Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita -- James A. Long, Chairman
[From Sunrise, October 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Theosophical University Press.]
Chairman -- Recently several requests have come in, expressing the hope that we might devote a few evenings sometime to the Bhagavad-Gita. Some of you I know are familiar with this small devotional scripture, which is as widely read by millions in the Orient as is the New Testament in Christendom. It would be interesting, of course, to organize and conduct a series of discussions utilizing the Gita as a basis of comparison with the New Testament, as both of them contain the same universal values underlying all sacred writings. But I would not want to sponsor such a course, for the simple reason that it could so easily develop into a classroom affair. As you know, we have tried to keep our discussions here as wide open as possible.
Now I think it an excellent idea to take up the Bhagavad-Gita, if you would all like to do so. But I myself would not like to see us study it as a text to be analyzed, verse by verse, or even chapter by chapter, but would prefer to let the discussions follow the spirit as it moves, free and unhampered. In this way, we may perhaps unravel a bit of the esotericism that flows all through it.
Dan -- I haven't read this book, but I like the idea of taking it up.
Martha -- There have been many occasions when I hoped we might read the Gita together, for this little book of devotion has for years had a tremendous appeal for me: the vast setting in which the individual is shown as part of the cosmic drama, and vice versa. I think if we could study only a little of it, it would help us to stretch out our consciousness towards these larger concepts, and we might come to view more clearly our daily problems.
Betty -- I would like it also, but as I know so little about it I would appreciate hearing something of its background, when it was written, and anything that would give us an idea what it is all about
Chairman -- In the first place, Gita means "song," and the title Bhagavad-Gita has been variously translated into English as "Song of the Blessed One," "Song Divine," or, as Sir Edwin Arnold called his beautiful poetic rendering, "Song Celestial." It is part of a much larger work, the Mahabharata, the national epic of the Hindus, which has as central theme a long-drawn-out conflict between the descendants of Kuru on the one hand, and those of Pandu on the other, two branches of an ancient royal family known as the Bharatas. It seems that the Kurus had usurped the kingdom of the Pandavas and had banished them to a life of wandering and severe hardship. But the five Pandava princes, of which Arjuna was one, were supposedly each of "divine" origin and had rallied supporters and friends in sufficient number to return with a vast army. The Gita opens with the two armies drawn up in battle formation on Kurukshetra, the "field of the Kurus."
At this point Arjuna bade Krishna, his mentor and charioteer, to drive him and his chariot between the two armies that he might see those who stood "ready and anxious to commence the battle." Gazing about him he saw many familiar faces and said (and I summarize):
I see standing on either side, O Krishna, grandsires, uncles, cousins, tutors, brothers, near relatives and bosom friends. With my kindred thus standing anxious for the fight, my members fail me, my countenance withereth, my hair standeth on end upon my body and I tremble with honor! If I destroy my kindred, shall I longer look for happiness? I wish not to fight them: no, not even for the dominion of the three regions of the universe! Woe is me, what a great crime are we prepared to commit. I would rather that the sons of Dhritarashtra should kill me unresisting in the field.
Arjuna then sat down in the chariot, put away his bow and arrows and was "overwhelmed with despondency."
Now were the Gita simply the chronicling of another war between two branches of a family, there would be little point in our reading it together. Nor would it have become the most loved of scriptures in the East had it been regarded by the populace there merely as a physical encounter between two contestants. No, the Bhagavad-Gita is far more than this: while it has been called the Bible of the Hindus, it is in fact a scripture of universal spiritual import. Once we can remove it from the physical field of battle into the area of conflict within man's own soul, we shall see Krishna as the representative of the divine core of each one of us, and Arjuna as ourselves: the aspiring human soul, at times vacillating and weak with despondency, at other times strong when fortified by cooperation with the highest within us.
Tom -- You could say then, following out the analogy, that the Pandavas represent the spiritual qualities in us which once ruled the kingdom, but were deposed by the Kurus, which could mean that our lower qualities took possession of our nature for a while and ruled Arjuna?
Chairman -- Generally speaking yes, and the more enlightened scholars of both East and West support this. But I think we must be careful not to attach too exact qualities to this or that personality, nor to spend too much energy trying to run down the symbology of every name and event. While it is true that the Sanskrit names given the various chieftains and their armaments on both sides of the conflict do have significance, and in themselves form an interesting study, this is far from the essential contribution of the Gita.
In every sacred writing, two qualities are always present: the eternal spiritual values which in themselves are timeless and universal; and the temporary and historic setting which, however important it may be in providing a picture of local peoples and conditions, is of secondary interest. Our concern with the Gita is to penetrate as far as we can beneath the outer layers of formalism and custom to the vein of gold and try to dig out the nuggets of a living philosophy.
Incidentally, one of the chief factors which has made the Bhagavad-Gita so revered by the Hindus is that it successfully embraced all forms of devotion and religious beliefs. While it is called an Upanishad because it draws its main inspiration from that remarkable body of philosophic writings, it is also a yoga-scripture because it tells of the ways whereby a person ultimately may attain "yoga" or "union" with the divine within. It is not solely monotheistic, pantheistic, dualistic, or nondualistic -- for all the varying streams of philosophic thought are here integrated into a spiritual synthesis; all are recognized as "ways to Brahman" or the Supreme.
Frank -- There are some who think that this all-inclusive approach is a weakness and that the original intent of the Gita failed in that it did not purify the existing forms of religious practice, but by tolerating them simply perpetuated the old dogmatic concepts.
Chairman -- It is probably true that by the time the Bhagavad-Gita was written, most of the different philosophic schools had become static and thus had crystallized into certain definite molds of thought. The Vedas, for example, perhaps because they were the earliest scriptures of record, had suffered very much from the veneration in which they had been held. For centuries they had been repeated by rote, until the vital spark of truth had nearly died out under the mere repetition of the texts. If we interpret the Gita literally, we shall certainly find it filled with dogmatic assertions, and it will serve little purpose other than as an interesting document. But if we can apply the principle behind Krishna's repeated injunction to Arjuna to liberate himself from the letter of the Vedas, we shall see the Gita as a true reconciliation of various currents of tradition. As Krishna more than once reminds Arjuna; "Even those who worship other gods with a firm faith, in doing so involuntarily worship me" (ch. 9) -- all roads of aspiration, all means of action or of inaction, are but "other gods," different paths of experience by which those who are truly devoted will ultimately arrive at "spiritual knowledge."
Naturally, the familiar setting of war and armaments, of physical and moral prowess was used, but only as a symbol, because everyone, whatever his religious or philosophic bias, would understand it. Moreover, once we can divest the Gita of its historic and local coloring and examine impartially the impressive philosophy behind it, we shall find its teachings on the nature of man and the cosmos, on birth and death, on karma and the divine self, to be of universal significance.
Marie -- Who wrote the Bhagavad-Gita? I was wondering also if it is as old as the rest of the Mahabharata, because it seems to be of a different quality from the body of the work.
Chairman -- The Bhagavad-Gita has probably had more critical scholarship expended upon it than even the Christian scriptures, and the commentaries upon it, if put together, would possibly exceed in number of pages the entire epic. While the Gita may have been written much later than other parts, modern scholars consider it definitely a part of the Mahabharata. Its author is said to be the renowned seer, Vyasa.
Now we must remember that the Mahabharata is a voluminous collection not alone of stories and legends recounting the heroic deeds of gods and men, but also a storehouse of the traditions and religious beliefs of the various ancient peoples who settled and populated the different parts of the Indian peninsula -- all woven around the ages-long battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas. It is impossible therefore to fix an exact date either for the Bhagavad-Gita or for the epic as a whole, for their origins are lost in prehistory.
Some scholars believe that the Gita in its present form might go back at least five centuries BC, and that the Mahabharata as we have it today is possibly an outgrowth of a still older work called Bharata, of a date as early as 3100 BC. But even on this, agreement by scholars is doubtful, as the Hindus, unlike the Chinese, were never ones to bother about keeping exact chronological records of battles and migrations, being far more concerned with calculations of cycles, or yugas as they called them, and with the preservation of the legendary and philosophic content of their literature.
I might add that the date 3100 BC ties in with the tradition that Krishna is supposed to have been the "eighth avatara or incarnation" of a divine force, and to have lived a little over 5000 years ago. His death is said to mark the close of one great cycle and the beginning of our present cycle or "kali-yuga," the "Black Age" -- which is the Hindu way of saying the Age of Iron, as the Greeks called it. In other words, Krishna's death is given as 3102 BC, the date assigned to the earlier Bharata which may have formed the kernel of the later Mahabharata.
Martha -- I think that is most significant. It is as though at the beginning of this dark age Krishna left a glow, something that might leave a light to shine through all the darkness that was inevitable in this Age of Iron.
Frank -- It is interesting too that Krishna in the Mahabharata is found in various forms: as a historic personage, a minor teacher, again as a tribal god, and now in the Bhagavad-Gita Vyasa makes him a "divine incarnation" who out of a deep feeling for the suffering of mankind descends in order to dispel the wickedness that had grown rampant and to restore once again the kingdom of the soul to righteousness.
Chairman -- Exactly, and let me quote the passage to which you refer; "I produce myself among creatures, O son of Bharata, whenever there is a decline of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness." Now what does this suggest but the possibility that an influence from the cosmic divine Intelligence does "from age to age" take on human form, even as the Christ did? The word "avatara" means just that -- a "descent" or "crossing over," in this case from the "divine" world to the human; and for what other reason than to bring the light of divinity upon human concerns. We say then another "avatara" has appeared; a "Christ is risen"; a "divine incarnation" has occurred.
There are without doubt many interpretations to this. Even the war between the Kurus and the Pandavas, while it can relate to the struggle between the higher and the lower qualities in our own nature, may also be a symbolic record of the conflict that inevitably ensues at the death of one cosmic era and the birth of the succeeding one. The pangs of birth are a universal symptom, and not limited to the world of human events.
Certainly Krishna is intimately connected with one of the larger cycles in the destiny of mankind, just as Jesus himself came at the close of one cycle and ushered in the new one called the Age of Pisces. That is why in early Christian writings he is often referred to as the Great Fish. And today, after some 2000 years, we are entering another cycle with its own "messianic" qualities trying to find expression.
But we are getting far afield.
Dan -- Is there a good translation in English? I prefer one in prose, as I find it awfully hard to get at the meat of a thing if it is in verse.
Chairman -- I can appreciate your feeling. The one I like best is a Recension made by William Q. Judge and published in New York in 1890. While he based it on the translation of J. Cockburn Thomson (originally published in England in 1855), he carefully compared all the English translations then available, and where obscurities were evident, completely recast those passages from the original. He was fortunate in having one or two Sanskrit scholars with whom he could consult. This Recension is not as verbally accurate as Judge would have made it had he himself known Sanskrit, but it does preserve, in simple prose, the full spirit of the Gita.
Since then there have been numerous editions in English and other modern tongues, but the only other one I would recommend would be that of Radhakrishnan, which contains the Sanskrit text along with a careful English translation and copious notes. Radhakrishnan is the only modern Orientalist to my knowledge who combines excellence of scholarship with profound insight into the imperishable values of the Gita. Hence I have no hesitation in suggesting his edition along with this Judge Recension for those who want to look more closely into the precise meaning of any particular passage.
We shall find plenty to last us for a lifetime in the Gita, and perhaps after we read it together we may also understand something of the terrific impact its translation into English had on Western scholars, not only in England and Europe, but in America too.
Tom -- Yes, wasn't it in one of Emerson's "Journals" that he said something about the "magnificent day" he and his friend had had with the Bhagavad-Gita? He considered it the "first of books," as I recall, and spoke of it as the "voice of an old intelligence" calling from another age to ours. I believe Emerson had also made a careful study of the Vedas and the Upanishads, at least as much of them as he and others of the Transcendentalists of that period could lay their hands on, and it is said that when he died, on his bedside table was found an old and well-marked copy of the Gita.
Ernest -- That is very interesting to me, because the Gita has been for so long the national poem of India, read and absorbed by the people almost at their mother's knee. Every boy and girl grows up loving the poem there, so the wonder to me is that it did not spread out more and become popularized among the different nations.
Frank -- It may not be so surprising when we remember how insular we in the West were in our thinking right up until the last 200 years or so. But interestingly enough, along with the American and French Revolutions, another revolution was quietly going on -- and this on spiritual and intellectual lines. Wasn't it in a garret in Paris during the thick of the French Revolutionary days that Anquetil-Duperron, the French Orientalist, translated the Gita from a Persian translation of the original Sanskrit? We know also that in the late 1700's when Warren Hastings was Governor General of India, he supervised the first English translation of the Gita by Sir Charles Wilkins. Moreover, he encouraged those who were sent from England to India to study the ancient scriptures in the original tongue, and undoubtedly absorbed something of their value, or at least were exposed to another point of view.
Ernest -- The East India Company was the forerunner, I believe, in obtaining this knowledge. It was trading with India in a peaceful way and most of its officials were highly educated men.
Chairman -- Karma utilizes every means at hand. Whatever the political effects of the East India Company were, that particular avenue was one of the means used to bring forth great and lasting benefits. I am glad this was brought up because I don't believe we can realize today, with the cross-fertilization of ideas that is now constantly taking place, the spiritual isolationism in which we had lived for centuries. The dark ages of ignorance had left their marks of intolerance and bigotry; but suddenly, with the introduction into the West during the last half of the 18th century of English and German, French and Latin translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Persian Avesta literature and other sacred texts from the East, enlightened minds here and there found themselves captivated by the breadth of philosophic vision that was now opened before them. Up until then practically the only spiritual food on which the West had fed, outside of the Hebrew and Christian traditions, had been the Platonic philosophy and a little of the Persian current of thought. Now the Occident had opened wide the door of its consciousness to the ageless philosophies of the Orient, and the effect was tremendous.
Even so, the new knowledge was only for the few. Today everyone of us can contact whatever lines of religious or philosophic thought we please. No longer is the treasury of the world's wisdom restricted to the scholar -- all of us who can read and think can study the fruits of Chinese, Norse, Greek, Hindu, Christian, or Hebrew thought -- if not in the original languages, certainly in excellent translations.
But please do not for a moment think we are placing the Oriental sacred literatures above the Western. That is not at all the idea. They in their literal interpretations have become just as decadent, and perhaps in certain respects more so. But there is one very important thing which we in the West should take serious note of: they have not expurgated from their scriptures the teaching of the rebirth of the soul, having included it with the doctrine of karma, or cause and effect, as a natural part of the evolutionary process of nature.
I think that is enough on this. Just remember that every world religion has made its own unique gift to human enlightenment
Tom, do you have anything you want to say that will lead us more directly into the study of the Gita?
Tom -- Well, the Gita to me has a most intriguing background. Being part of this great epic, it naturally opens with the two armies drawn up on the field of battle. Now it is easy enough to recognize that the Kurus could represent the lower human qualities, and the Pandavas the higher qualities. But when the time actually comes for the Pandava brothers to claim what is truthfully their own, Arjuna finds himself in a terrible dilemma. This is what makes the Gita so impressive to me: Arjuna's despondency is so very human. It is one thing to talk about the conflict that is constantly being waged in the soul between our allegiance to the Supreme and our attachment to what we have always considered our "friends and supporters." It is quite another thing to have to act upon it, and that is what is portrayed in this first chapter. Arjuna asks Krishna to have his chariot placed between the two armies so that he can see exactly who it is he is supposed to fight and slay. When Arjuna finds that his cousins and brothers, his near relations and bosom friends are on the side of the Kurus, he is "moved by extreme pity, and filled with despondency." He refuses to fight, telling Krishna he would rather be killed "unresisting in the field" than himself slay his own kin.
Frank -- Might I mention one small point here? The first word of the opening stanza of the Bhagavad-Gita, instead of being Kuru-kshetra, "on the field of the Kurus," as we might expect, is Dharma-kshetra, "on the field of Dharma or Duty"! This to me is most significant, and suggests that the author did indeed intend the Gita to be read as a dialogue of spiritual instruction between the god Krishna and Arjuna the man -- rather than as a physical battle between the warring members of a family.
Chairman -- That is excellent, because that word Dharma-kshetra "on the field of Duty or Dharma" actually sets the keynote for the entire poem: the performance of a our full duty in every level of our being, and the danger that ensues when we attempt to perform the duty that rightly belongs to another. For each person has his own dharma, his own place in the scheme of progress, and if he is to win the eternal battle of self-conquest, then he alone must perform the duty that is his.
This also points up the practical wisdom of the Gita. In spite of the many references to certain Hindu practices which are not at all suitable to Western folk, and certainly are not applicable today because largely decadent, the Gita does not at all enjoin leading the life of a hermit cut off from the responsibilities of life but, on the contrary, emphasizes three distinct methods of working toward ultimate "union" with the highest within: by means of "spiritual knowledge"; by means of "devotion or faith"; and by means of "action," the fulfilling of one's own natural karma as it comes before us.
It is a pity that St. Paul seemed to lay emphasis on only two of these, namely salvation "by faith" and "by works." While both are essential, the need for the soul likewise to search and to question was overlooked, and it took many, many centuries of darkness before the divine "spirit of inquiry" characteristic of enlightened peoples came once again to the fore in Western lands.
Whatever path we follow, whatever our natural character, each one of us has his particular dharma or duty to fulfill here on earth -- whether through "works," "faith," or through the search for "knowledge." If I had to summarize in one phrase the content of the Gita, I think I would say: the full performance of one's dharma or duty, without attachment to results.
It is growing late, and we must stop. We can see already that the first chapter, with its setting of the battlefield, is really a prologue to the real message of the poem, which from the second chapter on through to the end is an outpouring from the heart of Krishna, in urgent appeal to the Arjunas of all times and of all lands to "arise and fight" the age-old battle of the Self.
Let us close now, and if you like we can continue with the Gita next time.