Monday, December 7, 2009

The Bhagavad Gita

A recent foray for a particular quote from the Bhagavad Gita had me stumbling across quotes iterated by famous people stating how much they loved and praised the book. The Indians, of course, did not surprise me, but the number of Western scientists and theologists quoting the Gita certainly did. Names such as Albert Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Oppenheimer littered the page.

At first I couldn't understand it. Every time I had performed the Mahabharata or seen it being performed or even heard the story being told the 739 page story in the following few lines:

Arjuna, preparing for a great battle, looks out onto the battlefield and decides he will not - cannot fight. The sight of his brothers, cousins, family, and friends - the idea that he will have to kill those he loves - becomes unbearable to him. He turns to Krishna, who unflinchingly says that he must do his duty, who then reveals himself as God to Arjuna. Arjuna, overwhelmed and filled with bhakti (a devotional love for God), becomes enlightened in a sense and realizes he must do as Krishna says.

Of course one would regard it with some skepticism after dancing this same tiny bit over and over during different bharatanatyam dramas depicting the Mahabharata! How can you just accept it as "duty" - but the Bhagavad Gita is certainly more than just that. It is a fantastic writing on (and perhaps spawns, though I don't know the history of this subject for sure) non-dualism.

Which leads me to wonder, why is so little time spent in a Mahabharata dance drama on the complexities of the Bhagavad Gita? If dance is (as is described in the Natyashastra) a way for people to understand difficult philosophy, this would be where I would expect most choreographers to spend the bulk of their time - on unraveling and taking the abstract and giving an audience a hook by representing it through the particular. (For that is a great way of thinking that this is what art is, especially bharatanatyam, isn't it? A general idea represented through a particular story or moment.)

I myself just bought the Winthrop translation and am not excited to delve into this book much further. Once I've read it, I'll give you guys the blow-by-blow. Or maybe just the lines that spoke to me :).

Here are some quotes and phrases that spawned me to write this post:

Albert Einstein: When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.

Henry David Thoreau: In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.

Robert Oppenheimer: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

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