The Bhagavad Gītā

Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)

The Bhagavad Gītā is an episode from the Mahābhārata (the long Indian epic poem) in which the god Krishna offers advice to the hero Arjuna, in response to Arjuna’s despair at the need to kill his cousins in battle. It is one of the most loved texts in Indian tradition – enough that some modern thinkers, including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi have taken it to be the central text of Hindu tradition. When one wants to identify the ethical teachings of the great philosophers in the Vedānta tradition (such as Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja), those philosophers’ commentaries on the Gītā, while difficult for a novice reader, are often the clearest guide to their ideas.

In the text, Krishna instructs Arjuna that fighting is his dharma (sacred duty). He offers a variety of reasons for this claim, from the sociological (society will decay when dharma is not done) to the theological (his own divinity); the latter culminates in a mystical experience where Arjuna is given a glimpse of Krishna’s divine form. a wide array of reasons to act according to his dharma and fight, in the process expounding a larger system of metaphysics.


Secondary Sources
Compare/Contrast with


Miller, Barbara Stoler, transl. The Bhagavad Gītā: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Bantam, 1986. Very readable translation that sticks to a single translation for each of the text’s most important terms.  As with any translation aimed at beginners, some of the translation choices are controversial (for example, “yoga” and “samkhya” are translated with “discipline” and “philosophy,” which do not convey all the nuances of the terms).

Radhakrishnan, S., transl. The Bhagavadgita, with an introductory essay and [transliterated] Sanskrit text.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1973.  A classic translation by an eminent Indian philosopher and statesman, first published in 1948.

Sargeant, Winthrop, trans. The Bhagavad Gītā. Edited by Christopher Key Chapple. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. This translation is essential for the serious student who doesn’t know Sanskrit well, because it has a detailed apparatus breaking down the Sanskrit vocabulary and grammar so that an English-speaker can understand nuances no translation can convey.

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Secondary Sources:

Gupta, Bina. “Bhagavad Gītā as Duty and Virtue Ethics: Some Reflections.” Journal of Religious Ethics 34 (2006): 373–395. Examines the role played by virtue in the Gītā.

 Sreekumar, Sandeep. “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40 (2012): 277–315. A close reading of the Gītā’s arguments in the context of contemporary analytical ethics.

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Compare/Contrast with:

The Gītā’s urging that one should seek action and not the fruits of action makes for an interesting comparison with Kant’s Grounding, although that comparison leads to controversial readings that some would argue are misreadings.

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