Several years ago I attended, on a fairly regular basis, an Evangelical and somewhat Pentecostal Christian church of which some of my family are members. I attended those meetings despite the fact that more than 20 years previously I had repudiated evangelical Christianity. At one of those services a missionary was the visiting speaker. I will refer to this missionary as “Don” – though that’s not his real name – since that will be easier than continually saying “the missionary”. 😀 “Don” is an energetic man who is considered to be adept at using humor in presenting his message; and the members of the church love him.
On this occasion “Don” asked if anyone in the congregation had read the Bhagavad Gita, and I raised my hand to indicate that I had. I don’t remember whether there were any other hands raised, but I’m pretty sure that there weren’t more than a couple of others if any. “Don” then launched into an attempt to ridicule the Gita. The problem was, he ridiculed how “Bhagavad Gita” sounded to his ‘English ears’, rather than the content of the book. My memory doesn’t work all that well, so I don’t recall precisely what he said “Bhagavad Gita” sounded like to him; it was probably something like an Italian pasta or sandwich. 😆 Whatever it was, it was not vulgar, but it certainly wasn’t meant as a compliment! He then went on to contrast this with how beautiful the sound of “Bible” is. (“Don” likes to go into public places like restaurants and shout out the word “Bible” several times: Biiiible; Biblllle; etc.).
I could only roll my eyes at the absurdity of this attack. As I said to my son afterward, that was not an attack on the Gita, but on the language spoken by people in India. Sure “Bhagavad Gita” may sound ‘funny’ to ‘English ears’; but ‘Bible’ probably sounds ‘funny’ to some ‘Hindu ears’. The real question, though, is: what do those words mean?
“Bible” is derived from the Greek word “biblos” and the Latin “biblia” – both of which mean “book”. The Bible, then, is considered to be the “Book of God”. According to this Wikipedia article “Bhagavad” comes from “bhagavan”, which literally means “possessing fortune, prosperous”. Some further derived meanings are “illustrious, divine, venerable, holy”. This term is frequently used as a descriptive designation of the Lord Krishna or God. “Gita” means a poem or song. So “Bhagavad Gita” is usually translated “Song of God” or “Song of the Lord”.
As I told my son (and as he knew without me telling him), I really love to read books; but I love music even more than I love to read. So to my ears, “Song of God” has a more pleasant sound than “Book” of God! 😀
But there’s a whole lot more that I like about the Gita than just the sound of the name. The Gita records a conversation between Krishna (who is viewed as an ‘avatar’ or ‘incarnation’ of the Divine – Brahman – or the Universal Soul/Lifeforce/’Atman’) and his disciple Arjuna. Arjuna is also the military leader of his people (perhaps a ‘General’?). Arjuna has been preparing his army to fight a battle in a civil war, and Krishna agreed to be his charioteer. However, as he surveyed the forces on both sides assembling for battle, he became dismayed at the thought of fighting and killing – because the opposing forces were friends and kinsmen of each other. There were fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, and nephews arrayed for battle against each other. Arjuna was so dismayed that he threw down his bow and arrows and declared he would rather be killed himself than be responsible for slaying kinsmen and friends. Krishna then undertook to revive Arjuna’s courage to fulfill his duty as military commander of his people. This provides the setting and backdrop for some of the most profound religious or spiritual philosophy ever written (in my estimation, at any rate).
It should be noted here that the historicity of the characters and the battle is not the really important thing for Hinduism. Some Hindus may believe the whole of the Gita to be literally and historically true; others may believe it to be historical fiction – partially true and partially fiction. That is, perhaps Krishna and Arjuna were true historical characters, but the battle scene being depicted was a fictional story built around those characters to serve as a backdrop to present the teaching of Krishna. Still others may consider the Gita to be entirely allegory, and believe that Arjuna and Krishna were fictional constructs. Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi said that from his very first reading he realized that the Gita was allegory. Whichever view one takes, even the most literalistic, it is still the teaching of Krishna which is the important thing.
Now I’ll attempt a brief summarization of a few of the major points of the Gita. For someone who has studied deeply and internalized the teachings of Hindu Vedic writings, this will certainly be very superficial. But perhaps it can furnish at least a simple introduction for those who are entirely unfamiliar with the subject.
Krishna told Arjuna that his concerns about fighting and killing were wise, but nevertheless useless. There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be. Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that… That Reality which pervades the universe is indestructible. No one has power to change the Changeless. Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. Therefore you must fight.
“That which possesses the body” is the Universal Soul/Atman. There is only the One Atman which inhabits all bodies; each individual atman/soul is but a ‘part’ of the Whole. The ‘part’ is of the same nature as the Whole. Some say this Atman is slain, and others call It the slayer: they know nothing. How can It slay or who shall slay It? Know this Atman unborn, undying, never ceasing, never beginning, deathless, birthless, unchanging forever. How can it die the death of the body? … Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments. Not wounded by weapons, not burned by fire, not dried by wind, not wetted by water: such is the Atman.
Each of us is a part of the One Soul; but we have entered into the illusion of separateness and mortality. We must keep coming back in human bodies until this illusion of mortality and separateness is overcome, and we truly know and realize the Oneness and eternity of Reality. When we have reached this realized knowledge, we are in ‘Nirvana’ and have reached the point of “no return” – we will no longer be subject to the “wheel of rebirth”.
The teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is also as broadminded as it is possible to be religiously. It does not denounce any religious beliefs, even though they may be deluded and fall far short of Reality. Whether a person is polytheistic, monotheistic, or pantheistic, he is accepted by the One Soul if he is sincere in his beliefs.
Men whose discrimination has been blunted by worldly desires, establish this or that ritual or cult and resort to various deities, according to the impulse of their inborn natures. But it does not matter what deity a devotee chooses to worship. If he has faith, I make his faith unwavering. Endowed with the faith I give him, he worships that deity, and gets from it whatever he prays for. In reality, I alone am the giver.
And again: But if a man will worship me, and meditate upon me with an undistracted mind, devoting every moment to me, I shall supply all his needs, and protect his possessions from loss. Even those who worship other deities, and sacrifice to them with faith in their hearts, are really worshipping me, though with a mistaken approach. For I am the only enjoyer and the only God of all sacrifices. Nevertheless, such men must return to life on earth, because they do not recognize me in my true nature. The only ‘punishment’ for mistaken beliefs and worship is the necessity to keep returning to earthly life until our illusions and delusions are cleared away and we become ‘enlightened’.
It should be understood that in passages like these where Krishna is reported as saying that he is the giver of all gifts, the true object of worship even of those who worship other deities, etc., he is referring to himself not as the individual person known as “Krishna”, but as the Universal Soul/Atman incarnated in the body and person of Krishna. It can be confusing sometimes trying to distinguish between the individual called “Krishna” and the One inhabiting that body; but it is an important distinction to make.
According to this Vedic philosophy of the Gita, Krishna is not unique as THE one and only incarnation of the Universal Lifeforce. When goodness grows weak, when evil increases, I make myself a body. In every age I come back to deliver the holy, to destroy the sin of the sinner, to establish righteousness. This means that such wise men and prophets as Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and the man we know as Jesus (the Christ) are recognized by Hinduism as equally ‘avatars’ or ‘incarnations’ of the Great Mystery, the One Soul – Brahman. This does not mean that they are the same individual soul (or the same ‘part’ of the Whole) as was incarnated as Krishna. They may be other ‘parts’ which have evolved to the point of enlightenment – the realization of their identity with the Whole – and therefore manifested the Whole, free from illusion and delusion, just as the ‘part’ known as Krishna did.
This is the teaching of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita; and it is a spiritual philosophy that I embrace with all of my heart. As I have said several times in various blog posts and comments, this “Eastern” spirituality comes closest to expressing what I believe, even though I say that I am Christian and Muslim as well as Hindu and Buddhist. Therefore, you won’t find me mocking the Gita either for its ‘sound’ or its content. 😀