The Overarching Theme of the Bhagavad-gītā

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One way to identify the central theme of a spiritual wisdom text is to look at the very first passage of that text and, more specifically, at the first word of the text. The Bhagavad-gītā telegraphs its overarching theme with its first word, which is spoken by the blind king, Dhṛtarāṣṭra: dharma

A second way to identify the central theme of a spiritual wisdom text is to look at how often and in what context key words appear throughout the text, especially how those words or phrases figure in the conclusion of the text. By looking at the first word of the first verse and looking forward to Kṛṣṇa’s priorities as we move through the Gītā, it becomes clear that the Bhagavad-gītā is, first and foremost, a book that answers the question, “what is the highest dharma?”

The root of the word dharma is dhṛi, which means ‘to support,’ indicating that which can’t be taken away. Dharma can therefore be understood as that which gives ultimate support to one’s existence.

The derivative dhru indicates a pole or a fixed axis through which variable opposites are balanced. Therefore, dharma can also be understood to indicate the invariable constant around which life revolves, the organizing principle of cosmic order that supports all existence.   

Dharma, in the sense of ‘divine law,’ is sometimes translated as ‘religion.’ People may therefore misunderstand dharma as a concept that belongs to a particular form of faith. A more accurate understanding is that dharma, in the context of ‘divine law,’ refers to universal and changeless principles of religion that are both independent from any particular form of faith and essential for the attainment of religious experience irrespective of which, if any, religion one subscribes to.

Dharma can also be taken to indicate the essential nature of a person, place, or thing, the definitive inner reality that makes someone or something what they are. For example, the dharma of sugar is to be sweet. If you take sweetness away from sugar then it’s no longer sugar. The dharma of water is to be wet. If you take wetness away from water then it’s no longer water. Dharma manifests in the natural world as bees that make honey, cows that give milk, a sun that shines, fish that swim, rivers that flow, etc. 

Just as each feature of cosmic order has an essential nature, cosmic order itself has an essential nature. Bringing ourselves into harmony with the essential nature of cosmic order is the way by which we can live peacefully in the world. Conversely, dissonant action relative the essential nature of cosmic order brings about chaos and destruction.

The function of dharma as a universal principle of divine law is to establish an objective standard of cosmic order and, with it, a shared sense of reality within which a healthy society can function. The project of discerning right from wrong thus becomes one of understanding how  changeless ethical principles are properly applied to variable details of moral action in order to respond to any given situation in a way that’s aligned with cosmic order.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s question in the opening verse of the Bhagavad-gītā is summed up in the phrase kim akurvata: “what did they do?” or, “how did they act?” Dhṛtarāṣṭra is asking Sañjaya to tell him how his sons, known as the Kauravas, and the sons of his deceased brother, known as the Pāṇḍavas, responded to having been brought to the battlefield by the will of providence to fight a fratricidal war that will decimate their family.

Dhṛtarāṣṭra is hoping that his visionary counselor, Sañjaya, will describe a victory for his son, Duryodhana. At the outset, it appears as if Duryodhana has a clear military advantage. However, factors beyond numerical strength, martial virtuosity, and strategic superiority will influence the outcome of the battle.

One such factor is that dharma is also understood to be synonymous with virtue or moral excellence. The setting for the battle, the ‘field of dharma’ (dharma-kṣetre), favors morality over duplicity. This doesn’t bode well for the duplicitous Duryodhana. 

Dharma is also often translated as ‘duty’ and many Gītā commentators emphasize this definition. Soldiers have a duty to fight when called upon to do so. Members of the armed forces often have an understanding of duty that can’t be fully appreciated by those without any firsthand experience of military culture. A soldier may not like doing what they’ve been called upon to do, the circumstances may be other than what they would have chosen, and they may even have to make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of responding to the call of duty, but tolerating hardships and making sacrifices in the course of doing one’s duty is considered virtuous.

Under the circumstances, Arjuna, a warrior by both natural aptitude and rigorous training, has a duty to fight in defense of righteousness. In other words, his dharma is to defend dharma. But Arjuna has lost track of what dharma is, so he doesn’t know how to defend it. In his despair and confusion, he asks Kṛṣṇa to tell him what course of action will achieve the greatest good, which he understands to be the logical outcome of dharmic action.

Arjuna’s inability to see a dharmic way forward is understandable; it turns out that dharma itself has gone missing. In the 7th verse of the Gītā’s 4th chapter, we learn that the recession of dharma from the world stage is one of the principal reasons for Kṛṣṇa’s appearance. In this verse we once again find the word dharma, used twice: once to indicate the decline of dharma and again, in a negative form, to indicate the absence or opposite of dharma (adharma).

In the next verse, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna that he, Kṛṣṇa, appears in the material world at regular intervals for the sake of re-establishing dharma. These two verses add emphasis to the position of dharma as the central theme around which the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna revolves. The dramatic unity of a story is found at the intersection of two elements: a central theme and a framing action. In the Gītā, the framing action has two components, one external and one internal. The external component of the framing action is the dialogue itself, which directs our attention to the central theme, dharma. The internal component of the framing action is Arjuna’s transformation in response to Kṛṣṇa’s divine revelation. The element of Kṛṣṇa’s revelation that triggers Arjuna’s transformation is yoga, which is the means by which Arjuna can reconnect to his dharma

The Bhagavad-gītā’s dramatic unity is driven by Arjuna’s questions. The Gītā’s meaning is found in Arjuna’s transformation over the course of receiving Kṛṣṇa’s teachings. Arjuna is therefore our role model for understanding the Bhagavad-gītā, which brings us to a very important point: the best way to experience the transformative potential of the Bhagavad-gītā is to follow in Arjuna’s footsteps.

This essay is an excerpt from Hari-kirtana das’s forthcoming book, Journey Into The Bhagavad-gītā: A Guide to Understanding Timeless Principles of Transcendental Knowledge and Integrating Them Into Your Life