Vedic and Upanishadic influence in the Bhagavadh Giitha

Suraj N. Kurapati

  1. Introduction
    1. Vedic Influence
      1. Upanishadic Influence
        1. Conclusion
          1. References
            1. Footnotes

              In the Bhagavadh Giitha1, Krishna draws upon and transforms the central tenets of Vedic and Upanishadic philosophy while defining his own [1]. In particular, he skillfully transforms the concepts of Aathman2, Brahman, Samsaara, Kharma, Dharma, and Moksha into two primary forms of discipline: Yoga and Bhakthi.


              Yoga, defined as an act or state of morality and contemplation [1], is the primary vehicle which delivers one from chaos, ignorance, and the cycle of rebirth into peace, wisdom, and the infinite spirit according to Krishna [2]. Bhakthi, defined as devotion [1], is the religious aspect of Krishna’s dialogue in the Bhagavadh Giitha through which one becomes detached from desires, delusions, emotion, and acts of consciousness through thinking, praying, and meditating on the Gods [1, 2]. Yoga and Bhakthi should not be thought of as being two disjoint, unrelated concepts, for as Krishna explains [2, p. 67]:

              The self tranquil, his fear dispelled,
              firm in his vow of celibacy, his mind restrained,
              let him sit with discipline,
              his thought fixed upon me, intent on me.

              Here, the first three lines refer to Yoga while the last line refers to Bhakthi. One can see that Yoga is essential to performing Bhakthi optimally, and performance of Bhakthi enhances one’s Yoga because one’s mind is indifferent to environmental and personal influences when all of one’s thoughts are fixed away, upon something. Thus, in the subsequent discussion, one should keep in mind that whenever Yoga is detailed, Bhakthi is also detailed implicitly; and vice versa.

              Vedic Influence

              The Vedic concepts of Samsaara, Kharma, and Dharma are well supported in the Bhagavadh Giitha with numerous examples of social and personal responsibilities. For example, when Arjuna—dejected by the sight of his kinsmen ready to battle against him [2, p. 27–29]—is unwilling to fight, he says [2, p. 29]:

              The sins of men who violate
              the family create disorder in society
              that undermines the constant laws
              of caste and family duty.

              Here we see clearly the influence of Vedic Kharma in the phrase “the constant laws of caste and family duty,” because Vedic Kharma was used to support the caste system of the four Varnas [1]. Influence of Vedic Samsaara is also present with this quotation’s reference to bringing disorder as a sin, because it was believed in Vedic culture that without performance of Vedic fire sacrifices, the world would go into chaos and calamity [1]—an undesirable event in Vedic philosophy [1]. Finally, Vedic Dharma is present as Krishna encourages Arjuna to selflessly perform and fulfill his duties as a warrior because such is a warrior’s Dharma [2, p. 36]:

              nothing is better for a warrior
              than a battle of sacred duty.

              In fact, Arjuna’s reluctance to perform his warrior’s Dharma is the very problem the Bhagavadh Giitha strives to resolve.

              Upanishadic Influence

              The Upanishadic concepts of Aathman, Brahman, and Moksha are well supported through the treatment of numerous philosophical questions, concepts, and abstract thought in the Bhagavadh Giitha, primarily because the Upanishads themselves dealt with such abstract, philosophical concepts [1, 4, 3].

              Aathman, or the inner self, is described by Krishna when he philosophically encourages Arjuna to follow his warrior’s Dharma by explaining that the Aathman cannot be killed [2, p. 34]:

              Arjuna, when a man knows the self
              to be indestructible, enduring, unborn,
              unchanging, how does he kill
              or cause anyone to kill?

              In this manner, Krishna motivates the practice of Dharma and Yoga because the self has nothing to lose, so to speak. That is, even if one dies while practicing one’s Dharma and Yoga, one’s self persists nevertheless [2, p. 71]:

              Fallen in discipline, he reaches
              worlds made by his virtue, wherein he dwells
              for endless years, until he is reborn
              in a house of upright and noble men.

              Brahman, or the infinite spirit, is thoroughly discussed in the eighteenth teaching of the Bhagavadh Giitha. Here, Krishna hints about the Upanishadic origin of Brahman when he describes it as “the state ascetics enter, freed from passion,” [2, p. 81]—the Upanishads were developed by ascetics [1]—and states that one can invoke it via the “eternal syllable OM” [2, p. 81]—the Vedic eternal syllable consisted only of the letter O until the Upanishads appended the letter M onto it [1]. In addition, Krishna frequently connects Brahman to Yoga for he states that one requires discipline to reach Brahman [2, p. 80]:

              Disciplined through practice,
              his reason never straying,
              meditating, one reaches
              the supreme divine spirit of man.

              Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth [1], is described by Krishna when he says [2, p. 80]:

              with the mind immovable,
              armed with devotion
              one attains the supreme
              divine spirit of man.

              Here, Krishna relates Moksha to Yoga in the first line by requiring that only those who possess complete mental resolve through Yoga can achieve Moksha. Similarly, he relates Moksha to Bhakthi in the second line by requiring that only those with complete devotion can achieve Moksha.


              As we have seen through various examples, the central tenets of Vedic and Upanishadic philosophy are borrowed from heavily and incorporated in the Bhagavadh Giitha; particularly in describing Bhakthi and Yoga, the two primary forms of discipline.


              1. D. Basu, “History 29: Traditional Histories of India,” presented at University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, March–June 2005.

              2. B. S. Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 2004.

              3. C. Dimmit and J.A.B. van Buitenen, Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1978.

              4. R. Thapar, A History of India, vol. 1, Chippenham, Wiltshire, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1966.


              1. “ii” in Giitha, as “ee” in free

              2. “aa” in Aathman, as “a” in far.