I was seven or eight when I first heard of the Bhagavat Gita. My mother registered my sister and me into Chinamaya Mission’s program for young ones. Chanting the Gita was one of the activities. I even learnt the whole of chapter 7 by heart for a competition, and what’s more, I won a prize for it too!
Not that I understood anything much at that time. Subsequently I have read some summaries and heard some lectures but have not really delved into the Gita. I would tell myself ‘I really should read it at least once from end to end’ but I never got around to it. Well, last week I finally embarked on my long time goal. I hope to have the two-fold benefit of understanding the basic ideas of the Gita and improving my Sanskrit at the same time. I am not going to rush through it, after all, what is the hurry?
Why am I telling you all this? Well, if you see me quote from the Gita every now and then, don’t take me for some erudite vidushi! I am just stumbling along my first word-for-word read of the Gita and no doubt it will filter down into this blog as well.
For those who do not have the time to read it, here is the gist of Chapter 1 which I have just finished. Sanjaya, the charioteer and seer for Dhritarashtra is our narrator. Dhritarashtra asks in the first verse of his seer, ‘What’s up in the battleground ?’. Or rather, he says elegantly in Sanskrit
धर्मक्षेत्रे कुरुक्षेत्रे समवेता युयुत्सवः |
मामकाः पाण्डवाश्चैव किमकुर्वत सञ्जय ||१- १||
What did Pandu’s son and my sons do when they assembled on the sacred (Dharmic) plain of Kurukshetra, eager for battle, O Sanjaya?
Note how he refers to the battleground as धर्म क्षेत्र or the field of Dharma, a word which encompasses so much from righteousness, duty, religion, virtue, justice, morality, propriety to law. That is the field for which the Gita was written.
The theme of this chapter is Arjuna’s grief. Those who know the Mahabharata know that the Pandavas had come upon this point after many years of injustice, treachery, insults and even murder attempts. They had not lightly decided on this course of war with their kin. Yet when Arjuna sees his grandfather, uncles, gurus, sons, grandsons, in-laws, cousins and friends arrayed before him on either side of the battlefield, he is overcome with the magnitude of what is happening. ‘What am I doing it all for?’, he seems to ask Krishna, his charioteer, in this verse.
न काङ्क्षे विजयं कृष्ण न च राज्यं सुखानि च |
किं नो राज्येन गोविन्द किं भोगैर्जीवितेन वा ||१- ३२||
I desire not victory, O Krishna, nor kingdom, nor pleasures. Of what avail is dominion to us, O Govinda? Of what avail are pleasures and even life?*
He is a shaken man. His limbs tremble, his skin feels as if it burns, his mouth is dry. We can hardly recognize the great and experienced warrior that he was in these descriptions. His main fear seems to be that of accumulating the great sin of destroying his family.
अहो बत महत्पापं कर्तुं व्यवसिता वयम् |
यद्राज्यसुखलोभेन हन्तुं स्वजनमुद्यताः ||१- ४५||
Alas! We have resolved to commit a great sin, inasmuch as we are endeavouring to slay our kinsmen out of craving for the pleasures of dominion.
It seems to me that he was more worried about gathering sins than the loss of dear ones. Whatever it was, I feel most sympathetic with him and wonder how the story would have gone if he had walked away from the battlefield then?
There are some verses (40-48) which I found rather objectionable in this chapter. His idea of a adharmic future is the impiety of women (not men!), the intermingling of castes due to which all the forefathers will go to hell without offerings of pinda and water! I suppose it struck at me personally as a woman who not only married outside her caste but also outside her region. To be accused of impiety and the ‘sin of intermingling of castes’ seems rather harsh! What can be wrong about the intermingled origins of my two wonderful children? Two such intelligent and empathetic citizens of the world, both doctors who aid people everyday, surely the Gita does not question the propriety of their existence? Ah well, different times, different mores. I am not one to take the scriptures too literally…
The theme song of the day? What came to mind immediately was ‘Sthirata Nahi Nahi Re’ by Sadasiva Brahmendra. ‘There is no stability of mind’ says the poet. ‘We are engrossed in this ocean of three kinds of sorrow, caged by arrogance and egotism’ he says. Arjuna too felt deep sorrow at his situation, a situation which came about partly by arrogance and egotism as well. ‘Minds wrapped up with the bond of things, perplexed by wrong or contrary knowledge’. Interesting that vishaya can be interpreted as objects but also as country or land. Is that not what the Pandaves were, bound to their desire for land? For lyrics and translation, see footnote.
The song was made his own by the incomparable Maestro Balamuralikrishna. I believe it was set to music by him for the film Dharma Nirnayam but I cannot confirm this. It is set to Raga Amruta Varshini here but this poem has been sung in different ragas by different artists.
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Footnote (Lyrics) : Language : Sanskrit
Footnote (Lyrics) :
Language : Sanskrit
स्थिरथा नहि नहि रे मानस ।
स्थिरथा नहि नहि रे ॥
तापत्रय सागर मग्नानाम् दर्पाहन्कार विलग्नानाम् ॥
विषय पाश वेष्टित चित्तानाम् विपरीत ज्ञान विमत्तानाम् ॥
परमहंस योग विरुद्धानाम् बहु चन्चलतर सुख सिद्धानाम् ॥
sthiratA nahi nahi rE mAnasa
sthiratA nahi nahi rE
tApatraya sAgara magnAnam darpAhankAra vilagnAnAm
vishaya pAsha veshTita chittAnAm viparIta jnAna vimattAnAm
paramahamsa yoga viruddhAnAm bahu chanchalatara sukha siddhAnAm
There is no stability of mind
There is no stability.
We are engrossed in this ocean of three kinds of sorrow (note: Adidaivika (Divine), Adhibhoutika (of the body) and Adhyatmika (of the soul)), caged by arrogance and egotism.
Minds wrapped up with the bond of things, perplexed by wrong or contrary knowledge.
Opposed to union with ascetics, their achieving of joy is very uncertain.
Footnote (Raga) :
The scales of Raga Amruta Varshini are as follows :
Aarohanam (Ascending) : S G3 M2 P N3 S’
Avarohanam (Descending) : S’ N3 P M2 G3 S
This raga is a Janya Raga, derived from Chitrambari (scales below), 66th on the Melakarta scale. Some musicologists consider it to be derived from Jalavarali (39th Melakarta) or Mechakalyani(65th Melakarta).
The moods associated with this raga are joy and exuberance. There are not many compositions in this raga. The ones I have heard and enjoyed are are Anandmrutakarshini by Muthuswami Dikshitar, Sarasiruha Nayane by Tyagaraja and Sudhamayi Sudhanidhi by Muthiah Bhagavatar.
Note : The 12 notes in the octave are named as below. Please note that C is used as Sa for the sake of simplicity as the scale is relative in Carnatic Music. Also note that the scales paint only a superficial picture of the raga as the gamakas(ornamentations) and prayogas (signature phrases) are a very important part of a raga.