Bhagavad-gita: A Great Book, East and West
While reading Mortimer Adler and Carl Van Doren’s classic. How to Read a Book, I was disappointed to note that the authors omitted the Bhagavad-gita from their long list of recommended Great Books for Reading. The reason for the omission: the Bhagavad-gita is not a book of the Western world.
“We are not particularly knowledgeable outside of the Western literary tradition,” admit Adler and Van Doren, “and our recommendations would carry very little weight. . . . There is also something to be said for knowing your own tradition before trying to understand that of other parts of the world.” The authors even go so far as to issue a warning. “Many persons who today attempt to read such books as the Bhagavad-gita,” they say, “are baffled.”
While this attitude is not unusual for Western scholars, I see it as narrow-minded and prejudiced. If the goal in reading great books is to gain understanding, why should we shun perhaps the greatest book of all merely because it’s “Eastern”? Actually, one who is advanced in knowledge realizes that the concept of “West and East” is artificial and ultimately invalid. The Bhagavad-gita is meant specifically to enlighten us with knowledge beyond the “West-East” limitations.
The Bhagavad-gita educates us about the self beyond the body. Whether Eastern or Western, black or white, male or female, the body is an external covering of the real self, the eternal spiritual soul. The Bhagavad-gita’s clear explanation of the individual soul and his relationship to the Supreme Soul led Henry David Thoreau to exclaim, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison to which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, another Westerner bold enough to go beyond his tradition, wrote:
I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.
Not only rare individuals like Thoreau and Emerson, but millions have transcended the narrow material identification in pursuit of better knowledge. For example, people from all over the world come to America for a technological education. Certainly such persons aren’t thinking they must confine their education to their own traditions. Similarly, vacationers, students of art, connoisseurs of cooking, purchasers of automobiles, and many others feel no difficulty in going from West to East or East to West or North to South—to wherever the prospects are better. Certainly in seeking the Absolute Truth, the most important and universal experience of all, we should not bypass the Bhagavad-gita, thinking, “It’s not in my tradition,” or that it is “baffling.”
Adler and Van Doren’s caution about the Bhagavad-gita is, in one sense, commendable. They admit that they are not authorities on the Bhagavad-gita and that one can be misled “because of the inherent difficulty of such works.” But that does not mean that there are no able guides who can unlock the mysteries of the Bhagavad-gita. Because the Bhagavad-gita is widely read and respected both in India and in the West, sometimes persons who are uninformed and unscrupulous take advantage of the Gita’s popularity to push their own philosophies, thus misleading innocent readers. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, therefore, has presented Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Srila Prabhupada’s commentaries faithfully draw from the great devotee-scholars of the past, and since Prabhupada is himself a pure devotee of Krsna, Bhagavad-gita As It Is allows Lord Krsna’s message to shine forth, untainted by mundane interpretation. Received in its pure form, the Bhagavad-gita is not difficult, baffling, or in any way inappropriate for the Western mind.
The Bhagavad-gita explains that we transmigrate from one body to another, life after life; we may be born in the West or in the East, in the human species or in the animal species. And in whatever material body we find ourselves, we always incur suffering from material nature. As long as we continue to identify ourselves as belonging to a particular culture based on our bodily designation, we will continue to transmigrate and suffer within the material nature. Only when we realize our transcendental self in relation to God, or Krsna, can we be free from all suffering. Thinking of oneself as a Westerner (or Easterner), therefore, is a dangerous misconception.
Once, Srila Prabhupada was invited to speak before a group of academicians on the topic “East and West.” Srila Prabhupada, however, disdained the topic, explaining that in the realm of Absolute Truth such distinctions are inapplicable. The sun, for example, cannot be said to be Western or Eastern; the sun is the sun, wherever it appears. Similarly, gold is gold, whether it is mined in America or India. And certainly the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the God of all living beings, regardless of their culture or tradition.
Srila Prabhupada did acknowledge one significant difference between East and West. From his own experience, he said, he had found that in the West even a university professor knew nothing about the science of life after death, whereas in India, even the common man was aware that his present life is due to his past karma and that his present actions determine his next life.
This knowledge—the knowledge of Bhagavad-gita—is universal. Lord Krsna spoke to all humanity; He never said He was instructing only Hindus or only Easterners. Of course, the Bhagavad-gita was first introduced in India, and so that culture is enriched with a tradition familiar with the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita.
Yet Bhagavad-gita is for all people. Humbly, we should put aside our Western chauvinism and exclusive Great Books lists and accept the timeless wisdom of Lord Krsna’s Bhagavad-gita.—SDG