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Gītōpadēśa in Puranas Part I

Human’s search for meaning and peace is as time immemorial as time. Throughout the annals of history, one can find innumerable instances where the need to understand the significance of one’s birth and where we are headed in our spiritual journey.

Human’s search for God or meaning of life is usually triggered by a chain of events, majority of which are beyond one’s control or sometimes even comprehension. This could be as simple as stage of life also termed as midlife crisis by some or could be due to an astrological event or plain simply due to a sense of hopelessness.

When everything fails, faith in god is what keeps one going. As it is quite often quoted, men tend to fear god, but when the faith metamorphosizes from fear to love, one finds universal bliss in the company of the almighty.

All question starts with the premise of Who am I? What is my premise? What is the path I should tread towards the almighty?

Human birth is considered to be most auspicious one as it is meant to provide the gateway to Mōkṣa i.e. salvation or freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. In Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Skanda 2, 3rd chapter has a reference wherein Sage Parashara describes thus

इत स्वर्गश्च मोक्षश्च मध्यं चान्तश्ज गम्यते
न खल्वन्यत्र मर्त्यानां कर्मभूमौ विधीयते

Itaḥ svargaśca mōkṣaśca madhyaṁ cāntaśca gamyatē
na khalvan’yatra martyānāṁ karmabhūmau vidhīyatē || 2.3.5||

Meaning: For manavas, from here only, heaven (svarga), salvation (mukti), intermediate universe (antariksa loka) or nether worlds (patala) are obtained based on the fruits of their action (karma).

For manavas, Bharatha desha is karma-bhoomi, jnana-bhoomi, tapo-bhoomi, yoga-bhoomi and is considered to the fulcrum towards obtaining the aforementioned worlds based on karma.

This shloka describes the significance of a manava-janma in Bharatha desha and details the benefits of the same. Once born as a human, the life-cycle is filled with its own trials and tribulations. Man’s search for meaning or rekindling of a spiritual spark leads him on a journey to discover the meaning of life, gods, births and lays the foundation of developing Bhakti in one’s heart.

In Śrīmad Bhāgavadgīta, amongst the timeless wisdom by Sri Krishna, there is one specific sloka whose philosophical meaning is profound

आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुरात्मैव रिपुरात्मन: ||

ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ

Meaning: The soul is the best friend and worst enemy to itself.

Sri Krishna gave the most simplest, yet the most important advice to humanity. A human should persevere on the path of self-discovery and continuously feed his soul with dharmic thought processes. Else, it can easily turn into a den of vices, that leads down the never ending spiral on adharmic path.

The endeavour of a human born in this dharma bhoomi / karma bhoomi of Bharatha varsha should be to walk on the path of Dharma and attain the ultimate salvation. However, in order to walk on this path, one needs motivation or rather a reference or blue-print to follow.

The most common and divine reference is Śrīmad Bhāgavadgīta, the divine song of god gifted to human race by the omnipresent Sri Krishna in the most extraordinary of circumstances to his friend-cum-brother-in-law Arjuna.

Bhāgavadgīta is considered as a reference to pursue one’s path towards salvation through the 3 most common paths i.e. karma, jnana or bhakti. This divine composition is perhaps the most common read, often referenced and frequently quoted composition in Santana Dharma.

However, as a student trying to gauge and understand the wisdom of our ancestors, we are faced with some interesting queries: Is Bhagavad Gita, the only prophecy of worldly advice from God? Do we have other references which convey similar messages? If so, who were the narrators and what exactly did they say?

When one starts to scratch the surface puranic literature, the enormity of the knowledge and sagely wisdom starts to dawn upon them. Santana Dharma is rich with many compositions like Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharatha, 18 Maha Puranas apart from other related literature. Just trying to comprehend the expanse of this universe is humanly impossible.

One of the most widely read or referenced set of works are Puranas, with Srimad Bhagavad Maha Purana and Vishnu Purana finding a lot of appeal amongst the readers. In these 2 epics authored by Bhagwan Veda Vyasa, we have numerous anecdotes from the various avatars of Maha Vishnu.

More importantly, we can find specific instances where Bhagwan has directly or indirectly given directions or laid down a path to be followed to attain the ultimate goal of salvation of mukti.

In these series of articles, we look at some of the various instances of Gītōpadēśa i.e. a divine advice found in śrīmad bhāgavata purāṇa and viṣṇu purāṇa. The objective of this series is to highlight the timeless wisdom contained with these ancient scriptures.

Yama Geetha

Yama, the son of Surya, is the lord of death & adjudicates the karma of an atman during its stay on the earth. An atman’s life is filled with paapa and punya, which determines the next life and/or punishment thereof. With this context, one can safely assume that if there is an evaluator of dharmic quotient, who better can it be than Yama himself.

In our Puranas, there are 2 specific instances where Yama has provided a blue-print for a manava / human to follow in order to attain sadgati. This is commonly termed as Yama Geetha i.e. Geeta as spoken by Yama.

Though these slokas / advice is attributed to Yama, he is just a medium and one can easily identify the underlying blueprint of Sriman Narayana.

Yama Geetha pertains to the discussion / discourse involving Yama, the god of death and his bhattas / kainkaras . There are at least 2 instances within our Puranas where Yama Geeta is quoted.

  1. Vishnu Purana, wherein Bhishma narrates a story to Nakula about Yama Geeta
  2. Srimad Bhagavatha Maha Purana, where there is a debate between Yama Bhattas & Vishnu sevakas after Ajamila’s death leading to subsequent upadesha by Yama

These 2 instances have a lot of commonalities attached, yet have their own unique philosophical appeal and nuances. Over the next 2 articles, we will delve into these 2 instances and understand the wisdom espoused by the lord of death, Yama himself.

Vishnu Purana

In Vishnu Purana, Skanda 3, Chapter 7 describes the Yama-Geeta. This chapter opens with a dialogue between Sri Maitrerya and his Guru, Sage Parashara. In the previous chapter, the different realms i.e. 7 patala lokas, 7 dweepas, 7 lokas were described in detail.

Based on this context, Maitreya inquires with his Guru:

सर्वे चैते वशँ यान्ति यमस्य भगवन् किल

आयुषोSन्ते तथा यान्ति यातनास्तत्प्रचोदिताः || 3.7.5 ||

ಸರ್ವೇ ಚೈತೇ ವಶಂ ಯಾನ್ತಿ ಯಮಸ್ಯ ಭಗವನ್ ಕಿಲ

ಆಯುಷೋSನ್ತೇ ತಥಾ ಯಾನ್ತಿ ಯಾತನಾಸ್ತತ್ಪ್ರಚೋದಿತಾಃ || 3.7.5 ||

sarvē caitē vaśaṁ yānti yamasya bhagavan kila
āyuṣōnStē tathā yānti yātanāstatpracōditāḥ || 3.7.5 ||

Oh holy worshipped one, after finishing their lifetimes, wouldn’t these jivas be under the mercy of Yama and endure the punishments meted out to them?

He goes onto request the steps to be followed in order to escape the predicament of Yama’s punishment, specifically the Satkarma i.e. righteous actions to be followed:

सोहमिच्छामि तच्छ्रोतुँ यमस्य वशवर्त्तिनः

न भवन्ति नरा येन तत्कर्म कथयस्व मे || 3.7.7 ||

ಸೋSಹಮಿಚ್ಛಾಮಿ ತತ್ ಶ್ರೋತುಂ ಯಮಸ್ಯ ವಶವರ್ತಿನಃ

ನ ಭವನ್ತಿ ನರಾ ಯೇನ ತತ್ಕರ್ಮ ಕಥಯಸ್ಯ ಮೇ || 3.7.7 ||

sōhaSmicchāmi tat śrōtuṁ yamasya vaśavartinaḥ
na bhavanti narā yēna tatkarma kathayasya mē || 3.7.7 ||

Hence, I desire to hear/learn about the karma / anushTana to be followed so that people escape the wrath of Yama. Please take pity and explain such story to me.

It is interesting to note that Maitreya requests for a solution or rather a path to follow to escape Yama. Escaping Yama is an interesting anecdote, which needs to be considered figuratively than literally. In this scenario, it could be considered as path to salvation i.e. liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. If one is liberated, they don’t have to face Yama and hence, Maitreya could be hinting towards the same.

Sage Parashara explains that the same question was posed by Nakula to Bhishmacharya in ancient times. Hence, I will explain what Bhishma explained to Nakula.

Bhishma explains that he had a Brahmin friend (vipra) from Kalinga (modern day Orissa). His friend would tell him that he would have met a great muni who knew about the past and present and predicted some events which turned out to be true.

Intrigued by the turn of events, he poses some further questions which also turn out to be true. Hence, I asked the same question to the Brahmana also, to which the Brahmana based on the recollection of his discussions with the great Muni answered.

It should be noted that the reference to context needs to be understood to appreciate the significance of the wisdom that transcends generations.

Maitreya Parashara Nakula Bhishma Kalinga Vipra  → Muni

Many times, the context can get lost easily and hence, one needs to track the various people in the conversation & establish the overall context.

When Yama sees his sevaka holding the pasha, he says thus:

Many times, the context can get lost easily and hence, one needs to track the various people in the conversation & establish the overall context.

When Yama sees his sevaka holding the pasha, he says thus:

परिहर मधुसूदनप्रपन्नान् प्रभुरहमन्यनृणामर्वष्णवानाम्

ಪರಿಹರ ಮಧುಸೂದನಪ್ರಪನ್ನಾನ್ ಪ್ರಭುರಹಮನ್ಯನ್ರಣಾಮವೈಷ್ಣವಾನಾಮ್

parihara madhusūdanaprapannān

Oh Dasa ! Those who have surrendered to Bhagwan Madhusudhana, Sri Hari, please leave them alone. I am responsible for only those who are not Vishnu Bhaktas.

Yama goes on to explain the significance of his role and the unique qualities of Vishnu Bhakta.

अहममरवरार्चितेन धात्रा यम इति लोकहिताहिते नियुक्तः

ಅಹಮಮರವರಾರ್ಚಿತೇನ ಧಾತ್ರಾ ಯಮ ಇತಿ ಲೋಕಹಿತಾಹಿತೇ ನಿಯುಕ್ತಃ

ahamamaravarārcitēna dhātrā yama iti lōkahitāhitē niyuktaḥ

He starts with the purpose of his role created by Brahma, who appointed him to judge the hitha and ahitha of loka i.e. what is commonly termed as punya and paapa. However, it is what he says next which is the most important aspect.

हरिगुरूवशगोSस्मि न स्वतन्त्रः प्रभवति संयमने ममापि विष्णुः

ಹರಿಗುರುವಶಗೋSಸ್ಮಿ ನ ಸ್ವತಂತ್ರಃ ಪ್ರಭವತಿ ಸಂಯಮನೇ ಮಮಾಪಿ ವಿಷ್ಣುಃ

hariguruvaśagōsmi na svatantraḥ prabhavati sanyamanē mamāpi viṣṇuḥ

I am just a servant (dasa) to a guru called Sri Hari. Hence, I am not independent and Vishnu has mastery over me.

This is one of the most profound statements made by Yama, which describes the omnipresent nature of Maha Vishnu. Further he goes on to explain the glories of Maha Vishnu & the unique characteristics of his Bhaktas, commonly referred to as Yama Geetha.

The following philosophy could be considered as a blueprint to lead a simple, dharmic life and progress on the path towards Bhakti and ultimately, Mukti. These timeless nuggets of gold are as relevant in the modern day Kali Yuga as it was, when described eons ago.

The simplicity and practicality of the advice makes it applicable commonly across the board without any special consideration or qualifications. It also interesting to note that some of these advice has been time and again reiterated by multiple literary giants in the form of shatakas by Kavi Someshwara or kaGGas by DVG in Kannada.


At the outset, Yama describes the life cycle of creation of Devatas, Humans, Animals wherein all of them unify into the all-pervading Bhagwan using Gold, Wind as metaphors.

Yama describes that those who worship Sri Hari are freed from their paapa & hence, directs his sevaka to let Vishnu Bhaktas who radiate like Agni fed with Ghee in a Yajna.

Now, the Yama-Bhatta (sevaka) is confused and says, Oh Swamin, how do I identify the Bhaktas of Sri Hari? Please explain to me.

The response to this query is the main Yama Geeta which explains the qualities and characteristics of Sri Hari Bhakta.

Yama Geeta

1. One who observes his varna dharma dutifully, one who handles both friends and foes equally, one who doesn’t snatch other’s properties with force, one who doesn’t harm others, such a noble soul is Vishnu Bhakta

Interestingly, the aspect of treating friends and foes on equal plane is the step to equanimity or tranquility. Connoisseurs of classical poetry can identify the similarity of the same theme in the immortal poem, IF by Rudyard Kipling.

2. One who is not tainted by the forces of Kali Yuga and meditates on Vishnu / Sri Janardhana, consider such a soul as Vishnu Bhakta

This underlines the most commonly held philosophical attribute of Kali Yuga i.e. Bhakti is the road to salvation in this age.

3. One who finds gold abandoned in a remote place & equates that to dust, who harbors innate devotion to Bhagwan, consider him a Vishnu Bhakta

It is a common knowledge that one shouldn’t claim what is rightfully not theirs. However, we can also extrapolate the effects of Karma, described in detail in Srimad Bhagavad Gita, wherein any misadventures would have far-reaching consequences for which we ourselves are responsible.

4. One who is pure hearted, doesn’t harbor jealousy, one who is equanimous, treads the path of righteousness, one who is a friend to all animals, one speaks pleasantly, free of arrogance & illusion, in such a person’s heart, Vasudeva will reside eternally

5. One who practices yama, niyama etc yogic practices & cleanses oneself of all paapa, one who remembers Achyutha in his heart everyday & is free from arrogance & jealousy, Oh Bhatta, stay away from those pure souls

6. The one who doesn’t have a beginning or end, one who doesn’t change, one who holds Sword, Mace & Conch, that Sri Hari, when he resides in any heart, such a person can’t commit paapa. Like how a bright Sun dispels darkness, Sri Hari will cleanse such a person of his paapa

7. One who considers this Universe including thyself to be part of Vaasudeva, who worships the omnipresence of the Bhagwan & worships him in his heart, stay away from such Bhaktas

8. One who addresses Bhagwan as “Hey Kamalaksha, Vaasudeva, Vishnoo, BhooDhara, Achyutha, ShankaPaane, ChakraPaane, please give me shelter”, stay far from such noble souls

9. One in whose heart Vaasudeva resides, neither you nor I can face him face-to-face. Our strength and valor are destroyed by the radiance of Chakra. Such noble souls are destined for Vaikunta & other such divine lokas

Thus far we observed the qualities of sajjanna – Noble people. Yama goes on to describe the qualities of people in whose heart, Sriman Narayana will never reside. The next of attributes form the list that one should consciously avoid and be wary of the same.

1. One who snatches others’ wealth, who hurts/kills other creatures, who speaks lies or harsh words, such a person is of corrupt mentality. In such a person, Paramatma doesn’t dwell

2. One who feels jealous of others’ wealth, who reprimands noble people, who doesn’t perform Yajna (sacrifice), though endowed doesn’t help other noble people, in such a person’s heart, Janardhana will never reside

3. One who exhibits extremely pathetic attitude towards close friends, relatives, wife, children, parents & siblings & harbors an unquenchable thirst for wealth/money only, consider such a person as NOT a Vishnu Bhakta

4. One with bad intellect, who treads the wrong path, who keeps company of wretched souls, who commits at least one mistake (paapa) every day, such an animal in human form can’t be the devotee of Vaasudeva

Saying thus, Bhishma describes to Nakula that in this ocean of life, there is no other guardian other than Maha Vishnu. One who meditates on Sriman Narayana always, such a person will not be impacted by Yama Bhatta or their dandas / pashas, Yama or Yama Loka.

On closer scrutiny, one can’t help to miss the underlying common theme about arishadvargas i.e. 6 vices which a human has to transcend or master over, in order to achieve on the path of Dharma.

In the words of the famous 12th century kannada poet, Kavi Someshwara,

अरिषड्वर्गंगळं गेल्वोडे तेर बल्लर्पोणेयप्पुदै

हर हरा श्रि चेन्न सोमेश्वरा

ಅರಿಷಡ್ವರ್ಗಂಗಳಂ ಗೆಲ್ವೋಡೇ ತೆರ ಬಲ್ಲರ್ಪೋಣೆಯಪ್ಪುದೈ

ಹರ ಹರಾ ಶ್ರೀ ಚೆನ್ನ ಸೋಮೆಶ್ವರಾ

ariṣaḍvargaṅgaḷaṁ gelvōḍē tera ballarpōṇeyappudai
hara harā śrī cenna sōmeśvarā

One who can master the arishadvargaas, are the enemies who need to be won over, to tread on the path of becoming a yogi.

If what Yama says is practical and easy to implement, a question does arise in everyone’s mind. Why we do fail at implementing such timeless advice time and again? This introspection is the first step towards realization.

In the next article, we will revisit Yama’s discourse to his Bhattas after they have a confrontation with Vishnu’s sevakas along with Ajamila’s episode.


  1. Vishnu Purana by Bharat Darshana publications
  2. Someshwara Shataka –

Featured Image Credits: tamatina

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