Einstein, Emerson, Thoreau, Huxley, and Hesse are among the admirers of this venerable book of Lord Krishna’s teachings.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Thoughts on Bhagavad-gita appreciations by some prominent, influential (mostly Western) thinkers.
“Einstein, Emerson, Thoreau, Huxley, Hesse – did they all really read and like the Bhagavad-gita?”
This was my incredulous question when some fifteen years ago I came across quotes on the Gita by several eminent global thinkers. As I was born and brought up in India, where the Gita was spoken millennia ago, I was familiar with it as an ancient Hindu text. I had even memorized a few of its verses for recitation contests in school. But I had very little idea that its wisdom might be relevant in modern times, let alone that eminent Western thinkers had admired it. No wonder the list of Gita admirers that seemed to be like an intellectual who’s who in recent world history left me pleasantly shocked.
That encounter also motivated me to study the Gita much more seriously. After reading a few Gita commentaries by well-known spiritual teachers, I came across the Gita rendition I found most relevant: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of ISKCON. Studying it in the association of Krishna devotees initiated an intellectual adventure that continues till this day. This adventure has involved studying the commentaries of many illustrious saintly teachers from the past, discussing the Gita with contemporary devotee-scholars, memorizing and relishing its verses, and choosing to dedicate my life to sharing Gita wisdom. All this intellectual engagement with the Gita has helped me understand it better – and has also helped me better understand how it has so much more to understand.
Now when I look back at those quotes that inspired me to take the Gita seriously, I can appreciate those appreciations better. In this article I explain six of those quotes, based on the holistic understanding of the Gita provided by the bhakti tradition.
Addresses Essential Questions
“When I read the Bhagavad-gita and reflect about how God created this universe, everything else seems so superfluous.”
– Albert Einstein, German-born scientist, Noble Laureate
We live amidst information overload that makes us susceptible to intellectual malfunction – the inability to contemplate life’s essential questions. Data on hundreds of subjects from hundreds of sources swamps us through newspapers, TV, and the internet. Much of this information is irrelevant to our core concerns; knowledge about the favorite food of a popular actor, as is often tested in TV quizzes about trivia, hardly matters a few days later, even a few hours later.
The Bhagavad-gita dexterously avoids such intellectual superficiality by explicitly declaring (10.32) that spiritual knowledge is the most important among all branches of knowledge. Significantly, it doesn’t let spiritual knowledge remain in the realm of remote abstractions. It brings that knowledge to bear on issues that lie at the heart of our existential dilemma: who we are, what our role in the world is, and how we can find real happiness.
The Gita answers these questions within a profound theistic framework wherein God, Krishna, plays a fascinating double role. It presents a multilevel conception of God as both a neutral overseer (Paramatma) and a reciprocal lover (Bhagavan). The understanding of God as a neutral overseer provides room for the universe to function as a mechanism governed by laws, as is conceived by the scientific worldview. Thus it avoids the naiveté evident in simplistic notions of an arbitrary miracle-working god, notions that fail to acknowledge the mechanistic order that pervades the universe.
And the Gita’s simultaneous parallel understanding of God as a reciprocal lover provides room for divine intervention, as is vital for meaningful devotion. Otherwise, as happens frequently in conventional deism, God gets reduced to a mere first cause who is thereafter just a passive observer, unable to intervene on behalf of His devotees.
The intellectual sophistication evident in the Gita’s delineation (9.5–10) of Krishna’s relationship with the world provides exciting insights for reconciling age-old conflicts between science and religion.
Guides Spiritual Evolution Systematically
“The Bhagavad-gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity.”
– Aldous Huxley, English writer
Perennial philosophy centers on two vital principles: understanding the perennial, the function of the head; and loving the perennial, the function of the heart. Gita wisdom boosts both the head and the heart in their voyage towards the eternal.
For the head, the Gita explains that reality comprises three levels: the arena of material forms, which is temporary; the arena of formlessness, which lies at the threshold of eternity; and the arena of spiritual forms, which lies at the heart of life in eternal reality. We can visualize these three levels in a graphical representation of reality as a continuum along the y-axis. The lower, negative side of the axis represents material reality. The upper, positive side refers to spiritual reality. And the zero point refers to the transition where matter ends and spirit begins. These three levels can also be alternatively referred to as material personal, impersonal, and spiritual personal, or transpersonal.
Thus the Gita provides an inclusive framework for contextualizing and integrating notions of reality that have emerged in various traditions throughout the world. Its nonsectarian understanding of the Absolute Truth is evident in Gita 14.4, where it declares Krishna to be the father of not just all human beings but also of all living beings. The same universal spirit is manifest in Gita 10.8, which declares Krishna to be the source of everything.
For the heart, the Gita offers a positive role for emotions: they can be reinvented as roads to spiritual perception instead of being rejected as roadblocks. It first underscores that material emotions act as roadblocks because they distort our vision, making undesirable worldly things seem desirable. So it repeatedly (2.38, 9.28, 12.19, for example) urges us to evolve spiritually and grow beyond the grip of those emotions.
But the Gita refuses to let the material level have a monopoly on emotions. It declares spiritual emotions – emotions of the soul for Krishna and through Krishna for others – to be our original, natural emotions of which material emotions are pale shadows. It declares (15.19) that the ultimate spiritual reality is personal and lovable – and can be approached with devotional affection (10.10 – bhajatam priti purvakam). Thus it celebrates spiritual emotions as roads to reality. In fact, it deems (4.10) love for Krishna to be the crown of reality, life’s greatest achievement.
Overall, the Gita presents spiritual perfection not as an emotionally barren void or oneness, but as an emotionally fertile arena of endless love between Krishna and all living beings.
Offers East-West Theistic Synthesis
“The Bhagavad-gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged monotheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanishadic absolute.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher
Emerson precisely points to a feature of Gita wisdom that many Gita students and even Gita teachers miss – Krishna. If we let the Gita speak for itself, it leaves no doubt (7.7, 10.8, 15.19) that Krishna is the essence and conclusion of its message.
The Western conception of a personal God is emotionally appealing but intellectually unappealing. The Eastern conception of an impersonal absolute is intellectually appealing but emotionally unappealing. The Gita’s revelation of God as Krishna is both intellectually and emotionally appealing. Here’s how.
Emotionally, the idea of a personal God who protects and guides appeals to our innate need for relationships and reciprocation. Without them existence becomes an emotional wasteland. Yet most notions of a personal God in the Western theistic traditions can’t survive serious intellectual scrutiny.
Intellectuals like to go beyond appearance to substance, to the first principle, to the root cause of things. So they often consider anything that has form and personality superficial and external. They feel impelled to go beyond to some deeper underlying universal truth. Thus, for example, the notion of a God as an old man with a long beard who sends thunderbolts to cast the sinful into the fires of hell for eternal damnation strikes thinking people as primitive and parochial.
To those who wish to go beyond appearance to substance, the Gita offers an arena of nondifferentiated oneness known as Brahman, the impersonal conception of the Absolute. But it also urges such intellectual seekers to probe deeper and recognize transcendental individuality and variety within spiritual homogeneity. The Gita (14.27) indicates that the transcendental person, Krishna, resides in his full glory beyond the Brahman effulgence. He is the support of Brahman and is the ultimate spiritual reality. In the supreme spiritual arena, He eternally reciprocates love with all those who choose to love Him and to join Him in His world of love. What can be more emotionally appealing?
Thus by revealing a personal absolute who exists beyond all the sectarian categories that characterize the world of matter – categories that intellectuals wish to transcend – the Gita offers an East-West synthetic understanding of God that appeals emotionally and intellectually.
Enables Philosophy to Blossom into Religion
“The marvel of the Bhagavad-gita is its truly beautiful revelation of life’s wisdom which enables philosophy to blossom into religion.”
– Hermann Hesse, German/Swiss poet
The bane of most modern philosophy is its divorce from any transformational methodology for experiential verification. Most modern philosophers, no matter how brilliant, reign only in the arena of armchair speculation. Philosophy divorced from transformational methodology loses its social relevance and becomes the shrunken domain of ivory tower intellectuals who agonize over semantics. In popular culture, philosophy is superseded by pop psychology, wherein self-help platitudes gain center stage and wisdom becomes redefined as soothing sound bites. People futilely look for help from self-help without looking for the self.
Gita wisdom shows us the way out of this plight. It couples philosophy and religion into an integrated whole that serves as a potent tool for self-transformation and God-realization. The Bhagavad-gita (9.2) indicates that it offers the king of all knowledge (raja-vidya), which can be verified by direct personal experience (pratyakshavagamam). Thus the Gita’s approach to exploring reality is bold, inviting, and scientific. It presents theoretical propositions about the nature of reality – we are souls who have an eternal loving relationship with the all-attractive Supreme, Krishna. And for inner verification of its theory, it presents the experimental method centered on the yoga of love, bhakti-yoga.
The Gita’s philosophy, far from being a matter of armchair speculation, focuses on the issue closest to our heart: love. Gita wisdom explains how life’s driving force is existence’s crowning reality – the love that activates us in our daily life, when purified and redirected towards Krishna becomes the supreme reality to which even the Supreme submits in His world of endless love.
And the Gita’s religion is far removed from conventional religions that ask followers to pray, pay, and obey. It invites devotee-seekers to analyze, utilize, and actualize its wisdom through personal practice that Krishna rewards with proportional divine revelation, as indicated in Gita 4.11. Thus the philosophy of love blossoms into a religion of love, wherein all our daily activities, whether spiritual or secular, become integrated into a magnificent program for our purification and our restoration in the eternal world of love to which we actually belong and for which we subconsciously long.
Reveals Itself to Those Who Attune to It
“In order to approach a creation as sublime as the Bhagavad-gita with full understanding, it is necessary to attune our soul to it.”
– Rudolf Steiner, Austrian social reformer
The Bhagavad-gita (4.3) indicates that its mystery is revealed to those who have tuned their hearts with the Absolute through devotion. What the Gita offers is not just a different worldview for intellectual titillation but a different world to view for emotional transformation. A blind person can speculate endlessly about the nature of an elephant, but such speculation can never provide the understanding available through restoration of vision. Analogously, the Gita (15.10–11) indicates that those who are stuck at the material level due to their attachments are blind to spiritual reality. Those who break free from the fetters of matter by diligent practice of yoga and raise their consciousness to the spiritual level become healed of this blindness; they perceive spiritual truth with the eyes of knowledge (jnana-cakshu). The most complete spiritual cognition comes, as the Gita (11.53–54) indicates, to those who cultivate a heart of devotion.
This devotional tuning characterized the words, the actions, indeed the life, of Srila Prabhupada. When George Harrison asked him how one could recognize an authentic Gita commentator, Srila Prabhupada replied in essence that the Gita was a call to love Krishna, so an authentic Gita commentator had to be a Krishna lover.
Through his personal example and his philosophical exposition, Srila Prabhupada unleashed the supremely transformational power of divine love. He thus opened for millions worldwide not just intellectual comprehension of Gita wisdom but also devotional realization of Krishna’s love. He transformed hippies into “happies,” changing aimless, lost people with self-defeating habits into purposeful and joyful devotees of Krishna dedicated to the service of humanity.
Gives Hope Amidst Hopelessness
“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Life is a battle filled with regular obstacles and occasional reversals. Maintaining our morale amidst these stresses and distresses is often difficult, sometimes impossible. When we become demoralized, we lose the battle before we fight the battle, for we lose the will to fight.
We can best preserve the will to fight by linking ourselves with a transcendent reality that is forever secure, far beyond the threats and tribulations of material existence. Gita wisdom reveals that world to be Krishna’s world of love. The link to that world is loving remembrance of Krishna, of how He tirelessly prepares the way for us to reach that world, no matter what the hazards along the way.
Gita wisdom solaced and strengthened Arjuna in his worst crisis, when in the face of the most important battle of his life, his emotions went into overdrive and dragged him into an abyss of confusion and dejection. Meditation on the Gita’s verses has the power to heal and thrill, as testified (18.76–77) by one of its first conveyors, Sanjaya.
The Gita’s empowering potential beckons each one of us. By contemplating its wisdom, we can guide our thoughts beyond the immediate to the ultimate, beyond the circumstantial to the eternal, beyond matter to Krishna. Thus we can find the supreme shelter, the supreme strength, the supreme satisfaction. That is the Gita’s greatest gift and life’s ultimate achievement.
Chaitanya Charana Dasa serves full time at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai. He is a BTG associate editor and the author of more than twenty-five books. He has two websites: gitadaily.com and thespiritualscientist.com (the source for BTG’s “Q&A”).