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, curiously religious but not a Sanskrit scholar.
#1 WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T PANIC!
FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE
For those not familiar with the text, here’s a brief backstory. You must know that the Bhagvad Gita is an orthogonal insert into the main story of the Mahabharata which itself is the epic story of the sons of Bharat and their Godfather-style story of deceit and sweet revenge. The Gita is set in the climactic battle scene between two sets of cousins who are fighting over property rights. The bad guys, historically speaking, are the Kauravas, who are fathered by Dhritrashtra – the blind king. The good guys are their cousins – the Pandavas – who are supported by sympathetic friends and relatives, including Krishna Vasudeva. (Vasudeva means land-owner, and was apparently a title of some sorts. Krishna just means black.)
IN THE BEGINNING
Many literary works have opening lines that are memorable. Not so the Gita. The chapter opens with the blind king Dhritarashtra (hereby referred to as “D”) asks his trusty charioteer – Sanjaya (S) – to describe to him what’s going on in the battle field.
In a format that sports commentators would follow for future generations, S starts a running commentary of the war. He starts by describing each key player in great detail. This goes in the ESPN format, where each of the athletes is named, and their virtues extolled. I especially liked the colorful parts, where someone is referred to as “the shaibhya, bull amongst men”. In modern parlance, this would simply be “here’s da stud”?
COME BLOW YOUR CONCH
Having described the sides, S talks about the start of the war. The battlefield resounds with conch shells, bugles, trumpets, kettledrums and horns. Apparently everyone gets a standard issue conch to blow. Many even seem to have names for their shells. Yet another ancient precursor to a modern practice – the naming of instruments. That may explain how Harry got the Firebolt flying broomstick from his uncle and why all branded sports equipment companies are in business today – branded conch shells.
JOHN JAANI JANARDAN
Another interesting thing is that plurality of names that are used to refer to the same person. It seems that personal identity was more fluid in those days, and a person would be known by different names depending on the context. In just this chapter, Arjuna has 7 names. His own name, son of Kunti (his mother), son of Pritha (Kunti’s second name, it seems), Dhananjaya (from the episode where he wins over wealth), the scion of the Pandu family, the scion of Bharat’s family, the curly haired one, and so on. Similarly with Krishna.
I guess the naming convention was fluid because each name would serve as a memory-aid, to remind people of the parentage and deeds of the person-so-named. I wonder why this practice has not carried out into modernity, except in gangster serials where more creative names (one or two) are given to the gangsters?
LIGHTS, CAMERA, PANIC!
Arjuna – ace marksman on the P side – tells Krishna to take his chariot to the middle of no man’s land between the two armies. Krishna – as most would already know from the back-story – had offered to be the designated driver to Arjuna for this war and is presently in the driver’s seat of a chariot with a set of white stallions.
Krishna drives Arjuna to the no-man’s land between the two armies and pauses. What follows next is a WebMD-style description of a Arjuna’s panic attack. Limbs weak-check. Mouth dry-check. Body trembling-check. Skin burning-check. Arjuna says he can’t handle the tension anymore, and besides, he can’t understand the point of going into battle with one’s own fathers, uncles, grand-uncles, their cousins, neighbor’s sons, newspaper boy, weatherman, cable guy, and other such assorted familiar folks that are gathered in front.
After the panic attack. Arjuna goes on to describe, breathlessly, why he shouldn’t go to war.
Arjuna is in the middle of the battlefield, still has control of the microphone, and continues talking. What follows next is a beautiful justification for his panic, written in text with a logical consistency that would warrant an A+ in any course on written analysis and communications. You and I know it’s all a mistake, of course, to panic right at the start of a just war. But what brilliant logic! Wah!
BAHANA #1: AAKHIR KYON? (WHAT’S THE POINT?)
What good will come out of killing one’s own family in this war. After all, the people for whose sake we want worldly goods are right here, before us, ready for war!
BAHANA #2: PAAP LAGEGA (IT’S A SIN)
We will sin if we kill these selfish, greedy, stupid friends and relatives of ours.
MAHA BAHANA #3: THE SKY WILL FALL ON OUR HEADS, THE WOMEN WILL BECOME LOOSE, THE…WHAT!!!
(Read this slowly now) If we kill our own race, our traditions will be lost. If our traditions are lost, our religion and way of life will be lost. If our way of life is lost, our women will become loose. If the women become loose, they will produce kids outside our community. Cross-breeding will mean that no one will follow customs to bring peace to the ancestors. If no one does these customs, we’ll all go to hell! Seriously dude, I mean it! We’re all going to hell if we go ahead with this war!
See! It was just that simple! This isn’t just a simple question of going after the Kauravas’ WMDs and clobber them into the stone age. It’s about preserving a way of life. It’s about keeping the breed-line pure and the customs intact.
That said, Arjuna puts down his bow and arrow, and sits down. Let them kill me if they want, says A, while I’m unarmed and unresisting. Come on, bring it on!
That ends chapter one.
I’ve just peeked into chapter two, and that’s the one most referred to in all Hindi movies and serials. Looking forward to it.