Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Bhagavad Gita as translated by Sir Edwin Arnold
The title translates from Sanskrit to mean The Song Celestial, and the original was a poem or song featuring a discussion between Prince Arjun and an entity called Krishna, which is a deific being. It has been cited as influential and/or inspirational by many who study or come from India, so I decided a few years ago to add it to my reading list, and am finally getting around to it. One of my goals for some time now has been to familiarize myself more with the culture and history of this region, as it is not something I have previously studied extensively, and reading this poem seemed a better place to start than with the entirety of the Mahabharata.
With any work of this kind of historical nature, there are always considerations of translation and source, some of the information being lost to history. Of particular interest, and discussed in the preface of my copy, is the relationship between this poem (which is not part of the original Mahabharata), and the New Testament of the Christian tradition, with considerable debate still ongoing as to whether this may have inspired some of the New Testament ideas, or the other way around. Regardless, this is another reminder of how much can be lost in translation, as the original was written in something called Anushtubh metre, which I know nothing about except that it cannot be reproduced in English. Are there better translations than the one I found? Probably, and if you have expertise or interest in the subject, I encourage you to do the research to find out. For my purposes, this one was inexpensive, had a preface that gave me enough context to understand the text, and was in a form to communicate at least some sense of the poem’s original Sanskrit nature.
Coming off of The Worm Ouroboros, which I must admit could get a bit slow at times, I was surprised by how quickly I went through this iconic piece. Despite being a translation that is itself on the older side, and presented as a poem, I found it to be fairly easy reading. In fact, the only times I slowed down were when I wanted to go over an idea a few more times, or when there was interesting wordplay involved (something like “the known be of the knowing with the knowledge of the knower,” for instance (that’s not quite right, but close)). Despite its relative brevity, or perhaps because of it, I think I gained quite a bit of insight into the Indian culture presented herein.
One of the most interesting ideas wrestled with in this piece is the role of action. Apparently, the religion of which this poem is a part teaches that action taken because of an internal impetus is somehow wrong. I struggled to understand this until I reached the very last “chapter” (which I think was the best of the entire book). Essentially, this chapter boiled everything down to three categories. There are the things that are right, or holy, which bears a strong resemblance to philosophies like stoicism or to a lesser extent Aristotelian ethics (virtue is the mean between two vices). In this category, actions for instance are right and holy so long as they are not driven by emotion or internal passions and desires, and are not conducted towards evil ends. The second category I tend to think of as the “human” category – things that are not evil, but are not holy. This includes actions that are motivated internally by emotions or desires rather than out of duty, but that are not conducted towards evil ends. The final category, as you might be able to guess, would be things that are actually evil (the book does not explain what constitutes “evil” – I assume this is covered in other parts of the Mahabharata).
Considering some of what I’ve read before, and the brief discussion included in the preface about the relationship between the Bhagavad Gita and the Christian New Testament, I expected to find a lot more overt similarities and parallels between the two. While there are some similar ideas expressed, I found it thoroughly unique, independent, and well-contextualized. That being said, I am not a theologian for any of the faiths involved, so I will leave it to those who make studying these matters their life’s work to debate the influences and cultural cross-pollinations involved.
My only critique, if it can constitute that, is the framing story for the dialogue. Prince Arjun is apparently in a chariot, on a battlefield, about to engage in some kind of civil war, when he has doubts about whether it is really wise to prosecute that war and have brother kill brother and uncle kill uncle. Krishna possesses his chariot driver, and they engage in the dialogue that is The Song Celestial, at the end of which Krishna, who I believe is a ruling deity (what I don’t know about this religion could fill several books, I’m afraid, which is part of why I was so interested in reading this particular work), declares that prosecuting the civil war is the right and holy thing to do because it is Prince Arjun’s duty, and it is merely his earthly passions and emotions that lead him to question and doubt these right actions. It is an odd conclusion after a series of soliloquies in which there are strong elements of pacifism and human brotherhood that I found jarring. Perhaps it would benefit from more context than I had, since we never really find out why this civil war is being conducted in the first place.
Going into this reading, I wasn’t certain into what I was really getting myself, and I will admit that I expected it to be somewhat slow and painful to get through, even if I found it valuable. Instead, I found a refreshingly brief, beautifully written piece that communicates a lot of fascinating ideas that I will continue thinking about for quite some time, and left me eager to explore more of the Mahabharata or other traditional Indian texts. I really encourage you to add this one to your reading list and find a copy soon.
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