Seeking the Gita
The Gita has been used for everything from “Just War” political theory to pacifism, eclectic claims of medicine, and as a handbook for the secret forms of yogic practice. But whatever we think the Bhagavadgita means, it is surely a gateway through which every yogin must pass before taking any next step. It has always implied more than it has said and perplexed as much as it has inspired. No modern reader should feel the slightest reluctance to interpret the text as she or he sees fit: this is exactly what has always been done without the least amount of compunction. (Brooks, Loc 163)
Will the ‘Real’ Bhagavad Gita Please Stand Up?
I’ll begin with a note on where I’m coming from. I can’t write in any way for the hundreds of millions of people who have grown up and lived with a more or less unified reading of the Bhagavad Gita through one of many religio-cultural lenses. I’m writing from the position I share with those who have been exposed to it (and fallen in love with it) through a synthesis of secular academic study and the “spiritual-but-not-religious” milieu of the modern yoga studio and its trainings.
For this demographic, the first matter to address is the conundrum of being aware of multiple Gitas. The Sanskrit dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna has been translated into (or colonized by) non-Indian languages more times than any other text of yoga’s vast literature, with each version carrying the insights, biases, and blindspots of the translator’s community. Beneath this globalizing layer there is a 1500-year history of the text at war upon its native battleground, bloodied by conflicting readings that reflect both its malleability and its internal tensions. I’ll roughly sketch some of these readings below, and then offer two additional reading stances — from a globalized, secular, and deconstructive perspective — that might broaden this old conversation even further.
I would argue that simply being aware of many Gitas exposes the sensitive secular student to the “incredulity towards metanarratives” by which Francois Lyotard characterized the postmodern mood (Lyotard, 1984). In other words: when one starts to investigate how a book like the Gita evolves against the backdrop of its many uses and readings through time, its monolithic potential as a a pillar of sanatana dharma (“eternal teaching”, according to the favoured expression in orthodox Hinduism) becomes less accessible. It becomes hard to commit to a stable point-of-view, to invest in the hero, to worship its central speaker, or to be romanced by his promise of salvation. If one is to generate awe and wonder before the text — if this is even desirable — it will be as one who finds religion less in the book’s presumed meaning than in the complexity of how that meaning is produced.
Multiple Gitas: An Incomplete Survey of Readings
Shankara (788-820) sidestepped the Gita’s Samkhya-heavy dualism to read the text as the crowning achievement of transcendent non-dualism. The Tantric commentator Abhinavagupta (950-1020) rejected this Vedantic presentation in favour of a radically immanent non-dualism. Ramanuja (1017-1137) split the difference in favour of an immanent-and-transcendent reading. Commentators have typically emphasized either the wisdom or the action encouragements of the text. And because the character of Krishna seems to support the old Vedic order in some verses and reject it elsewhere, writers have used it to support either pro-or anti-ritualistic positions. In the 13th century, the 16 year-old Marathi prodigy-poet Jnaneshvari bubbled over with his manifesto of personal bhakti, modeling an intimacy with the holy song he insisted would lead the reader inevitably to love, and then to freedom.
Centuries later, many early Indologists twisted the text to support the presumed moral superiority of the pro-Christian Raj, or into a lowish rung on Hegel’s romantic ladder towards the world “supermind”. Fighting back against such racist or abstracting appropriations, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, co-founder of the All India Home Rule League, saw the text as a pro-Hindu rallying cry for violent uprising against the colonizers. Specifically, he taught that Krishna’s lesson on detachment in action meant that a freedom-fighter who held no hope for personal reward could murder an occupier with a clear conscience. Writing about another anti-colonialist trend, Richard Davis reports that
“to gain entry to the inner circle of the Anushilan Samiti (Self-Culture Association]… an initiation was required. Lying flat on a human skeleton, holding a revolver in one hand and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the other, the initiate had to recite the group’s oath.” (Davis, Loc. 1609)
In his youth, this sort of ritual might have been Aurobindo Ghose’s cup of chai. But his prison epiphany turned him away from armed resistance. Upon his release, Aurobindo retreated to Pondicherry to focus upon the Gita’s cosmology in isolation from its politics.
Mohandas K. Gandhi pushed back against writers like Tilak, presenting the Gita as an uncompromising hymn to non-violence, based upon a debatable argument that one cannot be unattached to the results of a violent action, and therefore Krishna must only be speaking about the internal strife of psychic conflict. A similarly internalized Gita, though stripped of its activist import, was favored by American Transcendentalists dating back through Thoreau and Emerson to Walt Whitman, and stretching forward through many secular interpreters familiar to modern global yoga, who see in the text the invitation to a posthistorical contemplative trance.
Then there’s the reading stance of Indian Marxism. I’ll quote liberally from two giants here, because they will be the least known to the largely neoliberal vibe of modern global yoga.
Historian Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi (1907-1966) writes in Myth and Reality (1962, wonky pdf available here): “the utility of the Gita derives from its peculiar fundamental defect, namely dexterity in seeming to reconcile the irreconcilable”, designed to reify state power and class structure whilst bamboozling the underclasses with a devotional mirage. Kosambi breathes proletarian fire upon the old scroll:
The high god repeatedly emphasizes the great virtue of non-killing (ahimsa), yet the entire discourse is an incentive to war. So, 2.19 says that it is impossible to kill or be killed. The soul merely puts off an old body as a man his old clothes, in exchange for new; it cannot be cut by weapons, nor suffer from fire, water or the storm. In the eleventh chapter, the terrified Arjuna sees all the warriors of both sides rush into a gigantic Visnu-Krsna’s innumerable voracious mouths, to be swallowed up or crushed. The moral is pointed by the demoniac god himself (11.33): that all the warriors on the field had really been destroyed by him; Arjuna’s killing them would be a purely formal affair whereby he could win the opulent kingdom. Again, though the yajna sacrifice is played down or derided, it is admitted in 3.14 to be the generator of rain, without which food and life would be impossible. This slippery opportunism characterizes the whole book. Naturally, it is not surprising to find so many Gita lovers imbued therewith. Once it is admitted that material reality is gross illusion, the rest follows quite simply; the world of “doublethink” is the only one that matters.
Social reformer Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) served as Drafting Committee Chairman for the Indian Constitution of 1947 and was a leading voice in India’s Modern Buddhist Movement. He had little time for the Song of God, perhaps because he was too busy trying to end discrimination against oppressed peoples such as the Dalits. He saw the modern Gita’s legacy as an anti-democratic religiosity serving the desires of upper-caste counter-revolutionary elites. He dismisses the old book out-of-hand: “It uses philosophy to defend religion”, he writes — such as the creeds of transmigration, the innateness of caste, and the efficiency of Vedic ritual. Ambedkar suggests that the Gita enjoys its modern pride of place in Hindutva discourse because it posed an early and effective pushback against Buddhist rejections of essentialism, social inequality, sacrifice, and Vedic authority, while, paradoxically co-opting poetic aspects of Buddhist philosophy, which, if taken at their word, would forbid Krishna’s obvious militarism:
Why did the Bhagvat Gita feel it necessary to defend the dogmas of counter-revolution? To my mind the answer is very clear. It was to save them from the attack of Buddhism that the Bhagvat Gita came into being. Buddha preached non-violence. He not only preached it but the people at large—except the Brahmins—had accepted it as the way of life. They had acquired a repugnance to violence. Buddha preached against Chaturvarnya [the system of four castes]. He used some of the most offensive similes in attacking the theory of Chaturvarnya. The frame work of Chaturvarnya had been broken. The order of Chaturvarnya had been turned upside down. Shudras and women could become sannyasis, a status which counter-revolution had denied them. Buddha had condemned the Karma kanda and the Yajnas [older priest-controlled rituals of Vedic sacrifice]. He condemned them on the ground of Himsa or violence. He condemned them also on the ground that the motive behind them was a selfish desire to obtain bonus. What was the reply of the counterrevolutionaries to this attack? Only this. These things were ordained by the Vedas, the Vedas were infallible, therefore the dogmas were not to be questioned…
[At the same time, Hindutva scholars like Telang, Radhakrishnan and Tilak are] most reluctant to admit that the Bhagvat Gita is anyway influenced by Buddhism and [are] ever ready to deny that the Gita has borrowed anything from Buddhism… Where there is any similarity in thought between the Bhagvat Gita and Buddhism too strong and too close to be denied, the argument is that it is borrowed from the Upanishads. It is typical of the mean mentality of the counterrevolutionaries not to allow any credit to Buddhism on any account.
The absurdity of these views must shock all those who have made a comparative study of the Bhagvat Gita and the Buddhist Suttas. For if it is true to say that Gita is saturated with Sankhya philosophy it is far more true to say that the Gita is full of Buddhist ideas.
The gritty legacies of Kosambi and Ambedkar bother few of those who gather weekly in London or Manhattan or Toronto or Oakland or Buenos Aires to chant the name of Krishna with tears streaming down their faces. (Most of these faces are non-Indian.) I’ve joined them sometimes. I’ve noted with warmth and ambivalence the austere portrait of Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON, in their spaces. I’ve wondered how a retired pharmacist from Calcutta inspired millions to chant this name all over the world.
But at times my tears have mingled with theirs. Perhaps because the Sanskrit reminds me of the Latin of my Catholic youth — something old, distant, and terribly sacred that points to a forgotten world. Perhaps it’s because I realize with a jolt that I never really understand what I’m saying anyways, so why can’t I just enjoy the sounds? But sometimes, as Erika Abrahamian wrote in her last post, “singing the praises of gods I did not grow up with tastes like cold wax in my mouth.”
I’m fascinated with all of these readings of the Gita, and for better or worse am developing my own. I’m intrigued by the hallucinogenic qualities of the battlefield dialogue. It seems to carry a story of evolutionary psychoneurology resonant with the framework of Julian Jayne’s controversial thesis on the emergence of “modern” consciousness, which in the growing isolation of accumulation economy evolves beyond a state of constant God-possession.
The Gita presents a man talking to (someone he believes to be) God — someone who looks just like him. They’re discussing whether or not the man’s sense of individual agency is meaningful – whether, in fact, it is to his advantage that he is expressing doubts about his role in history. The discussion takes place at a moment of psychic trauma and rupture, but also at the historical crossroads Ambedkar describes: a democratizing wind is blowing through India, stirred up by the mass migration of youth from all castes thrilled to be breaking orthodox rank on the cue of Siddhartha.
One of the key things at stake socio-politically at Kurukshetra is whether or not the human being will continue to be governed by the notion of divinized power, and, if not, how divinized power will be transmuted to the state. Krishna’s presumed answer is given to us clearly. The God is written to say: You don’t have an individual self. You are inside me. I’ve already ground you up with my teeth. You have no choice but to act, and to act as I say. With Arjuna’s surrender to Krishna, an older order is seen to resist the inevitable drift towards a more modern subjectivity. Through the lens of Jaynes, we can read Arjuna as struggling with the nascent feelings of autonomy which compel the person within the warrior beginning to view himself as casteless to resist the duties dictated by a warrior God.
Where do all of these readings leave us? Of one thing we can be sure: there can be no “correct” or stable view for someone acutely aware of the “plural set of responses” (Larson, 666), each with their own purpose and elegance to their readerships.
The shards of a fragmented text can prick the bubble of the modern practitioner who wants answers instead of inquiry, or who has turned to yoga to either find or reinvigorate a sense of devotion denied to an age of irony. How can an acute awareness of endlessly conflicting views generate heat and presence, and avoid academic dessication?
Paths of Demystification and Presence
Readings of the Gita seem to range from “tight” to “loose”. On the “tight” side of the spectrum, Shankara, Prabhupada, and Kosambi make for odd bedfellows. The first insists that the text is an extended proof of Advaita Vedanta; the second claims it is the testament of the one true creator-and-sustainer God to whom the world must submit for its very survival, and the third decries the whole affair as a bourgeois fraud. These views admit no daylight through their dense verbiage — a sure sign of authorial anxiety. On the “loose” side, one finds the rather tepid universalism of Eknath Easwaren, but then also Douglas Brooks’ piquant Tantric gloss in Poised for Grace, which frames the old book as an ongoing conversation to which each reading provides fruitful digression.
Tight or loose, every reading I’ve encountered wants the Gita to transmit something particular, even if, as in Brooks’ case, it is a generous promise of the reader’s potential. More importantly, every reading wants Krishna to be someone, and for the reader to form a personal relationship with him by imagining herself as Arjuna. I sometimes wonder how much different this is from the “personal relationship to Jesus” which serves as a threshold for admission to Evangelical identity. Such readings proceed as if, for the secular reader, Krishna can be someone more than a character on a page, speaking more than an accretion of aphorisms from assorted philosophies co-opted by a committee of ancient writers for purposes now buried in a tangle of yearning and realpolitik. Tight or loose, each reading wants Krishna to be a real person who we can identify, love, worship, or dismiss.
Poised for Grace provides a breakthrough in Brooks’ insistence upon the Gita as a living document into which the modern reader must interlope. He cheerleads a strategy of using the Gita to debate competing visions of God and philosophy against the pragmatics of present circumstance. In the spirit of this approach, I offer a sidewards tack: for the truly secular yogin, the Gita invites a deconstructive conversation with the very process by which meaning is created.
In addition to holding multiple and conflicting readings of the Gita in one’s heart with respect for each, and additional respect for their dialectics, I have two suggestions that may broaden our “plural set of responses” (Larson, 666) even further:
- Readers can begin to dis-identify with Arjuna, and thereby de-reify Krishna, in order to explore a larger and more granular narrative process.
- After extricating themselves from identification with Arjuna, readers can begin to meet the Gita not as a “teaching”, but as a mirror of their own meaning-production. We might find a workable model for this relationship in the modern psychotherapeutic encounter.
Dis-identifying with Arjuna
Every commentator I’ve read so far wants the reader to put herself on that battlefield, kneeling at Krishna’s feet. This implicitly demands imagining Krishna as a living presence. But does this harmonize with the secular reader’s actual condition?
Today’s reader is hurtling through the subway tunnels of a digital matrix with a paperback or an e-reader in her hand. Between chapters — verses even — she is overwhelmed with waves of data from across the globe. She is so saturated in neoliberal propaganda it has become invisible to her, but something hasn’t felt right for a long time. She knows that climate change will be catastrophic. And the book she’s holding — which her YTT director assigned her to read without much explanation — describes how a male Iron Age warrior talks with God in a chariot, and is eventually convinced of the necessity of war.
Personally identifying with Arjuna might mimic the way she read books as a child. It could invoke a forced naïveté that may be comforting. But is it honest? Does it really work? As an adult, doesn’t her reading of the book tell more about how she relates and doesn’t relate to stories like this? Doesn’t it speak to how she absorbs the unspoken devices and politics of the metanarratives still gasping for breath around her? Isn’t her reading more about how she negotiates infinite perspectives, and how she responds to the chaotic patterns of history?
Releasing identification with Arjuna may also de-divinize Krishna and recast him as an abstract agent of Foucauldian power. He might become as slippery as any any other charismatic polymath at the heart of an epic novel: intuitive, bombastic, tender, Machiavellian. Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian comes to mind.
If we weren’t identified with Arjuna, and no longer beholden to Krishna’s instruction, who would we identify with, and whose counsel would we seek? Suddenly, the men and boys who stand behind the duo come into sharper focus. The Mahabharata records that there were millions of them, on both sides. Their mothers and sisters and wives waited at home, in vain.
The book records that at the end of the eighteen-day battle, only twelve men were left standing. Not commoners. Arjuna and Krishna are among the few survivors of the slaughter their dialogue sets in motion. That bears repeating: Arjuna and Krishna are among the few survivors of the slaughter their dialogue sets in motion.
I’m reminded of this famous quote from the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980):
The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Dis-identifying with Arjuna might allow today’s reader to consider the untold stories buried beneath the metaphysical angst of heroes and gods, and the wreckage it leaves behind.
Moving From Meta-Lens to Metta-Lens: the Gita in Treatment
Disidentifying and de-reifying reframes the entire text. The Gita can suddenly be felt to mimic the infinite strangeness of a person, as confused as any other, or perhaps moreso: split by competing identities, desires, and readings of those identities and desires, and habitually revising the past as she encourages, doubts, rationalizes, aggrandizes, erases, and rebirths herself.
The Gita-as-person is sung by the triple-voices of Sanjaya, Arjuna, and Krishna, backed by its chorus of editors and commentators. The music starts at the pause of dawn, before the battle of the day, in a kind of dream-time. Its liminal and meandering dialogue is fuelled by multiple internal contradictions. Its allusions are endless, transhistorical, and transcultural. The arguments remix multiple streams of philosophy and sentiment, blending generations of practice and meaning, describing visions and wishes. Krishna’s pronouncements turn upon neuron-frying oxymorons, as in the description of atman in 13:15 (as Mascaro translates): “He is far and near, he moves and he moves not, he is within all and he is outside all.” Nor can we forget typical non-sequiturs such as in 4:13, in which Krishna both claims and disclaims creating the four castes of human beings: “Know that this work is mine, though I am beyond work, in eternity.”
Reading the Gita with an ear for its many conflicting voices is, I imagine, a lot like being a psychotherapist sitting with a client. A client like any other, with all the usual hopes, fears, deflections, and defense mechanisms. A client with a rich and impenetrable past marked by intergenerational wisdom and trauma. A client we attune to through active listening and psychodynamic conversation, in which no statement can be taken at face value nor interpreted in any definitive way, but may be used as a prism to refract the multiple colours that constitute a personality, and prompt us to ask: how do these colours blend today?
If the Gita is considered as a person, the deconstruction of its plural and competing readings — along with their performances — can become as much a devotional and healing act as any therapeutic encounter, in which uncertainty, dishonesty, and even aggression invite tenderness. The reader of the Gita is sitting in treatment across from an entire canvas of human confusion, bombast, and possibility, stretched between the poles of the private and the political. She moves from enthrallment with metanarrative into the intimacy of dialogue. Her purpose for reading changes. The goal is no longer to grasp over-arching themes, any more than it would be the goal of a conversation to establish eternal truths about the conversants. Her goal would be stay present to the shifting textures of whatever emerges.
In a therapeutic encounter, theology is recognized as poetic grandiosity, metaphysical assertions are but yearnings, impossible dictates are the defences of anxiety, contradictory impulses project unresolved conflicts, and militaristic rhetoric is clearly the consolation of the fearful. In such an encounter, the Gita doesn’t tell us what we should do so much as it mirrors what we have always done in the face of what we do not know: fret, assert, question, decide, hedge, dread, bargain, threaten, pretend, reframe, weep, dream, and carry on. Remaining open to every reading, the reader-as-therapist encounters humanity in fullness as she reads, and through the text she recognizes her own unresolvable tensions. Empathy surges for the part of the Gita-person that expresses the need for parental guidance, the part that wants to dissociate from battle, the part that wants an ancient order re-established, the part that categorically distrusts authority, and the part that wakes up in a cold sweat from apocalyptic nightmares.
This process might be part of what Brooks is pointing at in the epigraph up top: “[the Gita] is surely a gateway through which every yogin must pass before taking any next step.” In other words: the pursuit of yoga is catalyzed by an analysis of one’s own dilemma: on the existential level of vulnerability and mortality, then more subtly on the cognitive plane that holds the infinite ways we tell our troubles to ourselves, and subtler still in the interdependent sphere in which our stories can only have meaning if we really listen to the stories of others.
I have already fully acknowledged the cultural and political minefield of using Western-derived psychology to read Indian wisdom literature in translation. The territory is fraught with appropriative and othering tendencies. But what I’m suggesting here is substantially different than the approaches that have made Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal targets of both pious and postcolonial ire. While both have used psychoanalytic principles to mine the content of the Indian pantheon (Doniger in Siva: The Erotic Ascetic, among others) and the purported pathologies of modern saints (Kripal in Kali’s Child), I’m proposing a relationship to the overall process of the book as a provocation of the postmodern reader’s growing psycho-political transparency. How does the reader acknowledge otherness? How does she hold space for the divergent views that call out to her many aspects? How does she recognize the Gita’s tangles of power and submission in her own social construction?
I’m proposing that the secular reader, who, because they are aware of the multiplicity of readings, cannot in good conscience submit to any unified or religious interpretation, no longer consider it a failing that they cannot look to the book itself for certain answers, or to its heroes as credible guides. It is good that they resist interpretations defined either academically or through the forced ideals of a neo-parampara. I propose that the modern reader, both burdened and liberated by her awareness of conflicting views, look to the process of the book’s reading and production through time as a reflection of how she herself will evolve, according to circumstance and the never-ending flow of knowledge-in-creation.
Ironically, this approach of considering book-as-person might even be supported by the text itself. Throughout the old book, Krishna identifies himself as puroshottama: the “supreme person”. In 18:70, he suggests that anyone who studies the Gita will know him directly. Perhaps reading the Gita alongside the countless readings of the Gita to which we add our own brings us in touch with this supremely regular person: this amalgam of history, desire, intercultural confusion, tender truths and unconscious lies, no more fragile and no less resilient than anyone with whom you might sit one early morning, discussing this joy and strife.
Thank you to several colleagues who have modelled “deconstruction without cynicism” for me, directly and indirectly: Jody Greene, Sean Feit, Douglas Brooks, Don Stapleton, and Jason Hirsch.
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Kripal, Jeffrey J. Kālī’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1995.
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Mascaro, Juan. The Bhagavad Gita. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.