Why Is the Bhagavad Gita So Upsetting At First? (Gita Talk 3)

Via Bob Weisenberg
on Sep 4, 2011
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This week 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. Some versions 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 can be the commentary, which is sometimes harder to understand than the text itself and can get very technical.

This, of course, is fine and appropriate for someone approaching the Gita from a scholarly perspective.  But it can be a serious obstacle for many readers, especially new readers.

The Mitchell version overcomes these obstacles. 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!

Reading for next week is Chapters 3-4, thru p. 80.

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Previous Blogs In This Series (latest first):

It’s Showtime. Please Start Talking All At Once! (Gita Talk 2)

Falling Head-Over-Heels In Love with the Universe. (Gita Talk 1)

Ten (mostly funny) reasons to read the Bhagavad Gita.

Ongoing Resources:

Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations

The Original Sixteen Session Gita Talk

Yoga Demystified (free eBook)


Join Gita Talk Facebook Group for weekly notices
and to meet fellow participants.


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.


67 Responses to “Why Is the Bhagavad Gita So Upsetting At First? (Gita Talk 3)”

  1. John_Newman says:

    [PART FOUR:] Much of what the author(s) are really driving at has nothing to do with literal war. The war in the Bhagavad Gita is a metaphorical war and I will make a separate post to discuss that point for there is much more that needs to be said about that. Furthermore, the author(s) of the Gita are careful NOT to have Krishna endorse Arjuna’s argument against the intermingling of castes. When they do get around to having Krishna discuss the caste system in Chapter Four, the taboo against intermingling is noticeably missing. The Gita’s author(s) instead have Krishna refer back to the actions of seekers in the ancient caste system and have Krishna instruct Arjuna to “perform action, as did the ancients in olden times.” (4:15)

  2. John_Newman says:

    [PART FIVE:] Later I will address in more detail about how the caste system degenerated from one in which there was social mobility between castes into one where social mobility had disappeared and how yoga changed with this development into a more utilitarian practice in India. On the yoga side, the short version goes like this. The authors of the Gita have Krishna refer to a more ancient form of yoga than existed during the first century BCE. Krishna claims that the true meaning of the yoga he introduced to mankind at the beginning of civilization has been lost:
    2Thus handed down in regular succession, the royal sages knew it. This Yoga, by long lapse of time, declined in this world, O burner of foes [Arjuna]. 3I have this day told thee that same ancient Yoga, (for) thou [Arjuna] art My devotee, and My friend, and this secret is profound indeed. (4:2-3)
    The author(s) of the Bhagavad Gita claims to know about this “secret” archaic form of yoga. The inference is clear: the yoga of Indian scriptures has deteriorated and is not as “profound” as this “ancient yoga.”

  3. John_Newman says:

    [PART SIX:] In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita (6:46), Krishna explicitly describes yogis as “superior” to those who practice asceticism and have obtained wisdom from Hindu religious scriptures, and he recommends, “Therefore, be thou a Yogi, O Arjuna!” At one point (2:26), Krishna tells Arjuna that for a man who possesses knowledge of the Self, “the Vedas are of so much use as a reservoir is when there is a flood everywhere,” and he later (11:47) explains that his “own yoga power” cannot be learned from the Vedas. [END]

  4. John_Newman says:

    [PART ONE:] Scholars have long been divided over whether the Gita should be read literally or metaphorically. For me personally, the first two chapters are strong evidence for a metaphorical interpretation. As the Bhagavad Gita opens, the opposing forces in the battle are arrayed against each other on the dharmakshetrta—the field of religious duty. This alone suggests that the author(s) of the Gita has spiritual, not literal, warfare in mind.

  5. John_Newman says:

    FIRST TWO CHAPTERS PART TWO:] When Arjuna sees sees many of his own friends, family, and even famous people among the forces of the Kauravas, he puts down his bow and loses his will to fight. For anyone not versed in the ancient and highly revered Kshatriyan code of war, this hesitation makes sense and, in fact, seems quite humane and even noble in the West. But the Kshatriyan code of war is very prominent in the legends and folklore of India, and it is so important to the Kshatriyas that a prospective candidate is not considered a trained Kshatriyan until he knows how to follow this code. And the problem of Arjuna and the Gita is this: one of the most fundamental articles of the Kshatriyancode of war holds that even if one’s kinsman fights against you, you must not hesitate to defeat him.

  6. John_Newman says:

    [FIRST TWO CHAPTERS PART THREE:] As we move into Chapter Two Krishna counsels and assuages the worries of the great Pandava prince about fighting his own kin in the looming climactic battle. In order to encourage and convince Arjuna that he must uphold the path of dharma—righteous duty—through warfare, Krishna curiously expounds upon the various paths of yoga. I say curiously because the first dictum of yoga is ahimsa—nonviolence. In other words, both Krishna and Arjuna are acting in very unusual ways. I take the view that this fact, by itself, recommends an allegorical interpretation. I find this to be the case all the more so because of the Gita’s many positive, even glowing, references to ahimsa (nonviolence).

  7. John_Newman says:

    [FIRST TWO CHAPTERS PART FOUR:] I think it is important to emphasize why there is even a debate about the Bhagavad Gita as allegory in the first place. It springs not from Krishna’s advice to Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior; rather, it springs from the fact that Krishna bases his advice upon the ancient practice of yoga, whose very first imperative is ahimsa—nonviolence. That fact makes no literal sense, and reconciling the first dictum of yoga with a literal interpretation of the Gita has been the cause of much, and most often laboriously detailed, discussion.

  8. John_Newman says:

    [FIRST TWO CHAPTERS PART FIVE:] As Mahatma Gandhi realized in 1888, the meaning of the war in the Bhagavad Gitais an “internal duel” that is still going on today:
    Divine and demoniacal impulses were fighting in this body, and God was watching the fight from a distance. Please do not believe that this is the history of a battle which took place on a little field near Hastinapur. The war is still going on. This [the Gita’s first verse] is the verse we should keep in mind in order to understand the meaning of the phrase dharamakshetra, field of duty.[14]
    Thus, the Battle of Kurukshetra on the battlefield of dharmakshetra seems to indicate that the author(s) of the Gita is talking about a religious or spiritual war instead of an actual historical battle. [END]

  9. John_Newman says:

    DOES THIS RELATE TO MY LIFE?_[PART ONE:] I see Arjuna’s struggle as my struggle. The admixture is not use one of castes. I see the house of the Kauruvas as the house of my ego and the house of the Pandavas as the house of my spirit. This admixture directly parallels Jesus’ parable of The Planted Weeds (Thomas 57) in which weeds have been mixed in the “good seed” of the protagonist. Like the war depicted in the Gita, Jesus also describes a war between two houses: the house of the demon/ego (Asurikas in the Gita) and the house of the spirit. _

  10. John_Newman says:

    [RELATES TO MY LIFE PART TWO:] I know that my struggle for spiritual growth is constantly undermined by my ego: “The turbulent senses, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), do violently snatch away even the mind of a wise man striving for perfection” (2:60); “Blessings on the person who knows at what point the robbers (flaws of the ego) are going to enter” (Thomas 103). And I know that the answer in the Gita (and Jesus) is the only one: to take refuge in God and ask for help: “Say decidedly what is good for me. I am thy disciple. Instruct me who have taken refuge in Thee” (2:7) In Isvara pranidana I am succored and restored: “My thoughts are now composed and I am restored to my nature” (11:51). [END]

  11. John_Newman says:

    Hi Nicole. I ditto Bob's point in the universality of the Gita. According to the great Indian philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita represents the whole of religion “in its universality, without limit of time or space, embracing within its synthesis the whole gamut of the human spirit.” The precise religion of yoga in the Gita is reflected in the Bhagavata religion, which, as Radhakrishnan suggests, is “the religion of monotheism (ekantika).” The Isvara of the Gita is fully cognate with the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

  12. John_Newman says:

    Nice parallel Emily. I, too, am fond of the teaching “Yoga is the very dexterity of work” (2:50). In his Yoga Sutras (4:7), Pantanjali similarly explains that this kind of action is unmixed and hence free from the duality inherent in the actions of people. Iyengar takes this Sutra to be the dexterous “skill in action” of the yogis referred to in the Gita (2:50). I have found some interesting parallels to this concept in the teachings of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Thomas.

  13. vkt says:

    Bhagavad Gita is the Great Science. Some People misunderstood Bhagavad Gita and blame regarding reference to Castes, but this is not true. Check the truth below:

    As per Bhagavad Gita chapter 4 sloka 13: (4.13) – Caste is based on Occupation(work) and Qualities but not based on Birth. If oneself is in Vaisyas or Sudra caste then he can enhance his qualities and Occupation and then become Ksatriya or Brahmana. check below:

    Check the Qualities and Occupation(work) to fit in a particular caste:

    Bhagavad Gita 18.42: Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness–these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.

    Bhagavad Gita 18.43: Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.

    Bhagavad Gita 18.43: Farming, cow protection and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labor and service to others.

    If anyone wants to be Ksatriya or Brahmana then he can Giveup the qualities of Sudra and Vaisya and get the qualities of Ksatriya or Brahmana and become Ksatriya or Brahmana. This mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita itself (4.13 and chapter 18). But Every Human being and every Caste has to be given Respect.

    Once Again: Caste is not based on Birth its based on Occupation and Qualities. One should not think oneself as permanent Sudra or Vaisya caste. Always try to reach the top Qualities and work and be on the top. Everyone is the Individual Soul and everyone is Spiritual.

    (A person working as Politician or Leader cannot claim himself as Farmer if the politician is born in the Farmers(vaisya) Family or if his Father is Farmer, as Famer is Vaisya and Good Politician or Good Leader is Ksatriya)

    Anyone can take the Help of Supreme Lord Krishna and get the top Qualities and good Occupation and then become Ksatriya or Brahmana. Bhagavad Gita is the Great Science to understand the Soul, Mind, intellect, Body, Universe, controller and Eternal Truth.

  14. […] do evangelical Christians, devotees of the Bhagavad Gita and this humble elephant journal columnist have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct […]

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  16. sraavanid says:

    it's great to see so many people discussing the Gita 🙂 I am glad I found this forum here. As part of the ISKON India foundation I am reading Gita from Bhaktivedanta prabupada s version. Although I have started reading it at 30, I have been constantly reminded of these teachings from my mother (as we are from the brahmin community(Shivavaishnavas) worshipping both lord Vishnu and Shiva from my childhood.My great grandmother who was physically weak had seen Krishna's divine form in person (little krishna used to help her when it used to be dark in the evening due to Grma's poor vision). Earlier I used to raise questions over the same but later in life I have realized how lucky I am to have been under god's grace but unfortunately only opened myself completely now. Most people waste their time figuring out whether "GOD" exists or not and do not see the actual meaning of the existence of the vedas and scriptures. When I was young we used to watch Ramayana (Rama Avatar of Vishnu) and mahabharata (Krishna avatar of Vishnu) on TV but never understood the inner meaning at that age. Now I realize it is his holiness that has drawn me closer to him (Krishna). We attain this human life after several rebirths as insects, dogs, cats ..etc etc and so we should not waste our life behind materialistic things and dedicate ourselves to love one another and serve the society (teaching from Gita). I sincerely believe that all of us exposed to the Gita have done punya karma(good deeds) previously to have been drawn to this spiritual power. hence we should keep sharing and serving others in benefitting form the divinity's teachings. I would like to thank one and all of this group to have initiated this forum. I am surprised at the level of knowledge of Bob and John who are posting so much in depth about history of India. thank you again.

  17. sraavanid says:

    well said VK this is actually known as varnasrama dharma – similarly there is also sanatana dharma which explains about the teachings of Gita – this is no religion many think that this is religion – in the actual msense there ia no religion called hinduism it is known as ssnstana dharma (where it means the way of leading a righteous life).