Bhagavad Gita as Cultural Icon

Krishna as Arjuna’s Charioteer

One way in which a book can be termed a cultural icon is if its impact spreads out wide beyond its own particular context and the circumstances behind it’s authorship, continuing on to cast its influence down long corridors of time and into unexpected and even unimagined domains of thought and expression. A book might be relevant for its historical impact within the narrow confined of its own time and place, possibly even having wide influence within that sphere, still without transmitting its aura to other times and cultures beyond those in which it arose. But when we consider such works as the epic poems of Greece, the plays of Shakespeare, or political screeds such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, what marks them out as standing alone among the general tide of literature is their long term impact and the multivalence of their expressions in cultures markedly different from those in which they originated. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, likely never imagined his work on The Raven as the basis of a Simpsons episode, and yet such unlikely transformation is what separates it as a cultural icon from popular works of the day that are soon forgotten and which disappear into dimly remembered history.

Company painting depicting an official of the East India Company, c. 1760

There is a phenomena in the study of linguistics where it is well known that the more commonly a verb is used in everyday discourse the more subject it is to dramatic change, accumulation of new, often contradictory, meanings, and variability in form — by such means are irregular conjugations formed. The etymology of simple everyday words such as to go, to bear, to speak are sometimes so convoluted and so strewn with synonyms as to make their study a labyrinthine sort of exercise. Analogously, when a literary work attains a ubiquitous aspect in terms of its cultural influence, it too often becomes difficult to assess, not just in its impact and influence on other works – in some sense that is the easy part, if one can find an explicit reference – but even, in some cases, in defining what that work is in itself.

The Bible, for example, has so many and multifarious expressions as to make it difficult to circumscribe a universally acceptable definition of what the Bible as title actually refers to. The works of Shakespeare provide another example of a corpus for which a myriad of variant expressions exist, often in a multiplication of media as well. In classical works, such problems can be exacerbated by difficulties in varying manuscripts, idiomatic language changes over time, and shifting cultural contexts that confuse the meanings of words and expressions.

Another work which can be characterized by the expansiveness of both its cultural relevance as well as its difficulty in definition is the Bhagavad Gita. Not even in itself a distinct work, being a part of a much longer national epic, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita in English, has had an outsized and multifarious impact compared to its actual text, which is quite concise, and its relatively recent genesis, having only first been translated and published into English in 1785. Of course, we must ask, is it even possible to speak of a work in translation as a separate entity from its source material? In this case, it seems appropriate, since at the time, the English speaking world, outside of the relatively insular community of East Indian Company employees and officials, was almost wholly ignorant of Indian cultural forms and religious expressions, their primary exposure to such being from what popular accounts might have existed in elaborated travelers’ tales, secondhand accounts from the Islamic world, which had dominated trade and commerce with India up until the Renaissance, and those provided by antique and classical Greek and Latin sources, out of date by centuries, at least.

Before the worldwide expansion of European power, for medieval Christian Europe, India was the edge of the earth, a distant horizon, a strange land where things were very different. The strangeness of India for Europeans could take monstrous or pleasant forms virtually without limit, because they were unchecked by experience.

(Trautmann. 2011: 169-70).

During the medieval period, European access to the cultural artifacts, intellectual products, and trade goods of India was greatly curtailed in comparison to the old Greco-Roman world order, and even in that earlier time, India was a distant and poorly understood land, despite Roman pretensions to domination. In the medieval era, access to India was almost entirely mediated through Islamic sources, and not until the Renaissance and the great European expansion that it engendered, was the full and constant contact or commerce established between the subcontinent and the now rising Western European powers.

In his landmark study Orientalism, Edward Said says of Sanskrit and other Indian cultural studies that they “did not acquire the status of scientific knowledge until after Sir Willam Jones’s efforts in the late eighteenth century” (75) But even so, the confluence of this intellectual stream with those sources engendered by Wilkins and Hastings, all of whom were working under the aegis of the Royal Asiatik Society, must have watered the same fields, coming together as they did in such close proximity and with such similarity of purpose, that the net cultural results of one are for all practical purposes indistinguishable for those of the other. All were promoting the use of Sanskrit to aid EIC rule though cultural understanding, whatever their other motives and whatever other side effects might result. Wilkins, along with Jones, was credited with the Society’s foundation, and, if Jones produced academic work that was influential in the origination of the new discipline of Indology, it was a discipline within which Wilkins had already been working independently, and doing so in an arena which would have public as well as academic impact, his proposed translation of the Mahabharata.

Charles Wilkins, in an mezzotint engraving by John Sartain, after a painting by James Godsell Middleton. Published in 1830.

His translation of the Bhagavad Gita, only a part of his proposed endeavor, would be published in the year following the foundation of the Society, and was written simultaneously with its foundation. The work would prove wildly influential, even well beyond the academy, and within two years was translated again from his version into both Russian and French. His 1808 Grammar of the Sanskrit Language would cement his reputation in the academic world as well, being the first known Grammar of that language in English that was widely available. And if there were still any question as to his reputation, they must have been silenced by his later reception of knighthood, conferred by George IV in 1833. Unfortunately, many of Wilkins’ personal papers were destroyed in a house fire in 1796. It is to be noted that Wilkins did not produce his translation alone but worked in tandem with an uncredited Indian Pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya who was eventually made “head preceptor” of the Benares Sanskrit College. More on both of these men and their histories with respect to Sanskrit and the Gita can be found in the works of Richard H. Davis (2015).

Title page of the first Bengali typeface printed book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778

The list of eminent Europeans who were influenced by the translation of the Gita into English and other modern European languages is almost too long to attempt to list. Even Mahatmas Gandhi, it is believed, came to the Indian classical tradition through the transmissive medium of the English language. According to Michael Bergunder, “there is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi’s notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union” (Bergunder. 2014: 398). Elsewhere, and in other incarnations, the Gita had demonstrable influence on a range of diverse luminaries such as Thoreau, William Blake, Herman Hesse, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who understood Sanskrit), T. S. Eliot, Phillip Glass, C. G. Jung, Philip K. Dick, and the Beatles, among countless others.

When Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of an atomic device at Los Alamos he famously (or infamously) cited the 11th discourse from the Gita, in which Krishna reveals himself in cosmic form as Visnu to Arjuna: a vast multi-armed god bearing a myriad of weapons of war. Laurie Patton (2008: 126 & 126 n. 3) translates the verse:

If a thousand suns
had risen
in the sky
all at once,
such brilliance
would be
the brilliance
of that great self.

Bhagavad Gita 11.12

For a translation of an at the time obscure work in a more or less unknown language, Wilkins work has held up remarkably well, considering its more than two century old vintage. It begins with an advertisement crediting the EIC board of directors for its publication, noting the antiquity and veneration of the original. This is followed by an insightful letter of recommendation for the work written by Wilkins patron within the EIC, Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal, who, despite his reputation for even handedness with respect to the native culture, was famously impeached on ground of corruption in 1787 (cf. Edmund Burke). Nonetheless, Hastings’ introduction to the Gita is a call for tolerance and appreciation towards the Indian natives, their religious practices, and the cultural value of their intellectual history.

Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their garden at Alipore, c. 1784–87

Hastings calls any accumulation of knowledge with respect to conquered non-European cultures as a gain in humanity that “lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection” and which “imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence.” He goes on to say that through observation of the native character the British would acquire a “more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights,” learning to account them as equitable to their own, as human beings. He notes, presciently, that these influences which are to be found in writing such as the Gita will be felt and will survive “when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist” ( Wilkins, 1785, 13).

If there were an award for cultural icon, I would nominate the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita as a worthy recipient, while at the same time respecting the source material from which it cannot be divorced. It is perhaps enough to say that it is possibly the one translation that came home again, through the person of Gandhi, and forged a nation from the admiration of its own oppressors. But it also caused a flourishing of ideas in England, in Europe, and in the Americas, as readers found a new handle on ancient metaphysics, and struggled to intermix their own ideas with those of another culture, creating a new synthesis that found new expressions in the American Transcendentalist movement, German Romanticism, the mystic poetry of William Blake, and the flourishing of new religious ideas that followed the first World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1983. The Gita is truly a remarkable book with ramifications that spread out from its center like ripples on a placid pool. With over three hundred translations into English alone, it is one of the most popular and important ancient works available to us.

Sources:

App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bryant, Edwin. (2007). Krishna: A sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bergunder, M. (2014). Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 82(2), 398-426. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24488158

Dalrymple, William. (2019). The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury.

Davis, Richard. (2014). The Bhagavad Gita : a biography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Davis, Richard. (2015) Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the first English “Bhagavad Gita.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 39-57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24631792.

Erle, Sibylle. (2005, Spring) Review. [Review of the book Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental renaissance, by David Weir] Blake: An illustrated quarterly. 8(4), 157-159. http://bq.blakearchive.org/38.4.erle.

Eliade, Micrea. (1992). Essential sacred writings from around the world. New York: Harper & Row.

Hanson, J. W., et al. The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered before the Parliament, and an Abstract of the Congresses Held in the Art Institute

Chicago. Illinois, U. S. A. August 25 to October 15. 1893. Under The Auspices of the World’s Columbian Exposition: Edited by J. W. Hanson. International Publishing Co., 1894. Smithsonian Collections Online, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BHTKRB887063462/SMIT?u=iulib_iupui&sid=SMIT&xid=666e9100. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.

Keay, John. (2010). India: A history. New York: Grove Press.

Lubelsky, Isaac. (2012). Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the birth of Indian Nationalism. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Patton, Laurie, Translator. (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Penguin.

Rao, K. S. Narayana. (1963). T. S. Eliot and the Bhagavad-Gita. American Quarterly, 15(4), 572-578. doi:10.2307/2710974

Said, Edward. (1994). Orientalism: 25th anniversary edition. New York: Vintage.

Schwab, Raymond. (1984). The Oriental renaissance: Europe’s rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seshan, K. S. S. (2019, December 13). Charles Wilkins: He turned their gaze to Sanskrit. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/charles-wilkins-he-turned-their-gaze-to-sanskrit/article30298306.ece.

Telang, K. T. & F. Max Muller editor. (1970). The sacred books of the East: Volume VIII: The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anguita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Timpe, E. (1970). Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Bhagavad Gita. Comparative Literature, 22(4), 346-357. doi:10.2307/1769580

Tull, H. (2015). Whence Sanskrit? (kutaḥ saṃskṛtamiti): A Brief History of Sanskrit Pedagogy in the West. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 213-256. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24631799

Trautmann, Thomas R.. (2011). India: Brief history of a civilization. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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