The Bhagavad Gita is a part of a
larger text called the Mahabharata.
At 200,000 verses (1.8 million words), the
Mahabharata is about ten times longer than Homer’s
Illiad and Odyssey combined, and three times the
length of the Christian Bible.
Mahabharata: An epic tale of war
between the Kauravas and Pandavas, rival
factions of the royal Kuru family in India.
Date of the Mahabharata War:
Perhaps as early as the 3138 BCE; maybe as late
as the 9th century BCE.
The written text of the
Mahabharata epic originated
around the 6th century BCE.
Authorship is traditionally
given to seer Vyasa, who is
also a character in the story.
The Seer Vyasa
Date of the Mahabharata War:
Perhaps as early as the 3138 BCE; maybe as late
as the 9th century BCE.
Some western scholars
have argued that the
Gita may have been
added to the
Mahabharata at a later
date, but the text is most
likely no later than the
2nd century BCE and
grounded in an older
oral tradition.
The Seer Vyasa
The Mahabharata War
The seer Vyasa
(traditional author of the
Mahabharata) was the
father of Prince Pandu,
who became the
emperor of Hastinapur
near the end of the 4th
millennium BCE.
Pandu was appointed ruler
instead of his brother
Dhritarastra because
Dhritarastra was born blind.
However, after accidentally
killing a sage and his wife
while love making, Pandu
renounced his royal status,
handed over his kingdom to
his blind brother Dhritarastra,
and retired to the forest to live
as an ascetic with his two
wives Kunti and Madri.
Through his two wives Pandu became the father of five
sons: Nakula, Bhima, Yudhisthira, Arjuna, and Sahadeva.
After Pandu’s early death, Kunti brought the boys back to
Hastinapur where they were raised by Dhritarastra. All of
the boys were trained as warriors (ksatriya).
The Pandava boys were raised together with
Dhritarastra’s sons (the Kauravas) but their relationship
was tense and marked by increasing hostility.
Duryodhana (Dhritarastra’s ruthless son) was especially
hateful of the Pandavas and jealous of their popularity
from his youth.
Under pressure from the people, Dhritarastra appointed
Pandu’s son Yudhisthira as prince.
Filled with rage, Duryodhana began plotting the death
of the Pandavas.
After a failed attempt at burning the Pandavas alive, the
Pandavas fled to the forest and Dhritarastra crowned
his son Duryodhana as prince.
Dhritarastra eventually divided the kingdom, retaining
Hastinapur for himself and his son, and giving the
Pandavas an undeveloped part of the territory
(Khandavaprastha), which the Pandavas developed into
the great city Indraprastha (modern day Delhi).
Duryodhana was again enraged at the prospects of
sharing the kingdom with the despised Pandavas and
plotted to acquire their half of the kingdom.
With assistance from an evil
uncle (Shakuni),
Duryodhana tricked
Yudhisthira to wager the
Pandava kingdom in a
series of dice games that
Duryodhana rigged to
guarantee that Yudhisthira
would lose. Yudhisthira lost
the games and forfeited his
kingdom, wealth and his
wife (Draupadi).
The Pandavas accepted their defeat and were
sent into exile in the forest for 13 years.
According to the terms of their defeat, they
would regain their kingdom after 13 years.
However, after 13 years Duryodhana denied the
Pandavas the kingdom that was rightfully theirs.
Duryodhana: “If they want as much land as fits
under a pin, they will have to fight for it.”
The Pandava-Kaurava conflict quickly escalated
in the direction of inevitable war.
The Justification of the War
Six Specific Crimes Attributed
to the Kauravas
• Administering poison
Duryodhana attempted to kill Bhima by feeding him poisoned cake.
• Burning the homes of others
Duryodhana burned down the Pandavas’ large residence while the Pandava
family inside.
• Theft
• Illegal occupation of land belonging to others
Kauravas stole land from the Pandavas on multiple occasions.
• Kidnapping another man’s wife
Duryodhana took Yudhisthira’s wife from him after the rigged dice game.
• Attacking with deadly weapons
The Unjust Rule of the Kauravas
In addition to their criminal treatment of
the Pandavas, the Kauravas ruled their
subjects with harshness and injustice, for
example, by imposing unfair taxes to
raise money to strengthen their armies.
“Just War” according to the Vedas
• The Mahabharata depicts the Kauravas as
aggressors engaged in crimes (atatayi) that
merit capital punishment under the authority of
the Vedas.
• The Manu-Samhita 8:350-1 states that
aggressors who commit the crimes attributed
to the Kauravas must be killed to preserve the
integrity of the social order.
The Warrior Class (Ksatriyas)
• The Vedas grant ksatriyas (warriors) the right
to carry out punishment for criminal behavior.
• The ksatriya’s actions must be in accordance
with the moral and social law of the Vedas.
• The ksatriya is not a person who instigates
harm or injury but one who protects society
from harm and violence.
The Pandavas attempted peaceful
resolution and reconciliation with the
Kauravas, but the Kauravas refused and
pushed for a military confrontation.
Yudhisthira’s attempt at avoiding war is set
forth in his powerful speech in Udyogaparvan 70.55-58 of the Mahabharata.
Lord Krishna:
The Descent of God (Avatara)
Krishna, of the Vrishni
family (cousin to the
Pandavas and Kauravas) had
already established himself
as a powerful warrior and
prince in Mathura, where he
had re-established
righteousness after
destroying the evil ruler King
Kamsa and establishing a
kingdom in Dwaraka.
Krishna befriended
Arjuna in Mathura. He
had been watching the
evolving conflict between
the Pandavas and
He eventually intervenes
to arbitrate the conflict
and becomes the focal
point of the war.
Krishna is revealed to be
God manifested on earth,
delivering a message of
universal salvation.
Krishna is one of the most important and
widely worshipped deities in the Indian
religious traditions.
Although the modern worship of
Krishna has been strongly shaped by the
evolution of devotional theism from the
9th century CE onwards,
• ancient texts from Greece provide
evidence of the worship of Krishna as a
divine being in the 5th/4th century BCE.
• archeological evidence for the worship
of Krishna dates at least to the end of the
2nd century BCE.
In the fabric of contemporary Indian
devotional religion (tracing back to at
least the 9th century CE), Vaishnavas
worship Krishna as an avatar of
Vishnu, “Vishnu” (meaning “all
pervasive”), one of the names that
refers to the Supreme Being.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism (early 16th
century), along with the sampradayas
associated with Vallabha and
Nimbarka, regard Krishna as svayam
bhagavan (the original form of God)
and Vishnu is merely an expansion
from the being of Krishna.
Textual Sources on the Life of Krishna
• Bhagavada Gita (Mahabharata text,
circa 400-200 BCE)
• Srimad Bhagavatam (Purana
literature, 4th-6th century CE)
• Harivamsa (lengthy appendix to
Mahabharata, 5th century CE)
• Vishnu Purana (Purana literature, 5th
century CE)
* The dates above are assigned for the composition of
the texts. The material in the text is generally believed
to originate from a significantly earlier period.
I. Krishna’s Birth
Aware that unrighteousness had spread throughout
Bharatavarsha (India) under the influence of evil
rulers, Vishnu (the Supreme Being and source of all
universes) decided to incarnate himself on earth to
destroy evil rulers and restore righteousness on earth.
I. Krishna’s Birth
So Vishnu incarnated himself in the city of Mathura,
which was under the control of the evil ruler King
Kamsa. Vishnu decided to take human form as the
8th son of Devaki, the sister of King Kamsa.
His name was Krishna – “the all-attractive one.”
After being born in
Mathura, Krishna was
quickly taken to the
nearby pastoral town
of Vrindavana to
escape the murderous
plotting of King
Kamsa. There he was
raised by foster parents
Nanda and Yashoda.
II. Young Krishna of Vrindavan (Vraj)
The Krishna of Vrindavana is a flute playing cow herder
who attracts the men (gopas) and women (gopis) of
the pastoral town by his playful activities and beauty.
Krishna would play the flute and
dance with the multitude of gopis
along the Yamuna river. They fell
madly in love with Krishna.
As a youth in Vraj, Krishna
sometimes engaged in highjinx, for example,
stealing the clothes of the gopis
while they bathed naked.
The gopis had previously asked
the goddess Durga to have
Krishna as their husband.
Since only husbands were
permitted to view a woman
naked, Krishna’s high-jinx was
a way of his proclaiming that he
loved the gopis with conjugal
love and accepted them as his
own wives.
The gopis’ love for Krishna was so great that they cursed
brahma (the creator) for creating them with eyes that
blinked. Every time they blinked, it was a second in time
that they could not look upon the beauty of Krishna.
“Their hearts had been stolen by Govinda, so they did not return
back when husbands, fathers, brothers, and relatives tried to
prevent them. They were in a state of rapture. Some gopis, not
being able to find a way to leave, remained at home and thought
of Krishna with eyes closed, completely absorbed in
meditation.” Srimad Bhagavata, 10.29.9-10
When they were prevented from seeing Krishna because of
their household duties, Krishna said: “Love for me comes from
hearing about me, seeing me, meditating on me and reciting my
glories, not in this way, by physical proximity. Therefore, return
to your homes.” Srimad Bhagavata, 10.29.27
Among the gopis, one stood supreme, the
particular object of Krishna’s most intense
love and devotion – Radha.
Radha is depicted as the model
devotee, one whose love for
Krishna was unrivaled.
She thought of Krishna
constantly, even in her dreams.
Her love was so powerful that it
controlled and subjugated
Krishna himself. He lost
himself so completely in her
love that he even forgot that he
was God.
To signify the depth of their
union, they are often spoken of
as one God: Radha-Krishna.
As an adolescent, Krishna had
to leave Vraj for Mathura to
destroy the evil King Kamsa.
Radha and Krishna part with
deep sadness.
After Krishna’s departure from
Vraj, the gopis search for him
with intensity, inquiring of the
plants and trees if they have
seen Krishna.
Their love, like Radha’s, was
intensified through separation.
The Moods of Vrindavan Krishna
• Vrindavan Krishna cultivates diverse moods (rasa) of
closeness and intimacy through his many attractive
features and activities (rasa lilas), for example:
– Friendship: a person relates to Krishna as to a
close friend.
– Romantic Love: a person relates to Krishna as to a
• Krishna’s madhurya qualities form the basis of
such moods of intimacy. “Madhurya” means
“sweet.” Krishna’s madhurya qualities are his
human qualities that attract devotees to a close
relationship with him. These qualities are
III. Lord Krishna of
Mathura and Dwaraka
While Vraj Krishna is the
playful youth who cultivates
moods of intimacy with his
devotees, the Krishna of
Mathura and Dwaraka
cultivates the mood of awe
and reverence through the
overt display of divine
qualities (e.g., omnipotence,
Krishna’s Godhead was only implicit in Vraj. The Vraj
devotees were so attracted to Krishna’s human qualities
that they suppressed their knowledge of his Godhead.
They regarded his supernatural powers displayed in
Vraj as bestowed on him by Narayana (God Vishnu).
The Godhead of Krishna is
emphasized at
Kurukshetra and is a
central theme in the Gita
The Krishna of the Gita is
overtly God manifested
in human form on earth
to reinstate moral order
and provide spiritual
guidance to humanity.
As avatara (“the descent” of
God in human form) Krishna
manifests madhurya and
aishvarya qualities.
• Madhurya (sweetness):
human qualities that attract and
cultivate modes of intimacy
• Aishvarya (opulence): divine
qualities that instill awe and
Love of Krishna may take
various forms: love of
intimacy, love of reverence,
and love that unites both.
Krishna’s Role in the
Mahabharata War
• Krishna intervenes in the Pandava-Kaurava
• Krishna refused to fight in the war, but he
offered himself as charioteer (for one side) and
his invincible army (for the other side).
• The Kauravas chose to accept Krishna’s army.
• The Pandavas chose Krishna himself, even
though his role would be confined to guiding
the chariot of his cousin and friend Arjuna.
Beginning of Bhagavad Gita
King Dhritarashtra of the Kauravas requests
that his assistant Sanjaya give an account of
the clash between the Kauravas and Pandavas
at Kuru.
Sanjaya proceeds to
tell the story, which
focuses entirely on
a conversation
between Arjuna and
Krishna as the
forces are about to
clash on the field of
Kurukshetra (“field
of righteousness”).
Arjuna is first driven to the frontline of the
battlefield by Krishna.
The chariot halts in
the middle of the
battlefield, and
Arjuna struggles with
the moral dilemma of
having to fail in his
duty as a warrior or
kill members of his
own family.
Gripped by anxiety
and despair, Arjuna
seeks the advice of
Krishna assumes
the role of Arjuna’s
guru and speaks to
him Upanishadic
He leads Arjuna out
of his despair to a
higher state of
consciousness that
culminates in
Arjuna’s ultimate
act of surrender . . . to Krishna himself
• Bryant, Edwin (trans). Krishna: the Beautiful Legend of God, Srimad
Bhagavata Purana, Book X. Penguin Books, 2003.
• Menon, Ramesh (trans). The Mahabharata : a modern rendering. New
York: iUniverse, Inc., 2006.
• Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Krishna: The Supreme
Personality of the Godhead. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1970.
• Rosen, Steven (ed). Holy War: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita. Deepak
Heritage Books, 2002.
• Rosen, Steven. The Hidden Glory of India. Bhaktivendanta Book Trust,
• Singer, Milton (ed). Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes. University of
Chicago Press, 1966.
• Tripurari, Swami B.V.. Aesthetic Vedanta. Mandala, 1998.
• Vanamali, Devi. The Play of God: Visions of the Life of Krishna. Blue
Dove Press, 1998.