A Song of Being
Review of 'The Bhagavad Gita -- A Biography' by Richard H. Davis,
published in Open magazine, August 7' 2015
In the fifth section of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the earliest of Upanishads written around 600 BCE, the Gods, Demons and Humans arrive before Brahma, the Creator, and ask him to teach them. Hearing this request, Brahma utters a gnomic syllable: Da. Then, of each student, Brahma asks if they understood him. The Gods, who were known for extravagant indulgences of lusts and desires, tell Brahma that they understood his utterance, Da, as an instruction to practice daamyata, or restraint. The Humans, known for their avarice and selfishness, say that they recognise in Brahma’s exhortation an order to practice daatha, or generosity. For their part, the Demons too confirm that they understood Brahma’s didactic grunt as a lesson instructing them on dayadhvam, compassion. A voice roars from the skies: Da! Da! Da! Restraint, Generosity and Compassion. That is all there is to life, Brahma seemed to say. Centuries later, at the end of World War I, TS Eliot bid farewell to an old age (incidentally, also at the end of the fifth section of his poemThe Waste Land) and welcomed a new one with an appeal to Brahma’s didactic fragments. But Eliot soon reconciles himself to the mindlessness of the age to emerge, and concludes ‘with these fragments I have shored against my ruins’.
The Upanishadic lesson—be it before or after ruination from war—was universal, but it was also ‘customised’, as we say these days. It knew that recipients of the message were heterogeneous in talents and instincts. We absorb different lessons from the same corpus, even from lessons as parsimonious as Brahma’s monosyllabic grunt. The scholar AK Ramanujan called the above episode emblematic of how meanings froth out in context-specific systems, such as language or ways of thinking, thanks to the ‘nature and substance of the listener’. Few instances of a literary- religious work lay bare this idea of dissonant responses as vividly as the reception of the Bhagavad Gita, a 700 verse poem written in the centuries that followed the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Like the final teaching of Brahma that was apportioned in accordance with the pre- cocity of his students, over the centuries, the Bhagavad Gita has found lay devotees, critical interpreters, perspicacious readers and unthinking literalists from across humanity.
The Gita is ensconced in the near oceanic epic called the Mahabharata. On the surface, it is a conversation between a despairing and weary Arjuna (a warrior prince) who is reluctant to participate in a fratricidal war that is about to commence and his charioteer-cousin called Krishna who urges him on to act, to not yield to this unmanliness, to wage war. What follows in the poem is a back-and-forth between a sceptical but increasingly curious Arjuna and the mysterious Krishna, who isn’t what he seems. By the end, Arjuna the human finds himself as a witness to the transfiguration of his friend Krishna, who goes from a man, a philosophising everyman, a godhead, an avatar of God, to all Creation itself. Krishna reveals himself to be both—the Heideggerian Being and the infinity of beings who populate the world. The conversation itself is a meditation on all that precedes and follows from action: intention, desire, consequences, karma, rebirth, God, and that omnipresent devourer of all acts, time itself. The poem that begins as a simple spur for Arjuna’s ‘yoga of melancholy’ (vishada yoga as the great teacher Nochur Venkataraman teaches it) in the face of the inevitable grotesqueries of war becomes a wormhole to another side of experience wherein a theophanic vision of creation awaits. From the point of view of the Mahabharata’s plot, the poem reveals to Arjuna that all which he holds dear—his family, friends, life itself—are already sublimated in the Lord. Intuiting this bone deep, all of Arjuna’s anxieties ebb away and he begins to prepare for action, which in this instance results in a cataclysmic war. And thus the poem ends and the epic continues.
What the Gita is really about, however, depends on whom you ask and what period in history the responder belongs to. It is these sets of responses, chronologically arranged, that Richard H Davis calls the biography of the Gita. It is a small-sized, elegantly put together book by Princeton University Press. What Davis offers in The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography is highly readable fare on the social life of the text. Much of it will be new to many who have never thought of the Gita as one having its own story or that texts themselves have a history of reception. Thanks to Davis’ narrative strategy of chronicling responses, what one sees is that the Gita has had an extraordinary impact on many lives. Many of whom Davis mentions, and some of whom he elides. These include Thoreau, who wrote, in his sensuous prose, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita...’, and the former Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who attributed to the poem’s moral force his decision to send troops into Cyprus in 1974. Elsewhere, just as Mahatma Gandhi often read from the Gita at public meetings during his great anti-colonial struggle, Heinrich Himmler would carry a leather-bound copy of the Gita during his years as the Reichsführer as he oversaw the murder of millions in the Holocaust. Whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that Walt Whitman’s self-published verse collection (Leaves of Grass) were ‘a mixture of the Bhagavat Githa and the New York Herald’, the political philosopher Slavoj Zizek called the ancient poem the archetype of ‘authentic totalitarian poetry’.
Such a chronicle of fragmentary responses, a portmanteau of the who’s who of Indic and Indological thought, is an effective method that Davis uses to inform us of how the Gita has ‘lived’ over the centuries. This approach, a la Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Black Bird, relies on ‘inflections and innuendoes’ that burble up an impression that the Gita is an ‘important’ book to many important people. Wherein emerges the importance of the Gita—be it as a theological vision, an ontology of Being, or a synthesis of the antipodes in Indic thought—is less evident in Davis’ writings.
The book’s thesis about the Gita’s greatness is thus a weakly tautological argument that appeals to authority to establish the greatness of the text. In a way, this approach appeals to the unthinking traditionalism that marks the attitude many modern Indians have towards the Gita, which I suspect will endear this book to much of the Indian reading market.
Yet, this is unfortunate, as it’s an opportunity to think hard anew. For the Gita as a text was born at a historical cusp when subtle arguments about reason, revelation, God and humanity clashed and coalesced. The Gita’s thesis of action as an answer for the meaninglessness experienced by its protagonist, the contrasting energies of urbanisation during the Axial Age and the concomitant rise of monastic orders, the cloud-cover of annihilatory violence in the Mahabharata and the spirit of synthesis that brings togetherYoga and Sankhya, Vedavada (ritual) and Brahmavada (post ritual)— in each of these cases, the Gita wears its contradictory tensions lightly. These are arguably the most interesting aspects that any biography of the Gita ought to cover; yet, that Davis makes little mention of any of this is mystifying. To be fair to Davis, to provide a précis of the Gita’s life in the first millennia of its birth isn’t an easy task. For one quickly wades into weeds with questions like: To what century can the Gita be placed in? How does one reconcile the oral tradition of transmission with the birth of a text? Can its presentation of caste be treated literally? Is the standard philological investigation of the kind Western academics have performed on various other religious texts (including the Bible) adequate to understand the Gita? If yes, how does one reconcile the quasi-Buddhist language of early parts of the Gita with the historic Buddha? Was there an ur-Gita that was a popular version of the extant philosophical school called Sankhya? Most importantly, how indeed does one ‘read’ the Gita?
That well over a millennium after the Gita’s purported birth, the greatest theological minds of their times, Sankara and Ramanuja, read meanings into the text that varied in implication and provided differing models of originary causation should give us a pause. It is thus precisely the diversity of the textual readings, among Indians and Indologists, that makes a biography of the Gita less amenable to a simple, episodic narrative of reactions. What changes over time are understandings of concepts that inform the Gita, not merely the readers of a text. Was the doctrine of Karma as understood by Sankara and Gandhi the same? Such questions, hard as they are, rarely occupy Davis’ telling.
Instead, Davis marshals an impressive set of witnesses —all from around the 8th century CE onwards—to convince us that the Gita is a great religious book. He begins with the theologian-philosophers Sankara and Ramanuja, the Marathi poet-composer Jnaneswara, a bevy of colonialists, Orientalists and Indophiles who brought the Gita to the West (Wilkins, Schlegel, Herder, James Mill, Hegel and Edwin Arnold whose 1885 translation into English influenced a young barrister called MK Gandhi profoundly) and the hive mind of New England Transcendentalists who found in the Gita an equanimity far removed from the commerce and caprice of the young American Republic (‘large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence’ wrote Emerson). After tracing the Gita’s reputation in Europe and America from the 18th and 19th century, Davis’ narrative returns to India at the beginning of the 20th century. Here, for a new generation of Indians, oppressed and animated by the imagined and real humiliations of the colonial experience, the Gita becomes a fount of activist ideas, valour and self- respect. To buttress this reading of the Gita, Davis introduces lesser known (to the Western reader) figures such Swami Vivekananda, BR Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, KB Hedgewar and Nathuram Godse. Having surveyed briefly these names, Davis’ final chapters are dedicated to treating the Gita as a text. A text that poses unique difficulties to four prominent translators (scholar JAB van Buitenen, poet Stephen Mitchell, Iskon founder Swami Prabhupada and politician- philosopher S Radhakrishnan) who arrive at the Gita, like wildcatters, seeking to mine its subterranean riches only to find that the earths out of which the poem sprung has hardened over time, its trails obscured by the footprints of previous generations of explorers, and perhaps most importantly, that each translator must resort to a familiar and limited vocabulary to describe what they find despite intuiting that what they see is something more grand and elusive.
A natural advantage of a narrative that piggybacks on chronological time is that it can traverse the centuries to arrive at the present day. This method to ‘historicise’, all too common nowadays (consider the published cultural histories of happiness, doubt, courage, shame and so on), proffers the perception of continuity as far as textual reception is concerned. While those ‘secular’ subjects may benefit from such an approach, Davis doesn’t really explain why a religious work like the Gita ought to be subject to the same method. In this telling, the awkward ebb and flow of history are subtly effaced in the interest of readability. Thus the periods of history when the Gita had to actively compete among a menagerie of religious beliefs—during the first millennia thanks to Buddhist thinkers who actively contested it and later in the medieval era with the rise of Islamic kingdoms that had little use for the Gita except as a Hindu philosophic curiosum—find little space in Davis’ retelling. More pernicious to disentangle, and one that goes beyond a laundry list of important people, is the effect of the modern, ‘Europeanized intellect’ (as Aurobindo called them), which includes many educated Indians who continue to misread the Gita as a non-theist text that encourages disinterested (‘desireless’) social service when in fact it remains a profoundly theistic, God-directed worldview. This erosion of the Gita’s religious vision and a substitution of modern platitudes as its main message has few takers now, including Davis.
An enduring mystery of the Gita is how a slender poetic work has gained such a level of importance within the Hindu corpus (prasthanatrayi)—at par with the Upanishads and Brahmasutras—when there exist competing and closely- aligned texts. Why did the Kashmiri recension traced to the Shaivite tantra philosopher Abhinavagupta, or the even lesser known one called the Ashtavakra Gita, never gain such prominence? Any answer to these questions that proffers to explain the Bhagavad Gita’s rise to primacy must necessarily span various disciplines (a rethinking of disciplinary boundaries that the scholar Parimal G Patil labels ‘transdisciplinary’), but it also runs the risk of woolly speculation. Couched inside any tale of textual transmission is the labyrinthine question of what one means by ‘Hinduism’ itself. Thus, when we read of academics who resort to different metaphors to describe Hinduism—potpourri, banyan/polycentric, net, jungle, complete environs, supersaturated solution, a pan of lasagna, kaleidoscope, a tradition containing Hellenistic and Judaic worldviews—one can empathise with the extraordinary difficulty of the task at hand. To explain, then, how the Gita percolates into Hindu consciousness is intimately tied to how one thinks of Hinduism itself. That Davis’ biography shows no awareness of such supervening difficulties reveals not just the limitations of this biography, but also how the narrative swims ‘hugging the shore’ (as John Updike called it) of conventional and well-charted Western academic Indology.
What is also lost in Davis’ reduction of the Gita to a text is the possibility of seeing it as an event, an occasion like, say, a family dinner at Christmas (as the Buddhist monk Bhante Sujato suggests elsewhere). Generation after generation of Indians and Indophiles come together, argue, support, critique and arrive at historically contingent conclusions about the Gita. Out of the fires of this argument emerges the tradition where the Gita becomes a site for rediscovery, a geography to locate oneself amidst the erosion of modern life. This is not a tradition in the sense of some pass-down of texts that brook no interpretive challenge, but instead is a fluid and contentious play of imagination and morality. To capture these aspects of the Gita—the circumstances of its birth, difficult years of youth, a corpulent middle age, and an uncertain old age in the days ahead—means writing a different kind of biography, where the tyranny of chronology is abandoned and instead a self aware philosophic gaze engages with what it means for a religion like Hinduism, with its monistic essence and polyvalent manifestations, to have a book whose most profound secrets are hidden in the open. For such a biography of the Gita, we must continue to wait.