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November 2019

   De Bhagavad-Gita als Leerschool

Kees Boukema

Mr Kees Boukema is a Vedantic scholar. He has been the student of Vedanta for decades. He has written many articles and reviews, and has enriched Dutch literature through his translation of important books. Please scroll down for the English version of this article on the study of Bhagavad Gita in the West.

     De ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ is onderdeel van het epos de ‘Mahabharata’ en bevat een exposé van de diverse doctrines binnen de Hindoe-filosofie. Het is een Sanskriet gedicht dat in veel talen is vertaald; meerdere malen in het Engels. In 1944 zag een Engelse vertaling het licht, gepubliceerd door de The Vedanta Society of Southern California, die voor westerse lezers zeer toegankelijk en inspirerend is. Deze vertaling is van Swami Prabhavananda en de Engelse auteur Christopher Isherwood, voor wie het werken aan de vertaling tevens een leerschool was in de Vedanta-filosofie.

     Isherwood, in de dertiger jaren een gevierd romanschrijver en actief pacifist, was vlak voor het uitbreken van de tweede wereldoorlog uit Engeland vertrokken naar de Verenigde Staten. Hij verbleef eerst in New York, maar vestigde zich daarna in Los Angeles, waar hij werk hoopte te vinden als scenarioschrijver in Hollywood. Daar woonden zijn literaire vrienden Gerald Heard en Aldous Huxley. Ook zij waren overtuigd pacifist, maar waren inmiddels tot het inzicht gekomen, dat niet politieke actie, maar religie de beste kansen bood om oorlogen definitief uit te bannen. Beide waren leerling van Swami Prahbavananda, hoofd van het Vedanta-Centrum in Hollywood.

    Huxley bracht Isherwood in contact met ‘Warner Brothers’, de filmstudio waar hijzelf ook voor werkte. Heard stelde hem voor aan Swami Prabhavananda. Die kennismaking verliep over en weer naar genoegen. Bij hun tweede ontmoeting op 4 augustus 1939 accepteerde de swami Isherwood als leerling en gaf hem instructies voor meditatie. In de winter van 1940 ontving Isherwood initiatie. [ Isherwood, The Wishing Tree, p. 33 e.v.]

     “Swami Prabhavananda had also an occupation for me”, schreef Isherwood, “He had just finished a rough translation of the Bhagavada Gita and needed me to help him polish it,”[….] “Our work on the Gita was for me not only a literary problem, but an education in Vedanta philosophy. Even if the result had not been intended for publication, I should have felt that every moment of it was worthwhile. For the slow, thorough-going process of translating a text, considering all the significance of each word and often spending a day on three or four verses, is the ideal way to study, if you have a teacher like Prabhavananda. [….] He told me the meaning of a phrase, we then considered how its meaning could best be conveyed in English.” [a.w. p.182 e.v.]

      Prabhavananda zei over de samenwerking met Isherwood: “I had a Gita translation, but when I read the twelfth chapter I felt that the meaning had not been brought out. I saw a deeper meaning in it. So I started to translate and then Chris helped me. I translated and Chris edited. When Peggy K. [a devotee] came, she read what we had done and could not understand it. Then we went to Aldous [Huxley]. Chris read aloud and Aldous listened. Aldous said, ‘No, that is not right yet. Forget that Krishna is speaking to the Hindus in Sanskrit. Forget that this is a translation. Think that Krishna is speaking to an American audience in English.’ Aldous then told Chris which style to use for verse and Chris rewrote the whole eleventh Chapter of the Gita in the style of Tennyson, I believe. We all liked what he had done. After a week, the book was finished. Chris was inspired.” [a.w. p. 191].

     Het werken aan de vertaling was in 1942 begonnen. Inmiddels was ook Amerika betrokken geraakt in de wereldoorlog. Isherwood, die op grond van gewetensbezwaren dienst had geweigerd, zag zich direct geconfronteerd met een principieel probleem. In hoofdstuk 1 bevinden prins Arjuna en zijn wagenmenner Krishna [de God Vishnoe in menselijke gestalte] zich op het slagveld vlak vóór de strijd zal losbranden tussen twee verwante families: de Kaurava’s en de Pandava’s. Als Arjuna  de slagorde van rivaliserende krijgers overziet, dringt het tot hem door, dat in de komende veldslag veel goede en edele mensen zullen worden gedood. Arjuna raakt vertwijfeld en verklaart, dat hij niet zal vechten. Hij weigert deel te nemen aan, wat hij nu ziet als ‘broedermoord’:

Rather than this, let the evil children of Dhritarashtra 

   Come with their weapons against me in battle.

   I shall not struggle, I shall not strike them.

   Now let them kill me. That will be better.”  

Een pacifistisch standpunt waarmee Isherwood het eens was. Maar Krishna wijst Arjuna terecht:

“What is this weakness? It is beneath you. 

  Is it for nothing men call you the foe-consumer? 

  Shake off this cowardice, Arjuna. Stand up.”

Arjuna houdt echter voet bij stuk: “Wat ik met moord en doodslag zou verkrijgen, zal met bloed besmeurd zijn en geen vreugde geven. Deze oorlog winnen zal even rampzalig zijn als hem verliezen. Als wij hen zouden doden, zou niemand van ons in leven willen blijven.

Voel ik oprecht compassie. Of koester ik waandenkbeelden? Mijn geest tast in het duister. Ik weet niet meer wat ik moet doen. Ik smeek je Krishna: ‘Wijs mij de weg!’”  

     Krishna’s antwoord op de vraag van een radeloze Arjuna vormt de eigenlijke inhoud van de Gita: Een uiteenzetting van theorie en praktijk van Vedanta; de diverse wegen die tot inzicht en verlossing leiden: jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga en karma yoga. 

Aan het slot van zijn uiteenzettingen vraagt Krishna aan Arjuna:

“Have you listened carefully, Arjuna, to everything I have told you?

  Have I dispelled the delusions of your ignorance?”

Daarop antwoordt Arjuna:

“By your grace, O Lord, my delusions have been dispelled.

  My mind stands firm. Its doubts are ended.

  I will do your bidding.”

Arjuna is klaar voor de strijd, die achttien dagen zou duren en die zou eindigen in een volledige overwinning van Arjuna en zijn broeders.

     Betekent dit nu dat de Bhagavad Gita militair geweld goedkeurt? 

“Als de Gita oorlog onvoorwaardelijk goedkeurt,”schreef Isherwood,”dan moet ik de Gita afwijzen.” Voor Mahatma Gandhi, de politicus die met geweldloos verzet India naar onafhankelijkheid leidde, was de Gita geen legitimatie voor gewapende strijd, maar een allegorie. Een zinnebeeldige voorstelling van de innerlijke strijd van de mens tegen zijn kwade impulsen en neigingen [a.w. 171]. Befaamd is zijn uitspraak: “Try following the teaching of the Gita. Live as it teaches you to live. Then see if you are capable of harming any living being.” [Prabuddha Bharata, October 2009, p 573.]

      Het gaat in de Gita niet over het rechtvaardigen van oorlog en geweld, maar over de vraag wat een mens moet doen om spiritueel te groeien. Arjuna behoorde tot de kaste der krijgers en was legerleider. Het was zijn plicht om voor te gaan in de strijd. 

“The leader’s duty, ordained by his nature,

   Is to be bold, unflinching and fearless,

   Subtle of skill and open-handed,

   Great-hearted in battle, a resolute ruler.”

     Swami Prabhavananda schrijft in ‘The Spiritual Heritage of India’ [p.105]: “Non-resistence is recognized by all the great teachers as the highest virtue. The Gita also regards it as the highest virtue, but does not say that all people under all circumstances must practice it. On the contrary, it points out that for some it is necessary to learn to resist evil in order that by this means they may grow into a state in wich they have the moral strength to endure it. Consider the man who does not resist evil because he is weak or lazy and will not make the effort to do so. Is this the virtue of non-resistence? Then consider another who knows that he can strike an irresistible blow if he likes, and yet does not strike, but blesses his enemy.”

     Prabhavananda citeert Swami Vivekananda: “The one who from weakness does not resist commits a sin, and therefore cannot recieve any benefit from his non-resistance; while the other would commit a sin by offering resistance.” [C.W. I, p.39]. 

Met andere woorden: “We must gather the power to resist; then, having gained it, we must resist it.” 


 

The Bhagavadgita as a School

The ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ is part of the epic the ‘Mahabharata’ and contains an exposition of the various doctrines within Hindu philosophy. It is a Sanskrit poem that has been translated into many languages; several times in English. In 1944, an English translation was published by The Vedanta Society of Southern California, which is very accessible and inspiring to Western readers. This translation is by Swami Prabhavananda and the English author Christopher Isherwood, for whom working on the translation was also a learning experience in Vedanta philosophy.

Isherwood, a celebrated novelist and active pacifist in the 1930s, had left England for the United States just before the outbreak of World War II. He first stayed in New York, but then settled in Los Angeles, where he hoped to find work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. His literary friends Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley lived there. They too were committed pacifists, but had now come to the conclusion that it was not political action but religion that offered the best chances to ban wars permanently. Both were students of Swami Prahbavananda, head of the Vedanta Center in Hollywood.

Huxley put Isherwood in touch with ‘Warner Brothers’, the film studio he himself worked for. Heard introduced him to Swami Prabhavananda. That introduction went back and forth satisfactorily. At their second meeting on August 4, 1939, the Swami accepted Isherwood as an apprentice and gave him instructions for meditation. In the winter of 1940, Isherwood received initiation. [Isherwood, The Wishing Tree, p. 33 et seq.]

“Swami Prabhavananda had also an occupation for me,” Isherwood wrote, “He had just finished a rough translation of the Bhagavada Gita and needed me to help him polish it,” [….] “Our work on the Gita was for me not only a literary problem, but an education in Vedanta philosophy. Even if the result had not been intended for publication, I should have felt that every moment of it was worthwhile. For the slow, thorough-going process of translating a text, considering all the significance of each word and often spending a day on three or four verses, is the ideal way to study, if you have a teacher like Prabhavananda. [….] He told me the meaning of a phrase, we then considered how its meaning could best be conveyed in English. ” [a.w. p.182 ff.]

Prabhavananda said of the collaboration with Isherwood: “I had a Gita translation, but when I read the twelfth chapter I felt that the meaning had not been brought out. I saw a deeper meaning in it. So I started to translate and then Chris helped me. I translated and Chris edited. When Peggy K. [a devotee] came, she read what we had done and could not understand it. Then we went to Aldous [Huxley]. Chris read aloud and Aldous listened. Aldous said, ‘No, that is not right yet. Forget that Krishna is speaking to the Hindus in Sanskrit. Forget that this is a translation. Think that Krishna is speaking to an American audience in English. ‘ Aldous then told Chris which style to use for verse and Chris rewrote the whole eleventh Chapter of the Gita in the style of Tennyson, I believe. We all liked what he had done. After a week, the book was finished. Chris was inspired. ” [a.w. p. 191].

Work on the translation had started in 1942. In the meantime, America had also become involved in the world war. Isherwood, who had conscientiously refused service, was immediately confronted with a problem of principle. In chapter 1, Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna [the God Vishnu in human form] find themselves on the battlefield just before the battle will take place between two related families: the Kauravas and the Pandavas. As Arjuna surveys the battle line of rival warriors, he realizes that in the coming battle many good and noble people will be killed. Arjuna becomes desperate and declares that he will not fight. He refuses to participate in what he now sees as ‘fratricide’:

“Rather than this, let the evil children of Dhritarashtra

Come with their weapons against me in battle.

I shall not struggle, I shall not strike them.

Now let them kill me. That will be better. ”

A pacifist position with which Isherwood agreed. But Krishna corrects Arjuna:

“What is this weakness? It is beneath you.

Is it for nothing men call you the foe-consumer?

Shake off this cowardice, Arjuna. Stand up. ”

Arjuna, however, insists: “What I would get by murder and manslaughter will be stained with blood and bring no joy. Winning this war will be as disastrous as losing it. If we killed them, none of us would want to live.

I feel genuine compassion. Or do I cherish delusions? My mind is in the dark. I don’t know what to do anymore. I beg your Krishna: ‘Show me the way!’ ”

Krishna’s answer to the question of a distraught Arjuna is the actual content of the Gita: An exposition of the theory and practice of Vedanta; the various ways that lead to insight and salvation: jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga and karma yoga.

At the end of his expositions, Krishna asks Arjuna:

Have you listened carefully, Arjuna, to everything I have told you?

Have I dispelled the delusions of your ignorance? ”

To that Arjuna replies:

By your grace, O Lord, my delusions have been dispelled.

My mind stands firm. Its doubts are ended.

I will do your bidding. ”

Arjuna is ready for the battle, which would last eighteen days and which would end in a complete victory for Arjuna and his brothers.

Does this mean that the Bhagavad Gita approves of military violence?

“If the Gita approves war unconditionally,” wrote Isherwood, “then I must reject the Gita.” For Mahatma Gandhi, the politician who led India to independence with nonviolent resistance, the Gita was not a legitimacy for armed struggle, but an allegory. A symbolic representation of the inner struggle of man against his evil impulses and inclinations [a.w. 171]. His statement is famous: “Try following the teaching of the Gita. Live as it teaches you to live. Then see if you are capable of harming any living being. ” [Prabuddha Bharata, October 2009, p 573.]

The Gita is not about justifying war and violence, but about what a person must do to grow spiritually. Arjuna belonged to the warrior caste and was an army leader. It was his duty to lead the fight.

“The leader’s duty, ordained by his nature,

Is to be bold, unflinching and fearless,

Subtle of skill and open-handed,

Great-hearted in battle, a resolute ruler. ”

Swami Prabhavananda writes in ‘The Spiritual Heritage of India’ [p.105]: “Non-resistance is recognized by all the great teachers as the highest virtue. The Gita also regards it as the highest virtue, but does not say that all people under all circumstances must practice it. On the contrary, it points out that for some it is necessary to learn to resist evil in order that by this means they may grow into a state in which they have the moral strength to endure it. Consider the man who does not resist evil because he is weak or lazy and will not make the effort to do so. Is this the virtue of non-resistence? Then consider another who knows that he can strike an irresistible blow if he likes, and yet does not strike, but blesses his enemy. ”

Prabhavananda quotes Swami Vivekananda: “The one who from weakness does not resist commits a sin, and therefore cannot recieve any benefit from his non-resistance; while the other would commit a sin by offering resistance. ” [C.W. I, p. 39].

In other words: “We must gather the power to resist; then, having gained it, we must resist it. ”


 

 

 

 

 

Dhr Kees Boukema

Kees Boukema is sinds decennia student van Vedanta en andere filosofische systemen. Hij heeft divers bijgedragen aan het veld van hoger denken. Hij heeft belangrijke artikelen en boeken geschreven en vertaald. Dhr Kees Boukema is de bijdragende redacteur van deze pagina.