A First Read of the Bhagavad Gita (part 1)

David Rush


I’ve been feeling a need to read the Bhagavad Gita for some little while now and actually started a few weeks ago, using the translation provided by the International Gita Society that is available at sacred-texts.com. I specifically chose a version that does not include commentary because my cultural background as one of the “people of the book” leads me to value the text (which is relatively immutable) over someone’s opinions (which can even change during a trip to the bathroom). This may not be the best approach to the text, as there are many spiritual practices that consider it dangerous for an untrained mind to be exposed to ideas for which it is not adequately prepared. And given that the Bhagavad Gita can be read on many different levels (as one would expect of a text that has survived this long), there is certainly a case to be made for having someone else as a guide when working through this text. I expect that I will mis-understand a fair bit on this first reading, but I also have hope that my “raw” view might also be useful.

First off, I love the way that Arjuna exposes his internal struggle between conflicting notions of right and wrong. Anyone who has seriously practiced a moral code over a long period will have encountered situations where there seems to be no “right” answer. These are extremely important moments, and in the Bhagavad Gita we get to begin from a place of having to answer hard questions. Through the first two chapters it is easy to hear Arjuna rummage through his soul, weighing out his values, trying to find a justification to act in the moment. When he “sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow” (1:47), it is easy to see someone who has come to the end of themselves and the endless justifications of their mind for actions that are not fully understood.

And then Krishna starts to talk a lot, and frankly, I start to have some problems. The first is with the sheer pedantry of the text, although some of that has to be due to my background with other religious works. I don’t find a lot of new ideas here, and none of them are very elegantly put. I suppose that might be partly due to translation issues, but part of it is, I think, because Krishna actually is taking Arjuna to school. In some ways this reminds me of the early parts of the book of Job from the Bible where for most of the book Job gets taken to school by his mates, who, it has to be said, are also pretty boring. Not that there aren’t any bright spots, but I can easily imagine Arjuna sitting there in his chariot going “yeah yeah yeah” all through it. Maybe that’s just me.

My second difficulty is more substantive, I think. Krishna’s answer thus in the end of the second chapter amounts to telling Arjuna that he is getting all worried over nothing, and should just go kill “[his] grandfather, [his] guru, and all other relatives” (2:4). Let me clarify because he is not being dismissive in the usual western and emotional sense: Krishna’s argument is that “the Spirit that dwells in the body of all beings is eternally indestructible” (2:30), so why worry about killing them, especially when they are disrupting the very fabric of society?

I’ve previously read some commentaries about how these thoughts can be a huge stumbling block to people reading the Bhagavad Gita, so I’ll not say anything about that here, because Krishna moves from that thought directly into what I can only see as teaching a world view that includes a profound separation between the material and the spiritual. He then moves on to say that oen can really only return to their place with god by a moderated asceticism.

At this point, the text is becoming sufficiently self-referential that it is difficult to translate its ideas to other religious concepts without doing violence to the nuances of meaning within the text. In fact, I have already done some, because Krishna urges Arjuna towards “Self-realisation”, not to “return to his place in god”, as I said in the previous paragraph. Truthfully, for the purposes of this article, I have no desire to dive deep into these differences of semantics, so I will just stick with the Bhagavad Gita language, and maybe come back to it in another, later, article.

Besides which, without the interest of those translations in meaning the next long bit of the text is pretty boring. Basically it amount to saying that you should be good and how that goodness may be judged. It is all much the same as most other religious texts. MInd you there are some pretty mind-blowing land-mines buried in there, such as this completely astounding take on why God answers prayer that, as far as I know, is utterly unique:

There is nothing in the three worlds – heaven, earth, and the lower regions – that should be done by Me, nor there is anything unobtained that I should obtain, yet I engage in action. Because, if I do not engage in action relentlessly ... people would follow My path in every way. These worlds would perish if I do not work, and I shall be the cause of confusion and destruction of all these people. (3:22-24)

So Krishna does stuff, which I interpret as answering prayer, so that people will follow his example! Frankly this particular verse deserves a lot of unpacking in its own right, so it will have to wait for another time. But also, this one verse was worth the price of admission. So no saying I’m a hater, folks, this is all just my first reaction to my first reading.

And since this particular essay has run on rather too long, I think it’s time to just end it. I’m guessing that there will be three parts to this, so stay tuned (part 2).

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.