The Most Loved Hindu Scripture
Translated by Eknath Easwaran
1st Shambhal Edition 2004
This book opened my eyes to many things and improved my life immensely.
The word “Gita” means “song”, and “Bhagavad Gita” means “song of the Lord”. The Bhagavad Gita (The Gita), was and is viewed by many, including Mahatma Gandhi, as India’s most important gift to the world. It is not an academic work of philosophy but a poetic, practical guide for a lay audience. Whoever would claim to be a student of religion can ill afford to ignore this work.
The Introductions to each of its 18 Chapters are still essential to guide the lay reader through the thicket of Hindu parlance, including its frequent use of Sanskrit words (which often have multiple and very different meanings). The Gita is short, comprising only a small part (100 pages or so) of a very long Hindu scripture, The Mahabharata (believed to have been written about 1000 B.C.), some 500 years after The Rig Veda, which is the oldest of the Hindu scriptures (which Hindus date hundreds of years before Moses and The Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament); the Veda also includes the Upanishads, another prominent Hindu scripture. In the aggregate, the Hindu scriptures include texts that are roughly 700 times the size of the Christian Bible.
Both Hinduism and Judaism evolved from idol worship of many objects and forces of nature (gods) into faith in one god and, 1000 or so years later, Judaism gave birth to Christianity and, about 625 A.D., the Islamic faith.
Westerners often misread Hinduism as a belief in many gods, but Hindus believe in one Supreme Being (referring to it as Love, Truth, and Reality, the Supreme Being, Vishnu, etc.), although they have retained their many names for the varied “faces” or aspects of one god and have statues as reminders of their multifaceted one god and some of their saints, but these statues are no more “idols of worship” than are the crosses and other jewelry-ornaments and paintings, figures, figurines and statues that proliferate in many Christian churches (including evangelical) and homes and which Christians wear around their necks. Hindus have thousands of saints (which some Westerners also misread as gods), a number of which saints the Hindus maintain “ascended” (not dissimilar from the Christians’ belief in the ascensions of Christ and Elijah and the Muslims’ belief in the ascension of Mohammad).
Hinduism has spawned or inspired many tangential religions, including Buddhism, Jainism (which adopted many of the Hindu scriptures verbatim), Zorasterism, Hari Krishna’s, Taoism, Pantheism, Humanism, and even the Muslim Sikhs have borrowed much from Hinduism (understandably as many of them live in Northern India).
Buddhism is very similar to Hinduism; Buddha preached Hindu ideals, but he abhorred the priestly caste and their rituals, and he lived his life as a mendicant and ascetic, as did his devoted disciples and pupils, who lived off the largess of others, which prompted the Indians to force most Buddhists to leave India, as a beggar class hardly helps the local economy.
Hinduism appears to have influenced Christianity, as some Eastern scholars maintain that Jesus’ travels included India and that he, too, enjoyed Hindu influences and an exchange of ideas. Hinduism is appealing, because it has a history of non-violence and of loving all sentient creatures. Westerners misinterpret this respect of (and kindness towards) creatures, even extending to insects, as fanaticism or barbarism, rather than as a logical expression of love of all life forms. Of the major religions, Hinduism is the only one that hasn’t spread its gospel, at times, through violence; they have fought only when invaded. Hinduism sees God in everyone and everything. Refreshingly, Hindus have no urge whatsoever to convert anyone to their views. They are concerned only with their own salvation, which keeps them constructively engaged and denuded of the pretentious presumption that they know what is the best philosophy for others.
The main subject of The Gita (the shortest and most loved of all Hindu scriptures) is the war within, the struggle for self-mastery. Most of it is imbedded within a conversation between Arjuna (who symbolizes the average man) and Lord Krishna (Arjuna’s charioteer, who is the incarnation of the Supreme Being and such avatars are common in Hindu scriptures). (“Hari” is another name for Krishna, hence the splinter faith’s moniker, “Hari Krishna”).
Krishna counsels Arjuna:
to be compassionate to friend and enemy alike;
to see himself in every person;
to suffer other’s sorrows as his own;
to see Reality (God) in every creature;
to be incapable of ill will;
to see all of life as Reality’s manifestation; to harm no one;
to see life as a seamless whole; and
to endure pleasure and pain in the same way.
What Westerner could disagree with such loving tenets? Krishna, the Deity, refers to himself as “the Self in every creature” (Gita, 10:20). Philosophers Spinoza and Huxley called The Gita “the Perennial Philosophy”, because it appears in every age of all known civilizations, except the Egyptians’ (which antedate it by stretching back to 3000 B.C.). The Gita’s fundamental precepts are: (1) there is an infinite, changeless reality (Reality); (2) it lies at the core of every human being and creature; and (3) the purpose of life is to discover this Reality; it is “God within us”. Unlike Christian and Muslim bibles, The Gita does not dwell on the subject of creation or a creator, or use fear of a horrid afterlife for non-believers, preferring instead to focus on the individual’s struggle to achieve inner peace.
Dharma and karma are the two most important Hindu words. Dharma means “that which supports” and/or “the essential order of things” and/or “the oneness of life”. The highest dharma is nonviolence, a universal love for all creatures; that is the fundamental law of the unity of life. Karma, a Sanskrit word, literally means “something that is done” or “deed”, but it has many expansive meanings; in brief, it might be said to the sum of the individual’s thoughts and actions. The Law of Karma is that every thought and every action has consequences.
Buddha, born a Hindu and a lover of The Gita, said,
“We are not punished for our anger; we are punished by our anger.” (Gita, 15)
The Gita asserts the importance of converting negative thoughts into positive ones.
The key to life is in the mind, not outside it.
The objects that we see are shaped by the attitude with which we look. Krishna tells Arjuna that we never really encounter anything; rather, we only experience our own nervous system. (Before you are dismissive of this concept, read Stephen Hawkings’ Brief History of Time.) To discover the unity of the world, our consciousness needs to be withdrawn from our (five) senses – via meditation, which is an enormous component of yoga (and the foundation of self-hypnosis, a key tool used in modern psychology, psychiatry and medicine to control pain, gain inner peace, etc.). The literal nothingness of matter – indeed, atoms are empty – has become a more dominant theme and conundrum of 20th and 21st Century physicists.
The Gita is a textbook on the supreme science of yoga, but yoga (like many Indian words) has many meanings. Its central theme is karma yoga: we are the product of our thoughts and actions. There are four, primary types of yoga:
(1) knowledge yoga, in which man learns to identify the Self within;
(2) devotion yoga, where man identifies with the Lord or Love –
recalling the New Testament’s John 4:8, “God is love”;
(3) karma yoga, wherein man turns his thoughts and actions to the service of others
and accepts that he is the product of his thoughts and actions;
and that actions bind mankind to an endless cycle of cause and effect;
(4) meditation yoga, wherein man transcends the conscious mind into the subconscious mind.
The Gita doesn’t urge us to give up material things (as does Buddhism) but, rather, to give up our attachment to material things. It doesn’t ask us to give up the pleasures of life but only to do things without selfish motives.
To Gandhi, The Gita can be summarized in two words: “selfless action”, which requires selfless motives. The person whose overriding desire is to give and love and serve has found the true joy of life. The Gita is not a book of commandments but a book of choices. Positive to a fault, it never mentions sin. It dwells on reforming thoughts and conduct, ego, selflessness, love and the relationship between thought and action, and the need to see the same Self (goodness) in every person and creature. The Gita places human destiny in human hands; it sees God (Love, Truth, Reality) in each man, and it teaches that we shape ourselves and our world by what we think and do. Devotion to selfless work is the supreme goal of life (Gita, 3:19). It also holds that there are two paths at the time of death: rebirth and liberation, and that one’s attitude at the time of death can influence which path is taken. Rebirth is generally required for those who have not mastered the supreme goal and liberation (the end) for those who have. While a life of selfless service is a primary driver of Hinduism, meditation may be an even larger part of it, and rudimentary techniques for meditation are set forth, although modern techniques of self-hypnosis may well provide a more advanced and more direct route to the same goal.
Interestingly, The Gita and other Hindu scriptures maintain that there are many cosmos or universes which die and are reborn endlessly. Their ancient views on point are similar to the current views of many cosmologists, which hold that our universe began in a Big Bang, will end in a Black Hole in a “Big Crunch” (some billions of years hence) and will be born again in another Big Bang, hence fostering an endless cycle of universes, coming and going. Thus, the prescient authors of Hindu scriptures appear to have been 3-4,000 years ahead of their time, albeit without enormous telescopes and the benefit of any modern sciences.
The author, Bill Bryson’s “episodic extinctions” (e.g. solar flares, supernova), as described in my report on his brilliant Short History of Almost Everything, suggest many other similarly unpleasant but possible denouements for our terrestrial ball, which might occur in millions of years. Even sooner, another meteor, like the KT Meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, could strike anytime, or never (but there are so many errant meteors careening recklessly in space that statistical probability makes it likely within a million or so years), but, if that occurred, it would likely do so with only a few seconds’ warning; so, we’d never know what hit us anyway. Bottom line: the odds are that no such episodic extinction will occur for a million or more years. The point remains that, for eons, the Hindus have believed in sequentially reoccurring universes, a more expansive concept than that depicted in the very earth-centric Revelations, as written by the Gospels’ St. John, which deals only with our planet and was written 1,000 or more years after The Gita.
In sum, The Gita has become synonymous with the most beloved human being in modern history — Mahatma Gandhi. Its text is brilliant in its simplicity but complex in subtle profundity. Unlike the Torah, the many Christian Bibles and the Koran, The Gita, which never preaches violence, was written to inspire love without the use of force or intimidation. Like all old religious texts (and Hindu scriptures are the oldest of all), it had to be written originally on plant leaves, clay tablets, and parchment (as it long antedated papyrus), and it had to be copied by hand (with predictable edits and revisions to suit the scribes or the clerics from whom the scribes took their directions) with far too many translations, and revisions to compliment the mutations in contemporary mores. Such evolutions render any text problematic at best and, over time, will impose a host of different meanings for the same words with resultant ambiguities.
Notwithstanding any such vagaries, the overriding ideology of The Gita is pure virtue, and its text is largely devoid of contentious statements. Understandably, countless luminaries praise The Gita as the most important of all religious texts. Its ultimate premise makes manifest sense:
“No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end.” (Gita, 6:40).
It is sad that Calvin and many modern-day evangelists have not been able to accept the wisdom of that statement. On such a logical and felicitous note, this reader commends The Gita to all, as a positive and loving scripture, which can help any reader become a better human being, while gaining some appreciation of the world’s oldest faith and of the loving Hindu spirit. The Gita and Hinduism offer unconditional love to all.