Writing a book report hasn't been something I have done in years; yet it is a requirement of my teacher training program. Here is the first book report on The Bhagavad Gita.
Back in 2017 when I was starting my formal yoga teacher training with the Yoga Association of Alberta (YAA), I was presented the book, The Bhagavad Gita. It was at one of my first workshops with people I hardly knew. One teacher in training who was in my small discussion group, was rattled and unsure, if not outright dismissive, about of the Bhagavad Gita. She proceeded to tell me that it was about war and fighting and she just could not understand why it was a required reading for yoga teacher training. Her Christian upbringing (and lens) struggled with comprehending why we would need to study war and violence.
Unfortunately, this set the scene for me. I too stay away from violence and all things war-like sense. Avoiding violent television, terrorizing news stories, and sometimes conflict in general. I have no love for war.
So when I was expected to read a book about war, I was resistant to say the least.
Further into my YAA workshops, I was presented again with the ideas of The Bhagavad Gita. It was through Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation, The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishn’s Counsel in the Time of War, that I slowly began to consider the book in a new light. We were to read an excerpt from the Introduction and I soon realized that my earlier experience was not the lens I needed to look through with this book.
I purchased Stoler Miller’s translation and decided to start from there.
Then, and let’s be honest, the book sat on my shelf for months. Until it showed up again at a workshop. I finally said to myself, it is time to read it.
Having committed to read it, I usually don’t take half measures so I also bought two additional translations to guide me along. Realizing that one version, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-Gita: was close to one thousand pages, I soon decided to stick with only two versions, Stoler Miller’s translation and Stephen Mitchell’s translation, Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. It boggles my mind how one text is translated by so many; with the translations themselves presenting the contents in differently. I felt that reading more than one version might help me understand what this ‘story of war’ was all about.
My strategy was to read one translation chapter and then the other. I always started with Stoler Miller and followed it with Mitchell. And here is what I found:
First and foremost, the book is set on the battlefield of Kuruksheta where the Dandavas are ready to fight the Kauravas. These two separate groups are cousins and they are fighting to secure power. Arjuna, the main character is plagued with the struggle of whether or not to fight his family. In the eighteen teachings, Arjuna is discussing this struggle with his chariot driver, Krishna. Krishna is the incarnation of the cosmic power and is there to support Arjuna on the battlefield.
As I read through the verses, it becomes apparent that I will not be bombarded with violent passages and terrorizing words. Instead it is a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna moments before the war may begin. The struggle is real but it is actually the struggle from within that the book is really about.
Over the many chapters, Arjuna is constantly asking questions of Krishna, who is responding from a place of all knowing. He in fact is a true representation of the Source, God, Almighty and Self; how ever is the preferred way to say the Supreme Being. Arjuna starts in the first teaching with a complete and utter disgust with fighting. He states “I see no good in killing my kinsmen in battle” (1.31). His grief is evident.
In the second teaching, Krishna is encouraging Arjuna to fight. Krishna points to reincarnation and it is the first time Krishna presents the idea of detachment from the outcome. He states “be intent on action, not on the fruits of action” (2.47). An interesting perspective, Krishna uses an analogy to withdraw your senses just like a tortoise in its shell (2.58). Arjuna is still not convinced.
As I read the subsequent teachings, I decided the key message of the book, “relinquishing the fruits of action” (5.12) is presented numerous times in different ways, during the initial teachings. A true demonstration that Arjuna was not ready to hear the message the first time nor likely the fifth time, Krishna continues to state his message in various ways.
Krishna continues to answer Arjuna’s queries and begins to thread in to their discussion who he really is. “I am the source of everything and everything proceeds from me” (10.8). By introducing himself to Arjuna, Krishna begins to emphasize that all actions are the instrument of him. So much so that Krishna states “they are already killed by me” (11.33) and putting Arjuna’s mind at rest that in fact it is his duty to fight his family as it is the act of the Supreme Being.
Ancient teachings on Nature’s Qualities begin to show up in the latter part of the book when Krishna share the three Gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas). Throughout the second half of the book, each quality is explored in great detail, particularly related to knowledge, action and agent. “When one is free of individuality and his understanding is untainted, even if he kills these people, he does not kill and is not bound.” (18.17). In the final teaching, after much discussion and contemplation, Arjuna says “my doubt dispelled, ready to act on your words” (18.73) and he decides to proceed with a war.
I hadn’t expected to read about the Gunas. It wasn’t until I read some of Mitchell’s translation that I realized in fact that was what I was reading. Stoler Miller uses completely different terms for the three qualities. I even had to write out the words and link them to the Gunas to solidify my understanding!
While reading The Bhagavad Gita, I was washed over with peace of mind and calm. As Krishna speaks, he represents the being that I believe we are all looking for. The one thing we can’t understand as humans has been speaking through the The Bhagavad Gita for centuries! When in fact I was initially apprehensive about the book, I gained so much insight and resolve by reading it. As one senior yoga teacher said, The Bhagavad Gita is a love poem.
I get it now.
I look forward to reading my two (and maybe three) books again and again. The translations bring to life the real internal struggle. And the words give the reader solace in the fact that we are not alone in this journey of life.
More study. More reading to come,
Aspiring Yoga Teacher
I've practiced yoga since I was a pre-teen and have always found it to keep me centered. I will be a teacher one day and this is my journey to discover teaching and practice.