Reflections on the Gita: Cross-Cultural & Non-Tradiional

1. dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ

māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya 1.1

In the field of dharma, in the field of Kurus, gathered and eager to fight,

My own men and the Pandavas, what are they doing, Oh Sañjaya?

The Gita appears in the epic Mahabharata which recounts many events and episodes from Indic sacred history. But the central thread of this longest epic in world literature is the rivalry between two families of cousins: the noble Pandavas and the ignoble Kauravas.

Conflict is the motif in many epics: the confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In many of these works, as in Greek and Babylonian myths and in the Puranas, the manifestations of good and evil are mythic beings. But in others they are earthly ones, men and women like the rest of us. In the Mahabharata, which is not without its supernatural elements, Pandavas and Kauravas, though endowed with superhuman strengths, are still humans. Therefore, the Gita tells us not about wars between demons and angels, or between asuras and devas, but about  perennial struggles that are part of human history. 

Then again, Pandavas and Kauravas are not strangers, but cousins. The French thinker François Fénelon said: toutes les guerres sont civiles; car c’est toujours l’homme contre l’homme qui répand son propre sang, qui déchire ses propres entrailles: All wars are civil wars, for it is always man spilling his own blood, and tearing his own. So is the war in the Mahabharata: it is between kith and kin.

Many have pointed out that the first word in the Gita is dharma: a term that is as untranslatable into English as the term hermitian operator is into Sanskrit. Dharma has been variously interpreted as religion and righteousness. Etymologically it refers to a framework in which one supports, i.e. one is at peace with oneself and with the world around. It is clear that this is not easy to achieve, but this is what most normal people crave for. The Gita offers pointers for achieving this by revealing to us much about the human condition.

The second word is the field of Kurus, suggesting that our physical life is also the field of adharma, of unhealthy forces. This is why many commentators interpret the Battle of Kurukshetra, not as another historical encounter between enemies on a battle-field, but rather as the tug that ethically bound human beings often experience. Some enlightened Muslims of our time choose to interpret jihad in such terms. In these instances we see how ancient religious texts may be given different interpretations. These depend as much on the context where they are applied and  the goals for which this is done, as on the personal philosophy of the interpreter.

The blind Dhritarashtra asks helplessly, “What are they doing?” Like Dhritarashtra, in our state of ignorance we wonder what we are doing in the context of ethical dilemmas. Jiddu Krishnamurti once remarked: “Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone.” But there have also been spokespeople for the opposite longing: for caring and compassion, for peace and justice, This ancient truth is implicit in the very lines of the Gita.  It is in such insights that we recognize why the Gita has been described as a work that embodies perennial truths. Like the laws of nature, such truths about the human condition transcend culture, religion and nationality.


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