The Nature of the Work
The Gītā is simultaneously a simple-difficult work or a difficult-simple work. What does it mean? Words may be simple to understand but the meaning of the sentence is difficult. The part that teaches nīti is simple; the part that establishes philosophy is not. It is thus easy to fall in the trap of thinking that one has understood the Gītā. However, it is hard to realise its essence in one’s mind.
Though the language style is not that complicated and the figures of speech are clear, the word association is complex in a few places. Though similes and other figures of speech have been used to clarify the purport in a few verses, paradoxes and epigrams have also been employed to impress the seeker’s mind and stay rooted there as well. Such paradoxical and epigrammatic verses need more considered reflection.
Any work or treatise cannot overcome the time and place of its composition. Though we may accept that the Veda is apauruṣeya (not of human origin), there are several marks of human influence in that great body of literature. The memory of the Kuru and Pāñcāla regions, for instance or the names of kings such as Janaka and Jānuśruti mark out time and space. Hundreds of ṛṣis are mentioned. The description of the movements of stars and planets are an aid in estimating the time of the manifestation of the Veda. Lokamānya Bal Gangadhar Tilak has used the position of the mṛgaśirā (Orion) and other asterisms to estimate the antiquity of a certain ṛk that mentions this. It is thus evident that a few geographical and astronomical markers of a certain age can make their way into a work. The author is subject to his era and geography and has not overcome them.
In addition to the physical environment, his social milieu considerably influences an author. The beliefs of his people, their legends and stories, their aspirations, opinions, tastes, and attitudes are things that an author cannot possibly escape from. They would have had some or the other influence upon him. The best of the poets and philosophers cannot completely be immune to the effects of their age, region or social conditions.
A poet, however, has to rise beyond his condition. The more one is beyond time and geography, the greater his importance. We do not want a report of our world around from him. We have that even without his help. The question is of extracting ourselves from our condition and rise beyond it. This is where we need his favour.
But there is a limit to it. If the poet soars greatly beyond his condition, we may not be able fly with him. If there is not even a modicum of relationship between the world of the poet’s imagination and the world that we know, we will be unable to even understand his words. His tongue might be foreign to us; his world might be from a different planet. There might be no medium for us to comprehend him. If we are to benefit from a poet, we must adhere to a couple of rules –
- There must be at least an iota of similarity between his world’s characters and their conversations with our world and our behaviour.
- There must be some novelty in the dispositions and circumstances of the characters and in the expressions of their feelings that give fresh stimulation to our minds.
We should be able to relate to the theme of the work; but within a limit. If the limit is exceeded, we might not enjoy it or even grasp it.
The goal of the preceding is to impress upon the reader that there is an unavoidable association between a work and its author’s time, age and circumstances.
The above definition of a literary work holds for the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata as well. That the works of Vālmīki and Vyāsa hold for all ages and regions is our thesis as well. Their main storylines, the expressions of feeling, the discussions on nīti, and expositions that establish philosophy will apply to all of humankind at all times. However, even those illustrious works mention the social conditions of the eras of Vālmīki and Vyāsa. Included in them are their legends, common idioms and proverbs, their ancient traditions, histories, their beliefs and faith. These ancillary aspects may not be accepted by those of this age. Even if we disregard some parts of the story or some sub-plots, there will be no loss to the comprehension of the main narrative. There might be a loss of uniqueness of narrative here and there. Consider this, “The earth is flat. Eight elephants bear it. Those elephants stand on the back of a turtle, which is on the hood of the serpent, Adiśeṣa.” If such descriptions are left unaccepted, a little bit of the story’s flavour might be found lacking. But there will not be any inadequacy in understanding the story’s principle.
Such aspects can be found in the Gītā. The faith that rains and crops stem from the yajña is as old as the Vedas. There is no harm to the main thesis of the Gītā whether we accept this belief or not. Another such matter is that of the devayāna (the way of the deities) and the pitṛyāna (the way of the ancestors). This is another item of Vedic faith. Believing in it is optional. This causes no loss to the main teaching of the Gītā whose thesis is independent of the inquiry behind the yajña and the different ways of ayana (departure).
The Two Stages of Instruction
The Gītācārya instructs us in two stages. One is for a normal aspirant, or one of worldly practice. The other is for an exceptional aspirant, or one relating to the Absolute. If Arjuna is a normal aspirant, let him come to the way of sva-dharma through desires for kingdom, fame and heaven. The path of
पत्रं पुष्पं फलं तोयं
could be followed. Let him perform yajñas, let him depart by the way of the moon. If on the other hand he is an exceptional aspirant, let him transcend the three guṇas (sattva, rajas, tamas), be established in the Supreme dharma and work for the welfare of the world from the perspective of the Universal Spirit. Thus the paths differ based on the stature of the aspirants. Differences in path, however, do not matter from the destination’s view. This is a rule to keep in mind throughout the study of the Gītā. The Gītācārya accepts both the worldly and the Absolute.
To be continued…
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.