a blog by Ellen Davies

Book Club: The Bhagavad Gita

Book Club: The Bhagavad Gita

This week I am starting a book club at the yoga studio, and our first book is the Bhagavad Gita. I have avoided this book for years. The premise doesn’t appeal to me at all — the book is about a battle, where the main character has to fight against his friends and family. Doesn’t that sound like a fun read? 

The Gita is required reading for the 500 hour yoga teacher training that I’m working on (with Alanna Kaivalya). I would have tried to skip the book entirely, except Alanna did something very smart — she included some talks on the philosophy of the Gita, and that began to intrigue me. 

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The Gita in a nutshell 

The Bhagavad Gita is the most widely used spiritual text in the world. It is one of the two main philosophical texts of yoga, the others being the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

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The text is essentially a dialogue between Arjuna, our main character, and the god Krishna. Arjuna is a great warrior, and it is the night before a huge battle. This battle is going to happen — there is no way to avoid the fight. As was customary at the time, Arjuna goes out in his chariot the night before to survey the opposing army. He is dismayed to discover that he recognizes the people he is supposed to fight. He sees neighbors, friends, family. He falls to the floor of his chariot in despair. How can he fight the people he loves? 

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Arjuna’s chariot driver is the god Krishna, appearing in human form. Because he is a god, Krishna is able to stop time, and he begins to counsel Arjuna on the ways of a spiritual warrior. His wise advice to Arjuna is the bulk of the Gita. 

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Battles? Isn’t yoga non-violent?

Krisha is not advocating violence. The battle is actually an allegory for our daily lives. Every day we come into conflict with the people around us. We blow off plans with our friends because something better comes along, hurting feelings and causing offense. We feel animosity from our neighbors about dogs who poop on our lawns. We feel alienated or worse when we can’t get along with our in-laws. We avoid certain people because their political views are different from ours, and it is so obvious that they are wrong.

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So, battles. These conflicts are unavoidable. They are part of the human condition. We can’t run away from these things; we have to stay and fight. 

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What is interesting to me is that Krishna doesn’t tell Arjuna what to do. He leaves the choice up to him. But first he explains about ignorance and its consequences. He paints portraits in words of how a spiritual warrior lives, so that Arjuna can picture the idea. Along the way, he describes three types of yoga: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga. 

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Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge, specifically self-knowledge. When you ask the question Who am I? and sit and think about who you really are, this is Jnana yoga. Because the ultimate answer to the question is that we are all one, we are all divine. As Krishna says, “There is nothing that exists separate from me” (7:7). 

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Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion to a higher power. Krishna counsels Arjuna on this over and over. “Whatever you do, make it an offering to me” (9:27). The message is to do your work not for personal reward, but out of love for the Lord.  

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Karma yoga is the yoga of selfless action. To understand what the Gita means by karma, we have to let go of the popular meaning of the word. There is no such thing as “bad karma” or “good karma” in the Gita. Karma is all actions, even our thoughts. What Krishna talks about is letting go of the results, or fruits, of the action: “You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work … without selfish attachments” (2:47-48). 

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Bhagavad Gita book - Ellen Davies blog - With Heart and Humor - yoga

I encourage you to read the Bhagavad Gita with me. Book club is on Sunday, and for the first meeting you only need to read the introduction. I’m using the translation by Eknath Easwaran, which you can order here. Leave me a note in the comments section and let me know how it’s going. 



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