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?
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.
“Only if you do that”, says the Gita, “is the ancient cycle of give and take between gods and men kept in motion. And only if that cycle is kept in motion will the world not descend into chaos.”
Did someone say Adam Smith? The Gita is the original monograph on free trade.
Now, what is wisdom? What is the ideal man human beings supposed to be like? What should you aspire for if you want to be like the ideal person?
According to the Gita, it’s very simple. There’s a recipe:
When you see the world, as it really is, then you have attained the status of the ideal human. And what does that mean? It means you see a bit of yourself in everything around you and a bit of everything around you in yourself.
It means you’re able to look beyond the differences on the outside to the sameness on the inside. It means you’re able to say with conviction that the entire world is my home and every creature in it, my family.
This makes the Gita, the ultimate equal rights manifesto. One that not just individuals, but governments would do well to adopt in our divisive intolerant times.
The Mahabharata, all hundred thousand versus of it, I believe was expressly written to contain the 700 verses of the Gita. Just as a tree creates a juicy fruit to household, protect and disperse its seed, the storyteller of the Mahabharata sets up this grand canvas, paints an engaging narrative, populates it with the most memorable characters, brings us to the brink of a great war.
And then wham, introduces the 700 verses of the Gita.
If you want to know how the war went, you have no choice, but to plough through the 700 verses of high philosophy that the Gita is, which makes the Gita, a great how-to-guide for teachers wishing to teach a complicated subject to reluctant students.
Now, in Eastern thought, the notion of time is that of a cycle, it’s not linear. Time is cyclical. And therefore the climax in our stories arrives in the middle of the story. Not at the end. The Gita is no different.
Just when you reach about chapter 10, there are 18 chapters in all, and the philosophy begins to get a little overwhelming, a new twist is introduced into the tale.
We are told that Krishna is not who we have believed all along.
In chapter 11, it is followed by drama and spectacle with Krishna revealing his cosmic Vishwaroopa form. Our attentions have been recaptured and we remain vested for the next seven chapters.
If you were looking for a guide on how to write a reveting bestseller, you need to look no further than the Gita.
Now, “hard work, commitment, focus” says the Gita, “will get you any rewards you desire in whatever quest you pursue. Whether it be world-domination or world-peace. And therefore it’s important to pick your quest well. Why would you waste your time, effort and energy pursuing rewards that are transient like money, power, fame, success? Instead go after the more lasting rewards, spend your time and energy chasing peace and contentment.”
You see the Gita is also a cautionary tale, which might have been titled: ‘be careful what you wish for’.
Now, one of the very worldly topics that the Gita touches upon is the subject of food. It actually gives you a diet plan for life. And it tells you what kind of food you should be eating.
And those recommendations don’t differ very much from a modern nutritionist.
So what kind of foods should you eat?
The Gita says you should eat food that is fresh, which is juicy, which means fresh, tender and unprocessed. It says you must eat food that is nourishing, which means clearly junk food is out.
And it says that you must eat food that is agreeable. Wait, there’s a rider, not just agreeable to the palate, but agreeable to the system.
And what is the worst kind of thing you can do to your bodies? Let’s listen to Krishna on this: “Those who commit acts of violence on their bodies, denying themselves food and water, thought confusing, self-torture with faith and devotion, they are truly misguided.”
You see why you should ditch that crash diet and that extreme exercise regimen. They were discredited even in 500 BC, which makes the Gita a great nutrition guide, which could have been subtitled: “Don’t lose your mind, lose your diet.”
The Gita tells the story of a great tree with its roots in the heavens and its branches on the ground. So thick do these branches grow on the ground, so deeply embedded are they in the earth that we get diluted. We begin to think that the source of sustenance of the tree is the earth itself.
We chase after the low hanging fruit, without seeking the source of their sweetness, which is that great trunk rising to the sky.
“Don’t do that” says the Gita, “Keep your focus on the great trunk rising to the sky. And once you find it, hold on tight.”
Does that mean then that the Gita should be on every conservationist bookshelf, because it’s the original tree huggers’ handbook?
Now, the Gita also says happiness comes from being true to your nature. “So if you have to find a job that is true to your nature, you first have to know what your nature is”, says the Gita. And be involved in doing things that are true to your nature.
So what kind of nature?
The Gita says, “If you are the sort of person who likes to think deep thoughts in splendid isolation, maybe you should do that kind of job.” What would those jobs be today? Maybe a scientist, a writer, an artist.
If it’s the heat and dust of the battlefield that excites you, do that kind of job. Maybe that means be a lawyer, an activist, a politician.
If the hubbub of the marketplace is what excites you, then you could be… do something in that direction. So that could be a stock broker, a banker, a merchant, an entrepreneur.
And if your nature is the kind that likes to be a cog in the wheel, then find a job that affords you that luxury.
The Gita is an aptitude test and a sage and supportive career guide.
Now through this entire conversation, Krishna addresses Arjuna by over 20 different names, including Bharata, Sabhyasachi, Dhananjaya and Partha.
And Arjuna uses over 40 names to address Krishna, which include Ananta, Achuta, Madhava, Madhusudna, Janardhana, Purushattama, Hrsihikesha and so on.
What does this make the Gita? A great resource for new parents of baby boys, because the Gita is also the Indian book of baby names.
So the Gita says a lot about action. And one of the things it says about action is that every action has consequences. And those consequences will come back and bite you and your children in ways so devious that you can never expect to be prepared for them.
Therefore choose your actions. Think before you act. The Gita, therefore is a mathematical treatise on the complex endlessly twisting Möbius strip called KARMA.
Now, how do you know what the right action is?
Well, the Gita says, no action is intrinsically wrong or right. It is intent that makes it so. So question your intent before you act. Is my action prompted by my own fears, anger, desire, greed, lust, need for personal glorification?
YES: Then don’t do it. Think about it.
NO: Then just go ahead and do it.
The Gita is a flowchart for life with an infinite, if then else loop.
And then if the world seems to be going to port, says Krishna, don’t fret Arjuna, be assured that a savior will rise from your ranks to make things all right.
If the pendulum swings too far in one direction, rest assured that change is coming and the pendulum will swing right back in the opposite direction. Eventually, a middle ground shall be found and order restored.
We have no reason to doubt Krishna. We see evidence of this all the time around us in morals, politics, and fashion. And therefore the Gita could also be a song whose name was ‘don’t worry, be happy.’
18 is the number of books in the Mahabharata. 18 is the number of chapters in the Bhagavad Gita. 18 is the number of days that the great Mahabharata war was fought over. 18 is the number of minutes in a TED Talk. And 18 is the number of alternative ways to read the Bhagavad Gita that we have just explored.
Could there be more ways?
To answer that let’s go back to India’s book of answers: the Gita itself. In it Krishna tells Arjuna, “what I have revealed thus far is, but a fraction of my infinite glory.”
That, ladies and gentlemen could well be the Gita speaking.
Thank you very much.