Reading the Bhagavad-Gita as a Catholic

The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Vedanta Society, 1972. Print.

 Image result for bhagavad gita christopher isherwood

When I was a high school freshman I took a world history class in which I was required to research a religion other than my own. I chose Hinduism. I spent a month reading everything I could about the religion. I visited the Hindu temple in my town and interviewed the priest.

I am not even going to pretend to be an expert on Hinduism, but thanks to that world history class I do know the basics. This religion project was one of the most formative experiences of my childhood. I was surprised to learn that Hinduism isn’t really polytheistic. The deities are different manifestations of a single God who creates and sustains all things. But I was the most intrigued by the life of Krishna, one of the most recent incarnations of Vishnu.

Krishna’s dialogue with the warrior Arjuna is described in The Bhaghavad-Gita. Although I briefly studied Hinduism in 9th grade, I never read any of the religion’s sacred texts. Yesterday, while browsing Half-Priced Books, I found a translation of the The Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the Mahabharata, an epic poem about a battle between two families. The warrior Arjuna is preparing to go to war with his own family. He knows that killing his family is sinful, but it is his dharma (duty) to be a warrior. Krishna advises Arjuna to fight without concern for the fruit of his actions. Arjuna cannot kill his family anyway because their true selves are distinct from their bodies.

I’d always wanted to read this poem because Krishna’s ethical teachings seemed to be the antithesis of Jesus’ even though the roles Jesus and Krishna play in Christianity and Hinduism respectively are similar in other ways.

Having finished The Bhagavad-Gita only a few hours ago, I don’t feel prepared to discuss Krishna’s teachings at any great length. Perhaps, I don’t have the right to since I am not Hindu. Unpleasant teachings don’t necessarily discredit a religious text either. There are unpleasant scenes in the Old Testament, but I still accept the Hebrew Scriptures as inspired. Krishna insists that mixing castes causes chaos, but he insists that all people can attain union with God regardless of the caste they belong to, if only they have faith in Krishna. There is something very human about the poem. Soldiers fight in wars they may not even support, but it is their duty to follow orders. Krishna is not discussing ethics in the abstract. This is not a philosophy class in which students entertain hypothetical situations so as to determine the most ethical path to take. Arjuna must either act or refrain. Krishna argues that refusal to act is itself an act. Since Arjuna is a warrior, he should fulfill his duty. But he must not act for his own self-glory. He must act with faith and love for God.

I was very moved by the poem. Passages reminded me of the Psalms. Here is my favorite passage:


Well it is the world delights to do you honour!
At the sight of you, O master of the senses,
Demons scatter every way in terror,
And the hosts of Siddhas bow adoring.

Mightiest, how should they indeed withhold their homage?
O Prime Cause of all, even Brahma the Beginner –
Deathless, world’s abode, the Lord of devas,
You are what is not, what is, and what transcends them.

You are first and highest in heaven, O ancient Spirit.
It is within you the cosmos rests in safety.
You are known and knower, goal of all our striving.
Endless in your change, you body forth creation.

Lord of fire and death, of wind and moon and waters,
Father of the born, and this world’s father’s Father.
Hail, all hail to you – a thousand salutations.

Take our salutations, Lord, from every quarter,
Infinite of might and boundless in your glory,
You are all that is, since everywhere we find you.

Carelessly I called you ‘Krishna’ and my ‘comrade,’
Took undying God for friend and fellow-mortal,
Overbold with love, unconscious of your greatness.

Often I would jest, familiar, as we feasted
Midst the throng, or walked, or lay at rest together:
Did my words offend? Forgive me, Lord Eternal.

There are definitely differences (even significant differences) between Hinduism and Catholicism, but reading The Bhagavad-Gita and learning about Hinduism allowed me to encounter the beauty of God in another religion. That is an experience that I recommend to everyone.


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