The Bhagavad Gītā:
Jewel of India
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few Eastern classics have had as significant an influence on the globe as the Bhagavad Gītā.
The Bhagavad Gītā is probably the single best-known text of India. Generally dated to the last few centuries before Christ, it synthesizes the immense variety of traditions in Hinduism, and has influenced all those traditions in turn.
The complex themes of the Gītā can be imperfectly summarized as follows. All living things have a soul: immortal, destined for union with the Godhead (or Brahman). The material world as we know it is an kind of illusion or play, māyā, and, in mistaking it for reality and thus becoming attached to it, creatures become subject to suffering, because māyā is transient while they are eternal. They also fall under the law of karma, a cosmic principle of cause and effect which results in reincarnation. Through various paths, souls can liberate themselves from their attachment to māyā and attain union with the Godhead. The best of these paths, according to the Gītā, is that of religious devotion to Krishna, one of Brahman’s avatars—periodic earthly manifestations that provide guidance and protection to his worshipers. (The parallels between this form of Hinduism and Christianity, though incomplete, have drawn substantial attention from students of comparative religion.)
The history of the Bhagavad Gītā in Europe and the Americas is comparatively recent: the first English translation was completed in 1785, with versions in languages such as French, German, and Russian coming out over the next several years. However, its influence, both philosophical and literary, has been substantial. Arthur Schopenhauer helped introduce several Hindu concepts into Western philosophy, particularly that of māyā; he sought relief and transcendence through asceticism and aesthetic contemplation. His philosophical synthesis, The World as Will and Idea, had a major impact on several figures on our author bank, including Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Jung, and Borges.
On the literary and cultural side, the imagery of the Gītā has had a smaller but significant presence. T. S. Eliot drew on it in his poetry, notably for The Waste Land and Four Quartets; and J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the Gītā after the successful Trinity test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” At a more popular level, the Gītā was a major force in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
But the Gītā‘s influence on Mahatma Gandhi, another name on our author bank, may be its most important contribution to world history to date. Gandhi’s praxis of nonviolent resistance to British colonial rule helped the independence movement of India achieve self-rule, while averting what could easily have proven a third world war. He attributed the decision to use nonviolent means to the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gītā, and went on to inspire Martin Luther King Jr.‘s activism and advocacy in the American South.