Monday, November 23, 2009

Wisdom From the Bhagavad Gita

So, on the long trip to India, I decided to read the Bhagavad Gita, or Song Celestial, the sacred poetic text of the Hindu religion (the 1885 translation by Sir Edwin Arnold; London:  Watkins Publishing, 2006).  For a little background, here's a link for the wikipedia article on the Gita, which is believed to date from the 1st century (though some estimates put it as far back as the 5th century BCE).  And I thought I would share some passages that I found particularly significant.

First of all, this is one that is positively McLuhanesque!  At my workshop in Baroda, I told them that I was going to read a poem about the internet, and then read the following lines (Chap. 11, p. 110):

Yea!  mightiest Lord!  I see
Thy thousand thousand arms, and breasts, and faces,
And eyes — on every side
Perfect, diversified;
And nowhere end of Thee, nowhere beginning,
Nowhere a centre!  Shifts —
Wherever soul's gaze lifts —
Thy central Self, all-wielding, and all-winning!

Pretty cool, huh?   It definitely fits, which goes to show that the internet has been around for a couple of millennia now.  Or something...

And now this from earlier in the poem (Chap. 4, p. 44);

Thou sayst, perplexed, It hath been asked before
By singers and by sages, "What is act,
And what inaction?"  I will teach thee this,
And, knowing, thou shalt learn which work doth save
Needs must one rightly meditate those three —
Doing — not doing — and undoing. Here
Thorny and dark the path is! He who sees
How action may be rest, rest action — he
Is wisest 'mid his kind; he hath the truth!

I love the way the binary opposition of action and inaction becomes the triad of doing, not doing, and undoing, the latter reminding me of Neil Postman's insistence that in response to all of the technology boosters going on about all that new technology will do for us, we also need to ask what technology will undo.

Aristotle is often credited with the notion of moderation in all things (or was that moderation in all things, including moderation?), and here is the Gita's take on the Doctrine of the Mean (Chap. 6, pp. 62-63):

But for earthly needs
Religion is not his who too much fasts
Or too much feasts, nor his who sleeps away
An idle mind; nor his who ears to waste
His strength in vigils. Nay, Arjuna! call
That the true piety which most removes
Earth-aches and ills, where one is moderate
In eating and resting, and in sport;
Measured in wish and act; sleeping betimes,
Waking betimes for duty.  When the man,
So living, centres on his soul the thought
Straitly restrained — untouched internally
By stress of sense — then is he Yûkta.  See!

The theme of time being of no small import to this blog, here's a passage on that topic (Chap. 11, pp. 117-118):

Thou seest Me as Time who kills, Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There stands not one shall leave alive the battlefield!  Dismayed
No longer be! Arise!  obtain renown!  Destroy thy foes!
Fight for the kingdom waiting thee when thou hast vanquished those.
By Me they fall — not thee!  the stroke of death is dealt them now,
Even as they show thus gallantly; My instrument art thou!
Strike, strong-armed Prince, at Drona!  At Bhishma strike!  deal death
On Karna, Jyadratha; stay all their warlike breath!
'Tis I who bid them perish!  Thou wilt but slay the slain;
Fight!  they must fall, and thou must live, victor upon this plain!

We find here an aggressive, violent image of time, coupled with a religious sense of predestination that absolves the warrior Prince Arjuna from blame for his actions in war as he is merely the instrument of Krishna's will, and fate.

This next passage brings to mind a basic tenet in general semantics and media ecology, that there is no knowledge without a knower (Chap. 13, pp. 136-137):

Only that knowledge knows which knows the known
By the knower!  What it is, that "field" of life,
What qualities it hath, and whence it is,
And why it changeth, and the faculty
That wotteth it, the mightiness of this,
And how it wotteth — hear these things from Me!
The elements, the conscious life, the mind,
The unseen vital force, the nine strange gates
Of the body, and the five domains of sense;
Desire, dislike, pleasure and pain, and thought
Deep-woven, and persistency of being;
These all are wrought on Matter by the Soul!

I also read The Principal Upanishads on the trip (translation by Alan Jacobs; London:  Watkins Publishing, 2007), another Hindu sacred text, drawn from preliterate oral tradition.  Once again, here's a link for the wikipedia entry on the Upanishads, if you want some more information about them.  And here's one last passage, taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Book 1, Part 2, Verse 4-5:

Death wished for a second body,
He embraced the notion of speech.
The time of pregnancy was one year,
So speech, the Master, carried
Him for twelve months,
Then Time gave him birth.
Death opened his mouth
As if to swallow him,
He shouted, "Bhan!"
And became speech.

Death pondered,
If I kill him I will have no food.
He therefore mothered this speech
And fathered it by the
Verses of all the Vedas,
The poetic meters,
The animal kingdoms.

The identification of speech with poetry and song is not unusual or unwarranted, but the association between speech and death is intriguing.  Speech in the form of epic poetry and song is a form of immortality (the sung hero), and speech as language is the necessary prerequisite for time-binding, the accumulation of knowledge through which we transcend death, and time.

So, maybe a few years ago, Death wanted another body, and gave birth to blogs?

1 comment:

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?