NEH Program of Study

The Bhagavad Gita: Ancient Poem, Modern Readers

NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers
Richard H. Davis, Director
July 9-27, 2018, Yale University
The Seminar Program

The seminar will be conducted over three weeks during July 2018, with sessions held three hours each weekday morning. This will leave afternoons and evenings free for group activities and for participants to read and do research in the library. The central activity of the seminar will be group discussion of shared readings. This will be supplemented with brief background lectures intended to facilitate discussion, three workshops around shared activities, and three guest lectures. Participants will prepare research papers on topics related to the overall theme of the seminar, and present some of their findings to the group. Viewing adaptations of the Gita and the Mahabharata in theatre, film, television and opera will illuminate another aspect of the ongoing life of these works. Field trips to three museums and to an active Hindu temple will expand our understanding of the role of the Gita within Hinduism.

During the first eight sessions, the seminar will focus on a close reading of the Bhagavad Gita, viewed historically as a Hindu religious work of the early centuries C.E., and its place in the epic Mahabharata. Throughout the seminar participants will compare several translations. We will devote one workshop to the complexities of translating the Sanskrit text into English, while another will focus on practical recitation of the Sanskrit verse of the Gita. A third workshop will analyze the paratextual materials surrounding seventeen Gita publications. For a concluding view of the work, guest lecturer Hugh Flick will present a talk on “Krishna’s Practical Mysticism.” Flick has recently completed a significant monograph on the Bhagavad Gita along with a full translation.

To understand the Gita’s literary setting, the seminar will look at the Mahabharata, the vast epic of which the Gita forms a small but key portion. We will read and discuss the summary by C. V. Narasimhan, and two full books of the eighteen-book composition. These portions, which take place during and immediately after the eighteen-day battle, dramatically convey a sense of the stakes of war. The director will provide additional background, through brief lectures, on the intellectual and religious milieu in which the Gita was composed. To gain a fuller appreciation of the epic, we will watch the extraordinary six-hour production of the “Mahabharata” by Peter Brook, and we will look at excerpts of modern Indian adaptations of the Mahabharata in film and television. Seminar participants will visit the South Asia galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The following seven sessions of the seminar will explore the Bhagavad Gita as it has continued to live and speak to readers in the modern world. From the time of its first English-language translation, it was no longer simply a Hindu scripture, but an Indian work available to the world. Our seminar will examine fifteen religious, literary, and scientific thinkers from England, the United States, and India, who have engaged in dialogue with the Gita during the modern era.

We will begin with the British translator Charles Wilkins and his work with a Brahmin pandit, Kasinatha Bhattacharya. This will provide an opportunity to reflect again on issues of translation and to consider how transmission into new cultural settings transforms the meaning of a text. Wilkins’ version circulated around the world and reached post-colonial New England, where Ralph Waldo Emerson acquired a copy and lent it to Henry David Thoreau. We will examine Thoreau’s active engagement with the Gita and other Indic works, and their contribution to American Transcendentalism. The seminar will also feature a guest lecture by Matthew Mutter, whose research centers on issues of religion and secularism in American literary modernism. His presentation will focus on T. S. Eliot’s use of the Gita and other Indic sources in developing his modernist poetic vision.

Starting in 1880, Indian literary and political figures began to reframe the ancient poem as a key scripture for modern India. We will focus on three major figures in this interpretive transformation. The Bengali intellectual Bankim Chandra Chatterjee pioneered the reinterpretation of the Bhagavad Gita in the new circumstances of British colonialism and emerging Indian nationalism. Aurobindo Ghosh began his political career as a nationalist spokesman for the extremist faction opposing British rule, but after a jailhouse vision of Krishna, he remade himself into a guru for Integral Yoga with an international following. Through every phase of his life, the Gita was a central source. For Mahatma Gandhi likewise, the Gita was indispensible. Gandhi called it his “mother” and his “dictionary of conduct,” and he sought to integrate its teachings into his own life, the lifestyle of his ashrams, and the nonviolent mobilizations of the Indian struggle for independence.

While concentrating on these three through shared discussion of their writings and presentations by participants, we will place them in the broader context of modern Indian history by looking at other contemporary figures, including the neo-Hindu champion Swami Vivekananda, the Theosophist and ardent nationalist Annie Besant, and the Dalit leader and principal author of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar. Participants will research these and other major figures and present them to the group. At this point in the seminar, Karline McLain will discuss her current research on Gandhi’s ashrams in South Africa and India, as places where Gandhi attempted to put Krishna’s teachings into practice. We will also take a fieldtrip to the large Mahaganapati temple in Queens, New York, to gain an appreciation for contemporary Hindu worship practices.

During the dire events of World War II, notable Americans turned to the Bhagavad Gita for advice and solace. We will spend one session considering the wartime reflections of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the writers Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley on the teachings of Krishna. The final seminar session will look at several ways the Gita is presented and debated in the contemporary world. We will watch what happens when Krishna is reincarnated as an African-American golf caddy, in the film “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Based on a 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield, this film attempts to bring the spirit and teachings of the Bhagavad Gita into American popular culture.

All participants in the seminar will research and prepare presentations on select topics. For this discussion-oriented seminar, these projects are designed to contribute to the central concerns of the seminar. The director will work closely with the participants in formulating and developing individual projects. Written versions of these presentations will be posted on the seminar website.