I was raised at LDS (Mormon) in the United States of America. My only real experience with Hinduism is my readings of the Bhagavad Gita this summer (Isherwood translation with introduction by Aldous Huxley).
How central is the Bhagavad Gita to the Hindu religion? How well does it represent Hinduism, standing alone? Is it considered outdated in parts (as the Old Testament is, in Christianity)?
Swamiji, is there some basic text, for example, the Bible in Christianity, that defines the Hindu religion?
In Hinduism, we have a galaxy of saints, prophets and incarnations of God. We have also inherited a large collection of books. And thus if I have to name a book which represents the essence of Hinduism, it becomes a daunting task. Despite this difficulty, if I am pressed to point out one and only one book, then I would have to say that the book of the Bhagavad Gita represents the essence of Hinduism.
The Bhagavad Gita is the summary of Hinduism ,written in a Dialectical style, popularised by Socrates. It contains all the Philosophies developed in India during the last 5000 years and discusses the problems in implementing these ideas in practice , using the Mahabharat War as an Example .
How would one , use these apparently self contradictory ideas , in solving another REALISTIC PROBLEM, in another situation and at a different time ? Different philosophers and leaders in different professions ,at different times , have discussed the issue and given their own Answers. Not all Answers are IDENTICAL. The reader will have to use his own judgment in analysing these Answers or DISCOURSES . A cut and paste method will have to be used to find a satisfactory answer or interpretation.
Hinduism ,therefore ,permits every Individual to have his/her own philosophy of life. Swami Vivekananda,Mahatma Gandhi ,Swami Chinmayananda and Dr.S. Radhakrishnan ,have given their own interpretation of Bhagavad Gita , which are relevant to the Modern World.
since you are not experienced with Hindu scriptures, I advice this:- SrimadBhagwadGita embodies complete truth but it can not be understood by reading only it. The teachings of puranas and scriptures culminate in SrimadBhagwadGita .Chapter 7.2 :- SriKrishna says :- I shall now explain to you fully this phenomenal knowledge along with its full realization: which by knowing nothing further remains to be known in this world. If you are genuinely interested in SrimadBhagwadGita, then you are worthy of our respect because it is said that one becomes interested in reading and understanding it only when one's pious actions of many lives materialize.
Bhagavad Gita was rendered by none other than Bhagavan himself. In Hindu culture, thousands of years ago, we already had the concept of working like Wikipedia. The ultimate knowledge is known only to people who were self-realized, who used to be known as Rishis. The seers, who experienced ultimate knowledge and decided to share it in some form left behind the scriptures and works for the larger benefit of humanity.
Viewed in that sense, Hindus are not guided by any one scripture and the treasure of knowledge is mind-blowing to say the least. The unique distinction of Bhagavad Gita is that it was rendered by none other than an avatar of Narayana himself and as Swami Vivekananda himself explains, ordinary humans in today's age cannot fathom how someone like Krishna lived and walked on earth. He was a super human personality that inspires awe to this age.
Krishna paramatma spelt out Gita in a battle context and therefore it took a certain form and shape. The principles enunciated by Gita re-inforce the messages earlier laid out in Vedas and Upanishads and helps understand them deeper. However, it's not possible to understand the true meaning and depth in one reading and perhaps through one translation. It takes dedication and humbleness to understand the nuances of what Krishna says.
Like any library, Hinduism Stack Exchange shares great information, but does not offer personalized advice, and does not take the place of seeking such advice from any Acharya, Pundit, astrologer, Guru or other trustworthy Counselor.