The Gita's Terms Explained
There are certain words in the teachings of Krishna that simply cannot be translated into any equivalent English forms, or if they were translated, the translation would leave much to be desired. It is difficult enough to try to express the inexpressible language of the Mystery in words. But it is harder still to take these words and transfer them easily from one tongue to the next.
Even the particulars of the English language make this task more daunting. Sanskrit is a holy language, with what seems like an intentional design, made to facilitate the transmission of spiritual concepts as much as possible. Not so English. Our language is filled with words that have multiple connotations, like 'love' and 'truth'. These words can mean more than one thing, or sometimes will mean something different to virtually everyone. In addition, our culture's lack of a rich mystical influence means that there are certain mystical concepts that English simply does not have a word for.
Due to this, I have been forced in certain cases to retain the original Sanskrit words and introduce them to the reader. I hope most of these words will be explanatory in the Gita itself, but I will also endeavour to explain them here.
First off, there are obviously the place and proper names. These are all being kept as they are. The battle where the Gita is being recited is called the battle of Kuruksetra. Krishna and Arjuna are hopefully self-explanatory. Sanjaya and King Dhirtarashtra are the two characters recounting this conversation. Technically it is thus Sanjaya who is 'telling the story' of the Gita. It is the King's sons, Arjuna's enemies the Kurus, who Arjuna must kill. There are many other characters named in the first chapter, including Bhisma, Drona, Bhima and others. These are all legendary figures who fought in the Mahabharata.
The more significant Sanskrit terms represent spiritual or philosophical ideas. One of these terms is the word 'Karma', which is a familiar word to many today but the meaning of which is often still unclear. Karma does not refer to some kind of divine punishment or reward system. Many people think that Karma means in essence that if you do something 'good' you will be rewarded by the divine, and if you do something 'evil' you would be punished. In reality, Karma has nothing to do with this. Karma is the consequences of unconsciousness. When you are attached to certain results, you will commit actions that are unconscious of what is truly real in the present. These actions will have consequences, sometimes pleasant and sometimes not. But ultimately, all unconscious or attached behaviour will lead to suffering because inevitably you find that you will either fail in your ambitions, or you will be unable to hold on to what you have, or you will be unsatisfied with what you desired. All things change, and when you are acting out of a resistance to change or the idea that you can control change, a desire for things to be a certain way or become a certain way, you will end up suffering. This is Karma.
Another important set of Sanskrit terms is the 'gunas'. The gunas are best translated as 'three elements of material being'. In Vedic teachings there are three basic states which, in combination, can describe any aspect of human condition. The first is Tamas, heaviness. It is the state of deep ignorance or animal like behaviour. It is the condition of caring only for survival, the baser instincts.
The second is Rajas, the fiery state. It is passion, being energetic and active. It is lust, being consumed with wants and obsessed with the senses. It is the state of intellectual desires.
The third is Sattvas. It is lightness, or the state of truth. It is peacefulness, relaxation, higher aspirations, compassion and higher thinking.
All people, and things, have a combination of these three elements with them. In people, it could be said that most will have one element more in prominence than others. Attilla the Hun may have had more of Tamas, Vincent Van Gogh of Rajas, and Albert Einstein of Sattvas. But they all have a little of each, and you may see that you have days when you act more like Albert Einstein, and other days when you act more like Attilla the Hun.
The old Vedic religious systems taught that you should try to achieve the state of Sattvas; but Krishna teaches that all three of these states are different kinds of attachments. One is attachment to gross needs (mostly of the body), another is attachment to lusts of the emotions, and the third to more complex concepts of the mind and heart. It is Krishna's teaching that you should transcend all attachments.
'Yoga' is another term from the Gita. This word is meant to describe techniques and practices, methods to be used to attain awareness. The type of Yogas that Krishna describes are what are known as Dhyana Yoga, the yoga of awareness, and Karma or Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotional acts.
The literal meaning of Yoga is also very important. Yoga means 'union'. To achieve the state of Yoga is to achieve a united inner self, and to be united with the existence that is all around you. This force of existence is the 'Brahman', the divine consciousness, the soul of all life. Likewise, 'Nirvana' is a term describing this state of unitedness. It is when you have become awake to your connection to the supreme soul, the Brahman.
The last two terms which should be explained here are 'sannyasin' and 'guru'. The term 'sannyasin' means 'one who renounces', and it refers to an initiate or practitioner of Krishna's Mystery School. A sannyasin renounces his attachments, and is dedicated to awareness and devotion. Typically, a sannyasin will be an initiate of a 'guru', a spiritual Master. This is someone who has obtained this condition of awareness, of Nirvana, and who is now in a condition to assist others in their efforts to reach the same in themselves.