Dharma in The Bhagavad Gita: Fulfilling Purpose

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bhagavad Gita" by Eknath Easwaran. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is dharma in The Bhagavad Gita? How does the text define dharma, and what does it mean in terms of spirituality?

Dharma in The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most important lessons. In the text, dharma is similar to destiny. Your dharma helps you fulfill your higher purpose, rather than be concerned with material things. Krishna introduces dharma to Arjuna, and they continue to refer to it throughout the book.

Read more about dharma in The Bhagavad Gita.

Reality, Illusion, and Dharma in The Bhagavad Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita is one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit story that’s one of the oldest known epics. The Gita is one of the most famous pieces of Hindu literature, and the lessons it teaches are central to that faith. As a cultural touchstone and a spiritual guide, scholars consider it one of the most important ancient texts in the world. The translation and commentary by help even those who aren’t learned in Hindu mythology to understand its teachings. 

As The Bhagavad Gita begins, two mighty armies face each other across the field of Kurukshetra, which is located to the north of modern-day Delhi. The Pandavas, led by Prince Arjuna, are about to wage war against their kin, the Kauravas, who have usurped the throne of Hastinapura. 

Arjuna is conflicted because he doesn’t want to fight against his own family. He turns to his childhood friend and charioteer Krishna, who is actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu, for advice. 

Krishna’s advice comprises the vast majority of the Gita—“Bhagavad Gita” means “song of God.” He begins by discussing dharma, what we might call destiny, and tells Arjuna that it’s his dharma to fight. Krishna then moves into discussions of the difference between reality and illusion—anything that’s of the physical, temporary world isn’t real. The only reality is divinity, which Arjuna’s weapons can’t harm, so he should have no qualms about fighting.

From there, Krishna moves into a discussion of his own nature as God; how all things came from him and he exists in everything. He discusses how the path to enlightenment involves recognizing that truth and seeing that all things are connected through God. This leads to selfless action in the literal sense—acting without thought or care for oneself, focused only on God.

The ultimate goal of these lessons is to help Arjuna break free from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. However, in the short term, they serve to soothe Arjuna’s doubts and ready him for the battle to come.

Krishna and Arjuna frequently discuss dharma in The Bhagavad Gita, and how to selflessly pursue your dharma.

Dharma in The Bhagavad Gita: Fulfilling Purpose

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Bhagavad Gita summary:

  • The key principles of the Hindu faith
  • Why all spirituality is good and there is no single path to God
  • The 3 reasons that can explain every action people take

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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