The Bhagavad Gita is an important and precious book for Theosophists, just as it is for Hindus.
H. P. Blavatsky requested that excerpts from Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic translation of it be read each year upon the anniversary of her death, an occasion which came to be known as White Lotus Day. It was also as a direct result of meeting two English Theosophists who were students of HPB that Mahatma Gandhi first read the Bhagavad Gita, which famously became his most favourite of all books and which he described as “the book par excellence for the knowledge of truth.”
“Bhagavad Gita” literally means “Song of God” or “Divine Song” or “The Lord’s Song” and has also been called “The Song Celestial.” It is without doubt the most popular and universally loved of all Hindu scriptures. It consists of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and is admired by multitudes around the world for its practical yet profound spiritual philosophy of life. Some have described it as “the Manual of Life” and “the Gospel for the 21st Century.”
It is quite often studied, read, and referred to, in the various lodges of the United Lodge of Theosophists around the world, particularly using the translation or rendition prepared by William Quan Judge, who was co-founder of the modern Theosophical Movement with H. P. Blavatsky and her closest and most trusted colleague (see Who was William Quan Judge? and Understanding The Importance of Mr. Judge). He described this rendition of the Gita as “the result of a careful comparison of all the English editions and of a complete retranslation from the original wherever any obscurity or omission was evident in the various renderings consulted.” It is actually heavily based on J. Cockburn Thomson’s translation of 1855 and the majority of the several unfortunate errors in the Judge version are copied from that, including often translating “Brahman” as “Brahmā” – a seemingly minor but philosophically important mistake, for which H. P. Blavatsky criticised Western translators of Sanskrit texts! – writing “self” in lower case when Atman, the Higher Self, is meant, and almost always translating “yoga” as “devotion.” In the Gita, the actual word for “devotion” is “Bhakti” and this is only one of the several forms of Yoga presented by Krishna in the scripture. The Bhagavad Gita is not actually called “The Book of Devotion” (as many associates of the ULT think) but rather “The Book of Yoga” or, more accurately, “The Scripture of Yoga.” And although devotion is indispensable, there is much more to Yoga than devotion.
On the whole, William Judge’s version of the Bhagavad Gita is beautifully rendered, with many memorable choices of phrase, but it is inadvisable for Theosophists to view it as perfect and infallible or describe it as the best and clearest translation of the Gita available, as it can be easily demonstrated to be none of these. HPB is not known to have used the Judge version and B. P. Wadia often quoted in his articles from other, more accurate and literal, translations. In the 1980s, the Santa Barbara Lodge of the United Lodge of Theosophists published one of the most textually accurate and reliable English translations of the Bhagavad Gita that has been made so far. This was translated by Raghavan Iyer and published by Concord Grove Press. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect and infallible translation and so it does not really matter what translation or rendition we use (except, perhaps, the extremely misleadingly translated yet very popular version by ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, i.e. the Hare Krishna movement) as long as we remember that and do not try to make an idol out of our personally preferred version. When one is seriously studying a scripture like this, it is always good to have at least two or three different translations anyway, in order to compare them.
William Judge also wrote an insightful and practical series of articles on the first seven chapters of this great text, the articles for chapters eight to eighteen being written after his death by his pupil and colleague Robert Crosbie, who founded the United Lodge of Theosophists. These are now published in book form under the title “Notes on The Bhagavad Gita.” Although described by some as a commentary on the Gita, it is technically not that. Judge himself clarified, when publishing his rendition of the Gita, that “To attach a commentary, except such an one as only a sage like Sankaracharya could write, would be audacious.” (“Antecedent Words” p. xvii)
There are of course many ways of looking at the Bhagavad Gita. To the student of Theosophy – acquainted with the universal language of mystical symbolism and the science of esotericism – Krishna represents primarily the Higher Self, “Atman” in Sanskrit, pure eternal Spirit which is the One Universal Self of All, the highermost part and innermost essence of my being, your being, and every being.
Theosophy maintains that this is the way we are to best understand and follow the advice and injunctions of Krishna in the scripture and that we are not to look upon him in the highly personal, materialised, and anthropomorphic light in which he is looked upon by many Hindus. Least of all are we to worship or adore Krishna as some sort of external god or deity!
Whilst he did truly live on the Earth and exist in the flesh as a physically incarnated being of great spiritual stature – there being more historical proof and reliable evidence for his existence than there is for that of Jesus, who he pre-dated by around 3,000 years – we are to study and approach the Bhagavad Gita from a mostly symbolical and esoteric perspective.
Whilst Krishna is our Higher Self, Arjuna is the individual human soul, who must turn towards and seek refuge in that Self. Technically, Arjuna actually represents what B. P. Wadia has called “the Antahkaranic being,” the personal self who has already formed some degree of a link with their soul and who is actively engaged in treading the Path towards it. Set on the scene of a battlefield, it in no way promotes or encourages war and violence as some enemies of Hinduism have ignorantly or even maliciously claimed – though it does not deny that Kshatriyas, or members of the military class, should do the duty that befalls them – but rather symbolises the battlefield of life or “the war within,” which each of us must at some time face. Although not a particularly long book, it is truly an unforgettable classic of the world’s spiritual and religious literature.
The student of Theosophy can also come to recognise in various places and passages that Krishna is not always speaking as the Higher Self specifically. On quite a few occasions he speaks as the Logos, which is not surprising seeing as he was – according to both Hinduism and Theosophy – an Avatar, i.e. a physical incarnation of the manifested Divine. He is often represented in religious artwork as having blue skin, the blueness symbolising his close connection to the Infinite, like the vast infinitudes of the blue sky.
In his “Antecedent Words” to the Bhagavad Gita, Mr. Judge states that “The Bhagavad-Gita tends to impress upon the individual two things: first, selflessness, and second, action; the studying of and living by it will arouse the belief that there is but one Spirit and not several; that we cannot live for ourselves alone, but must come to realize that there is no such thing as separateness, and no possibility of escaping from the collective Karma of the race to which one belongs, and then, that we must think and act in accordance with such belief.”
This article presents some interesting words and insights from HPB about the Bhagavad Gita, followed by five selected passages from the scripture (the William Judge rendition) for our meditative reflection and application. For it is no use simply to read such books . . . to use some phraseology from the Christian Bible, one must be “a doer of the Word and not just a hearer only.”
H. P. BLAVATSKY ON THE BHAGAVAD GITA
“Bhagavad-gita (Sk.). Lit., “the Lord’s Song”. A portion of the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of India. It contains a dialogue wherein Krishna – the “Charioteer” – and Arjuna, his Chela, have a discussion upon the highest spiritual philosophy. The work is pre-eminently occult or esoteric.”
– The Theosophical Glossary, p. 56
“Like the Book of Job very wrongly incorporated into the Bible, since it is the allegorical and double record of the Egyptian sacred mysteries in the temples and of the disembodied Soul appearing before Osiris, and the Hall of Amenti, to be judged according to its Karma – the Gita is a record of the ancient teachings during the Mystery of Initiation.”
– Footnote to an article titled “Bhagavad-Gita”
“We shall begin this work by expounding, so far as permitted, the esoteric meaning of the text of the Bhagavad Gita. … Some of our readers, especially Hindus, will be doubtless astonished to discover the almost perfect identity between the concealed sense of this immortal epic and the Arhat Tibetan Doctrine, which has been in part expounded in the Fragments and other writings.”
– Our Fifth Year
“Since the birth of the Theosophical Society and the publication of “Isis”, it is being repeated daily that all the Esoteric Wisdom of the ages lies concealed in the Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita. Yet, unto the day of the first appearance of “Esoteric Buddhism” [i.e. the book of this title, in which A. P. Sinnett presented teachings given to him in letters by the Master K.H. and the Master M.], and for long centuries back, these doctrines remained a sealed letter to all but a few initiated Brahmins who had always kept the spirit of it to themselves. The allegorical text was taken literally by the educated and the uneducated, the first laughing secretly at the fables and the latter falling into superstitious worship, and owing to the variety of the interpretations – splitting into numerous sects. . . . Most undeniably, not “nearly all” – but positively all the doctrines given in “Esoteric Buddhism” and far more yet untouched, are to be found in the Gita, and not only there but in a thousand more known or unknown MSS. of Hindu sacred writings.”
– The Bhagavad-Gita and Esoteric Buddhism
“As regards the revival of Oriental literature, the whole press of India, Ceylon, and Japan unqualifiedly gives us the credit of having done more in that direction than any other agency of modern times. We have not only helped to revive in India the ancient Tols, or pandit-schools of Sanskrit literature and philosophy, and to reawaken reverence for the class of real Yogis, or saintly devotees, but we have created a demand for reprints and translations of ancient Sanskrit classics, which is being met by the frequent issues of works of this class at Calcutta, Bombay, Benares, Lucknow, Lahore, Madras, and other Indian literary centres. Among the most important are the Vedas, Bhagavad-Gita, the writings of Shankara, Patanjali, and other renowned Aryan philosophers and mystics. The Asiatic people have publicly testified most unqualifiedly their gratitude and respect to us for what we have done on the lines of the second of our declared objects. Nor should it be overlooked that the prevalent interest in Theosophy and mystical Oriental philosophy in general, which the most casual observer is forced to see throughout Europe and America, is directly or indirectly the result of our society’s activity.”
– Recent Progress in Theosophy
SELECTIONS FROM THE BHAGAVAD GITA
THE MAN CONFIRMED IN SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE
(From Chapter 2 – “Sankhya-Yoga” – p. 18-20 in Theosophy Company edition)
“A man is said to be confirmed in spiritual knowledge when he forsaketh every desire which entereth into his heart, and of himself is happy and content in the Self through the Self. His mind is undisturbed in adversity; he is happy and contented in prosperity, and he is a stranger to anxiety, fear, and anger. Such a man is called a Muni*. When in every condition he receives each event, whether favorable or unfavorable, with an equal mind which neither likes nor dislikes, his wisdom is established, and, having met good or evil, neither rejoiceth at the one nor is cast down by the other. He is confirmed in spiritual knowledge, when, like the tortoise, he can draw in all his senses and restrain them from their wonted purposes. The hungry man loseth sight of every other object but the gratification of his appetite, and when he is become acquainted with the Supreme, he loseth all taste for objects of whatever kind. The tumultuous senses and organs hurry away by force the heart even of the wise man who striveth after perfection. Let a man, restraining all these, remain in devotion at rest in me, his true Self; for he who hath his senses and organs in control possesses spiritual knowledge.
“He who attendeth to the inclinations of the senses, in them hath a concern; from this concern is created passion, from passion anger, from anger is produced delusion, from delusion a loss of the memory, from the loss of memory loss of discrimination, and from loss of discrimination loss of all! But he who, free from attachment or repulsion for objects, experienceth them through the senses and organs, with his heart obedient to his will, attains to tranquility of thought. And this tranquil state attained, therefrom shall soon result a separation from all troubles; and his mind being thus at ease, fixed upon one object, it embraceth wisdom from all sides. The man whose heart and mind are not at rest is without wisdom or the power of contemplation; who doth not practice reflection, hath no calm; and how can a man without calm obtain happiness? The uncontrolled heart, following the dictates of the moving passions, snatcheth away his spiritual knowledge, as the storm the bark upon the raging ocean. Therefore, O great armed one, he is possessed of spiritual knowledge whose senses are withheld from objects of sense. What is night to those who are unenlightened is as day to his gaze; what seems as day is known to him as night, the night of ignorance. Such is the self-governed Sage!
“The man whose desires enter his heart, as waters run into the unswelling passive ocean, which, though ever full, yet does not quit its bed, obtaineth happiness; not he who lusteth in his lusts.
“The man who, having abandoned all desires, acts without covetousness, selfishness, or pride, deeming himself neither actor nor possessor, attains to rest. This, O son of Pritha, is dependence upon the Supreme Spirit, and he who possesseth it goeth no more astray; having obtained it, if therein established at the hour of death, he passeth on to Nirvana in the Supreme.”
* “Muni – a wise man.”
THE ILLUMINATED SAGE
(From Chapter 5 – “Karmasanyasayoga” – p. 41-42 in Theosophy Company edition)
“The illuminated sage regards with equal mind an illuminated, selfless Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and even an outcast who eats the flesh of dogs. Those who thus preserve an equal mind gain heaven even in this life, for the Supreme is free from sin and equal minded; therefore they rest in the Supreme Spirit. The man who knoweth the Supreme Spirit, who is not deluded, and who is fixed on him, doth not rejoice at obtaining what is pleasant, nor grieve when meeting what is unpleasant. He whose heart is not attached to objects of sense finds pleasure within himself, and, through devotion, united with the Supreme, enjoys imperishable bliss. For those enjoyments which arise through the contact of the senses with external objects are wombs of pain, since they have a beginning and an end; O son of Kunti, the wise man delighteth not in these. He who, while living in this world and before the liberation of the soul from the body, can resist the impulse arising from desire and anger is a devotee and blessed. The man who is happy within himself, who is illuminated within, is a devotee, and partaking of the nature of the Supreme Spirit, he is merged in it. Such illuminated sages whose sins are exhausted, who are free from delusion, who have their senses and organs under control, and devoted to the good of all creatures, obtain assimilation with the Supreme Spirit*. Assimilation with the Supreme Spirit is on both sides of death for those who are free from desire and anger, temperate, of thoughts restrained; and who are acquainted with the true Self.”
* “That is, direct knowledge of Self.”
THE DAYS AND NIGHTS
(From Chapter 8 – “Aksharaparabrahmayoga” – p. 60-61 in Theosophy Company edition)
“All worlds up to that of Brahman are subject to rebirth again and again, but they, O son of Kunti, who reach to me have no rebirth. Those who are acquainted with day and night* know that the day of Brahma is a thousand revolutions of the yugas and that his night extendeth for a thousand more. At the coming on of that day all things issue forth from the unmanifested into manifestation, so on the approach of that night they merge again into the unmanifested. This collection of existing things having thus come forth, is dissolved at the approach of the night, O son of Pritha; and now again on the coming of the day it emanates spontaneously. But there is that which upon the dissolution of all things else is not destroyed; it is indivisible, indestructible, and of another nature from the visible. That called the unmanifested and exhaustless is called the supreme goal, which having once attained they never more return – it is my supreme abode. This Supreme, O son of Pritha, within whom all creatures are included and by whom all this is pervaded, may be attained by a devotion which is intent on him alone.”
* “This refers to those who have acquired knowledge of the ultimate divisions of time, a power which is ascribed to the perfect yogi in Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy.”
TRUE WISDOM AND THE OBJECT OF WISDOM
(From Chapter 13 – “Kshetrakshetrajnavibhagayoga” – p. 94-95 in Theosophy Company edition)
“True wisdom of a spiritual kind is freedom from self-esteem, hypocrisy, and injury to others; it is patience, sincerity, respect for spiritual instructors, purity, firmness, self-restraint, dispassion for objects of sense, freedom from pride, and a meditation upon birth, death, decay, sickness, and error; it is an exemption from self-identifying attachment for children, wife, and household, and a constant unwavering steadiness of heart upon the arrival of every event whether favorable or unfavorable; it is a never-ceasing love for me alone, the self being effaced, and worship paid in a solitary spot, and a want of pleasure in congregations of men; it is a resolute continuance in the study of Adhyatma, the Superior spirit, and a meditation upon the end of the acquirement of a knowledge of truth; – this is called wisdom or spiritual knowledge; its opposite is ignorance.
“I will now tell thee what is the object of wisdom, from knowing which a man enjoys immortality; it is that which has no beginning, even the supreme Brahman, and of which it cannot be said that it is either Being or Non-Being. It has hands and feet in all directions; eyes, heads, mouths, and ears in every direction; it is immanent in the world, possessing the vast whole. Itself without organs, it is reflected by all the senses and faculties; unattached, yet supporting all; without qualities, yet the witness of them all. It is within and without all creatures animate and inanimate; it is inconceivable because of its subtlety, and although near it is afar off. Although undivided it appeareth as divided among creatures, and while it sustains existing things, it is also to be known as their destroyer and creator. It is the light of all lights, and is declared to be beyond all darkness; and it is wisdom itself, the object of wisdom, and that which is to be obtained by wisdom; in the hearts of all it ever presideth.”
THE MAN WHO HAS REACHED PERFECTION
(From Chapter 18 – “Mokshasanyasayoga” – p. 129-130 in Theosophy Company edition)
“Learn from me, in brief, in what manner the man who has reached perfection attains to the Supreme Spirit, which is the end, the aim, and highest condition of spiritual knowledge.
“Imbued with pure discrimination, restraining himself with resolution, having rejected the charms of sound and other objects of the senses, and casting off attachment and dislike; dwelling in secluded places, eating little, with speech, body, and mind controlled, engaging in constant meditation and unwaveringly fixed in dispassion; abandoning egotism, arrogance, violence, vanity, desire, anger, pride, and possession, with calmness ever present, a man is fitted to be the Supreme Being. And having thus attained to the Supreme, he is serene, sorrowing no more, and no more desiring, but alike towards all creatures he attains to supreme devotion to me. By this devotion to me he knoweth fundamentally who and what I am and having thus discovered me he enters into me without any intermediate condition.”
~ * ~
Other articles relating to the Bhagavad Gita and other aspects of Hinduism and Hindu philosophy can be found under the heading “HINDUISM” on our ARTICLES page. “The Doctrine of The Bhagavad Gita” by Bhavani Shankar and “Notes on The Bhagavad Gita” by T. Subba Row are two other books on this theme sometimes referred to in the United Lodge of Theosophists.