My earliest memory of the “Bhagavad Gita” is a worn-from-use, spine-twisted, hardcover copy of the epic my grandmother kept on a dressing table—which would later go on to become a family heirloom. She was always quoting verses and it seemed no matter what we did, there was something in the Bhagavad Gita to either justify or condemn our actions.
My grandmother was forever thumbing through her much-revered copy. She would even run her hands over the words as she watched TV or talked to us. As a kid, I was fascinated by that particular slightly oily copy of the Bhagavad Gita that seemed to hold the universe’s secrets within its pages. Also, that it was a conversation between the avatar of Vishnu, Lord Krishna, and a prince named Arjuna had me wanting to know exactly who said what.
It was only years later, when I was in high school, that it occurred to me that my grandmother was using the Bhagavad Gita as an excuse to get us to behave how she saw fit. Afterall, how could she know for sure what was written in it when she couldn’t read? Everything she said was derived from someone else’s words, interpretations, or whatever she thought was right.
I used to tell my mother that I would one day read the entire epic, in Sanskrit, and thus be able to challenge my grandmother when she would, invariably, quote it wrong. I couldn’t wait to squash her ‘can’t-eat-what-she-touches-because-she-belongs-to-a-lower-caste-family’ and ‘daughters-need-to-be-demure-because-the-gods-created-us-that-way’ mindset.
As the years passed, I returned to and abandoned my promise (to myself) of reading the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita countless times. I’d start reading, intent on finishing, but it would either be too heavy and thus kind of morbid or I wouldn’t understand the point a verse was trying to make and I’d put it aside. It wasn’t well until my 30s that I actually picked up the Bhagavad Gita and stuck to it.
The first time I simply read the verses. The second time I delved deeper, trying to understand the message of each verse and its applicability in daily life. I don’t remember how many times I’ve read it thereafter. Now, I dig into it randomly, choosing to read a few pages every now and then. I like the Penguin editions (and there are many) because they are reader friendly. Recently, I also got a copy of the ‘Saral Gita’ by the Gitapress—this is the Nepali version.
I primarily read the Bhagavad Gita because I wanted to be knowledgeable enough to contest ideas, especially when people got all gung ho in the name of God. “That’s not what’s said in the Bhagavad Gita,” I wanted to be able to say. However, having read it quite a few times now, that need has been sidelined. I’ve started to like what I learn from it. Every time I pick it up, it inspires a new idea, a new thought.
Earlier everything was either black or white for me, but now I realize nothing is that obvious. The Bhagavad Gita does not prescribe one particular path or solution for life. What you take away from each of the 700 verses is entirely up to you. The wisdom of the Gita isn’t only for the devout seeking to guarantee a place for themselves in heaven (which is actually what a close friend seems to think I’m doing). It’s for those of us who are trying to change, be a little better every day, but desperately need help in doing that.
I still hope I’m able to impress (or offend) people with my knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita someday. But I would like to think I’m now wise and mellow enough to not be upset if that never happens.