Gita Talk #4: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?

Via Bob Weisenberg
on May 9, 2010
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In this blog we are discussing Chapters 1-2, thru p. 60.
(Reading for next week is Chapters 3-4, thru p. 80.)

Many people who love the Bhagavad Gita were frustrated or turned off when they first tried to read it. 

One reason is often the translation. There are many versions that are very hard to read—stilted, unnatural English, and lots of Sanskrit terms that have you jumping down to the footnotes every other word.  Another problem is the commentary, which is sometimes harder to understand than the text itself and can get very technical.

The Mitchell version, thankfully, doesn’t have either of these problems.  It reads easily and naturally, with no footnotes at all.  And the commentary is thoroughly enlightening. 

But it still has a third common problem which comes from the content itself.  Within a few pages of starting the Gita, the reader is told: 

–Women who are allowed to marry outside their caste are “corrupt”. (D)
–If the caste system is violated, society will collapse and those responsible will suffer in hell. (D)
–Men who refuse to fight will be disgraced forever as unmanly cowards. (D)
–Reincarnation will be our reward or punishment for our actions. (M)
–God thinks it’s a great idea to cajole the hero into fighting a bloody war against his relatives. (M)
–We should be indifferent when someone dies. (E)
–There is no real distinction between good and evil. (E)
–We should cut ourselves off from all sensual desires and pleasures. (E)

Is it any wonder that many readers stop right there and say, “I don’t need this.  I’m going to find something more uplifting to read”?  It certainly doesn’t live up to the promise of  “Falling Head-Over-Heels-In-Love With The Universe”.

It takes a little effort and insight to be able to handle these and other jarring issues that come up in the text.  Eventually, for each unacceptable or repugnant idea, you have three choices:

1) Decide to simply ignore it.  (Mitchell is right up front about this in a way few other translations are.  On page 209 he writes, “the Gita contains passages that are culture-bound and should be disregarded by readers who are serious about its deeper teachings”, and he goes on to list the specific stanzas this applies to.)

2) Turn it into a metaphor.  For example, war can be seen as a metaphor for whatever big challenges we face in life.

3) Further explain the troublesome idea in a way that it eventually turns out to make sense.

Each of you will have a different way to work this out.  There is no correct way.  For example, some people believe in literal reincarnation and some do not.   The Gita hits us hard with a lot of these problem passages right up front.  The effort to overcome them will be richly rewarded.   (I’ve coded my own personal decisions on the issues above with “D” for “Disregard”, “M” for “turn into a Metaphor”, and “E” for “makes sense when Explained”.  But that’s just me.) 

You’ll be encouraged to know that Arjuna, at the beginning of chapter 3, pretty much says to Krishna, “Are you crazy or something”.  He has some of the the same problems we do!

Now, before this turns into a lecture instead of a discussion, tell us what you think about the first two chapters.  What did you love?  What did you hate?  Does this relate to your life yet?  If so, how?  What questions would you like to ask?  What insights can you bring us from other versions you might have read? 

We would like to hear from all of you, even if it’s just to let us know you’re out there!

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.


165 Responses to “Gita Talk #4: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?”

  1. Kath says:

    I almost always fall into the metaphor club. Women marrying outside their caste? Perhaps a metaphor for the search for the masculine archetype within. I have few problems with the text, but I do remember my first reading. It was alarming. I agreed with Arjuna's concerns and arguments.

  2. Meaghan says:

    Bob – Thanks for sharing your D M E system! Love it! One of the things I've discovered along my yoga path is that even at first if you disregard some teaching, eventually you may come to realize that with more explanation you can accept it. For example, on my first reading of the Gita I took the stance that cutting myself off from all desires and pleasures just didn't make sense in my life. So I disregarded it. But later, as I learned more about the Gita and Yoga in general I was able to see how, with more explanation, this could be useful! It's a process of taking in what you're ready to accept and learn at any given moment – the rest will seep in when you're ready to receive it.

    One question I have about the first two chapters is the use of the word "heaven". In some cases I can see that heaven is being used to refer to the state of Samadhi or enlightenment. But at other times it seems to be used as an arbitrary "place you go" when you die (sort of like the common use of the word in Christian teachings). For example:

    "If you are killed, you gain heaven; triumph, and you gain the earth."


    "Driven by desire for pleasure and power, caught up in ritual, they strive to gain heaven; but rebirth is the only result of their striving"

    In the first quote, heaven seems to be a place you go when you die. But in the second quote heaven is something you must work for, using the path of yoga.

    Maybe others are confused here too? Or have some insight into the usage of "heaven"?

  3. John Morrison says:

    I think the first time I read this I did have issues with some of the content that you mentioned above. In some of the Buddhist sutras you will run into some of these things, particularly the way women are referred to. It is true that the Buddha did eventually ordain nuns – which was quite revolutionary for the time – but it was done grudgingly. In a talk I went to last year, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche raised this issue and basically said, we can disregard the cultural trappings of the time period. The Buddha had to speak in a way that his audience would be receptive to. This is why he taught in many different ways and with different methods – to match the capabilities and traditions of his audience in order to be of the greatest benefit.

    So I would think that we could do the same thing with the Gita. One needs to keep in mind that this work is something like 1,500 years old. In regards to violence, I don't think we need to take warfare literally. After all, Gandhi kept this text with him and read it constantly and of course, he was a tireless proponent of non-violence.

    If we strip it to its essence, the message of selfless service to others is what underpins the narrative itself in my opinion – it would be a tragedy to lose this message due to cultural trappings….like not noticing the beautiful view through the window because you dislike the color of the draperies….

  4. michele says:

    Oh my gosh, Jenny, I so resonate with what you are saying. I'm exhausted with all the ideas of "fighting my demons." Isn't there another way of transformation through love? I've just come from a "power vinyasa" background and at one point I felt like wow, if I just do one more chatauranga will I reach enlightenment….ugh! Richard Miller teaches that we need to sit and embrace our demons that they are here to teach us something. Personally, it seems like I am either in a state of striving or like Arjuna, giving up…

    What I love about this first section is all the discussion about "…you have the right to your actions, but never to your actions fruits.."

    What I don't like is, as Bob points out, is the no real distinction between good and evil and " have no cause to grieve for any being…"

    By the way, I watched The Legend of Bagger Vance last night and loved it—It is helping me think about concepts battling and letting go..

  5. Hi, michele. Thanks for your interesting comment. I have some thoughts on this, but let's see what others have to say first.

  6. freesoul says:

    I so can relate w/Michele, when you say "you have no cause to grieve for any being…" that just got to me, I had to read chapter two a few times and then I was ready to bag the whole book. I kept thinking how can I turn off my emotions so easily. And especially if I had to put myself in Arjuna's place and go fight against family. And of course, the whole war thing got to me. For some reason, when I read the Gita, I keep reading it literary. But its not like any other ancient poem, the Odyssey for example or an Ibsen play, if you take them too literary, you are lost in meaning, context, and period.

    Another line that rang true to me, in Chapter one, "What good is kingship, or happiness, or life itself, when those for whose sake we desire them….stand here in battle ranks, ready to give up their fortunes and their lives." So many times I watch as egos get in the way for cause and in the end what spoils does the victor come home with? Or the fruits of one's actions!

    I never realized that a book would bring up so much discomfort for me.

  7. callah says:

    I actually quite liked the first 2 chapters. As a newcomer, my only knowledge on what the Gita would be about was gleaned through the intro, which as I previously commented jumped around a bit too much for my taste.
    However, I found the reading to flow very easily, and keep me interested through the pages of prose. I liked on p. 58 how the cycle of desire, anger and confusion perpetuates itself and continues until you are "self-controlled" with neither craving nor aversion.
    I can see how these texts can be off-putting to some, with the constant references to the Lord and God since Krishna is a main "character", if you will, in the book. I myself am slightly uncomfortable with this. I was raised Catholic, and currently my beliefs are in limbo as I decide where I really stand. Because of my own uncertainty, I have quite strong reactions to the constant references and I'm not quite sure if I'm going to get more accustomed to that. How do other people feel about this?

  8. […] Gita Talk #4: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First? […]

  9. Greg says:

    Absolutely brilliant chapters. Lays it right on the line. Truth writ large. Golden words. The "as it is" story.

    No need to ignore or metaphor. To do so would be to lose the truth in the thicket. If we choose to ignore or metaphor is it a demon that drives us into the thickets? How do we sit with the fear and not move but rather allow Krishna to pervade us?

    And to explain…oh, my. Does one dare try? As a result of practice the verses become crystal clear. Not sure there is any way to such clarity through discourse. (????)

    How would one explain when what has been explained by Krishna is rejected through ignore and metaphor? What more could one say? Very much puzzled. Which is excellent. Every day, literally, I face this question — how does one explain?

    Does anyone really want explanation, I wonder? Perhaps it is discovering "handles" one can offer that another can grab hold of and pull on…or pitons hammered into the rock so others can attach their ropes as they climb.

    Is it a matter of a positive explanation or, as the Buddha taught, a series of negative propositions that invite us to strip away that which is not true? Krishna takes this route as well. Arjuna points to that to which he clings and Krishna says, over and over, that is not Self. Release attachment. That is not Self.


  10. Janaki says:

    Wow! This post is very deep and you make some great points

    I will make a humble attempt to try and answer how I view why Arjuna must fight and kill his own family. This is one of the most powerful moments in the Gita. Arjunas reaction might be the first recorded panic attack! He also tries to become a contentious objector and refuses to fight. But what Krishna is really waiting to hear is for Arjuna to ask for help! Krishna cannot intervene with teachings until asked… Just as we can not grow and move forward spiritually unless we too come to the point of realizing that we don't know and seek help or deeper meaning.

    I see the family members representing our desires and our attachments to our own desires. To me this is how hard it is to cut our own ego and desires because we love them so much…. We really are completely unaware of how deep these attachments run and we refuse to let go of them. they cause us much suffering and pain.

    Om Peace!

  11. Sevapuri says:

    This is the first Gita and I have read and i have read a few that is in poem form without any commentaries. At first this was hard to wrap my head around as i was sort of exspecting an explanation to each verse as has been the method in other Gitas, but i am loving Mitchells style and its like I'm hearing the Gita for the first time.I can see how the Gitas statements about war and about women cause some consternation when reading it straight like it is and also i can see the value in the commentaries that can quickly give and explantion or viewpoint of the commentator about these issues.
    Mitchell's style lends itself to developing an independant understanding of the scripture and i was struck by the Gitas idea that "the scriptures dwell in duality" is this a hint on how to read the Gita or is the Gita beyond duality or beyond being a scripture?

  12. Sevapuri says:

    Callah raised a good point about using the word God and Lord and i had the same reaction when i first came to yoga, my teacher would talk about God this and God that and I remember one night thinking to myself if he mentions God again I'm walking out. This made me think about my view of God and i found it was a very one dimensional Catholic viewpoint, so i stared to explore this and my relationship to the God spoken about in Yoga and it did take some time before i felt that this seperation of Catholic God, Yoga God, whatever God you got is the thing that kept me stuck in my thinking about my own spirituality. Krishnas statements about no matter who you are, all come to me, and his explanation of who he is helped me understand that there is no differance in Gods all are one.

  13. lennonlover says:

    thanks. this is so interesting. i always heard people saying things like 'the gita will change your life!' and when I finally read it, I did not really like it…….or understand it… now I realize why.

  14. Hi, Seva. Now that the Australian contingent is up, I guess I'll have to stay up all night!

    Great to have you here. Thanks for your very interesting comment. My answer to your question about the duality of scriptures? The Gita is definitely a scripture, but one designed to take you beyond all scriptures.

    I think that one of the many startling aspect of the Gita–it sows the seeds for its own irrelevance! And it means it.

    Bob Weisenberg

  15. Kath says:

    My discomfort is always rooted in discomfort with me, myself, and I. Each character is a part of me. Their conflicts are the conflicts I feel or deny within. And each reading of the Gita shows me a glimpse of a different part of myself. It is never the same book twice because I am never the same person reading it.

  16. freesoul says:

    While rereading chapters one and two this morning, I came across p.52 "but if you refuse the call to a a righteous war…" how do you know it's a righteous war? Same page "And your enemies will sneer and mock you: "The might Arjuna, that brave man he slunk from the field like a dog." What deeper shame could there be?" I have issue here, it seems Krishna is egging Arjuna on to fight for the pride of it. Praise, and ego, who cares what other's think about Arjuna fighting or not?

  17. Jenny says:

    Paul Reeder died yesterday.

    He was my first Bhagavad Gita teacher, a deep and wild man of enthusiasm and passion for yoga and the Bhagavad Gita and life and beyond.

    Namaste, Paul. Say hey to Krishna.

  18. Scott says:

    Bob – thanks for the short-hand DME. This is exactly how I tend to read most of these types of books. One thing that has bothered me though is that I don't think the author(s) of the Gita were using the war as metaphor. The Gita was written during a long period of "civil" wars when leaders and fighters repeatedly faced the dilemma of killing family members who ended up on the other side. Assuming that the book was not intended as a metaphor, it could very well be understood as one more example of the powerful using people's religious beliefs to manipulate them to do their dirty work for them. God and country anyone? If this is so, does it not bring into question the validity of the rest of the book? How many "M"s get turned into "D"s before we are forced to question the whole thing? Where is truth found in it if we simply interpret it to meet our own pre-conceived, culturally-bound dispositions?

  19. I'm certainly all for reading things metaphorically, even when they're not intended as metaphor, since I think the experience of reader-interacting-with-text is what really counts.

  20. paramsangat says:

    Hi all,
    I just got to know about this Gita Talk and made the order of this translation of the Gita..It has been on my "list" for quite a while because I've heard its an easy-to-digest version…. so please let it be that way .. (didnt like the versions Ive read…ugh..)
    Looking forward to my book in the mail,

  21. Vanita says:

    Thanks for the great discussion, everyone.

    I always reject 2.57 and sentiments like it. "who neither grieves or rejoices if good or bad things happen'.

    It conjurs up images of Stepford wives, mothers, friends….. fill in the blank.
    For me, I prefer – greive for a moment, rejoice for a moment, then accept it and move on.

    Lucky for me "on this path no effort is wasted.. "(2.40). There is hope, yet.

  22. lindsayyoga says:

    First time reader here. So, a few things I noticed while reading these two chapters:

    I definitely appreciate that there is no commentary inserted into the reading. That drives me bonkers.

    I immediately related to Arjuna, his questions, his struggle.

    The imagery of this moment "As Arjuna sat there, downcast, between the two armies, Krishna smiled at him, then spoke these words" struck me. It seemed odd to smile in the midst of impending battle, however, I was intrigued by this image and found myself feeling sort of smitten with Krishna and his mysterious smile which I imagined to be a lot like the Mona Lisa. Was it amusement? Arrogance? Divine Love?

    Still processing a lot of it and trying not to get hung up on language and literalization. I am drawn to the story for sure.

    Yep, smitten.

  23. Please be sure to see Gita God and Gita Emotions: A Highlight Reel if you haven't already.

    Also, if you would prefer to have a one-on-one Facebook discussion about any Gita Talk issue, just send me a direct message on Facebook.

    Bob Weisenberg

  24. Trimurti Buddha

    The majority of the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed during period 200 BC – 200 AD, and the Pali canon of Buddhist lore (Tripitaka) was formalized. In the face of declining influence, Brahmana accepted the profitable suggestion made by Gautama himself, that the sacrifice of alms-giving to holy men is preferable to animal sacrifice. The Buddhist assertion that Moksha can only be attained through true perception was also accepted, leading to a new form of Brahmin worship (Puja), involving direct sight (Darshana) of the deity and alms giving (Dakshina) to Brahmana.

    Village deities and legends were Sanskritized, and (by c. 50 BC) each was assimilated, according to characteristics, under one head of a new Brahmanic trinity, which deifies the three Gunas as:

    Brahma (the unmanifest creator)
    Vishnu (the protector of manifest creation)
    Shiva (the cause of change ~ creation and destruction)

  25. Brenda P. says:

    Apropos of nothing…or maybe everything. In today's NYTimes there is an article about the New Delhi Metro, which appears to be a smashing success–clean, on time, on budget, inexpensive to ride.

    The project manager, Mr. Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, has been praised as fearless and incorruptible. He has assigned the Bhagavad Gita as required reading to his managers. (“It is a management text,” he said of the book, which is taken from the Mahabharata, an epic poem at the heart of Hindu philosophy. “It is the story of how to motivate an unmotivated person.” )

    Management text…hmmm.

  26. Sanjaya Yogi says:

    Sruti and Smriti

    First, Śruti, as sacred literature, needs to be seen against the background of culture. World-wide, sacred literature, such as the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita – all will lose some of their meaning if not studied in the context of the time, language, and the culture in which they were initially conveyed to spiritual aspirants. The sacred literature is also subject to interpretation through translation to other languages, and the commentaries and language also need to be seen as a product of the translator's and readers culture and language.

    Smṛti, also served as a form of transferring common law in the form of stories, and literature, to help educate people in the manner of correct living. Once again, each of the modes of sugsequent translation, language and culture of both the translator, and reader will play a certain role in the interpretation and understanding of that which is heard and or read.

    The Bhagavad Gita, as part of the greater story of the Mahabharata, serves the reader to convey the reader to a sense of the role of the individual in the greater context of society, and also as a way to reminder to the reader of the greater purposes of life. In the Bhagavad Gita, there is the external context, and the inner message to direct the individual to the meaning and practice of yoga.

    Yoga, as a way of life and philosophical system is inherently without a cultural context, though historically its roots may be traced to India and possibly beyond. With Sanskrit, as the language, and Hinduism, as the cultural backdrop, the Bhagavad Gita is naturally colored by its cultural context and language. Once stripped of the cultural context and examined against the philosophy of yoga, the true message is revealed. It is often helpful to study the Gita with a teacher and or within a group of yoga practioners who understand the fundamental practices and precepts of yoga as a way of life and a philosophy. Much of the external language is then stripped away and the core messages of the Gita are revealed.

    It is also important to remember that the daily study of the Bhagavad Gita is a fundamental aspect of the way of yoga life and the method of study is important as well to truly understand the Gita. Gandhi even used the Gita as a way of improving his memory by memorizing the Gita in parts daily.

    Read the Bhagavad Gita daily.

    Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

  27. Lorraine says:

    Without a doubt, I had trouble reading these first two chapters. Even taking into consideration the time period and culture, it is still difficult for me. The 2nd chapter seems to be speaking about reincarnation and Krishna seems to be telling Arjuna that death doesn't really matter because all will be reborn. My first thought was, Where is the compassion?

    I don't understand the passage….

    "Indifferent to gain or loss,
    to victory or defeat,
    prepare yourself for the battle
    and do not succumb to sin."

    Is Krishna referring to Arjuna's refusal to stand and fight as being sin??

    Regarding action for action's sake, without regard to results…this goes against my own personal beliefs. Before acting, I always try to think ahead to avoid making a potential mistake or to avoid hurting someone. But Krishna is saying to act without grieving or rejoicing, without worrying if good or bad things happen. This is difficult for me. As a human being, I have feelings and I always do my best to act compassionately.

    Overall, I am enjoying this reading very much. I have read through Chapter 5 and it does get better!

  28. bethany says:

    I loved the concept of fighting the familiar. I see it as a metaphor as well. Personally, I feel this is what it is like to let go of a harmful addiction. The familiarity of addiction almost disguises it as good, a part of oneself. When you learn that killing off what has become like a family member or essential part of yourself is necessary, you can gain the courage it takes to walk away from a life that is not serving you.

  29. paramsangat says:

    Done with he first two chapters… :)
    * Tell us what you think about the first two chapters? : As a whole, enlightning,I liked it.
    * What did you love? I loved the clear text and the division with "the blessed Lord"/"Arjuna"/"Poet", made it delightful to read (insead of a confused read)
    * What did you hate? Nothing really, but the long row of names in the beginning makes me lil uncomfy 😉
    * Does this relate to your life yet? If so, how? Maybe you can say it relates. From meditation practice I feel much more comfy with all kinds of situation and not that cought up in details. Feels more like we are eternal and not as vunerable as we think we are. things aren't "that" serious.. take it lightly and being more playful makes life great :)

    (cont on next)

  30. paramsangat says:

    * What questions would you like to ask? I'm just asking myself (from the Intro) why Mitchell tought it wasnt a great idea with the war situation.. but I might have read that lil carelessly.. I'll look back at it again. I mean, its a great way of concluding that we are eternal.. not even a war is a big thing.
    * What insights can you bring us from other versions you might have read? I cant remember the other ones… too hard to grasp.. well I remember now when I read this one.. but mostly becasue I attended class about it during yoga trainings..otherwise I'll probably dropped the whole thing all together.. 😉
    I remember now though, I have acctually read a commentary I enjoyed. It was a talk of Osho, I only got hold of the 1st book (fisrt 4 chapters of the Gita commented on) and I didnt know it was on the Gita when I bought it. But it was a good one I recall now.

  31. Deb B says:

    What a relief to know I'm not alone in struggling to get through the first 2 chapters! My struggle was much less about the the content and more about the format.

    I was not put off by the (seemingly) significant cultural differences (i.e. women are corrupt for marrying outside of their caste). And I say "seemingly", because our current day society does include different all sorts of chauvinism, bigotry, you name it…we're just programed not to admit to harboring any biases that are not 100% politically correct. Although I'm not suggesting this is "good", it just "is", and at least in Gita-times they made no pretenses to be anything other than what they were – a caste system. Again, not saying this is good, and I understand why it can be off-putting….but I believe it's a bit unfair to judge societies' norms from very different times in history…perhaps folks from the Gita-era would judge us just as harshly for charging people money to practice yoga?

    Anyway, I digress from my point which is to share why I did/do struggle with the Gita. I tend to learn best sequentially, with direct facts. I find metaphors, poetry and stories as a learning method distracting to my learning of concepts. So while I adore the Sutra's concise verbiage that allows me to apply the concepts to my own stories; in contrast, I had to keep re-reading the Gita's dialogue until I found the gems that resonated with me. However, there are endless "gems" in the Gita and it was well worth sticking with it!!

    Thank you, Bob for this fantastic forum and for encouraging me to dust off my Gita and remember why I love it.

    Your friend and co-Yoga in America editor,

  32. Hello! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I really enjoy reading through your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Thanks!

  33. […] Gita Talk #4: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First? […]

  34. Allen F Mackenzie says:

    Check out ''Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's commentary on The Bhagavad Gita''. His commentary is most enlightening.

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