What's our ultimate purpose in life? Many yogic texts promote renunciation, but the Bhagavad Gītā has other priorities. It makes yoga compatible with daily activities, and it describes how to find peace of mind by serving others.
Join Daniel Simpson for a comprehensive guide to the Gītā's teachings. What does it mean when it redefines yoga as "skill in action"? How do we know what's the right thing to do? Can we open our hearts to embrace the whole world?
The Gītā takes the form of a dialogue, and the audience is included. Anyone who studies it can reach liberation, it explains. Although it teaches a variety of methods, devotion is emphasised. What form might this take, and how does it relate to other approaches?
If you're curious about the connections between spiritual insight and ethical conduct, the Gītā offers timeless advice on resisting injustice. We'll also consider the historical context in which it arose, and why some of its ideas might sound challenging today.
The aim of the course is to explore what it says in accessible ways. The format is clear and engaging, combining scholarly and practical knowledge. By the end, you'll have a deeper understanding of the Gītā's yogas, as well as which path might be your calling.
1 – ACTING WISELY
1.1 – Do the right thing!
The Bhagavad Gītā is all about dharma – a combination of virtue and duty. It's also part of a much longer story, the Mahābhārata, and ethical conduct is one of its pathways to spiritual freedom.
1.2 – Renouncing renouncing
Most early yogis renounced worldly life to seek liberation. The Gītā rethinks their approach to the problem of karma. Detaching from outcomes instead of from action, a yogi can live in society.
1.3 – Social engagement
Since yoga is compatible with action, its goals become worldlier – the key is detachment from personal gain. One serves the common good by performing one's role without expectations.
2 – YOGIC KNOWLEDGE
2.1 – Purifying discipline
The ability to act with detachment depends on developing intuitive wisdom. This is likened to a sacrificial process of burning illusions. One way to embody it is by practising breath-control.
2.2 – Awakened awareness
Understanding the difference between the true self, the mind and the body, a yogi sees clearly. This removes the confusion that causes suffering and gets in the way of enlightened action.
2.3 – Meditative practice
Despite its critiques of inactive ascetics, the Gītā devotes a whole chapter to sitting in silence. It covers similar ground to the Yoga Sūtra, combining practical tips with philosophical teachings.
3 – DEVOTIONAL INSIGHT
3.1 – Immersed in divinity
The Gītā's main message is bhakti, transforming self-knowledge into oneness with God. And since Krishna – a personal deity – exists in all things, his nature is like the philosophy of early Upaniṣads.
3.2 – Above and beyond
At other times, Krishna defines himself as separate. Although he permeates the world and sustains it, he can only be accessed by worship – yet everyday life can be lived as an offering.
3.3 – The power of love
Although other methods work, Krishna favours devotion, granting liberation as an act of grace. However one interprets his role, seeing divinity everywhere helps to develop loving kindness.
4 – SELFLESS SERVICE
4.1 – Finding our way
The Gītā's yogas have one thing in common – transcending a self-centred worldview. Self-inquiry is therefore essential. Individual tendencies shape how we act, as well as how we let go.
4.2 – Fate and free will
Much of what happens in life is beyond our control, yet we still have some agency. The Gītā teaches ways to refine this, harnessing our tendencies so we act in accordance with dharma.
4.3 – Political dimensions
The Gītā has an activist message, but it raises some challenging questions about inequality. What justifies violence and who does it benefit? How do we interpret this as modern practitioners?
Daniel Simpson is the author of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices, which was published in 2021 by North Point Press (an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
He teaches courses on yoga history and philosophy at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He also contributes to teacher trainings at Triyoga in London, and offers online talks and international workshops.
Daniel is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a master's degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS University of London. In a previous career, he was a foreign correspondent, working for Reuters and the New York Times.
How does the course work?
All four modules are available at once, so you can study the materials at your own pace. Each module has three videos, a recorded discussion with Q&A, and suggested reading.
Is it still possible to ask questions?
Absolutely! The course site has online forums for questions and comments, where you can share ideas and links – or request more information on any topic.
How long will I have access to materials?
For three months. This provides an incentive to get to the end. You can also download audio recordings of all sessions, or upgrade to unlimited access at the checkout.
Do I need to read the Gītā in advance?
Not necessarily. It's fine to read along as you go, using any edition. The course mainly quotes two translations – one by Winthrop Sargeant and the other by Nick Sutton.
What level of knowledge is required?
The course is designed for yoga practitioners. It's accessible to anyone, while providing insightful details that will interest those who are already familiar with the text.
Does the course include assignments?
Each module has an optional quiz to test your understanding. No one sees your results.
Do yoga teachers get accreditation?
Everyone who finishes the course will receive a certificate for 12 hours of study. Teachers registered with Yoga Alliance can log these as continuing education with a YACEP.