A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. Second Edition: Revised and Enlarged. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983.
I was reading The Bhagavad Gita As It Is for my daily devotion over the past few months. I was initially hesitant to do so. Would God approve of me using Scriptures about another god in my daily devotion? If I want to read the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, I reasoned, maybe I should just read it at night while watching television, when I am not reading something else! Just leave it out of my daily devotions! I don’t want to transgress the first two commandments!
But I learned pretty quickly that this was not the sort of book that I could binge read. I had to go through it slowly, though the pace would later pick up as I got used to the book. I decided that reading and commenting on a page as part of my ten-minute prayer time would be a fine way to go through the book, allowing me to digest it a bit at a time. Plus, I would be talking with the true God about the book, not a false god!
I was hooked when I started reading it, and one reason was that it seemed to be interacting with the sorts of questions with which Christians have interacted. In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a war, and Arjuna is part of the warrior caste. Arjuna does not want to kill people in battle, and he has a conversation with the god Krishna, who is his charioteer. Krishna is a god, but he is on earth as a human being, with human parents; Krishna makes periodic appearances to set people on the right spiritual path. Krishna commends Arjuna’s compassion, but he still says that Arjuna should do his job and fight the battles. For one, Arjuna as part of the warrior caste is supposed to enforce earthly justice, and his enemies in battle are wicked people. Second, Krishna says that everyone has an eternal soul, anyway, so Arjuna should not stress out about killing enemies in battle. They will live on, in another form! Krishna goes on to highlight, though, that people should be kind to all people and animals: they should not make “everyone has an eternal soul” as an excuse or license to kill, unless there is a very good reason, as in a just war.
That discussion reminded me of Christian debates over pacifism, just war, and the Israelites’ conquest of the Canaanites. Is there a time when war is approved or sanctioned by God as a way to bring about justice? Or does war violate the spirit of love, compassion, and empathy that God wants us to have? Christians have tried to navigate their way through these issues and tensions, and the Bhagavad Gita appears to be doing something similar.
A lot of my reading was of the commentary by the Swami, who lived in the twentieth century, long after the time of the Bhagavad Gita. Some of what he says about the Bhagavad Gita may be faithful to the text itself, and some of it may be his own ideas. One can tell from the book that there are different interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, and the Swami was making his own contributions to a larger discussion; in fact, his version of the Bhagavad Gita was controversial on account of its criticisms of other Hindu groups and schools-of-thought.
That said, the Swami’s comments brought to mind Christian discussions. He said that we should be conscious of Krishna during our work. That reminded me of the Protestant idea of the priesthood of believers: that a person can honor God in his trade or profession. Other discussions called to my mind Christian discussions on faith, grace, and good works, and the question of whether people can graduate from rituals after they reach a stage of spiritual maturity. Recall Paul’s depiction of the law as a schoolmaster in Galatians 3!
The Bhagavad Gita—-not just the Swami’s comments, but the Bhagavad Gita itself—-encourages people to forsake or transcend the material world. Material attachments, such as a desire for wealth or sex, bring the worse out of people and enslave them, the logic runs. According to this book, people should be so enamored with Krishna that what people think about them does not even trouble them.
One may be tempted to compare the Bhagavad Gita with Gnosticism, in that both exhort people to flee material slavery and to get in touch with the divine or the spiritual within themselves. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, have a more favorable view of creation, seeing it as a gift of God to be enjoyed.
But the Bhagavad Gita does not strike me as anti-material. If the Swami’s translation is correct, it regards the material as a creation of Krishna. (I wonder if the Bhagavad Gita is in tension with mainstream Hinduism on this, since, according to this book, mainstream Hinduism believes Brahma was the creator and afterwards became inactive. In The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, by contrast, Krishna is the creator, and Brahma was his first creation.) The material is actually seen as an extension of Krishna. In contrast, Gnosticism tended to believe that a sinister or inferior sub-deity, not the highest god, created the material world and sought to trap humans with its pleasures and limitations.
The Bhagavad Gita As It Is also has exhortations about respecting the material. Rather than seeking to conquer nature, we should respect all creatures. The Bhagavad Gita As It Is is opposed to killing and eating animals, though it tries to explain and justify why the Vedas mandate animal sacrifice. It maintains that people of different castes are to be respected as equals. It says that Arjuna should perform his task of enforcing earthly justice. I should also add that its anti-materialism is, in some cases, negotiable or qualified: a married person can continue to be married and to have sex, for example, but the sex should be for procreation.
One can ask why Krishna created the material world, if he wants us to forsake it. The closest that I got to an answer in The Bhagavad Gita, As It Is is that being in the material world gives us an opportunity to long for the divine, to be united with the divine being who is our source. As we get sick of the material and the frustrations that attachment to the material brings, we long for something more. And, if we fail to do this in one lifetime, reincarnation will give us other lifetimes to get things right, unless we are hopelessly demonic (and that discussion, by the way, reminded me of Christian discussions about apostasy and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). My impression is that the Bhagavad Gita As It Is implies that beings started to forget God, and so they were placed in material bodies so they could become part of a spiritual journey back to God. This reminds me, somewhat, of some of the Calvinist theodicies I have read: the ones that say that God ordained evil to create a spiritual drama, in which God can display God’s righteous attributes.
From a Christian standpoint, I believe in enjoying the material world rather than forsaking it. God gave us pleasures to enjoy! At the same time, there are plenty of New Testament exhortations against being greedy and materialistic, and these overlap, at least partially, with the sentiments of the Bhagavad Gita.
My next daily devotion project: the Catholic catechism!