09 September 2007

Bhagavad Gita

I just finished reading the translation of the Bhagavad Gita that we are using in my philosophy class. Apparently, it's more a rendering than a translation, as Mitchell admits that his Sanskrit is "rudimentary." Sifting through the reviews at Amazon was interesting. There are the "it's wonderful" reviews, the "it's pretty good, but..." reviews and the "this is a horrible translation" reviews. I can't judge the translation. I can say that, in this rendering, there is a great deal of overlap with Zen and Taoist thought, and Mitchell admits that he finds the Tao te Ching a superior text to the Gita. Now, in my own studies, I have found certain similarities between many of the Asian traditions, but I suspect that Mitchell may have overemphasized them in this book. At some point, I should compare it with my other translation of the Gita.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book. Like Mitchell, my bias is towards the Tao te Ching, but I think there is a lot of good material in the Gita as well. It's ostensibly about Arjuna, a warrior about to lead his people into battle. He's having second thoughts. He knows many of the people on the enemy-side. Krishna, an incarnation of the All, appears to give him a pep-talk. But the pep-talk is a philosophical discourse, with a discussion of Krishna's true nature and the destiny of all humans. The primary problem I have is the assumption of caste. Arjuna is a warrior, therefore he must go to war: it is his duty. My least favorite statement is, "It is better to do your own duty badly than to perfectly do another's." [18.47]

For those who don't know, castes are a big deal in India. People are born into their professions, their duties. "Officially," the system was abolished (I think that was under British rule; I could be wrong), but unofficially it still holds a great deal of power over people. Richard was telling me about some Indian students in the engineering department. One of them was a hereditary Brahmin (priestly class). The others were not. They were all offered a room to use (as an office), if they would clean it up. The Brahmin would not stoop to such menial work, so the others did all the cleaning. They were awarded keys to the room; the Brahmin was not. But pretty soon he, too, had a copy; the others had given it to him. For a broader example, just this year, most (maybe all) of the "untouchables" (non-caste Indians) converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, to escape from their low-rank status.

At any rate, I don't care for the idea of fixed castes. There are other ideas in the Gita that are admirable, even beautiful, but the idea that you are born to a certain duty and must carry that duty out is too...fatalistic for me.

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