There is a tendency to read literal translations of Bhagavad Gita sans any commentary

Even when commentaries are preferred, it is usually those of Adi Śankara or Rāmānujā, or in some cases a new bhashya like that of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava teacher - Prabhupāda
The commentary of Śankara is of course the earliest extant commentary on the Gita

And the most widely cited

Yet while it is often eulogized, my personal observation is that there is a tendency to underrate later medieval commentaries.
Some of the later Bhāṣyas are often much more comprehensive and thorough in charting out the intellectual history of specific ideas discussed in the Gita than the earliest Bhāṣyas like those of Śankara or Rāmānujā - that are often fairly terse.
One such late medieval commentary is that of the great Advaitin - Madhusūdana Sarasvatī (1540 to 1640)

Though Madhusūdana Sarasvatī was a man of many accomplishments, perhaps his greatest work is his commentary on the Gita - the Gudartha Dipika
Unlike the older commentaries we alluded to, the Gudartha DIpika is a voluminous work. It is anything but terse.

With commentaries often running into several pages for a single verse!
First let's get some background on Madhusūdana Sarasvatī.

He was a native of modern Bangladesh - who was born as Kamalanayana. His ancestral roots however were in Madhya Desha, with an ancestor named Rama Mishra Agnihotri migrating to Bengal from Kannauj in 11th century.
While he was an Advaitin, he was also curiously an ardent Vaishnavite. A combination that is not too common

His "Advaita Siddhi" is a famous riposte to the Dwaita classic authored by Vyāsatīrtha - the scholar patronized by Vijayanagara Empire
But it is his commentary on the Gita that appears to be his most popular work

So let's get an idea of the work by examining Madhusudana Saraswati's bhashya on a single Gita verse - Verse # 35 of Chapter 6 on Dhyana Yoga
Here's the verse. A famous one that most readers would have heard / read at some point.

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते ॥ ६-३५॥
Now here's the literal translation of the verse (by Swami Gambhirananda of RK Mutt)

"O Mighty armed one. It is doubtless that the mind cannot be controlled and is restless. But O' Sun of Kunti, it is restrained through Practice (abhyAsa) and Detachment (vairAgya)"
Now this may seem like a straightforward enough verse. And so it seemed to the early commentators - be it Sankara or Ramanuja.

Sankara's bhashya for this is very brief. Here it is (Swami Gambhirananda translation - website)
That's about it. As you can see, the only thing that he adds to the translation itself is

Defining abhyAsa as repetition of some idea or thought (concentration)

Vairagya - as detachment that comes from an awareness of the defects of enjoying desirable things.

He stops at that
Now let's look at yet another very early commentator - Ramanuja. What does he say in his Gita Bhashya on this particular verse

Here it is. (from website)
Again. Very brief.

Not that different from Sankara's Bhashya. The major difference is that Ramanuja explains abhyAsa not merely as "concentration" on a thought, but as reflection on the auspicious attributes of self.
Let's now look at Madhusudana Saraswati's commentary for this verse.

It runs into 6 pages in the English translation. He is thorough, meticulous, and uses two other texts extensively to explain this single verse -

The Laghu Yoga Vashishta
Patanjali Yoga Sutras
Unlike Sankara and Ramanuja whose bhashya is a little more than a translation with a slight elaboration on what is meant by "abhyAsa" and "vairAgya", Madhusudana Saraswati takes a comprehensive view

Let me summarize it the best I can
Questions addressed by Saraswati -

1. Why is the mind fickle and naturally uncontrollable

2. Can the mind be "violently" controlled the way we violently close our eyes, or close our ears etc? If not, what's the alternative?

3. Are "abhyAsa" and "vairAgya" two alternative ways to control the mind. Or are both essential in the pursuit of stilling the mind?

4. What exactly is abhyAsa. What does it entail to make it successful?

5. What is vairAgya? What are the different kinds of it?
Let's start with 1 and 2

"Why is the mind fickle"?
"Can it be controlled violently? If not what's the alternative"?

Now Sankara and Ramanuja took this to be axiomatic. And did not elaborate
But Madhusudana Saraswati attributes the fickleness of the mind to -

Prārabdha karma - the accumulation of karmas from the past that are experienced through the present body

So there is a clear attribution
Next he also explains why the mind cannot be controlled the way we close our eyes or our ears.

This may seem obvious. But Madhusudana spells it out -

The reason is - Unlike eyes or ears, the "locus" of the heart cannot be restrained.
So to control the mind, you need a "regular method" not brute force.

This regular method is of course Yoga.

He backs himself by citing Yoga Vasishta passages - a text authored perhaps some 1000 years before Madhusudana Saraswati's own time
Now the Yoga Vasishta is a very voluminous text (also known as Mokshopaya) comprising of a discourse by Vasishta to Rama. It is one of the largest texts in Sanskrit literature

And used extensively by Madhusudana in his arguments
Madhusudana quotes Vasishta who uses wonderful analogies to illustrate why Yoga is essential for controlling the mind, and why violence is futile

"Controlling the mind without Yoga is like controlling a wicked elephant without ankusha (the hooked goad used by the mahaout)"
Vasishta then cites the means that are available within Yoga to control the mind -

Mastery of spiritual knowledge
Association with holy men
total giving up of desires
control of the movements of the vital force
And he adds -

"those who control mind violently when these means are available, are like people who reject a lamp and instead remove darkness using collegium (on their eyelashes)

A wonderful analogy
Madhusudana sort of agrees with Vasishta here. But cites yet another passage from Yoga Vasishta itself to clarify his thoughts -

As per Yoga Vasishta, the "tree of the mind" has got two seeds -

a. vAsanA (the latent tendency to desire)
b. movement of the vital force
Now as per Vasishta, both of these complement each other, and contribute to the mind's fickleness

But Vasishta distinguishes between the two and prescribes different means to counter both
In Vasishta's view

Movement of vital force is stopped through earnest practice of PraNAyAm, practice of Asana and control of food.

Whereas vAsana is controlled through dealings without attachment, shunning of worldly thoughts, and observation of the perishability of the body
From this Madhusudana infers -

It is abhyAsa that is needed to control "movement of the vital force"

vairAgya to control "vAsana"

So Madhusudana Saraswati here is linking what Krishna is saying about abhyAsa and vairAgya to the two "seeds" of the mind cited by Vasishta
But Madhusudana now reminds us of the two other things Vasishta had prescribed earlier

"association with holy men"
"mastery of spiritual knowledge"

But then concludes - these two are helpful to abhyAsa and vairAgya - but non-essential

Hence Krishna sticks to abhyAsa & vairAgya
Then Madhusudana reminds us of Patanjali Yoga Sutra # 12 in Chapter 1 - which reads

"abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah"

Where Patanjali too agrees with Krishna in suggesting that these two are essential for Nirodha (stilling the mind)
But Madhusudana follows up with another beautiful analogy to explain what "nirodhah" is -

"It is the state that is best understood as cessation - like a fire without fuel stops burning"

Cessation of Fire without fuel - an apt way of explaining the goal being sought here.
Now comes the 3rd question I posed earlier.

Are abhyAsa and VairAgya both needed? Are they somehow related to each other? Or independent.

Madhusudana again uses a remarkable analogy to explain why both are essential, and somewhat independent means
In his view -

"The river of the mind flows both ways (unlike earthly rivers) - one flows towards good, and one flows towards evil
Now the current flowing towards evil / non-discrimination needs to be blocked by a dam - which we can call "vairAgya"

Whereas the current that is flowing towards the good can be augmented by constructing a canal of sorts and channeling it - think of this as "AbhyAsa"
So the dam and the canal serve different ends. Hence both are essential

A brilliant analogy yet again
Then he contrasts this with an analogy from Vedic ritual where you have genuine options -

E.g. You can make the sacrificial cake using either paddy or barley - that's an option.

But here abhyAsa vs vairAgya is not an option. You need both.
But then what exactly is abhyAsa. How does one make it work?

Madhusudana goes into specifics here. And again cites Patanjali!

Sutra # 14 Chapter 1

So here as per Patanjali (and Madhusudana), abhyAsa is successful only if -

1. It is fully adhered to without despondency (asevitah)
2. Adhere to for a long time (dIrgha kalah)
3. Adhered to without a break (nairantarya)
4. Adhered to with confidence (satkAra)
And if all four conditions are fulfilled, then the abhyAsa is successful and becomes firmly grounded (dRDha bhUmih) in Patanjali's words)
Notice how Patanjali - an intellectual from Gupta age (most likely) is being used to rationalize the ideas propounded in the Bhagavad Gita - a text that predates Patanjali by some 1000 yrs if not more

And now you have Madhusudana using Patanjali's arguments, 1000+ years later!
It goes to show how a seemingly innocuous verse has impacted thinkers separated by several 1000 years

And its intellectual history is in constant development throughout that period from mid 1st millennium BCE to mid 2nd millennium CE
Next Madhusudana discusses vairAgya. Again with the help of Patanjali, his friend who lived some 1100+ years before him

VairAgya as per Madhusudana is of two types - para (supreme) and apara (relative)

So he is a realist here, who doesn't give an absolute definition of vairAgya
The relative vairAgya again comprises of four kinds

yatamAna (engaged in effort to abjure the non-essential)

vyatireka (exclude the non-essential through discrimination)

ekendriya longing for non-essential remains just a longing in mind)

vashIkAra (complete absence of desire)
Now vashIkAra above does seem very absolute, but in Patanjali's view, the absolute vairAgya is different -

It stems from desirelessness for the guNas, which in terms from the direct vision of the Purusha (the absolute divine being)
So that concludes our summary of Madhusudana's six page dissertation on this single verse!

But Madhusudana while discussing these somewhat abstruse ideas, also finds time to explain the less important words used by Krishna in the verse

One such word is "mahAbAho" (mighty armed)
Now Madhusudana explains why Arjuna can justifiably be addressed as mahAbAho by Krishna.

He cites the example of Arjuna fighting Shiva himself during his years in exile - a very well known episode also memorialized by Bharavi in his mahAkAvya - kirAtArjuniya
So that incident in Madhusudana's view justifies the use of the term "mahAbAho" to address Arjuna!

I particularly liked this tidbit. Notice how he has the eye for detail and trivia amidst all the philosophizing on the more abstruse parts of the verse.
This is just the bhAshya on one verse from Madhusudana's GuDartha Dipika

Illustrating the richness of the work. A very underrated work which ought to be read by more
While there is nothing wrong in lionizing the traditional bhAshyas (like those of Sankara or Ramanuja), we must not lose sight of much more comprehensive bhAshyas given by later thinkers like Madhusudana!

Bhashyas that in some respects excel the early bhAshyakAras
Postscript: This thread is based on the v fine translation of Madhusudana Saraswati's Gudartha Dipika by Swami Gambhirananda of Ramakrishna Mutt.

Gambhirananda interestingly like Madhusudana was a native of Bangladesh, and served as the 11th president of RK Mission. Died in 1988
Post-script 2 : Some more biographical details on Madhusudana Saraswati

As I said, he was a native of Bengal and his life largely overlapped with that of Akbar in 16th cen

But his ancestors were migrants from Kannauj in late 12th cen (not 11th as stated erroneously earlier)
As a kid Kamalanayana (his name in his Purvashrama) was deeply into Vaishnava Bhakti and wanted to meet Chaitanya

However he never got the opportunity to meet the great man
Later he developed into a scholar of Nyaya, and proceeded to Benares to master Mimamsa to counter Advaita

But the more he attempted to marshal his arguments against Advaita, the more he got convinced by it leading to a conversion of sorts
Though a native of Bengal, he spent most of his later life in Benares, in the banks of the Chatusasthi Ghat (also known as Yogini Ghat).
In his day there was a practice (not sure about the extent) among Muslim priests to murder both lay and monastic Hindus

And the law exempted the Muslim priests from punishment
Saraswati approached Akbar to whom he was introduced by Raja Birbal

Akbar was perturbed and encouraged Saraswati to found a new sect of armed Hindu SannyAsins who will also be outside the purview of legal action

Therein lies the origins of Naga sect of sannyAsins
I am not sure about the authenticity of this biographical tale linking Saraswati to the genesis of Naga sect of sannyasins, but it appears to be widely accepted and was also supported Prof JN Farquhar in his work

"The Organization of the sannyAsins of Vedanta"
Madhusudana was hounded out of Benares by the local Pandas in his later years. And he spent his final years in Haridwar where he passed away at the age of 107 as per tradition
Postscript 3 : Finally it is worth reflecting on the fact that Madhusudana Saraswati was very much a contemporary of Tulsi Das as well.

And both lived in Benares arguably at the same time

Did they know each other? Did they talk to each other? Did the former's monism clash with the latter's deep Vaishnava Bhakti? Questions that should fascinate any student of Indian intellectual history
Postscript 4 : Thanks for the comments

For those who are conversant in Sanskrit here's the original text of the Bhashyas of Sankara, Ramanuja AND Madhusudana Saraswati on this particular Chapter 6 verse…
Thanks to @GhorAngirasa for pointing to this remarkable resource

Very convenient
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