Understanding The Gita: A guide for modern readers

The Gita is the discourse given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna.
The Gita is the discourse given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna.
Image: AP Photo/ Anupam Nath
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The Bhagavad Gita, or The Gita as it is popularly known, is part of the epic Mahabharata.

The epic describes the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kuru-kshetra. The Gita is the discourse given by Krishna to Arjuna just before the war is about to begin. Krishna is identified as God. His words contain the essence of Vedic wisdom, the keystone of Hinduism.

Traditionally, a guru would only elaborate on a particular verse or a set of verses or a chapter of The Gita at a time. It is only in modern times, with a printed book in hand, that we want to read The Gita cover to cover, chapter by chapter, verse to verse, and hope to work our way through to a climax of resolutions in one go. When we attempt to do so, we are disappointed. For, unlike modern writing, The Gita is not linear: some ideas are scattered over several chapters, many ideas are constantly repeated, and still others presuppose knowledge of concepts found elsewhere, in earlier Vedic and Upanishadic texts. In fact, The Gita specifically refers to the Brahma sutras, also known as Vedanta sutras, said to have been composed by one Badarayana, sometimes identified with Vyasa. Further, at places, the same words are used in different verses to convey different meanings, and at other instances, different words are used to convey the same idea. For example, sometimes the word ‘atma’ means mind and sometimes soul; at other times other words like dehibrahmana and purusha are used for soul instead of atma. This can be rather disorienting to a casual reader, and open to multiple interpretations.

We never actually hear what Krishna told Arjuna. We simply overhear what Sanjaya transmitted faithfully to the blind king Dhritarashtra in the comforts of the palace, having witnessed all that occurred on the distant battlefield, thanks to his telepathic sight. The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but infinite sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but full authority (Dhritarashtra). This peculiar structure of the narrative draws attention to the vast gap between what is told and what is heard.

Krishna and Sanjaya may speak exactly the same words, but while Krishna knows what he is talking about, Sanjaya does not. Krishna is the source, while Sanjaya is merely a transmitter. Likewise, what Sanjaya hears is different from what Arjuna hears and what Dhritarashtra hears. Sanjaya hears the words, but does not bother with the meaning. Arjuna is a seeker and so he decodes what he hears to find a solution to his problem. Dhritarashtra is not interested in what Krishna has to say. While Arjuna asks many questions and clarifications, ensuring the ‘discourse’ is a ‘conversation’, Dhritarashtra remains silent throughout. In fact, Dhritarashtra is fearful of Krishna who is fighting against his children, the Kauravas. So he judges Krishna’s words, accepting what serves him, dismissing what does not.

The quest for objective truth (what did Krishna actually say?) invariably results in vi-vaad, argument, where you try to prove that your truth is the truth and I try to prove that my truth is the truth. The quest for subjective truth (how does The Gita make sense to me?) results in sam-vaad, where you and I seek to appreciate each other’s viewpoints and expand our respective truths. It allows everyone to discover The Gita at his or her own pace, on his or her own terms, by listening to the various Gitas around them.

Objectivity is obsessed with exactness and tends to be rather intolerant of deviation, almost like the jealous God of monotheistic mythologies. But meanings change over time, with the personality of the reader, and with context. Subjectivity challenges the assumption that ideas are fixed and can be controlled; it celebrates the fluid. Modern global discourse tends to look at truth qualitatively: it is either true or false. That which is objective is scientific and true. That which is subjective is mythic and false. Hindu thought, however, looks at truth quantitatively: everyone has access to a slice; the one who sees all slices of truth is bhaga-van. Limited truth is mithya. Limitless truth is satya. Satya is about including everything and being whole. The journey towards limitless truth expands our mind.

The Gita itself values subjectivity: after concluding his counsel, Krishna tells Arjuna to reflect on what has been said, and then do as he feels. Even Sanjaya, after giving his view on what Krishna’s discourse potentially offers, concludes The Gita with the phrase ‘in my opinion’.

Traditionally, The Gita has been presented as a text that focusses on self-realization. This suits the hermit who isolates himself from society. This is not surprising, since most early commentators and retellers of The Gita, such as Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhwa and Dyaneshwara, chose not to be householders. The original Buddhist monastic order may not have survived in India, but it did play a key role in the rise and dominance of the Hindu monastic order. The monastic approach willy-nilly appeals to the modern individualist, who also seeks self-exploration, self-examination, self-actualization and, of course, selfies.

But the Mahabharata is about the household, about relationships, about others. It is essentially about a property dispute. Arjuna’s dilemma begins when he realizes that the enemy is family and he fears the impact of killing family on society as a whole. Krishna’s discourse continuously speaks of yagna, a Vedic ritual that binds the individual to the community.

In Chapter 5, Verse 13, of The Gita, Krishna describes the human body as a city with nine gates: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth, one anus and one genital. A relationship involves two bodies, two people, the self and the other, you and me, two cities—eighteen gates in all. That The Gita has eighteen sections, that it seeks to make sense of the eighteen books of the Mahabharata—which tells the story of a war between family and friends fought over eighteen days involving eighteen armies—indicates that the core teaching of The Gita has much to do with relationships. It serves the needs of the householder rather than the hermit.

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Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications India from the book My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.