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Bhagavad Gita

In book review on June 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

The Gita is part of the long epic Mahabharata. Some consider it as part of the Vedas, which are the oldest sacred texts of Sanskrit literature. Holy scripture or not, it’s one of the enduring sources of spirit in the spiritless conditions of our times. The Gita is in essence a didactic discourse which takes place in frozen time. The setting is a battlefield, and the speakers are the warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna. As the battle begins, Arjuna asks Krishna to place their chariot between two armies, and there the prince grieves because he has relatives and friends on two opposing sides. This petrifies his will. Arjuna declares that he would rather die than participate in the war. Like the dialogue between God and the Satan in the Book of Job, this serves as a prologue to discourse. Time stops and “even the flies are caught in midair between two wingbeats” (Introduction).

Gandhi says the gist of the Gita is the concept of renunciation of the fruits of action. It reconciles the necessity of action and of detachment through sacred duty. It echoes Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Player King in the play within the play:

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The translator Stephen Mitchell calls the Gita a love song to reality and a psalm to life. The only code to live by is to “let go”. The Gita is comparable to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the dialogues of Chinese Zen masters. They all challenge a Zoroastrian moral world order, like the voice of God from the whirlwind in Job, which is echoed in the second book of Isaiah through an uncanny revelation:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

This passage evokes Krishna’s declaration that he is a shatterer of worlds, but he cannot be considered evil for being such. At one point in the Gita, there is a terrifying theophany where Krishna shows his true form to Arjuna, with his billions of eyes and bellies, and all realities past, present and future existing in him. This reminds me of the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where Govinda sees in the face of Siddhartha all of space and time. In the Gita, all things live in Krishna, whether good or evil. Zoroastrian duality breaks down, anticipating Hamlet’s “there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and the Shakespearean evocation of Hamletist disinterestedness.