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Even if you haven’t studied or read it, you’ve definitely heard of the Bhagavad Gita.
What you may not know: The storied 701-verse Hindu scripture isn’t a standalone text: It’s the sixth book of the Mahābhārata, an epic poem and devotional scripture from India that is celebrated around the world.
Translating to “Song of God,” the Bhagavad Gita is a conversation between Arjuna, a prince who must defeat his evil cousins in order to bring back righteousness and follow his path of Dharma in this life. Arjuna’s charioteer is the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. Though he is a famed archer, Arjuna is resistant to fighting. However, through their dialogue, Krishna guides him to battle with powerful lessons in duty, action, and detachment.
It’s estimated that the Gita was written in the second century BCE, but its philosophy has endured—as a religious text, as a historical account (yes, this was a real battle!), and as inspiration for how to live.
Here, we talk to Anusha Wijeyakumar, yoga teacher, author of Meditation with Intention on why every yoga practitioner and teacher should dive into the Gita now.
The Gita is a lesson in yoga’s roots and the true essence of the practice.
Yoga in the West has been repackaged as self-help and exercise, and largely stewarded in mainstream media by white teachers. It’s a far cry from the spiritual practice that originated thousands of years ago in India.
“When we remove South Asian voices, we engage in cultural appropriation and the dilution and desecration of these practices,” says Wijeyakumar, pointing out that yoga is a faith and spiritual practice that makes up the fabric of her life, along with the lives of billions of other Hindus around the world.
Does that mean that you can’t practice yoga without making it your religion? Absolutely not. But reading the Gita helps you contextualize (and honor) where yoga comes from.
It encourages you to stand up for social justice.
“The Bhagavad Gita has great relevance today that for me is really focused on the intersection of yoga and social justice,” says Wijeyakumar. “We see a need for that now more than ever with the pandemic [disproportionately affecting communities of color] and the continuation of racial injustices in America.”
Although Arjuna was trying to avoid a battle, Lord Krishna showed him why he had to make sacrifices, stand strong in his ideals, and show up for what was right and necessary in that time which was an integral part of his Dharma.
It shows you how to take your practice beyond asana.
“Yoga isn’t something that we do; it’s something that we live,” says Wijeyakumar. “The Bhagavad Gita tells us about the path of karma yoga, which is selfless service to God.”
Karma yoga teaches right action. No matter what you do, aim to connect your experience back to the divine—the universal consciousness that permeates every aspect of our existence, says Wijeyakumar.
This is important for the big stuff: When Arjuna summons his will to fight and step onto the battlefield; this can be translated to yoga in action as a path of social justice and standing up for marginalized communities and those who face oppression and systemic racism.
It also applies to the smaller things and the more mundane acts in your daily life. Right action should be utilized in every action in our day.
The next step? According to the Gita, you must detach your ego from the outcome. Remember that you aren’t living your life for external validation, acknowledgement, or “likes” as much as social media may tell us otherwise. The path of right action is an internal journey of deep inward inquiry and connecting to divine consciousness so we can do the right thing irrespective of any negative responses, whilst being unattached to the outcome and giving the fruits of our actions back to God. This is karma yoga.
It teaches you to live up to your purpose.
In the text, Arjuna grapples with his purpose, which was determined by the divine Krishna.
“The Gita reminds us that we’re here to play our part and tap into our Dharma, which means the path of right conduct,” says Wijeyakumar.
In fact, the story tells us that it’s a duty to live up to your dharma—and will remind you to identify yours.
It dives into a key philosophy that’s often avoided.
“When the Gita is taught through a Western lens, reincarnation is completely overlooked in so many ways, or it’s avoided because it’s just so difficult to understand or explain fully to those who are not raised in Dharmic faiths, as the concept is so foreign to them,” says Wijeyakumar.
Reincarnation ties together the major themes—karma and dharma—covered in the Gita. But first, it helps to understand what it is.
For someone who is Hindu and raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma faith, reincarnation means that we’re all living in a physical body that is one of many — millions of — lives that we have moved through in different forms. The human form gives us an opportunity to break the cycle of samsara—birth, life, and death.
“I really have to tap into my Dharma to work through my layers of karma (past actions),” says Wijeyakumar. “And I have to keep the ultimate goal of yoga in mind, which is samadhi—final union with god and divine consciousness by practicing all of Sage Patanjali’s eight-limbed path. Yoga is much more than asana, and the Gita teaches us this in great detail.”