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The life and times of India's most famous spiritual and literary masterpiece The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic The life and times of India's most famous spiritual and literary masterpiece The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic that has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. The Gita opens on the eve of a mighty battle, when the warrior Arjuna is overwhelmed by despair and refuses to fight. He turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who counsels him on why he must. In the dialogue that follows, Arjuna comes to realize that the true battle is for his own soul. Davis highlights the place of this legendary dialogue in classical Indian culture, and then examines how it has lived on in diverse settings and contexts. He looks at the medieval devotional traditions surrounding the divine character of Krishna and traces how the Gita traveled from India to the West, where it found admirers in such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Aldous Huxley. Davis explores how Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda used the Gita in their fight against colonial rule, and how contemporary interpreters reanimate and perform this classical work for audiences today. An essential biography of a timeless masterpiece, this book is an ideal introduction to the Gita and its insights into the struggle for self-mastery that we all must wage.


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The life and times of India's most famous spiritual and literary masterpiece The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic The life and times of India's most famous spiritual and literary masterpiece The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic that has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. The Gita opens on the eve of a mighty battle, when the warrior Arjuna is overwhelmed by despair and refuses to fight. He turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who counsels him on why he must. In the dialogue that follows, Arjuna comes to realize that the true battle is for his own soul. Davis highlights the place of this legendary dialogue in classical Indian culture, and then examines how it has lived on in diverse settings and contexts. He looks at the medieval devotional traditions surrounding the divine character of Krishna and traces how the Gita traveled from India to the West, where it found admirers in such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Aldous Huxley. Davis explores how Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda used the Gita in their fight against colonial rule, and how contemporary interpreters reanimate and perform this classical work for audiences today. An essential biography of a timeless masterpiece, this book is an ideal introduction to the Gita and its insights into the struggle for self-mastery that we all must wage.

30 review for The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kaśyap

    As the title says, this is a biography of Bhagavad Gita. In the first part, the author traces the text from its conception and its place in the Mahabharata and its role and the various vedantic interpretations of the middle ages. Its first translations to foreign languages where it became a source of wisdom for the romantics and a source of denigration of Indian civilisation by its selective interpretation. Its adaptation by various revolutionary and political organisations during the colonial p As the title says, this is a biography of Bhagavad Gita. In the first part, the author traces the text from its conception and its place in the Mahabharata and its role and the various vedantic interpretations of the middle ages. Its first translations to foreign languages where it became a source of wisdom for the romantics and a source of denigration of Indian civilisation by its selective interpretation. Its adaptation by various revolutionary and political organisations during the colonial period ranging from the pacifist Gandhi to the Hindu nationalists like RSS. Its life in the 20th century when its circulation and readership increased phenomenally. The second part consists of recommendations of four different English translations of the Gita. He finally ends the book with a chapter on the diverse forms of modern day recitations of the Gita in India and the rest of the world.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Pritam Chattopadhyay

    Book: The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) Author: Richard H. Davis Publisher: ‎ Princeton University Press (26 October 2014) Language: ‎ English Format: Kindle File size: ‎ 2086 KB Print length: ‎ 252 pages Price: 1706/- Dhritarashtra asked: “When my troops and the Pandavas met together, itching for battle, at Kurukshetra, the field of dharma, what happened, Sanjaya?” — Bhagavad Gita 1.1 The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the Mahabharata, a cosmic epic poem in classical Sanskrit Book: The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) Author: Richard H. Davis Publisher: ‎ Princeton University Press (26 October 2014) Language: ‎ English Format: Kindle File size: ‎ 2086 KB Print length: ‎ 252 pages Price: 1706/- Dhritarashtra asked: “When my troops and the Pandavas met together, itching for battle, at Kurukshetra, the field of dharma, what happened, Sanjaya?” — Bhagavad Gita 1.1 The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the Mahabharata, a cosmic epic poem in classical Sanskrit that tells the story of an overwhelming contention between two clans of the ruling class for control of a kingdom in northern India. The Gita consists of a dialogue between two leading characters in this epic, Arjuna and Krishna, at a tense moment just as war between the two sides is about to begin. The conversation deals with the ‘moral decorum’ of the war and much else as well. The Gita begins with Arjuna in uncertainty and despondency, dropping his weapons; it ends with Arjuna picking up his bow, all doubts resolved and ready for battle. Once he does so, the war begins, and the narrative of the Mahabharata continues. From an early date, the Bhagavad Gita also circulated as an autonomous work. It has been read, recited, interpreted, commented on, transcribed, translated, and published as a self-standing work of religious philosophy. This double identity of the Gita, as 1) a portion of a larger epic story and 2) an autonomous text, is an important source of its power and appeal. In this book, primary attention has been laid upon the ‘life of the Gita’ on its own. But to gain a full sense of the rhetorical power that this text had in its own time of composition, it is also essential to consider the Gita in its larger epic context. The Bhagavad Gita opens on a field of battle. At Kurukshetra, two massive armies led by the Pandavas and Kauravas have assembled. All the rulers along with the entire warrior class of India are involved, siding with one camp or the other. Leaders blow thunderously on conch shells, while drums and cymbals create a cacophonous roar. Warriors are slapping their arms in eager anticipation. Nearby, packs of jackals and flocks of crows have also assembled, looking forward to a feast of human flesh. Just as the battle is about to commence, Arjuna, the leading warrior of the Pandava side, asks his charioteer Krishna to station his vehicle in between the two vast forces. “I want to look at the men arrayed here so eager for war,” he explains, and Krishna drives his chariot into the no-man’s-land. At this moment, Arjuna is overcome with apprehension and anguish. He drops his bow and threatens to renounce the battle altogether. It is Krishna’s task to influence Arjuna to overcome his doubts. The ensuing dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna goes far beyond a rationale for war. It touches on many of the ethical dilemmas, religious practices, and philosophical issues that concerned Indian elites of ancient times. As Krishna instructs Arjuna, he draws on ideas from the many contending schools of thought in classical India, and seeks to integrate them within his own overarching agenda. In the course of their conversation, Krishna reveals to Arjuna that he is the Supreme Lord. Hence this work has long been known by the title Bhagavad Gita, the song (gita) of the Lord (bhagavan). In India and beyond, one can also celebrate the day on which the Bhagavad Gita dialogue happened. The eleventh day of the waxing moon in the lunar month of Margashirsha, which generally falls in December or January, is known as the “Gita Jayanti,” the birthday of the Gita. Although the age of the Gita has been a long-standing matter of uncertainty and debate, the lunar date of the conversation is clearly established in the text. Today the famous conversation is often observed with collective recitations of the seven hundred verses of the Gita, accompanied by acts of worship and devotional singing. At Kurukshetra, the locals celebrate Gita Jayanti with particular verve. In addition to recitations and discourses on the Gita at the Shri Krishna Museum, the town hosts a five-day Kurukshetra Festival, which includes a procession of musicians and holy men, cultural performances pertaining to the Gita in several great tents, political leaders being felicitated, fireworks, and a massive crafts fair of over five hundred displays from throughout India. Beyond India as well, Hindus in Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States commemorate the day on which this sacred text was first spoken. The exclusive potency of the Gita lies in its aptitude to amalgamate and correspond many of the incongruent and conflicting suggestions and themes of its time. For instance: 1) In the moral context of how one should live one’s life, the Gita synthesizes elements of the orthodoxy of prescribed action with elements of heterodoxy that makes attaining liberation (sannyasa or renunciation) from the cycle of birth and rebirth the final goal of human life. 2) In the context of the practice of the Hindu religion, the Gita synthesizes the “social polytheism” of Vedic orthodoxy with Upanishadic monism, thus resulting in a “personal monotheism” or a “non-dualistic theism.” 3) Finally, in developing its philosophy, the Gita focuses on the relationship between everyday reality and the ultimate reality and synthesizes the dualism of early Samkhya philosophy with a “personalized monism” resulting in a personal non-dualism Early in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he has given these same teachings from the beginning of time. And consequently, many observers have maintained that the dialogue narrated in the Bhagavad Gita is not purely a historically specific conversation but in fact an everlasting teaching that has universal relevance or an event that takes place at all times. Kurukshetra is both a particular field of battle and perpetual field of dharma, or righteousness, as Dhritarashtra’s opening question suggests. The medieval Hindu philosopher Shankara (788–820 CE) believed that this dialogue restates the essential teachings of the eternal Vedas. The British novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley considered the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita as the most systematic scriptural statement of a “perennial philosophy” common to all the religions of the world. And countless other readers and reciters over the centuries have heard in Gita’s words something that speaks impressively to them in their own circumstances. The book has been divided into six chapters: Chapter 1 - The Bhagavad Gita in the Time of Its Composition Chapter 2 - Krishna and His Gita in Medieval India Chapter 3 - Passages from India Chapter 4 - Krishna, the Gita, and the Indian Nation Chapter 5 - Modern Gitas: Translations Chapter 6 - The Gita in Our Time: Performances According to the author, the primary aim of this book is to examine the ways that the Bhagavad Gita has continued to live through the responses and interpretations of its subsequent readers. However, it is a highly selective interpretation, as the full life of the Gita is much too diverse to allow for any comprehensive treatment. The brief seven-hundred-verse poem has been the subject of hundreds of written commentaries in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. It has been translated into more than seventy-five languages worldwide. In English alone, well over three hundred translations of the Gita have been published. The Gita is a vital text for modern Hindus of many persuasions. Public recitations and oral exegeses are regular events in homes, temples, and auditoriums in India and wherever in the world Hindus now live. Outside India, the Gita is frequently taken as the first and most representative work for those first seeking to understand Hinduism. It appears regularly as a primary reading in hundreds of college courses on Hinduism and Asian religions throughout North America and elsewhere. To gain some purchase on the sprawling life of this text, the author looks at the broader devotional cult surrounding the divine character of Krishna, and briefly examines some of the ways medieval Indian commentators emphasized different core “disciplines” (yoga) and different ontological positions articulated within the Gita. The book traces how the Gita traveled from India to the West, through translations into English and other European languages, and how it was appropriated into new areas of concern. The book explores how Indian nationalists utilized the poem in their struggle against colonial control—a new Kurukshetra battlefield, as they saw it—and how they debated the Gita’s fundamental directives. And the book observes, at a few of the ways contemporary translators and teachers reanimate the classical poem for modern audiences in India and beyond. The doubleness of the Bhagavad Gita — its historical specificity and its continuing, even eternal, life — animates this short biography. Whether or not Krishna actually spoke these words to Arjuna under a banyan tree in the Kurukshetra battlefield on the 11th day of the light fortnight of Margashirsha, the Bhagavad Gita was composed at a certain time and place. Most Sanskrit scholars agree that the Bhagavad Gita originated in northern India, sometime in the classical period between the reign of the Mauryan king Ashoka (r. 269–232 BCE) and Gupta dynasty (320–547 CE), as part of a much larger poetic composition, the epic poem Mahabharata. The dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, as it has been passed down, was deeply and creatively engaged with the many philosophical and religious currents and disputes of northern Indian during this period. In the course of this discussion, Krishna articulates a complex new religious formulation that encompasses many other existing schools of thought. Like many grand religious works, the Bhagavad Gita has outlived its own time and place of composition. The work has lived a vivid and contentious existence over the centuries since, through readings and recitations, translations and commentaries that have reinscribed this classical Indian work into many new currents and disputes. Medieval Brahmin scholars and Krishna devotees, British colonial scholars, German romantics, globe-trotting Hindu gurus, Indian anticolonial freedom fighters, Western students, and spiritual seekers have all engaged in new dialogues with the Gita. Sometime in the 19th century, the Bhagavad Gita acquired the label of the “Hindu Bible.” While the designation is misleading in important respects, since the Gita has never enjoyed the canonical authority over the Hindu community that the Hebrew Bible holds for Jews or Christian New Testament has for Christians, it does point to a crucial similarity. Like those more extensive bibles of other traditions, the Gita is internally complex and ambiguous enough to have spoken differing truths to different audiences, as suited to their diverse situations and expectations. Like them, it has given rise to two millennia of dialogues, readings, and interpretations. The medieval poet Jnanadeva compared the Gita to the legendary multifaceted “wish-granting gem” Chintamani. For centuries new readers have glimpsed the wish-granting Gita through its different facets, seeking to bring their own desires toward fulfillment. My book explores those glimpses. “Works break through the boundaries of their own time,” writes Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. “They live in centuries, that is, in great time, and frequently (with great works always) their lives are more intense and fuller than are their lives within their own time.” In this book, the reader shall observe the intense and full life that the Bhagavad Gita has lived, starting from its own time. The life of this work took shape as part of a larger composition, the great Sanskrit poem Mahabharata. The discussion of two important figures of the epic at the onset of a cataclysmal war touched on central themes and tensions within the story. Krishna’s teachings drew on ideas and disputes of classical India, restating and reformulating them into an innovative synthesis. The convolution of Krishna’s message and his reconciliation of multiple religious pathways (as Vivekananda and others have phrased it) spoke powerfully to audiences of the Gita’s own time of composition. It also made for a work rich in significance and susceptible to multiple interpretations. Writing on Hinduism in India and America, Larson comments, “If there is any one text that comes near to embodying the totality of what it is to be a Hindu, it would be the Bhagavad Gita”. Other scholars of the Gita (and Hinduism) have also noted its unique “pan-Hindu influence.” About this book, an article in the Wall Street Journal observes: "In the 21st century, The Gita continues to thrive. India's present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, gives it out as a gift on his trips abroad. Discourses on The Gita by spiritual leaders are a part of the cultural life of every major Indian city. Some Indians disagree with its vision of ethics or consider it a relic of the past; but even they, too, must engage with it closely in order to refute it. Mr. Davis's book is an ideal introduction to the text, showing how the meanings of a book reside not just in its words but its life in history." A must read for every student of Indian history and theology. Grab a copy if you choose.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rohit Ghai

    There have been many translations of the Bhagavad Gita, which is perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, but this book is not one of them. Rather, Richard traces the journey of the Gita, from its oral renderings to when it appeared in written form...its different manifestations and interpretations...its journey from India to England and the States and Germany and then the rest of the world. The book opens with the actual conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna; the dilemma Arjuna f There have been many translations of the Bhagavad Gita, which is perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, but this book is not one of them. Rather, Richard traces the journey of the Gita, from its oral renderings to when it appeared in written form...its different manifestations and interpretations...its journey from India to England and the States and Germany and then the rest of the world. The book opens with the actual conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna; the dilemma Arjuna faces and how Krishna persuades him to engage in his duties, and in the process, teaches him the very essence of life itself. The author very deftly brings out various aspects of this conversation and lays the grounds for the subsequent chapters, where he connects these aspects to the the different interpretations of the Gita. A good portion of the book is dedicated to early manifestations of this text, following which he moves on to how the Gita left Indian shores through rudimentary translations by the British, who saw this scripture as a way to understand the Indian mindset. Richard then describes in detail the way Swami Vivekananda exploded onto the world scene at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893, thus introducing the teachings of the Gita to North America. There are many aspects of the journey of the Gita that I was not aware of, for instance, the major role that it played in the Indian struggle for independence, both in the ahimsa movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi and the revolutionary movement as well! A book attempted on this scale has to be backed up by excellent research, and Richard does not disappoint, to say the least. From the very start, it is clear that the author has not only done his homework, but has done it well. He has combed through (by his own accounts) over 300 translations of the Gita and recommended four of them to those who wish to understand the diverse ways in which it can be interpreted. In the process, he manages to hold the interest of the reader and give the uninitiated a basic tour of Hinduism and its most important conversation. This is not a religious book; rather, it is a successful attempt in deconstructing the universal appeal of the message contained in the Bhagvad Gita. This book could have easily become a mundane exercise in history; instead, it stands out as a beacon in the study of a timeless piece of literature. The role it played in the Indian freedom struggle, and what it means in todays life....its all there, well researched and written in a pleasant narrative. Read it!

  4. 5 out of 5

    BHodges

    This series continues to impress. Davis relates the life of the Gita judiciously and clearly. A great introduction to the text and the political, philosophical, and theological uses to which it has been put in the lives, from ancient Brahmans up to Hegel, Huxley, Ghandi, and more.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lo

    I chose to read this before diving into the Bhagavad Gita, and I'm so glad I did. It provides background information and competing theories on purpose, composition, and interpretation. I highly recommend it. I chose to read this before diving into the Bhagavad Gita, and I'm so glad I did. It provides background information and competing theories on purpose, composition, and interpretation. I highly recommend it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ted

    In North America, we are largely products of the West. To the extent that we are educated at all, we may have a general understanding of the roots of our culture in the fusion of Athens and Jerusalem—the marriage of classical thought with the revelations claimed by Christianity, which spread through and eventually superseded the Roman Empire. We may have some conception of the Islamic world, which has always been a near neighbor of the West, and not only geographically. We have some notion of th In North America, we are largely products of the West. To the extent that we are educated at all, we may have a general understanding of the roots of our culture in the fusion of Athens and Jerusalem—the marriage of classical thought with the revelations claimed by Christianity, which spread through and eventually superseded the Roman Empire. We may have some conception of the Islamic world, which has always been a near neighbor of the West, and not only geographically. We have some notion of the antiquity of China. But we tend to have little more than a hint of the complexity and antiquity of the civilization of the Indian subcontinent. This little book may help those interested pare away some of that ignorance. Davis (a professor of religion at Bard College) has summarized the role that the Bhagavad Gita (itself a small sliver of what might be termed the Hindu scriptures) has played in various schools of Indian religious thought, and the fascination it has held for scholars, thinkers, and writers in the West. It is concise, highly readable, and probably a suitable introduction to the Bhagavad Gita and a gateway to an exploration of Hindu thought.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    Mildly disappointing. The series is dedicated to discussing the life of spiritual classics in the world and this one does that in a fairly pedestrian way. Davis provides some background on the relationship between the BG and the Marabharata, the traditions surrounding it authorship and transmission, the various translations (which often came with political agendas--imperialist, nationalist), a bit on the differing schools of interpretation, which revolve around questions of dualism. Not sorry I Mildly disappointing. The series is dedicated to discussing the life of spiritual classics in the world and this one does that in a fairly pedestrian way. Davis provides some background on the relationship between the BG and the Marabharata, the traditions surrounding it authorship and transmission, the various translations (which often came with political agendas--imperialist, nationalist), a bit on the differing schools of interpretation, which revolve around questions of dualism. Not sorry I have that, but Davis spends much too much of his limited space discussing meta-issues of translation. Ending the book with Bakhtin struck me as inappropriate, a mark of the author's academic location rather than anything of use to anyone seeking a basic orientation into the BG.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Fredrick Danysh

    The Bhagavad Gita is an Indian religious tract. The author explores its historical background and explains its meanings. It aids the reader in comparing and understanding another of the world's religions. The Bhagavad Gita is an Indian religious tract. The author explores its historical background and explains its meanings. It aids the reader in comparing and understanding another of the world's religions.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Massanutten Regional Library

    Jay, Main patron, June 2015, 5 stars: It is a concise study of a Hindu Holy Book that is informative and insightful with an extensive bibliography.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Zizhao

    good and interesting... a good start for Indian literature

  11. 5 out of 5

    Giovanna Cordella

  12. 5 out of 5

    Arun Bhatt

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sharath Kr

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Amos

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dakota Ashley Limón

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cooper Sims-West

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ramya Devi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Larry

  19. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  20. 5 out of 5

    Eela

  21. 5 out of 5

    Darcey

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jackson Cyril

    His initial chapter discussing the philosophy of the Gita and his later chapters on the appropriation of the Gita by various nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries are all excellent. The rest sort of stumble along.

  23. 4 out of 5

    tarushi sharma

  24. 5 out of 5

    James Lynam

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ema Jones

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ike Rakiecki

  27. 4 out of 5

    Teodor Sebastian

  28. 4 out of 5

    Job Schepens

  29. 5 out of 5

    Hari

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

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