BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Is not our fortune famous, brave, and great?

This is another book that came my way via the “Early Reviewers” program. I'm not sure what I was specifically expecting this to be (in the LTER program, there's a big list of books that are being offered by publishers, with a brief description of each, and a button to “request” a book, and then it's up to the “almighty algorithm” to match up the requests to what seems to be the best match of reviewer … you can request as many as you like, but you'll only get one “win”, and that's not a sure thing). Anyway, I've had a long familiarity with the Bhagavad Gita, going back to the mid-70's when the Hare Krishna movement was wide-spread, and I actually had a subscription to their Back to Godhead magazine. One of the features of this was an on-going translation of the Gita by ISKCON founder Prabhupada, where there was the Sanskrit text, a transliteration of that into the Western alphabet, a linear translation, and an interpretive translation of the meaning of the passage … I found these fascinating, as it was a window into Sanskrit that I didn't have otherwise. So, it wasn't much of a surprise when I “won” Eknath Easwaran's Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation, and Indian Philosophy, but I was thinking that this would simply be another translation of the Indian classic. Actually, Easwaran (who is the late founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation) has a translation of the Gita, and this book is intended as a “companion” to that, outlining the “essence” of that text.

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.
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.
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.

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:
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)
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.

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 (, to Prabhupada's idiosyncratic presentation (, and other detailed looks at this classic book (such as at 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.

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Tags: book review
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