The Bhagavad Gita: Ancient Poem, Modern Readers
NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers
Richard H. Davis, Director
July 9-27, 2018, Yale University
OverviewIn our era of instant news and information that is both ubiquitous and disposable, it is valuable to reflect on Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “news that stays news.” What enables certain works of the past to break across the boundaries of their own times? How do they engage new listeners and new readers, speak in new languages, and address new concerns in radically different historical and cultural settings? Are there intrinsic qualities that give some works this longevity? What are the values, the reading and interpretive practices, by which audiences enable themselves to enter into dialogue with a text of another time and place? How do we find common values and understandings with works of others who lived long ago?
A religious work of undoubted longevity, the Bhagavad Gita and its history of readings provide an excellent vantage point to consider these questions. Composed two millennia ago, it has continued to speak to readers both within its own community of faith and to those outside Hinduism. Readers both in modern India and the United States have looked to the Gita and found teachings that address their own questions. The work forms a vital topic in contemporary Indian public discourse, and in the United States it is by far the most often read Hindu text. In “great time,” as the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin would have it, the Bhagavad Gita continues to be news. In this NEH Summer Seminar we will explore how this has come to be and why it continues to be so.
We invite college and university teachers, including non-tenured/non-tenure track faculty, and advanced graduate students, to apply. It will be suited to faculty in any discipline in the humanities, such as history, religious studies, world literature, non-Western philosophy, classics, and art history. No prior knowledge of Hinduism or South Asian languages is expected. We will be especially interested in participants who wish to incorporate the Bhagavad Gita or similar classic works of global reach into undergraduate courses, and to reflect on pedagogic methods to bring such works alive for undergraduates.
The Seminar Program
The seminar will be conducted over three weeks during July 2018, with sessions held three hours each weekday morning. This will leave afternoons and evenings free for group activities and for participants to read and do research in the library. The central activity of the seminar will be group discussion of shared readings. This will be supplemented with brief background lectures intended to facilitate discussion, three workshops around shared activities, and three guest lectures. Participants will prepare research papers on topics related to the overall theme of the seminar, and present some of their findings to the group. Viewing adaptations of the Gita and the Mahabharata in theatre, film, television and opera will illuminate another aspect of the ongoing life of these works. Field trips to three museums and to an active Hindu temple will expand our understanding of the role of the Gita within Hinduism.
During the first eight sessions, the seminar will focus on a close reading of the Bhagavad Gita, viewed historically as a Hindu religious work of the early centuries C.E., and its place in the epic Mahabharata. Throughout the seminar participants will compare several translations. We will devote one workshop to the complexities of translating the Sanskrit text into English, while another will focus on practical recitation of the Sanskrit verse of the Gita. A third workshop will analyze the paratextual materials surrounding seventeen Gita publications. For a concluding view of the work, guest lecturer Hugh Flick will present a talk on “Krishna’s Practical Mysticism.” Flick has recently completed a significant monograph on the Bhagavad Gita along with a full translation.
To understand the Gita’s literary setting, the seminar will look at the Mahabharata, the vast epic of which the Gita forms a small but key portion. We will read and discuss the summary by C. V. Narasimhan, and two full books of the eighteen-book composition. These portions, which take place during and immediately after the eighteen-day battle, dramatically convey a sense of the stakes of war. The director will provide additional background, through brief lectures, on the intellectual and religious milieu in which the Gitawas composed. To gain a fuller appreciation of the epic, we will watch the extraordinary six-hour production of the “Mahabharata” by Peter Brook, and we will look at excerpts of modern Indian adaptations of the Mahabharata in film and television. Seminar participants will visit the South Asia galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The following seven sessions of the seminar will explore the Bhagavad Gita as it has continued to live and speak to readers in the modern world. From the time of its first English-language translation, it was no longer simply a Hindu scripture, but an Indian work available to the world. Our seminar will examine fifteen religious, literary, and scientific thinkers from England, the United States, and India, who have engaged in dialogue with the Gita during the modern era.
We will begin with the British translator Charles Wilkins and his work with a Brahmin pandit, Kasinatha Bhattacharya. This will provide an opportunity to reflect again on issues of translation and to consider how transmission into new cultural settings transforms the meaning of a text. Wilkins’ version circulated around the world and reached post-colonial New England, where Ralph Waldo Emerson acquired a copy and lent it to Henry David Thoreau. We will examine Thoreau’s active engagement with the Gita and other Indic works, and their contribution to American Transcendentalism. The seminar will also feature a guest lecture by Matthew Mutter, whose research centers on issues of religion and secularism in American literary modernism. His presentation will focus on T. S. Eliot’s use of the Gita and other Indic sources in developing his modernist poetic vision.
Starting in 1880, Indian literary and political figures began to reframe the ancient poem as a key scripture for modern India. We will focus on three major figures in this interpretive transformation. The Bengali intellectual Bankim Chandra Chatterjee pioneered the reinterpretation of the Bhagavad Gita in the new circumstances of British colonialism and emerging Indian nationalism. Aurobindo Ghosh began his political career as a nationalist spokesman for the extremist faction opposing British rule, but after a jailhouse vision of Krishna, he remade himself into a guru for Integral Yoga with an international following. Through every phase of his life, the Gita was a central source. For Mahatma Gandhi likewise, the Gita was indispensible. Gandhi called it his “mother” and his “dictionary of conduct,” and he sought to integrate its teachings into his own life, the lifestyle of his ashrams, and the nonviolent mobilizations of the Indian struggle for independence.
While concentrating on these three through shared discussion of their writings and presentations by participants, we will place them in the broader context of modern Indian history by looking at other contemporary figures, including the neo-Hindu champion Swami Vivekananda, the Theosophist and ardent nationalist Annie Besant, and the Dalit leader and principal author of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar. Participants will research these and other major figures and present them to the group. At this point in the seminar, Karline McLain will discuss her current research on Gandhi’s ashrams in South Africa and India, as places where Gandhi attempted to put Krishna’s teachings into practice. We will also take a fieldtrip to the large Mahaganapati temple in Queens, New York, to gain an appreciation for contemporary Hindu worship practices.
During the dire events of World War II, notable Americans turned to the Bhagavad Gita for advice and solace. We will spend one session considering the wartime reflections of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the writers Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley on the teachings of Krishna. The final seminar session will look at several ways the Gita is presented and debated in the contemporary world. We will watch what happens when Krishna is reincarnated as an African-American golf caddy, in the film “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Based on a 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield, this film attempts to bring the spirit and teachings of the Bhagavad Gita into American popular culture.
All participants in the seminar will research and prepare presentations on select topics. For this discussion-oriented seminar, these projects are designed to contribute to the central concerns of the seminar. The director will work closely with the participants in formulating and developing individual projects. Written versions of these presentations will be posted on the seminar website.
Part One: Ancient Poem (and Its Contexts)
|Sun, July 8||Reception of participants|
|Mon, July 9||Introduction to the Course, Self-Introduction of Participants
The Demise of the Warrior Class
Read: Narasimhan, Mahabharata, pp. 1-120
Afternoon Field Trip: Yale library resources
|Tues, July 10||War and Restoration
Read: Narasimhan, Mahabharata, pp. 121-216
Workshop: Oral recitation of the Gita: listening and practice
Viewing: Doordarshan “Mahabharat” (excerpts)
|Weds, July 11||Arjuna’s Dilemma
Read: Miller, Bhagavad-Gita, chs. 1-2 (pp. 23-42)
Afternoon Field Trip: Asian Art, Yale University Art Gallery
|Thurs, July 12||Krishna’s Multiple Paths of Yoga
Read: Miller, Bhagavad-Gita, chs. 3-6 (pp. 43-72)
Workshop: Sanskrit translation (using handouts)
|Fri, July 13||Krishna’s Theophany and Arjuna’s Vision
Read: Miller, Bhagavad-Gita, chs. 7-11 (pp. 73-108)
Viewing: Doordarshan “Mahabharat” episode of Arjuna’s vision
|Sat, July 14||Saturday Field Trip: South Asian Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York
|Mon, July 16||Dharma, Bhakti, and God’s Will
Read: Miller, Bhagavad-Gita, chs. 12-18 (pp. 109-146)
Participant Presentation: Peter Brook and the Mahabharata
Workshop: Translations and their Paratexts
Evening Viewing: Brook, “Mahabharata” (part 1)
|Tues, July 17||Summing Up the Gita
Guest presentation: Hugh Flick, “Krishna’s Practical Mysticism”
Read: Davis, Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, pp. 10-42
|Weds, July 18||The Devotional Life of Krishna
Read: Hutchins, Young Krishna (supplied)
Evening Viewing: Brook, “Mahabharata” (part 3)
Part Two: Modern Readers (and their Situations)
|Thurs, July 19||The Gita Becomes a Global Text
Read: Davis, Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, pp. 72-114
Participant Presentation: German Romantics and India
Afternoon Field Trip: Yale Center for British Art (British Print Collection)
|Fri, July 20||The Gita in America: Transcendentalists and Modernists
Guest presentation: Matthew Mutter
Read: Thoreau, selections from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden (supplied)
Participant Presentation: Walt Whitman’s Passage to India
|Sat, July 21||Saturday field trip: Maha Ganapati Hindu Temple, Queens, NY|
|Mon, July 23||The Gita and the Indian Nation
Read: Davis, Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, pp. 115-153
Participant Presentation: Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
Particpant Presentation: Swami Vivekananda and Vedanta in American
|Tues, July 24||Aurobindo: Indian Extremist and International Guru
Read: Heehs, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography
Participant Presentation: Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society
|Weds, July 25||M. K. Gandhi’s Non-violent Gita and His Opponents
Guest presentation: Karline McLain
Read: Gandhi, Bhagavad Gita, pp. xv-xxiv, 3-34, 189-206
Participant Presentation: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
|Thurs, July 26||The Gita at War: Oppenheimer, Isherwood, and Huxley
Read: Hijaya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (supplied)
Participant Presentation: Aldous Huxley and the Perennial Philosophy
Evening Viewing: Operas “Satyagraha” and “Doctor Atomic” (excerpts)
|Fri, July 27||The Gita and Gurus of the 1960s
The Gita in India and the World, Today
Read: Davis, Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, pp. 178-210
Participant Presentation: The Gita and Public Education in India
|Fri, July 27||Evening: Final Reception for Participants
Viewing: “The Legend of Bagger Vance”
Ancient Poem (and Its Contexts)Two massive armies have assembled on the plains of Kurukshetra arrayed for battle. The leading warrior on one side, Arjuna, is suddenly struck with overwhelming remorse. His charioteer Krishna must persuade Arjuna to overcome his qualms and to engage in the impending war. The Bhagavad Gita follows a dramatic arc from Arjuna’s initial crisis of grief and indecision on the battlefield, through a rising series of teachings exploring issues of morality and religious salvation, leading to an awesome and frightening vision of Krishna’s divine, all-encompassing form. It concludes with Arjuna’s acceptance of Krishna’s teachings and his determination to fulfill his duties as a warrior.
What follows in the epic Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a brief portion, is a war of truly devastating proportions, leading to the death of nearly the entire warrior class of India. Even the victors never recover from their grief over the catastrophic carnage of battle. The dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in the Gita is an attempt to provide a new religious and philosophical perspective within which the moral dilemmas and emotional grief of the Mahabharata war could be comprehended. Brief though it may be, the Gita places itself at the ideological heart of the Mahabharata.
Composed at a period of vigorous intellectual debate in India, the Bhagavad Gita engages with many of the existing forms of religious belief and practice of its time: Vedic sacrifice, Upanishadic speculation, Samkhya ontology, psychophysical disciplines associated with Yoga, the renuncatory movements of the Buddhists and Jains, advocates of Dharma or social morality, theistic devotional groups, and Carvaka materialism. Throughout the dialogue, Krishna describes, evaluates, and selectively incorporates these other viewpoints. He creates his own new religious synthesis, one that would prove enormously significant for the subsequent development of Hinduism.
Modern Readers (and Their Situations)In 1785 the East India Company in London published Charles Wilkins’s translation, The Bhagavat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, the first direct translation of a classical Sanskrit work into a Western language. It caused a sensation among the European intelligentsia of the time. From that point on, the Gita has circulated widely in translations throughout Europe and North America. In modern South Asia, the Gita has also been translated into every vernacular Indian language.
American intellectuals as different as Henry David Thoreau, T. S. Eliot, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have engaged deeply with the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Thoreau contemplated it during his two-year retreat at Walden Pond, and Oppenheimer quoted it upon viewing the first atomic detonation in New Mexico. For European and American readers, the Gita has provided a bridge between the thought-worlds of the West and of India, both past and present.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, modern Indian political and religious leaders—B.C. Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, B. G. Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others—have taken the Gita as an interpretative touchstone to reflect on and articulate their varied agendas. During the Indian battle for freedom from British colonial control, the Gita offered applicable teachings. Leaders in the movement viewed it both as a rationale for their struggle and a guide for forming citizens for a new independent nation. The Gita continues to play a public, and often controversial, role in contemporary India. At the same time, Hindu teachers throughout India and the world regularly utilize the Gita as a point of departure for religious explication and commentary.
The SeminarIn this seminar we will meet daily for three weeks in July 2018. The seminar revolves around a core text, and expands outward from it by exploring its many readers and their interpretations. The Bhagavad Gita is a brief text, but it requires explication, best accomplished through close reading and shared discussion. To understand its literary and cultural contexts, we will consider its location in the Mahabharata, and examine the relation between the Gita and its social and religious setting in classical India. To envision the Bhagavad Gita as a work of significance in the modern world, we will look at various readers, not simply as interpreters of the text, but as situated readers engaging in dialogues with the work. We will combine class discussion on shared readings with background lectures, talks by visiting experts, and ancillary activities. Participants will pursue research projects related to the seminar topic, and present some of their findings to the group. This seminar will provide an intense, varied, and meaningful collegial learning experience that is both focused and broad in reach.
Eligibility OverviewEach seminar provides an intimate and focused environment in which sixteen participants (NEH Summer Scholars) study a specific humanities topic under the guidance of one or two established scholars. Seminars have few, if any, visiting faculty. They emphasize sustained interaction among the participants and director(s) through discussion of common readings, conversations about teaching, and advising on independent projects.
Each institute allows twenty-five to thirty-six participants (NEH Summer Scholars) to pursue an intensive program of study under a team of scholarly experts, who present a range of perspectives on a humanities topic. Participants and scholars mutually explore connections between scholarship and teaching of the topic.
In any given year, an individual may apply to two Seminars or Institutes, but may attend only one.
Selection CriterionA selection committee comprised of the project director and two or more colleagues evaluates all complete applications to select a group of NEH Summer Scholars and identify alternates.
Application essays should explain how the specific program will benefit the participant professionally. They should, therefore, address the following:
1. your quality and commitment as a teacher, scholar, and interpreter of the humanities;
2. your intellectual interests as they relate to the topic of the seminar or institute;
3. your special perspectives, skills, or experiences that would contribute to the program;
4. evidence that participation will enhance your long-term teaching and scholarship; and
5. if appropriate, an independent project and its potential contribution to the seminar or institute.
Three seminar spaces and five institute spaces are reserved for non-tenured/non-tenure-track faculty members. Two seminar spaces and three institute spaces may be reserved for advanced graduate students. First consideration is given to those who have not previously attended an NEH Seminar or Institute. When choices must be made between equally qualified candidates, preference is given to those who would enhance the diversity of the program.
Stipend, Tenure, and Conditions of AwardEach participant will receive a stipend according to the duration of the Seminar or Institute, whether one ($1,200) two ($2,100), three ($2,700), or four ($3,300) weeks. The stipend is intended to help cover travel, housing, meals, and basic academic expenses. Stipends are taxable.
Seminar and institute participants must attend all meetings and engage fully as professionals in the work of the project. During the project, participants may not undertake teaching assignments or professional activities unrelated to their participation in the project. Those who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the project will receive a reduced stipend.