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How to Live When Life and Death Are Not Real

BHAGAVAD GITA: A New Translation; By Stephen Mitchell; Harmony Books; $20, 224 pages


The two forces have assembled, ready to engage in battle. The sides are split, bitter, but they are also linked by blood. Brother prepares to kill brother. Surveying the field, Prince Arjuna is stricken with doubt and sadness. He cries out, "No good can come from killing my own kinsmen in battle," and then he flees. But his charioteer, who is the god Krishna in disguise, comes to his side. "Although you mean well, Arjuna / your sorrow is sheer delusion. / Wise men do not grieve / for the dead or for the living."

So begins one of the world's great religious poems, the "Bhagavad Gita," or "Song of the Blessed One." The "Gita" has been adopted in recent years as one of the seminal texts of Hinduism and treated, especially by Westerners, as an icon of Eastern spirituality. In light of that, Stephen Mitchell, whose "Tao Te Ching" was a bestseller, offers a new version of this ancient text. Surprisingly, what he presents isn't actually a translation. He admits that his knowledge of Sanskrit is "rudimentary," and so he builds on translations done by others.

Mitchell's general take on the text is clear from his introduction. He sees the "Gita" as a poem that tackles the central question of "How should we live?" He then elaborates. "It is an instruction manual for spiritual practice and a guide to peace of heart. . . . The 'Gita' is a love song to reality, a hymn in praise of everything excellent and beautiful and brave." Time and again, his rendition evokes just that.

The "Gita" is a dialogue spoken against the backdrop of war, but it doesn't address the outcome of this battle, nor is it primarily interested in the events that led to it. For that, one would need to read the "Mahabharata," an immensely long epic, of which the "Gita" is but one small, albeit powerful, part.

The key to the "Gita" is the principle of non-attachment, which has entered our culture in the phrase "letting go." As Krishna says to Arjuna, "When a man has let go of attachments / when his mind is rooted in wisdom / everything he does is worship / and his actions melt away." The key is understanding that most of what we think we know is, in fact, an illusion. Life and death are not real.

"If you think that this Self can kill / or think that it can be killed / you do not understand reality's subtle ways." The goal, Krishna says, is to learn balance, to follow the path of moderation and yoga, to love God and to be released from the endless cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. "When a man gives up all desires / that emerge from the mind, and rests / contented in the Self by the Self / he is called a man of firm wisdom. . . . That is the divine state, Arjuna. / Absorbed in it, everywhere, always / even at the moment of death / he vanishes, into God's bliss." The "Gita" ends in the spirit, but we know from the "Mahabharata" that Arjuna returns to the field and proceeds with the slaughter, now fortified in the belief that life and death are illusions. This outcome is one that most Westerners, and not a few Indians, have preferred to downplay.

In an appendix, Mitchell adds an essay by Mohandas K. Gandhi about the beauty of the "Gita." Most people think that the "Gita" is one of the holy texts of Hinduism and that it epitomizes the nonviolent meditative nature of Eastern religions. This is simply not true, and Gandhi is one of the main perpetrators of this myth. In the late 19th century, as educated Hindu Brahmans began to make moves toward Indian independence, they tried to find a set of texts that could be held up against the Bible. Hinduism was not a textually revealed religion, and that made it easy for the British to insult Hindus as ignorant and illiterate. But in elevating the "Gita" to the level of the Bible, Gandhi and others invented a Hinduism that never existed. For better or worse, Americans and Europeans think that the "Gita" is representative of Hinduism, and Mitchell's presentation does nothing to dispel that misunderstanding.

Gandhi, Mitchell and many others have had to wrestle with a central conundrum: This poem of peace provides a rationale for slaughter. Mitchell prefers to see the "Gita" as an allegory, with the battle not meant to be taken literally but rather as representative of the spiritual battles we all face. That was certainly Gandhi's take. But it is not the way millions of others have interpreted the text across the millenniums. Gandhi read the poem one way, but it's impossible to claim that it is an accurate reading. More in sync with the contemporary belief that war and killing are immoral, yes, but not necessarily more in sync with the poem itself.

All that being said, it is a moving text, poignant, beautiful, haunting. If anything, putting it in the context of an actual battle presents an even greater challenge than rendering that which makes us uncomfortable into an allegory. That neither Mitchell nor Gandhi does, but the poem remains, awesome and resplendent.


Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to The Times' Book Review.

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