We have long had a fascination for the final answer, the Holy Grail, the Grand Unified Theory, the ultimate solution, and the quintessential element. Douglas Adams mocks this tendency in his masterpiece Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by assigning a random number – 42 – to represent the answer to the meaning of life and everything else.
But the truth is: time is limited while human aspirations are not. We cannot master everything so we seek titbits about various subjects. And we love it when that byte-sized chunk gives us a gist of the subject. This is why ‘content curation’ has become such an integral part of modern human psyche and those who do it well (like Brainpickings) are widely read.
The Indian tradition has its share of condensing and simplifying the older, longer works. The Vedas comprised a specialized body of knowledge that dealt with prayer, ritual, contemplation, and wisdom. These works were handed down by an oral tradition and only a few had access to this knowledge. Works like Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas were composed in order to reach the common people.
Later on, to make the wisdom more accessible, saint-poets composed simple poems, songs, prayers, and stories. And so in the form of bhajan-s, kural-s, subhashita-s, abhang-s, doha-s, kirtan-s, vachana-s, pasuram-s, and gatha-s, Indian regional languages have a treasure of compositions, which at their core represent the tradition of the Vedas.
The Bhagavad-Gita is an excellent summary of Hindu thought and belief. It is a short work, composed of about 700 verses, and written in relatively simple Sanskrit. We are, however, seeking something shorter still. There is a piece called “Gita Saar” originally written in Hindi perhaps but has made its way into several homes and offices in translation. It starts with “You came empty-handed, you will leave empty-handed...” With the advent of twitter, people started condensing the wisdom of the Gita into 140 characters. Some even tweeted the Gita in 18 tweets.
Upon going through these summaries, I am always left wondering what they have to do with the Bhagavad-Gita? The “Gita Saar” is a nice poem but has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gita. I doubt if the composer of the piece can give a reference to the verses of the Gita that are related to the lines of his poem. As for the 18 tweets, again they are a nice collection of sayings (one typically encounters these on motivational posters) but how are they connected with the Gita?
Funnily enough, due to the malleable nature of the Gita, one can make elaborate connections between these summaries and existing verses. But at any rate, these summaries don’t do justice to the spirit of the text.
Indeed, there is no such thing as an absolute summary because each person’s choice is limited by his/her worldview. Having said that, it is important for the summary to reflect, at least to some extent, the words of the original.
I thought I’d give it a shot. So here is a list of my 18 tweets that presents my gist of the Gita –
- How can you lose heart in this hour of crisis? This is disgraceful! Don’t be a coward, Arjuna! Arise, awake, and abandon your timidity!
- Focus on work at hand, not on results; but don’t be lazy. Work hard and work selflessly. Be content. Share your rewards with the world.
- Five factors govern the outcome of all actions: the situation, the individual, the tools he has, how he uses the tools, and unknown forces.
- Sensory pleasures are short-lived and when they disappear, they cause sorrow. The wise do not rejoice in such pleasures. They go beyond it.
- Nothing is as pure as knowledge in this world. Knowledge is higher than all rituals. All activities find fulfilment only in knowledge.
- Work in tune with your inherent nature. Don’t imitate others. You find fulfilment when you do what you love and offer that to the supreme.
- One should advance by one’s own efforts; one should not degrade oneself; for the self alone is one’s true friend or enemy.
- Whenever and wherever the unsteady, restless mind strays away, then and there, the yogi should pull it back and bring it under control.
- The wise ones work hard, harbor no hatred, expect nothing, respect everyone, and are self-controlled. They don’t complain or crave.
- Renounce lust, anger, and greed – the three gates to hell that degrade the self. Let the words of the wise be your guide.
- Yoga destroys sorrows for one who is moderate in eating, sleeping, and waking; works in a disciplined manner; and enjoys moments of leisure.
- One who strives to do good never ends up in misery. Whether in this world or beyond, he never perishes, my son.
- Even if an evil man begins to worship the supreme with devotion, he must be considered as noble because he has taken the right decision.
- God does not command people to act. Problems of the world are not created by god. Human problems are a result of human activity.
- I happily accept whatever one offers me – a leaf, a flower, a fruit or just water – with love, devotion, and a pure heart.
- He who sees me everywhere and sees everything in me, I am never lost to him nor is he ever lost to me.
- The universe has sprung from a mere flare of my radiance. Give up all forms of dharma, take refuge in me. I will liberate you from all sins!
- Thus, I have taught you the wisdom that is the greatest of all secrets. Reflect deeply on these teachings and then do as you please.
You’ll have a different list, I’m sure. Your favorite verses perhaps. But do ensure that it has some elements from the original text!
Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. The New Bhagavad-Gita. Mason: W.I.S.E. Words, 2011
This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.