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.

Quick Questions for David Gordon White

drishti-detailDavid Gordon White is the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he focuses on “delineating the parameters of Tantra as the most perennial and pervasive ‘great tradition’ of South Asia.”

His books include Yoga in Practice (Princeton), Sinister Yogis, and, most recently, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, which Library Journal calls “a fascinating presentation of the rise, fall, and rediscovery of the Yoga Sutra [that] will appeal to those looking to expand their knowledge.”

Now, on to the questions!

What inspired you to get into your field?

A high school history teacher who had been to India showed us slides of the country and spoke with great emotion about the people and culture there. At about the same time, the Beatles began sporting beads and Nehru collars, picked up during their stay with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.


These non-fiction subjects have been as magical and wondrous as anything that surrealist or magical realist authors have ever produced.


What would you have been if not a professor of comparative religion?

I long fancied myself as a novelist, and do have a completed novel, written in the 1980s, sitting in a drawer. Graduate school stifled my creative writing mojo, although I do work very hard at making my academic writing readable and enjoyable for a non-specialist readership. I hope to get back to writing fiction at some point, although it must be said that the non-fiction subjects I have written on over the past decades (Hindu alchemy, the lives of yogis, the mythology of dog-headed men, tantric sex, etc.) have been as magical and wondrous as anything that surrealist or magical realist authors have ever produced.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing a biography of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali?

Apart from the period between about 700 and 1200 CE, no one in South Asia was interested in the Yoga Sutra until the twentieth century. Other works, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Yajnavalkya, and Yoga Vasistha, were the principal guides to yoga.

Who do you see as the audience for the book?

Any practitioner of yoga who is curious about the origins and history of their practice.

What is your next project?

A book on the spread of demonology along the Silk Road, in which one finds Buddhist demons in Manichean sources, Roman demons in Indian sources, and so forth. Demons and the spells and charms used against them were far more portable than gods or theological doctrines. Working title: Demons are Forever.

 


David is the author of:

bookjacket The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography
David Gordon WhiteHardcover | 2014 | $24.95 / £16.95 | ISBN: 9780691143774
296 pp. | 4 1/2 x 7 1/2 | 1 table.
eBook | ISBN: 9781400850051
Reviews
Table of Contents
Chapter 1[PDF]
Bibliography
Notes