Way back in 1980s, living on my own in Delhi, I would often visit a small restaurant in the backlands of Yusuf Sarai. The proprietor offered a sumptuous thali meal for eight rupees. Just behind him on the wall was a poster, Gita Saar, which tried to summarise Shrimadbhagwadgita in 10-12 short sentences. That was my first and very brief introduction to Gita.
Some 15 years later I came across a fraud at an NGO in Rajasthan. The NGO lost its funding and had to dismiss dozens of staff. During my struggle with remorse at having caused this misery, I was reminded vaguely of that poster. Looking for the answer in Gita, I found what I needed at the moment: Sri Krishna telling Arjuna to follow his dharma, without worrying about the results or feeling guilty at the consequences.
Much later in my life I realised that not only were there many Gitas, there were many different interpretations of Shrimadbhagwadgita itself. For example, sanyasis such as Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya looked for esoteric clues to the mystery of whether man and God were two different entities or whether man was really an extension of God itself.
Thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Sri Aurobindo, feeling smothered under the British cultural onslaught, found in Gita a hope for India's renaissance. During the independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi saw Gita as a lamp to light the path through his own spiritual struggles. Bal Gangadhar Tilak heard Gita calling him to action against the British oppressors.
Yet again, J Oppenheimer, both revered and reviled as the mind behind the Manhattan Project and building of the atomic bomb, saw Sri Krishna’s Vishwaswaroop in the Trinity nuclear test:
kalo.smi lokakSayakrutpravrddho lokansamahartumiha pravrutta :|
rte.pi tva na bhaviSyanti sarve ye.vasthita: pratyanikeSu yodha : ||11-32||
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one ...
Swami Prabhupada of ISKCON, on a mission to spread Sri Krishna’s gospel in a monotheistic West, heard Gita insisting on singleminded devotion to the Lord. Swami Chinmayananda and Eknath Eswaran tried to help make Gita more relevant to the day-to-day problems faced by their audience. Gurus from IIM and modern mythologists such as Devdutt Patnaik keep discovering in Gita new ideas for corporate strategy and management on a daily basis.
In the great marketplace of ideas and spirituality that our world has become today, we thus have many competing versions, each claiming to offer the true and the real meaning of Gita. Whose interpretation is the right one? Which one should we follow?
In my view, Gita speaks to each of us in different ways. This is recognised in Gita itself. At one point, it explains that how we do things depends on which of our three guna (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas) is dominant at that point of time. These guna drive our shraddha, the way we perceive things. As the relative balance of these guna keeps changing (a bit like the levels of sodium, phosphorous and potassium in our body), our perception and approach to life also changes. Thus, a person reading Gita at different stages of his or her life will find different meanings, depending on which guna is dominant in him or her.
Gita is also not normative. It does not commend one guna over the other. Gita comes from Brahm, who is beyond guna and therefore indifferent to what we choose. Gita therefore offers us only a framework for intellectual analysis, while remaining non-judgemental. This increases its appeal to modern professionals like us, trained to analyse, to think and to comprehend, rather than to be commanded.
Arjuna the warrior, could not understand most of the Gita in the noise and din of Kurukshetra. So at the end of the discourse, when Sri Krishna asked him to do as he thought best, he probably substituted Sri Krishna’s judgement for his own, and decided to fight as the Lord advised. He went into battle and forgot the Lord’s discourse completely.
Some years later, he casually told Sri Krishna that he’s forgotten all the gyan which Sri Krishna gave him on the battlefield. Sri Krishna was annoyed and confessed that he also couldn’t recall what he said. He was in samadhi at the time and it was the divine who spoke through him. Nevertheless, he then proceeded to give a rather rambling discourse (known as Anugita) on spiritual ideas and practices. Incidentally Anugita is nowhere near the philosophical elegance and rigour of Shrimadbhagwadgita.
Gita is extremely simple and extremely deep at the same time, like an ocean. It inspires awe among philosophers just as Mona Lisa inspires awe among artists. However, just as viewers can enjoy Mona Lisa without being overwhelmed, you can also read Gita as a simple seeker. You don’t really have to be a philosopher or a Sanskrit scholar to understand Gita or discover its relevance to you.
If we are to discover Gita’s true meaning for us, we need to realise that we are not looking for consensual, objective or universal truth. We are also not looking for an authoritative interpretation of Gita. We are really looking for a truth that makes sense to us, that is relevant to us as an individual, that will guide our thought and actions.
A simple way to discover your own truth in Gita is to first find a plain edition, which offers both Sanskrit text and a simple translation, preferably in your mother tongue. Read and meditate on its meaning two-three times, till Gita starts speaking to you. Once that happens, you can come back to it as often as you want or not at all.
And when you’ve learnt how to swim along the shore, and are ready to get into deeper waters of Gita, you will find hundreds of inspired guides to choose from.