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

September 20, 2011

(Complete contents at
Gita in a NutshellBig Ideas and Best Quotations.
Join Gita Talk on facebook.)

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:

–If  “women are corrupted”, it will lead to to the “intermixing of classes”.
[Formerly I had this as “Women who are allowed to marry outside their caste are “corrupt”. (D)”.  See Tim’s correction and my response in the comments.]

–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 NutshellBig Ideas and Best Quotations.
Join Gita Talk on facebook.)

From → Uncategorized

  1. TIm permalink

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

    Could you please provide verse reference? Never read such a thing in the GIta.

    If you are referring to the verse 1.40, there is no mention of caste, but only adultery.

    • Hi, Tim. It’s 1.41. Looking at it more closely, I think you’re right. Corruption and caste are both mentioned, but the intermixing of castes is the result of the corruption of women, not the other way around. I got the cause and effect reversed. Not only that, Feuerstein’s recent translation questions whether “caste” is the right word in the first place, and renders it “class” instead:

      “1.41 Through the prevalence of lawlessness, O Krishna, the family’s women are corrupted; once the women are defiled, O descendant of Vrishni, intermixing of the classes occurs.”

      Thanks for the correction, which I reflected in the article above.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Gita in a Nutshell #4: Each of Us is Already Infinitely Wondrous (Divine, if you prefer) | Bob Weisenberg
  2. Gita in a Nutshell #6: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War? | Bob Weisenberg

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