The Bhagavad Gita (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 Gita 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 Gita has become the song (the Gita) of all songs.
The Gita was been added as an appendix to the great epic, the Mahabharata. The presence of the Gita 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 Gita 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 Mahabharata. But the Gita 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 Gita but in the Puranas, especially the Bhagavata Purana. Krishna’s myth cycle was nested within Vishnu’s, since he was the eighth avatara (incarnation) of Vishnu.
The Bhagavad Gita 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. Svami Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) praise of the Gita as the “gospel of Hinduism” raised it to a rank almost equal to the Vedas in holiness and example.