The Bhagavad Gita: Ancient Poem. Modern Readers Richard H. Davis, Director
NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers
July 9-27, 2018, Yale University
"Works break through the boundaries of their own time. They live in centuries, that is, in great time, and frequently (with great works always) their lives are more intense and fuller than are their lives within their own time."
—(Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, p. 4)
In our era of instant news and information that is both ubiquitous and disposable, it is valuable to reflect on Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “news that stays news.” What enables certain works of the past to break across the boundaries of their own times? How do they engage new listeners and new readers, speak in new languages, and address new concerns in radically different historical and cultural settings? Are there intrinsic qualities that give some works this longevity? What are the values, the reading and interpretive practices, by which audiences enable themselves to enter into dialogue with a text of another time and place? How do we find common values and understandings with works of others who lived long ago?
A religious work of undoubted longevity, the Bhagavad Gita and its history of readings provide an excellent vantage point to consider these questions. Composed two millennia ago, it has continued to speak to readers both within its own community of faith and to those outside Hinduism. Readers both in modern India and the United States have looked to the Gita and found teachings that address their own questions. The work forms a vital topic in contemporary Indian public discourse, and in the United States it is by far the most often read Hindu text. In “great time,” as the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin would have it, the Bhagavad Gita continues to be news. In this NEH Summer Seminar we will explore how this has come to be and why it continues to be so.
We invite college and university teachers, including non-tenured/non-tenure track faculty, and advanced graduate students, to apply. It will be suited to faculty in any discipline in the humanities, such as history, religious studies, world literature, non-Western philosophy, classics, and art history. No prior knowledge of Hinduism or South Asian languages is expected. We will be especially interested in participants who wish to incorporate the Bhagavad Gita or similar classic works of global reach into undergraduate courses, and to reflect on pedagogic methods to bring such works alive for undergraduates.
Ancient Poem (and Its Contexts)
Two massive armies have assembled on the plains of Kurukshetra arrayed for battle. The leading warrior on one side, Arjuna, is suddenly struck with overwhelming remorse. His charioteer Krishna must persuade Arjuna to overcome his qualms and to engage in the impending war. The Bhagavad Gita follows a dramatic arc from Arjuna’s initial crisis of grief and indecision on the battlefield, through a rising series of teachings exploring issues of morality and religious salvation, leading to an awesome and frightening vision of Krishna’s divine, all-encompassing form. It concludes with Arjuna’s acceptance of Krishna’s teachings and his determination to fulfill his duties as a warrior.
What follows in the epic Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a brief portion, is a war of truly devastating proportions, leading to the death of nearly the entire warrior class of India. Even the victors never recover from their grief over the catastrophic carnage of battle. The dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in the Gita is an attempt to provide a new religious and philosophical perspective within which the moral dilemmas and emotional grief of the Mahabharata war could be comprehended. Brief though it may be, the Gita places itself at the ideological heart of the Mahabharata.
Composed at a period of vigorous intellectual debate in India, the Bhagavad Gita engages with many of the existing forms of religious belief and practice of its time: Vedic sacrifice, Upanishadic speculation, Samkhya ontology, psychophysical disciplines associated with Yoga, the renuncatory movements of the Buddhists and Jains, advocates of Dharma or social morality, theistic devotional groups, and Carvaka materialism. Throughout the dialogue, Krishna describes, evaluates, and selectively incorporates these other viewpoints. He creates his own new religious synthesis, one that would prove enormously significant for the subsequent development of Hinduism.
Modern Readers (and Their Situations)
In 1785 the East India Company in London published Charles Wilkins’s translation, The Bhagavat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, the first direct translation of a classical Sanskrit work into a Western language. It caused a sensation among the European intelligentsia of the time. From that point on, the Gita has circulated widely in translations throughout Europe and North America. In modern South Asia, the Gita has also been translated into every vernacular Indian language.
American intellectuals as different as Henry David Thoreau, T. S. Eliot, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have engaged deeply with the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Thoreau contemplated it during his two-year retreat at Walden Pond, and Oppenheimer quoted it upon viewing the first atomic detonation in New Mexico. For European and American readers, the Gita has provided a bridge between the thought-worlds of the West and of India, both past and present.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, modern Indian political and religious leaders—B.C. Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, B. G. Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others—have taken the Gita as an interpretative touchstone to reflect on and articulate their varied agendas. During the Indian battle for freedom from British colonial control, the Gita offered applicable teachings. Leaders in the movement viewed it both as a rationale for their struggle and a guide for forming citizens for a new independent nation. The Gita continues to play a public, and often controversial, role in contemporary India. At the same time, Hindu teachers throughout India and the world regularly utilize the Gita as a point of departure for religious explication and commentary.
In this seminar we will meet daily for three weeks in July 2018. The seminar revolves around a core text, and expands outward from it by exploring its many readers and their interpretations. The Bhagavad Gita is a brief text, but it requires explication, best accomplished through close reading and shared discussion. To understand its literary and cultural contexts, we will consider its location in the Mahabharata, and examine the relation between the Gita and its social and religious setting in classical India. To envision the Bhagavad Gita as a work of significance in the modern world, we will look at various readers, not simply as interpreters of the text, but as situated readers engaging in dialogues with the work. We will combine class discussion on shared readings with background lectures, talks by visiting experts, and ancillary activities. Participants will pursue research projects related to the seminar topic, and present some of their findings to the group. This seminar will provide an intense, varied, and meaningful collegial learning experience that is both focused and broad in reach.