When yoga is reduced to a self-obsessed, bourgeois lifestyle distraction, people who are so poor they would never have time to take a yoga class actually die in collapsing Bangladesh sweatshops. So a bare minimum goal in yoga work should be to keep things real.
In preparing for a few upcoming discussions of the Bhagavad Gita, something inescapably real occurred to me. I began by considering the question: “What war is about to begin for me, in this hour?”
It’s not a new question in Gita studies. Commentators have forever personalized the old book in this way. Non-dualists abstracted the battle at Kurukshetra into an attack on the illusory self. Tantrics turned the war upon the fragmented psyche that cannot bring itself to love life and delight in the present moment. Some Indian freedom fighters heard Krishna rallying them to slaughter the British; others heard a pacifist message.
I resonate with all of these approaches a little. But they don’t really bite hard. It always seems like there’s something missing. The question nags: What war is about to begin for all of us, right now?
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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.
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Well first of all, as with Ayurveda, I don’t really teach. How could I? What – do I know something? Not really. Even less as I get older. But I have gathered a ragged bouquet of question techniques that range from musings to proddings to provocation. Gentleness is key, because the discussion has to explore and penetrate belief, which is sometimes all a person thinks they have in defense against despair. Musings are good icebreakers for where we are frozen; provocations require familiarity and trust.
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