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The "Bhagavad Gita": A Biography

by Richard H. Davis


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The "Bhagavad Gita": A Biography

The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic that has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. The Gita opens on the eve of a mighty battle, when the warrior Arjuna is overwhelmed by despair and refuses to fight. He turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who counsels him on why he must. In the dialogue that follows, Arjuna comes to realize that the true battle is for his own soul.

Davis highlights the place of this legendary dialogue in classical Indian culture, and then examines how it has lived on in diverse settings and contexts. He looks at the medieval devotional traditions surrounding the divine character of Krishna and traces how the Gita traveled from India to the West, where it found admirers in such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Aldous Huxley. Davis explores how Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda used the Gita in their fight against colonial rule, and how contemporary interpreters reanimate and perform this classical work for audiences today.

An essential biography of a timeless masterpiece, this book is an ideal introduction to the Gita and its insights into the struggle for self-mastery that we all must wage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691139968
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/26/2014
Series: Lives of Great Religious Books Series
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 420,881
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Richard H. Davis is professor of religion at Bard College. He is the author of Lives of Indian Images and Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshipping Siva in Medieval India (both Princeton).

Read an Excerpt

The Bhagavad Gita

A Biography

By Richard H. Davis


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5197-3


The Bhagavad Gita in the Time of Its Composition

"Oh, what a great crime we are about to commit! From our desire to enjoy kingship, we are ready to kill our own kinsmen. It would be better for me if Dhritarashtra's sons with their weapons in hand were to kill me in combat, unarmed and unresisting." And after he said this, Arjuna, with a grief-stricken heart, threw aside his bow and arrows and sat down in the back of his chariot.

—Bhagavad Gita 1.45–47

The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the Mahabharata, a vast epic poem in classical Sanskrit that tells the story of a devastating rivalry between two clans of the ruling class for control of a kingdom in northern India. The Gita consists of a dialogue between two leading characters in this epic, Arjuna and Krishna, at a tense moment just as war between the two sides is about to begin. The conversation deals with the moral propriety of the war and much else as well. The Gita begins with Arjuna in confusion and despair, dropping his weapons; it ends with Arjuna picking up his bow, all doubts resolved and ready for battle. Once he does so, the war begins, and the narrative of the Mahabharata continues.

From an early date, the Bhagavad Gita also circulated as an independent work. It has been read, recited, interpreted, commented on, transcribed, translated, and published as a self-standing work of religious philosophy. This double identity of the Gita, as both a portion of a larger epic story and autonomous text, is an important source of its power and appeal. In this biographical account of the Bhagavad Gita, primary attention will be given to the life of the Gita on its own. But to gain a full sense of the rhetorical power that this text had in its own time of composition, it is also necessary to consider the Gita in its larger epic context.

The Gita in the Mahabharata

In the Mahabharata two sets of brothers, related as cousins to one another, vie for the throne of Hastinapura, capital of northern India. The five Pandava brothers are the sons of Pandu and his two wives; the hundred Kaurava brothers are the offspring of Dhritarashtra, elder brother to Pandu. The kingdom is beset with problems of dynastic continuity of a convoluted nature, going back several generations. Dhritarashtra is born blind, ordinarily a disqualification for kingship in classical India, and so the younger Pandu initially rules. When Pandu dies as a result of imprecated lovemaking with his younger wife, Dhritarashtra assumes the throne and takes in the orphaned sons of his brother. The Pandavas and Kauravas grow up together in Hastinapura. As they are educated and trained together as members of the Kshatriya or warrior class, a deep rivalry grows between the two groups. Uncertainty looms as to who will succeed Dhritarashtra. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is particularly adamant in his efforts to disinherit and destroy his cousins, the Pandavas.

Faced with unremitting antagonism between the cousins, the elders decide to partition the kingdom—an unwelcome necessity. The Pandavas are sent out to the hinterlands, where they set up court in a new capital, Indraprastha, along the Yamuna River where Delhi now stands. Their success in building up their new kingdom virtually from scratch only exacerbates the jealousy of Duryodhana and the other Kauravas. After a series of confrontations, culminating in a dice game with the highest possible stakes, the Pandavas are finally forced into a fourteen-year exile. Eventually, though, they return to seek what they see as rightfully theirs. Animosity grows ever greater, and reconciliation becomes impossible. As war appears increasingly inevitable, both sides round up allies until the entire ruling class of India is involved on one side or the other. The two camps proceed to the northern plains of Kurukshetra, agree to rules of combat, and line up facing one another. It is at this moment that the warrior Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna to drive their vehicle into the no-man's-land between the two sides so he can survey the enemy combatants.

Arjuna is the third of the five Pandava brothers, and most skilled warrior among them. When growing up at Hastinapura, Arjuna is the one who prevails in the contests that their teacher Drona holds for the Pandavas and Kauravas. While the Pandavas are in exile, Arjuna goes on a lengthy quest for weapons in anticipation of the conflict to come. He performs extraordinary austerities, wrestles with the god Shiva, lives for awhile in the heaven of the god Indra, and returns with the most awesome divine weaponry in the world. Now with the battle about to begin, Arjuna is the powerful Pandava warrior that the Kaurava side most fears.

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna's chariot driver Krishna appears as the ruler of a kingdom in western India. He meets the Pandavas when they are in hiding and quickly forms a special friendship with them. One of Pandu's wives, Kunti, is sister to Krishna's father, so they are already related as cousins. Later Krishna persuades Arjuna to abduct and marry his sister Subhadra, thereby tightening the relationship between them as brothers-in-law. Krishna acts as adviser to the Pandavas and also diplomat, unsuccessfully seeking reconciliation between the two camps just before the battle. But there is another side to Krishna, which becomes apparent from time to time. He is also divine. His godly status is not generally visible to other characters within the epic narrative, and is recognized only by a few unusually wise or fortunate figures. In the Bhagavad Gita, as we will see, Krishna powerfully reveals the full extent of his divine nature to Arjuna.

Shortly before the battle, both Duryodhana and Arjuna travel to visit Krishna in his palace. Each wishes to enlist Krishna's aid for his own side in the war. To avoid favoritism, Krishna offers them a choice. One may have Krishna's enormous army of a million trained warriors; the other may have Krishna himself, but only as a weaponless noncombatant. Duryodhana chooses troops, and Arjuna requests Krishna's personal assistance. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna are happy with the outcome. Duryodhana believes that Krishna's myriad troops will assure a Kaurava victory. Arjuna asks that Krishna serve in the humble position of a charioteer, a role not usually taken by a member of the warrior class. As Arjuna's chariot driver, Krishna will remain in close proximity during the battle to advise and counsel his friend, cousin, and brother-in-law Arjuna.

When the battle lines have formed at Kurukshetra, Arjuna and Krishna look over the two sides. Drums are pounding, conches blasting, cymbals ringing—all creating a terrifying roar. Suddenly Arjuna loses all his zeal for battle. He sees his own cousins, grandfathers, uncles, in-laws, and teachers in the opposing Kaurava army. Surely it is not worthy to fight and kill one's own kin. Arjuna is overcome with grief and indecision. His entire body trembles, his mind whirls in confusion, and he drops his fearsome bow. "I will not fight," he declares (Bhagavad Gita 2.9).

For Krishna this is a crisis. If the Pandavas are to have any chance of victory in the upcoming battle, they will need their most powerful warrior to be fully committed. The charioteer recognizes that his first task is to convince Arjuna to overcome all his anxieties and uncertainties. Krishna's counseling session forms the conversation recounted in the Bhagavad Gita.

This dialogue of roughly seven hundred verses requires about an hour and a half to recite. Some observers have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the "dramatic absurdity," as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man's-land. Yet verisimilitude is not the aim of the epic here. This is a pause in the narrative action, a sandhi or "juncture" in the story, as classical Indian rhetoric would label it. Here two central characters in the Mahabharata reflect once again on the morality of the war along with the ultimate religious issues that such life-and-death struggles so often raise.

Krishna's Battlefield Teachings

Though his body is shaking and his mind is spinning, Arjuna is able to articulate to Krishna the main causes of his distress. One is psychological. He feels deep pity and grief over the deaths sure to ensue during the battle. He sees no possible good that could compensate for the terrible losses from a war involving kin. The other is moral. Arjuna is confused as to his duty (dharma) in this situation. On the one hand, his responsibility as a member of the warrior class is to engage in appropriate battle. On the other hand, he owes a duty of protection to his own family members. When family obligations are not observed, Arjuna argues, the entire social order collapses. The opposite side in this battle is filled with Arjuna's relatives. So Krishna's efforts at persuasion must start with these two issues.

"The truly learned person," the charioteer begins, "does not grieve over those who are dead and those not dead" (2.11). The dead do not cease to exist. Krishna's assertion here rests on the premise of transmigration or metempsychosis: that a person's essential spirit or soul existed already before birth, and will continue to exist after death. Just as a person might take off one set of clothes and put on a new one, so too at death the person's soul dispenses with one used body and enters into a fresh new one. This is nothing new. Krishna is correct in observing that most of the "truly learned" schools of thought in classical India had come to accept the theory of transmigration in some form or another. The challenging part for Arjuna is to apply this radical redefinition of death to the situation of war. If only the body dies, then killing other soldiers in battle really only extinguishes those soldiers' bodies, leaving their soul to move on to other ones. If Arjuna can fully accept this philosophical perspective, Krishna tells him, then he has no reason to grieve over war casualties.

As for Arjuna's dilemma over conflicting duties, Krishna responds succinctly. Your duty as a member of the warrior class, to fight in a righteous battle, the charioteer asserts, trumps any obligations you may feel toward other members of your family (2.31). As the treatises on dharma state, it is part of the inherent nature of males of the Kshatriya class to engage in war. Krishna returns to this notion near the end of his address to Arjuna. "It is better to do your own duty, even poorly, than to perform the duty of someone else well" (18.47). Arjuna must follow his own nature as well as his class duty, and in doing so he will not commit any fault.

Thus Krishna responds to the two explicit causes of Arjuna's distress. The conversation could have ended there. But Arjuna gives no indication that he is convinced yet, and Krishna is just getting started. At this point, still early in their dialogue, Krishna proposes to explain a method that can "cut away the bondage of action" (2.39).

What does Krishna mean by "bondage of action"? He refers here to some of the prevalent theories of action in classical India. Religious philosophers of various schools (Buddhist and Jain as well as Hindu) identified desire, the primary motivation for action, to be a fundamental problem. Undertaking an act out of desire, they maintained, leads to bondage. The key term here is karma, which in its primary usage simply denotes action. In classical India, however, karma also had come to refer to the persisting moral consequences of actions. (It is in this extended sense that the term has been incorporated into the modern English lexicon.) Many envisioned karma as a residue that adhered to a person's self or soul, like some kind of opaque grime that obscured its intrinsic clarity. This buildup of karma caused a soul to be reborn again and again in bondage to the world of suffering. The way to avoid this bondage, therefore, was to avoid all desire-based action. And to accomplish this, it was necessary to leave behind one's familial and social responsibilities, and become a renouncer. As a homeless mendicant, one could avoid acting out of desire, practice disciplines of meditation and austerity, and seek a state of liberation from all bondage—a state that transcended human suffering. Hindus most often called it moksha, Buddhists termed it nirvana, and Jains designated it kaivalya, but all the advocates of renunciation viewed it as the highest state.

Why should Krishna bring this up here, on the battlefield? Arjuna is no Buddhist monk or Jain ascetic, yet he is proposing to renounce an action that is his social responsibility. Krishna is urging Arjuna to engage in violent battle, an especially gruesome form of action. There were examples in classical India of rulers who did renounce their war making in favor of higher ethical values, such as the famous Buddhist emperor Ashoka Maurya (r. 270–230 BCE). So Krishna feels that he must reconcile his advocacy of worldly action with the religious claims of the renunciatory schools. To do so, he proposes a new theory of action.

One can act without being driven by desire, says Krishna. The key is to avoid any attachment to the results (or fruits) of your action.

Your obligation is to the action, and never to its fruits. Do not be motivated by the fruit of your actions. But do not become attached to non-action, either. Abandon your attachment and engage in worldly action, Arjuna, while standing firm in discipline (yoga). Consider success and failure to be equal. This equanimity is called discipline, Arjuna, since the action itself is much less important than the discipline of the intellect. (2.47–49)

This is one of the primary arguments of the Bhagavad Gita. One need not, and in fact should not, avoid worldly action. To avoid the bondage that results from actions driven by desires, however, one must avoid any attachment to the ends or fruits of that action. One must maintain a mental equanimity toward the outcome. This requires a firm disciplining of the mind. Arjuna should fight in the war, as it is his class duty to do so, and if he does this without any concern for success or failure, without desire for any fruits of victory or fear of defeat, no "bondage of action" will attach to him. This leaves open the path to liberation. "Through discipline of the intellect," Krishna adds, "wise people renounce the fruits born of action, and freed from the bondage that leads to rebirth, they go to the unblemished state" (2.51).

With this new theory of action, Krishna has provided a way for Arjuna to engage in the upcoming battle without incurring the bondage that normally results from desire-based action. As Arjuna immediately recognizes, though, this theory is easier said than done. How does one gain the kind of mental equilibrium that would enable acting without any attachment to the fruits of that action? Arjuna imagines it can only be an extraordinary person, one whose "wisdom is firm" (sthitaprajna), and so he asks Krishna for a description of such a person (2.54).

To gain this sort of mastery over the self, one must employ discipline. The term here is yoga, the Indic word that has come to enjoy a complex and expansive life in modern global culture. In classical India, itinerant seekers and organized groups of renouncers had experimented with a wide range of disciplinary practices directed at the body and mind—fasting and abstinences, physical postures, breath control, sensory withdrawal, mental concentration, and the like. Here Krishna suggests that these disciplines can be adapted by those who are not renouncers, those still active in worldly affairs, to gain the self-mastery required for detached action. To become a person whose wisdom is firm, one must first gain control over the senses. As the winds of a tempest carry away a ship at sea, so the senses can draw the self into all sorts of unwanted attachments. Better, says Krishna, to learn to withdraw the senses from their objects, as a turtle draws its limbs back into its firm shell. For when one can remain serene, without any attraction or repulsion toward the objects of the world, that equanimity can lead to liberation (2.55–71).

Krishna's description of the person of firm wisdom, the sthitaprajna, raises a new question for Arjuna. If that is the goal, what is the best way to reach such a state? Arjuna's concern here reflects the broader religious situation in classical India. There were numerous schools of religious and philosophical thought all advancing their own claims as to the surest method to attain the best goal. How was one to decide which path to follow? "Tell me for certain" Arjuna implores Krishna, "the one means by which I can gain the highest end" (3.2).


Excerpted from The Bhagavad Gita by Richard H. Davis. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Bhagavad Gita in the Time of Its Composition 10

Chapter 2 Krishna and His Gita in Medieval India 43

Chapter 3 Passages from India 72

Chapter 4 Krishna, the Gita, and the Indian Nation 115

Chapter 5 Modern Gitas: Translations 154

Chapter 6 The Gita in Our Time: Performances 178

Epilogue The Bhagavad Gita in Great Time 204

Notes 211

Glossary of Sanskrit terms 227

Select English translations of the Bhagavad Gita 229

Further readings 233

Index 237

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