So, instead of having just another translation to wade through, this is a rather remarkable “explanation” of the book, which depends more on the author's personal relationship with the material than with the details of the material.
This certainly is a different tone than the chanting and dancing of the mid-70's Krishna kids … although I'm sure they'd have agreed with this passage in principle.Because we are not separate from [the] supreme reality, it follows that each of us is incomplete so long as we consider ourselves separate: that is, until we make this discovery ourselves. Whatever else we may achieve in life … there will be a vacuum in our hearts that can be filled only by direct, experiential knowledge of reality. This is the message of the Gita in a nutshell: life has only one purpose, and that is to know the divine ground of existence and become united with it here and now.
If you are unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita, it's one section of the sprawling historical epic poem, the Mahabharata, which describes events in India in the 8-9th centuries BCE. The core elements of this deal with a war between various elements of a dynasty, with relatives, teachers, and close friends arrayed on both sides. One key figure is the prince Arjuna, who is preparing for battle, and at the start of the Gita, is reviewing the assembled lines, with his chariot driver, Krishna. Arjuna, a great warrior, is having qualms about this battle, foreseeing the deaths of so many people he cares about, and expresses this to Krishna … who then reveals himself as the Godhead and goes through a whole exposition about “life, the universe, and everything”, including how Arjuna must follow his dharma as a warrior and participate in the battle. Easwaran points out that the actual war is within, and the battle is with the illusion of separateness, or Maya.
Again, I was surprised at how little Essence of the Bhagavad Gita actually dwells on the story, or even wording of the Gita. Rather, the author takes the Gita as a starting point to discuss the underlying concepts involved, and the tone is very much discursive, as though one was sitting at tea with Easwaran and listening to him expound on this. Indeed, there is a good deal of autobiographical material in this, discussing how he came to his faith, and became a teacher, etc., using elements from his own life to illustrate the ideas he's presenting.
Of course, when it's to the point, he will dip into the text of the Gita, such as in this passage where Krisha is instructing Arjuna on the illusion of death:
Frankly, if one looked through the chapter titles here, one would not suspect that this was a book about, or even based on the Bhagavad Gita … as the chapters deal with reality, personality, yoga, meditation, the unconscious, reincarnation, and other more “philosophical” subjects whose natures are brought to light for Easwaran in the pages of the Gita. This is probably the most appealing part of the book for me, as, rather than “beating one over the head” with the insistence of entering a Krsihna practice (like the Hare Krishnas back in the day), he is taking the teachings of Krishna from the Gita and presenting these as a template for an approach that is quite in line with modern western psyches.Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since they are unavoidable, you should not sorrow. Every creature is unmanifested at first and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it again becomes unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (2:27-28)
I very much enjoyed Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, and would generally recommend it to “all and sundry”, with the one concern that it might not have the impact that it did for me if one was not as familiar with the source material. Obviously, one could pick up Easwaran's translation of the Gita (which would likely provide a seamless transition into this), but it is also available free on-line, from the basic text translated into English (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/gita/), to Prabhupada's idiosyncratic presentation (http://www.asitis.com/), and other detailed looks at this classic book (such as at http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/). That said, I do think this would be a useful read for anybody. Being that it's new, you have a pretty good shot of finding it at your local bookstore that stocks “eastern religion” titles, and the on-line guys have it from a quarter to a third off of (a very reasonable) cover price.