Thinkers and Scholars on the Bhagavad Gita
American thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) had one thing in common; they were impressed by the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. The Hindu scripture provided them with a new set of religious concepts that express spiritual energy. With the teachings of the Gita they were able to critique rationalism and materialism of the earlier centuries that so many of their contemporaries believed in.
Emerson wanted individuals to become “Man thinking” rather than “Mere thinkers, or still worse the parrot of other men’s thinking.” He wanted his fellow countrymen to investigate their minds and to study the mind of the past through literature. By 1845 he had read Gita. In his Journal he writes,
I owed-my friend and I owed-a magnificent day to the Bhagavat Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions, which exercise us.
In his essays his ideas about this worldly multiplicity and transcendental oneness echo the teachings of the Gita. He had read and mulled over its seminal concepts. In his essay “The Over-Soul” he writes,
(W)ithin man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
Emerson found novel teachings of the Gita useful in his daily life. The teachings such as ‘work must be done without thought of reward’ and ‘an individual may have a tranquil mind even in activity.’
Thoreau was a great admirer of Emerson. He seems to have read the Gita when he was in his early twenties. At the age of 28 he wrote that a reader of the Gita is nowhere else “raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rare region of thought” than while reading the Gita. The scripture’s “sanity and sublimity have impressed the minds…” of people from all walks of life.
Thoreau had the Gita with him during his stay by Walden Pond. In Walden (1854) he writes,
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.
Barbara Stoler Millar, the American Sanskrit scholar, in her translation of the Bhagavad Gita (1986) argues that Thoreau was clearly impressed by the Gita’s critique of inaction but was reluctant to accept the morality of the argument that Arjuna must “go to war against his kinsmen-enemies because war is his duty as a warrior and because death is inevitable.” For Thoreau, she writes, the scripture did appear to justify violence.
Miller, however, goes on to say that the Gita is not a justification of war, nor does it propound a war-making mystique. The book teaches that even in most unspiritual circumstances one can act with pure intentions and be guided by one’s Self.
What the Gita says is that death is inevitable, our work is sacred and we must not renounce the world but infuse our daily life with spiritual wisdom. We must develop an ability to carry through our daily affairs with spiritual understanding because Self, our inner consciousness, leads towards goodness never towards selfish interests.
Thoreau discussed the teachings of the Gita in artistic terms. In Walden he writes that spiritual discipline is like artist’s total involvement in creating an artwork. A creative mind finds liberation from time when he is in a state of one pointed concentration like a dedicated worshipper. When one is striving after perfection the time stands still.
Mahatma Gandhi became first acquainted with the Gita in 1888 and followed its teachings for the rest of his life. He understood that concealed behind the Gita’s warfare is the perpetual conflict that goes on in the hearts and minds of all people. He understood that to have one pointed dedication to Krishna is to realize one’s Self within. He understood that “deeper you dive into it (Gita), the richer the meanings you get.” He writes,
When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. (“The Message of the Gita”)
The readers of the Gita may extract any meaning, they like, from it. Once the meaning of its central teaching is understood the readers may apply it to make their daily lives joyous. They may experience perennial joy that is beyond intellectual understanding. The joy that comes from understanding the Gita is reserved only for those who live fullness of faith with an undivided singleness of mind.