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The Gita and Me

by Philip Goldberg


I first became aware of the Bhagavat Gita in the mid-1960s. I was a college student taking the first tentative steps on my spiritual path, reading all I could about the Eastern traditions instead of my assigned textbooks. It was all second-hand at first. It seemed that every writer and scholar I admired – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, J.D. Salinger – wrote with great admiration of the Gita. Thoreau apparently read it every day of his famous retreat on Walden Pond: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita … in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

In the Gita, Arjuna, a warrior, and his charioteer – who turns out to be Lord Krishna – talk on the battlefield as armies prepare to fight. – Photo: Google Images

In the Gita, Arjuna, a warrior, and his charioteer – who turns out to be Lord Krishna – talk on the battlefield as armies prepare to fight. – Photo: Google Images

I’d even read that the renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had quoted the Gita when the first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert, and also at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s memorial service. With endorsements like that, and the sublime passages the authors extracted from the Gita itself, I had to get myself a copy.

I couldn’t find one. None of the bookstores I usually frequented had a copy – and this was in New York City! But it was half a century ago, when no one dreamed of having access to millions of books with a few taps on a keyboard. I eventually found a copy at Weiser Antiquarian Books on lower Broadway, which is known as “the oldest occult bookstore in the United States.” I purchased the translation and commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood because I recognized the latter as a celebrated writer of fiction. I remember being shocked by how slim the volume was, having assumed that a text that enchanted famous intellectuals would be hundreds of pages long. Grateful it was so lean (and cheap, at 95 cents), I read it start to finish that evening.

I went to bed somehow knowing that my life would never be the same. And it was not. Because Swami Prabhavananda was in the lineage of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, and Isherwood was his disciple at the Los Angeles Vedanta Society, their Gita led me to the other books published by the Vedanta Press and opened my awareness to the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras, the works of Adi Shankaracharya, the puranas and all the written wisdom of Sanatana Dharma (the traditional name for what we now call Hinduism). It led directly to my first yoga class, to learning Transcendental Meditation and to teacher training with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose Gita I read repeatedly (only chapters one through six; sadly, he never published seven through eighteen).

My first Gita, with its tattered cover, yellowed pages, underlined passages and scribbled-in margins, sits on a shelf with a dozen other Gitas, whose translations I compare whenever an opportunity arises. Their nuanced differences never fail to intrigue me, and the verses themselves never fail to illuminate and inspire. I know of no other text, sacred or secular, that packs so much knowledge into so few words and still maintains a sense of narrative movement.

I interviewed more than three hundred people for American Veda, and over the years I’ve had countless conversations about spirituality with yoga practitioners, meditators, devotees of various gurus, spiritual independents, secularists, atheists and dedicated adherents of every faith tradition. It is astonishing how many of those diverse seekers of truth have been influenced by the Gita. There seems to be something in it for everyone, regardless of their religious orientation. For some it is a holy text, on a par with what the New Testament is to Christians, the Hebrew Bible to Jews, and the Koran to Muslims.

For others, it is a philosophical treatise, or a practical guidebook for living, or a concise summary of yogic principles. Like every great book, its meaning and impact depends upon the reader, and I’ve always cherished the fact that Hindus and non-Hindus alike have debated the differences in interpretation for centuries without descending into factionalism or sectarian violence, much less warfare. That such antagonism seems unthinkable says a great deal about the universality of the Gita and the inherent pluralism of Hinduism.

In fact, that generosity of spirit, with its acknowledgement of individual pathways within a framework of unifying Oneness, is one reason why the Gita captured the hearts and minds of Westerners like me. I have noticed over the years that people tend to memorize or paraphrase different passages, depending on their own spiritual orientation. Devotees with their eyes on the ultimate prize remember descriptions of moksha (liberation). Those with a devotional bent reference bhakti verses. Intellectual types cite jnana passages or core philosophical premises. Karma yogis might quote the verse about nonattachment to the fruits of action.

Phil Goldberg will be a presenter at this July 18 conference on the Gita today in Sunnyvale, California.For me, a product of the rebellious sixties, two themes were of central importance, and I memorized relevant verses – not intentionally, but as a byproduct of reading them so often­­­. One was “Established in yoga, perform action,” which conveys the message that unitive consciousness is not just for ascetics but a prerequisite for a purposeful life in the world. The other was “Better death in one’s own dharma; the dharma of another brings danger.” I was part of a generation for whom personal authenticity was supreme and questioning authority was practically a moral imperative. The Gita told me that being true to myself was not only permissible on the spiritual path but was absolutely essential. This meant a great deal to someone who was allergic to religious conformity and incapable of believing in something just because an authority figure told me to.

I do not expect to come close to reading all the books I want to read in this lifetime. I will never penetrate all the Vedic literature I’d like to study. But I know I’ll return to the Gita again and again, because every time I do I discover something new. At the risk of closing with a cliché, it is a gift that keeps on giving.