The History of Bhagavad Gita
Sometimes it is good to ‘get back to basics’ on the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita. So I think a good place to start is the history of Bhagavad Gita. What is the Gita, where did it come from and how old is it?
Firstly the title of Bhagavad Gita is two Sanskrit words. Bhagavad comes from the word Bhagavan which referrers to the Supreme Personality of Godhead and ‘gita’ means song. Sometimes we hear the Gita referred to in English as “The Song of God,” and this is a reasonable English translation of the title and it is a fairly accurate description of what the Bhagavad Gita is.
The Bhagavad Gita was spoken by Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to His friend Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksettra around five thousand years ago. The Gita has a very unique position in the world as it is the only book that contains directly the actual words spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. You can find many religious and philosophical books in the world but there is no book, except Bhagavad Gita, which claims to contain the direct, actual words spoken by God. Even in the Vedic literatures the other sections of the Vedas may have quotes from God but they are written about God, they describe God, rather than being a direct conversation with God.
The Gita is unique in the world as it is a direct conversation between Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and his friend Arjuna so we need to take this book very seriously and study it very carefully.
So what were Krishna and Arjuna doing on the battlefield of Kuruksettra and how did this conversation between them that has now become the Gita take place?
There was a royal family called the Kurus which Arjuna and Krishna were both connected to. Although all the descendents of this family were actually ‘Kurus’ there was a disagreement between the five sons of Pandu and the other members of the Kuru family over who should be the King. Because of this disagreement the sons of Pandu became known as “Pandavas”. Arjuna was the third son of Pandu and Krishna was related to and friendly with both factions of the Kuru family. The Pandavas wanted to settle this dispute peacefully and even suggested that the Kurus could keep the kingdom and simply give them five small villages, one village for each of the Pandu brothers to rule over as they were Ksatriyas and needed to have at least some land. But the Kurus rejected this very reasonable proposal stating that they would not give the Pandus even a piece of land the size of the head of a pin. So in this way the Kurus forced the Pandavas to fight them and the leader of the winning group would go on to become the King.
From the point of view of military strength and the number of competent generals to lead the battle the Kurus led by the great and expert general Bhisma were far superior to the Pandavas led by Arjuna. Therefore it appeared that the Kurus should be able to easily defeat the army of the Pandavas.
So this is the basic background, you can find much more detailed information in Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is–but now you have the general idea at least. As I mentioned Krishna was friendly with both sides and both sides belonged to the Kuru family so they all knew each other and were related to each other in various ways. So this is a family quarrel. Krishna did not want to be seen to be partial to either side so he met with Arjuna, the leader of the Pandavas and Duryodhana, the leader of the Kurus, and told them both that He would offer his army to one side and He himself would be on the other side but He said that He would not fight. Krishna of course had a very large and powerful army and Duryodhana got the first choice so naturally he choose Krishna’s army and that left Krishna, who was not going to fight, on Arjuna’s side.
So Krishna, although He had agreed not to fight, offered to drive the chariot of Arjuna. That is how the famous image of Bhagavad-gita came about. The picture of Krishna at the front of Arjuna’s chariot driving it and Arjuna behind Him riding on the chariot and fighting the battle. Of course Arjuna wanted His friend Krishna on His side and was very happy with this arrangement and Duryodhana wanted Krishna’s powerful army on his side so he was also happy with the arrangement.
So now you understand how Krishna and Arjuna ended up sitting on the chariot facing their opponents and cousin brothers the Kurus on the battlefield. It was a very dramatic scene. The two very strong armies facing each other and ready to engage in battle. Arjuna asked Krishna to place his chariot between the two armies so that he could see both the armies and get a clear idea of the situation before the battle commenced. So Krishna moved the chariot and Arjuna observed the armies and seeing so many friends and family members on both sides Arjuna became bewildered and decided that they should not fight in this battle. His logic was that even if they were successful and ended up victorious in the fight practically all his friends and family members would be killed in the battle. Therefore he was thinking the victory would be pointless if all his friends were killed and there was no one for him to enjoy the victory with.
At this point Arjuna was saying to Krishna that they should just leave the battlefield. Krishna said he was surprised by these sentiments of Arjuna and considered that Arjuna was acting in a unmanly way and chastised him. This is the beginning of the conversation we now know as ‘Bhagavad Gita’ or ‘Song of God’.
The Gita is not a long conversation. it comprises of only 711 Sanskrit verses and it was spoken on a battlefield as the two armies were getting ready for the war. Maybe it took one hour or a little more and during the course of this conversation Arjuna came to he senses and realized his duty was actually to surrender to Krishna and do what Krishna wanted, and Krishna wanted him to fight. Actually this whole arrangement was made by Krishna so the Bhagavad Gita could be spoken by Him. Arjuna is bewildered and appears to be in illusion but we understand this is also Krishna’s arrangement. If Arjuna was not confused and bewildered there would have been no need for Krishna to speak the Bhagavad Gita to clear up his confusion. Krishna is not speaking the Bhagavad Gita for Arjuna’s benefit only. It is for the benefit of everyone.
And you may well ask: “Krishna spoke this conversation to Arjuna on a battlefield five thousand years ago, how is it that we have that conversation in a book now?” We have the Bhagavad Gita because Srila Vyasadeva the great sage and literary incarnation of Krishna included this conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, the Bhagavad Gita, as one of the chapters of his great epic the Mahabharata. So Sri Vyasadeva who was a contemporary with Krishna and Arjuna after the battle of Kuruksettra and the disappearance of Krishna compiled the Mahabharata which is the history of the universe and in that book he included the full details and history of the Kuru family and of course the Bhagavad Gita is included in Mahabharata.
It is not that the Bhagavad Gita was invented by Krishna 5,000 years ago when He spoke it to Arjuna. No. Krishna says: “I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun-god, Vivasvan, and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Iksvaku. The supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it is appears to be lost.” (Bhagavad Gita 4.1 & 4.2)
Here Krishna is giving the history of the Bhagavad Gita stretching way back to the time when Krishna instructed the same Bhagavad Gita to Vivasvan the sun god. Srila Prabhupada estimates in his purport that this was at least 120 million years ago and that the Gita has existed in human society for two million years.
So the Bhagavad Gita was not a new book even when Krishna spoke it some 5,000 years ago. Then He was simply repeating the same thing He taught the sun god Vivasvan around 120 million years ago.
Although the Bhagavad Gita is the most ancient book, it is still studied today by millions and the teachings of Krishna in it are still very relevant to solving the problems we face in today’s world. This proves the eternal value of the timeless knowledge Krishna shares with His friend Arjuna.
My humble request is if you have not made a serious study of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is please purchase it at:
And study it. You can also read it online at:
If you have already studied the Gita then please study it again. It is a truly wonderful book and every time you read your realization and knowledge deepens and you see completely new aspects to the book that you did not appreciate before. The more you read the Bhagavad Gita the more interesting it becomes and the more you will make spiritual advancement.