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Decoding The Gita, India’s Book of Answers: Roopa Pai (Transcript)

Roopa Pai at TEDxNMIMSBangalore

Full text of author Roopa Pai’s talk: Decoding the Gita, India’s book of answers atTEDxNMIMSBangaloreconference.

In this talk, Roopa Pai, the author of award-winning contemporary retelling ‘The Gita For Children’ explores different ways one can enjoy reading this classic more than just as a religious text.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Roopa Pai – Author

The Bhagavad Gita: Our social studies textbooks tell us that it is the Holy book of the Hindus.

Should one read the Bhagavad Gita as a religious book, then?

That would be a little odd, because the Gita predates organized religion itself.

It was written 500 years before Jesus Christ, a thousand years before Muhammad the prophet, and over 2000 years before Hinduism itself was a thing.

Reading it as a book of religion also does not quite explain its consistent sustained appeal over two millennia, not just among people of its own community, but with people across the world.

So reading it as a religious book is a sort of limiting way to read the Gita.

What then is the secret of this?

What is the magic of this slim volume of poetry?

What is it about this age-old conversation between two best friends called Krishna and Arjuna that make people return to it generation after generation, return to its shining moral compass for guidance whenever they are beset by despair or doubt?

Here’s the secret: The Gita’s strength lies in the fact that it concerns itself not just with the metaphysical, but with the very physical; not just with the other worldly, but with the very worldly; not just with the afterlife, but with life itself. 

So what are the alternative ways to read the Gita then, if not just as a Holy book?

Let’s see.

So the Mahabharata, as most of you know, is one of the two great epics of India and the Gita is part of it.

So the whole story is centered around a great war. One that is fought between two sets of cousins. On the one side are the Pandavas who are upright, noble, righteous. On the other side are the Kauravas who are not.

Now the only two characters that we are going to concern ourselves with today are the Pandava Prince Arjuna, who is the greatest Archer in the world and his friend and mentor Krishna, who is his designated charioteer during the war.

Now the war is about to begin when our hero Arjuna loses his nerve. The sudden realization that he’s about to destroy half of his closest family, strikes him like a thunderbolt.

And sick with despair, he lays down arms and turns to his friend Krishna for guidance.

The two of them have a conversation. And we know that conversation today as the Bhagavad Gita.

Now during the course of this conversation, there’s plenty of dissent and disagreement. Krishna harangues Arjuna, even heckles him at times. Arjuna argues, challenges, questions Krishna.

But through all of this, neither of them is ever offensive, needlessly aggressive or confrontationist, which makes the Gita a primer on the art of civilized debate. One that should be essential reading for everyone, particularly Indian television panelists.

The Gita, during this conversation, what do these two talk about?

Essentially, it’s Krishna speaking and he’s telling Arjuna why he should stand up, pick up his bow and fight. He’s telling him that if he doesn’t do that, he would be failing in his duty as a warrior, a King, a leader of men and an upholder of truth and justice and so on. 

So this is a difficult conversation for Krishna, because he is his friend and he’s very depressed. But Krishna does not pull his punches. He does not hesitate to call out Arjuna’s weaknesses. He does not hesitate to dismiss his excuses. He chides him for his non-warrior like behavior, but he does all of this with great compassion and understanding.

And he stands patient and steadfast by our Arjuna’s side while he works through his confusion. He uses every trick in the book to get through to Arjuna. He’s sometimes hectoring, sometimes sweetly reassuring. Sometimes he’s devious, sometimes he’s frankly overwhelming.

And finally, when he has Arjuna’s attention, he presents to him options, recommendations, advice. But he respects his friend enough to let him make the decision in the very end about whether he wants to fight or not.

What is the Gita then but a handy manual in the best practices in friendship. 

Now, any skill can be mastered through practice, practice, practice. If you’re disciplined enough to do a thing over and over again, then that thing, that skill will become second nature part of muscle memory, a habit.

The Gita says that even picking the right action and doing the right thing is a habit. And we all know that habits developed in childhood are the hardest to break. And that is why the Gita is also a book for children. The essential companion volume to growing up.

The Gita tells us that the most important battles are not those that we fight with others, but those that we fight with ourselves.

The enemy, the Kaurava is not the person outside, he’s inside us. He’s our own doubts and fears and insecurities, our own irrational loves and hates.

Sure, they all feel like family because you have lived with them for so long. The trick is to identify them for what they are and then vanquish them ruthlessly. The Gita is therefore a treatise on the art of real war.

Why are we Indians the way we are?

Blame it on the Gita. The Gita tells us that we should not fret about things that we cannot control. Perhaps that’s why Indians are so comfortable when don’t go according to plan. (Chalta hai!)

The Gita tells us that there are a million different routes to Nirvana and that no one route is superior to any other. Perhaps that’s why Indians are so comfortable being surrounded by a multiplicity of ideas, thoughts, notions, faiths, beliefs, practices.

The Gita tells us that the soul is bound to live through several lifetimes before it comes to the end of its journey. Perhaps that’s why Indians don’t play so higher premium on punctuality. So many lifetimes; so much time! And that’s why the Gita is also the insider’s guide to the Indian mind.

Do you seek contentment? There’s an app for that and you can find it in the Gita.

So what does the Gita say about contentment? How can you find it?

“You must put everything you have into everything you do”, says the Gita, “but there is no bigger fool than you if you imagine that just because you put your best effort, the outcome will be something that you desire.”

“Understand”,says the Gita that “some things lie within your control, like your effort, but some things most certainly do not, like the outcome. Therefore, focus on your effort. Let go of the outcome.”

In other words, Play to play, don’t play to win. If that doesn’t make the Gita a killer app for contentment, I don’t know what does.

“The universe”, says the Gita, “gives us so many things for free – the life-giving sun, the nourishing rain, the fertile earth. We would be nothing more than common thieves if we did not give back in equal measure.”

And how do you give back in equal measure?

Simply by doing your own duties well to the best of your abilities. Simply by shouldering your own responsibilities as parents, teachers, students, doctors, priests, lawyers, with a smile and doing your every action with an attitude of gratitude.

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