The armies of the two confronting parties, the Pāndavas and their cousins the Kauravas, are ready in the battlefield and just waiting for a sign to engage in the final battle that will annihilate all of them. In that very moment, Arjuna, the chief commander of the Pāndavas, feels overwhelmed by the burden of his responsability and is reluctant to start the fight. “My nature afflicted with the vice of despair, / My mind confused over what is the Law, / I ask, what is better?” That is the quite theatrical setting in which opens the Bhagavadgītā (“The Lord’s Song”), one of the most important texts in the religious, philososophical, and literary tradition of India. And, like in many other outstanding works of the world’s literature, there is a fundamental question to be answered: when confronted to a duty with conflicting feelings, how can we be sure what the appropriate decision and behavior are?
Arjuna adresses his question to his companion, the king Kṛṣṇa, his charioteer, who is holding the reins of the chariot that will drive him to the battlefield. Along his answer, king Kṛṣṇa will reveal to Arjuna his real nature as one of the avatāras or descents of the great god Viṣṇu and will provide Arjuna (and all the readers of the Bhagavadgītā for that matter) with many important clues about human nature.
The Bhagavadgītā is the core (its diamond, in the beautiful words of Madeleine Biardeau, the great French specialist) of the great Indian epic poem the Mahābhārata, the longest one in all the world’s literatures. It summarizes many of the most important ideas of Hinduism about individuals and their role in society and in the global cosmic order. No wonder, thus, if it is one of the most quoted texts of Hinduism, even in our days. It was also one of the first texts to be translated from Sanskrit into other languages and, after it was first known in Europe in the 18th century by means of the English translation of Charles Wilkins, it was soon recognized as one of the major summits of human thought and has influenced many philosophers and poets, such A. Schopenhauer or T. S. Eliot.
In his answers to Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa stresses the importance of carrying out one’s own duty (dharma), regardless of the consequences that this may have for oneself or the others. Being realistic, acting cannot be avoided, but at least we can prevent being misguided in our behavior if we know what our duty is and act in a consequent manner. It is also quite remarkable that the Bhagavadgītā explicitly mentions that there are various ways for salvation, a conception that reflects a deep understanding of the invididual and the differences between personalities.
Regardless whether we read the Bhagavadgītā as faithful Hindus or we are attracted by its philosophical contents and its literary beauty, it is always a rewarding reading that will make us reflect about some of the most transcendental questions about human beings, human nature, and the destinity of the self.