inside the bhagavad gita
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8/2/2019 Inside the Bhagavad Gita
INSIDE THE BHAGAVAD GITA
An Interview with Edwin F. Bryant, Ph.D.
D r. E dw in B ry an t o ffirs u s a to ur o f th e h isto ric al a nd relig io us la nd sca pe o f th eBhagavad Gita in th is in te rv iew, in clu dina view o f its in flu en ce o n T ho re au , Emerso n, Mah atm a Gan dh i a nd its re lev an ce fo r Yog a stu den ts a nd tea ch ers.
Integral Yoga Magazine: Can you please create a contextfor us in which we can understand the Gita and itswar-like setting?
Edwin Bryant: We first need to understand the Gita in itscontext as part of the world's largest epic, the onehundred-verse Mahabharata. The Gita,with its war-likelanguage occurs about halfway through the epic. As theGita begins, we learn what will result in a gory, gruesomewar is about to erupt. We're not about to read the Sermonon the Mount or the Buddha's Deer Park sermon! All theknown kings of the time are gathered-there are evenreferences to Chinese troops, and to Greek and Hunforces.
Whether or not this is historically true, the epic presentsit~lf with martial imagery and phraseology because itoccurs in the midst of a world war. Arjuna isn't a disciplegiving up everything to follow Buddha or Christ. He's asix-foot eight tall invincible warrior. Krishna himself is akshatriya prince. The narrative is not about turning theother cheek. This can be quite a surprise to someonepicking up the Gita for the first time and thinking it willbe a pacifist type spiritual text and finding it reads like thescript for Mel Gibson's Braveheart ! [Laughs]
IYM: What is the Gita'srelationship to other scripturaltexts of Hinduism?
EB: As I said, it is part of the Mahabharata, so its contextand some of its rhetoric is epic. But it is sometimes calledthe Git a Upan ishad ,because a good part of its content isUpanishadic;there are Upanishadicteachings throughoutthe Gita, and one can find there verses identical to some inthe, for example, Kath a Upanis ha dThat is why the Gitawas appropriated by the scholastic Vedanta tradition.
Vedanta (along with the Yoga tradition) is one of the sixorthodox schools of phi losophy or darsanas that came outof the Upanishadicperiod. The Vedanta tradition set as itsgoal the clarifying of the Upanishads.That is what Vedantais: scriptural interpretation or hermeneutics. Unlike Yoga,which is based on experiential insight, Vedanta is based onscriptural analysis. The Vedanta Sutras,written byBadarayana, is all about how to interpret the Upanishads ina consistent fashion. (Does he succeed? No, he createsanother cryptic text that itself requires interpretation suchthat it gave rise to a number of different schools ofVedantasuch as advai ta , v is ish tadva ita, bhedadbheda ,
dvai tadva ita, shuddhadvaitaand dvaita). In any event,Vedanta,as a cluster of sub-traditions, focuses on threetexts: the Upanishads,the Vedanta Sutrasand the Gita(known as the Pras tbana- Traya Granthas)for the solepurpose of clarifying the Upanishads.So the Gita spansboth the epic and philosophical genres.
IYM: When was the Gita first translated into English?
EB: The first translation of the Gita was issued in Englandin 1785 by Sir Charles Wilkins, but it was a long timebefore i t was noticed. Eventually, as a growing westernpresence developed in India, traders and colonialadministrators became interested in understanding Indiansand Indian culture. Colonialists were looking for the onebook, one prophet model with which they were familiar inChristianity and Islam, and in India they were faced withwhat seemed an exotic chaos and confusion of sects,traditions, gods and scriptures.
They wanted some single identifiable source they couldcling to as to what Hindus believed so that they couldinteract with them and, eventually, better rule them.(That's not to say that some British weren't sincerehumanists who believed; at least from their own frames of
reference, that they could help Indians). So, some of theBrahmins said that the Gita was important and the Britishlatched on to that. That is how it became referred to, for aperiod, by some British, as the "bible of India." Of course,there is no one "bible" in India, but a wide variety of textsthat are authoritative to different communities.
IYM: What brought it to more prominence in the West?
EB: There was not much reaction to the Gita fromwesterners until much later, when it was discovered byRomanticists and Transcendentalists such as Emerson andThoreau, and even then, the interest was not widespread
but centered in intellectual circles of this kind. Theirinterest was still an abstract interest, and the Gita becamedetached from its Hindu context and read as aconfirmation of the perennial philosophy or truthunderlying all religions, as was espoused by such thinkers.
This was similar to its reading by the theosophists, whoalso later paid attention to the Gita. Another stream ofwestern interest came from Christian scholars. Some, atleast, felt that the Gita was asking the right questions, butthat, while it had admirable theistic and other merits, it
8/2/2019 Inside the Bhagavad Gita
did not have the right answers (which could only be foundin Christ's revelations). A5 an aside, while Europeans ingeneral could relate to the Krishna of the Gita, theycouldn't relate to the Krishna of the Puranas, the Krishnaof the gopis(his female devotees).
IYM: How did the Hindus feel about western appreciationor critique of the Gita?
EB: Many Hindu nationalists and apologists wereprepared to jett ison much of their tradition (specifically,the Puranic Content dealing with the stories of the greatdivinities of Siva, Vishnu and the Goddess), but theyjumped onto the Gita as a kind of text around which theycould rally much more easily than the Ka li Tan tr aor theGopi Leel a.Hinduism had come under attack bywesterners. Hindus wanted to show missionaries-whowere criticizing their Puranic notions of divinity as havingelephant's head, multiple arms or cavorting with other
men's wives-that Hinduism also had a "rational" side-the Upanishadsand the Gita.
Hinduism had been represented as uselessly mythological,other-worldly and as the reason why India was so chaotic.The Brit ish, however, could relate to the Karma Yoga ofthe Gita-the work ethic of doing one's duty. They couldalso relate to the Upanishadicportion-that there is a souldistinct from the body-and they could relate to the basicteachings of the bhakti portion, surrender to God. WhileEuropeans couldn't accept Krishna as God, theyrecognized that the Gita contained some kinds of theist ictruth, even as they felt Christianity was the higher truth.
So there was some appreciation of the Gita.The result ofthis was Hindus prioritizing and popularizing the Gitamore than might have been the case in pre-modern India,and the text's centrali ty outside of India as representativeof Hinduism also becoming enhanced.
IYM: Is this why the Gita became popularized in Americatoo?
EB: Gurus like Swami Satchidananda and SrilaPrabhupada, who arrived in the West in the 1960s, camefrom that apologetic, nationalist ic milieu. They presentedthe Gita as a scripture of which they could be proud, andit became central to them. When they came to theAmerica, they brought various teachings-including, ofcourse, Yoga, which was to become the most visiblysuccessful-and the Gita was part of this package ofexported Hinduism. Current ly, the Gita is the mostcommonly translated text from India, with the biggestcirculation in the West of any Hindu scripture. I recallreading that there are now over well over 300 non-Indianlanguage translations.
IYM: Why do some say the battlefield of the Gita issymbolic, not historical?
Dr. Edwin Bryant
EB: This notion of it being symbolic comes from theTheosophists who were looking for the universal,perennial truths underlying all religions, and thus typicallydepicted the surface or historical context of religions assymbolic. History has passed Theosophy by, somewhat ,but they were very important players in pre-independenceIndia. This type of reading was then picked up byMahatma Gandhi as a nice, post-enlightenment way of
looking at the Gita.
The idea that the five Pandavas represent the five senses,for example, was picked up by Gandhiji from Theosophy.He read the Gita every day, but for him, the Gitapractically ended at Chapter Two. Fifty percent of hiscommentary is on Chapter Two. He wasn't interested inthe bhakti elements and, because of his nonviolence ethic,what was he going to do with the violent setting of theGita?He appropriated the theosophic notion of thesymbolism of the war. While one can appreciate how thismay have worked well for Gandhiji 's non-violence agenda,one should be clear that such symbolic readings are
modern readings; they are not the pre-modern traditionalor classical understanding of the text.
IYM: In your view, what is the Gita's central theme?
EB: Krishna is consciously drawing on the main thingsgoing on in the religious landscape of the time andsubsuming these under bhakti.The Mahabharata occurs ata time when Vedic dharmais under attack by both non-Vedictraditions and by ascetic traditions within the Vedicfold. While Vedicritualism remains the mainstreamreligious activity of the time, this is also a period in which
8/2/2019 Inside the Bhagavad Gita
ascetic, meditative traditions were coming to the fore. Thequestions in the Gita of action rather than non-action areposed in this climate.
Krishna re-affirms the value of varnashram dharma (the
various orders of life including student, householder,sannyasi} with each of its associated actions and duties, inother words, of action in the world rather thanrenunciation of it. He is presenting a sp