Review of Richard H. Davis, "The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography"

Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.

I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.

The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.

As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.

Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.

Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:

If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the Splendor

Of the Mighty One…

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds.

Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”

With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.

The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”

As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”

For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”

Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.

Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.

But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.

There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.

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Half a century ago, C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures pointed to a growing gap between the sciences and the humanities. Despite similar levels of education and similar socioeconomic origins, he wrote, scientists and literary intellectuals “had almost ceased to communicate at all.” In Snow’s view, the different perspectives could have sparked an enormously creative conversation, but the communities were too isolated for such a conversation to take place, and members of both cultures were the poorer for it.

Many would argue that the gap between the disciplines that concerned Snow is still with us. But in higher education that gap has been supplemented by a new divide, one that is perhaps even more threatening to the future stability and prosperity of academic culture as a whole. This is the gap between the worldview of college and university faculty on the one hand and that of the information technology sector on the other. 

The faculty view is rooted in the values and goals of tenure-stream instructors at elite research universities, a culture that informs the academic community up and down the postsecondary spectrum. The ethos of the technology sector is found in its purest form in Silicon Valley. Elements of Valley culture are increasingly echoed across the country and beyond in hackathons, technology incubators, coworking facilities, boot camp-style code schools and maker spaces. To a certain extent, the faculty map to Snow’s literary intellectuals and the technologists to Snow’s scientists. Snow’s literary community was skeptical of change, inclined to cling to the majesty of the literary and intellectual culture they knew.  His scientists were more focused on the future, confident that their skills could improve the world.

Like Snow’s literary intellectuals and scientists, today’s university faculty and technologists have much in common. Many of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars come from elite research universities. And like Snow we can see a gap separating the two cultures. The resulting lack of communication impoverishes both sides. Like Snow’s cultures, our two cultures have different goals and different values. They use such different vocabularies that it can be difficult to find common ground for discussion. But we cannot be content with this situation, any more than Snow was.  How can we encourage the conversation to move forward? What is at stake if we do not?

First, a bit of historical background. The word “university” comes from universitas, a term used in the medieval period for a legal collective -- a guild. The original universities were corporate bodies of students or masters, formed to give academics legal standing and bargaining power in the towns. Important elements of the modern university faculty’s sense of self -- the formation of a collective professional identity via a difficult, lengthy apprenticeship, governance by a privileged group of masters, the impulse to restrict market competition in the name of ensuring higher quality, the value of hierarchy and tradition in decision making and problem solving -- can be recognized in the value system of guild culture. These values played a crucial role in sustaining the institution of the university across the centuries. This is why universities are so protective of their culture and its norms.

In contrast, the techno-capitalist culture of Silicon Valley and its remote satellites is of much newer vintage. A heady brew of aggressive postindustrial venture capitalism, concentrated technological brilliance, ruthless competition, an almost surreal melding of various strains of libertarianism and the opportunity to earn enormous amounts of money have combined to create a culture of very smart technologists who believe they can fix the world with code and make a bundle doing it. Snow describes how literary intellectuals in his day found the world-transforming claims of the scientists arrogant and off-putting. I think the same can be said about how academics regard the self-confidence of contemporary information technologists.

The contrast is perhaps most evident in the two cultures’ professed attitudes toward formal hierarchies and especially the trappings of rank. The Valley delights in discovering young talent like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, who got their first six-figure investment check before they had a bank account to cash it. It looks to Fairchild Semiconductor, a storied Valley firm that did away with private parking spots and other executive perks. Some of the heroes of the technology industry are college dropouts or question the value of a degree. In keeping with this diminishing of outward signs of privilege, contemporary programming spaces tend to have an open layout with large tables and side offices for meetings or phone calls. The space will include areas like coffee bars or game tables intended to foster the social aspects of coding and creativity. A hierarchical structure is still very much there, but the space tries to mask or blur the hierarchy and keep it from stifling communication and innovation.

The university, in contrast, emphasizes hierarchy and longevity in service as values in themselves. Each faculty member is keenly aware both of his or her position within the institution and of the institution’s rank with respect to its rivals. Again, the attitude toward space is revealing. The best offices go to the senior people. When new office space is available or a department moves, a flurry of maneuvering ensues, with the senior faculty using their rank to best advantage in the negotiations. An open, flattened work space would not fit university culture. The university seeks to emphasize rather than mask its hierarchical structure.

The communication gap between the cultures has negative consequences for both. On the university side, the culture’s instinctive resistance to structural change prevents postsecondary institutions from taking full advantage of the technologists’ achievements. University decision-making and procurement structures discourage innovation by creating high barriers to entry. 

This conservatism affects both established vendors and new entrants. New companies in particular may be forced to look for other markets with lower barriers. But as universities come under increasing pressure to improve student success rates and lower costs, they will need the talent of the technologists, and perhaps especially the talent of the start-ups they are unintentionally driving away. To tap that talent, they need to embrace technological change with more enthusiasm. Ideally, that enthusiasm could be grounded in a true intellectual engagement between the cultures.

For the technologists, at one level the gap between the two cultures simply deprives them of clear access to a large market sector in which they see opportunity. But the loss goes deeper than that. Today’s online start-up culture owes a great deal to the universities. The Arpanet that became the Internet, time-sharing, video games and interactive displays, the mouse, online communities and collaboration all have roots in university laboratories and public funding. Tim Berners-Lee invented the web as a way to manage information at CERN, a high-energy physics laboratory in Switzerland. The original Google algorithm was inspired in part by ranking systems for academic papers based on their citation count. When coders share tips and programs, they are participating in a software-sharing culture that originated in university computer centers.

If our current technology’s history is rooted in university culture, a richer dialogue between the two cultures could benefit the future development of information technology. 

Technology has its deepest meaning in its use. Its impact is most marked when it interacts with and becomes integral to larger cultural practices -- when it enters into a dialogue with other elements in the cultural stream. Well-designed applications and devices draw on the history of product design, of architecture, of visual and verbal cues that have meaning for users. 

Perhaps if we asked our programmers to learn a little more about history, literature and the arts -- perhaps especially if we learned to teach these things in a way that had meaning and appeal across the gap between our two cultures -- then our software and our devices might serve more people more effectively, because they would be designed with a deeper understanding of the cultural context in which they are to be used. The university might reach out to the start-up culture emanating from Silicon Valley as a potentially powerful ally. To do that effectively, university culture needs to acknowledge that there are important lessons to be learned beyond the walls. Academics need to understand that people like to code because code can be beautiful, and people like start-ups because they can be creative and smart. We would do well to ask again the questions Snow asked 50 years ago, and see if we can hope to find different answers 50 years from now.

David G. Halsted is director of online and blended learning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He teaches European history and the history of information technology.

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