BOOK REVIEW: The Bhagavad-Gita Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical poem, the title of which is translated as “Song of the Lord.” It’s often read as a stand-alone work, but it’s included in the sixth book of longest known epic poem, entitled the Mahabharata.

In The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about sacred duty (dharma.) The setting is the battlefield at Kurukshetra as a war is about to get underway. Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to halt the vehicle between the opposing armies. Arjuna is struck with a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t want to fight and kill the men on the opposing side–some of whom are related to him by blood and others of whom are well-respected elders. Arjuna can see no virtue in the war.

Krishna, after briefly mocking what he describes as Arjuna’s newly developed cowardice, goes on to offer his explanation of why it is that Arjuna should fight. The first argument is that nobody really dies because consciousness is reborn. This makes sense if you believe in reincarnation… otherwise, not so much. A concise restatement of this argument is presented in the 11th teaching: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, set in motion to annihilate worlds; even without you, all these warriors arrayed in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory! Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship! They are already killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side!”

Another of Krishna’s argument is that if Arjuna fails to fulfill his duty he will be thought less of by others. This is an odd argument to make as Krishna makes a more compelling case for ridding oneself of ego, whereas this seems to be saying that one should put what others think of one above doing what one believes is right. That sounds a lot like succumbing to ego rather than eliminating. In the 12th teaching, in fact, Krishna tells us that the best of men are “Neutral to blame or praise…” This suggests that perhaps one shouldn’t be moved by what others will think of one.

At the core of Krishna’s argument is that one cannot escape the Karmic cycle by engaging any acts but those that are selfless. Like the reincarnation argument. One may find this logic compelling or not depending upon whether one believes in Karmic theory. Karma is the idea of cause and effect. If you do good, you’ll receive good effects and if you do bad you’ll experience bad effects. Ultimately, however, the goal is to break free of the Karmic cycle and, in theory, the only way to do that is to engage in acts that are selfless—hence doing your sacred duty. If your driver isn’t God, it’s not entirely clear how you know what your sacred duty is, at least not by way of this work. (Presumably, God talks to kings and princes, and kings and princes tell the unwashed masses what they are supposed to do. If you happened to have already done away with such a system—as most of the planet has—you may have trouble with this logic.) However, if one takes the lesson to be that one should not be consumed with personal gain when one acts, one has an argument of more general appeal.

Another argument is that devotion to God is all important, not a man’s actions in any absolutist sense. From the 9th teaching, “If he is devoted to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”

It should be noted that Krishna delivers a number of lessons beyond the need to comply with one’s dharma, and, in my opinion, many of these ancillary lessons are more compelling than Krishna’s explanation of why Arjuna must fight.

One such lesson is to concern oneself with the journey and not the destination. Krishna states it as such, “Be intent on action; not the fruits of action…” Furthermore, there are a great many teachings that will be familiar to Buddhists, such as the need for non-attachment and moderation.

The poem contains lessons of Samkhya (e.g. discussion of the three gunas) and Yoga. It describes concepts from the three original forms of yoga (predating yoga as a fitness activity by centuries): those being of action yoga (karma yoga), knowledge yoga (jnana yoga), and devotional yoga (bhakti yoga.) While The Bhagavad-Gita predates the formulation of eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali, it does address certain among them in varying detail. Early on, it speaks about pratyahara—withdrawal from the senses—in considerable detail. There are also references to pranayama (breath/energy control exercises) and most of the yama and niyama are listed among the virtues in the latter part of the teachings. Of course, samadhi (liberation / yoga’s 8th limb) is a central concept in this work.

While The Bhagavad-Gita remains widely cited and relied upon for guidance to this day, it’s not without its controversial elements. In the fourth teaching, Krishna explains how he created the caste system. Of course, Krishna might not have intended it to be the stain it became.

The Miller translation that I read has a few nice ancillary features. There is an introduction that offers background and context for those who have little knowledge of Indian history or mythology. There’s also a glossary that goes into detail about terms that are frequently used in the work. It’s not that there are Sanskrit words mixed into to the text. The glossary explains what the English words should be taken to mean in the context of the Hindu worldview.

What is most intriguing, however, is the afterword which is entitled, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond?” Of all the thinkers that have cited The Bhagavad-Gita, the use of Thoreau and Emerson as examples raises intriguing questions. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience and the Emerson of Self-Reliance would seem to be as far from the message of The Bhagavad-Gita as possible. Krishna is telling Arjuna to ignore his conscience, and just do what God tells him to do—be a selfless instrument of destruction. Thoreau and Emerson both preached that one’s conscience should always be one’s ultimate guide. Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes that would support the war with Mexico. I suspect Krishna would say to Thoreau, “Hey, I’m throwing this war, and you’d damn well better do your part.” However, there are ideas in The Bhagavad-Gita that work with the American Transcendentalist philosophers. The idea of removing self-interest and egotism as a way to eliminate delusion before one makes one’s own decision is a consistent suggestion.

I have mixed feelings about The Bhagavad-Gita. Like many (most?) sources of religious doctrine, I think the central message of The Bhagavad-Gita is just another means by which to keep the masses under the control of an elite—and, specifically, fighting the wars of the royalty. However, I–like Thoreau and Emerson—also see a great deal of insight into how to be a better person in this poem.

I think The Bhagavad-Gita is worth a read, regardless of how you may ultimately feel about its message. It offers a concise summary of key ideas in Indian philosophy and psychology. It will give one a better understanding of the Indian worldview, and may teach you something about how to live in the process.

View all my reviews

BOOK CHAT: Walking by H.D. Thoreau

WalkingWalking by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Thoreau paints a portrait of walking in such grandiose terms that one will cease to think of putting one foot in front of the other as one of life’s mundane tasks. He’s not talking about just any walking, however. He’s not talking about the mall walkers who briskly exercise in temples of consumerism. He’s not talking about those who walk through the park with top 40 hits blaring from their iPod ear buds.

Thoreau is talking about those individuals he calls saunterers. To saunter, as to stroll, is to walk in a leisurely and aimless fashion. Thoreau’s walking is that which:
-takes place in nature.
-leaves worldly worries behind.
-is not a trivial time commitment.
-is more an exercise of the mind and spirit than of the body.

To the mall walker, Thoreau would point out the error of a missed opportunity to get away from mankind’s chaos and enjoy nature. As he puts it, “The most alive is the wildest.” and “…all good things are wild and free.” He’s also clear in that walking for exercise misses the point by injecting hurriedness into a time that should be about slowing down.

On those with iPods, cellphones, or other contrivances that distract one from the environs, Thoreau is equally clear, “What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something outside the woods?”

Thoreau’s essay broadens as it progresses. From a commentary on the virtues of sauntering, the essay turns to the glories of nature, the character of America, and the state of thought in his contemporary society. These may seem like unrelated concepts, but there is a string of logic that connects them.

The connection to nature and the virtue of wildness should be clear. It’s nature that is the optimal backdrop of sauntering. It’s in nature that one can be set free from the troubles of the world of man and obtain a glimpse of god. It’s in nature where creativity breeds with chaos turned down and native brilliance turned up.

Thoreau’s discussion of America is tied to the theme of walking in a couple of ways. The first is as a land made for walkers. For example, he points out that a man could pitch a tent almost anywhere in North America without great risk of becoming a meal. The same couldn’t be said of India or Africa or Siberia, where man isn’t the sole predatory creature. The second is America as a place with room to venture out into uncharted territory. Thoreau points out that we may look to the East for the lessons of our predecessors, but a person should look West for opportunities to grow in one’s own right. Of course, Thoreau’s America was different from today’s America.

The end of the essay broadens out even further. Thoreau comments upon mankind and the state of ideas and thought. He echoes Socrates when he talks about that age-old question of whether it’s better to be ignorant (to know one knows little) or deluded (to think one knows a lot, but be drowning in false knowledge.) A reader may suggest that this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t one know most everything and not have a one’s body of knowledge rife with false knowledge? I can’t say, but all of the evidence suggests that if such a state exists, it’s the domain of God or gods (if such entities exist.)

Thoreau also bemoans what he sees as the decline of thinking man. What does this have to do with walking? I think Thoreau answers in the following quote:
“So it would seem few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill—and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on.”

I think that everyone should read this thin book–really an essay and not a full-scale book. The problems Thoreau notes have only gotten worse in our modern age. Far too few take the time to walk, and to acquire the benefits of sauntering.

View all my reviews