SankarAcArya's bhagavad-gItA-bhAshya: Introductory Chapter

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Sat Oct 3 19:11:33 CDT 1998

This post has my translation of the introductory chapter of the
commentary on the bhagavad-gItA. As mentioned in earlier posts in this
series, I do not provide the original text of the commentary. Only the
translation is presented. Please refer to published books (e.g. Sri
Krishna Warrier's translation, published by Sri Ramakrishna Math) for the
original text. However, I provide important Sanskrit terms within
parantheses, and also important quotations from within the gItA. I have
adopted a free-flowing translating style for the most part, instead of
providing word-for-word meanings. This is because word order in English
syntax is very differently conceived as compared to Sanskrit. The
abbreviations BhG stand for bhagavad-gItA and MBh for Mahabharata.



Salutation -

nArAyaNaH paro 'vyaktAt aNDam avyakta sambhavam |
aNDasyAntas tv ime lokAH sapta-dvIpA ca medinI ||

Translation -

"Narayana is beyond the Unmanifest (avyakta), the Egg (aNDam) is born out
of the Unmanifest. All the worlds are contained within the Egg, as also
the earth, with its seven islands."

Notes -

        It is customary to begin commentaries with invocatory verses,
        which usually provide information about the author, his guru and
        lineage, his ishTa-devatA, etc. SankarAcArya's brahmasUtra bhAshya
        is an exception to this general rule, so much so that his
        disciple, padmapAda, has to explain why this is so, in the
        pancapAdikA. In the bhagavad-gItA commentary, SankarAcArya simply
        begins by quoting an old verse extolling Narayana, the Supreme
        Lord. This salutation is especially appropriate in this
        commentary, because Krishna, who taught the gItA to Arjuna, is
        considered to be an incarnation of Narayana.

        The salutation verse also refers to "avyakta", one of the
        important philosophical terms used in a specific sense throughout
        the commentary. The connotation attached to this term will become
        clear in the main text of the commentary. Translated simply as
        Unmanifest (the capital U indicates that it is conceived of as a
        special entity with an ontological status), it is similar in
        meaning and function to what SankarAcArya calls avyAkRta and
        nAmarUpa in other texts. It refers to a root state of being of the
        universe, before it is unfolded into the world of name and form.
        The reality of the Supreme Brahman is also beyond that of the
        universe, whether in its manifested state or in its potential,
        unmanifested state. Hence, Narayana is said to be Higher than the

        It is standard in various Indian texts to refer to the universe
        as brahmANDa, the egg of brahman. This "Egg" is born out of the
        avyakta, and contains within itself, all the seen and unseen
        worlds. Of special anthropic significance is the earth, on which
        human beings are born, live and die. Inasmuch as it is the locus
        of human beings, for whose benefit the teaching of the gItA is
        given, the earth receives special mention. According to most old
        Indian sources, the seven islands of the earth are named jambU,
        plaksha, kuSa, kraunca, SAka, SAlmala and pushkara. The source of
        this verse is most probably the Mahabharata. With this salutation,
        the introductory chapter begins to succinctly explain the
        commentator's understanding of the gItA.

Translation -

1. The great Lord created the world, and desired to ensure its continued
existence. Therefore, he first created the progenitors (prajApati),
beginning with marIcI, and imparted to them the Law (dharma) of action
(pravRtti), as explained in the Vedas. Then he created others, beginning
with the seers, sanaka and sanandana, and imparted to them the Law
(dharma) of cessation-from-action (nivRtti), which is characterized by
knowledge (jnAna) and dispassion (vairAgya). The Law described in the
Vedas is two-fold, one characterized by action and the other by cessation
from action. This two-fold Law sustains the universe. This Law is to be
followed by all who value goodness, as it is conducive to the two-fold
goals of all ASramas and varNas, beginning with the brAhmaNa, namely,
prosperity (abhyudaya) and liberation (niHSreyasa).

In course of time, desires arose in the minds of those who were charged
with upholding the Law, which diminished the capacity of proper
discriminative knowledge (viveka-vijnAna). Thus, the Law was overcome by
unlawfulness (adharma), which grew in strength. Seeking to preserve the
stability of the world, and to protect the brAhmaNatva of brahman (i.e. to
teach the true nature of brahman, thereby protecting it), the original
creator (AdikartA), the all-pervasive Lord (vishNu), called nArAyaNa, was
born in the form of Krishna, as the son of Vasudeva and Devaki. By
protecting the nature of brahman, the Law of the Vedas is protected,
adherence to which protects all the varNas and ASramas.

2. This venerable Lord of all beings is always endowed with knowledge
(jnAna), lordliness (aiSvarya), power (Sakti), strength (bala), vitality
(vIrya) and splendour (tejas). He is unborn (aja) and beyond all change
(avyaya), and is eternal, pure, enlightened, ever-liberated in nature
(nitya-Suddha-buddha-mukta-svabhAva). By His own mAyA, He acquires the
root material nature (mUla-prakRti), consisting of the three qualities
(triguNa), and appears in this world to bless it, as if He were embodied,
and as if he were born here. With no motive (prayojana) in it for Himself,
and with the sole purpose of ensuring the welfare of all beings, He
imparted the two-fold Vedic Law to Arjuna, who was drowning in an ocean of
despair and delusion. His reason is that if the Law is imparted to and
practised properly by people of excellent virtues, it will flourish in the
world. The omniscient, and highly revered sage, Vedavyasa, has presented
this dharma, as taught by the Lord, in seven hundred verses, known as the
Songs (gItA).

Notes -

        The above passages show SankarAcArya's conception of the totality
        of Vedic teaching as two-fold in nature. One is characterized by
        action and engagement with the world (pravRtti-lakshaNa dharma),
        the other is characterized by knowledge, dispassion and withdrawal
        from action (jnAna-vairAgya-lakshaNa, nivRtti-lakshaNa dharma).
        The goals of this two-fold teaching are also two-fold. One leads
        to prosperity in the world (abhyudaya) and the other to
        liberation, the highest good of man (niHSreyasa). When Arjuna, the
        Pandava prince, was overcome with grief, Krishna taught him the
        same Vedic two-fold dharma, in the form of the gItA, which has
        come to us through the verses presented by Vedavyasa.

        The introduction also reveals the general theistic, mythological
        and social background presumed by the author of the commentary.
        There is an explicit affirmation of the supreme brahman as the
        Lord, while simultaneously qualifying the incarnation into the
        world of human beings with an 'as if'. Mythological accounts
        present some ancient sages, such as marIcI, atri, vasishTha etc.
        as the first householders, and the progenitors of all mankind.
        Other sons of brahman, lead by the four kumaras - sanaka,
        sanandana, sanAtana and sanatkumAra, are ascetic sages, who do not
        procreate. The commentator's own account of an original state of
        knowledge, which is lost due to desire, is almost mythic in its
        scope. The standard Indian model of varNa and ASrama in the
        society of human beings is also presumed. The commentator seeks
        to explain how proper adherence to the two-fold dharma, according
        to one's qualifications, promotes the welfare of all beings, in
        the world and beyond.

        Now arises the question, if the Vedic dharma is two-fold, one
        emphasizing action, and the other emphasizing cessation of or
        withdrawal from action, is this not an internal contradiction? Is
        every human being supposed to combine the two paths of action and
        non-action? Or are the two kinds of teaching meant for different
        people? With so many interpretations of this dharma in existence,
        which one should one follow? How can all this be reconciled? These
        questions seem more relevant today than ever before, as there are
        numerous commentaries, translations and explanations available to
        the sincere reader. The commentator proceeds to raise the
        difficulties involved and to answer them, thus anticipating many
        of our contemporary difficulties.

Translation -

3. The teaching of the gItA, which is the collected essence of all the
Vedas, is difficult to comprehend. Many authors have attempted to
elucidate the logic of its words, sentences and their meanings. In
general, however, people have obtained it as a set of many mutually
contradictory ideas. Therefore, I will briefly explain (saMkshepa
vivaraNa) the meaning of the text, with proper discrimination of its

4. The ultimate goal of the teaching of this gItA is the highest
liberation (paraM niHSreyasam) from transmigratory existence and its
cause. This comes from the dharma of abiding in Self-knowledge
(AtmajnAna-nishThA), preceded by the total renunciation of all works
(sarva-karma-saMnyAsa). The same Lord who gave us the gItA, tells us again
of this dharma, in the anugItA (Mahabharata, aSvamedha-parvaN [MBh-As.]),
thus -

a. This dharma is all one needs, to know brahman [MBh-As. 16. 12],
b. Neither actively pursuing the law (dharma), nor by being lawless
   (adharma), nor indeed good or evil [MBh-As. 19.7],
c. He who is firmly grounded, silent, thinking no thoughts [MBh-As. 19.9]
d. Knowledge is characterized by renunciation [MBh-As. 43.25] etc.

In the gItA itself, in the end, Arjuna is told, "Renouncing everything,
resort to Me alone" (sarva dharmAn parityajya mAm ekaM SaraNaM vraja - BhG
18. 33).

5. The other goal of prosperity (abhyudaya), characterized by action,
which is meant for the varNas and ASramas, is the cause of rewards such as
the status of heavenly beings and the like. When such action is performed
without a desire for such fruits, and with a sense of dedication to the
Lord (ISvara-arpaNa-buddhi), purifies one's being. Such purification makes
one eligible for knowledge and is also conducive to the rise of such
knowledge, which yields liberation. Accordingly, it is said, "Grounding
all works in brahman" (brahmaNy AdhAya karmANi - BhG 5. 10), "Yogins
perform works, without any sense of attachment, for self-purification"
(yoginaH karma kurvanti sangam tyaktvA AtmaSuddhaye - BhG 5. 11).

Notes -

        In these passages, SankarAcArya clearly sets forth the Vedantic
        teaching that of the two goals of the Vedic teaching, that of
        liberation is superior to that of worldly prosperity. Still, if
        the lawful action is practised, with devotion, and without desire
        for the fruits accruing from such action, this is secondarily
        conducive to liberation. This argument is quite different in
        nature from one that insists that knowledge and action *have* to
        be combined on the path to liberation. Rather, it says that the
        path of karma can lead to the path of jnAna, but once one is on
        the path of jnAna, there is no need to travel the road of karma
        again. Clearly, the way from the path of karma to that of jnAna
        passes through the path of bhakti, as taught by SankarAcArya
        himself, who teaches dedication to ISvara here. Thus, from the
        earliest times, advaita vedAnta gives a proper place to each path,
        contrary to popular misconceptions about his teaching. The
        arguments about combining jnAna and karma or otherwise will be
        revisited later in the commentary.

Translation -

6. This two-fold dharma, culminating in the goal of the highest
liberation, the Highest Truth that is para-brahman, also called vAsudeva,
is the subject matter of the gItA, which sets forth the goal (prayojana)
of this teaching, and the relation (sambandha) of this teaching to us.
As its study yields all the goals of man (purushArtha), I endeavour to
explain its meaning. Thus, the gItA begins, "dharmakshetre kurukshetre"

Notes -

        Indian thought classifies the goals of human beings into four -
        dharma (Law, right conduct), artha (prosperity), kAma (desires)
        and moksha (liberation). All these goals are served by a study of
        the gItA. The end of the introductory chapter also shows one
        distinctive feature of all of SankarAcArya's commentaries. He
        clearly explains the connection of the following
        verse/sentence/word to the preceding one. The first verse in the
        gItA necessarily presumes an earlier setting. In the vedAnta
        tradition, the mythical and/or historical setting of the
        Mahabharata war, a civil war between two sets of cousins, is seen
        as an internal war that is fought in the heart of every human
        being. What the Lord teaches in the gItA is relevant not only to
        Arjuna before he embarks upon his war for inheritance, but to all
        of us, in the internal war we fight each day. Thus, the first
        verse, which refers to the field of the kurus, the geographical
        site of the battles, also calls it the dharma-kshetra, the field
        of Law. As one faces the contrary pulls of life, one is apt to be
        confused, just as Arjuna was. The teaching of the gItA shows us a
        way out of this internal confusion. Thus, it is conducive to all
        the goals of mankind, from mundane desires to lawful conduct, from
        worldly prosperity to liberation.


"bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam"
List archives :

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list