Gita in a Nutshell #5: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?

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Many people who love the Bhagavad Gita were frustrated or turned off when they first tried to read it.

One reason is often the translation. There are many versions that are very hard to read—stilted, unnatural English, and lots of Sanskrit terms that have you jumping down to the footnotes every other word.  Another problem is the commentary, which is sometimes harder to understand than the text itself and can get very technical.  (This is all fine for experienced readers, by the way.)

The Mitchell version, thankfully, doesn’t have either of these problems.  It reads easily and naturally, with no footnotes at all.  And the commentary is thoroughly enlightening.

But it still has a third common problem which comes from the content itself.  Within a few pages of starting the Gita, the reader is told:

–Women who are allowed to marry outside their caste are “corrupt”. (D)

–If the caste system is violated, society will collapse and those responsible will suffer in hell. (D)

–Men who refuse to fight will be disgraced forever as unmanly cowards. (D)

–Reincarnation will be our reward or punishment for our actions. (M)

–God thinks it’s a great idea to cajole the hero into fighting a bloody war against his relatives. (M)

–We should be indifferent when someone dies. (E)

–There is no real distinction between good and evil. (E)

–We should cut ourselves off from all sensual desires and pleasures. (E)

Is it any wonder that many readers stop right there and say, “I don’t need this.  I’m going to find something more uplifting to read”?  It certainly doesn’t live up to the promise of  “Falling Head-Over-Heels-In-Love With The Universe”.

It takes a little effort and insight to be able to handle these and other jarring issues that come up in the text.  Eventually, for each unacceptable or repugnant idea, you have three choices:

1) Decide to simply ignore it.  (Mitchell is right up front about this in a way few other translations are.  On page 209 he writes, “the Gita contains passages that are culture-bound and should be disregarded by readers who are serious about its deeper teachings”, and he goes on to list the specific stanzas this applies to.)

2) Turn it into a metaphor.  For example, war can be seen as a metaphor for whatever big challenges we face in life.

3) Further explain the troublesome idea in a way that it eventually turns out to make sense.

Each of you will have a different way to work this out.  There is no correct way.  For example, some people believe in literal reincarnation and some do not.   The Gita hits us hard with a lot of these problem passages early on.  The effort to overcome them will be richly rewarded.   (I’ve coded my own personal decisions on the issues above with “D” for “Disregard”, “M” for “turn into a Metaphor”, and “E” for “makes sense when Explained”.  But that’s just me.)

You’ll be encouraged to know that Arjuna, at the beginning of chapter 3, pretty much says to Krishna, “Are you crazy or something”.  He has some of the the same problems we do!

What did you find upsetting or difficult when you first started reading the Gita? 

How did you choose to deal with it?

(This blog originally appeared as Gita Talk #4, which attracted 1521 views and 172 comments, the 4th most commented ever on Elephant, and is still open for reading and response.) 

#4: Each of Us is already Infinitely Wondrous
(Divine, if you prefer)

#6: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations
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please join our Facebook group.)

24 replies on “Gita in a Nutshell #5: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?”

Thanks for posting this. I grew up in India as a Hindu following Gita but never really read the book. I have enjoyed your posts in elephant. My thoughts:

–Women who are allowed to marry outside their caste are “corrupt”. (D)

Inter caste marriage have always taken place through out centuries and usually women is included in the case of her husband. Even in Mahabharata to which Gita is a part of, there are instances of inter caste marriage. Some commentators give positive explanations. Most people in India do not take this literally.

–If the caste system is violated, society will collapse and those responsible will suffer in hell. (D)

This is viewed negatively now. Again most people in India do not take this literally, People have debated for centuries as to whether caste should be determined by one's capabilities, or by birth. Unfortunately 'by birth' camp had upper hand for centuries.

–Men who refuse to fight will be disgraced forever as unmanly cowards. (D)

This has always been viewed positively. Men are urged to fight to defend good from evil.

–Reincarnation will be our reward or punishment for our actions. (M)

This means your karma/action determine your future life after this life.

–God thinks it’s a great idea to cajole the hero into fighting a bloody war against his relatives. (M)

This should be viewed in context of the situation prevalent then.

–We should be indifferent when someone dies. (E)

Isn;t this a goal of yoga. To be indifferent to pleasure, and suffering.

–There is no real distinction between good and evil. (E)

This is context sensitive.

–We should cut ourselves off from all sensual desires and pleasures. (E)

This is a good thing.


The Gita is a unique story that interacts differently within everyone who picks it up. It is very much a story that works on the unconscious level of the reader. A first time reader of the Gita will find the story and nuances of meaning (in symbols and language), to be rewarding only if they are intimately familiar with the philosophy from which it comes from.

One cannot get through the Gita without first knowing a fair amount of Indian and yoga philosophy. A stronger and more intimate reading of the Gita comes as one becomes truly engaged in yoga.

Chapter 16 1-3, the Gita gives us the answers to understanding the divine message of the text.

The Beloved Lord said:

Fearlessness, complete
purity of existence,
steadfast in
the yoga of knowledge;
Acts of giving and restraint,
sacrifice, study of scripture,
austerity, and sincerity;

Nonviolence, truthfulness,
freedom from anger,
relinquishment, peacefulness,
absence of slander;
Compassion for all beings,
freedom from longing,
gentleness, humility,
absence of agitation;

Vitality, patience, tenacity,
purity, freedom from envy,
absence of excessive pride —
These become the attributes
for those of divine birth,
O Bharata.

It seems maybe that this kind of stuff isn't getting pressed so much in the western yoga world. With that, the Gita may not come off with a strong or appropriate message.

The passage I pointed out would be referring directly to yama and niyama of the sutras, if I'm not mistaken. I've recently been writing a bit about such yoga-ethics, that take somewhat of a backseat-driving role in the Gita.

Well Bob, thanks for putting a clear definition on what I've been doing with the Christian Bible for years. Breaking down my take on worrysome passages in that scripture, I guess I've always thrown concepts into "Disregard", "Metaphor" or "Explain" but this puts a clear face on that process.
Anyway, I while the concepts in both books are ageless, our understanding of them changes over time. This is true for the individual and, I think, for societies. Whether we're talking about the Hindu caste system or the Jewish practice of stoneing adulterers to death, these were acceptable practices at one time, but not today. So it's a mistake to take either book literally and the reasonable person has to understand them as metaphor, explain in an appropriate manor or just disregard entirely.
This can cause problems for the interpreter, as the line between holding true to the concepts is wide and blury, and one can wander far from the true intent of both scripture.

Hi Bob, I was left thinking about this, I think I actually re-read the chapter the first time you posted, and yes it is controversial, then again, I suppose the people living back then had their own rules and their own traditions so I kind of also c hose to disregard the commentary relating to the specific time and place around it and go with the main message which is universal

I found that I enjoy the challenge of reading Gita and making my own conclusions on the meaning. I also just take in what applies to my life. I have also loved the discussions and seeing what others are talking about. It has also been a wonderful leaning experience for me.

Thanks again for the forum, Bob. I thought about this for a few days, before I came up with the following.

In fact, I usually read as you do, filtering if you will, the wheat from the chaff. However, let me introduce this thought. "Contradiction, is nature's profoundest method of evolution of consciousness." My friend and teacher told us that years ago, and it never seems to wear thin. You see, much like Arjuna, we are often faced with paradox, contradiction, an inner debate. (Don't ask me who I was debating with. Too revealing). Haha. These logical, moral, spiritual paradoxes are the impetus for real action and/or real knowledge. Only by sythesizing the contradictions in our thoughts and feelings can we come to a place of integration for our heart, mind, and bodies. Harmony of thought, speech, and action. That feeling is knowledge. You know when you get there. Very reassuring.

Meanwhile, hand it to the Gita, for challenging us in this way, and for inspiring our continued aspiration. I too have been seriously challenged by the text over the years, but the wealth of light and internal peace the Gita has provided, have made the hurdles well worth overcoming. In some ways, one good answer for every quandary, is probably not a reasonable goal, since we all have different impressions from the past that we need to overcome, different karmas to perform, etc. I believe the Gita is a dynamic teacher, and is refreshing in its modernity overall despite some glaring temporal and cultural peculiarities Thank you all for sharing.

There is a quote I came across a few years ago and it affected me so profoundly I put it on my phone screen so I would be reminded of it every day. "Do your beliefs bring you peace or do they bring you conflict?" I live in a very small, christian community and often find myself in conversation with those whose beliefs bring them conflict. There is no room in their minds for questions or introspection. They are afraid. This is true for all belief systems, that the words can be taken as illustration of a point and we need to focus on the underlying message rather than on the exact statement. Too often we believe that God's word is actually God's word. How could anything so infinite be expressed in our limited words and language. When we read the words, whether they be from the Gita, the Bible, the Koran, etc. we should know that written/spoken word is limited, not just in meaning but also in context.
For me it boils down to this: the difference between faith and blind faith. Blind faith closes it's eyes to all of the possibilities while faith is open and expansive.

How beautifully and sensitively you've put this, Yogainthevalley.

What you describe is certainly one of the reasons I have gravitated towards Yoga at this point in my life. For me personally Yoga makes me feel, as you put it, "expansive", whereas previous experiences with conventional religion usually made me feel constrained.

(I realize that this is just my personal reaction and that many people feel expansive within traditional religion, too.)

Thanks for writing.

Bob W.
Yoga Editor

There is one point that I always seem to have trouble understanding.
"We should be indifferent when someone dies." It has always been: "He/She isn't suffering anymore" or "He/She is in a better place." Those both work for me when there isn't a close connection but when it is a child or traumatic circumstances or purely senseless, I have trouble being "indifferent". Shiva says (above) "Isn't this a goal of yoga. To be indifferent to pleasure and suffering." Yes, it is but it is a goal I'm not sure I can and want to achieve. I remember sitting with an old teacher of mine while she was telling me a story of her friend passing. She was the only one at the funeral who was happy. I get it. The one who passes has learned and achieved what they needed to do in this lifetime and has moved on to work through more of his/her karmic lessons. But what if it was one of your loved one? Someone you held so dear? That's where I have trouble being indifferent. Maybe I'm being to literal – associating "indifferent" with "non-caring". I don't know. I guess it's something I still need to think on.

Great question, Sue. This was the subject of much consternation and debate during Gita Talk, so much so that I created a separate blog about it, which will be the contents of the next Gita in a Nutshell, #7. If you want to get a sneak preview, see:

Is the Gita Asking Us to Repress Our Emotions?, “Witness” Consciousness
Highlights (Gita Talk #4): under the heading “Dealing with Our Emotions”
13.0-3, 13.12-18, 13.22, 13.24-30, 13.33-34

This is an absolutely critical point. Thanks for raising it with such clarity.

Bob W.

For me, when I read your comment, the word "accepting" came to mind as another way to interpret "indifferent." Accepting is what I personally strive for when such things occur.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

In what is perhaps typical of Vaishnava philosophy, it's a contradictory element of the philosophy to be simultaneously detached and feeling intense separation. You'll no doubt find eastern philosophies commonly presenting what appear to be these contradictions, when they are individually strong foundational components of the path the philosophy lays out to union, enlightenment, self-realization. You might find this explanatory and helpful…

I was frustrated for the translation, the stilted unnatural English, other things as mentioned above, but figured it's a holy book or something profound…and reading the Bible when I was younger was also frustrating for the same reason. I hadn't come across any cultural things yet because of this particular study group style of organizing stanzas, but when I learned about women this and men that, anything we could disregard, explain, or metaphor, well, it all got better. Thanks for laying the path out for us newbies :).

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