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. 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.

  2. paramsangat says:

    thanks for telling me this, I'm glad you enjoy my answers.
    I'm enjoying this Gita Talk so I'm greatful you started it, and I'm really happy to find it joyous to read this time 🙂

    Well, that War thing.
    It comes back to one of the points in the Gita, that we are eternal.
    When you acctually get into a mind which KNOWS that we are, then things like that are just "action"…so…enjoy it while you are might win, you might not.. but as the Gita says: if you win, great!… and if you just return to "me" (to the Source ..or what you want to call it). If you are a warrior, then fight.
    If in a role play or a computer game you would be a warrior.. would you not fight? You would of course. And then, if you would die.. then "ehhhh ehhhh Game Over" 🙂 but you'll get more chances..

    The life we live is very REAL, so its not a stange thing to feel akward about this thing. But I think the way to feel ok about it is to try to imagine how it would look like to someone really believing that we ARE eternal. (and not mixing that up with the own fear of.."..but.. what if we are not..??")

    I also found the reference of that thing in the Intro where Mitchell comments about the War. He refers to Tao Te Ching's view when he says "even a buddah would enlist for a war agaist Hitler".
    I think thats still missing the point of "eternalness". If we are , then we are. And all is like a computer game. VERY real it seams, well made (apprechiating that hahaha), but still is game..(or would be, according to Gita)

  3. paramsangat says:

    (continued)… o and by the way…
    If you acctually were the one with the mind KNOWING that we are eternal…that death is only like a "Game Over" on your screen,,..evn though the life you live seems as real as it is… wouldnt you fall-head-over-heals-in-love-with -the-Universe"…?? 🙂

  4. Very interesting, paramsangat. I love the way you think.

    Here's something else to think about. To me personally, being eternal is not a matter of belief (as you put it "What if we are" and "What if we aren't") but rather a matter of objective fact. In the same way as a wave is objectively also the ocean, no questions asked, each of us is objectively and even physically part of the universe.

    It's just a matter of how you look at the wave, not a matter of belief. For me this was the single most important breakthrough in my absorbing Yoga philosophy. I don't have to "believe" in anything. I just have to be aware of reality.

    If you were a wave in the ocean
    And someone asked you what you are
    Would you answer
    “I am a wave”
    or would you answer
    “I am the ocean”?

    (from Coming to Terms with Infinite Joy)

    Bob Weisenberg

  5. paramsangat says:

    Thats a great way of putting it, thank you!

    When I put up those "what if we are" etc is to be able to understand where others might come from in their thinking here. And also where I have come from, "before meditation". I have this wave/ocean perspective now after a regular meditation, so it feels like fact to me now. Well, it is fact to me. Might not be for someone else. But for me, now, it is. And I love it that way.

    Thanks for the Quote from "…Infinite Joy" 🙂

  6. Hi, mletag.

    Thanks for this very interesting and insightful comment. It really made me appreciate the metaphor of the setting more, which I had gotten in the habit of just ignoring. You made it fresh in my mind again.

    Bob Weisenberg

  7. 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,

  8. Great to have you here, Deb. Thanks for your very interesting insights.

    Please continue to write comments as you work through Gita Talk. And I'm very interested in getting as much feedback as possible on how Gita Talk works as a self-paced online seminar. All suggestions welcome. I will continue to tweek it to make it a useful as possible to all readers.

    Bob W.

  9. 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!

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

  11. Allen F Mackenzie says:

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