Dear Friends and Followers,
We are happy to announce that starting today; we will be discussing The Gita, A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture in its totality. My translation differs from its predecessors’ in that it flows evenly and clearly in late-twentieth-century English. Thus, the Gita’s beautiful message can be easily appreciated. In the printed book, each page of the English appears along with the Sanskrit manuscript,
Today I will give you an overview of the Gita and its origins. Next Friday, April 17th, I will introduce and present Chapter 1. Each Friday, we will have a new post featuring the next chapter or portion of a chapter, along with commentary, until all 18 chapters of the Gita are completed.
The exact date that the Gita or Bhagavad Gita -meaning Song of God- came into existence is disputed. No doubt, its origins extend further back than we can substantiate. We do know that this remarkable text, which first existed as an oral tradition, stems from a chain of thought going back at least to about 1500 B.C.E. [before the common era]. However, scholars attribute the Gita in its present crystallized form to about 500 B.C.E.
The Bhagavad Gita is written in Sanskrit, a beautiful, complex, and sophisticated language which explains elaborate concepts with clarity. Because of its precision and its richness, Sanskrit is viewed not merely a language but also as an extension of philosophy.
This teaching represents the essence of the Vedas, sacred texts that are the foundation of Hindu belief, philosophy, theology, and ritual. It is considered sruti meaning a revelation coming directly from God. Self-described as a “Sacred Scripture of the Knowledge of Brahma and the Science of Yoga,” the Gita is structured as a dialog between the Lord and the great hero, Arjun. It is part of the Bhagavad Gita Upanishad. The reference to Brahma refers to the holy trinity of Brahma, the Creator, Krishna the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. The Upanishads, also sruti, are a series of sacred texts that expound on the Vedas.
The Gita is inserted into the Mahabharata, a great epic which along with the Ramayana has made Hindu mythology exquisitely three dimensional. Both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are post Vedic writings and are known as smriti or recollections.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that televised airings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the late 1980’s changed the rhythm of life and the Hindu perspective. Around 80 to 100 million people, one-eighth of the Indian population watched the epics on Sunday mornings resulting in shops and businesses closing more on weekends than on lunar holidays.
The Mahabharata is the story of the Great Kurukshetra War involving two families, the Kauravas, and the Pandavas. Since Lord Krishna preaches just before the onset of this war, its story sets the stage for the Gita.
The Pandavas were led by Arjun and his brothers Yudhishtir, Bhim, Nakul, and Sahadev. They were sons of King Pandu of Hastinapura but born in the forest after their father became ill and left his throne. The boys were gifted by the gods and were said to have been born brilliant with heavenly light. As they were still young at King Pandu’s death, they returned with their mother, Kunti, to Hastinapura to find their cousin Duryodhana ruling. Duryodhana, son of the blind King Dritarashtra, was the eldest of the hundred Kauravas, and he was fiercely jealous of the Pandavas, especially of the praise showered upon them by the people of Hastinapura. Though Duryodhana and the Kauravas pretended to welcome the Pandavas, they secretly plotted their ruin.
The Pandavas grew up to be fine men, well educated as Kshatriyas or warriors, and they successfully protected themselves from Duryodhana’s plots. The five of them won the princess Draupadi and shared her as their wife.
Finally, the Kauravas heeded the advice of wise elders and agreed to make peace with the Pandavas giving them a small empty piece of land to rule. Yudhishtir became king there and ruled wisely. Soon he turned this land into a rich, happy kingdom. He built a new city, Indraprastha, and made it his capital. The Pandavas became so wealthy and strong that Yudhishtir could perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, which proved him to be the most powerful and greatest ruler in the country.
The more Duryodhana saw of the Pandavas’ glory, the more he hated them and determined to destroy them. Eventually, he decided to capitalize on Yudhishtir’s love of gambling and invited him to a game of dice. Despite his misgivings, Yudhishtir accepted. He and his brothers entered the new hall built for this match. The teacher Drona, Bhim – wise uncle of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas- along with others, sat with the old blind Dritarashtra and watched with heavy hearts.
Yudhishtir staked and lost a pearl necklace, jewels, and the gold and silver in his kingdom and lost it all. Then he staked and lost his chariots, elephants, horses, cattle, his slaves, his kingdom, and finally his and his brothers’ freedom. Then, losing all his self-control, he staked his and his brothers’ wife, Draupadi, and lost her too.
When Dritarashtra saw this, he could not bear the burden of Draupadi’s dishonor and misery. So, he promised to grant her whatever she might wish. She asked only that she and her husbands be freed and given their weapons. The blind old King begged the Pandavas to accept the return of Indraprastha, and thus the brothers and Draupadi returned home.
When Duryodhana heard what had happened, he was enraged. He then challenged the Pandavas to a final game of dice. The stakes were that if Yudishtir lost, he and his brothers would go into the forest for twelve years and spend a thirteenth year hiding in disguise. Should they be discovered, they would have to return to the forest for twelve more years.
Yudishtir agreed and played and lost again. So the Pandavas and Draupadi went into the wilderness for twelve years and decided to spend the thirteenth year working in the court of King Virata in Matsya. They succeeded undiscovered. But when they returned, the Kauravas refused to give them back their kingdom. Duryodhana refused to give them any land at all, not even as much land as would cover the point of a needle. Thus, the Kauravas set the stage for war.
Both sides made preparations and asked for Lord Krishna’s help. Krishna agreed to give his whole army to one side and to give himself as charioteer
to the other. Duryodhana chose the army, and the heroic Arjun, Yudishtir’s brother and the leader of the Pandavas in this fight chose Krishna to drive his chariot. At this point, the Gita begins giving us a picture of the warriors, their complex relationships, their state of mind as well as a feel for the scene of the battle.
As Chapter 1 unfolds, we are introduced to the overarching question Arjun raises. He is distressed by the prospect of war and killing, and he asks Lord Krishna whether it would not be better to die and lose his life than to fight and kill. This question opens the door to the other questions Hindus, believers, and even atheists ask about life, death, honor, duty, virtue, destiny, knowledge, God, goodness, evil, faith, and truth.
Arjun’s journey from doubt to faith and resolve symbolizes mankind’s journey toward belief in a principle greater than ourselves, a journey that can transcend the limitations of humanity.
With this brief introduction, I leave you to await Chapter 1 of the Gita, one of the most significant scriptures of all time. I hope you will participate and contribute to this and the following presentations. I look forward to learning your thoughts, to perhaps answering your questions and I thank you and look forward to your feedback.