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.
Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .
What are the important learnings from The Bhagavad Gita? What lessons does Arjuna learn?
Throughout the book, Arjuna learns many important lessons from Krishna about connecting with God. These learnings from The Bhagavad Gita revolve around dharma, yoga, and finding your path to god.
Read more about the learnings from The Bhagavad Gita.
Learnings From The Bhagavad Gita
The final two chapters of the Gita are devoted to answering Arjuna’s remaining questions and wrapping up the conversation. In Chapter 17, Arjuna asks for more details about scriptures. Specifically, he wants to know what happens to people who worship faithfully, but not in the ways that are prescribed in the scriptures.
Chapter 18 reiterates that the way to find everlasting peace is by maintaining faith in Vishnu, devoting your life and all of your actions to him, and detaching from your ego. This is, as Krishna has said many times throughout the Gita, the ultimate goal of life. Here are some of the learnings from The Bhagavad Gita.
Worship Influenced by the Gunas
Following up on Krishna’s last lesson, Arjuna asks about people who worship faithfully but don’t follow the rituals prescribed by scripture. He wonders which guna they’re acting from by doing so.
Krishna answers that every living creature has some kind of faith, which could come from any of the three gunas. What kind of faith someone has depends on which guna he or she is ruled by, which also impacts every aspect of that person’s life. Krishna specifically discusses what each type of worship focuses on, and what each type of person likes to eat, which taken together give insights into the kinds of people that they are.
Sattvic worship focuses on God, in all of the many forms he takes. People ruled by sattva like to eat mild, healthy food that fuels them without causing damage to the body. Like their food, their worship is also straightforward and designed to promote good health. They make offerings with their minds focused on the ultimate purpose: worshipping God. They don’t think about rewards or social standing, they simply perform their spiritual duties.
Rajasic worship focuses on wealth and power. People ruled by rajas like food with strong flavors—spicy, salty, bitter, or sour. However, such food ends up causing them pain, and even sickness. Just like they eat with the intention of indulging themselves, they worship for selfish reasons as well—to make a show of it, or because they hope to be rewarded for their faith.
Tamasic worship focuses on ghosts and spirits, rather than any form of God. They worship without any true faith, and don’t even follow the proper rituals. Tamasic worship may be practiced in order to gain power over one’s followers, or in the misguided belief that torturing one’s body is spiritual. Like their worship, their food has no purpose nor value—people ruled by tamas like food that has been overcooked, or that has gone stale; food that’s lost its flavor and nutrition.
Finally, Krishna says that there are three different types of self-discipline, each of which can be practiced according to any of the three gunas as previously described—but should be practiced according to sattva. The physical disciplines are service, worship, self-control, and peace. The disciplines of speech are honesty and kindness, and studying the scriptures. The mental disciplines are gentleness, calmness, and restraint.
The Name of Brahman
Krishna ends this lesson by reciting the sacred name Om Tat Sat. While the three words together represent Brahman, each has its own powerful and important meaning. This is another one of the important learnings from The Bhagavad Gita.
Om is the oldest Hindu mantram—a short phrase that is repeated many times over to focus the mind and spirit. It’s a holy syllable that represents Brahman and is meant to be the sacred sound that one can hear while deep in meditation. Those who follow scripture always use this mantra while making offerings, giving gifts, and performing other spiritual duties.
Tat simply means “that,” but represents the ultimate reality: the truth of God and the universe that no one can possibly imagine or describe. Worshippers will add the word Tat to indicate that they’re performing these actions to free themselves from karma, rather than for any immediate personal benefit.
Sat means, simultaneously, “what is” and “what is good.” It describes an admirable or honest deed. On the other hand, engaging in spiritual practices in bad faith would be asat, without goodness. Worshipping for selfish reasons has no value, in this life or any life to come.
Taken together, the phrase Om Tat Sat means that only good is real. Evil, like sense-objects, is temporary and false.
The Kinds of Renunciation
Finally, Krishna talks about renunciation as a part of the learnings from The Bhagavad Gita. Now starting to wrap up his lesson, Krishna returns to one of the Gita’s earliest topics: renunciation of actions, called sannyasa, and renunciation of the results of those actions, called tyaga. Krishna reiterates that sannyasa, completely giving up on taking any actions at all, isn’t a proper spiritual path, and it’s impossible besides; as long as you have a body, you’ll have physical needs that you must see to.
He’s more interested in tyaga and goes into detail about three ways to practice it according to the three gunas. Simply renouncing all of your duties and responsibilities is tamasic tyaga, which will only degrade your spiritual health. Renouncing only those actions that you think will be difficult or unpleasant is rajasic tyaga, driven by selfishness and lacking in any spiritual value.
However, fulfilling your obligations without any thought of selfish rewards—doing your duty simply because it is your duty—is sattvic, and this is the best form of tyaga. Sattvic tyaga will bring you closer to God.
What’s Needed for Action
Since actions must be performed, Krishna now explains the five things that are needed for every act that anyone performs, whether good or bad:
- The physical body
- The means to perform the act
- The sense of self
- The actual performance of the action
- The divine will that drives it
People who don’t fully understand these five elements think that they are the ones performing actions, but those with spiritual wisdom understand that they are only vessels through which the divine will acts. While awareness of oneself is needed to take any action, that action should not be taken for oneself. Everything should be done in service to God.
In addition to the five elements that are needed to perform an action, three things determine when and how people take action: the concept of knowledge, the things that are known, and the one who knows them. Without these things, people wouldn’t know when it was appropriate to take action, or what actions to take.
The action itself can also be broken down into three aspects: the means to perform the act (which is both part of the action and part of what’s needed to do the action), the action itself, and the one doing the action.
Action Driven by Gunas
The gunas are an importnat part of the learnings from The Bhagavad Gita. These deconstructions are important because the knowledge to perform the action, the action, and the one doing the action can all be affected by, and described in terms of, the three gunas.
Sattvic knowledge is what Krishna has been explaining throughout the Gita—that there is a single, divine entity living in all things, and therefore all things are connected and unified. Sattvic understanding knows right from wrong, what will bring security and peace, and what will ultimately lead to freedom and union with God.
As Krishna has said before, acting selflessly to fulfill one’s obligations—one’s dharma—is the proper way to take action. This is sattvic action. Sattvic actors are selfless, unconcerned with payment or reward, and equally happy in good times and hard times.
Rajasic knowledge is selfish; it doesn’t see the unity in everything but considers different things and creatures as separate entities. Because it lacks this crucial understanding, rajasic intellect can’t tell right from wrong. It pursues wealth, pleasure, and good reputation, often at the expense of others.
Rajasic action is also selfish, done in the hopes of personal gain, and often causes undue stress on the actor. Rajasic actors are greedy and destructive, and they’re obsessed with their ever-shifting fortunes.
Tamasic knowledge is deluded—like a child, it sees one small part of the world and thinks that’s all there is, with no concept that there could be something beyond its own experiences. It’s even more confused than rajasic knowledge and mixes up right and wrong at every turn. It leads to fear, grief, sadness, and a refusal to learn from mistakes.
Tamasic action is ignorant and thoughtless, done without any consideration of dharma, the impact it will have on others, or even one’s own ability to do it. Tamasic actors are lazy, undisciplined, and dishonest. They often procrastinate on their work or shirk it entirely.
The Three Kinds of Happiness
Like everything else, you can even describe happiness in terms of the gunas. Happiness that comes from sattvic knowledge and action is hard to find at first. Working without any thought or hope of personal reward will seem bitter and pointless until you come to fully understand how you’re fulfilling dharma and helping the world through your actions. However, sattvic happiness is the only type of happiness that brings lasting joy and peace.
Happiness that comes from the guna of rajas is immediate and pleasurable, but temporary. It’s the joy of getting something you’ve always wanted, or the thrill of eating a piece of spicy food. It fades quickly and reveals itself to be an illusion—remember, only that which is permanent and unchanging is real.
Tamasic happiness is a lie from beginning to end. It comes from idleness, sleep, and intoxication. This kind of false happiness should be avoided at all costs.
———End of Preview———
Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Eknath Easwaran's "The Bhagavad Gita" at Shortform .
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