Gaurav Rastogi will be blogging his thoughts as he reads the Bhagvad Gita for the first time. He is 35, lives in the Bay Area, is curiously religious but not a Sanskrit scholar.
GITA KI KASAM KHA KAR KAHO…(PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE GITA AND SWEAR THAT…)
References to the Gita are everywhere in Indian – and international – culture. As everybody knows, Bollywood criminals are asked to swear by the Gita that they will speak the truth and nothing but the truth. This sort of confers a “holy book” status on the Gita, in league with the Bible or the Quran. We grew up watching pulse-racing TV in the form of BR Chopra’s Mahabharata with its kitschy dress sense and continuous references to Karmanyeva Adhikaraste. In international culture, you might know that the book and movie – The Legend of Bagger Vance (Will Smith played the eponymous Bagger Vance, which even sounds like Bhagvan. Besides, he’s black, which is a plus) loosely translated the teachings of the Gita in the context of Golf-as-War.
WHAT MAKES A HOLY BOOK HOLY?
A few years ago, my wife and I were at the hospital for a minor surgery on our son. We were sitting in the waiting room when a white American couple came by to sit next to us. The wife was teary eyed and sniffing. A few minutes later, she slid up to me and asked me if I could read Sanskrit. Not knowing what this was about, I mumbled something about being vaguely familiar with it since I got 86% in CBSE’s Sanskrit exam. She opened her bag and took out the ISKCON version of the Gita, and asked me to read it out aloud. Her 5 year old daughter was recently suspected of cancer, and she had been brought in for a biopsy. The mother’s spiritual advisor had told her that if she chanted verses from the Gita, it would bring her daughter peace. Shocked, moved, and lump-throated, I read the verses from the Gita aloud (in my tooti-footi Sanskrit) for the next 15 minutes till we were called away.
Looking back I wonder – what makes a holy book Holy? Is it the beauty and elegance of the poetry, or it is pure faith that drives this belief?
IT MUST BE TRUE…I SAW IT ON TV
Despite knowing all this about the Gita, I hadn’t actually read it. It’s how we know all about Amitabh Bachchan, or George Bush…through third and fourth hand sources, cultural references and common wisdom. I was sure the real text is more than what the sound bytes make it out to be. There was only one way to find out. Having reached a sort of half-way mark on my life, I figured this would be a good time to read it firsthand.
Problem is – I don’t know enough Sanskrit. I would have to rely on a translation. I found that the copies already in my collection were interpretations, and not translations. While there is a lot of value added by the translators in terms of references, phrases like mystic god-head and supreme duties put me off. I wanted to get to the source of The Source.
ASLI MAAL, NO MASALA, MSG OR MESSAGE ADDED
So, in my latest trip to India, I decided to raid the bookstores for the real deal. Just my luck, a certain Mr.Ramesh MENON (not an editing mistake, that’s how he puts his name on the cover) decided to publish an exact word-by-word translation with no added flavorings or artificial color. Same to same, as we say back home.
To keep this interesting, I will confine my reading to just this version. Will read it chapter by chapter, and reflect. Will try to be fast-paced and readable, but not force wit. I write this for all my friends who grew up with me, and so we can pass on some of our gyan to our kids.
To all the devout Hindus out there – I’m one of us, and I mean no harm. My comments are strictly mine, and do not reflect the views of this site, or to my employer or any other person.
OK then. Ready? Arjuna isn’t.
Chapter 1 of the Gita according to Gaurav appears tomorrow