How to Read the Gita (1-5)

 

In 1945, nuclear physicist Robert J Oppenheimer compared the totalizing destruction of the atomic bomb with the vision of Krishna as the all-powerful divine in Chapter 11. At the Trinity test site in Los Alamos New Mexico, looking at the fireball of the atomic bomb explosion, he recalled the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”[1]

In the 2012 U.S. elections, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took her oath on the Bhagavat Gita. Gabbard served with Hawaii’s National Guard, and during her time in Iraq, she drew strength from the teachings of the Gita, in particular, about the eternality of the soul.[2]

In The Guardian on 14th September 2014, musician and rock star Chrissy Hynde called it her favorite book. “My favourite book is the Bhagavad Gita. It’s a 700-verse Hindu scripture and I love the verse that says your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You can either pull yourself down or lift yourself up.”

Each of these news items tells the reader something different about the Gita. It is through a series of second-hand reports like these that most people construct their understandings of the Gita. Taking the leap from that to actually reading it, calls for more than just idle curiosity.

 

Some verses of the Gita are popular, and a part of school lessons. There is Karmaṇye Vādhikāraste Ma Phaleṣu Kadācana… that tells you to do your work or duty without thinking of the results. There is Yadā Yadā Hi Dharmasya Ghlānirbhavati Bhārate.. tells you that Krishna/Viṣṇu/God incarnates in India when dharma is endangered. Vāsāṃsi Jīrṇāni Yathā Vihāya … and the couple of stanzas that follow it say that you are eternal and indestructible. For most people, the entire Gita is represented by these few stanzas.

 

The Gītopadeśa scene where Krishna advises Arjuna in the middle of the two armies is a part of the décor in homes and even in hotel rooms. The Gita is quoted frequently in the media, by swamis and politicians. There are talks on Gita in ashrams and temples. That still does not push us to read it.

 

In September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented copies of the Gita to the Japanese government. In December 2014, minister Sushma Swaraj proposed declaring the Gita a national book. And yet, on 19th December 2014, the Scroll reports, “National Book or not, what’s the Bhagavad Gita all about?” A surprising headline for an Indian news daily, and suggesting that the Gita is a celebrity, a book more famous than read. The Gita’s popularity is easily understood with an internet search, bookseller Amazon lists over 6000 different entries from translations and commentaries to dictionaries and music disks. But—buying a book does not mean reading that book.

 

When we pick up a CD with a recitation of the Gita, we find that every verse is sung in the same tune. The apparent monotony is more evident in visualisations of the work. In the Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata, the subtitle of the Gita section says: “Where’s the action?” The form of the Gita promises to be dull— 700 stanzas long, no real action, no change of scene, the entire text really a monolog posing as a dialog. Although Arjuna’s dilemma is the trigger for the Gita, he does not get to say very much. His main speech is in the first chapter where he explains his quandary, and after that, in the 11th chapter, when he is overwhelmed by the vision of Krishna; in many other chapters, he only gets to speak a single verse which serves as a prompt.

 

Some people are attracted to the Gita because they think it a religious text. Others are put off by just that. Some appreciate it because it is in Sanskrit, others hate just that, they think Sanskrit an oppressive language dominated by Brahmin culture. Some find the Gita open-minded, it presents a multiplicity of paths of ways to improve one’s life. Others hate just that, they find it indeterminate and confusing. Does Krishna ask Arjuna to kill people, and is this the message? But Krishna also tells Arjuna that non-violence is the sattvic path. Which message is valid? Krishna says that the four ‘varnas’ sorted by traits and tasks are issued by him, and that seems anti-egalitarian. But then Krishna also says all devotees matter equally to him. How then can we reconcile the two statements?

 

For one reason or the other, because we think we know it, because it seems offensive, because it seems confusing, because it seems dull, many of us do not actually read the entire Gita.

 

  1. READ IT.

 

  1. READ IT AS A CONTINUOUS TEXT.

One of the conventional ways to assimilate the message of the Gita is to study it thematically. For Karma Yoga we tend to turn to Chapter 3, for Gyana Yoga (jñāna yoga) we go to Chapter 4, and for Bhakti Yoga we go to Chapter 12. The commentarial tradition reinforces this practice; often, a spiritual leader gives a discourse on one chapter this year, and a different chapter the next year. Even in recitations, the reciter announces the chapter division: ‘Athaḥ dvitīyo’adhyāyaḥ.’ But if we really consider the Gita a speech or message from Krishna to Arjuna on a battlefield, we cannot but reconsider the chapter divisions as editorial interventions. Consider the content of the chapters, and we see much repetitions and overlap. Chapter 2 functions more or less as a summary of the entire Gita. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 really ought to be studied together. Even though Chapter 12 has much about devotion, Chapter 9 has the well-known verse about how Krishna accepts devotion even in the simple form of a flower, fruit, water, leaf.

Another convention, is to study a verse a day. It is true that some verses stand on their own, these are the verses that tend to be popular, and are memorized. Within the narrative and teaching of the Gita, separating a verse from the verses before and after it would be like plucking a sentence out of a paragraph. In the Gita, sometimes, the cognitive unit – i.e., the unit of comprehension – extends across several verses. 12.13 to 12.20 is one section, describing the qualities of a devotee. 10.12-10.18 is another section, where Arjuna addresses Krishna’s glory, and 10.20 to 10.32 is a list of comparisons that help us understand Krishna’s position in the universe. A collection of verses sometimes functions as a “scene.”

Taking an approach like this is most helpful in isolating the poetics of the Gita. For instance, from 11.14, Arjuna uses the verb “see” in every single verse until 11.19. The reader is keenly aware that this is a spectacle, an extraordinary sight. In 11.22, the same sight is also seen by the Adityas, Rudras, Vasus and Sadhyas and all the deities of the universe— Krishna now becomes the center of every gaze in the universe. 7.06 to 7.11 has a word that is repeated, it dominates the stage – asmi, I am. In these ways, we find that the Gita is made of dramatic units and scenes, not verses and chapters.

 

  1. READ TEXT, AND CONTEXT.

Often it is the context that tells us how to understand the meaning of a verse. 3.01 can be confusing, it is a verse which act as transitions between topics. Up until then, Krishna has been explaining to Arjuna the kind of person who can maintain equanimity. Arjuna misunderstands him, and asks, if you really think that the way of “buddhi” is better than “karma” why do you ask me to fight? Thus, 3.01 must be seen in the context of 3.02. And how does Krishna use the word ‘yoga’ in 3.02? For that, we need to look at 3.03.

2.16 is a good example of what happens when the verses are translated or commented upon without taking the context into consideration. Many translations are obstruse on this particular verse, they try to translate the terms ‘sat’ and ‘asat’ as abstract terms.

nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sata

ubhayor api dṛṣṭo.antas tv anayos tattvadarśibhi

na—not; asatah—of the nonexistent/of the nonreal; vidyate—it is found; bhāvas—being, coming to be, becoming. na—not; abhāvah—not being, not existing, not becoming; vidyate—it is found; satah—of the real/true/existent;  ubhayoh—of both; api—indeed, surely, also, even; dṛṣṭah—seen, perceived, discerned; antah—certainty, conclusion, end; tu—indeed, but; anayoh–of these two; tattva—truth, reality, thatness; darśibhi—by the seers/perceivers/discerners/knowers.

The symmetry of this verse cannot be missed. The sound pairs of “nāsato” “sata” and “bhāvo” “nābhāvo” are not just the rhythm, but the message that contrasts truth with delusion. The first part of the verse is complex—what “is” and what “is not” could refer to anything—living/non-living, animate/inanimate, fact/lie. From the materialist perspective, the physical world “is” and the “spiritual” world is conjecture, and the translation could be understood as a confirmation of materialism. Besides, it seems unsurprising for that which is non-existent to be non-existent.

But it is in the context of 2.15 that we must read 2.16. We then realize that ‘asat’ refers to the transient, and ‘sat’ to the not-transient. Alertness to the context resolves many confusions about the message of the Gita. Does the Gita downplay vedic rituals, or uphold them? Some may say that the Gita puts down the veda (see 2.41-2.42) but in fact, it is only selfish rituals that are being critiqued.

 

  1. WHICH GITA TO READ?

You may be familiar with ‘many Ramayanas’ generated in the itihāsa-purāa oral tradition, with numerous narrators and versions of the storyline. By contrast, the Gita seems an invariable source. In fact, the Gita is a highly mediated source, usually studied with the help of a teacher, commentator, or translator. Its tradition is that a commentator explains how to understand the Gita. The Gita is a tradition, a palimpsest, with layers of voices, voices that are lenses. Each commentary and translation becomes a part of the tradition for the next commentary and translation. The Bhagavad Gita is not only God’s Song, it is also the Guru’s Gita, Commentator’s Gita, and the Translator’s Gita.

The translation and the commentary you read will necessarily have an interpretation, you cannot do away with it. A simple example can help illustrate this point. What is “karma”? For Bhaktivedanta, karma yoga means devotion. For a vedic priest, vedic rituals constitute karma. For Mahatma Gandhi, service is karma. Those who want to get deep into the Gita ought to pick up one of the numerous guides and go through it, verse by verse. I suggest you read a few Gitas. As you do so, also try to decipher the interpretive stance of the Gita you are reading. Firstly, it means you need to understand how words mean what they say. When a book promises to be “Gita As It Is” you need to become alert, that the author of this line means that other Gita commentators are distorting their presentations, and his own version will act as a corrective. Awareness of such an agenda also implies an aggressive input from the commentator. Once you become alert to triggers and signals of interpretation, you will find yourself thinking, even as you read someone else’s interpretation. Please see in this book an example of how to do a textual analysis.

Additionally, even when we (think we) read the original Gita verses directly, we already have a lot of preconceptions in our mind which have formed by centuries of commentaries and mediation. Even when we embark on a direct study of the Gita verses, we deal with our own distortions, for we have own philosophy and preferences, perceptions and attitudes, that color our understanding. And we have centuries of commentary that has insinuated itself in our memories, without our sharp awareness. A simple example: we think that Krishna speaks about the “ātman” (“self” or “soul”) in Chapter 2. Does he?

 

  1. READ CLOSELY.

DOES KRISHNA SAY ‘ATMAN’ IN VERSES 2.13 – 2.27?

Krishna informs Arjuna in verses 2.13 to 2.27 that ātman (soul/self) is indestructible, and permanent. Or does he? Krishna refers to a dehin and śarīrin, or ‘that which has a body’. It is we readers who have read the Gita along with memories of translations and commentaries and who assume that these verses are about the ātman/soul/self.

Why does Krishna not use the term ‘ātman’ when explaining the concept to Arjuna? Possibly, because Dehin and ‘śarīrin’ are descriptive terms, ‘ātman’ denotes oneself. Arjuna does not know about ātman the way Krishna wants him to understand it. Had Krishna explained the concept using the term ‘ātman’, Arjuna might get confused, especially if he already understands the term ātman as a pronoun, referring to his body or personality… and Krishna has to first destabilize these very notions.

Let’s say, that what Arjuna knows is body, deha. It would be logical then, for Krishna to begin his persuasive argument with that. And where is Arjuna? On the battlefield—Krishna begins there too.

In 2.11, Krishna tells Arjuna that a wise person does not mourn for those whose breath has gone, and for those whose breath has not gone. What a shocking statement. Is that all then, the difference between the dead and the living? Imagine all the breathing soldiers in the battlefield around Arjuna, just one breath away from death.

In 2.12, Krishna makes a big claim, he says that there was never a time when he was not, and never a time when he won’t be, and even more flabbergasting, he includes Arjuna and the warriors in the statement — I, you, and these leaders. The verse begins with Krishna speaking about himself; it is somewhat easier for Arjuna to understand Krishna’s presence stretching into the past and the future beyond the present life, and that becomes the leaping point for the other incredible idea, that everyone is eternally present.

Identity has to be the next topic, logically, because Krishna’s claim is far-fetched. It is the ‘dehin’ or ‘that which has the body’ experiences childhood, youth and age in the body, and then acquires another body. Krishna uses locative ‘dehe’ – ‘in/at the body.’ He positions the body as a site, rather than the experiencer.

In 2.14 we learn something about what happens at this site, sensations come and go, they are transient. 2.15 then advises us that equanimity is the apt response to something transient. It is in the context of 2.15 that we must read 2.16. That which is asat – sensations — have no reality/being/existence. Arjuna can begin to understand what kind of attitude he ought to have towards transient phenomena. Thus far, he knows about body, and sensations. He has been given one glimpse, a possibility, that there is more to life than transient physical life. Many translations are obstruse on this particular verse, they try to translate the terms literally, and without any connection to the context. It is in the commentaries that we gain an understanding. ‘Sat’ and ‘asat’ make most sense as theorization of the particular example about the transience and unreality of sensations. Additionally, 2.17 begins with the word ‘avinaśi’ (indestructible), that (yaḥ, yena) by which the physical world is pervaded and woven. 2.18 continues this contrasting theme, the dehin is anāśinaḥ aprameyaḥ (indestructible, immeasurable). This verse is like a summary of the last three verses, it tells us the contrasting outcomes of both—the physical body ends, that which has the physical body, the sārīrin, is indestructible and immeasurable.

2.19 brings the topic back to culpability, framing the discussion in Arjuna’s immediate context about the responsibility and guilt of war and killing, and notice how Krishna refers to the ‘dehin’ here as ‘enam,’ or ‘this.’ Again, in 2.20, a well-known stanza, Krishna refers to ‘dehin’ as ‘ayam’ or ‘this.’ Stanza 2.21 has ‘enam,’ 2.22 has dehin, 2.23 has ‘enam,’ 2.24 has ‘ayam’ 2.25 has ‘ayam,’ and 2.26 has ‘enam.’ From 2.21, Krishna goes through the parts of the puzzle again. In 2.21, a speculation—the person who knows about the quality of the dehin, how can he consider himself the killer?

2.22 then presents exactly who is the doer, it is the dehin. There is a parallel established between the person or naraḥ and the dehin, but notice the big difference in their personalities. The first two lines use the verb for grab, sieze, or hold— ‘gṛhṇāti’ and the next couplet uses the verb for meet, or encounter– ‘saṃyāti.’ People have hands, so they can hold, and the ‘dehin’ … encounters/meets! This verb does not have sensory or tactile aspects. And with the very next two verses 2.23 and 2.24, we see how nothing sensory occurs to the dehin, it is out of this range.

At 2.22 we understand how we wear and discard clothes, and we can project a similar action on to what the śarīrin does. Notice how the second couplet does not actually mention ‘bodies’, the meaning is implied. It is we readers who have to make the connection of equivalence between the ‘new ones’ of the first couplet and the ‘new ones’ of the second couplet.

Interestingly, 2.23 and 2.24 make the same point, but with different emphases. In 2.23 the focus is on the action, and in 2.24 the focus is the indestructible, unchangeable object, ‘this’ ‘enam.’

Verse 2.24 is conclusive on the subject of immutability, and wraps up the point by linking back to verse 2.12. Dehin, or you, are also nityah and sanatanah— eternal, and primordial/ancient/old. This repeats the idea of verse 2.12 where Krishna has talked about himself, Arjuna and the warriors, there was never a time when they were not, and there will never be a time when they will not be. Life as it is manifest in the body is just the middle part. By the time Krishna sings verse 2.24, Arjuna has understood that this dehin is who he really is.

And so what? It means that the dehin is not just fixed (sthāṇur) and unmoving (acalaḥ), but also powerful, able to go anywhere (sarvagataḥ). Because lines 3 and 4 of 2.24 present some unfathomable concepts about the embodied, and so it is time for 2.25 to explain why. Also, because it is so potent, verse 2.25 explains, there’s no need to feel sad. The last line of verse 2.25 is repeated as the last line of verse 2.26, and again in 2.27, it is a refrain: nānuśocitum arhasi. Why the emphasis on arhat? Even though Arjuna is really the dehin, he is nothing compared to the awesome power of the dehin, and it is not his place, or role, or business, to be sentimental and sorry about the dehin. What Krishna reports about the dehin is beyond Arjuna’s comprehension. No matter how he thinks about dehin (2.26), anyway he doesn’t need to mourn for it. The stanza puts Arjuna in his place. Verse 2.27 insists that death is only certain for those that are born, and birth is certain for the dead. Arjuna now knows that neither of these happen to dehin. Mourning becomes irrelevant for dehin; on the other hand, since the deha has to die anyway, mourning is anyway irrelevant. 2.28 asks, again, what’s there to cry? Tatra kā paridevanā?

Having heard something so bizarre, we can imagine that perhaps Arjuna wonders, am I the first to know about this? Krishna says everyone’s surprised to hear about this, but no one comprehends it, knows it (śṛutvā na enam veda). In verse 2.30, Krishna repeats, the dehī is in everyone, so there’s no need to mourn at all. In less than twenty verses, Krishna has explained two subjects. The first, the physical, is delimited to the world of change. As for the second, we get some inkling that it is ungraspable.

Even up until this point, there is no mention of ātman. Here is a synopsis:

2.12: aham I / tvam you / ime janādhipāḥ these leaders (always were and will be)

2.13 dehin embodied (takes on infancy youth old age – takes on other bodies)

2.14 (physical – sensations – transient)

2.15 (therefore equanimity in joy and sorrow)

2.16 (sat and asat or reality and non-reality)

2.17 (imperishable)

2.18 sarīrin embodied (eternal)

2.19 enam this (doesn’t kill can’t be killed)

2.20 ayam this (never born never dies ..)

2.21. enam this (if you know, who do you kill or cause to)

2.22. dehin embodied (old clothes – old bodies)

2.23. enam this (weapons don’t pierce – etc)

2.24. ayam this (unpiercable etc)

2.25. ayam this (invisible unthinkable etc)

2.26. enam this (if born and dies again and again, why lament)

2.27. (death certain for the born, birth for those who die)

2.28 (beginning and ends not manifest, middle manifest)

2.29 enam this (surprised some see some hear ..)

2.30 dehin embodied (always un-slayable)

Now, I ask, why must we assume that ‘dehin’and ‘śarīrin’ are equivalent to ‘ātman’? If ātman is only a personal pronoun, then perhaps the point is to understand that the dehin is ātman. And who or what is ‘dehin’? Could it, for example, be Krishna? Or Brahman? That which has the body does not have to be the self. While we accept the wisdom and guidance of commentaries, we must think about the text based on what it actually says. Read the Gita. When ‘ātman’ does come up later in the Gita, Krishna is referring to you, and sometimes to the ungendered, immortal, indestructible it, who you really, really are. The explanation we have got used to is that ‘Krishna tells Arjuna that the soul is indestructible.’ We could revisit the text and understand something quite different.

The words ‘soul’ and ‘self’ do not help at all when translating these verses, nor do ‘inner self’ or [self] or other combinations. ‘Soul’ is a safe, familiar word, but vague, for we do not know what exactly it refers to, and ‘self’ is a concept understood in different ways. When we read, thus, something we already think we know about the soul, we don’t know any better. Instead, if we unlearn this assumption, put ourselves in Arjuna’s shoes, and listen carefully to the argument, verse after verse, we arrive at a deeper understanding of the concept (even though we may eventually choose to refer to it as ‘ātman’). We understand the dehī /dehin/ ātman in terms of the deha. And our meaning of ātman, of our self, changes, we are no longer only whom we thought we were.

Find out when Krishna first uses the term ‘ātman’ and what does it mean there?

 

[1] Jungk, R. (1958). Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. Tr. James Cleugh. London: V.Gollancz. p.8.

[2] Huffington Post, 11 February 2012

 

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Mani Rao is the author of eight poetry books, and two books in translation — The Bhagavad Gita, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. Her poems and essays are published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line, and Interim, and in various anthologies.