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.