Books: How Relevant is the Gita in our Modern World?
What can this revered ancient scripture tell us about global warming, unbridled capitalism, pandemics and other contemporary issues? We review Rohit Chopra’s The Gita for a Global World and interview the author to probe into the book’s premises.
Let’s open by questioning the relevance of listening to the song of a charioteer. How relevant are the Gita’s 700 verses to the 7.4 billion people who, today, confront age-old dharmic questions pertaining to doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way? And external conflicts that raise karmic questions that are particular to contemporary times? Questions like:
- What is the nature of our obligations towards our fellow beings?
- What sense do we make of the relentless wars being waged today between state and non-state actors?
- What approach do we take to fighting battles with adversaries like the Covid-19 coronavirus?
This is how Rohit Chopra opens his thoughtful The Gita for a Global World: “It is a sign of universal relevance and enduringly enigmatic character of a book when it speaks compellingly to opposing concerns.” He continues, “Like any other text, religious or secular, the Gita may not provide easy or immediate answers to our perennial and contemporary questions. But it may give us a way to struggle with them and show us a way to find the answers for ourselves.”
Chopra, an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University, is also the author of The Virtual Hindu Rashtra: Saffron Nationalism and New Media (HarperCollins, 2019) and Technology and Nationalism in India: Cultural Negotiations from Colonialism to Cyberspace (Cambria, 2008). His academic rigor is evident in how he has combined philosophical discussion and meticulous research to draw out the Gita’s insights and applications for our times.
The setting of the Gita is an actual field of battle: Kurukshetra where Lord Krishna serves as a charioteer (Sarathi), guiding Prince Arjuna (Partha) who questions the ethics of war. The battlefield in the Gita refers to any struggle we may face in life. Chopra suggests that the Gita be read as Gandhi did, as a “battlefield … located in every human soul, where the perennial conflict between good and evil occurs without end.”
Or the ancient text can be used to “justify violence in the service of a cause,” as the so-called father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer did when he contextualized the devastation of Hiroshima (and, to a lesser extent, Nagasaki) by quoting the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The coda of Chopra’s book lands squarely with the Gandhian worldview.
Reading Chopra’s exploration of the Gita’s rele-vance in the modern world is a challenging delight because of his layered approach. He insightfully builds on his introduction of nishkama karma, one of the defining messages of the Gita, summed up in the following verse:
“karmanyevädhikäraste mä phalesu kadäcana |
mä karmaphalaheturbhürmä te sango’stvakarmani”
(“The right is to work only, but never to its fruits; let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.”)
Chopra goes deeper in distinguishing outcomes and consequences: “an ‘outcome’ refers to a planned or hoped-for result that, consciously or unconsciously, shapes the nature of the action, while a ‘consequence’ is the result that will occur from the action anyway.” He asserts that abandoning concern for outcomes as well as thinking through the possible consequences or our actions is an act of humility. Thought and action, he writes, that are grounded in this approach do not privilege our own needs and well-being over those of others.
Reading the Gita in this way is how I aspire to be a grandfather. More broadly, it is also how all of us can discover hope in this age of global crisis; it is why we can believe that actions taken today will have consequences on the battlefields of climate change, social inequality, techno-cultural imperialism and killer pandemics.
Khabar readers, who for many years engaged with my “Satyalogue” column promoting Gandhiji’s Gita-based philosophy, will not be surprised to know that I wholeheartedly support Professor Chopra’s thesis: the Bhagawad Gita is exceptionally relevant in the modern world. After I completed my review of his book, he and I engaged in a spirited back-and-forth exchange of emails that served as the “truthtalk” that informs the interview below.
What brought you to Emory University for your doctoral studies?
I worked for rediff.com where I became fascinated by the presence of global Hindu right-leaning communities on the internet, peopled in no mean measure by Indian techies based in Silicon Valley. I was intrigued by how they used the internet and how they saw it as an alternative to what they called ‘pseudo-secular’ mainstream and legacy media. The dark side of this, though, was the anti-minority sentiment that often showed up in their comments. I knew I wanted to pursue an academic career and decided this would be an interesting topic to study. I think I can say, with all modesty, that I was on to something, given the centrality of the internet to rightwing movements the world over, including in India and the US!
Given the vagaries of academic life, do you find it ironic that people like you and I— those who read Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj as a “scathing critique of Western science and technology”—call the Silicon Valley our home? Given that I stand with you and have made my career at companies like HP, Cisco and Microsoft, I suggest that we serve as a kind of loyal opposition whose “clarion call to a moral reflection” can only be heard by situating ourselves on the Silicon Valley’s omnipotent and omnipresent platform. That said, it might interest our readers to know that I eschew all so-called “smart phones” and remain attached to my 3G dumb phone, purchased circa 2008. It’s my quiet, neo-Luddite, 21st century version of sitting at a spinning wheel.
Absolutely, it is richly ironic, no question. I think Gandhi, who had a gentle and sly sense of humor, would have appreciated your stand! But it is also logical in a sense because we have seen how technology can almost completely colonize our lives. Through our different experiences, personal and professional, we both have a sense of the power and seduction of technology. It is impossible to imagine our lives entirely free of their influence. Now, increasing-ly, I see Gandhi’s work and life in terms of one overarching question, at once philosophical and political—what does it mean to live with real autonomy and freedom? And if you think about it, technology, while, no doubt, immensely convenient and helpful and enabling, also results in a diminution and erosion of that autonomy and freedom. So, the way to take back that freedom is to control and moderate its use in our lives. Easier said than done, though!
I also strongly endorse your point of serving as a loyal opposition. I think in whatever way we can, to whatever extent we have a voice, we need to raise this issue, and try and imagine a world driven by a more humane use of technology.
I appreciate your use of the Heraclitus quote “You cannot step twice into the same river.” You add a corollary to the Greek philosopher by suggesting that one cannot “step twice into the same text – and if there were ever a text that could be described as a river, it is the Gita.” When did you first dip your toes into the Gita to read all 700 shlokas?
The first time I read the Gita in its entirety was when I moved to the U.S. I bought the wonderful Barbara Stoler Miller edition in midtown Atlanta in 2002, and that edition has almost always been with me since then.
What or who was the inspiration for writing The Gita for a Global World?
The main inspiration for the book was the example of my parents, particularly their incredible strength, spirit and good cheer in dealing with adversity. The book is dedicated to them. For all the abstraction of the Gita, I found something of its messages in their approach to life in an everyday practical sense, and that got me thinking of how the text might possibly serve as a guide for life in our global present.
Can you say a bit about your methodology? What does it mean to “read the Gita against the Gita?” When you suggest that the reader “prioritize [the Gita’s] message of unity and the oneness of all beings as a superior principle to that of caste hierarchy,” are you suggesting that we can read the Gita by cherry picking those parts that align with our worldviews?
We should, in a sense, desacralize the text, and make it accessible to all groups for criticism. We should also acknowledge that this is a permanent tension in the text and that the status of the text should not be invoked to sanction inequality. We need to accept that the text may not be seen the same way by all Indian communities and individuals; some may see it as oppressive or hegemonic, and that needs to be respected. So, I am suggesting one way of reading it, but I do not intend that to be prescriptive as a methodology.
Like Superman who is “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” you have the Gita leaping from a defense of wearing masks in the time of pandemics to guiding “our response to seemingly global problems that appear overwhelming, like climate change, war or persistent conflict caused by cultural differences.” How do we go from this intellectual leap of faith to enacting Gita’s nishkama karma theory into practice?
I am cautious not to present the Gita as the final word on any and all matter. Rather, I emphasize that it can be a guide to helping us think through, navigate and respond to the challenges of the present, whether that is with regard to the theory of nishkama karma or any other principle. In keeping with the Gita, we must determine what we feel is the appropriate course of action and what is our dharma—which we can broadly understand as duty. So, in our workplaces, should we value productivity and efficiency to the point where it impinges on the wellbeing of employees and becomes counter-productive, in fact? Should we obsess about our children winning spelling bees or getting into Ivy League universities? At an individual level, my actions may not amount to much, but I can make a simple choice of not shopping at a particular chain whose policies I think contribute to suffering. At the level of policy too, the Gita can be a useful guide, but it is important to delink it from its religious provenance—collapsing religion and the state is a dangerous path to tread.
A small nit: Why does your book privilege Western translations of the Gita over those by Indians?
I do draw on two Indian translations, albeit less extensively than I do on others: (a) Bhalla and Deval and (b) Gandhi’s second-order translation of the Gita. What I am arguing is that the text transcends its Indianness, though, of course, it also speaks to that Indian provenance.
Do you live by the Gita or simply write about it? As you note in your book, “In advocating that we free ourselves from goals, outcomes and desires, is the Gita not suggesting an unrealistic, prescriptive and stifling vision of existence, a theological justification for a puritanical and joyless life?” How can we realistically expect dutiful compliance by profit-minded corporations that are driven by consumers desiring more and more of the next version of iWant?
I never said it would be easy, and that is why I use the word “struggle.” I don’t consider myself ethically superior to any other person. But perhaps as I grow older, I try not to make a virtue out of my fallibilities and shortcomings. I certainly don’t expect corporations to give up the profit motive, nor do I consider profit inherently bad. Yet, I don’t think it is unreasonable to consider other kinds of costs extracted by a ruthless pursuit of profit. There is a realm of social life that exists beyond the economic. We also have a responsibility to think of the self beyond its avatar as a consumer-self. So, the next time I see an iWant, maybe I should think “do iNeed?”
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza specializes in helping senior executives – CXOs, VPs, GMs – better align their organizations to achieve success. He is also an avid reader and freelance writer. He dedicates this review to his son-in-law, Maneesh, who began studying the Gita in his youth and gently conveys a yogic evenness of mind.
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