1992-03-10: Bhagavad-Gita

Bhagavad-Gita (~200 BCE)

tr. & commentary by Robert Charles Zaehner (1913-1974)

I have read the translation, but not the commentary. The translation occupies 68 of the 470 pages of this book. I also read the introduction.

Rexroth describes the Bhagavad-Gita as a manual of personal devotion to a personal deity. For a Western reader, it cannot be this. To understand any of it requires at least some background reading in its historical Hindu context, as provided by Zaehner’s introduction, and his Hinduism. But even given that the reader has this background, and that he recognizes that the work is such a manual, it will not be that for a Western reader. If a Western reader is personally devoted to a personal deity, it will not be Krishna, but Yahweh, Jesus or Allah.

What I find in the Gita is a technique for the realization of a state of mind, which might be accessible to readers separate from their attitude toward deity. This is the attitude of nonattachment to the fruits of one’s works. This does not mean renunciation of these fruits, or consequences, but rather the continued performance of the works which are suitable to one’s nature, without the desire to reap the direct benefit of those works. Instead, the work itself is performed in a sort of contemplative state, in which the prime goal is to perform well. Associated with this is the attitude with which works are chosen on a moment by moment basis, ideally resulting in a balance of works with a variety of ends, which together complement and advance the benefit to the individual.

This approach is fairly unusual these days, and probably was when the Gita was written. However it is similar to the message in the Tao Te Ching (and doubtless other works), and I think many people would find their lives happier if they used it.

Zaehner’s translation is not one of those recommended by Rexroth, but he may not have known it. I doubt, in any case, that the basic message (at least as I can read it) differs much from those he does recommend.


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