Understanding the Structure of Bhagavad-gita


Bhagavad-gita presents us with a hierarchical concept of reality. The coherence of the Gita’s message can more easily be experienced when we understand this hierarchical conception, which consists of two major levels of experience and an intermediate level that acts as a bridge leading from one to the other. Each level of experience is characterized by different values and different states of “being”.

Level 1: sva-dharma – temporal worldly life characterized by a sense of duty, religion, morality, law, order, and justice, which together sustain civilized human life.

Values: worldly happiness and prosperity are seen as good and desirable.

State of Being: one experiences the living entity as the body, whether as a human being or as some other species.

Level 2: Yoga – progressive detachment from worldly life toward a liberated state

Values: detachment from the world (rejection of worldly prosperity as good or desirable), equal-mindedness towards both happiness and distress, attachment to seeking absorption in a higher reality; moksha.

State of Being: no longer understands oneself or others as the body but as eternal spirit souls bound by the laws of samsara (the cycle of repeated birth and death in the material world).

Level 3: sanatana-dharma – eternal spiritual life characterized by perpetual being (sat) in pure consciousness (cit) and limitless bliss (ananda); the perfected, liberated condition that is experienced in 3 aspects:

1) brahman realization: experience of the oneness of being.

2) paramatma realization: cognition of the localized aspect of the Absolute in the heart of all beings and the subatomic energizing principle of matter.

3) bhagavan realization: apprehension of the personal aspect of the Supreme Being: the re-activation of the individual soul’s relationship with the Supreme in transcendental loving service (bhakti).

Values: intense compassion for all beings, service to the Divine

State of Being: experiences an intimate connection to all existence, experiences oneself and others as eternal spirit souls, sees the Divine everywhere, feels deep love and attachment for / union with the Supreme Being

The level of sva-dharma represents the relative worldly condition and is considered illusory, the level of sanatana-dharma represents the real or absolute condition, and the level of yoga is transitional. We can also define these three levels as the finite, the intermediate, and the infinite.

The three levels represent three different states of consciousness and the attitudes that proceed from them: one who sees the world from the point of view of the first level, sva-dharma, is convinced that they are a human being and that their aim is to prosper. On the second level, yoga, one is convinced that they are an embodied spiritual self and that their aim is to get released from the condition of bondage to the reactions to their actions (karma) that perpetuate the condition of embodiment and repeated birth and death. On the third level, sanatana-dharma, one sees the Supreme everywhere and tries to love and serve that Supreme Being.

Each level operates with a distinct language, terms, and set of assumptions. In a sense, the Bhagavad-gita speaks in three languages and constantly moves between the three levels. Recognizing which level a particular text or section is referring to provides a frame of reference within which any given passage becomes intelligible and can be understood as consistent with the rest of the text.

5 Comments

  1. Posted September 23, 2011 at 3:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Indeed a thought provoking understanding that churns my mind to digest the aspects and levels of reality addressed by Bhagavad Gita. Had a question- I believed that yoga (specifically Bhakti Yoga) is a part of the Sanatana Dharma. Can it be thought that its both the means and the goal?

    • Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Nausheel:

      Thanks for your comment and your excellent question. Another way to look at the structure of the Bhagavad-gita is to see how the chapters are grouped together to describe karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga respectively, with raja yoga described in various areas within the three major groupings, especially the first group. Krishna describes karma yoga, raja yoga, and jnana yoga as means to an end but he describes bhakti yoga specifically as both the means and the end itself: the perfection of yoga is surrender to him (Krishna) and one comes to the point of surrender by cultivating devotion. Another way to look at it is to consider the practice of devotion according to regulative principles as a bridge to spontaneous devotion.

  2. Posted September 29, 2011 at 11:24 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Linking back to your comment on my Wall Street post on Yoga Modern – it’s hard for me to understand why this schema would encourage political engagement – if the world doesn’t matter, and the goal is liberation from rebirth, why not just withdraw from the world and meditate nonstop?

    I ask this not to be hostile, but just because unless the connections are spelled out, they’re not at all evident.

    • Posted September 29, 2011 at 11:47 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Carol:

      The goal is not liberation from rebirth; the goal is service to the Supreme Being, which is transcendental whether it is performed in the material world of samsara or the spiritual world of eternal existence. When one arrives at the level of actual Isvara-pranidhana one immediately experiences samadhi even while still embodied (jivan-muktah). When a liberated yogi’s values are set as compassion for all beings and service to the Divine, who is recognized as the ultimate proprietor of all things, then one feels naturally compelled towards enlightened engagement with the world: active defense of Mother Earth and all living beings who are being victimized by those who are blinded by the prospect of worldly power and wealth. In addition to the more recognizable forms of political action that one might take from this enlightened position, the yogi also – and more importantly – undermines the status quo by advocating for a re-spiritualization of the entire human society based on yogic ideals. A culture emphasizing spiritual priorities necessarily minimizes the values that lead to the state of the world such as it is: philosophy determines attitude, which in turn determines actions and subsequent results. Yogis therefore get to the root of the problem when we introduce an entirely different paradigm around which to construct a truly sustainable society.

      I never assume hostility on your part when you comment or question where I’m coming from, Carol. Thanks for your comment here, more from me when I get back (grabbed my coat, and grabbed my hat; made the bus in seconds flat…) – Hkd

  3. Posted October 1, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Great reply, thanks. I’d be interested to know to what extent you see this sort of movement happening on the ground in the North American yoga community.

One Trackback

  1. By What’s New in YIOM | YIOM Site on October 3, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    […] Hari-Kirtana Yoga provides us with some thought-provoking discussion of the Bhagavad Gita. […]

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