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First put in writing in 1316 BC, the Bhagavad Gita (literally: Song of God; also: The Song Divine) is the central part of the epic poem Mahabharata and is revered as a fundamental part of the scripture in Vaishnava Hinduism. It tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior prince, and his friend Krishna who is steering his chariot through the beginnings of the great Bharata war of 1424 BC. Arjuna and Krishna have ridden out into the middle of a battlefield, with armies arrayed on either side of them. Arjuna’s job is to blow a conch shell to announce the commencement of battle. Seeing friends and relatives in both armies, Arjuna is heartbroken at the thought that the battle will cost him many loved ones. He turns to Krishna for advice.
Krishna counsels Arjuna on a wide range of topics, beginning with a tenet of Hindu faith that everybody reincarnates, so the lives lost in battle aren’t really lost. Krishna goes on to expound on many spiritual matters, including several different yogas or paths of devotion. In the eleventh chapter, Krishna shows Arjuna that he is in fact an incarnation of the god Vishnu.
At a deeper level of understanding, the war is a metaphor for the confusions, doubts, fears and conflicts that trouble all people at one time or another.
The Gita addresses this discord within us and speaks of the yoga of equanimity – a balanced outlook. The term yoga covers a wide range of meanings, but in the context of the Bhagavad Gita it refers to a unified outlook, serenity of mind, skill in action, and the ability to stay attuned to the glory of the Self, that is, to Atman/Brahman. According to Krishna, the root of all suffering and discord is the agitation of the mind caused by desire. The only way to douse the flame of desire, says Krishna, is by stilling the mind through discipline of the senses and the intellect.
However, total abstinence from action is regarded as being just as detrimental as extreme indulgence. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the goal of life is to free the mind and intellect from their complexities and to focus them on the glory of the Self. This goal can be achieved through the yogas of action, devotion and knowledge.