The Gita vs. secularism in India

A couple weeks back we pointed you toward a “biography” of the Bhagavad Gita, which pulled off some of the usual, easy layers of understanding that admittedly great and instructive text.

We now can have the news follow up.

Over the weekend, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj suggested that the Gita should be made a “national scripture.” From a Hindu story:

“Bhagavad Gita has answers to everybody’s problems and that’s why I said it while standing in the Parliament that, ‘Shrimad Bhagavad Gita’ should be declared as the national holy book.”

“Everyone should read two shlokas of Gita everyday…it is a scripture of 700 shlokas and it can be finished in a year. Read it again and continue this till the end. After reading it three to four times, you will discover a path to lead a life, the way I discovered,” she said, addressing the crowd.

“When I read Gita for the first time, I did not agree with the concept of whatever happens, happens for the best and whatever happens in future, will be for good. But when I read it for the third and fourth time, I understood its meaning. This has helped me all through my life. Even now, when I am handling the External Affairs and the challenges related to it,” she said.

Make sense?

Well, if so, let’s put this out there: How would you feel if the Bible were made the “national holy book” of your country? (I’d insert the “U.S.” there but not all of our readers are from the U.S.) What about the Koran? The Hebrew Scriptures?

This is where secular society — in the U.S. we think about it in terms, largely, of the First Amendment / freedom of religion — bumps up against religion. India, like the U.S., is secular, and so naming one religious text, even one so deeply tied to the country/region’s history, as “the text” is extremely problematic.

These letter writers, responding to the above story, point this out:

First, the concept of “a national book” is ambiguous. Second, it is pernicious to our secular spirit. The Minister should not forget that the Gita might be a holy scripture for Hindus but for people from other religions it is uncomfortable to accept it as a “national scripture”. As a secular country the government should respect the feelings and sentiments of other religions, too. There is no doubt that the Gita is steeped in high philosophical values, but every other religion in India can lay claim to have such a work.

Buddhadev Nandi,

Bishnupur, West Bengal

The RSS-backed BJP government and a responsible Union Cabinet Minister should not court controversy. From Ms. Swaraj’s observation, the Gita has all the basic philosophical answers to questions in human life. But how can anyone say that it is the only such work of its kind without researching other holy books? According to the Constitution, one can follow his or her own religion. Ms. Swaraj needs to respect this right.

R. Subbuvenkatraman,

Puliyangudi, Tamil Nadu

What do we expect next? That the Gita be made a mandatory text book in educational institutions? Nobody is stopping politicians from reading the Gita or the Koran or the Bible. Citizens have the right to choose what they want.

G. Padmanabhan,


Perhaps we all instead could get behind an international push to make Aghori rituals the right, instead of left, path. (Warning: Link isn’t for the faint-hearted. But it is the best bit of click bait I’ve seen in a while.)

Posted by Steve

The Bhagavad Gita, as you may not know it

It’s a congenital bent in our household to look thoroughly or deeply at… well, at whatever. Poetry, politics, history, culture, religion. It’s an ongoing push-pull, which I would say isn’t always comfortable but is always necessary.

Trying to look at surrender in the same way is a thorough challenge, especially if as you’re about to do so you see the little thread hanging that can unravel everything.

Historian Wendy Doniger has made an academic career (something worth a thorough rending, by the way) of challenging long-held assumptions and diving more deeply into India’s religious and cultural histories. Her book, The Hindus, as a result is a massive and massively controversial one. You may recall hearing how it got banned in India. I know plenty of people who are decidedly not Doniger fans.

So I present this one a little warily, but I find it too interesting not to pass on. It’s a review of a new book looking at the history of the Bhagavad Gita — here we have more of the review, which is by Doniger, than the book, by religious scholar Richard Davis. Some excerpts:

How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.


The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.


Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment. On the other hand, the lawyer and Dalit spokesperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, contesting Gandhi’s claim to speak for Dalits (the lowest castes, or Harijans, as Gandhi called them, “the people of God,” generally called Untouchables at that time), argued that the Gita was a defense of the caste system and that it supported genocide over nonviolence.

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.

That should give you a fairly clear picture of what the book — and Doniger — present by way of a “biography” of the Gita. Maybe read it at your own risk.

Posted by Steve

The Poetry of Yoga

Or maybe I should say, “the yoga of poetry.” Maybe it’s both.

My new writing class has started, and I’m once again positioned to ponder the intersection of the body and the mind, and what it means to teach. My students are young, full of energy, and eager to learn. After reading just two chapters of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, they’re full of questions: “Why is Krishna encouraging Arjuna to kill?” “Why is sorrow a delusion?” “What does Krishna mean, that our smallest actions can change us?” “What does it mean to be attached to the senses?”

Already, discussion in class is intense. Intense enough that I’ve come to realize I have given myself a huge responsibility. I walk out of class thinking, “Whoa.”

This afternoon, a former teacher of mine (and Steve’s), Robert Hass, was interviewed on the radio, and he said this: “Wordsworth read the German Romantics. Thoreau read Wordsworth, Teddy Roosevelt read Thoreau, and we got the national parks. It took a hundred years, but it happened. People read poetry and have their eyes opened.”

He was describing, as all poets must do these days, why poetry is important. Percy Shelley said something similar almost 200 years ago: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

I’ve realized this may be the only contact these 20 minds have with this or any poem, with this “song of God,” with yoga. If we define yoga as “spiritual discipline,” and/or as Krishna himself does, as “skill in action,” it gives me pause. I pause to consider I’m using this as tool to teach them to write, and that the skills I teach them will, ideally, carry them through the rest of their lives.

Then there is practice, the practice I mean when I say, “I do yoga.” I have my own teachers, Maria Zavala and Tim Miller. They are guiding me. I am guiding my students. Suddenly my asana practice has extra heft. The condition of my body becomes my method of equipping my mind for the spiritual discipline of my writing, and my teaching of writing.

I am, myself, a writer—a writer of poetry, of these words. It never occurred to me that my yoga practice (as I’m defining it above—and as an integrated spiritual discipline) holds me responsible for the words I’m writing to you now, and the poetry I will write in the future. And that I must, like Arjuna, practice skill in action when I write, teach, and do Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. This is why we use this word yoga and don’t translate it, the complex poetry of union.

Posted by Bobbie

Teaching yoga without asana



For me, on September 28–the first day of my fall writing class–worlds will collide. Well, meet anyway. I’ll have 20 brand new university freshmen staring at me, ready to learn. They’ll be freaked out, stressed, full of uncertainty. They need help with their writing, and they’ll be looking at me to give it to them.

This term, my answer will be The Bhagavad Gita and portions of other texts (The Yoga Sutras, The Little Prince, Thoreau). I’m not saying I have an agenda, but I seem to have an agenda. They’ll be writing about yoga.

What’s funny about this is, of course, this is a writing classroom. It’s the negative image of the shala and my Ashtanga teaching: No asana involved.

It is true that I’ve tossed in a few postures during the course of the quarter before. Around midterms, students actually start complaining to me of physical pain, mostly in the back, shoulders and neck from sitting at a computer too long. We’ll do some standing shoulder openers and seated twists. If the class seems sleepy or lethargic, I may have them do switchychangyasana, and make them all move to a different desk—it gives them a new point of view.

But this doesn’t really count as teaching yoga. I’ve been re-reading The Gita, and the Yoga Sutras are fresh in my mind from my summer training. I’m faced with the fact that I’m going to have to help my students understand what the word “yoga” means in a very complicated way.

“Yoga is skill in actions,” Krishna says in The Gita, “ “Yogas citta vritti nirodahah,” writes Patanjali. This word goes untranslated into English. We think we know what it means. Or maybe it’s untranslateable. I’m thinking it may take me all term to work that out with my students.

I am, myself, more inclined to the yoga of study, to reading and quiet thinking. Learning to integrate my brain with my body has been my chief challenge in Ashtanga over the years, and it’s caused me to revise all that I thought I knew about who I am. I hope that through their writing, my students also learn a new way of thinking about themselves.

Posted by Bobbie


On the poetry of Krishna’s names in the Gita

While we followed Eddie Stern’s lead and proclaimed Monday as Gita Jayanthi, others have it as today.

The Bhagavad Gita in beautiful Sanskrit

Given the way Moon Days seem to move about, I’m neither surprised nor worried by this. (I’m much more concerned that the next Moon Day supposedly falls this Saturday, meaning no day off this week. Although, truth be told, Thursday may end up a day off, anyway, as I land back in Los Angeles from a trip at about 11:15 p.m. Not sure I’ll be getting up six hours later for practice, but we’ll see.)

The extra day of Gita Jayanthi does provide a chance to offer a few more thoughts on Krishna, in part as a counter to the Maya-based coverage of the Bikram lawsuit. (Although I suppose if it is a lawyer’s dharma to be a lawyer…)

I direct you to this piece from Exotic India on Krishna’s names in the Gita:

In the Bhagavad Gita there are forty different names used by Arjuna to call upon Shri Krishna. Each of these names describes an attribute or quality of god, reverberating with the potentiality of an inner, philosophical echo, leading to a realization of the deeper meaning of the dialogue between the two.

The different epithets used by Arjuna to address Krishna are not just there for the sake of variety but meaningful to the context. This is one of the enriching features which make the study of Gita a relishable exercise rather than it being a mere pursuit of a dry philosophical treatise.

It goes on — for a while, until it reaches this conclusion:

The ‘nameless’ has a thousand names and it is through these names that the ‘nameless’ is to be realized. Just as the forms of the divine are unlimited, so are its attributes, excellencies, glories and the names that express them. All things, all persons, all phenomena, identifiable by their names, are in fact manifestations of the Supreme. Each name signifies an excellence. The purpose of meditating on the god’s forms, names and lilas is to get rid of our obsession with the name-and-form world. The world is too much with us. It prevents us from realizing the truth of the non-dual reality which is its basis. As one thinks of the divine forms, and utters the sacred names, one’s sense faculties get sublimated.

Between name and form, the former is even superior to and subtler than the latter. While ‘form’ stands for the physical features of the world of phenomena, ‘name’ signifies the psychical characteristics, a much more potent tool for creative meditation.

Part of me finds this a wonderfully simple, but evocative, way to understand and think about the Gita. Another part, however — the part that took too many critical theory classes as an English graduate student — is slipping on this primacy given to names — ultimately to words and language. If Krishna’s names are so important, what does it mean that I’m one, two, three steps perhaps removed from those names as they originally appear in Sanskrit? Even Krishna is an English translation of a word that can’t be written in our language.

The answer, I think, is that it is all Maya, and that you’ve got to have faith. Which raises a whole other series of questions, of course. And which perhaps are best left for rumination.

Posted by Steve

In honor of Gita Jayanthi: Hare Krishna

Below you’ll find an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, and if you click through, you’ll get a YouTube channel with all the Gita’s chapters set to video.

Not quite listening to its being chanted at the Broome St. Temple, but a little something if you’re all alone with only your computer as a companion.

Posted by Steve

And now, a few words from our sponsor

Ah, Saturday. A day of rest. A day off from practice.

Krishna shows his Divine form to Arjuna, via gita-blog.blogspot

But not really, right? You may not have gotten on your mat today (although I know some of you did), but there’s still “practice” to be had. For instance, you can reflect on the reflection-less. Also known as, a few words from our sponsor:

“Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life. Give freely. Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve…Learn to be detached and to take joy in renunciation. Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all. Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride. Then, you will achieve your destiny.”

“It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another. By fulfilling the obligations he is born with, a person never comes to grief.”

“Reshape yourself through the power of your will… Those who have conquered themselves…live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame…To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same…Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.”

Ashtanga isn’t alone enough, right?

Posted by Steve