The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most important texts in Hinduism. In the Vedanta system it is one the three foundations – along with the Upanishads and Vedanta Sutras. Therefore, the main teachers of Vedanta have commented on the Gita and what it has to say about God. In this course we examine where these teachers differ, where they agree, and how they interpret the Gita.
What we cover in this course
In this course, we learn what Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita about the nature of God and the relationship between God and humanity.
We look at those passages of the Bhagavad Gita that speak of divine identity. This task is not always easy because different teachers offer different explanations. Therefore, we will also look at the commentaries of three major teachers: Sankaracarya, Madhvacarya, and Ramanujacarya.
In this course we focus on Chapters 7, 9, 12, and 15 of the Gita. We also refer to other chapters where appropriate.
Each week’s notes include:
- translations of the verses,
- explanation of significant Sanskrit words,
- extracts from the commentaries of Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva,
- an overview and analysis of the text.
Of course, there are no obviously right or wrong answers here. It is possible to properly understand the Bhagavad Gita from many perspectives. However, as we shall see, the text sometimes seems to point towards a particular perspective.
In this course we use Dr Sutton’s translation of Bhagavad Gita.
In this session we introduce the Gita in its context within the Mahabharata. We look at what classical teachers have said about the Gita and explore the ideas of Sankaracarya, Madhvacarya, and Ramanujacarya.
We begin our exploration of the Bhagavad Gita with Chapter 4 and the concept of avatar. We then look at Chapter 7 in some detail, as the text moves away from karma-yoga and meditation and towards the nature of God, the path of devotion, and God’s relationship with the world.
mattaḥ parataraṁ nānyat kiṁcid asti dhanaṁjaya
mayi sarvam idaṁ protaṁ sūtre maṇiganā iva
“There is no other thing that is superior to me. This whole world rests on me, just as jewels rest on their thread.” (Bhagavad Gita 7.7)
We continue with Chapter 7. Krishna describes the world as consisting of unconscious matter and the conscious soul – the source of life. He declares both of these to be his energies and says that he is the fundamental principle that holds the world together and sustains it. Krishna declares that he is the ultimate reality and that nothing is superior to him. In the remainder of Chapter 7, Krishna talks about how to turn this theoretical understanding into practice.
In this session, we look briefly at Chapter 8. We then begin a study of the ninth chapter. Chapter 8 explores the state of consciousness at the time of death, and how this affects the passage of the soul into the next life. It is concerned with devotion to God, but also with Yoga, by which the mind can be controlled and properly directed as death approaches. In Chapter 9, Krishna returns to ideas introduced in the seventh chapter. He expands upon themes of knowledge of God and understanding practical religion and worship.
Ramanuja and Madhva teach that Chapter 9 is central to devotional Hinduism. Sankara, however, keeps an Advaitic perspective by identifying Krishna as the indwelling atman and interpreting devotion to Krishna as striving to realise the atman. While the Deity does identify with his creation, the text here does not lend itself to the Advaitic view. The phrase “they worship me” (bhajanti mām), and the processes given for worship indicate that the worshipped is distinct from the worshipper. This emphasis is a notable difference between the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, where bhakti is virtually ignored.
This section helps us understand why the Gita is so important to Hindu belief. Much of contemporary Hinduism is shaped by devotional tendencies and it is in the Bhagavad Gita that this is given a philosophical basis. It is also in the Gita that devotion and worship are described as the highest expression of religious life.
Chapter 10 recaps Chapter 9 and is an important summary of the key points. The text then moves quickly to the awesome viśva-rūpa (universal form) in Chapter 11. In earlier chapters, we have had hints of the viśva-rūpa in statements that describe all existence as a part of God. Now we are given an overt revelation of this.
First, Arjuna states that he accepts Krishna’s divinity. He then asks how his presence in this world can be understood. In the second half of Chapter 10, Krishna explains that he is present in this world as the most magnificent feature of each category of existence.
In Chapter 11, Arjuna asks Krishna if he can go beyond a theoretical understanding of God’s presence and actually see it with his own eyes. It is this request that leads to the tremendous revelation that forms the main part of this chapter.
In this final session, we look at Chapter 12, the last of the middle six chapters. This chapter then concludes Krishna’s exposition on the nature of God and religious practice based upon this realisation. In Chapter 12, Arjuna asks Krishna about devotion in relation to the invisible akshara feature of the divine.
As well as Chapter 12, we look at the final six verses of Chapter 15, and then the conclusion of the Gita in Chapter 18.
HOW IT WORKS
Course delivery is 100% online
Seven weekly sessions
Study in your own time
Your tutor is available by email and forums
You can communicate online with your fellow students
All course materials are delivered via the web
Student forums with tutor participation
Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format
Lecture notes available online and as pdf
Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies at Oxford University
Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme
Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of Introduction to Sanskrit which is assessed on weekly course work.
Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.