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I can’t remember when my love of the Gita began. As a child I had no conscious interest in anything spiritual; I was an ordinary boy growing up in a remote South Indian village, absorbed in my friends and pets and our sports and games. But one summer before I reached the age of ten, my grandmother decided that instead of swimming and playing soccer, I should spend my vacation learning Sanskrit from the village priest. I had no idea why, and I rather resented it, but because I loved Granny deeply I did as she desired. I learned in the traditional manner, from passages committed to memory from India’s great scriptures and poets, including many from the Bhagavad Gita. The verses appealed to me deeply for their beauty, but so far as I can tell they must have sunk into my unconscious without any sense of their deeper meaning.
So I am at a loss to explain why, when I left home for college at the age of sixteen, I chose to spend my first pittance of a pocket allowance on a copy of the Gita in Sanskrit. To my uncles, that purchase was a sure sign that I would never amount to much. Today it seems almost as if the book had been waiting for me to come and pick it up. Without realizing it, I had already become a “Gita kid.”
I read the book over and over, committing to memory favorite verses until they numbered probably three or four hundred. Later, as a university student and then as a professor, I had many occasions to listen to learned talks on the Gita by distinguished scholars, philosophers, and religious figures. Yet it was only when I met Mahatma Gandhi that I began to understand that the Gita is not only magnificent literature but a sure guide to human affairs — one that could, in fact, throw light on the problems I faced in my own times of crisis. Gandhi went so far as to say frankly, after nearly a lifetime of personal experience, that the Gita contains the answer to every problem life has to offer. That is the greatest debt I owe him. For all India he is the father of the nation, which is a very high tribute; but for me he is the beacon of our times, and his source of light was the Bhagavad Gita.
Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India and a great scholar, once observed that the ancient Greeks gave us intellectual values, the Romans political values, and the Jews moral values. India’s contribution, he added, is spiritual values. It is a generalization, but one with a good deal of truth. A civilization can be evaluated by the kind of human being it aims at, the highest ideal it holds up. Wherever we look in India’s long history, we find the highest honor given to men and women dedicated to the realization of the supreme reality that most religions call God.
I think it was Arnold Toynbee, in the course of his study of world civilizations, who said that India had a genius for religion: not in the sense of a particular religion, but religion itself. This needs some explanation, for we are used to thinking of religions in the plural, bound to particular cultures, and thus of India’s scriptures as Hindu. But the word “Hinduism,” even the idea, never appears in our scriptures, and it is really is too narrow to describe what they mean by religion. The term that is used is sanatana dharma: sanatana means changeless, eternal; dharma is a rich and complex word that we can translate here as law. So sanatana dharma means something universal: the eternal principles or changeless values on which life is based, regardless of creed, country, culture, or epoch.
If you ask orthodox Hindus when their religion was founded, they may tell you, “Our religion was never founded. It was always there.” This kind of reply baffles Western scholars, but it means simply that the laws of life, like physical laws, have existed forever. No one has put this better than Mahatma Gandhi: “What I mean by religion . . . is not the Hindu religion . . . but the religion that transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within . . . It is the permanent element in human nature.”
The oldest expression of this idea goes back a good five thousand years to the cradle of India’s civilization, the Vedas: four collections of an ancient wisdom tradition transmitted orally but systematically until they began to be written down, perhaps as early as 3000 BC. Each of the Vedas can be divided into two sections. The first of these deals with rituals, myth, and hymns that are of great cultural significance but not relevant to this search for a universal religion. For that we turn to the second part of the Vedas, which comprises the Upanishads — visionary records of the direct encounters of anonymous sages with a transcendent reality. The Upanishads are probably the oldest expression in history of what Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy.”
The Upanishads are lofty and inspiring, but they are not terribly practical: they tell what sages have found but little about how others can make this discovery themselves. Yet the whole point of religion in this sense is that wisdom must be based on one’s own experience. We need some way to translate the wisdom of the Upanishads into everyday life.
That is where the Bhagavad Gita scores heavily. It too offers inspiration and poetry, but unlike the Upanishads, it combines these with practical explanation and instruction. It is, in a word, a handbook — as Mahatma Gandhi put it, a manual for daily living, not just in ancient India but in all times and places. In the Gita, the wisdom of the Upanishads is complemented and brought to earth by Sri Krishna, who, through Arjuna, tells us — you and me — what practices to follow to gain direct, experiential knowledge of reality.
In Indian philosophy, the various ways of attaining this knowledge are called yoga and the underlying theory is sankhya. At some point in the development of Indian thought — perhaps early in the first millennium BC, certainly well before the Buddha was born — sankhya and the major schools of yoga became systematized. But that seems to have happened after the Bhagavad Gita was composed, when later schools of thought were still emerging. As a result, the Gita is broad enough to support all paths to the discovery of sanatana dharma, providing not just a guidebook but a map.
Preface: The Wisdom of India Introduction
1. The War Within
2. The Search for Reality
3. The Higher and Lower Mind
4. The Causes of Delusion
5. Yoga as the Way Forward
7. Yoga in Daily Life
8. Yoga in Work and Relationships
9. Healing the Unconscious
10. Death and the Continuity of Life
11. Spiritual Evolution
12. Faith and Incarnation
13. The End of Sorrow: Portraits of the Illumined Person
Further Reading Glossary Favorite Verses from the Gita Index
Posted December 11, 2011
Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation, and Indian Philosophy (Wisdom of India) (Paperback)
This book has been produced posthumously from recorded talks. Guided by the author's specific instructions before his death, the editors (long-time students of his) have done a stunning job. (The material in this book has not been previously published.) I hope for at least a few more such posthumous books, and I believe they are in process.
The book displays Easwaran's usual graceful clarity of thought and word. But I think this is the deepest of Easwaran's books to date. This one goes deep, deep into the heart and mind of humanity. I've gained insights from this book which I have not gained from his prior books, even though I've studied them all. Maybe I just wasn't ready for these insights until now, I cannot tell for absolutely certain-sure. But I think this book is deeper.
I've just finished it; I will re-read it this week, slowly, and ponder its message. I've no doubt it will be read again and again, and become dog-eared rather quickly.
It's a life-changing, seriously life-enhancing book, perhaps particularly for those individuals who are chasing material goods and/or power in the sad delusion that these will make them truly happy. But it would be life-enhancing for everyone.
In conclusion, I can do no better than copy a sentence from another reviewer (on Another Online Bookstore's Web Site): "Nowhere have I found such a clear exposition of the path into deeper consciousness and how we can truly transform our personalities." This says it all.
Pat Meadows (who is deeply grateful to Easwaran and to the editors of this book - Thank you!)
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Posted December 24, 2011
From a small operation in Northern California, Eknath Easwaran and the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation continue to produce books of enormous importance. This latest addition to Easwaran's legacy is one of the most insightful to date. If you enjoy Easwaran's teachings, if you're yearning for ultra deep insights into this beloved Hindu scripture, or if you simply want to read elegant prose seasoned with delightfully modern, often amusing stories and analogies, you'll love this book.
Many Gita commentaries (including Easwaran's own three-volume set) explore the text passage by passage. Through these, we quickly discern that the battle described in the Gita is not physical but internal and that this battle is won using will power rather than firepower.
Beyond the individual words and passages, however, lies much more. Deftly wielding his little but powerful lamp, Easwaran leads us on a spelunking trip deep into the heart of the Gita. Along the way, we encounter wisdom from such varied sources as Shankara, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Spinoza, Jung, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, physiologist Hudson Hoagland and others. The journey is at once simple and profound.
The book begins by introducing the split in consciousness between our lower and higher selves that causes separateness and struggle. Easwaran explores the nature of reality and personality, explaining that we are not our bodies or our minds (!) and that identification with these imposters keeps us feeling separate from everyone and everything.
Beginning with chapter six, we move from theory to practice. Easwaran explains how to heal the split using a system of living that includes meditation, living deliberately and experimenting with our likes and dislikes. The words are practical and enormously compelling.
The final three chapters describe the journey of humanity toward its ultimate goal: self-realization. We have no choice but to fight this battle, Easwaran and the Gita insist. Putting our heads in the sand or playing with the toys of life only delays the battle and prolongs our misery. Ultimately, Easwaran's Gita tells us we will not only fight but also win and that this glorious day comes much more quickly when we seize the initiative and realize our potential.
This story could only be told by a lifelong student of the Gita, someone who has lived it each day and is now so familiar with it that its words pale against the underlying meaning. Even so, in the hands of a lesser writer, no one but an enlightened being could even understand how the meaning derives from the words. But Easwaran's ideas fit together so well and are so nicely supported by the sparsely used but powerful Gita verses that, by the end, it's utterly impossible to deny both the wisdom of this interpretation and the inevitability of its effect on us.
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Posted December 18, 2011