Gita Talk #3: It’s Showtime. Please Start Talking All At Once!

Via on May 4, 2010

Bhagavad Gita Mitchell

OK, sports fans, the game is on. This is our first weekly discussion of Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita. This week we’re talking about the Introduction, which goes through p. 35 (with ten pages of very interesting notes, pages 199-210.)

Before I forget, the reading for next Monday is Chapters 1 and 2, pages 41-60.

This is a true experiment. So I’m just going to play it by ear.  The best thing that can happen is if you all jump right into the game, instead of watching from the sidelines. I know we’ll have a great discussion if you:

–Tell us what’s on your mind.
–Ask us the questions you were asking yourself as you were reading the Introduction.
And especially, read other readers comments and reply with your questions, disagreements, or comments.

I’m committed to responding to every question individually myself, but the more help I get the better.

Don’t be shy! There are no wrong questions. And the Elephant crowd is noted for its warmth and civility in handling even the most controversial issues.  We have a wide variety of experience in this group, from many first time readers to veteran devotees and everything in between.  We all have something to offer each other.

If you don’t have anything particular in mind, then think about these issues and give me your thoughts:

1) How did the Introduction make you feel about reading the Gita?
2) How did it compare to your expectations going in?
3) If you have read other versions of the Gita, how does Mitchell’s vision in his Introduction compare?
4) Are there any questions you’d like to ask?
5) Watch Yoga’s Secret Love Song, one particularly rapturous vision of the Gita (7 min. video from Graham Schweig).  What are your reactions?  How does Schweig’s vision compare to Mitchell’s vision of the Gita in his Introduction?

Helpful Hints

Elephant has a terrific discussion system. If you haven’t been here before, I think you’ll find it very intuitive. Some hints:

–When you post a comment, make sure you subscribe to “All new comments” in the pull down menu at the bottom of the comment box.  (Otherwise you’ll just receive e-mails when people reply to your comment.)
–You can post ad hoc each time, or you can register with “Intense Debate”, which will allow you to show your avatar, profile, and keep a history of all your comments.
–This system allows replies to replies and keeps good track of them in an easy-to-read and intuitive way.
Replies get hidden automatically as comment volume grows.  You need to click on “Replies” at the bottom of each comment to see them.

If a particular issue gets particularly big or hard to follow , I may open subsidiary blogs to help focus our attention.

I prefer to keep the substantive Gita discussion here on Elephant Journal. But we can also communicate on our Facebook site and on #GitaTalk on Twitter.

Again,  the reading for next Monday is Chapters 1 and 2, pages 41-60.

Please be sure to let me know if I can help you in any way.

Please see
Welcome to Gita Talk
for all Gita Talk blogs and general information.
Jump in anytime and go at your own pace.

About Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg: Editor, Best of Yoga Philosophy / Former Assoc. Publisher, elephant journal / Author: Yoga Demystified * Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell * Leadership Is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology / Co-editor: Yoga in America (free eBook) / Creator: Gita Talk: Self-paced Online Seminar / Flamenco guitarist: "Live at Don Quijote" & "American Gypsy" (Free CD's) / Follow Bob on facebook, Twitter, or his main site: Wordpress.

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165 Responses to “Gita Talk #3: It’s Showtime. Please Start Talking All At Once!”

  1. Margann says:

    Did anyone watch the video?

    • Cynthia L says:

      I watched the video and really enjoyed it. I tend to learn more from watching than from reading if that makes any sense. All of the visuals, sound and words mixed together made the Gita that much more compelling for me. It wa also a great primer for reading Mitchell's version. I'm looking forward to the ride!

      • Hi, Cynthia. Glad you liked the video. I felt it was too sugary the first time I saw it, but now I really like it. I don't know what changed. Perhaps I just got more comfortable with it.

        I understand what you mean by visual. As books go, I think you'll find Mitchell's Gita about as visual as a text can get without photographs! Sometimes spare poetry is so powerful it's almost visual. Just wait. You'll see what I mean.

        (My Elephant blog)

  2. mia park says:

    which video?

    i'm glad to be here. i have so much other "yoga homework" right now that i unfortunately can't make time now to really participate in this discussion, but would like to read what others have to say. i do love the gita. dharma dharma dharma.

  3. YogininBikini says:

    I watched the video. I have read this version before and I particularly like the introduction. I feel I would have been a bit lost on my own without it the first time through.

  4. Margann says:

    There is another interesting translation, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi. I like it because he intersperses his own interpretations every page or so. I like his take on it, because the Gita seems so violent, but Gandhi is a pacifist, and he loves it very much. He did the translation while in jail.

  5. What I found most notable was that Mitchell refers to the author of the Gita as "the poet," and the Gita itself as poetry rather than prophecy (okay, it might not fit the definition of "prophecy," anyway, but I like the alliteration)–though, of course, recognizing in doing so that poetry is something that can hold great weight (as opposed to flowery, boring, and overly complicated language that English teachers use to torture their pupils). As such, "the poet" is seen as time- and culture-bound, sometimes self-contradictory, and sometimes better than at others, and, most importantly, not necessarily always wise (meaning that Mitchell doesn't always agree, and we're invited to disagree–with him or the poet or both–as well).

  6. Of course, this is blasphemy to literalists (see comments on Amazon). Then, one only needs to pick up a newspaper (or hit a link to a news site) to see the wide ranging deleterious effects of people reading the Bible and Koran the way the literalists would have us read the Gita (as Hindu fundamentalists–generally about as interested in the "many paths" thing as fundamentalist Christians are in turning the other cheek–do read it, giving them lots of inspiration for killing Muslims).

  7. Hi, mia. Happy to have you here.

    Margann is talking about this Graham Schweig video:http://bit.ly/d98oHh.

  8. Hi, Margann. Did you find the video or Mitchell's Introduction changed the way you see the Gita this time around? Or is it too early to tell. Would you mind reposting your comment from the other Gita blog here so we can get some more comments on it?

    One of the interesting things about this video is that Graham Schweig is a leading Gita and Sanskrit scholar. In his recent translation of the Gita he supports his view of the Gita as primarily about Love in great depth.

    • Bethany says:

      Every time I read or discuss the Gita, I see it through the eyes of a Christian. I particularly enjoyed this video interpretation because I saw the love of Christ echoed in each slide. It is enjoyable to me to see how these two very different concepts of religion echo the same ultimate Truth. Thanks for sharing the video, Bob

      • Hi, Bethany. I enjoyed this video very much, too. And one of the things I enjoy most about the Gita is its explicitly universalist outlook:

        However men try to reach me,
        I return their love with my love;
        whatever path they may travel,
        it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

        Thanks for writing.

  9. I didn't know Ghandi did his own translation. But of course, Mitchell includes Ghandi's essay on the Gita as an Appendix, so if anyone wants to jump ahead, you can see what Margann is talking about.

  10. integralhack says:

    I like the book so far. Generally I'm not a fan of "derivative translation," meaning that Mitchell depends on other translations given that his own Sanskrit is "rudimentary" by his own admission. Given the Gita's poetical structure, however, I think the Gita lends itself well to Mitchell's interpretative style.

    I have read B.S. Miller's translation in the past and delved into Easwaran's as well. I like all of these translations and it will be fun to compare and contrast them a bit.

    Philosophically, I love the Gita's focus on the "yoga of insight" and equanimity (don't be attached to the action's fruits).

    On the other hand, I find the notion of Krishna approving of war because, ultimately, Self (and we're all Self in the ultimate view of the Gita) cannot be killed [2.18-22]. Obviously, in our age of WMDs, this is a disturbing notion since we are poised to obliterate sentient Self as we know it.

    Arguably, the notion of war in the Gita is all metaphor, but zealots and fundamentalists tend to capitalize on these sorts of statements just as fundie Muslims capitalize on jihad.

    Ultimate notions of Self, Brahman, God, etc. can lend themselves to abuse if we take the Gita literally when it says things like

    "Just as you throw out used clothes and put on other clothes, new ones, the Self discards its used bodies and puts on others that are new."

    This tends to lend itself to the idea that people in wartime are "disposable" because they'll be reborn anyway. Yikes.

  11. Yes, the Gita can be pretty hard to get into without a colloquial translation and a great commentary. That's why I chose the Mitchell version. At the same time, having read other more scholarly version, heavily footnoted on every page, I feel Mitchell is extremely faithful to the meaning of the text.

  12. Susan says:

    I thought the intro section was okay. I think that a bit of explanation of the history of the Pandavas and Kauravas would have been helpful for any first time reader– a little more context so that you can understand why Arjuna is so desperately reluctant to fight.
    I loved the Sufi quote on p.14 Souls who love God "…know one another by smell, like horses. Though one be in the East and the other in the West, they still feel joy and comfort in each other's talk, and one who lives in a later generation than the other is instructed and consoled by the words of his friend." This feel very true to me in regards to all of us reading this ancient text /poem. A comfort and joy for sure.

    • brazillianhippie says:

      Hi Susan, thank you for pointing that out, I dont know much about the Pandavas and Kauravas background, can anybody point me in a helpful direction to find out more about it?

  13. [...] sports fans, the game is on. This is our first weekly discussion of Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita. This week we’re talking about the Introduction, which goes through p. 35 (with ten pages of [...]

  14. I agree, Jay, except that the same debates go on in India even about the Sanskrit. For example, the Sanskrit word for "love" and "devotion" is the same. And, like in English, devotion can mean "love" or "worship".

    Some worship-oriented translators insist that the Gita is most compellingly a call to worship, whereas other Sanskrit scholars, like Graham Schweig, feel that a one-dimensional reading of the word as "worship" is a distortion of the Gita's much larger message of "love".

    This same issue of meaning exists with or without translation.

  15. Kaoverii says:

    Hi everyone,

    I love any version of the Gita – they all make me get all swoony for Krishna. Barbara Mitchell is my current fave. But I also love Easwaran's – he says in the beginning that all types of people (i think he mentions bhakti's, jnanis and karmis here) claim the Gita is speaking directly to them and that's why it is so universally loved.

    As for Matt's comments – it's really interesting to talk about how fundamentalists co-opt the metaphors into their own jaded views and use them to justify violence. Raising consciousness in forum's like this is a powerful antidote to ignorance and depravity. Thanks for the lead Bob!

    Yogananda and Anandamurti (both Bengalis) talked about the Gita's metaphor of war as an internal one – the inner fight – the 5 Pandava Brothers are the 5 lower chakras, surrounded and/or attacked by the 100 Kaorava's, the 100 petals, the tendencies we all have to fight against and conquer within ourselves.

    And I think the message of the Gita is about not suppressing or ignoring your demons, but calling them forth and battling them. Sublimating or channelizing, or using your difficult inner conflicts, your inner wars as fuel for your spiritual fire.

    Om shanti!

  16. Absolutely, Cora. Please bring all your insights and comparisons from other versions to the discussion. That's partly what I'm looking for from the experienced readers, like yourself. I've got five different version on my desk right now that I like to compare and contrast.

    At the same time, I want to welcome all the new readers of the Gita and encourage them to ask all the questions I know I had my first time through it. I'm hoping "Gita Talk" will make their first experience with the Gita more productive than mine was! I could have really used someone to Gita talk to!

  17. Good points, all. I certainly agree.

  18. Brenda P. says:

    Like other readers, I was a bit taken back that this wasn't Mitchell's own translation; this takes us an additional step away from the text. Maybe this isn't as problematic with a "dead" language, as every translator is at a certain distance from the original meaning and nuance.

    I'm interested with what other filters we will read (see?) the book through. It sounds like some are emotionally invested in the Gita, and others are more academically inclined. I'll admit to having a more intellectual bent, but already I'm finding things useful for everyday life ("act without any thoughts of results" p. 21).

    I also wonder how the poet's less-than-charitable opinion of women will color my reading. I know Mitchell asks for indulgence, but with the filter of a 21st century female not accustomed to thinking of myself as evil-womb contents, it gives me pause.

    Bring on the "terrifying theophany"!

  19. sawennatson says:

    While reader your comment, I remembered a video clip of Sam Keen talking about how people reinterpret profound experiences of individuals into dogmatic and secular structures. What I think he says is someone has a transcendent experience, "an enlightenment experience", and the later on we as a culture use the myth of that person to exert our own power. I could see that happening with the Gita. You've illustrated a plausible argument in your comment. Food for thought.

    I'll let Keen speak for himself (without my misinterpretation):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waIE0KCKL20

    • Lorraine says:

      Excellent video and I plan on watching the whole thing. I need to go read his book, "In the Absence of God" next!

    • Rhonnie says:

      Sawennatson~
      Thank you for this video. My process is slow and my digestion of all that I am learning is with heartfelt and thoughtful intent. I intuitively share in his statement regarding "Finding the story that is everybody's story". ~One Love

  20. Karen M. says:

    For me, the Gita is timeless because it addresses all people..of different temperments and in different stages of the Path. There is something for everyone.

    I like what Mitchell says in the intro on pages 18 and 19 "Thus, generously, patiently, the poem guides even the least gifted of us on the path towards freedom." Having often feeling less than gifted when trying to comprehend the Gita, I have found if I stay with it and keep searching, I will find just the right and perfect passage that nurtures me, leads me and guides me.

    Bravo and Salutations to you, Bob for starting this discussion. It has come at the right and perfect time in my journey.
    Namaste !

  21. Tali says:

    I almost never read book introductions however this seems to be quite useful. I am also surprised that Mitchell didn't translate the text too however I appreciate the candid explanation as well as the rest of the introduction.

  22. integralhack says:

    Yes, there have already been cults who interpret the Bhagavad Gita toward dangerous and harmful ends, just as the Bible or any other "religious classic" has been adopted dogmatically, on the one hand–and as you point out–secularly on the other.

    Meanwhile, as Mitchell points out, the Gita was a source of inspiration for Gandhi. Go figure!

    I'll check out the Keen clip now. Thanks for sharing!

  23. Wow, sawennatson. Great video. I urge everyone to watch it. It's only 5 minutes long but really pack a punch and it's so utterly relevant to our discussion here–in about 25 different ways I can think of.

    One of the reasons I've settled on Yoga spirituality after deep life experiences with Catholicism and Judaism and nothing-in-particularism is that Yoga is by far the most openly universal in its outlook. One doesn't have to twist it or hunt for it. It's right there in multiple crystal clear quotes in the Gita we're about to read. This 2500 year old text says pretty much exactly what Keen says in this video.

    I leave it there for now. I'm in danger of writing a whole essay on this video. Keen's theme will come back again and again as we read the Gita.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  24. Thanks for your insightful comment, Karen, and I couldn't agree with you more about the flexibility of the Gita. It even allows for different personality types! See Different Strokes for Different Folks

  25. This was concerning to me, too, at first. But I was quickly won over by several things:

    1) Mitchell's own candid and persuasive "About the Translation" p. 31-35.
    2) Hearing an in-depth interview of Mitchell about his rigorous yet poetic translation process.
    3) Copious praise from many Gita scholars.
    4) My own favorable comparison to four other translations by Sanskrit scholars.

  26. The translation technique was concerning to me, too, at first. But I was quickly won over by several things:

    1) Mitchell's own candid and persuasive "About the Translation" p. 31-35.
    2) Hearing an in-depth interview of Mitchell about his rigorous yet poetic translation process.
    3) Copious praise from many Gita scholars.
    4) My own favorable comparison to four other translations by Sanskrit scholars.

  27. Greg says:

    Graham's video was more on the money. Excellent presentation.

  28. Greg says:

    An important issue arises with respect to Mitchell's introduction.

    While he may translate (with help) the words, he may not be up to translating the experience and/or essence.

    In other words, his facility with language may run past his facility with the practice.

    Thus, one must proceed with caution with his commentary — more so than the translation of the text.

  29. Susan says:

    Great Video. I want to see the talk in its entirety.

  30. Greg says:

    There is a tendency to "wish away" the content of the Gita when it does not fit our biases or our current experience.

    The Gita is correct in presenting the Self as that which transcends fabricated phenomena such as bodies. Ultimately, that does mean Self — who you are in your true essence — cannot be killed, while that to which we cling — bodies and their accessories — not only can be killed but are necessarily transient and temporary and will cease.

    WMD's do not change the equation. The Self is not transient, temporal, destructible. Atomic weapons cause huge, huge confusion and apathy but they do not alter the nature of Self which transcends all fabricated conditions.

    Perhaps the confusion lies in thinking that Self, which transcends material conditions, is not sentient whereas it is the purest state of consciousness possible.

    There is no reason to not take the Gita literally when it speaks of the Self discarding bodies only to take up others. This is a core concept in the Gita, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism. It is a concept that has been confirmed through the practice by all advanced practitioners. One can argue that one has not achieved firsthand knowledge of this fact, but that does not alter what the material and practitioners state.

    This does not relegate people to the sate of "disposable." That does not follow. It does allow one, however, to distinguish the difference between Self and that which is transient, temporal, and perishable. A key concept is release from clinging and attachment to that which is not truly Self but which is, by its nature, transitory. All bodies decay and dissolve. It is a given. That is quite irrelevant to the existence of Self.

  31. Greg says:

    My only concern with the Mitchell translation is the author's bias toward a materialistic view, which is the opposite of the text itself. While it may not affect the translation of the text the presence of the bias is of some concern.

    • brazillianhippie says:

      Hi Greg. Was wondering if you could tell me why you see the author's bias as a more materialistic view? I hadnt picked up on that and want to be able to see the different perspectives….

      • Hi, brazillianhippie. I don't agree with Greg on this point. Mitchell is as deeply spiritually oriented as any translator I've read.

      • Greg says:

        Basically, the reason I felt there was bias in that direction had to with the following line:

        "The vision of God as elemental undifferentiated energy is an aspect of the truth…"

        This line follows a discussion of Oppenheimer and the bomb, prior to which he also writes:

        "This is a vision of pure energy, which does not discriminate between good and evil, creation and destruction."

        The equation of God with material conditions — i.e. energy — is essentially materialistic. It places God or Krishna in an equivalency with material conditions.

        Does that makes sense?

        (Bob, I am not making any evaluation regarding whether or not he is a spiritual person, as in being a nice and compassionate person.. I believe the language, however, points to a bias toward materialism in his point of view, of which he may or may not be aware.)

        • The Gita itself, as we will see in the text, is explicitly inclusive on this point. It allows for everything from God as the infinite unfathomable life-force of the Universe (Mitchell's view) to an intimate personal God, and everything in between. I think you are simply defining his use of the word "energy" too narrowly. He means "infinite unfathomable life-force of the Universe", which I assume you do, too.

          • Greg says:

            As we move along we can parse those issues and see if they bear fruit.

            Would love to have his comments to my analysis but we can trade views and see what you and I can make out of those subtle points for which diamond cutter discernment is needed.

            I believe I can expound on what I mean to some benefit for all readers but I will need your help and the help of other readers to make sure I am communicating clearly. For want of skillful means I have been known to spin my wheels in the ditch…hopefully you come prepared with chains and a hitch.

          • Lorraine says:

            Greg…I certainly don't understand what you mean. "The equation of God with material conditions — i.e. energy — is essentially materialistic. It places God or Krishna in an equivalency with material conditions." How can energy be considered a material condition?

          • Greg says:

            Potential and kinetic energy both relate to the position or change of position of matter in space. This has to do with material conditions. In relativity we have E = MC^2, which posits a relationship (and equivalency) between matter and energy.

            Where you thinking of energy in different terms? How might energy not be considered a material condition?

          • Hi, Greg. I think Mitchell is clearly referring to spiritual energy, not physical energy. So it's not in the slightest bit materialistic.

            By energy he means simply "infinite unfathomable life-force of the Universe", or "Brahman" in the Sanskrit, and translated by Mitchell throughout as "God."

          • Greg says:

            What is spiritual energy? How does it differ from physical energy? How does Mitchell differentiate the two?

            What is a "life-force"? Again how does one differentiate this from the physics use of force?

          • It can't be defined precisely, because it's infinite and unfathomable. Much of the Gita is devoted to making the point that Brahman=God="life force of the universe" is beyond our comprehension and yet, at the same time, it is us, too.

            Unfathomable means exactly that–ineffable, infinitely wondrous, beyond our comprehension, knowable only around the edges by its human perceivable manifestations.

            Spiritual energy is God. "Life force" is a substitute term for those who feel uncomfortable with the term God. It encompasses physical energy, but it encompassed everything else in the universe as well, including our own Self, with a capital S.

            The entire Gita is an answer to your question.

          • Greg says:

            There is room for more work on discerning the meaning of such terms and relating language to experience/appearance/reality.

            My concern with Michell's intro is the mixing of abstract terms that tend to have a materialistic basis and bias. Substituting terms that allow a materialistic bias is part of my concern.

            The Gita does provide answers — was simply responding to the introduction at this point.

          • No problem, Greg. That's why we're all here. I appreciate your extensive involvement and support. Your account of your personal experience with reincarnation was very moving.

            Thanks,

            Bob

          • I'm sure our interchanges will be interesting and productive, as always Greg.

            But here's where I think we will always differ. I believe that Yoga philosophy, in the end, is blindingly simple, straight-forward, universal, inclusive and logical. And, therefore, once understood, it needs very little, if any, diamond cutter discernment and parsing. That goes to the heart of why I love it so much.

            Of course, it remains to be seen how many of our other participants will feel that way. Maybe it's just Mitchell and me that do!

          • Greg says:

            Well… at this point you seem to reject the concept of reincarnation which is foundational in the Gita, in the Upanishads, and in Patanjali. Thus, there may be entire new levels of understanding, a veritable feast of discovery, that lies ahead… Possibly. Maybe. Could be. And then the discernment and parsing may have relevance. Let us see where the adventure takes us…and close no doors before their time.

          • Absolutely. No doors closed.

          • melody says:

            Bob, I agree completely with this comment. So that makes 3 of us. :)

          • Thanks for writing, melody. Good to hear from you.

            Bob Weisenberg
            YogaDemystified.com

  32. debyoga. Not only did you make sense, I was personally deeply moved by this profoundly personal experience of the Gita in your life. Thank you for sharing it with us. I'm sure many other will find it moving as well. Even though it may make sense to turn the war into a metaphor too, for some, like yourself, Arjuna's exact situation is all too real, right now, today.

    Please come back often and continue to comment.

  33. Elizabeth K says:

    I find Mitchell's translation to be musical. In finding the rhythm of the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna, he allows for the art of poetry, as well as for the message of the text, to guide us in exploring our reaction to action and results, with the goal of finding the Self. The central insight is that if you let go of results, if your mind is open to disengaging from the endless mental projections and outcomes that we unconsciously get stuck in, we can be a lot more effective in living life.

    As a metaphysical scholar Mitchell equates all the sacred texts, from The Book of Job to the Gita to the Tao Te Ching. A diligent reader, a reader who holds "God" close as a vision of energy, will find help (in all of these texts) to a way of living with a clear mind. What makes the Bhagavad Gita dramatically and poetically different is the life and death struggle of the setting, which takes place on the battlefield of Kuru and metaphorically suggests the life and death struggle of the soul. This engages the reader in a way that a more serene or contemplative setting might not. Arjuna and Krishna are poised between life and death and time has temporarily stood still. "The vast moving picture of reality stops on a single frame, as in Borges's story "The Secret Miracle", "where even flies are caught midair between two wingbeats".

    Mitchell writes beautifully. His introduction and the notes at the end are full of metaphysical questions to discuss yet he writes with an ease and grace that makes reading very easy, and invites us all in as you have done, Bob.

  34. Beautiful, insightful comments, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Like you, I love the universality of the Gita's spirituality, echoed by Mitchell. There will be many points in the text itself when we'll come back to that theme, because the Gita is so very explicit about it.

    (I might add that Mitchell practiced Zen meditation for ten years, which he considers the same type of meditation that's prescribed in the Gita. So he has considerably more than just an intellectual connection to the Gita. When he described the way he tries to live in a long interview I listened to, he really does seem to embody the principles of the Gita in his own life.)

  35. integralhack says:

    Greg,

    I was only referring to how zealots and fundamentalists might react to the text as it is presented, especially in the tightly connected context of war. The Western Canon (especially the war-focused Iliad), The Bible and the Koran also have faced similar critiques.

    So, no, I don't *personally* think that writer(s) of the Gita, or most Hindus, or most Buddhists (perish the thought!) believe that people are disposable, but I can understand how a person of a radical fundamentalist persuasion might be confused by a particular text.

    I appreciate that you boldly asserted a belief in the Self as that which "transcends fabricated phenomena" as well as a belief in reincarnation or rebirth.

    As you probably know, Stephen Batchelor, a former Tibetan and Zen monk, has been critical of mentions of (capital "S") Self, Brahman, the Deathless, etc. from an atheistic (not theistic as opposed to anti-theistic perspectives of people like Christopher Hitchens) perspective. In a recent book tour, he referred to these mentions within Buddhism as "God getting in through the back door."

    Batchelor wants to revision Buddhism from an atheistic perspective. Can the Gita also be read in that context? Or would that be "wishing away" the spiritual from a modern, secular, materialist perspective?

    What do the rest of you believe? Is there a Self or Brahman and if so, what is it?

  36. integralhack says:

    I love the chakra analogy, Kaoverii–that is a deep reading! I'll have to try and explore that. Naturally the war is a metaphorical one–agreed.

  37. integralhack says:

    Great response, debyoga (Deb?), and this is just how a spiritual text should be read–as one grappling with it in the context of their own life.

    I have a long personal history with the Gita myself that I'll probably put on my blog soon.

  38. Greg says:

    Batchelor is not a good source on Buddhism. And hardly a monk. By his own account he was tossed from both areas of study. (For good reason, it appears.)

    His attempt to rewrite Buddhism from an atheistic, materialistic, and secular perspective is the work of a fool. One can go about embracing atheistic materialism as one chooses. It may be something that appeals to an individual. Fine. But to call it Buddhism is silly at best. Buddhism, the Buddha's teaching, is directly opposed to materialism. In the texts and in the practice.

    Likewise, one can have a love for the materialistic view and argue for that worldview but that, too, is not the Gita or Hinduism. It is a matter of discernment (with regard to the texts) and observation (with regard to the practice).

    Materialism can be viewed as an obfuscation that must be addressed in the practice and cleared away. It has its roots in attachment and clinging. Thus any practice that sets out to bring about a cessation of attachment and clinging will have to pass through this step. For this reason the materialistic view is not something that should be shoved aside as unworthy of discussion, but rather something that should be explored and viewed and taken apart in one's practice.

  39. Hi, Matt. I encourage you to do that. I would read it with great interest and I'm sure others would, too.

  40. Greg says:

    Mitchell obviously has a love for the material and a serious intention to pursue the practice. My concern was piqued by a passage on page 28:

    "The vision of God as elemental undifferentiated energy is an aspect of the truth, a difficult aspect for many Western readers to understand or accept."

    This reduces God or Krishna or Buddha Nature to a material manifestation — energy. This arbitrarily places the transcendent in the realm of the material, in the realm of fabricated phenomena.

    One does not find this in the texts or the practice, rather it is a tiny remnant of materialistic thinking.

    God or Krishna or Buddha transcend the material realm. They stand outside the temporal realm of fabricated reality. One can say that temporal reality issues forth from the mind of God or Krishna or Buddha(s).

    Elemental undifferentiated energy is a manifestation, a creation, a projection of the transcendent. When one identifies Krishna or God or Buddhas with that which they bring into existence one (inadvertently) collapses them into identification, which is total attachment.

    This may seem, at first glance, to be nit-picky ontological debate but that is not my purpose nor the importance of the observation. Rather this is critical to a successful practice. If one sets up a false proposition at the foundation of the practice, that false proposition will always anchor the practice and the ability to achieve cessation of attachment will always be illusive.

    • smithnd says:

      Hi Greg-

      A couple of things you've written have interested me. Full disclosure: I'm a philosopher and I haven't done my Gita homework. So, totally shooting from the hip here:

      I want to understand your concept of transcendence. I think you might be right that there is an error in identifying self with some material element, say, energy. But I am interested in what kind of transcendence of self you would find acceptable.

      So, one approach would be to say that self is utterly transcendent. But this would mean that there could be no interaction between self and world, there would be no material manifestation of aspects of self; it would be utterly transcendent. That seems wrong.

      Another approach would be to say that self is a property, state, substance, or process that supervenes over physical states, elements, processes of the material world. On this view, self would be what arises out of a given set of underlying states. Take away the underlying states, and self disappears. This is why–I take it–integralhack has posed an important problem, i.e., the possible annihilation of all sentient life on the planet may indeed result in the destruction of self.

      Another approach would be to say that self subvenes the physical world. On this view, all material events, properties, elements, and states would arise from self in some way. Self would be the underlying cause. I'm not sure how this would work out exactly, but it does seem to suppose that self is some kind of underlying subsistence that holds reality together. I wonder if this would be amenable to you?

      Are there any other possibilities I might be leaving out?

  41. ElizabethK says:

    Yes I agree with you Bob. I can see a deep, spiritual connection between Mitchell and the Gita. I did not mean to imply otherwise. Some have suggested, however, that his connection is through the lens of the Taoist. On page 30 he suggests, "The healthiest way to begin reading and absorbing a text like the Bhagavad Gita is to understand that ultimately it has nothing to teach,"

  42. Actually, Elizabeth, it seems to me that particular idea is very explicit in the Gita itself, even though I'm sure it's a Taoist idea, too. As Mitchell quotes himself in that same section:

    When your understanding has passed
    beyond the thicket of delusions,
    there is nothing you need to learn
    from even the most sacred scripture.

    Indifferent to scriptures, your mind
    stands by itself, unmoving,
    absorbed in deep meditation.
    This is the essence of yoga.

    And at 2.46:

    As unnecessary as a well is
    to a village on the banks of a river,
    so unnecessary are all scriptures
    to someone who has seen the truth.

    Are these passages relevant to your point about Taoism, or have I misunderstood your point?

    Thanks for your comment.

    Bob

  43. Rhonnie says:

    My desire to pick up the Gita is toward Self Study. I arrive at this discussion as a first time reader. I participated in a yoga teacher training in 2001 in my own personal work, not with the intention to teach, this was part of our reading. I honestly do not remember connecting to the Gita. I reached for the Gita a few weeks ago prior to this opportunity to participate in the discussion. Interesting, when we are open we are able to receive.
    At the infancy of my experience of embracing the Gita, I am open. The introduction metaphorically mirrors my personal ideal, to know safety, security and belonging through Spirit. Trusting that no matter the events that arise, I am safe, secure and I belong. A journey of expansion, healing, perception, and once very limiting fear based choices.
    "After awhile, all this struggle drops away naturally. The spiritually mature human being lets all things go without effort, without desire for any foreseen result, carried along the current of a vast intelligence."
    The intro was humbly written and made me feel comforted as I do not have previous knowledge through reading any versions of the Gita.
    Regarding the video from Graham Schweig, I thought it was beautiful. I don't have the background to share an opinion of the difference from the reading. I love not being able to see the differences right now. It feels childlike and exciting.
    As read through the comments all that I can say is THANK YOU! I was a bit overwhelmed and throughly appreciated the depth of the comments.
    With gratitude I look forward to learning with and through you all.

  44. Greg, please express your interesting point of view without resorting to name calling. Neither Stephen Batchelor, nor anyone else here expressing ideas contrary to your own, deserves to be called a fool by you or by anyone else. Your strong opinions are welcome. Derisive name-calling is not.

    • Greg says:

      My apology. Batchelor, in particular, raises my ire. He calls the Buddha a liar, a manipulator, and a dead old superstitious guy and then proposes that he will put forth true Buddhism. He then proceeds to offer up the exact opposite of the Buddha's teachings.

      It is the most blatant attack on the discipline in the popular literature. It is a total showstopper as far as students go — his ideas will drop your practice dead in its tracks. So my "name calling" is actually an accurate description of a very hostile and unwise (is that a better word for foolish?) activity.

  45. integralhack says:

    Although I'm not prepared to discount Batchelor entirely, I tend to agree with most of your criticisms, Greg. But this is why I offered him up as an example: he is the most visible promoter of the atheistic and secular perspective of Buddhism today.

    At the same time, the challenge to many reading the Gita or Buddhist texts is the notion that Self (Brahman, Atman, the Deathless, etc.) is that it can only be confirmed through individual practice. For myself–as someone who hasn't achieved this level of awakening–the closest I can come is through compassion and reason (an intellectual understanding of interconnection).

    I tend to refute Batchelor on the basis that the Buddha's reluctance to talk metaphysics (talking Pali Canon here) doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't believe in such ideas like Atman, he just didn't think it was helpful to discuss such matters. In other words, Buddha may have been Wittgensteinian in that "what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." Wittgenstein, as you may know, was a deeply spiritual person who refrained from the mention of God in his philosophy.

    I'll be interested in exploring the Self/Atman in the Gita with you to see if this is something it is helpful to be explicit about, or if it is better to stay with my Wittgensteinian Buddha. :)

    • Greg says:

      The problem re Batchelor is that there is no atheistic, secular, materialistic Buddhism. That is something else, not Buddhism. As noted above, he misrepresents the subject, which damages the efforts of new students.

      I totally understand the challenge involved in needing to confirm the notion of Self through individual practice. That was the instructional challenge the Buddha faced. Understanding does not come from the texts, however, the texts can guide the individual practice. In the discussion of the Gita by Mitchell we find the same dynamic —text alone will not accomplish the mission.

      You have touched upon an important topic — compassion. It is at once an "end goal" and the process through which one reaches the "end goal." The video introduction to the Gita by Graham captures this dynamic.

      Interesting. Was not aware that Wittgenstein was deeply spiritual; I know he ended up getting spun in and his life ended in tragedy.

      The Buddha actually did speak to metaphysics but in a subtractive manner and then, later in the teachings, in a more straightforward manner. Will be fun to take up the Self/Atman concept as we move through the Gita. (And then there is the greatly misread teaching of the Anatta doctrine – not atman – in Buddhism.)

  46. integralhack says:

    Good point. Which is–perhaps in part–why the Buddha may have avoided discussing such matters. He could only point out the Path, words describing the ineffable . . . well, you see what I mean.

    • Greg says:

      True. At the beginning of his teaching he seemingly avoided such matters — but not actually. It is there but he purposefully took a subtractive or negative approach.

      He spoke in terms of what it was not. Subtract this, subtract that, not this, not that. He spoke of cessation of attachment to that which was "not self." In other words, he pointed out all the attachments to false identities.

      All false identities were of the nature of fabricated phenomena. Material appearances. One could sum this up by saying Buddha nature has no fabricated, phenomenal aspect. Further distilling it, one could say he taught materialism was a wrong view.

      Rather than attempt to add a label to that which had no thingness, he stripped off all labels that referenced thingness or fabrication. What was a Buddha? A Buddha was someone who had ceased all attachment to that which was "not self." A Buddha was someone who had ceased identifying with fabricated material appearances.

      Later in his teachings he did explain such ideas further with "positive" examples but that was hard to understand without the preliminary experience of cessation of attachment. Folks like Batchelor never completed the beginning steps so later teachings appear to them as myth or superstition. Does that make sense?

  47. integralhack says:

    I may do that, Bob, but I'm humbled by you and the rest of the commenters here–great stuff!

  48. integralhack says:

    Like others here, Rhonnie, it appears you have great natural insight. I'm also learning a good deal here, as I tend to be overly analytical, which doesn't lend itself well to the openness you mention. Maybe some will rub off? :)

  49. Very interesting observations, Matt, as are Greg's. I can't speak for Buddhism, but in Yoga it's very clear that one can come to feel the presence of the infinite unfathomable life-force of the universe ("God" to some, including Mitchell) through a variety of means, of which progressive meditation is only one.

    Just as common, in Yoga, and described clearly in the Gita, is the path of intellectual understanding, Two other paths are selfless action and devotional love. In the Gita all these paths lead to the same awareness.

    But I'm getting ahead of our text!

  50. Hi, Rhonnie. I'm so glad you wrote this. I was getting a little worried that we hadn't heard from the many relatively new readers that had signed up to join our discussion. I'm concerned that the discussion might have intimidated some of them from writing and asking questions. So I was happy to hear that you found the discussion useful.

    Let me make a very strong statement that will really confirm your good feelings. If you like and identify with Mitchell's introduction, you will find that the more you read the Gita the more you will see it as saying exactly what Mitchell wrote. You're already a long way towards loving the Gita because you understand and feel this.

    If, as you're reading through the text, it seems that it's different than what Mitchell perceives, then that will just be a temporary challenge of understanding, and, because you understand Mitchell, you'll be able to work through it to a greater and greater love of the Gita. I know this because I started exactly where you are and went through the same process you are about to enjoy. I'm excited for you. Stick with us, and please continue to write about your feelings.

    • Meaghan says:

      I too am relatively new to the Gita – not to it's ideas or teachings – but to true study of the text. When I first encountered the Gita (in my first teacher training – which I also took out of personal interest and with no intention to teach) I had a real resistance to it. The idea of non-attachment was so foreign – "but if we aren't attached why would we do good work?" – and the wartime setting really confused me – "how can fulfilling the duty to fight be a good thing?" – not to mention the great big, capital G word – God – got me all riled up! But now, many years down my path of yoga I really do appreciate the ideas and the teachings. But I haven't actually picked up a copy of it to re-read. Looking forward to this opportunity to re-explore it and to re-examine it now that greater experience in the practice and study of yoga has no doubt softened my perspective. So far, Mitchell's introduction has me thinking that his version is a very good place to start!

      • Thanks for joining us, Meaghan. I'm starting to get a much better idea of why so many people have trouble with the Gita at first. Many stop right there, and many go on to love it. It's one of the reasons I started "Gita Talk"–to help people get over that first turn-off. I had the same problem when started out. But now it's one of the most important books I've ever read. Please write again often as we read through the text.

      • Rhonnie says:

        Meaghan,

        I completely understand the resistance to non-attachment. This has been intellectually challenging for me. I, like you over the years through my journey and experiences have grown to embrace non-attachment. YES! The G-word was very unsettling to me for many years. AND with all of this I knew inside "there was more".

        I now appreciate the ideas and teachings as metaphors that, in the face of my humanity support growth and learning.
        I look forward to reading your ideas and thoughts from a perspective of "true study of the text".

    • Rhonnie says:

      Thank you Bob. I did have a "Whoa" response as I began to read the entries. I trust all that I have experienced that has brought me to picking up the Gita and to this discussion. I found that once I slowed down to digest the entries that there is a wealth of passion, knowledge and depth.
      My thoughts and perspective are from feelings from the heart. I appreciate very much that you see clearly where I am and your words of guidance and encouragement.
      I am the eternal student. I am happy to be here.
      With Gratitude.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply to the replies, Rhonnie. It's interactions like this that make these discussions so interesting and valuable. I also think that our discussions will only deepen as we all get to know each other working through each chapter one-by-one.

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