Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Athenaeum : The Bhagavad Gita A Biography

Arjuna witnessing Krishna's Viswaroopam (courtesy Iskcon images)


Across the ages and cultures books have wielded an enormous influence as vehicles of ideas by seeping into the cultural consciousness and in due course dominating the intellectual climate. Religious books, more than any other, have an unparalleled capacity to influence millions over many centuries. Yet, many religious texts originate in antiquity and obscurity and evolve into a force of nature shaping entire nations, cultures and peoples. To unravel the mystery of how a complex philosophical treatise became a canonical text is the task of a literary detective. Richard Davis, professor of religion at Bard College, in an exceedingly well written book, "The Bhagavad Gita: A biography", traces admirably how a compact text evolved into the conscience of a religion and a people over many centuries.

What Davis does not do in the book is as significant as what he sets out to do. Davis's goal is to write a 'biography' of a book as one would write a biography of a person. Though Davis explains in shining succinct prose the themes of Gita, the various interpretations, socio-political changes that are reflected in how Gita was assimilated and propagated, he does not engage in philosophical discourse on the Gita itself. The book is not a philosophical treatise of Gita or analyses of its philosophical in a compare and contrast approach. Davis restricts himself, a tad too strictly, to his role as a tour guide in the life of a book.

Set in a battlefield, the Gita, is a call for action and duty, albeit with a crucial distinction. Krishna calls upon Arjuna to do his duty, that of warrior, but free himself from the 'bondage of action' by actively dissociating his soul from the fruits, victory or defeat, of his action. Davis points out that in classical India the notion of Karma, literally meaning action but amorphously signifies the stain of 'persisting moral consequences of actions' which was said to cause a cycle of births. Krishna then details the then prevailing 'schools of knowledge' to attain detachment. Without endorsing or the other school of thought Krishna focuses on 'the psychological consequences for one who adopts that perspective'. Tamil writer and exponent of Hindu philosophy, Jeyamohan, and Davis concur that Krishna does not offer a didactic singular prescription but gives 'heuristical validity' to the various paths 'insofar as it leads one toward equanimity'.

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