• 24 Jun, 2024

The Wonder that Is the Gita

The Wonder that Is the Gita

The Gita is one of the greatest national treasures of India. This article explores some fascinating aspects of this monumental work.

 

The Gita is one of the greatest national treasures of India. There are, of course, the great Srutis created by the magnificent pre-historic people of the Indian subcontinent, the Veda, and the Upanishads. And they are as great in literary grandeur as the Gita. Yet, the Gita has done something even that these two marvelous Srutis did not: it distilled the finest essence of the Veda and the Upanishad, built a universal medium of mass appeal, inspiration, and consumption such that even today it is one of the most impactful literatures of all time, shaping India and its mind despite the changes wrought by less comprehensive or inclusive systems of thought that came later.  
 
Why is this important? We have ignored or forgotten the marvel that is the Gita, at least in India, since we grew up with it, under it, as under a large banyan tree with multiple roots and millennia of growth, a vast canopy that makes us forget its brilliance and stupendous achievement that any literarian, historian, scholar would be proud of, and it does not stop. It continues shaping the future, not just of India but of humanity. But it may be time to zoom out and see what we have in terms of sheer achievement of thought, expression, scale, and application. The Gita has lost its freshness since it is omnipresent, perennial. We take it for granted and it seems like a bromide now. But it may be time to re-immerse ourselves in its genius, not just to train our minds in its way of wide- and multi-layered thinking, but to also discover why it is still one of the greatest achievements of ancient India and its oceanic empire of human arts, creativity, and explosive multi-sided expressions. 
 
Sri Krishna is still alive in the Indian imagination today. If there is any doubt about this, one may wish to review the present political and cultural debates of modern India, that are even now being debated, tusseled over, muscled through, by its people, leaders, commentators, media, polity. Krishna’s Mathura may or may not match the significance and impact of Sri Rama’s Ayodhya in politics. But it has just as much or even more power in shaping its minds, outlook, and sensitivity. Let us review some of these features of the Gita that are still as powerful, perhaps even more relevant, and applicable, as impactful, and majestic today as they were four to five thousand years ago. 
 
Let us look at its literary achievements. It is a singular work of creative power, creating in 700 odd shlokas a world of metaphysics and philosophy unmatched in ambition and realization. Which other work has had an equivalent demiurge of audacity, urgency, and brilliance, creating a world in a minimalistic space, where things must be rushed through, and the business of war initiated or not?  
 
Which other work has accomplished so much in so little a size? Immanuel Kant and Frederich Hegel had to write tomes to even delineate their concepts. Plato had to write more than 50 dialogs to create a Socratic world of dialectics and philosophy.  
 
Uniquely, the Gita is a great literature within another great literature, the highest achievement even in the larger national epic that is the Mahabharata. But its characters, though few, Arjuna, and Sri Krishna, Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra, are masterly compositions of narrative and buildup, that carries the power of the Mahabharata and takes it to a consummation, the summit, that in turns redefines the whole epic as its center and secret impulsion. These characters are manipulated with adroitness through the tension of the entire work, like a Shakespearean or Kalidasian work at its finest display of the human drama.  
 
We have drama, story, tension, and the climax and denouement. A perfectly satisfying literature if there was one. T.S. Eliot called it the second greatest philosophical poem after The Divine Commedia. But how much cruder and superficial is Dante’s treatment of metaphysics, theology, ontology, and spirituality, as Steven Mitchell has pointed out in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita! Dante Alighieri is a great poet, no doubt, but it is unfair to match him with Ved Vyasa in scale, reach, realization, and scope. It is time to correct Eliot with greater insight and study. The Gita is the greatest philosophical poem of all time.  
 
Sustaining this drama and narrative, this apocalyptic graphic of human folly and reason, of its collective failure and Divine guidance, the mythology, and the allusive symbolism of its detailed friezes, is the chhanda, the form and the prosody, and the poetry of resonances of sound, meanings, symbols, references. Sri Aurobindo calls it Overmental poetry, and one does feel elevated throughout its tone and nuances, its constant insistence on nobility and grandeur, and a wider consideration of all things, thought, feeling, perspectives, logic, and rhetoric. How adroitly is one meter counterpoised against the other, the anushtupa against the trishtupa, collage-like, lyrically balanced as the thought changes, grows more somber and reflective, with more universal considerations, the rhythm growing metrically longer and slower. When one sees such a juxtaposition of meters in The Wasteland and the Four Quartets, one calls it wondrous and modern. When one sees this in the Gita, the ancient lines come alive as creative in form and symphonic in recitation, and one realizes that the ancient were no less modern then as they may be today.  
 
The poetry of the Gita is symphonic and orchestral, with its iterations and recurrence of motifs, their consideration and development, transformations, and evolution into a grand finale of realization. For each shloka of the Gita is a spiritual, psychological experience, brought out in straightforward language to the reader or listener. Yet, each shloka is a veritable mantra, capable of transforming the consciousness of the Sadhak or the casual listener. 
 
The Gita is also oral literature and retains the power of the Paatha and the public reading, the chants that carry on with the echoes of the Vedic riks, and the Upanishadic mahavakyas. And its wide sustained appeal is living proof of its significance and hold on the national psyche. This is no mean achievement, for very few works of literature have been able to achieve the same over such an extended period over such a wide audience.  
The Gita is its own mythology. The creator of its own ecosystems of thought, such that all great thinkers to follow, Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, had to deal with its complexities and bring it to justify their own selective darshana. As Sri Aurobindo showed, the creator of the Gita had a rich synthetic experience and mind and that glitters in each jewel of the shloka, creating a garland of evocative phrases and inevitable lines. 
 
No other work creates so much visual theatrics. We see this tendency even now in the best of movies and plays. Ved Vyasa brings all the factions together in a composite scene, where all the protagonists are gathered, each a remarkably complex and multi-dimensional story in himself or herself. And amid this scene of visualized gore, violence, slaughter, and universal destruction, we suddenly take a deep breath and stop, reflecting on the entire epic in a brief arrested while, poised between delivery and death, resplendence, and collapse.  
 
It is a dance of emotions, duty, morality, and the ultimate up-reach, striving, and transcendence. And there, at the axis of it all are two great theatrical characters, with a flair and penchant unique and transformative, engaged in a meditation that has the potential to change the destiny of an entire humanity and an age. The symbols of Vedic resonances are brought out in an organic integral manner, part of the scene-setting and one feels one is on the sets of a Cecile De Mille, David Lean or Christopher Nolan movie. All this created 4- to 5000 years ago, solely with words, music, sight, and audio-effects. 
 
Then, there is the logopoeia, the staging of the meanings, philosophical ideas and darshans, as if there were themselves minor characters strutting about this mental stoa, in the milling movement of personages, theories, responses and their resolution, like one were seated in the eye of a category 5 hurricane, that is blowing across the entire landscape, ready to raze every life and minor epic in its gathering conclusion.  
 
An ancient clash captured in a single picture, a snapshot of a civilization and its rebirth and renaissance brought about by two of its heroes, now in conflict with each other as to the meaning of their entire existence and journeys. And yet, they are friends and comrades, cousins and partners in this vast sacrifice, the making sacred of a dynasty and all its myriad offshoots, the heedless and the reflective, the transcendent and the earthy, all brought to one single point, where everything is spinning and everything is still, orchestrated by an enigmatic figure, Sri Krishna, who keeps unveiling his depths and dimensions, throughout the larger epic. 
 
This is the Gita, inspired and meticulous, that takes our breath away even now. As we dive into it, we discover hidden currents we had not noticed earlier, each a philosophy, each threatening to sweep away the unwary and the unthinking into an exclusivity of consideration. And each time we feel we have found a treasure, there are more and yet more to be discovered and caught hold of to be internalized and savored for years, nay centuries, nay millennia.  
 
And now, we look at its philosophies, as if there was parade of Thought. Sankhya, and Yoga, Veda and Vedanta, Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti, brought together as if at the flick of the wrist by this magic conjurer, who creates the greatest show on earth at least metaphysically, poetically. If I wax eloquent at the mastery, I stand in awe at this work of genius, as reflective and touching and hard-hitting as a Beethoven’s Fifth or a Sistine Chapel ceiling. 
 
Yes, we have forgotten the artistic achievement here. And not just the artistic, the philosophical, the poetic, the musical, the ethical, the dramatic and historical-anthropologic, but the spiritual that unites it all. The Unity of all reality, the substratum that is also the superstratum, brought about with ‘deliberate speed and majestic instancy,’ the ‘conscious art practiced with natural ease,’ into one of the finest meditations on the complex and intricate nature of human reality. 

 

Image: A 19th-century illustrated Sanskrit manuscript from the Bhagavad Gita, courtesy Wikipedia.

Pariksith Singh MD

Author, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner based in Florida, USA. Pariksith Singh has been deeply engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga for almost all his adult life, and is the author of 'Sri Aurobindo and the Literary Renaissance of India', 'Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy', and 'The Veda Made Simple'.

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The Gita as Trope