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14th Mar 2022

Is the Bhagavad Gita a Religious or Spiritual Book?

What is Bhagavad Gita? 

Gita, meaning “the song of Gods”, is a text extracted from India’s longest epic, the Mahabharata. It is written as a conversation between the Hindu God Krishna, and Kshatriya warrior Arjun. The two sets of cousins, Kauravas and Pandavas, fight over the throne of Hastinapur. But Arjun, on the battleground, is hesitant upon seeing his family members on the opposing end. He experiences a setback as his emotions and morals take over and he refuses to kill them in battle. This is when the conversation between Krishna and him happens. Krishna, called the knower, the mighty in Indian texts, guides Arjun through this dilemma. Those lessons were not limited to the ongoing war at the time, but applicable throughout various facets of the lifespan. The profound lessons Arjun learned in the field of Kurukshetra are now available to all of us as the teachings of Bhagavad Gita. Gita is thus not just a religious book of the Hindus, it propounds as much on spiritual practices as on religious values. In this blog, we shall look into how the Gita merges religion and spirituality to form a cohesive whole of invaluable teachings. 

Bhagavad Gita as a Religious Scripture/Book 

Hinduism is said to be more of a “way of life” than a religion, having its roots in the upliftment of each practitioner’s quality of life. So is the Bhagavad Gita. It paves a path for confused mortals to follow, recited by the Almighty himself. Humans are forever conflicted between right and wrong, moral and immoral, true or false. They are bound by duties but captivated by desires. They struggle to find a balance between polarising ideologies. This is where the Bhagavad Gita lays a framework and answers some unanswered questions. But the lines between religion and philosophy are often blurry – Can they exist without each other? To understand Gita as a religious or spiritual book, we first need to understand it critically. 

Gita is typically known as a Hindu text, which has references to many foundational Hindu beliefs and practices like an afterlife, karma, caste system, etc. It has mentioned several Hindu Gods like Indra, Shiva, Agni, etc. The Bhagavad Gita lays a heavy emphasis on the Hindu belief in the existence of the afterlife. It articulates how the luxuries we have in our present life are a reward for our virtues in past lives. Whatever good deeds we do in this life, shall yield privileges in the next life. If we live a life of fulfilment, we shall achieve complete salvation i.e., moksha, which is the ultimate goal. 

Gita notes the belief in the existence of the soul. When Arjun is hesitant in killing his relatives, Krishna tells him how the body, the flesh dies, but the soul lives on, it can neither be created nor destroyed. It affirms that we need to focus on doing a particular act instead of reaping its fruit, action is its own reward. 

Gita also widely talks about karma, often simplified as a concept to ‘what goes around comes back around’. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions and shall be rewarded or punished in accordance with the same. Here it also talks about forgiveness and letting go of the anger against those who hurt you, as they will inevitably bear the consequences of their actions as part of their own karmic cycle. Besides all this, Gita also talks about influential cultural and social matters. 

The Bhagavad Gita also has many ideations of the Hindu caste system. It explains the caste hierarchy broadly. It seems to agree with Rig Veda’s theory, stating a Brahmin was born from the mouth of Purusha (androgynous primal being), and a Shudra from its feet, hence assuming a lower place in society. It conveys one must die with the caste they were born with. The work people do in their lifespan will be dictated by their castes. 

Bhagavad Gita’s Spiritual Significance 

Let’s now look at what spirituality is and how it differs from religion, and whether Gita has spiritual values and practices or not. Spirituality is broadly known as the connection with one’s soul, leading to mindfulness and a consequent desire to find one’s purpose and sense of connection with something bigger than themselves. It is the separation from materialistic pleasures and emotions based on their superficiality. The Gita talks heavily of these. Lord Krishna mentions how humans are very volatile in nature. They get too happy and too sad, all too soon. They spend their whole lives chasing things that hold no intrinsic value in the end. The Bhagavad Gita asks us to assume control over our mind and body, by meditation and devoting ourselves to God. When one reaches this point of actualisation, one is no longer affected by the mundane challenges of life. Instead, they cut themselves from negative emotions like frustration, anger, and hatred. It talks about how humans have one primary motive on Earth – to achieve salvation and the only path towards it involves doing noble deeds without expectations of reciprocity. Hence, it motivates practitioners to be inherently good, and have altruistic intent without the demand for anything in return. 

In this sense, we may infer it as a spiritual book, since it provides solutions to many conflicts of the human mind, irrespective of religion. It also mentions mindfulness, healthy eating, sleeping behaviours, and time management. It encourages a healthy lifestyle, away from greed and resentment, with proper sleeping and eating patterns. It is better to live an imperfect life that is wholly ours than to imitate someone’s perfect life and interfere with the course of destiny. 

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In Essence 

Some may point out the Bhagavad Gita’s contradictory nature, where on one hand it talks about harmony and peace, while on another, encourages killing, and sugar-coats atrocities of war by adding elements of philosophy in them. This is the logic behind BR Ambedkar famously calling it “defence to murder”. 

With that said, it is certainly possible to apply the positive derivatives of Gita to our current life. The Gita primarily asks us to part from desires, focus on the soul and our own actions. The Bhagavad Gita has far-reaching effects as it transcends religions. By nature, human life is always full of ‘battles’. Gita emphasises on Karma (right conduct) and following Dharma (duties) without any fear and leading life in a truthful manner. 

So, to conclude, we can say that Gita is an amalgamation of religion and spirituality, as both are portrayed as a cohesive unit. Where religion and philosophy meet, the Bhagavad Gita is born. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a difference between religion and spirituality according to Gita?

The Gita does outline some basic differences between both. While it is written in the religious context, the Gita shloka teachings are more spiritual than religious. Their teachings are universal in nature and followed by all people. 

Can I read Gita without being religious or Hindu? 

Yes absolutely! The Gita is an ocean of spiritual and philosophical teachings. And it is read by followers all around the world. You don’t need to be a Hindu or follow the Hindu religion to be a follower and believer of the Gita. As for the language, Gita is now available in multiple translations to accommodate readers of all spoken tongues.