The Bhagavad Gita: A Christian Perspective
In the midst of a great battle, Arjuna and his friend, Lord Krishna, stop to discuss the meaning and purpose of human life.[/caption]
“The point, old friend – and this is very important – is to do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (Atma, the Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat. This is the way to reach the supreme goal, which is to merge into God.”
— Bhagavad Gita, Karma Yoga, 19 (Translator: Jack Hawley)
My interest in the Bhagavad Gita came from my admiration of Mohandas Gandhi. I had heard that it was an influential text in the development of his spiritual life, and from that moment on wanted a chance to read it. And it is no wonder it caught and captured Gandhi’s attention, for the Gita’s ancient wisdom is as relevant now as it was in the days it was written. Native to the peoples of the Indus Valley, it is claimed by some to be up to 5000 years old. It is part of a larger epic narrative called the Mahabharata, and contains about 700 verses. The Gita is difficult to translate because it contains so many terms that are easily understood within the context of Hindu culture, but are alien to the West. In fact, although the Gita itself is only traditionally 18 chapters in length, the common practice when translating it into English is to expound upon the text so much that volumes are added.
By pure chance (or God-incidence), I happened upon a translation by Jack Hawley. He wanted the West to have an experience of the Gita in a way that was accessible to them, without lengthening the text and losing its depth and feel. This was an incredible way to get my first taste of the compelling narrative, and it found its way instantly into my heart.
The Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, with both lines of soldiers facing each other, just moments before the fighting begins. Prince Arjuna, who represents the forces of good, is between the two lines in his chariot and looking over the foes drawn up against him. In those forces, he spots some of his own family members, former friends, and admired teachers. He begins to despair, thinking that he would rather die than kill all these people whom he loves so dearly. He slumps down in his chariot despondently, and looks to his chariot driver and dear old friend for advice.
What the prince does not know is that his driver happens to be Krishna, god incarnate. When Krishna sees that Arjuna has humbled himself to become his student, he begins to reveal the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, and the ways of god himself. His monologue takes up the majority of the text.
A Christian reader is quickly amazed by the parallels found between Krishna’s description of the Hindu godhead, Brahman, and Christianity’s one true God. God (also called the Atma) is:
• The source and sustainer of all created things
• Eternal (goes on forever and has always been)
• Existence itself; pure consciousness (spirit)
• Unchanging, indestructible and immutable
• Beyond time
• Unmanifested (invisible)
• Unknowable, as his ways and being are infinite
• Continually sacrificing to and serving all of creation selflessly
• Love itself
The end goal of humanity, namely unity with god, is also the same as the Christian one (called theosis). And how does one reach that goal? The path is beset with the same dangers as found in Christianity. As Christians, it is easy to fall into the error of trying to work our way to heaven. The Christian who truly understands the nature of grace knows that it is in surrender to God’s will and allowing God to work through you that you are brought closer to Christlikeness. The intentions of our hearts determine whether our works are burned up or produce fruit (1 Cor 3).
So when you read the following thoughts from Krishna, describing the path towards unity with God, please recognize that in the Gita it is intended to be pursued as surrender to God, rather than earning heaven.
Their road to perfection consists of the following:
• Renouncing desire and attachment of every kind, which gives rise to anger and greed, and makes you identify with the physical body/ego
• Doing all things for love of god so that their outcome does not matter and their karma is neutralized (the consequences of sin are absolved)
• Loving, for loving is knowing god, and when you know god you become him
• Surrendering to god (by being god’s willing instrument) and finding then that there is no weariness to your work
• Following your inner truth, your inner nature
• Fixing your mind on god; giving god all that you are; taking refuge in god
• Realizing that you can’t get to god/follow god without his intervention
• Being unaffected by the world and the bodily sensations it produces
• Doing your duty, which is your work in the world, for the betterment of the world
The Bhagavad Gita is deep and profoundly wise, as well as very condensed, like trying to get a drink of water by standing under Niagara Falls. It is a text to read again and again. But what of the differences between what the Gita teaches and Christian thought?
Their understanding of many gods is different, although it is interesting to point out that all the other gods are considered created by and through the Atma, who is not a created being. Their belief in reincarnation, another marked difference, shows that they understood their own inability to reach god. In this way, it is a platform for introducing Christ as God reaching down to make a path for humanity to be reunited with him.
Despite these things and other, smaller deviations, there is a tremendous amount of truth in the text. It is clear that God was at work with this people (as he has been with all peoples), guiding them towards him, and preparing their hearts for receiving the Messiah when he did indeed come.
You may be wondering, did Krishna tell Arjuna to fight? He did, indeed. And Arjuna’s battle, which is the inner battle within all of us, was a long and tiresome one. He had to kill all of those he knew and loved but who had turned to evil ways, and in this way his kin represented the attachments to sin we all have trouble killing. But every time someone he knew came within his sights, he could not bring himself to do the deed. That is, not unless Krishna came alongside him and urged him on. Without god’s help, Arjuna was incapable of vanquishing the foes his own sinful nature had created within him. God had to reach out to him to help. And is that not what Jesus came for? “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved,” Eph 2:4-5.
Amy Arias is an instructor for the Holy Yoga Foundation, a non-profit organization that sends out teachers the world over to teach Christian yoga in their communities. She also writes a blog at JesusIsMyGuru.com, a site about all things Jesus and yoga
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