Vishnu said: “Wherever the Bhagavad Gita is discussed, recited, read, or heard, there I most certainly always dwell. I reside in the Gita as my ashram. The Gita is my highest home.”
— Gita Mahatmya, verses 6–7
Religious works do not live simply as words on the page or sentences taken in silently by readers with their eyes. They live also in words uttered with mouths and heard with ears. This is especially so for Indian religious works like the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita was (according to the Maha bharata) an oral dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, repeated in conversation by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, taught orally by Vyasa to his pupils, performed aloud at a court ceremony by Vaishampayana, and retold orally again by Ugrashravas. The Mahabharata was (according to most historians) composed as an oral epic and transmitted orally for generations before being put into final written form. So it is fitting to close this account of the life of the Bhagavad Gita as it began. In this concluding chapter, we will briefly consider the Gita as it is recited and explicated orally in several contemporary settings.1
Although the Bhagavad Gita has become vastly more available in print over the past century, this proliferation has by no means put an end to oral performances of the text. If anything, the printed work’s availability has encouraged and facilitated them. The breadth and variety of Gitaperformances, in India and beyond, is remarkable. They range from simple private household readings, to family and neighborhood recitation sessions, to holy men reciting in temples or at pilgrimage places for passersby, to public Gitadiscourses held almost nightly at halls and auditoriums in every Indian city. Traveling Hindu teachers use the Gita for lectures to nonresident Indians around the world, and Hindu temples in the United States conduct classes on the Gita for youths to reinforce connections with a “home” culture against the encroaching forces of assimilation. Gitaperformances also take place in numerous college classrooms, like mine, where the Bhagavad Gita is presented as a key work for introducing the religion of Hinduism.
The Gita may be read aloud as prose, mumbled like a Veda at a fast clip, or chanted in a pleasing repetitive cadence. Trained Indian classical and playback singers, like K. J. Yesudas, may render it as beautiful sangeet or song. Ambitious composers may place its words in more dramatic musical settings, such as Douglas Cuomo’s 2008 composition Arjuna’s Dilemma. The 2005 opera by John Adams titled Doctor Atomic has the character of Oppenheimer singing translated passages from the Gita. And at its most spectacular, Philip Glass’s 1980 composition Satyagraha employs select verses of the Sanskrit Gita sung by Western operatic voices set to the composer’s repetitive musical structures, creating a mantra-like evocation of Gandhi’s experiences and work in South Africa in the early twentieth century. Thanks to Adams and Glass, opera stages in Rotterdam, Stuttgart, San Francisco, and New York have become temporary ashrams of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Gita’s various audible incarnations are widely available on CDs in Indian music shops, allowing purchasers to become individual audiences to Krishna’s words whenever they wish. Nowadays, of course, audio versions are also promiscuous on the Internet. One can quickly find recitations by Swami Prabhupada, Swami Venkatesananda, Prof. Thiagarajan and Sanskrit Scholars (my favorite), and many others. In the United States, the Chinmaya Mission encourages new reciters with an online instructional guide to Gitachanting, and its centers in Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, and elsewhere hold annual competitions. Chanters are evaluated based on the criteria of memory, pronunciation, and presentation.
As for Gita fragments, there is no end. Pieces of the Gita and Krishna float through international musical culture. The 1960s were probably the golden age for this. On his posthumous album titled Om (released in 1968), John Coltrane and fellow musicians open and close their improvised free jazz composition by chanting a translated passage from the Gita. Naturally, there was a 1960s’ psychedelic rock group that named itself Bhagavad Gita. (This obscure group is best known for its recording of “Long Hair Soul.”) Jimi Hendrix’s famous album cover for Axis: Bold as Love (1968) adapted a popular Indian print by B. G. Sharma of Krishna appearing to Arjuna in his Vishvarupa form. And finally, at the dawn of the next decade, the post-Beatles John Lennon declared in his 1970 song “God” that among many other rejected faiths of the 1960s, he didn’t believe in “Gita.”
It is not possible in this brief work to survey the full range of Gita performances. In this chapter, I have presented a few vignettes to illustrate persisting types of contemporary public performance involving the Bhagavad Gita.
Prayers at Gandhi’s Ashram
Gandhi relocated to Wardha in central India in 1935 at the behest of Jamnalal Bajaj, a Marwari entrepreneur and fervent supporter. In 1936 he moved to Segaon, a small village four miles out of town. For the remaining twelve years of his life Gandhi used this as his primary residence, although he spent much of that time either traveling or in jail. The ashram that grew up around Gandhi there, Sevagram Ashram, still exists as a memorial to Gandhi and his social vision, part ashram and part living museum. The austere bamboo-and-earth structures in which Gandhi and his inner circle lived remain intact: Bapu’s hut for Gandhi, Ma’s hut for his wife Kasturbai, Mahadev’s hut for his secretary Mahadev Desai, and so on. It is a quiet place with a dozen or so full-time residents now, but it is enlivened by visiting families, schoolchildren on field trips, and the occasional foreign pilgrim.2
At the center of the ashram lies the prayer grounds, a simple forty-foot-square area marked off by bamboo poles suspended six inches above the ground. The floor is sand and gravel. A sign identifies it as Gandhi’s prayer grounds. Gandhi himself called it a “skyroofed temple” to which followers of all faiths would be welcome. The only request is that footwear be removed as a sign of respect when entering the sacred space.3 Twice every day, in the early morning and evening, residents and interested visitors assemble for prayer sessions.
At every ashram and wherever he traveled, Gandhi made prayer sessions an integral part of his daily activities.
FIGURE 12. Prayer Grounds at Sevagram Ashram, Wardha.
Photograph by the author.
He spoke of prayer as staple food for the soul—an essential means of self-purification. The liturgy of Gandhi’s prayer sessions was open ended and ecumenical. It included some Hindu shlokas, hymns, and the repetition of the name Ram (God). It might also include verses from the Quran, and Christian hymns were often sung.
The Bhagavad Gita formed a crucial part of the service. Ashram residents would recite a portion of the Gita every day, proceeding through the text every fortnight, in order to learn the work by heart. During evening sessions the nineteen verses describing the sthitaprajna, the person of settled wisdom, was an invariable part of the prayers. Gandhi also made use of the prayer assemblies as an occasion to address his ashram coresidents and others. When he presented his most sustained interpretation of the Gita in 1926, he did so in oral talks during prayer sessions at Sabarmati Ashram.
Nowadays at Sevagram Ashram, an unoccupied seat back marks the spot where Gandhi used to sit during prayer sessions. Just before 6:00 p.m., participants assemble and sit on mats that have been arranged to face the absent presence of Gandhi. (The nights that I participated, attendance was around forty persons.) A single kerosene lamp is lit as evening gathers. One or two of the regulars spin cotton on portable charkas. The session begins without any clear leader, except the empty seat of Gandhi, and without ceremony. The set of prayers continues Gandhi’s policy of religious inclusiveness yet extends it further.4 First there is a simple Buddhist prayer in Japanese, followed by two minutes of silence. Several Sanskrit prayers are recited next. Then comes the recitation of theBhagavad Gita section on the sthitaprajna. The participants recite the eleven collective vows of the ashram: nonviolence, truth, nonstealing, and the rest. Next come passages from the holy books of the Muslims, Parsees, Christians, Sikhs, and Jains. Toward the end, a man with a single-stringed instrument leads the group in the call-and-response singing of several devotional songs. We sing Gandhi’s favorite, Ramdhoon, the recitation of God’s names. The liturgy closes with “Om Shanti,” a prayer for peace. Without overt ceremony, the participants then get up and leave the prayer grounds.
On the other side of Wardha is Paunar Ashram, first established by Gandhi’s prominent acolyte Vinoba Bhave in the 1920s, also with the support of Jamnalal Bajaj. Now the ashram is home to twenty female renouncers and one older male, a member of the Bajaj family. Here too the prayer sessions hark back to Gandhi’s ashram practices. The group assembles three times a day on the paved veranda outside the simple empty cell where Vinoba once resided. Since this is where he used to pray, I am told, it is where the nuns prefer to pray. As at Sevagram, the evening prayer always includes the crucial section of the Gita devoted to the sthitaprajna. At Paunar, however, it is taken not from the Sanskrit original but rather from Vinoba’s Marathi translation, Gitai (Mother Gita).5 Keeping to Gandhi’s old strategy for memorization, the women also recite together a chapter of the Sanskrit Gita every night. This is done at a fast pace, using well-worn paperback copies of the book. In eighteen nights they can go through the entire work, and then start it all over again.
In Vinoba’s ashram things are more identifiably Hindu than at Sevagram. There is not the same conscientious inclusiveness to the liturgy. After prayers, many of the nuns perform a short Hindu worship service in a small shrine nearby. In the shrine, there is an ancient worn stone image, identified as Rama and his brother Bharata from the Ramayana, which Vinoba found in the ground during the ashram’s construction.
In these Gandhian ashram prayer sessions, the performance of the Bhagavad Gita consists of simple daily collective recitation. There is no attempt at musical rendition. There are no living leaders, though the signs of the founders Gandhi and Vinoba are clearly present to all. The text is given no explication, but for those wishing commentary, the written works of Gandhi and Vinoba are readily available at nearby bookstalls. The purpose of such prayer recitation of the Gita, as Gandhi set it forth and the ashrams maintain it, is as a regular sustenance for the soul and reiteration of key values shared by the community. By memorizing and reciting the Gita daily, ashramites hope to incorporate its values into their lives and become persons whose wisdom is firm.
Discourse at Jnanadeva’s Tomb
Alandi is a small pilgrimage city on the Indrayani River, sixteen miles from Pune in Maharashtra. It is here, according to tradition, that the Marathi poet Jnanadeva entered a deep state of meditation and gave up his life. A temple complex now stands on the spot of his samadhi (which means both meditation and tomb). There is a stone music hall, the Veena Mandapa, adjacent to the primary shrine. On its walls high above are large painted depictions of Jnanadeva, Tukaram, and other Marathi devotional saints. Subhash Gethe delivers his public pravachanas or oral explications on the Jnaneshvari here every afternoon at 4:00.
Gethe was born into a family of Jnanadeva devotees, and was educated in both conventional secular institutions and religious ones. While completing BA and MA degrees at the University of Pune, he also finished a four-year training course conducted by a Vaishnava center in Alandi. He wrote his dissertation on the Upanishads and Jnanadeva, and taught philosophy for several years at a college in Pune. Gethe gave up this secular career to live in Alandi, devoting himself full time to becoming an exponent and discourser in the local Vaishnava tradition.6 When I attended his pravachana session in 2011, I learned that he had spent nearly four years at the temple explicating the nine-thousand-verse Jnaneshvari from start to finish, ten to fifteen verses per day, and was within a week of completing the lengthy text.
On the Sunday of my visit, about 150 people fill the music hall and sit cross-legged on the marble floor. The crowd segregates itself, with women sitting to the left of the speaker. This audience appears to be largely a rural or small-town one, and more elderly than young. Many of the men wear white Gandhi caps, typical of this rural area, and the women modestly drape the ends of their saris to cover their heads. The speaker, dressed in a white kurta and also wearing a Gandhi cap, sits cross-legged on a four-legged platform with a large printed volume of the Jnaneshvari placed in a bookstand in front of him. There is a microphone, too, so his lecture can be broadcast throughout the temple courtyard. Except for the microphone, the scene appears much like the setting in which Jnanadeva himself might have delivered his poetic explication of the Bhagavad Gita, at least as it was reimagined in the popular 1940 Marathi film Sant Dnyaneshwar.7
FIGURE 13. Subhash Gethe at Alandi, 2011.
Photograph by the author.
Gethe’s method of exegesis is straightforward. He reads a single verse from the Jnaneshvari and then explains it. Though Jnanadeva composed his poem in a folk song meter, Gethe does not sing the verses, nor is there any instrumental accompaniment. Other devotional modes of performance in Maharashtra, called kirtana, feature active congregational singing and musical instruments, but here the emphasis is on the poem as a meaningful text rather than on its musicality. Gethe tells me afterward that he usually spends two hours a day preparing for his one-hour discourse to make sure he understands all the passages. He then speaks without notes. The interaction with the audience is crucial, he says. It is necessary to see the expressions of the listeners and adapt his commentary accordingly. As Jnanadeva puts it, “When my power of speech is fed by attention, a wealth of exposition will come forth in my words.”8 And the audience does respond attentively to Gethe’s talk. A few follow along with their own copies of the text. Others sit close to the speaker’s platform, reacting with hand gestures of approval and brief verbal assents. Gethe tells me that some in the audience have been attending pravachanas on the Jnaneshvari here for twelve or fifteen years, and still relish hearing it again and again.
I try to sit unobtrusively along a side wall, but of course I am visible. I am the only white person present, or anywhere in Alandi, and I am wearing an orange baseball cap instead of Gandhi white. The discourse is in Marathi, but Gethe spots me quickly and enjoys directing an occasional summary to me in English. “Where there is Gita and where there is Krishna,” he says for my benefit, “there is success.” These generous asides to the foreign guest accent the multilingual situation. As Jnanadeva retold and explicated the Sanskrit Gita in a thirteenth-century form of poetic Marathi, now difficult for modern speakers, Gethe retells and explains the old Marathi poem in the modern idiom for his contemporary audience, and even in English for his one auditor from the United States. When Gethe completes his day’s discourse, many of the audience members touch their foreheads respectfully to the copy of Jnaneshvari on the speaker’s platform. I do the same.
In contrast to the repetitive daily collective recitation practiced in the Gandhian ashrams, here the Bhagavad Gita has become the starting point for a four-year course of explication. Jnanadeva expanded the Gita into a lengthy new Marathi devotional poem, and Gethe extends Jnanadeva’s poem through his own oral commentary. Although Gethe’s training includes secular academic study and teaching, he has chosen to devote himself to an older tradition of Indic discourse, the public oral explication of difficult religious works, still very much alive for the devotionally minded pilgrims of Alandi.
A Modern Shankara in Delhi
The Kamani Auditorium in central Delhi, not far from Connaught Place, advertises itself on its own Web site as “one of the finest halls in India for the presentation of prestigious performances.” The modern 632-seat auditorium, a decidedly nonreligious setting, hosts a full program of theater, dance, and musical concerts. In March 2011, Swami Parthasarathy presented a series of five evening lectures on chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita there to a full house.
A well-traveled and highly successful modern guru, Parthasarathy adapts the nondualist teachings of Shankara’s school of Advaita Vedanta to the exigencies of modern life. After a broad education in literature, science, and law, including postgraduate study in international law at University College London, Parthasarathy renounced a promising corporate career to study and teach Vedanta. Over the past forty-some years he has written numerous books, including a three-volume translation and commentary on the Gita, and travels widely to address a great variety of audiences.9 He has conducted Vedanta seminars for international corporations such as Microsoft, Ford, and Merrill Lynch, and at institutions including the World Bank, the Harvard Business School, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Parthasarathy has worked with the Indian national cricket team and the world’s champion in billiards. In 1988 he founded the Vedanta Academy in Malavali, sixty miles outside Mumbai, to convey Vedanta philosophy to students as an encompassing way of life. His organization also maintains centers in eight countries outside India, and at age eighty-two Parthasarathy continues to tour and lecture throughout the world—a vigorous modern Shankara on a globaldigvijaya.
At Kamani Auditorium the lecture is free, but Parthasarathy’s books and CDs of his lectures are on sale in the lobby. The audience is largely an urban middle-class Indian one, with a scattering of non-Indians like myself. As the hall fills, the program begins with music. Four young acolytes from the Vedanta Academy, dressed all in white, perform devotional songs on stage, accompanied by harmonium and tabla. A short video presentation on the Vedanta Academy follows, projected from a computer onto a large screen at the side of the stage. Technological tools, conspicuously absent at the Gandhi ashram, are quite evident in this modern auditorium. But Parthasarathy himself projects a simpler image. The slender, dignified South Indian in white kurta walks on to the stage, briefly acknowledges the audience’s ovation, sits at a table, and without ceremony or preamble asks for the first verse to be read.
Parthasarathy’s discourse covers twelve verses in an hour and a half. Each Sanskrit verse is displayed on the big screen, in Devanagari script and Roman transliteration, and a quartet of female students seated onstage lead the recitation of the verse two times. Most in the audience read along with them. After the recitation, Parthasarathy follows with his comments in English for this mixed cosmopolitan crowd. Parthasarathy holds to a nondualist position, and so in his explication of Arjuna’s vision, he stresses that the description of Krishna’s all-encompassing form is not the actual shape of God but instead Arjuna’s mental projection. So too we all project the world, and our egos lead us to believe that our projections are real and permanent. Arjuna’s fearful reaction to his projection dramatizes this common misapprehension. Knowledge or comprehension of the underlying brahman, by contrast, can lead to peace. Parthasarathy’s impromptu lecture on these central ideas is intellectual yet accessible to his educated audience. Sanskrit terms are at a minimum, but he draws readily on well-known figures and episodes of Hindu tradition. Anecdotes from his travels along with deft, humorous analogies keep the discourse flowing. Though the auditorium stage separates speaker from listeners, Parthasarathy clearly knows his audience—a pious, educated, conscientious, and family-oriented modern Hindu group, confident enough in its values to appreciate some irony and gentle kidding.
FIGURE 14. Swami Parthasarathy, lecturing in Ravindra Natya Mandir, Mumbai, 2007.
Photograph courtesy A. Parthasarathy.
In Parthasarathy’s hands, the individual verses of the Bhagavad Gita serve as points of departure for Vedanta-style commentary. Unlike the medieval sannyasi Shankara, however, Parthasarathy (married for over fifty years) does not urge renunciation as the only path to liberation. Nor is devotion to Krishna seen as an incarnate God emphasized, as medieval theistic Vedantins like Ramanuja did. For those in this urban Delhi audience eager for an understanding suited to their modern worldly lives, Parthasarathy preaches the incorporation of discipline and intellectual clarity into one’s existing responsibilities and activities. In keeping with the jnana yoga orientation of Advaita Vedanta, he stresses that this is centrally a matter of developing the intellect. The goals are to eliminate stress, improve concentration and productivity, and live socially useful lives in the modern world. Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna, that engaged warrior, serve these purposes well. For modern-day Arjunas, we may envision a manager at Microsoft, an engineer at NASA, an Indian cricketeer, or the large attentive audience at the Kamani Auditorium in the Indian capital.
Vedanta in Central Park West
The Vedanta Society of New York occupies a handsome threes-tory brownstone on Seventy-First Street, a half-block west of Central Park. The society was originally established by Swami Vivekananda and a small coterie of US followers in 1894, one year after his success in Chicago. This makes it the longest-lasting Hindu organization in the United States. In 1921, the society moved to its present comfortable home, donated by Mary Morton, daughter of a former vice president of the United States. Every Friday evening the senior monk Swami Tathagatananda delivers a discourse on the Bhagavad Gita in the main chapel here.
Like all Vedanta Society swamis in the United States, Tathagatananda is an unmarried male monk who received his primary training in India, at the Ramakrishna Math in Belur. Tathagatananda came to the United States in 1977 and has lived at the Vedanta Society house for thirty-five years. He has written on numerous subjects, including the book Journey of the Upanishads to the West (1994) and several essays on the Bhagavad Gita. Now aged eighty-nine and hard of hearing, he continues to present three weekly public lectures: Tuesdays on Ramakrishna, Fridays on the Gita, and Sundays on various subjects.
In the chapel, which takes up most of the first floor, a hundred chairs face the front altar, filled with vases of fresh flowers. On the wall above the altar is a handsome print of Ramakrishna, flanked on two side walls by portraits of Vivekananda and Sarada Devi, the founding figures of this spiritual lineage. There are no other icons, though; there are no images or signs of Krishna or any other Hindu deity here. The lights are kept dim, and the atmosphere is quiet and meditative as the small audience assembles. Wearing a salmon-colored monastic robe, Tathagatananda enters at 8:00 p.m., bows briefly before the image of Ramakrishna, sits quietly for a few minutes in his chair on the dais, adjusts the microphone, and begins his discourse.
He speaks for forty minutes without notes. Tathagatananda’s theme is a simple one: we should take time to think about God. The key passage from the Gita is Krishna’s command to Arjuna (and all of us) near the end of the dialogue. “Keep me in your mind, be my devotee, worship me, honor me, and you will certainly attain me. I promise you this truly, for you are dear to me” (18.65). The swami recites this in Sanskrit and paraphrases it several times. How should we do so? We do not need to envision Krishna as a cowherd boy, Arjuna’s companion on the battlefield, or an all-encompassing Absolute. In Tathagatananda’s theology, God is found in all life. The fact that we are alive signals the God within us. As an animating spirit God is the very foundation of our being. What prevents us from thinking about God? Basically, we are too caught up in the material world.
Tathagatananda’s Gita talk is not a sequential commentary on a set portion of the Bhagavad Gita, as Parthasarathy’s lecture in Delhi, but rather a looser Protestant-style sermon that touches occasionally on the lectionary passage. A few Gita verses provide the primary theme, yet along the way the swami weaves in quotations from other gurus: Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, as one would expect, but also Jesus, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln (a particular favorite of Tathagatananda), Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Arnold Toynbee. Tathagatananda recognizes the Gita as a Hindu text, transmitted to the West by the organization founded by Vivekananda, and at the same time he views it as part of a worldwide wisdom tradition. The central aim is to direct our attention away from our enmeshment in mundane affairs toward a contemplation of the living God. Tathagatananda believes that the United States will lead in a new spiritual movement, since Americans have already experienced great affluence and great suffering as well. Gesturing to the New York streets outside the center, he asks me, “What better place to begin than this?”10
Kurukshetra: The Next Generation
Meanwhile, back in Kurukshetra, where it was first supposedly uttered, the Shri Krishna Museum celebrates the birthday of the Bhagavad Gita with student performances. While the rest of the town hums with an enormous craft fair, cultural performances, and public processions, the museum focuses on educational programs centered around the Gita: shloka recitations, quizzes, and “declamations” (bhasana). By such means, the Gita is transmitted to the next generation.
The Shri Krishna Museum was inaugurated in 1991, as part of an effort by the Kurukshetra Development Board to revive ancient Kurukshetra as a religious and cultural center. Naturally Krishna plays a big role in this promotion. The museum features a wide range of paintings and images of Krishna, depicting all phases of his life, drawn from all regions of India. This is the only museum in the world devoted solely to Krishna, and to my knowledge the only secular museum in India centered on a single Hindu deity. The Kurukshetra Board is also responsible for the massive bronze statue of Krishna and Arjuna nearby and for the Kurukshetra Festival coinciding with Gita Jayanti. Over the past two decades the festival has grown enormously.
Since the 1990s, the museum has organized Gita programs during the festival involving several types of competitive performances. First there were shloka recitations by younger students. Next the museum added a quiz contest for high school students, in which the contestants would match their knowledge of the Gita, the Mahabharata, and general Indian cultural information. Third came a Gita bhasana competition for students at the college level. The competitors would compose and deliver brief declamations on assigned topics pertaining to the Gita. The museum’s curator, R. S. Rana, hopes to introduce a fourth kind of competitive program in the future, which he calls Gita-samvada-pratiyogita, or a staged Gita dialogue. High school students costumed as Krishna and Arjuna would recite appropriate shlokas from the Gita, and be judged on all aspects of their presentation and performance.11
My visit coincides with the Gita declamation contest. The museum auditorium is filled with about 150 students from nearby secondary schools, dressed in their blue-checked and red-sweater school uniforms. On the dais in front sit three judges, all local educators, and the chief guest, a distinguished retired university professor of philosophy. As a visiting foreign guest, I am also asked to sit in front. This is an Indian public event, and certain protocols are required before the actual competition can begin. There are lengthy laudatory introductions, and the chief guest presents a speech. I am asked to say a few auspicious words. Then the contest can start.
The finalists in the competition have been given five possible topics: the Gita and righteous conduct, Gita as the essence of the Upanishads, the catholicity of the Gita, the role of the Gita in management, or the role of the Gita in the freedom movement. The contestants are asked to give an address of five to seven minutes on one of these. As it turns out, all the speakers address either management or the freedom movement.
The winning declamation concerns the application of the Gita to management. The speaker takes as his key passage Krishna’s explanation for his avatara: “For whenever there is a decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness, Arjuna, then I emanate myself. For the protection of good people, for the destruction of evil-doers, and for the restoration of righteousness, I take birth in age after age” (4.7–8). Just as Krishna incarnates himself when dharma is threatened, the effective manager must intervene whenever there is instability within the organization. Krishna is manager and motivator to Arjuna, and the young speaker effectively points to many places where Krishna’s battlefield teachings may apply to modern management. As Krishna emphasizes the need for mental single-mindedness, the manager is responsible for instilling and sustaining organizational focus. Krishna’s principle of nonattachment to the fruits of action is also relevant to the manager, who must keep the organization’s broad objective in mind without undue attachment to immediately monetary outcomes. Krishna counsels the manager to maintain the long view.
The winning contestant reflects one of the latest developments in the life of the Bhagavad Gita. Both in India and abroad, the Gita has entered a new Kurukshetra: the corporate world. New management gurus (another Indic term now in the common English lexicon) have adapted Krishna’s instructions to the warrior Arjuna to the requirements of business executives and managers. The success of Swami Parthasarathy as a corporate consultant is one clear example. In American business schools, professors like Vijay Govindarajan at Dartmouth and the late C. K. Prahalad at the University of Michigan have deployed the Gita in their class and consultation performances, much as other business gurus have redirected the war teachings of Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu.
In India, the best-known exemplar of Gita-infused management is Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, who served until recently as managing director of the Delhi Metro. Sreedharan follows a personal discipline, he tells me, of spending a half hour every day reading and contemplating verses from theGita, three to five verses each day. In twelve or so years, he has been through the text twelve times in his morning study. To help create a strong institutional ethos of duty and public service, Sreedharan distributed copies of the Gita Makaranda, a translation of the Gita with a lengthy commentary by Swami Vidyaprakashananda, to all management-level personnel in the organization. In this new institutional setting, the Gita is not a “Hindu text,” insists Sreedharan, but rather an “administrative gospel,” a conversation between two administrators on a battlefield that covers all important topics for organizational well-being.12
Visual Performance: Shri Krishna Arjun Rath
In India, the Bhagavad Gita lives also in visual form. Though relatively uncommon in medieval sculpture, Krishna of the Gita has been reincarnated visually during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in nearly endless array. Krishna and Arjuna ride their chariot along the walls of upscale restaurants and hotels throughout India. In the popular mass-produced genre of religious prints known as “calendar prints” or “God pictures,” treatments of Krishna as he appears in the Bhagavad Gita have been prominent since the 1920s and 1930s, paralleling the growing interest in the work promoted by Indian leaders like Tilak and Gandhi. In God pictures, two Gita themes predominate, reflecting the two sides of Krishna’s identity—human charioteer and Supreme Deity. In the first type, Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot either converse or ride into battle, often with a shloka or two from the Sanskrit text alongside. In the second, Krishna rises before Arjuna in his supernal Vishvarupa form, filling the frame with his countless arms and heads.
The largest new three-dimensional incarnation, however, appears appropriately at Kurukshetra, site of the ancient battle. This is a sixty-foot-long, thirty-five-foot-high, forty-five-ton bronze sculpture, Shri Krishna Arjun Rath, created in 2007 by Ram V. Sutar and his son Anil R. Sutar.13 Arjuna stands in an elaborate two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses. A strapping warrior figure in armor and cape, holding a bow in one hand and a sword in the other, Arjuna looks forward toward his charioteer. A human Krishna sits holding the reins, as if listening intently to his interlocutor. The scene depicts the dramatic moment at the onset of the Gita, when Arjuna first expresses his anxieties to Krishna, in the heroic form through which Indian public art envisions its national past.
The sculpture germinated in the Ministry of Tourism of the Indian central government. To assist Kurukshetra in its efforts to become a more inviting destination for pilgrims and tourists, the ministry decided to sponsor a large Gita-based public artwork. It invited bids, and selected the firm of Ram Sutar Fine Arts for the commission. An esteemed Delhi-based artist, Ram Sutar specializes in large-scale sculpture, and has created numerous statues of Gandhi and other public leaders as well as works on religious themes. Due to its large size, the Shri
FIGURE 15. Shri Krishna Arjun Rath, bronze sculpture by Ram V. Sutar and Anil R. Sutar, Kurukshetra, Haryana, 2007.
Photograph by the author.
Krishna Arjun Rath was cast in parts in the firm’s foundry in Noida (Delhi), then transported and assembled on-site in Kurukshetra. Originally the work was intended for Jyotisar, but evidently the cost of moving it once assembled was prohibitive, and so it stands overlooking the Brahmasarovar, the large pilgrimage lake in the center of town. Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party, inaugurated the statue in July 2008. The Shri Krishna Arjun Rath has quickly become one of the signature sights of Kurukshetra.
In the modern Indian economy, the Bhagavad Gita has been recruited to promote tourism. Building on the growth of the annual Gita birthday festival and the showcase sculpture, the Haryana State Tourist Board has decided now to sponsor another massive piece of artwork for Kurukshetra. This one will be a bronze sculpture, forty feet in height, of Krishna as he appears to Arjuna in his all-encompassing form, “Virat Roop.” The Ram Sutar firm has submitted its bid, along with other competing sculptural companies. As of this writing, the winning design has not been selected.