Happy birthday, Gita

001_Davis_figEvery great living religious work must have had a birth, but not many celebrate their birthdays. The Bhagavad Gita, a classic Hindu scripture, does. This year Hindus are celebrating the Gita Jayanti today, December 2.

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The Bhagavad Gita records a conversation on the battlefield of Kurukshetra between two figures, Krishna and Arjuna, just before the start of a great eighteen-day battle. The warrior Arjuna is distraught over the prospect of fighting against his relatives and teachers, and Krishna seeks to persuade him to engage in the upcoming battle. The discussion deals not just with the propriety of war, but also with the ethical dilemmas, the religious practices, and the philosophical issues that concerned Indian elites at the time of its composition. And we are told in the Mahabharata, the massive epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small portion, that their dialogue took place on the eleventh day of the waxing moon in the lunar month of Marghashirsha. This year, that day falls on December 2 of our solar calendar.When I visited Kurukshetra in 2011 for the Gita Jayanti, a local official told me with great confidence that the Gita was celebrating its 5103rd birthday. That would make the Gita 5106 years old today. Textual historians are more circumspect. According to current scholarship, the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the century or two before or after the time of Christ. But scholarly skepticism does not diminish the observances that mark the birth and life of this classic text.Around the world, in Singapore or Malaysia, the United Kingdom or the United States, wherever Hindus have come to live, the Gita Jayanti is celebrated. Most often it is a modest festival. It may consist entirely of a collective recitation of the seven-hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita text. Some communities organize competitions for children in Gita recitation. One group, the Swadhyay Parivar, arranges for young people to give speeches on the philosophy of the Gita. According to its website, 2.2 million children participated last year. For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness devotees, recitation of the text is combined with distribution of copies of the Gita, as translated by the founder of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada.Nowhere is the Gita Jayanti celebrated with greater élan than in Kuruksetra, a small pilgrimage town in the state of Haryana, where according to tradition the Gita took birth. Since 1989, the Kurukshetra Development Board has organized and promoted the celebration of Gita Jayanti as part of a larger five-day Kurukshetra Festival. In addition to recitations and discourses on the work, Kurukshetra hosts a procession of musician and holy men, cultural performances in several great tents, political leaders being felicitated, fireworks, an enormous crafts fair of over five hundred displays from throughout India, and a lovely Deep Daan, where hundreds of dainty clay oil-lamps are set afloat at nightfall in the water-tank at the center of town. My teenaged friend Akash Rana writes that he and his friends are “enjoying too much” the festival this year, with the dances of all the different states and the spicy foods from all around India. He wishes I could be there.Like many great religious works, the Bhagavad Gita has lived a long and varied life since its time of birth. Readings and recitation, translations and commentaries have reinscribed this classical Sanskrit work into new currents and disputes for two millennia. Medieval Brahmin scholars and Krishna devotees, British colonial scholars and German Romantics, globe-trotting Hindu gurus and Indian anticolonial freedom fighters, and modern spiritual seekers in India and around the world have all kept the work alive through their own dialogues with the Gita. In celebrating the birthday of the Bhagavad Gita today, we can also celebrate this long interpretive history.


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This is a guest post by Richard H. Davis, professor of religion at Bard College and author of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography.

Cowardice: A Brief History, the song

Walsh_CowardiceCowardice: A Brief History explores a subject that is as important as it has been overlooked. The book shows that over the course of modern western history, the idea of cowardice has faded–a welcome trend because the fear of being judged cowardly has led to much recklessness and violence. Yet when this trend goes too far, when cowardice is dismissed as an absurd or irrelevant idea, we lose an essential part of our ethical vocabulary. So while the book condemns specious and harmful invocations of cowardice, it also argues that a rigorous and nuanced conception of cowardice–one that condemns failures of duty born of excessive fear, to give a quick definition–is worth keeping.

The book focuses on the archetypal home of cowardice, the battlefield. Sometimes I felt like I was in a battle (mostly with myself) in writing it. It took me a long time–almost twenty years--to finish. But the last part of the book escapes from war to explore cowardice in everyday life, in religion and crime and in love (another kind of battlefield). As I was writing this part I was actually able to have some fun–even to the point that I wrote lyrics and sent them to the amazing Chandler Travis who put them to music and recorded a demo you can listen to here. We titled the tune… “Cowardice: A Brief History.”

This is probably the only scholarly book to have its own eponymous song released with it. This is probably the only song that alludes to The Temptations and the Russian General Georgy Zhukov (1896-1974) in the same verse. And this is probably not the sort of thing a writer should do if he wants to maintain any sense of dignity, gravitas, etc.

But one of the things Cowardice advocates is not giving in to the cowardice of fearing excessively what people might think. The book argues that fear of cowardice can–sometimes–actually be useful in battling against other fears, more useful even than the aspiration to courage. The existence of the book itself is a modest example of this usefulness. It didn’t require me to be courageous, but once I decided that it was my duty to write it, to start a conversation that would not take place without a book called Cowardice, the fear of being cowardly helped me finish it.


This is a guest post by Chris Walsh, associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

Cowardice: A Brief History  

Chris Walsh

 

Richard Ocejo on what bars tell us about gentrification in downtown Manhattan

The idea of bars as windows for understanding how cities change over time is an important claim in my new book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City. I studied the growth and impacts of nightlife scenes in the downtown Manhattan areas of the East Village, Lower East Side, and Bowery for four years, and in that time came to know a lot of bars quite well. I cover a lot of history in the book, and show how intertwined bars and nightlife have been with key changes and events in these neighborhoods.

Each of the following bars represents a different era in the history of downtown Manhattan, covering the mid-nineteenth century to today. I refer to each directly or indirectly in the book. Anyone interested in learning more about where these neighborhoods have been and what they are like now could use this list to guide them.

1) McSorley’s Old Ale House, 15 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Having opened in 1McSorley854 (or so they claim), the oldest bar in continuous operation in New York City (or so they claim) was immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker for staunchly adhering to tradition—in 1940. The praise is no different today in tourists’ guidebooks: sawdust floors, assorted tsotchkes with inch-thick dust, stoic servers, and only two drink choices (ale, light or dark) make McSorley’s an “authentic” example of old New York. It opened at a time when working-class Irish immigrants lived in what is now the East Village. It became a simple neighborhood bar, and today McSorley’s lends downtown a historic authenticity from the distant past with a mix of regulars and visitors from around the world.

2) Milano’s Bar, 51 East Houston Street, New York, NY

The last of the “Bowery bars,” I heavily feature Milano’s, where I began my research, in a chapter on the history of the notorious Bowery, New York City’s former Skid Row. The bar opened in 1924, at a time when Little Italy was a vibrant ethnic enclave, and not the Italian-themed tourist attraction it is today. Over the decades homeless men from the nearby Bowery and its flophouses populated the bar. It was one of many dozens of such establishments downtown, until reinvestment in the area starting in the 1980s led to their decline. By the time I started studying it, in 2004, Milano’s had a mix of homeless men, regulars in their 30s-50s who moved to the area when it started gentrifying, and young newcomers in their 20s interested in checking out an authentic New York “dive bar.” Grittier than McSorley’s, Milano’s survives because of this balanced clientele, and because of a preservationist owner who did not want to see it changed or closed.

3) Blue and Gold Tavern, 79 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Another downtowBlue and Goldn “dive bar,” Blue and Gold has a different history from Milano’s. It opened in the 1960s for the neighborhood’s incoming Ukrainian population (the name refers to the national flag). When I spoke with owners who opened bars at the start of gentrification, they said the only bars open at the time were Ukrainian or Puerto Rican, and their owners mostly kept to themselves and their own communities. These and a few other post-war groups (such as Chinese) represent the last wave of immigrants to move to downtown neighborhoods. As the Ukrainian population has faded, Blue and Gold remains a neighborhood bar for some, and a remarkably cheap throwback for visiting revelers.

4) 2A, 25 Avenue A, New York, NY

While not very creatively-named (it is located at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue A), 2A signified downtown’s gentrification in the 1980s. Bars like 2A were new places that accommodated the area’s new residents, such as artists, musicians, and students, as both patrons and bartenders. Taking advantage of low rents and inexpensive startup costs, these bars drew in these newcomers who were in need of local hangouts, and tried to exclude the neighborhood’s seedier elements, such as drug addicts and the homeless. The bars that succeeded, like 2A, remain in business today. With two floors and large windows overlooking a highly changed street, 2A still accommodates creative pursuits with regular DJs, film nights, and comedy shows.

5) Continental, 25 3rd Avenue, New York, NY

Among the many arts scenes and activities that thrived in downtown Manhattan, punk rock left one of the largest impressions in popular culture. Most famously, the club CBGB spawned such world-famous acts as the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie. Many of these artists lived, worked, and performed downtown. Continental opened in 1991 as another small venue that catered to alternative music genres. It became best known for housing hardcore rock bands. By 2006, with advanced gentrification in effect, neither small clubs for up-and-coming talent in non-mainstream genres nor young musicians honing their sound could afford to exist in downtown Manhattan. The owner changed formats from rock club to a dive-themed bar, with fake wood paneling and ridiculously low-priced drink deals ($10 for 5 shots of any liquor). Continental is now a destination for visiting revelers and college students looking for a cheap start to their night, a cheap end to their night, or simply a cheap night out.

6) Death & Co., 433 East 6th Street, New York, NY

Finally, we comeDeath & Co to an example of the latest wave of bars that have opened in downtown Manhattan and helped make it a new upscale destination. Unlike the owners of 2A and Continental, people who wanted to open a bar downtown in the 2000s must deal with high rents, more intense competition, and a need stand out among the rest. These owners, however, are less likely to live in the neighborhood, more likely to have access to investment capital, and more likely to have grand ideas and concepts for their bars. Opened in 2007, Death & Co. is a specialized cocktail bar and part of a renaissance of classic cocktails that have swept through downtown and across the city. The backbar is well-curated, the drinks are well-crafted (and pricey), and the experience is designed to be uniquely separate from the history of the neighborhood. They succeed in attracting downtown’s latest wave of hip, young, and increasingly wealthy residents and visitors in search of stylish consumption.


This is a guest post by Richard Ocejo, assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

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Upscaling Downtown
From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City
Richard E. Ocejo