Essence of the Bhagavad Gita (Wisdom of India) Paperback – 29 Dec 2011
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"It is impossible to get to the heart of those classics unless you live them, and [Easwaran] did live them. My admiration of the man and his works is boundless." --H U S T O N S M I T H, author of "The World's Religions" (Reviewing Easwaran's translation, "The Bhagavad Gita")
About the Author
Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) grew up in India and became a professor of English literature before settling in the West, where he taught the Gita for over 40 years.
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Many Gita commentaries (including Easwaran's own three-volume set) explore the text passage by passage. Through these, we quickly discern that the battle described in the Gita is not physical but internal and that this battle is won using will power rather than firepower.
Beyond the individual words and passages, however, lies much more. Deftly wielding his little but powerful lamp, Easwaran leads us on a spelunking trip deep into the heart of the Gita. Along the way, we encounter wisdom from such varied sources as Shankara, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Spinoza, Jung, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, physiologist Hudson Hoagland and others. The journey is at once simple and profound.
The book begins by introducing the split in consciousness between our lower and higher selves that causes separateness and struggle. Easwaran explores the nature of reality and personality, explaining that we are not our bodies or our minds (!) and that identification with these imposters keeps us feeling separate from everyone and everything.
Beginning with chapter six, we move from theory to practice. Easwaran explains how to heal the split using a system of living that includes meditation, living deliberately and experimenting with our likes and dislikes. The words are practical and enormously compelling.
The final three chapters describe the journey of humanity toward its ultimate goal: self-realization. We have no choice but to fight this battle, Easwaran and the Gita insist. Putting our heads in the sand or playing with the toys of life only delays the battle and prolongs our misery. Ultimately, Easwaran's Gita tells us we will not only fight but also win and that this glorious day comes much more quickly when we seize the initiative and realize our potential.
This story could only be told by a lifelong student of the Gita, someone who has lived it each day and is now so familiar with it that its words pale against the underlying meaning. Even so, in the hands of a lesser writer, no one but an enlightened being could even understand how the meaning derives from the words. But Easwaran's ideas fit together so well and are so nicely supported by the sparsely used but powerful Gita verses that, by the end, it's utterly impossible to deny both the wisdom of this interpretation and the inevitability of its effect on us.
The first few chapters describe in detail the split in our consciousness that keeps us from being who we really want to be. What is this split? Easwaran characterizes it as "the tension between the upward pull towards freedom from biological conditioning and the downward pull that holds us back." Through the use of compelling imagery, Easwaran helps us see that living at the top of this split - "the world of everyday experience" - can never be satisfying. We live in emotional turmoil, and then feel that there is nothing we can do about it.
As with all of Easwaran's writing, I love the fact that he makes this understanding immediately applicable in our own lives, if we're willing to put in the effort required - that is a spiritual practice that includes meditation and allied disciplines. Otherwise we cannot help reacting to the events in our lives. In chapters six through eight, he shows us how learning to train our attention and juggle our likes and dislikes can make our minds more even. "In whatever walk of life we may be engaged, once we take to meditation, life becomes vibrant with meaning because every moment we have a choice - if you like, between immediate personal gratification and personal growth, between personal desires and the welfare of all. It is this exercise of choice that slowly begins to transform all that is ugly in our life and consciousness into a work of art."
The subsequent chapters outlines how the split continues to heal at deeper and deeper levels in the later years of our practice. First, we are training our attention, then our will, and finally our desire. What a long journey into the depths of our consciousness - over lifetimes!
Nowhere have I found such a clear exposition of the path into deeper consciousness and how we can truly transform our personalities.
The book displays Easwaran's usual graceful clarity of thought and word. But I think this is the deepest of Easwaran's books to date. This one goes deep, deep into the heart and mind of humanity. I've gained insights from this book which I have not gained from his prior books, even though I've studied them all. Maybe I just wasn't ready for these insights until now, I cannot tell for absolutely certain-sure. But I think this book is deeper.
I've just finished it; I will re-read it this week, slowly, and ponder its message. I've no doubt it will be read again and again, and become dog-eared rather quickly. It's a life-changing, seriously life-enhancing book, perhaps particularly for those individuals who are chasing material goods and/or power in the sad delusion that these will make them truly happy. But it would be life-enhancing for everyone.
In conclusion, I can do no better than copy a sentence from Nalini's review: "Nowhere have I found such a clear exposition of the path into deeper consciousness and how we can truly transform our personalities." This says it all.
Pat Meadows (who is deeply grateful to Easwaran and to the editors of this book - Thank you!)
While there are many good points made as well as illuminating examples about how to live a more spiritual life, this book did not equal his previous books. This may be because it was put together by students of his 8-point program based on Easwaran's notes and he was not there to bring it all together in a more cohesive way as he had done so professionally with his other books. (His MEDITATION book is a favorite of mine. In fact, I've had to buy it several times over the years because any time I lend a copy, it's enjoyed so much that it doesn't come back! I also highly recommend his three-volume work, THE BHAGAVAD GITA FOR DAILY LIVING.)
One of the things I found disappointing is that someone who is new to Easwaran's work or to Indian Philosophy will be confused by the term "yoga." Yoga is explained, but the book would have been stronger if the book had explained clearly, right from the start, that this is not the yoga "exercise" that many Westerners associate with the word.
There were also errors in punctuation, grammar, and style. I came across several examples that were not attributed to the original source, such as "The Prayer of St. Francis" and a Bible passage, and at least one quote that was incomplete. Also, some examples were presented as if they were just being introduced, but were actually a repeat of earlier examples in the book. Something else that bothered me was that the book blurb included is about an earlier work of Easwaran's. The blurb on the back of the book should be about THAT book.
All this is not to say that the book is without merit. While I would not recommend it as an introduction to the BHAGAVAD GITA, it does reinforce many concepts present in Easwaran's other books, so it works fairly well as a review. Some excerpts:
"That which is infinite can be filled only with something infinite."
We "believe we are separate individuals when there is really only one Self in billions of forms."
"Nirvana" is "the blowing-out or extinction of all self-centered thought."
"...the cause of personal stress is not outside us but arises from our perception."
"Karma is essentially an opportunity to learn."
Finally, a passage from the BHAGAVAD GITA, whose passages are pure poetry:
"You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself--without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind."
From this still point, Easwaran uncovers for us the various layers of the Gita in a rich tapestry. He covers topics such as the nature of reality, levels of personality, our illusion of separateness from the rest of life, the meaning of yoga, healing the unconscious, and so on. These are woven together seamlessly, giving the reader a panoramic view of the Gita that few authors can provide. Easwaran's genius is his ability to describe the timeless truths of the Gita in language that is contextual and easy to comprehend. And yet, as the publisher's note points out, this book is a distillation of 40 years of teaching. Like any other distillation, it is concentrated and must be savored in small portions and repeatedly. That is certainly what I intend to do!