The Bhagavad Gîtâ (Song of the Lord) is one of the most loved scriptures of India. It is pan-Indian, even though its central character, Arjuna, discovered that the driver of his war chariot, Krishna, was the supreme lord of the universe, Lord Vishnu. If this claim were taken literally and exclusively, the Bhagavad Gîtâ would be limited to devotees of Vishnu (Vaishnavites, or Vaishnavas).
But many interpreted Krishna’s revelation of the Godhead metaphysically: he was, according to them, speaking of the vastness of the divine and Vishnu as only one of its manifestations. Because of the sheer beauty of this poem the Bhagavad Gîtâ has become the song (the Gîtâ) of all songs. The Gîtâ was been added as an appendix to the great epic, the Mahâbhârata.
The presence of the Gîtâ in the epic meant that the myth cycles of both Krishna and Vishnu included a recognition that Krishna was a full incarnation of Vishnu. The story of the Gîtâ occupied but a moment in the great Kurukshetra battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, nested within both the larger story of the battle and a story about a sage telepathically seeing and hearing what was happening many miles away and telling it to the blind king.
Krishna was attempting to convince Arjuna to continue fighting as a warrior in order to uphold dharma, the sacred order of life. Arjuna could only see the sin of killing his kinsmen in a war that seemed selfish and cruel. He even questioned the activity of war itself. Except for the revelation of his true nature as Vishnu, Krishna’s story was that of a charioteer in the Mahâbhârata.
But the Gîtâ provided support for the central claim of the Krishna cult—that Krishna was the Supreme. Krishna’s divine birth and childhood are not found in the Gîtâ but in the Purânas, especially the Bhâgavata Purâna. Krishna’s myth cycle was nested within Vishnu’s, since he was the eighth avatâra (incarnation) of Vishnu.
The Bhagavad Gîtâ received so much praise from around the world after its early-eighteenth-century translations into English and German that Indians discovered its pan-Indian character. Svâmî Vivekânanda’s (1863–1902) praise of the Gîtâ as the “gospel of Hinduism” raised it to a rank almost equal to the Vedas in holiness and example.