07 November, 2004

Reading the Gita

Reading the Gita
Sushma Joshi

The Bhagwad Gita is a book I had avoided diligently. The Sanskrit was intimidating, the topic abstruse (a lecture on a battlefield to move a reluctant warrior), the book in general surrounded by an aura of religiosity which I did not feel I could live up to. The enthusiastic undergraduate students with whom I studied in an American college and who gushed about the Gita further put me off – the Gita, it seemed, was a book of hippies and New Age seekers, and nothing to do with me. This is how I, a child of Hindu parents and a part-time Buddhist, came to know more about the Koran and the Bible, the Sattipathana sutta and the life of Milarepa, than about one of the most well-known books of my own tradition.
In college, I spent six months reading the texts of Islam, including the Koran, with a Jewish scholar. His commitment to the texts, scholarship and history was extraordinary. Also memorable were impromptu midnight readings of the Song of Solomon from the Bible – who could have known such juicy poems existed within that holy book? A steady flow of Tibetan Buddhist classics have also made its way into our house over the years, brought in by Brahmin cousins who radiated the dedication of neophyte converts. But the texts of the Hindu tradition, for some reason, never made it into my reading list.
A few days ago, I finally picked up a translation of the Gita from Penguin Classics. Admittedly, it was abridged. Perhaps appropriately, it had been translated by a Spanish scholar Juan Mascaro, whose cross-cultural understanding of different religious texts and traditions inform his version. Surprisingly, the Gita is not just an interesting but also an enjoyable read, the experience a cross between reading Stephen Hawkings’ “A Brief History of Time” and watching a Hollywoodian version of Troy.
The authors of the Gita are unknown. I say authors because often these older texts had multiple authors, who added text and stories over the centuries and turned the books into massive epics. The Koran, popularly understood to be created through divine authorship, and the Bible, thought to be written by a few select disciples, also show signs of multiple authorship over a period of decades if not centuries.
The Gita appears like an odd tack-on to the huge war of the Mahabharata. Where did this philosophical treatise on spiritual life, transience and divinity suddenly find its way into an action-packed drama about two families fighting for land? Inclusion in the Mahabharata, which has over one hundred thousand couplets and is the longest epic poem in the world, conferred instant immortality, the translator suggests. In other words, appearing in the Mahabharata was the pre-B.C version of appearing on Oprah.
Arjun does not want to slaughter his own family, but Krishna talks him into it. How can this be compatible with the whole idea of the “peaceful” Hindu religion? The paradoxes of this text are multiple, and yes, they do not answer all questions logically. A beautifully written paragraph will be followed by a casteist and misogynist observation. But if you look beyond these anachronistic limitations, the Gita is an opportunity to insert a lecture on larger issues. It includes the nature of life and death, the nature of work and duty – the discourse to convince a reluctant warrior into a war is a pretext for these important questions. The Protestants would be happy to learn that the obsession with work (karma) is not just engrained in their culture, but makes a big appearance in this text as well.
The ideas in the Gita, to this average reader, appears remarkably similar to the Buddhist ideas. Hindu and Buddhist philosophies come out of the same sub-continental stream, but they differ in their meanings and usages of similar words and concepts, says Sridhar Rana, a longtime scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Shridhar Rana, popularly known as “Ratnashree” to his students, started out as a tantric practitioner, and is one of the few Tibetan Buddhists who have an extensive knowledge of Hindu philosophies and practices.
What is remarkable about Hindu texts is their close theorizing of time and space, being and consciousness. Modern quantum physicists, cognitive scientists and neurologists spend a lot of time thinking about the same seemingly unanswerable questions. What is the nature of time? Where does space finally end? How can concepts of infinity and eternity be further expanded? Where does consciousness arise from? Many “new” ideas like chaos theory seem not so far away from the ideas of these unknown authors of 500 BC. Their breakdown of consciousness and perception rival those of contemporary scientists. It is no wonder that the imprint of older Hindu theories influences the scientific world.
Western philosophers and scientists from Goethe to Schopenhauer, from Jung to Oppenheimer, learnt from and were influenced by ancient Hindu texts. And yes, there is a reason for the fascination. Read these classics. They have more inside them than meets the eye.

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