Recently, I was invited to speak at an international conference on the Bhagavad Gita in the Bay Area. For the occasion, I was asked to write a personal essay on the subject. This is an edited version of that piece.
I first became aware of the Bhagavad Gita in the mid '60s. I was a college student taking my first tentative steps onto my spiritual path, reading all I could about the Eastern traditions. It seemed that every writer I admired -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, J.D. Salinger -- wrote with great admiration of the Gita. Even the renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had quoted it when the first atomic bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert. With endorsements like that, I had to get myself a copy.
I couldn't find one in any of the bookstores I usually frequented -- and this was in New York City! I eventually discovered Weiser Antiquarian Books, "the oldest occult bookstore in the United States," which had two or three versions. Now, of course, you can find dozens of translations with a few keyboard strokes. I chose the translation and commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood because I recognized the latter as a celebrated writer of fiction, and because it was thin and cheap (95 cents).
I read it start to finish that evening, and went to bed somehow knowing that my life would never be the same. The Gita led me to books about Vedanta philosophy and to the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras and other classics of Hindu thought. It led directly to my first yoga class, to learning Transcendental Meditation and to teacher training with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose Gita commentary I read repeatedly (only chapters one through six; sadly, he never published seven through eighteen).
My 95-cent Gita, with its tattered cover, yellowed pages, underlined passages and scribbled-in margins, now sits on a shelf with a dozen other translations. I compare them whenever an opportunity arises, and their nuanced differences never fail to intrigue me, just as the content itself never fails to illuminate and inspire. I know of no other text, sacred or secular, that packs so much wisdom into so few words and still maintains a sense of narrative movement.
I interviewed more than three hundred people for American Veda, and I've had countless conversations with yoga practitioners, meditators, devotees of various gurus, spiritual independents, secularists, atheists and dedicated adherents of every faith tradition. It is astonishing how many of those diverse truth-seekers have been influenced by the Gita. There seems to be something in it for everyone. For some it is a holy text, on a par with what the New Testament is to Christians, the Hebrew Bible to Jews and the Koran to Muslims. For others, it is a philosophical treatise, or a handbook of higher consciousness, or a practical guidebook for daily living. Like every great book, its meaning depends upon the reader.
In fact, that generosity of spirit, and its acknowledgement of individual pathways within a unifying framework of Oneness, is a primary reason the Gita has captured minds and hearts far away from India. I've noticed that people tend to memorize or paraphrase different passages, depending on their own spiritual orientation or current needs. For me, a product of the rebellious sixties, two themes were of central importance, and I memorized relevant verses -- not intentionally, but as a natural byproduct of reading them so often. One was "Established in yoga, perform action," which (along with related verses) declares that the unitive consciousness to which yoga aspires is not just for ascetics; it is, rather, a formula for purposeful living in the world. The other was "Better death in one's own dharma; the dharma of another brings danger."
I was part of a generation for whom personal authenticity was supreme and questioning authority was practically a moral imperative. The passage told me that being true to myself and my personal curriculum in this life was not only permissible on a genuine spiritual path but absolutely necessary. This meant a great deal to someone who was allergic to religious conformity and incapable of believing in something just because an authority figure told me to.
I do not expect to come close to penetrating all the books I want to read in this lifetime. But I know I'll return to the Gita again and again, because every time I do I discover something new. At the risk of closing with a cliché, it is a gift that keeps on giving.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the first atomic bomb was detonated in Nevada. It was detonated in New Mexico.