The message of the Bhagavad Gita is considerably more complex than this. Krishna actually builds a very convincing case against the Upanishadic notion of renouncing the world to attain the highest religious goal, moksha. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must, in fact, continue to follow the path of action, to do his duty, dharma, as defined by his caste. Arjuna is a kshatriyan, and so he must fight. However, and this is one of the reasons the Bhagavad Gita became so important in Hinduism, Krishna says that Arjuna can both fulfill his duty (the point of the karma marga) and at the same time be free of karma (the point of the jnana marga). He must do his duty but renounce the fruits–the karmic effects–of his actions. How can he do this? By devoting all of his attention, all of his thoughts, on Krishna (and this is the bhakti marga).

Ashrama (station in life)Duties
StudentLearn duties of his caste
HouseholderRaise a family
Forest dwellerStudy sacred texts

An important part of Krishna's message to Arjuna is the concept of Ashrama (or Ashram). Krishna tells Arjuna that he must act according to his caste (varna) and his particular station in life (ashrama); this is related to the concept of varna-ashrama-dharma. One is born into a particular caste as a result of past karma, and one's caste determines what sort of life one will live, what sort of work one will do. As one progresses through life, one is also governed by the concept of ashrama. There are four ashramas: student, householder, forest dweller, and renouncer. At each stage, there are certain duties that one must attend to, certain obligations: a student should focus on learning the appropriate duties of his caste; a householder should raise a family; a forest dweller should focus on study of the sacred texts; and a renouncer should leave the trappings of the world behind to meditate.

What this system does is put everything in its proper place. It is a model of the overarching Hindu concept of dharma, of order. It provides a structure so that at each stage of one's life, one has certain duties and obligations, defined by that stage and one's caste. The Bhagavad Gita adds the concept of bhakti to this, thereby introducing the idea that no matter what one's caste is, from the highest Brahmin to the lowest Shudra, and no matter what one's age, if one performs the appropriate duties with the appropriate devotion, one is engaged in the highest religious acts.

Study Questions:
1.     How has the Hindu purpose of life changed throughout history?
2.     How do the three paths differ from one another? What are their similarities?
3.     What is bhakti, and why is it important?

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