Pursuing the Gita
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Bhagavad Gitain recent months. For example, one of the movies running in town is "The Legend of Bagger Vance" which many have noted is based on the Gita. The golf-caddy character "Bagger Vance", whose name is a pun on "Bhagavan", is based on Krishna and the lead character Rannulph Junuh (R. Junuh!) played by Matt Damon is of course, Arjuna. The movie is set in the post-WWI American south (the golf course is on an island called Krewe Island, or if you can "stretch your imagination", Kurukshetra) and centers on an epic golf match. The movie is based on a book with the same title.
The newspaper article discusses the Gita at length and reports that Drexel University in Philadelphia recently sponsored an interdisciplinary course on the Gita. Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago was among one of the invited lecturers. According to Doniger, the newspaper reported, "the Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think". Her lecture was titled "The Complicity of God in the Destruction of the Human Race" and according to her, throughout the Mahabharata, the enormous epic of which the Gita is a small part, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war in order to relieve "mother Earth" of its burdensome human population and the many demons disguised as humans. The report says that Doniger told the audience that the Gita is "a dishonest book; it justifies war". Fighting words from a professor who told the newspaper that she was a pacifist and that she didn't believe in "good" wars.
The newspaper reported that several in the audience objected to her reading of the Gita, but she made no apologies and "begged" her listeners to plunge deeper into the Upanishads and other great literature of Hinduism. "Reading the Bhagavad Gita without reading the Mahabharata is like reading the Sermon on the Mount, " she said, "without knowing about the Crucifixion". Internet discussion groups have spawned a lot of analyses of Doniger's version of the Gita and many have found her reading of the "Celestial Song" "appalling", "insulting" and "blatantly anti-Hindu".
Who is Wendy Doniger and is her reading of the Gita to be taken seriously? I will tell you about Wendy Doniger and I will tell you about the other, more sympathetic readers of the Gita, in the West and elsewhere. I will conclude by providing a brief summary of what the traditional Hindu reading of the Gita is.
Wendy Doniger is a well-known scholar in the field of Vedic studies and is the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Her translation of the Rig Veda and the Manusmriti, for example, are popular best-sellers. She was past president of the 9, 000 strong American Academy of Religion (AAR). Her translations of the Vedas are now standard texts in university courses. She has become the authority on "Goddess" and her thesis is that Vedas and all other myths are a collective dream of a society, an expression of its deep unconscious samskaras playing out. According to Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation, Doniger uses Freudian psychoanalysis to "dissect the Vedic rishis as sex starved and the devis as their fantasies playing out". For Doniger, myths are neither history nor do they contain universal truths, but are relative "dream truths" for a given people. So, she will tell you that by studying a society's myths you can get to understand that society and its peoples better. Therefore, she maintains, that she is enhancing Hinduism by analyzing its "myths" and bringing out the hidden truth. Doniger, as is fashionable among many feminist and Marxist scholars, uses Freudian psychology to "deconstruct" the sexual personas of individuals and societies and has written books about sex and mythology a mighty lot. Malhotra points out that Jeff Kripal, who wrote the controversial book about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa titled Kali's Child, is one of Doniger's students and that when people complain about his characterization of Ramakrishna as a homo-sexual, Kripal says that it only supports his thesis that these are deep rooted unconscious issues that Hindus are uncomfortable about discussing and hence their anger. Doniger, says Malhotra, "feels exactly the same way when someone feels they are 'hurt' by her portrayal of Hindu texts and myths". Malhotra, whose Foundation is involved in influencing Western academe, especially American academe's dealings with and about Hinduism, that instead of complaining or responding emotionally to people like Doniger, Indians should learn to rebut these arguments in a rational and scholarly fashion. He also feels that many Indians are confused about the distinction between academic study of religion and the faith-based teaching to a religious community itself and so think that what is done or taught in an ashram by a swami, or a pandit will counterbalance the Freudian and feminist and Marxist "deconstruction"of Hinduism in academe. Malhotra feels that Hindus do not understand the academic study of religion, as it is very much a Western phenomenon.
For every Doniger though and thank Krishna for that, there is a Steven Rosen. His new book interprets Pressfield's novel of Bagger Vance from a sympathetic devotional Hindu point-of-view with both personal and some real humorous touches. For example, it explains interesting things that tie the game of golf to Vishnu: the present golf ball was made from a substance found as packing material in a box containing a "murti" (idol) of Vishnu received in Scotland from India! And to counter the simplistic take of the Gita by the likes of Doniger, there have been some creative efforts to show what it would be like to stand Krishna's advice on its head, as it were. So, "Gita" is reversed to sound "Tagi" and then Krishna would tell Arjuna, when Arjuna lays down his bow saying that victory, kingdom, fame, all these are meaningless, it is better to be killed by the Kauravas than fight in a fratricidal war:
Long have I waited for these words of wisdom from you, O Bharat!
Ambition and pride have brought you to the brink of disaster.
Providence gave you many chances to renounce your patrimony.
None of them did you take, hence this sorry pass!
Know that this world created by Me is Maya, illusion,
With nothing in it worth fighting for,
Let alone worth killing for!
Surrender to the sons of Dhrtarashtra!
Persuade your brothers to do the same.
If they will not, abandon them;
Their reliance on you is no reason to sin!
If you must fight, do so with your eyes shut,
So that you will not see the staircase to Hell,
Built of the bodies of each one who falls to your arrows!
But better is to walk away from this battle field,
To some secluded cave or lonely peak,
Where I shall reveal to you the splendor of your immortal soul,
And the hollowness of the world.
Know that I am strung through this world,
Like the thread in a necklace of pearls,
And anything that seems good or splendorous or bright,
Is but a particle of My Being --
Krishna the Trickster.
Seek to know the three qualities, Tamas, Rajas and Sattva,
And strive to rise beyond them.
The Tamasic will do anything to get what they want.
It is best to yield to them.
The Rajasic think they can distinguish right from wrong,
And seek to act accordingly.
This is a delusion of my Maaya.
The Sattvic know that life is futile,
Empty your pockets and walk away from it.
You may recognize my true devotee as follows:
He owns nothing but a lion cloth, so no one covets what he has,
And he never has to fight!
He never defends himself, knowing the futility of this life.
He blesses those who would slay him,
As facilitating the inevitable.
Possession-less, family-less, unfettered he wanders,
Proclaiming My Truth through the futility of his life.
Come, Arjuna, let us follow this path!
Gita for the beginner: Scholars, historians and religious people have reflected and commented upon the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most influential works in world literature. The work is multi-faceted: it has not only mythical and metaphysical dimensions, but also esoteric, ethical and philosophical components. Every Hindu and most Indians know that the Gita is presented in the form of a dialogue between Arjuna, who feels weary and confused and deeply distressed about fighting his cousins and uncles and friends and Krishna, his charioteer, the embodiment of spiritual wisdom who counsels Arjuna about action and about fighting the just war without fear and without concern about the results. The most important theme in the Gita is that we should not shirk from doing our duties. And despite the human tendency to procrastinate, in most situations, we would not question this injunction. However, what makes the performance of one's duty difficult is when there is some unpleasantness associated with it, or when there is some conflict between the discharge of one's duties and one's personal desires and interests. Engaging in battle is unpleasant and the thought of killing one's relatives, teachers and friends, poses the most serious dilemma that one can face in life. Yet, if such a situation arises, the Gita insists, we need to sacrifice our own needs and satisfactions and do what is incumbent upon us.
Arjuna is, like any intelligent and caring human being, baffled by this dilemma: is it proper and just action if it leads to harm and killing? This reminds us that no matter how intelligent we may be, ultimate questions pertaining to proper action and righteousness do not have easy answers. That the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna occurs on the battlefield should remind us that questions of right and wrong, of good and bad, become significant, not in the contextless world of the academic's ivory tower (in which Prof. Doniger has a well-appointed room) but in the midst of life's battles. Many have pointed out that the battle of Kurukshetra is also a metaphor for the struggles that each one wages within himself or herself about good and bad and about right and wrong and with one's saintly and one's sinful nature.
The Gita, it is pointed out, is a great work of Sankhya, though others point out that it does not propound any particular philosophical system as the correct one. Krishna expounds on and recommends a variety of paths to enlightenment. He extolls ritualism and meditation, recommends action with detachment (nishkama karma) and praises the pursuit of knowledge and pious devotion. This is the great diversity and eclecticism of Hinduism: and the Gita reveals that there are various ways to find fulfillment in life, for no one path may be suitable for all.
Krishna also says that as and when injustice and inequities trouble society, a selfless leader will emerge to harness the positive potentials of the people to subdue and eliminate evil. The chanting of this verse was the background music for the infamous orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut". Every major newspaper in the US devoted more than the usual amount of space for this film and every well-known movie critic on television talk shows discussed the minutiae of Kubrick's last movie. In all those discussions and in all of the film reviews published, there wasn't one mention of what members of the Hindu Students Council heard in the background music/chant. They were incensed about the use of a verse from theBhagavad Gita(Chapter 4, verse 8).
The verse, "paritraanaaya saadhunaam, vinaashaaya cha dushkrutaan, dharma-samstha apanaarthaaya sambhavaami yuge yuge" is translated by Swami Prabhupada as: "To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to re-establish the principles of religion, I myself appear, millennium after millennium". Barbara Stoller Miller, gives a slightly more nuanced reading: "To protect men of virtue and destroy men who do evil, to set the standard of sacred duty, I appear in age after age". Initially, it seemed, no one seemed to know why Kubrick used this verse. Some speculated that Kubrick chose the verse to indicate that sexual orgies cannot but be thought of as evil and such perverse acts could not but incur the wrath of the gods.
The HSC's protest was dismissed by some as yet another complaint by yet another minority group. The complaint brought to the fore (in a small segment of the "ethnic" media) an issue that is completely off the radar screen of popular culture. After all, when the best of film critics failed to notice what must have been an "exotic" moment in the film, how could we expect the ordinary American film-goer to pay attention to it? Some opined that while artistic license was fine, they didn't think that the objections to the use of a verse from the Gita was fascist. They worried about the "pseudo-artistic mind-set that mindlessly takes, consumes and trashes, with little regard for the original context", a mind-set that typically exhibits no understanding, let alone regard for the views, sentiments and experiences of those from whom symbols and scripture are being borrowed.
The Bhagavad Gita has come in handy to a number of famous Americans and many Indians point with pride to the reference to it by the likes of Robert Oppenheimer who is alleged to have quoted from the Gita after the Trinity atomic bomb test: "I have become death, destroyer of Worlds" (Chapter 10, verse 34). Miller translates the verse as: "I am death the destroyer of all, the source of what will be, the feminine powers: fame, fortune, speech, memory, intelligence, resolve, patience". Emerson, Thoreau, Huxley and others have praised the Gita. For example, Thoreau, in Walden, says, "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny". The essence of Gita is that there is perceived duality in the cosmos, consisting of prakrti(or the external world of Nature) and puru(the timeless divine principle that pervades the universe). In everything we do, apart from physical sustenance, we need to seek communion with the supra-physical, Krishna advises. Self-centered acts, therefore, amount to very little in the cosmic scheme of things. If anything, they blur an individual's vision of the grander goals of life. This recognition comes from a deeper understanding of one's Self, which is the intangible center of our innermost experience. The Self in the embodied state goes through cycles of life before merging with the Absolute.
Let me conclude this section by saying that the Gita contains a condensed form of knowledge which is described in detail in all the six Shastras. Just as the Lord "Hari" is the essence of all the "Gods" and the Ganga (river) is the most sacred of all "Teerthaas", one can think of the Gita as containing the essence of Hindu wisdom and knowledge. It is said that Lord Krishna (like a sacrificial spoon of ghee offered in a typical yagnya) squeezed this essence and fed it in the mouth of Arjuna. It is also said that those who cherish in their hearts the Gita, Ganga, Gayathri and Govinda, all four beginning with the "ga" sound, would become free from the cycle of birth and death.
Conclusion: Western academics claim that the Gita is an interpolation in the Mahabharata and is of much later vintage than the venerable epic. So, in Miller's book you will read that the Gita was composed in the first century C. E. Some therefore argue that the Gita was written to counter the deleterious effects of Buddhism on Hindu society. The pacifism and spread of Buddhism had to be countered, they say and therefore the clever Brahmins came up with this! Not bad for a rebuttal, I would say and point out that while the Gita has clearly its detractors and its narrowly focused readers, it is profoundly and importantly a Hindu treatise and like most Hindu treatises it does not just focus on one aspect of human life. The "celestial song" is many layered and one can find meanings in it depending on one's age, understanding and wisdom. The Gita has been translated and commented upon by a myriad authors, from Gandhi to Khushwant Singh to Annie Besant to Swami Prabhupada. Go check out one and see if the Krishna-uvachas will take you on the road to enlightenment.
Originally published on Saturday, December 30, 2000.