Saturday, June 20, 2020

Bhagavad Gita: The Song Celestial


Opening Passage:

DHRITARASHTRA: Ranged thus for battle on the sacred plain--
On Krukshetra--say Sanjaya! say
What wrought my people and the Pandavas?

Summary: The Kuru people are divided into two major clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Through a rigged game of dice, the Kauravas cheated the Pandavas out of their territory for a period of thirteen years and then refused to return it. Thus the Pandavas are going to war against the Kauravas. The blind Kaurava king, Dhritarashtra, unable to fight in the battle due to his age and blindness, is worried about what is happening, but this charioteer, Sanjaya, has divine sight, and tells the king of what he sees. On the verge of the great eighteen-day Battle of Kurukshetra, the Pandavan Arjuna looks out on the Kauravan host, foes that are related to him and his family, and is horrified at the thought of the mutual slaughter and how insignificant territory is in comparison to the death of even one of these. He throws his bow and arrow to the ground, sick at heart. But his charioteer, Madhusadan, criticizes Arjuna and encourages him to the fight, gradually revealing himself as the god Krishna.

It's important to recognize, I think, that Krishna never criticizes Arjuna for his compassion, but for his irresolution. Krishna's point is that Arjuna has let the mutable substitute for the immutable, and under the guise of compassion and kinship-feeling has in fact let himself rest with a superficial perception of the world, including the people on whom he takes himself to have compassion and for whom he has kinship-feeling. It is not a superior view of the world because it is wavering. The external expression of the immutable in human life, on the other hand, is found in duty; its internal expression is self-discipline; and its innermost core is pure regard for the divine.

We see this not only in the progression of Krishna's discourse, which goes through these very stages, but also in the narrative structure of the work. While the discussion is between Krishna and the Pandavan Arjuna, this is mediated by Sanjaya, who has been given divine sight by Krishna and is describing it to Dhritarashtra. Both Dhritarashtra and Sanjaya are Kauravan; Krishna's revelation transcends the divide of the civil war. But the Bhagavad Gita is itself part of the Mahabharata, which itself claims that it was recited by Ugrasrava Sauti, who was reciting what he had learned from Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna, who had learned it from Vaisampayana, who had learned it from the sage Vyasa, who is communicating Sanjaya's revelation of Krishna's self-revelation to Arjuna. Thus the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita, is attributed to the sage Vyasa; Vyasa is not an uncommon name, but 'Vyasa' literally means something like 'editor, compiler, arranger, or redactor', and Vyasa is also supposed to have compiled the Vedas and the Puranas, thus making his editorial career over a thousand years long, although perhaps he thinks of it as a very short period in his life, given that he is also said to be one of the Chiranjivis, the 'permanent livers', and is said to have been born at the end of the Tretayuga period of the universe, having lived through the entire 864,000 years of the Dvapara Yuga, and will live the entire 432,000 years of the current Kali Yuga (of which we have travered about 5000 years). Vyasa himself only writes, directly or indirectly, what is in the one Eternal Veda, which has no beginning and no ending. But the idea is that Vyasa took unitary forms of knowledge too great for human beings easily to grasp and 'divided' or articulated them so that they could be understood more widely. I think this captures something important about the canonical literature of India, namely, that it was often written, whatever its accidental features, as from the perspective of something unchanging and undivided, a depiction of a presumed unity through a present diversity, and it has likewise been read in the same manner. One of the reasons for the popularity of the Gita, I think, is that it exemplifies this in a preeminent and obvious way. Krishna talks about many things, but you get a clear sense that he is at all times talking about the same things, while the Song seems structured to convey the impression of an ever-deepening exploration of that First Unity. All of the many must be traced back to the One, which they reflect.

The particular Heritage Press edition that I read is illustrated by Y. G. Srimati, and the illustrations are excellent. (You can see some here.) Her notes explaining her artistic choices for each illustration are also given in an appendix, and you could have very nice little booklet standing on its own, just from the illustrations and the notes -- a sort of beginner's Bhagavad Gita. Here is part of the note for the illustration in Discourse 10, when Krisha reveals his universal manifestation:

Krishna assumes the Visvarupa or colossal, all-pervading, all-engrossing form of the Supreme Being, to impress upon Arjuna that He is everything and contains everything. He is portrayed with the countless faces of His various creations --Gods, sages, demons, animals, etc.-- infinite in form on all sides, with innumerable arms, trunks, and legs, with no end, middle, nor beginning, only the waist showing that He is one entity.

You can see the illustration it is describing here, about ten images down.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter 6, 'Religion by Self-Restraint':

Let each man raise
The Self by Soul, not trample down his Self,
Since Soul that is Self's friend may grow Self's foe.
Soul is Self's friend when Self doth rule o'er Self,
But Self turns enemy if Soul's own self
Hates Self as not itself.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.