinforce the teachings that have gone before. One common theme running through these later chapters is the emphasis on Samkhya ideas and in this session we will consider the ways in which Krishna employs concepts derived from the Samkhya system.

Session Seven: Analysis based on the Gunas and Conclusion

In this final session we will conclude our reading of the Bhagavad Gita by considering Chapters 17 and 18. Here again we find a diversity of ideas, including an exploration of the way the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) can be identified within this world. The Bhagavad Gita ends its teachings by revisiting the main ideas it has presented earlier, finally concluding with a further emphasis on the importance of devotion and the power of divine grace in saving the devotee from rebirth.