Although widely published and read by itself, Bhagavad-gītā originally appears as an episode in the Mahābhārata, the epic Sanskrit history of the ancient world. The Mahābhārata tells of events leading up to the present Age of Kali. It was at the beginning of this age, some fifty centuries ago, that Lord Kṛṣṇa spoke Bhagavad-gītā to His friend and devotee Arjuna.
Their discourse—one of the greatest philosophical and religious dialogues known to man—took place just before the onset of war, a great fratricidal conflict between the hundred sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and on the opposing side their cousins the Pāṇḍavas, or sons of Pāṇḍu.
Dhṛtarāṣtra and Pāṇḍu were brothers born in the Kuru dynasty, descending from King Bharata, a former ruler of the earth, from whom the name Mahābhārata derives. Because Dhṛtarāṣṭra, the elder brother, was born blind, the throne that otherwise would have been his was passed down to the younger brother, Pāṇḍu.
When Pāṇḍu died at an early age, his five children—Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva—came under the care of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who in effect became, for the time being, the king. Thus the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and those of Pāṇḍu grew up in the same royal household. Both were trained in the military arts by the expert Droṇa and counseled by the revered “grandfather” of the clan, Bhīṣma. Yet the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, especially the eldest, Duryodhana, hated and envied the Pāṇḍavas. And the blind and weak-minded Dhṛtarāṣṭra wanted his own sons, not those of Pāṇḍu, to inherit the kingdom.
Thus Duryodhana, with Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s consent, plotted to kill the young sons of Pāṇḍu, and it was only by the careful protection of their uncle Vidura and their cousin Lord Kṛṣṇa that the Pāṇḍavas escaped the many attempts against their lives.
Now, Lord Kṛṣṇa was not an ordinary man but the Supreme Godhead Himself, who had descended to earth and was playing the role of a prince in a contemporary dynasty. In this role He was also the nephew of Pāṇḍu’s wife Kuntī, or Pṛthā, the mother of the Pāṇḍavas. So both as a relative and as the eternal upholder of religion, Kṛṣṇa favored the righteous sons of Pāṇḍu and protected them.
Ultimately, however, the clever Duryodhana challenged the Pāṇḍavas to a gambling match. In the course of that fateful tournament, Duryodhana and his brothers took possession of Draupadī, the chaste and devoted wife of the Pāṇḍavas, and insultingly tried to strip her naked before the entire assembly of princes and kings. Kṛṣṇa’s divine intervention saved her, but the gambling, which was rigged, cheated the Pāṇḍavas of their kingdom and forced them into thirteen years of exile.
Upon returning from exile, the Pāṇḍavas rightfully requested their kingdom from Duryodhana, who bluntly refused to yield it. Dutybound as princes to serve in public administration, the five Pāṇḍavas reduced their request to a mere five villages. But Duryodhana arrogantly replied that he wouldn’t spare them enough land into which to drive a pin.
Throughout all this, the Pāṇḍavas had been consistently tolerant and forbearing. But now war seemed inevitable.
Nonetheless, as the princes of the world divided, some siding with the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, others with the Pāṇḍavas, Kṛṣṇa Himself took the role of messenger for the sons of Pāṇḍu and went to the court of Dhṛtarāṣṭra to plead for peace. When His pleas were refused, war was now certain.
The Pāṇḍavas, men of the highest moral stature, recognized Kṛṣṇa to be the Supreme Personality of Godhead, whereas the impious sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra did not. Yet Kṛṣṇa offered to enter the war according to the desire of the antagonists. As God, He would not personally fight; but whoever so desired might avail himself of Kṛṣṇa’s army—and the other side could have Kṛṣṇa Himself, as an advisor and helper. Duryodhana, the political genius, snatched at Kṛṣṇa’s armed forces, while the Pāṇḍavas were equally eager to have Kṛṣṇa Himself.
In this way, Kṛṣṇa became the charioteer of Arjuna, taking it upon Himself to drive the fabled bowman’s chariot. This brings us to the point at which Bhagavad-gītā begins, with the two armies arrayed, ready for combat, and Dhṛtarāṣṭra anxiously inquiring of his secretary Sañjaya, “What did they do?”
The scene is set, with only the need for a brief note regarding this translation and commentary.
The general pattern translators have followed in rendering Bhagavad-gītā into English has been to brush aside the person Kṛṣṇa to make room for their own concepts and philosophies. The history of the Mahābhārata is taken as quaint mythology, and Kṛṣṇa becomes a poetic device for presenting the ideas of some anonymous genius, or at best He becomes a minor historical personage. But the person Kṛṣṇa is both the goal and the substance of Bhagavad-gītā, so far as the Gītā speaks of itself.
This translation, then, and the commentary that accompanies it propose to direct the reader to Kṛṣṇa rather than away from Him. The Bhagavad-gītā thus becomes wholly consistent and comprehensible. Since Kṛṣṇa is the speaker of the Gītā, and its ultimate goal as well, the Bhagavad-gītā As It Is thus presents this great scripture in its true terms.