Sankara’s Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
Except where otherwise stated, the reference to a Gītā verse is in fact to Śaṅkara’s commentary on that verse.
There are many cases where Śaṅkara comments on a verse from a distance; in other words, in his commentary to another verse, not necessarily nearby, or previous. For instance, an important anticipatory comment to VII.16–18 appears already under IV.11.
Translation of Śaṅkara’s Introduction to the Gītā
Nārāyaṇa is beyond the Unmanifest;
From the Unmanifest the cosmic Egg comes to be.
And within the Egg are the cosmic regions,
And the earth of seven continents.
Having thus projected the world (jagat), to stabilize it the Lord first projected Marīci and others as lords of creation, and directed them to what the Veda calls the Right Course (dharma) of Engagement-in-action.
Then he brought forth others like Sanaka and Sanandana, and directed them to the Right Course of Cessation-from-action, consisting of Knowledge (jñāna) and Detachment (vairāgya).
Thus the Vedic Course is two-fold: Engagement-in-action, and Cessation-from-action.
The stability of the world is based on this two-fold Course, which directly produces for its beings relative prosperity and Absolute Good respectively. It is practised by those of the Brahmin and other classes, in their various stages of life, who seek their good.
But over a long time, with the rise of desire in the practisers, the Right Course became overcome by the Wrong Course which flourished by reducing their discrimination and knowledge. Then to restore the world order, the First Creator Viṣṇu, here called Nārāyaṇa, to preserve the immanence of Brahman-on-earth, cast a ray of himself through Vasudeva into Devakī, and came to be the child Kṛṣṇa.
For by preservation of the Brahmin spirit of truth, the whole divine Course would be preserved, from which the classes and stages of life are derived.
So the Lord, of eternal omniscience, supremacy, potentiality (śakti), power, energy, and glory directed his own divine (vaiṣṇava) trick-of-illusion (māyā), of three guṇa-elements, which is called root-Nature (mūla-prakṛti). And though himself unborn, unchanging, and ever pure, aware, and free, by his own māyā-illusion He is taken to be a body-wearer as it were, born as it were, giving to the world his grace as it were.
With no purpose of his own to serve but solely for the sake of living beings, he taught the holy two-fold Course to Arjuna, then sunk in a sea of grief and delusion. For a Course will spread when accepted and practised by those of outstanding character.
The Course thus taught by the Lord was set out by the omniscient sage Vyāsa, compiler of the Veda-s, in seven hundred verses, famous as the Gītā. It is however difficult to realize how this Gītā scripture is the whole essence of the Veda teaching.
Though there have been some who have tried to make it clear by analysing the make-up and sense of the individual words and sentences, I have found that it has been taken in absolutely opposite ways by people at large. So I propose to make a brief commentary (vivaraṇa) to determine the meaning accurately.
Briefly, the purport of this Gītā scripture is, the Supreme Good (niḥśreyasa), and the means to it – namely absolute cessation of the world-flow (saṃsāra) and its cause. This comes about through following the Course of Establishment-in-Knowledge (jñāna-niṣṭhā) as following on the casting off (saṃnyāsa) of all action (karma).
This very Course, the purport of the Gītā, has been taught by the Lord in the words of the Anu-Gītā verses:
This Course (dharma) easily suffices for realization of Brahman’ (Mahābh.Aśva.16.12)
neither righteous nor sinful, neither good nor bad’ (ibid. 19.7)
‘who sits alone and silent, in one posture, thinking nothing’ (ibid. 19.1)
‘knowledge with saṃnyāsa’ (ibid. 4.3.25).
In the present Gītā too Arjuna is told:
‘Having given up all action, resort to Me alone’ (XVIII.66).
Though the Course which looks for relative good, namely Engage-ment-in-Action with its classes and stages of life, has also been taught as a means to attain such things as heavenly realms, still when performed as an offering to the Lord, it comes to be for purification-of-essence (sattva-śuddhi), no longer bound to results. A pure essence also acts as a means to the Highest Good by way of attaining the capacity for Establishment-in-Knowledge (jñāna-niṣṭhā), and by causing the first rise of that Knowledge. And so it will be said: ‘Consigning all actions to Brahman’ (V.10) and ‘The yogins do actions without attachment to purify themselves’ (V.11).
The Gītā scripture has for its subject: the two-fold Course with the Highest Good (niḥśreyasa) as its purpose, and the transcendental truth known as Vāsudeva. It explains them in detail in terms of definite subject-matter, a purpose, and the connection between them. To realize it is to fulfil the whole purpose of man, and this is why I now undertake the task of composing a commentary (vivaraṇa) on it.