Re-translated guides to living
Vail CO, Colorado
It seems a little bit odd to review two books originally written at least 2,000 years ago and which will certainly outlive a great majority of us in their influence on the world, yet with the re-release of translations of the “Bhagavad Gita” and the “Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali,” this is exactly what you are reading.
“The Bhagavad Gita,” released with a new interpretation and corrected translation by Stephen Mitchell, is such an important work that, even at 2,000 plus years old, it deserves a closer look. Written originally as part of The Mahabharata (although the difference in style has led some scholars to questions its original inclusion in this 100+ volume mammoth of a poem), the “Bhagavad Gita” is the story of a virtuous young man named Arjuna who is about to go into battle. Just before it begins, he goes between the two armies to compare them. Faced with the reality that so many good men are destined to die, he lays down his weapons and refuses to fight.
Fortunately, God incarnate happens to be his charioteer Krishna, so they have a nice little chat, which goes something like this:
“I don’t want to fight.”
“It’s not virtuous to give in if you are fighting for God.”
“How else then should I live my life?”
“Here, let me tell you…”
And then God incarnate goes ahead and directs Arjuna as to how he should live his life in eloquent detail.
There are certainly large sections of the “Bhagavad Gita” that should be on standardized state testing. The philosophies of being good and just, treating others well and trying your hardest are universal in their importance. A little less well-known idea, but something that is discussed at length in the story is the idea of not acting in order to receive the fruits of said actions, instead acting because what you are doing is the right thing to do. For example, don’t work 70 hours a week at a job you hate in order to buy a new Porsche. On the other hand, if you work 70 hours a week at a job that you love with a desire to do the best you can while doing the job, then by all means buy a Porsche with the money earned, just don’t do the one for the desired result.
On the opposite spectrum, there are sections which seem to be saying some incredibly worrisome things. Arjuna is about to go to battle and wants to lay his weapons down but God calls him a coward, telling him he must fight with honor because he is fighting for God. In theory then, God is saying that anyone who is fighting for what they consider right and in the name of God will be allowed to enter heaven. Remember 9/11? If the suicide bombers believed what they were doing was right, which they certainly did, and they believed that they were doing God’s will, which they certainly did, than the God in the Bhagavad Gita seems to be saying they will make it to heaven.
In addition, having been written in a time of strict Caste limitations, there is a section of the Bhagavad Gita which directs those of the poorest and most needy castes to not try to move upwards, as they are in that caste by the will of God and that is where they were meant to be. This might lead one to read with a questioning eye, curious as to who originally wrote this and what their motivation was.
The poem in general is stunningly written and is a wonderful manual for living well, written in an exciting, yet incredibly intelligent and readable manner. Regardless of who wrote it and why, there are many invaluable lessons to be learned in a poem as wondrous as the Bhagavad Gita.
The Yoga-Sutra on the other hand is very much a how and why manual for yoga practice. The actual Yoga-Sutra itself only checks in at 15 short, succinct pages, a mere tenth of what comprises this translation (read: a whole lot of interpretation, with some interspersed bonuses). Patanjali wastes no time giving the reader the main reason why yoga practice is important: it is to “still the pattern of consciousness.” Not sure what that means? Patanjali must have expected that because he does a terrific job, in only four chapters and 15 pages, explaining and breaking apart the different important aspects of yoga practice and the effects it has on the human mind and body.
Chapter one focuses on integration and pure awareness in the mind. The second chapter is a veritable laundry list of how different feelings and emotions affect our mind and body, interspersed with wisdom on exactly what pure awareness means and entails. In chapter three, Patanjali gets a little more mystical while explaining the various powers one can attain from true awareness, or consciousness (which according to him are not limited to reincarnation, levitation, transporting through thought, and the ability to acquire superhuman powers). In the final chapter, the freedom that can be obtained by following this path is explained.
Patanjali does a great job trying to explain the different things he talks about although there are definitely times where, to someone unfamiliar with some of his thinking, things can be a bit more confusing than in the Bhagavad Gita.
Andrew Fersch writes weekly book reviews for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this review to firstname.lastname@example.org.