Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2017. 302 pp., paper, $19.95
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external tragedies and if they have not left any visible or invisible effect on me, I owe it to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita.
It is rare that an Indian child grows up without the influence of the sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gita. As a young child, I was trained to chant the Gita fluently and entered into chanting competitions. Did we understand the true meaning of what the Gita taught? I am afraid to answer.
At the beginning of this new translation, Ravi Ravindra tells a touching story about how his father used to read Gita in Sanskrit to him. He said to his son at the age of eleven, “I can tell you what these words say, but I don’t know what it really means and I wish for you that you will find a teacher or a teaching that will assist you to understand its real meaning.” I could relate, as it brought back memories of my conversations with my own father on the same journey.
Yes, we understood the story. The Gita is set as a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer, Lord Krishna. We knew that Arjuna did not want to fight in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, as he saw ones who were dear to him across the battlefield. We heard the teachings Krishna gave (we chanted them so often!), and we heard the terms yoga and swadharma (“doing what is right”—which may vary from individual to individual).
We may not have understood much then, but the seed was planted. So I was not surprised to read about Ravi Ravindra’s drive to understand the deeper meaning of these teachings. Study of the Gita is a lifelong process. Every time one reads it, a new understanding is revealed, another layer of spiritual maturation is discovered. Ravindra’s new commentary and translation of the Gita is the result of this lifelong journey (and probably not a finished one either!).
The list of commentaries on the Gita is endless. Great minds such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, S. Radhakrishnan, Shankaracharya, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nikhilananda, Chinmayananda, Vinoba Bhave, and Dnyaneshwar have written profound commentaries, both scholarly ones and ones that give us practical advice for our daily life struggles.
The identity of the battlefield depicted in the Gita has produced different views. The one I find most enlightening is the one that says that the dilemma faced by Arjuna and the dilemmas we face in our daily life are not different. Our life too is a battlefield.
Ravindra looks at the Gita as a yoga that is multidimensional. Each chapter in his translation of the Gita is titled “The Yoga of . . . ” It conveys a global view of the Gita as a scripture. The basic guidance from Lord Krishna is “Be firm in yoga and arise.” Arise here also means awakening with knowledge and translating that knowledge into action with wisdom.
Ravindra has spent his life exploring the mystical traditions of the world including Zen, Christianity, yoga, and the teachings of J. Krishnamurthi and G.I. Gurdjieff. This book reflects the depth of Ravindra’s understanding. In an enlightening introduction he first gives us the background of Arjuna’s conflict and says: “The Bhagavad Gita is not about stopping war nor about promoting it. Also it is not about avoiding conflict or renouncing the use of force . . . It is rather about a radical transformation of the warrior in order to be able to engage in the battle consciously and not compulsively or in reaction, to use force without violence, and to fight impartially—without vanity in victory and without regret in defeat.” Isn’t this exactly how we are to face our real-life dilemmas and struggles?
Ravindra quotes the Epistle to the Ephesians: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ravindra’s commentary on the Gita blends in similar teachings from other world traditions throughout. The notes section at the end of the book is a great resource for this, and also provides a brief introduction to the Mahabharata war and some of its characters. I particularly like the way this version has grouped together verses with common threads, which conveys the teachings in a unique and clear way.
Ravindra says at the end of the eighteenth chapter, “In a human being, a part belongs to the domain of time and materiality and engages in action, reincarnating again and again, subject to the law of karma. There is another part, the Eternal Witness, not affected by force of time. Arjuna participates in the battle . . . Krishna remains above the battle, watchful and aware . . . Life is struggle; and none of us has a choice about participating in this battle. The real question is how to be a good warrior engaged in the battle and at the same time to discover and connect with the Krishna deep within ourselves.” This is certainly one of the central messages of this great text.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.