Reviewing Richard H. Davis’ The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography, Wendy Doniger reminds us that the holy text “incorporates into its seven hundred verses many different sorts of insights, which people use to argue many different, often contradictory, ideas.” She notes that they can roughly be divided into two categories, “the warrior’s Gita, about engaging in the world, and the philosopher’s Gita, about disengaging.” It’s the latter that featured most prominently in the Western imagination:
When Friedrich Schlegel translated a third of the Gita into German in 1808, he left out the battlefield, Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about work and duty, his teachings about bhakti, and his terrifying manifestation in his Doomsday form. When Hegel, writing in 1827, criticized the Gita for advocating what he saw as a withdrawal and isolation from the world, a passive immersion into the brahman, he did not mention that the martial, interventionist Krishna became personally embodied on what Davis calls “a real Indian battlefield, in order to persuade a warrior to engage in worldly combat.” And so the Gita in Europe fell into disrepute and, for a while, obscurity.
The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the WilkinsGita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.
(Image: A manuscript illustration of the battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the Mahabharata, via Wikimedia Commons)