Karma is a bitch, and Dharma loves Greg: A Western reading of My Gita
A peacock in full plumage. Scrawny, old monks in orange robes wandering an ancient, crumbling temple complex. Three boys on a motorcycle covered in Holi colors. A half-naked sadhu balancing on a pole. A little boy painted blue in honor of Lord Krishna, probably to celebrate Janmashtami.
These religious images bombard my senses in the first 30 seconds of Hymn for the Weekend by Coldplay.
They are meant to reflect religious life in India. Yet, they also reflect the director’s own fetishized view of Indian spirituality. The irony is that this music video celebrating Holi was completely tone deaf to the timing of the video’s release long before that holiday.
As a Westerner who writes about India, I am sensitive to these stereotyped portrayals, and am even guilty of perpetuating them myself occasionally. Whatever experience and study I have done seems inadequate when faced with “new” practices. I am still a novice in spiritual matters. Writing a book review of a book about a Hindu scriptural book seems like an exercise in either frustration or foolishness. Yet, here I am doing exactly that.
In My Gita, Devdutt Pattanaik examines the Bhagavad Gita, or God’s Song, a discourse in the Mahabharata between Krishna and Arjuna. Arjuna is hesitant to battle against his kin. Krishna’s job is to explain why he should do exactly that. The Gita forms the foundation of Hindu philosophical thought.
As the personal pronoun “my” indicates, Pattanaik’s approach is deliberately, inherently subjective. This book is not authoritative and prescriptive but rather democratic and idiosyncratic. Before I review the book, I want to talk about my own experience of the Gita.
First, it helps to understand that Hindus don’t share the same concept of conversion that Christians have. The recent emphasis on ghar wapsi (homecoming) seems to be more about a reaction to Christian evangelization and conversion techniques and less about an idea that’s inherently Hindu. As Pattanaik notes, Hinduism “does not talk of conversion, only the realization of potential.” (208) Thus, a Christian can read the Gita and draw wisdom from it without declaring, “Now, I am Hindu.”
Second, I’ve always thought of the Bhagavad Gita as female. I’m not really sure why. I don’t know if there’s any theology that would back up my viewpoint. After all, how is it possible to see a discussion between two men about going to war as feminine? Perhaps it’s that “Geeta” or “Sangeeta” are popular Indian female names. Perhaps, it’s that I am female, and since Hindus celebrate male and female gods, my brain logically chooses the side I identify with. Perhaps, it’s none of those things.
Third, for me, the Gita is a harbinger of change and rebirth. The Gita first came to me as I was leaving India in 2014. I had just finished beta reading a friend’s book, which used the Gita as the foundation for its hero’s journey. I decided to pick up what I later realized was an atrocious poetic translation of the text. Yet, even that poor translation helped ground me in the Gita’s ideas and gave me a thirst for more.
The Gita returned to me again as I was leaving India this past December. This time, however, she presented herself in the form of this book. My Gita accompanied me on the plane from Bangalore to Seoul and helped fill huge gaps in my understanding of the text. The book helped me see that I needed to do what needed to be done regardless of the outcome. For that reason alone, I am grateful to Pattanaik for writing the book that I needed to read.
The Three Guna of My Gita
Among the topics covered in My Gita are the guna. These three material tendencies comprise the nature of the natural world. All material objects on Earth possess them in different measure. Pattanaik expresses them as a wave:
Rajas is the upward movement of the wave or the tendency toward action. Tamas is the downward movement or the tendency toward inaction. Sattva is the crest of the wave or the tendency toward balance.
In the spirit of applying what I learned from the book, here are my three guna of My Gita.
The book’s strength lies in its organization and pedagogical approach. Most studies of the Gita break the book down verse by verse. This treatment, however, means that the themes sometimes get lost. Pattanaik uses the same chapter number structure as the Gita, but orders concepts so that they build on each other easily. If you are interested in only one topic, like dharma, you can go directly to that chapter. He takes an introductory approach to the content, but still probes the depth of each topic. For example, his treatment of maya assumes you know the traditional translation is “illusion,” but he gives another definition based on his own reading and deepens your understanding through his discussion.
Pattanaik is known for his illustrations of Hindu deities. In My Gita, he uses such illustrations and graphics to help readers visualize more complex concepts.
While some reviewers have found this redundant, I loved this approach because it acknowledged that people learn differently. In an era of YouTube and PowerPoint, a little visualization goes a long way toward pulling in readers and making them feel at home in the book.
The book’s weakness lies in its treatment of other religions. The term “Abrahamic mythology” is reductive. To throw Judaic, Christian, and Islamic mythologies into one category risks the same monolithic treatment that Western scholars have often taken with Hindu mythology. Yes, those religions have a teleological worldview. Yes, those theologies plot out events along a straight line, whereas Hinduism plots events along a circle. But, it’s the way in which those straight lines deviate from one another that matters and gives meaning.
Pattanaik also seems to be working against a Buddhist worldview in an effort to differentiate and separate Hinduism from a religion with which it shares a common geography.
Ultimately, however, these weaknesses feel like minor gripes when compared against the book’s balanced treatment.
The book’s balance lies in Pattanaik’s lucid narration. Unlike his other books that tell or retell stories from Hindu mythology, My Gita is almost pure philosophy and theology. In less capable hands, such topics risk boring the reader. Pattanaik probes the depths of the text’s meaning without getting bogged down in semantic discussions. His use of paraphrasing to quote the verses, although potentially controversial, illustrates how lucid and deep his narrative is. On the surface, it looks like easy writing, but there’s finesse in his translations that even though I don’t know Sanskrit I can feel. That feeling allows the text to live on the page and connect with the reader.
Although, I’m critical of Pattanaik’s treatment of “Abrahamic mythology,” I appreciated his attempts to dismantle Orientalist perspectives in understanding Hindu scriptures. His discussion of the deva/asura relationship is particularly on point. He argues that the good/evil dialectic attributed to these beings is an outgrowth of Western attitudes and beliefs and does not reflect the more ambiguous nature inherent in Hindu philosophy.
For all the focus in the Gita on action rather than outcome, a book review, let alone a verdict, seems almost superfluous. All I can offer is my own perspective. As a novice reader of the Gita, I would recommend this book. I am glad this was my last read of 2016.