I just got back from a six-week research trip to Germany, which caused me to become a blog slacker for a while. I’m now leaning into my course prep for a summer section of “Western Civilization in Global Context.” To that end, I read The Bhagavad Gita for the first time. I actually finished it during my flight home on a C-17 military transport (long story). In the book I found many helpful words of wisdom and interesting parallels with western literature as well as a few things that struck me as bizarre, like staring at the end of your nose and chanting “OM.” Then again, I’m sure there are things we Christians do that look pretty kooky to those of other faiths.
The Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu spiritual classic and epic poem (originally in Sanskrit) about the practice of yoga, which in context means something more akin to spiritual discipline than physical fitness. The poem is actually a battlefield conversation that takes place between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna, whom Arjuna has wisely chosen as his charioteer. (For westerners, think of it as a cross between The Iliad and the Sermon on the Mount.) Arjuna is caught in a dilemma between loyalty to his family and his duty as warrior. He is about to wage a just war against his relatives (cf. David and Absalom). At first he tells Krishna he can’t do it. He won’t do it. As Krishna explains the various paths to enlightenment, it becomes clear that Arjuna cannot avoid doing his duty as a warrior.
The key to godly living is giving up one’s own desires, becoming indifferent to pleasure and pain, praise and blame, etc. (cf. Stoicism). A Christian equivalent would be the concept of “holy indifference” made famous by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is troubling, for me at least, that by the end of the poem Krishna has talked Arjuna into waging war instead of renouncing violence. This is far from Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.” Then again, the Gita may be read as a spiritual allegory as Gandhi, who was also known for his non-violent approach, did. Also troubling is the Gita’s acceptance of India’s caste system as part of the natural order, though Krishna does say that “even those who belong to the lower castes . . . can reach the highest spiritual realization.” He also says that people “who worship other deities, and sacrifice to them with faith in their hearts, are really worshiping me.” However, despite their devotion, they will have to be reincarnated unlike the most enlightened Hindus.
If you can get past the foreignness of the Bhagavad Gita (e.g., reincarnation, polytheism), you may find many gems of wisdom as I did. For me, reading it was much like reading Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. I can find a lot of wisdom in those Stoic philosophers’ works as well, but I cannot accept their philosophical system as a whole.