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.