February 4 2016
It is 3,000 years old, and while some see the ancient scripture as the centre of a religion, others see something less obvious and more subtle. Dr Seema Anand’s work on the revival and reproduction of oral literature from India is associated with the UNESCO project for Endangered Oral Traditions and she is an acknowledged authority on several ancient Indian texts, especially ‘The Mahabharata’ and ‘The Ramayana’. We caught up with Dr Seema Anand before she gave a talk at Asia House today (February 4) about the historical context of ‘The Bhagavad Gita’.
By Tasha Mathur
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): What do you put the global appeal of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ down to?
Dr. Seema Anand (SA): What I’ve found people saying to me recently is, ‘We keep the Gita on our bedside and open it every time we’re feeling down. You read a verse and it just gives you so much strength.’ There is something amazing about the philosophy because it’s so deep and it gives you the chance to interpret it from your perspective. It is so incredibly complex and gives rise to so many different meanings that everyone finds something to hold on to with the Gita.
I quite like that larger perspective because it’s so vast that it would take several lifetimes to understand it. I really don’t like people who say, ‘This is what this means and it cannot mean anything else’. The potential is limitless and endless. There must be some timeless element to it because according to scholars, it was written 3,000 years ago and a book is only alive as long as it’s relevant to you. And this has been relevant for 3,000 years.
Also in India – I guess globally as well – but certainly in India, the highest selling books are self-help books. It’s almost as if the world is reaching out for something to feed the soul with. And the Gita seems to provide that. It gives you something to hold onto.
ACV: Why do you think it has piqued the interests of an international audience over the years?
SA: It’s the philosophy that it talks about, as there’s a very vast philosophy that it encompasses. It’s not just the Brahmanical philosophy of ancient times. There’s also the whole idea of Karma and there’s some Buddhist* philosophy to it. It’s such a vast amount of knowledge and teaching and understanding that I think maybe it speaks to the human soul.
We’ve used it once for a training programme and Harvard use it as part of their MBA programme. It’s been said that it is the ultimate text on how to motivate the unmotivated leader. Because it’s not temporal. There’s nothing physical or small about it. It reaches out into the mind. And historically, it’s had such an incredible journey and that’s also impacted people’s interests because this book has been down such an amazing journey. It’s played a role in some pretty big events in history so I think that’s also been a reason.
ACV: How do you think younger people are interacting with the text and especially those living in the West?
SA: As far back as the 1800s or even when Gandhiji (Mahatma Gandhi) was younger, it wasn’t traditional for people to automatically read the Gita. When the translations came out, people started reading it as a religious text or a text that had to be read in its entirety.
Today, it’s read as the odd couplet here and there. So the reading public has gone up but unfortunately the understanding of the text as a whole has gone down because people aren’t reading the whole text. But the upside to this trend is that it appeals to younger people. There are a number of ‘Bhagavad Gita’ classes in London but most people will take the word of somebody else because they haven’t tried to go through some of it themselves.
In the book, Lord Krishna says it’s very important to commit yourself to action and knowledge because that’s what gives you understanding. I wish more people would actually try and tackle the subject matter a bit more and look at the surrounding narratives. It’s not just the Gita that contains the narrative but how does it come to be, what it is has done, how have other people perceived it, what has been its role?
ACV: Do you have any advice for people who want to tackle the text?
SA: The easiest thing to do is to pick up an analytical commentary on it. Take somebody who has studied it and written their views on it and preferably somebody who has an analytical mind such as Dr Ambedkar (India’s first law minister and the man who wrote India’s constitution). There are several historians and scholars who have written about it and not from a religious point of view but just from a literary point of view. Dr Radhakrishnan, who was India’s first vice president, writes about it in a very readable way and sometimes it’s quite good to get some background on it before tackling it further.
ACV: Having studied the Gita for so many years, are there still times where you find yourself challenged and how do you overcome that?
SA: There have definitely been challenges! It’s one of those texts that never become easy when you read it. It even depends on the situation you’re in, the circumstances you find yourself in and what you may have experienced in that week alone. You read one particular shloka (verse) and you will react to it differently because your personal experience comes into it. At some times you may think ‘this is absolutely right’ and other days, you may think ‘no, I can’t agree with it’. It’s very elusive. One moment you think you understand it and then it’s gone. It’s like a little sliver of lightning. You can’t hold on to it at any point. But I will say that I have been through my very left wing thinking days, I’ve done my bit of saying ‘I object to this, I object to that’ but the more I read it, the more I think it is amazing and I’m captivated by it. It has a power that is indescribable. There is something about this book, which I just don’t think any other text has.
ACV: How did you become interested in ancient Indian texts?
SA: I grew up in India and at university, we studied all the classics such as the Greek, Roman texts…Homer, Sophocles and so forth, but we never had an Indian author on our list of studies.
Nowadays, the English Literature course does but not in the 1980s. So, I actually came to reading about the Gita much later and I just got deeper and deeper into the layers. And because none of the information was easily available, I became more interested. Someone asked me recently, ‘As Indians, do we just always come back to Indian mythology?’ I don’t know if it’s because I’m Indian that I chose to do this or because it’s actually an interest. But the level of work I started doing came from me trying to explain to people that we tend to be the internet generation where you read a twenty-line article and you have an opinion on it. There are hundreds of books out there. Read them. Read through six books on one subject and then make an opinion. Let’s go out and understand what was written and why and how that impacts our present narrative because if we want to create any change in our lives then we have to change the stories that we’re telling. And if we don’t know the stories we’re telling then we can’t change them. And if you don’t know what the stories are then you can’t reinstate them.
ACV: What can audiences expect from your talk at Asia House this Thursday?
SA: I’ve always wanted to talk about the journey that the book has taken and hopefully excite enough of the imagination for people to want to find out more and question things such as how was it during the freedom struggle? When did it become a cultural text? I’m also looking at some events in history and talking about how the Gita has been viewed and how it’s become this all – important book for us as global citizens. I’m not going to be looking at the philosophy at all but I’m literally looking at part of the history behind the Gita. The idea is to look at its surrounding narrative, as it’s not a stand-alone text.
*Buddha is believed to have been born between the 5th and 6th Centuries BCE
Tonight (Feb 4) 6.45pm: ‘The Story Behind the Bhagavad Gita’ by Dr Seema Anand at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London, W1G 7LP is now SOLD OUT but you can check with venue.