I have been brought up a Hindu, by a devout mother who adores Krishna and cares for him almost as her third child. So, Gita is not an alien text to me. I have heard its basic tenets a few times, I have seen some gatherings of elderly women weep over the message of divine devotion, I have oscillated between feeling the same surge of emotion and rolling my eyes at the overwhelmed group . But I know the messages only partially and superficially – in punchlines and not as embodied knowledge. When I began to transition into adolescence, like most young people, I violently threw the cloak of tradition and religion, afraid that it will consume me into a mass which I was not ready to become.
After wrapping life around myself in my own fashion for many years, I no longer feel threatened by a prescribed way of life. I feel strong enough to examine it with my own sight. Yet, I am not ready to dive into the literal translation of Gita, because I lack the context to interpret a text written many hundreds of years ago.
On the lookout for a starting point, three months ago, I found a copy of Devdutt Pattanaik’s “My Gita” on an airport bookstore, and I decided to start there. Pattanaik is not a renowned expert on Hinduism or the Gita. He is often criticised for being ubiquitous, a false marketeer, biased Shaivate, inaccurate and more. But his Gita is well laid out, thematically presented, and draws comparisons between Hinduism and other religions, which may be difficult to find in traditional Hindu texts. For a person like me, the starting point in understanding Gita needs to look from outside-in, zoom in from what I see around me and crystallise the differences.
So ‘My Gita’ worked for me – even though I am cautious to not take it as the whole truth. I think of it has a starting point from where I can work my way into Gita in particular and Hinduism in general. The introduction helped me to re-affirm some of my earlier understanding and expand on a few concepts of Hindu believes, such as:
The concept of “iti” – as things are, and the acceptance of iti. There is a reality which encompasses violence, conflicts, desires and Hinduism advices to accept and acknowledge it, instead of negating and denying it.
Hinduism as a householder’s religion: One of the fundamental differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is the monastic nature of Buddhism, where a believer renounces and withdraws from the world, whereas Hindu tradition encourages people to engage with society and carry out responsibilities as per your current role. Buddhism professes killing self-desire, while Hinduism talks about the ultimate desire to unite with Brahma.
Darshan or observation (versus judgement): Hindu mythology does not have a judgement day – instead one is encouraged to observe actions and understand/empathise with the fear underlying those actions. Judgement creates walls, whereas the world of observation is fluid and more empathetic.
Dehi or Atman (immortal resident within the body or deha): Gita talks about body and its immortal residents as two distinct entities. It is the deha which is entrapped in fear, and rebirth allows the immortal soul to escape the cycle of fear. However, stripped of the body, the soul immediately looks for a new body and perpetuates the cycle of rebirth. Through observation, dehi can go beyond the entrapments of body. Devotion to God can help the atman
The concepts don’t end here, but I am struggling to synthesize everything in one post (and one sitting). I will likely return to these concepts again in another post.
It is not difficult to see that all of the above concepts have a lot in common with popular axioms of letting go, not judging, accepting things; axioms that transcend beyond Hindu beliefs to charismatic speeches, psychological assistance, self-help guides and even pixar movies. It is sound advice, but it puts all action in the hands of the ‘actor’, which causes significant anxiety. It does not seem like Gita is ready to prescribe me a way of life, and is instead telling me that there is no script and I need to form my own. And shouldn’t this scare me?