4 January 2015


Richard H. Davis. The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton University Press, 2015.

The Bhagavad Gita began as an aside in the Mahabharata, a massive eighteen-volume epic on the wars between two branches of the same family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Before the battle royal commences, Arjuna, one of the Pandava leaders, expresses his concern about it to his charioteer, Krishna, who happily chances to be an incarnation of ‘the Supreme Personality of Godhead’. 🔻
When he says that he does not want to kill his cousins, Krishna assures him that the dead do not really die. Just as a person might take off an old set of clothes and put on a new set, so at death a person’s soul relinquishes one body and enters a new one. There follows more general spiritual advice, which could apply to anyone. Actions driven by desires lead to bondage in the flesh. But by abandoning desire for the ends of the fruits of an action, one obtains liberation.
The Mahabharata was written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India which has continued to be used for sacred texts, long after it ceased to be spoken, in the same way that the Catholic Church has retained the use of Latin. Whether the Gita was part of it from the beginning, or only a later addition, is disputed. But at any rate it circulated separately from an early date.

Arjuna riding onto the battlefield behind
his charioteer Krishna.
One curious result was that stories started to circulate about Krishna’s childhood, and these were eventually assembled to form the Bhagavata Purana, a massive work, particularly in contrast to the Gita itself, which is only 700 verses, taking about an hour and a half to recite. Then, the followers of other Hindu Gods were inspired to write their own Gitas, including the Ishvara Gita of Shiva, the Ganesha Gita, the Rama Gita, the Brahma Gita, and the Devi Gita. From about the ninth century, commentaries began to be produced on the original, 227 so far.

Its appearance in English was almost fortuitous. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s East India Company obtained administrative authority over (of course) eastern India. Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal, recommended that they should seek to rule these territories “not according to British law but rather according to the laws and customs of the local residents.” But the Hindu legal codes, such as the Laws of Manu, were written in Sanskrit. It was therefore necessary for some of the administrators to study that language. There were no grammars or dictionaries, but a clerk named Charles Wilkins studied it with pundit Kashinatha Bhattcharya in Benares. On the latter’s urging he began by translating the Bhagavad Gita. Hastings was so impressed that he had the manuscript sent by ship to London, where it was printed in May 1785. (The Laws of Manu did not appear in English until 1794.)

Though Christian missionaries had long been dispatched to India, the traffic became two-way in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Order attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and was such a success that he stayed on in the United States as a travelling lecturer. In 1894 he established the Vedanta Society of New York, and a similar society in San Francisco in 1900. These taught the Gita and other scriptures. Vivekananda died suddenly in 1902. His work continued, however, as other swamis of the Ramakrishna Order had come to America, and some of them published their own translations of the Gita with commentaries.

In 1923 Jayadayal Goyandka founded the Gita Press, which started by issuing the Bhagavad Gita in Hindi, and, later, into fourteen other Indian vernaculars. At last count it has sold seventy-one million copies in various languages.

Another successful Hindu missionary was Swami Prabhupada, who arrived in New York in 1965, and founded what has become known as the Hare Krishna movement. He took the view that “The teachings of the Gita are infallible because the original teacher is perfect. This places stern demands on the translator.” He seems to have spent many years on his own edition of the book, which has the original text in nagari script, a transliteration of each verse into the Roman alphabet, a translation of each word, a rendering of the verse into English, and an extended commentary. This is perhaps the best-known version, and is the one in which Davis first read it. This has also been turned into fifty-six other languages, and in these various tongues has sold twenty-three million copies.

In July 1945, the first plutonium bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, was also a student of Sanskrit, and he compared the result to the passage in the Gita where Krishna reveals his divine form: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One . . . I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”

There have now been more than three hundred translations into English alone. This must make it one of the most successful religious books of all time. Its influence turns up in unexpected places: in modern witchcraft, the Goddess, speaking through the mouth of her Priestess, says (among other things) “I am the beauty of the green Earth and the white Moon among the stars, and the mystery of the waters, and the desire of the heart of man”. This surely must derive from the Gita, where Krishna says: “In water I am the taste, I am the light in the sun and the moon, in all the Vedas I am Om, in the ether sound, and in men their virility.” – Gareth J. Medway

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