Published 15th September, 2013, in Mid-Day
Bhagavad Gita means the ‘song of God’ and is the discourse given by Krishna, the charioteer, to Arjuna, the archer, on the eve of the battle at Kurukshetra. Simply known as Gita, it is dated to around 300 BC, though some date it to 800 BC, the period of the Upanishads. It comprises of 18 chapters and 700 verses and contains the essence of Hindu wisdom. Written in Sanskrit, it is considered one of Hinduism’s most sacred books that conveys the truth of life. It must be kept in mind that less than 5% of Indians spoke Sanskrit in India’s long history. It was the language of the priests and kings, not the common folk. Yet, the ideas found in the Gita reached the masses through the regional songs and stories transmitted by bards and minstrels.
Bhagavad Gita is often confused with Gita Govinda and Bhagavatam. All three are works in Sanskrit. Bhagavad Gita is part of the Bhisma Parva, which is the sixth chapter of the epic Mahabharata. Gita Govinda is a poem written by Jayadeva in the 12th century AD, that describes the romantic dalliance between Krishna and Radha. Bhagavatam or Bhagavat Purana is the story of Vishnu also known as Bhagavan, or God, focusing especially on Krishna. It is dated to between 9th and 13th century AD. Bhagavad Gita was thus written at least a thousand years before Gita Govinda and Bhagavatam.
While Gita popularly refers only to Bhagavad Gita, there are many ‘Gitas’ in Indian literature. These include:
• Anu Gita, narrated once again by Krishna to Arjun, but after the war, when Arjun’s brothers, the Pandavas, have firmly established their rule after defeating their cousins, the Kauravas.
• Uddhava Gita, also known as Hamsa Gita, from the Bhagavat Purana, in which Krishna, before leaving earth and returning to his heaven, Vaikuntha, summarizes the wisdom of his life to his companion Uddhava.
• Vyadha Gita, from the Mahabharata, in which the butcher sings a song to explain to an arrogant hermit that being a householder, performing one’s duties, and serving others, is perhaps as important spiritually, if not more, than renouncing the world and serving only oneself.
• Guru Gita, from the Skanda Purana, in which Shiva sings in response to a query by his consort, Shakti, about the meaning of one who facilitates spiritual growth.
• Ganesh Gita, which is part of Ganesha Purana, where Ganesha as Gajanana explains to king Varenya the truth about the world.
• Avadhuta Gita, in which the mendicant Dattatreya, first guru to all Tantriks, sings about the nature of reality.
• Ashtavakra Gita, in which the hermit Ashtavakra, following a question by king Janaka, explores the nature of the soul.
• Ram Gita, in which Ram comforts Lakshman when he returns to the palace after abandoning Sita in the forest.