Age and experience somehow changes how we perceive things. Movies and books watched and read after a period of time opens up new insights missed earlier. In case of some books like Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to make friends and influence people’, it seems completely a different book than the one I read in my college days.
With the new year resolutions for 2016, I resolved to read Bhagavad Gita again. The last time I seriously and deeply read Bhagavad Gita was when I was studying for my Chartered Accountancy examination. At that time, the focus was more on digesting and if possible memorizing the shlokas / verses in its original form i.e. without interpretations and additional context added by different authors. It forces thinking and contemplation. I keep reading parts of the same old book now and then whenever I come across some reference which I think can be connected back to the Gita.
This time, I am taking a very different approach to reading Gita. I am very deliberate in choosing the lens through which I would want to understand the Gita. So what do I mean by the lens? Everything we perceive is colored by our experiences, influences, beliefs and prior context. For example, Chicken Kabab can be seen as a delicious culinary delight or it can be seen as violence against animals or it can be seen as an unhealthy food that causes cardiovascular diseases, etc. Same goes for appreciating music, art, literature and many other things in life.
Here are few possible lenses I can potentially use to read the Gita –
- Read it as a religious text and accept everything that is said in the book faithfully.
- Read it as a drama and understand the motives, influences and psychological drivers of human characters.
- Read it as a beautiful poem and appreciate the structure, flow of words and emotions.
- Read it with empirical skepticism and take only what can be observed and validated to be true based on testable evidence.
- Read it as a self-help book to deal with our day to-day psychological / emotional problems and common life related challenges.
I chose to go with #5. The reason is simple. Going by Darwin’s ‘Laws of Natural Selection’ and ‘Survival of the Fittest’, this book has survived for thousands of years and hence should be of some value to its immediate ecosystem i.e. readers. Also historically the true test of knowledge was mostly utility and hence there should something valuable / utilitarian in here that cuts across generations, races and geographies.
My choice to go with #5 above is also influenced by the first verse of Bhagavad Gita. It starts with ‘Dharma kshetre Kurukshetre’ (in the Dharmic field of Kurukshetra) and not ‘Uddha kshetre Kurukshetre’ (in the Battle field of Kurukshetra). This clearly tells me that the battle was a that of Dharma. The meaning of Dharma is not really religion. Dharma is the natural characteristics of a being. The Dharma of fire is to give warmth, burn, produce heat, etc. The Dharma of water is to flow to lower levels, nourish trees, sustain marine life, etc. Going by that, one can question, what is the Dharma of a human being? It cannot just be – eat, reproduce and survive. It has to be more than that. This books in my view is a treaty on Dharma for a common man. A type of self-help book to deal with day to-day issues of life with the framework of Dharma.
With that perspective, here is how I would interpret the characters in the book
Pandavas – Handful of virtues.
Kauravas – Hundreds of vices. We are attached to our vices our love for excesses than needed, deriving joy through unhealthy means, pursuit of fame, power, materiality knows no bound. Our attachment to these things are intense, deep and goes long back. Killing or getting rid of all our vices is very very difficult.
Duryodhana – King of vices.
Krishna – The soft inner voice of reason, an inner moral compass, something that inherently knows right from wrong. When you are in a dilemma somewhere deep inside you hear the right answer. Upon acting contrary, you curse yourself not to have listened to your inner voice. This book is a loud and long conversation with your inner voice.
Arjuna – The reader of the book or the common man that needs help to deal with day to day turmoil and have questions on purpose of life, ethics of work, meaning of god, etc.
Approach to reading and understanding Gita
Gita is best understood when read directly from the source verse by verse and digesting it slowly. I find it very helpful to reflect the verses in practical terms i.e. something that can be applied to the questions of everyday life. Keeping up with the theme of my blog Chakshura i.e. as I see it, the interpretation of Gita through my lens is purely the way I understand the literature. I am inspired by John Locke who very elegantly said “God speaks directly to each individual through the scriptures”. It is incumbent upon me as an individual to have that relationship with the author and not through a middle man. This approach is further vindicated as I am also reading the interpretations by various authoritative teachers of Gita. There is no One universal interpretation. People have seen Gita differently though their own lenses which were dependent upon their time, social conditions and educational upbringing.
Below are the 5 sources that I have chosen for my study.
- The Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda
- Bhagavad Gita with the Commentary of Sri Shankaracharya
- Bhagavad Gita translated by Swami Swarupananda
- The Bhagavad Gita by Annie Besant
- The Song Celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold (1900)