B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S




Sappho, Poems
The Greek Anthology
Herodotus, History
The Mahabharata
The Bhagavad-Gita



Sappho, Poems

Since they began in the early days of the popular-education movement in nineteenth-century Britain, five-foot shelves, world classics, hundred best books, have hardly ever included poetry as such, and drama and epic have been distinguished for the trashiness of their translations, because these collections are all programmatic — “the great ideas that have influenced the progress of mankind.” I doubt if works of art as such do any such thing; yet no one would dare give his selections so vulgar and unimproving a label as One Hundred Books That Have Thrilled the Ages. Down the millennia since the cave painters the arts have sharpened and refined human sensibilities, yet no one can even be sure that this is a good thing. The screen of history, like the taste of politicians, churchmen and university presidents, has been programmatic. So we have a large collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes on politics and ethics, and we have only random fragments of Sappho’s poems.

Matthew Arnold said Homer was eminently rapid, plain, direct, in thought and expression, syntax, words, matter, and ideas, and that he was eminently noble. Arnold refused to define the ambiguous word “noble,” but he meant by it his own special virtue of his idealized Victorian ruling caste: disinterested responsibility. This final criterion eliminates Sappho, although she shares with Homer and Sophocles their splendor, clarity, and impetuosity. She, above all others, is bright, swift, and sure. She surpasses all other Greek poets in immediacy of utterance and responsiveness of sensibility.

The greatest Greek writers, read in Greek, seem hypersensitive to us and possessed of a higher irritability in the medical sense; amongst us this is considered a morbid condition, because it has been cultivated excessively or pretended to by modern decadents. There is no reason why it should not be thought of as quite the opposite — a symptom of superabundant health. Sappho is as exquisitely sensitive to objective reality as to her own subjectivity, and she organizes the poignancies of these interlocked realities with consummate taste. As Sophocles is a man, so she is a woman, functioning at maximum realization of potential.

Since we have only fragments of Sappho the size of Japanese poems, one short complete poem, and single words or phrases quoted by grammarians to illustrate the Aeolic dialect, is it possible that we delude ourselves with the Sapphic legend? If attention is focused sharply on anything whatever from which we expect aesthetic satisfaction, a process takes place similar to the raptures of nature mysticism. Our own hyperesthesia is exacerbated; we become hypnotized; the object of contemplation, like a crystal ball, acquires a significance with unlimited ramifications. Is this what we do with the shards and ruins we call Sappho?

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .

is, just as it is, a most impressive poem. Whatever its original context, it is as moving as any similar poem in classic Japanese. How about “more gold than gold,” “far whiter than an egg,” “neither honey nor the bee”?

The two Edwardian poetesses who wrote under the name of Michael Field expanded many of Sappho’s fragments into poems of great poignancy. The best was taken from a scholiast’s commentary on a line of Pindar’s, where the reference to Sappho is in indirect discourse: “Yea, gold is son of Zeus, no rust / Its timeless light can stain; / The worm that brings man’s flesh to dust / Assaults its strength in vain. / More gold than gold the love I sing, / A hard, inviolable thing.” Does the original justify this enraptured response?

It has been difficult to come at Sappho without the Greek. Nineteenth-century England swarmed with mediocre academicians and country clergymen, all in a conspiracy to prove to those without the tongues that Western Civilization had been founded by tenth-rate minds who wrote atrocious doggerel. Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. Catullus, with Baudelaire and Tu Fu, in all the world’s literature most nearly approaches Sappho’s special virtues. His translation of her lessens her intensity.

Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

Both the ancient legend of a romantic, tempestuous life and the Victorian one that portrayed her as a schoolmistress of an academy for brides were constructed from her poems. We know nothing surely except the poetry, which, on the face of it, is the passionate utterance of a woman whose life was spent as lover and guide to a small circle of younger girls. There is no evidence that this was an institutional relationship, like the thiasos, the dancing school, of her friend Alkaios. He is obviously a doting professional teacher of chorus girls; Sappho’s relationships are as obviously openly erotic. The poems certainly mean what they say.

Passionate love is the very substance of Sappho. In ancient Greece as in China, the love between men and women was of a totally different character where it existed at all, and seldom passionate. In most Greek poetry, however noble or erotic, relations between the sexes are institutionalized, whether Alkestis or the prostitutes of Paulos Silentiarios. Romantic love, with its destructive potential, is found only between members of the same sex.

Sappho’s poetry is not only intimate, it is secular. Myth hardly exists and is never the cohesive cement of institutions as it is in Pindar’s lyric odes, which are hieratic, hierarchic, and impersonal. The idylls of Theokritos are court poetry, like the eighteenth-century French Rococo poets who imitated him. Behind the flirtations of his deodorized shepherds and shepherdesses we always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near, loaded with marriage contracts arranged by treaty between warring dynasties. So Kallimachos was an Alexandrian Voltaire, one of a committee to construct the synthetic religion of Serapis for an atheist court. His one intimate poem is to a man. Erotic love returns in The Greek Anthology with late-born Levantines like Meleager and Isaurians with Hittite blood from the Anatolian highlands. Except for them, and a few passages in the choruses of Euripides, what we consider the proper subject for lyric poetry does not exist in Greek verse outside the fragments of Sappho and one tiny bit by the similar Erinna.

Central to the understanding of Sappho as of Plato is her sexuality. Critics down the ages have exerted themselves to deny this, most especially when they shared it. To judge by primitive song, legend, and epic, romantic love has commonly existed between members of the same sex, and seldom in the institutionalized relations between men and women until those institutions pass through formalization to etherealization, as in the court circle of The Tale of Genji. Romantic love appears between men and women only when it becomes economically feasible. The problem is neither to explain nor to explain away Sappho’s homosexuality. It is to explain the accelerating homosexualization of love between Western men and women since the eleventh century, with its culmination in the movies and the more urbane girlie magazines.

Although women in Lesbos were more free than their sisters in Athens or Sparta, they were far from free in our sense. Sappho’s poetry reveals the intensity of the hidden life of ancient Greek women. The curtain is raised for a moment and we see into purdah. For the rest, history and literature are silent.

[Rexroth translations of Sappho and other classic Greek poets]

[Diverse translations of a Sappho poem]



The Greek Anthology

Most people are unaware, and even scholars seldom pause to consider, that the Greek literature on which our civilization is so largely based survives as a very small library indeed. It would be quite possible for a skilled reader to go through it all in a couple of years, and anyone could read all the really important works in a winter. Only a small selection of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides survives; of other tragedians we know practically nothing but their names. We have considerable Aristophanes, but of the New Comedy from which our own and Roman Comedy derive we have only a few plays of Menander, and those in bad condition. Of the Greek lyric poets we have even less: of Sappho two poems and miscellaneous fragments. Many of the most important writers of ancient Greece are known only by reputation. Greek literature is a ruin — like the Acropolis. As with the Acropolis, most of what survives is monumental, impersonal, “classic.” Intimate poetry seems to have been written rarely, and hardly any survives — except in the Anthology.

What we call the Greek Anthology is a Byzantine collection and rearrangement of an unknown number of earlier anthologies, the best of which was gathered by the Syrian‑Hellenistic poet Meleager, who included a liberal selection of his own verse. Almost all the poems are written in the elegiac distich — the meter used for monuments and gravestones. One of the largest books is made up of sepulchral epigrams. Some are real or imaginary epitaphs; others are actual dedicatory poems or votive offerings — or, again, imitations. There are a large book of inscriptions on statues and monuments; a surprisingly mediocre book of homosexual poems; a collection of rhetorical and declamatory short poems in elegiac meter; collections of quite tedious Christian epigrams, decidedly inferior to either the great Byzantine hymns or medieval Latin poetry; satirical poems, epigrams in our sense; and, most famous of all, a book of love poems which contains the core of Meleager’s original collection.

The nature of the meter and its traditional origin dictated the form and substance of all the best of these poems — in any category. An inscription on a gravestone should be simple, succinct, poignant — and a personal expression of either the subject or the mourners. An actual stone at Corinth: “This little stone, dear Sabinos, is all the memorial of our great love. I miss you always; and I hope that you did not drink forgetfulness of me when you drank the waters of the new dead.” An imaginary epitaph: “Here is Klito’s little shack. Here is his little corn patch. Here is his tiny vineyard. Here Klito spent eighty years.” Purest of all, the acknowledged grand master of the epigram, is Simonides, of the classic age. On the Spartans (the Lakadaimonians) fallen holding back the Persian host at Thermopylae: “Stranger, when you come to Lakadaimon, tell them that we lie here, obedient to their will” — which is certainly the greatest poem of its kind ever written.

The epitaph of Meleager to his mistress Heliodora, too long to quote, intensifies and further personalizes this emotion, as special a sensitivity as that which distinguishes Japanese classic poetry, and the transition to the simple love poem is hardly noticeable — the same sensibility is speaking in the same form: “I swear by desire, I would rather hear your voice than the sound of Apollo’s lyre.” Or the bitter scholar Palladas in decaying Alexandria, mourning the passing of Greek civilization itself: “We Greeks have fallen on evil days and fancy a dream is life. Or is it we who are dead and seem to live, or are we alive after life itself has departed?”

Later, in the classic revival under Justinian, the lawyer Paul the Silentiary would write poems to courtesans that are elegiac in our sense, full of the sorrow of the ruin of all bright things and the wistful momentariness of a girl’s body. No other Greek poet is quite like Paul; only the Latin Petronius captures the same sense of man trapped in history. The relicts of over a thousand years of Greek verse are gathered in these books, and we can relive the history of the Greek sensibility — from the first unselfconscious clarity and sensual glory of Sappho to the fatigue of the last disciples of paganism in Byzantium and Rome.

What distinguishes this verse? What is the pagan sensibility? What grows fatigued? Confidence. The classic poets are sure; they are certain of their senses, of their bodies in the clear Greek air, of their relations with one another. They know what death and love are — far simpler things than what we, with Romanticism and psychology behind us, mean by those terms. Sex is sex. Infidelity is infidelity; there is nothing complicated about it. Death is death. Heroism is heroism. The response is as direct as that of Simonides’ Spartans, and as directly and gently ironic.

This is the “tragic sense of life” reduced to its simplest terms — “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”; it would sustain and reinvigorate the erotic lyric and elegy for over two thousand years. Ben Jonson and WaIler, William Carlos Williams writing of cold plums and white chickens and cautious cats, or Robert Desnos remembering his girl as he lies dying in a Nazi concentration camp: the greatest poetry still speaks Greek — in the simplest tragic language, the plain confrontation of beauty and love with Time, and nothing complex about it.

The simplicity of this acceptance gives life or, rather, living a confidence that modern man usually troubles with the imaginations of his conscience which only confuse and compromise the issue. The pagan sensibility, whether Greek or Chinese or Japanese, has no conscience in our sense. Melancholy saturates the later poets of the Anthology and even tinctures Meleager — but it is utterly unlike the melancholy of Proust or even Goethe. It is simply a more somber, more continuously haunting realization of the final term of the good, the true, the beautiful — and of the self and of civilization itself. Paul the Silentiary, courtier of the orientalized Christian emperor, is haunted by the remembrance of things past, but he would have thought Proust a madman. The ghosts that lurk behind the last poems of the Anthology are as definite ghosts as the athletes and lovers of Sappho and Simonides are definite. These Greeks never ceased to see clearly. The complicated sensibility can never reveal reality as more complex than its own complications.

Out of the stark simplicity of the finest poems of the Anthology, whether erotic or sepulchral, satiric or convivial, flows all the endless complexity of reality itself. “Take off your clothes and lie down; we are not going to last forever.” “Pass the sweet earthware jug made of the earth that bore me, the earth I shall some day bear.” The simplicity is highly deceptive — as misleading as the complexity of Kierkegaard, or the knotted webs of tergiversation in Henry James, which go not further than the printed page. The modern sensibility attempts to drain the contents of experience; these Greek poets strive to state the fact so poignantly that it becomes an ever‑flowing spring — as Sappho says, “More real than real, more gold than gold.”

There are many translations of the Anthology, in styles to suit every taste. Dudley Fitts in modern verse and Richard Aldington in prose are contemporary in style. Mackail’s nineteenth‑century prose is still popular. I’ve done a book of selections myself, from which the translations in this essay are derived. The Loeb Library gives a good Greek text and a rather wooden English one.

[Rexroth translations from the Greek Anthology]



Herodotus, History

For a century or more, both historians and Greek scholars dismissed Herodotus as a teller of tales and, in comparison with Thucydides’ tightly structured history, a garrulous rambler. Most scholarship today has moved to the other side. Actually, debate over the merits of Thucydides and Herodotus as scientific historians is not very illuminating. It is really a question of taste, and there is no reason why a catholic taste should not admit them as equals. However, it is true that Herodotus is what today we would call more scientific. For many centuries he was to stand alone as the only historian of the Western World to think of the affairs of men in anthropological, sociological, economic, and ethnic terms.

A great deal of taste in Greek literature is shaped by the study of Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the plays of Sophocles. It is a deliberately elitist taste, the core of all those systematic judgments we call Classicist. In human affairs, its emphasis is upon the interrelations of the highly privileged, where privilege means precisely the ability to indulge in such moral luxuries of conscience. So Werner Jaeger in his great study of the Greek ethos, Paideia, dismisses Herodotus as “quasi-anthropological” and as “an explorer of strange, half-understood new worlds.” We now have better information about even the remotest peoples, says Jaeger, and only in heroic political history, as written by Thucydides, “is it possible to achieve the true understanding of the inner nature of a race or epoch, to realize our common fund of mature social and intellectual forms and ideals,” regardless of the accidents of occasion. The idealist taste of this requirement is evident, and it effectually eliminates the pluralistic, polyvalent, democratic Herodotus no matter how up to date his information might be. Modern research has, it so happens, revealed Herodotus as an exceptionally accurate informant, even on such subjects as Egypt, Scythia, and the outer barbarians, where skeptical nineteenth-century critics assumed that he was romancing.

The subject of Herodotus’ History is the successful defense of a democratic, rational, secular society against the onslaughts of what Gibbon in another context altogether was to call barbarism and superstition. However far the narrative may wander, its center is always Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, the yeomen and merchant seamen in their little bands defying the perfumed might of the Persian Empire — the King of Kings with half the East at heel; illimitable piles of arms, armor, and armament; gold for bridle ornaments and Greek brides; and silk for tents — and all the mysterious gods and priests and shamans gathered up from four thousand years of a hundred dead and living civilizations and innumerable barbarisms. Herodotus’ book is as closely structured as Thucydides’. It is simply not so obviously schematized a tableau of the conflict of personal vices and virtues. It is the story of the triumph of an idea of civilization. Without this initial concept of the good society as a nursery of integrity and freedom, the stage for the conflicts of Thucydides’ stylized heroes would never have existed.

Again and again Herodotus drives home his point with crucial anecdotes. Solon confronts Croesus not as an aristocratic lawgiver but as a spokesman, in the court of an oriental despot of incredible wealth and absolute power, of the independent yeomanry of a land so poor that hard work, the cooperation of equals, and ingenuity in outwitting nature were virtues essential to survival. When the Great King crosses the Hellespont, his flying arrows dim the sun like any massive inhumane natural phenomenon, like an act of God, one of Homer’s gods, the embodiment of the frivolity of the nonhuman.

Herodotus’ tone has misled many critics. It is almost colloquial, folkloristic — another Odysseus spellbinding an audience of prosperous farmers with the tall tales of The Odyssey. The narrative is so exciting that it has taken the careful archeology of this century to overcome our tendency to disbelief. Today we know that the Scythians of the Ukraine or the nomads of the desert and the merchants of the oasis cities of the far northeast inter-Asian frontier of the Persian Empire were really as Herodotus describes them. It is amazing that at the beginning of historical and geographical writing in the Western World one man could so carefully have sifted and judged his evidences.

One man did not. The most significant thing about Herodotus is that he is the literary expression of a whole people, as cunning in their ability to deal with facts as their prototype, Odysseus, was cunning to deal with monsters. Herodotus traveled widely and judged rationally of all he saw, but in the vast scope of his story he perforce relied mostly on hundreds of other Greeks who had gone to all the limits of the world with which he dealt, or who had lived before him and handed down to him information on the past, and who were as questioning and as sane as he.

The epic subject of Herodotus will haunt the philosophy of history from his day to ours. The conflict of the molar, obliterative mass civilization emanating from a single power center versus the dynamism of the manifold-centered city-state — eighteenth-century America versus 1968 USA — Herodotus’ History is the first large-scale anti-imperialist indictment. But what is wrong with imperialism? Did not Persian ecumenical egalitarianism, so like the empire of the Incas, ensure a greater good to a greater number than did the anarchic communalism of Greece? Eventually the city-state failed so completely that there was no other solution than the takeover of the Persian Empire itself by Alexander.

This would certainly be the utilitarian judgment; but the “Senatorial party” — Herodotus, Tacitus, Cicero, de Tocqueville, Lord Acton — have always disagreed. The heroic drama of Thucydides, with its Classicist stage and its limited cast, would be impossible in a monolithic society. Thucydides’ drama is tragic but, in his eyes, worth it. Tragedy is impossible in the oriental palace, where man’s fate depends on the incomprehensible wrangles of incomprehensible forces. Nor are there tragedies of the masses — themselves an incomprehensible force. In the Greek community, man’s fate depended on himself, on his follies and his virtues in his relations with his fellows.

Herodotus’ History is a prologue; the denouement lies ahead of him in the next generation. If he could have seen the breakdown of Greek polity in the hundred years following the Persian Wars, certainly he would not have said it were better had Xerxes prevailed. There have always been those who, though they see tragedy as the outcome of freedom, will nevertheless judge that tragedy is not too high a price to pay.



The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the last of the great classics that those who read only English must take on faith, at least as poetry. The translations are all unsatisfactory, and most of them are appalling. Yet few works of the imagination have ever had a more profound and lasting effect on their own culture.

Embedded in The Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita, not only one of the world’s major religious documents but, like the Bible and the Koran, an epitome of the virtues and vices of the civilization that produced it and even more of the one that followed it. If the world’s classics are in any way keys to the understanding of man in history, The Mahabharata is an essential key to an entire subcontinent which now contains over five hundred million people.

So we must perforce struggle and suffer through the inept translations and try to imagine the original. Few indeed will be able to endure the entire book, but most translations are drastic abridgments anyway. The faults are not all in the English. Hindu literature by our standards is decadent from its prime foundations. Overspecialization, proliferation, gigantism — like Hindu sculpture, Indian poetry and prose have a jungle profusion that sparer cultures can never assimilate. Indian art and literature must be pared and boiled down before they can be transmitted — even to the Far East. So Buddhist art came to China simplified and ordered by transmission through the Bactrian Greeks and the peoples of the desert oases.

But The Mahabharata cannot be pared down to a simple substructure. Profusion is inherent in every sentence. Read as a whole, in the unidiomatic English of the translators — a job that will take even the most rapid reader a very long time — it gives an impression of disorder in the overall organization, in the main line of the narrative, and in detail — in the rhetorical proliferation of each sentence. In addition, the psychological and symbolic monotony of the hundreds of episodes and anecdotes (a characteristic The Mahabharata shares with The Ramayana and The Ocean of Story) has the cumulative effect of a narrow but unending dream, a kind of relentless impoverishment of the unconscious, that finally produces a comatose and uncritical acceptance.

Partly these effects are inherent in Indian culture, in the aesthetics implicitly accepted by the society. Partly they are due to the evolution of the epic itself.

The critics of the last century might be right — Homer might be the product of “the folk” rather than of a single poet — but it is easy to demonstrate that The Iliad is as tightly organized as a play of Sophocles. The “Cnidian Aphrodite,” one of the most erotic of all works of art, is a single statue of a single nude girl in a comparatively modest pose. The great Sun Temple at Konarak is a large building completely covered with small statues of men and women in every erotic posture. The Western mind boggles, attention fails, and monotony destroys stimulus and response. Perhaps, following Coleridge, we have misjudged the mental structure of the creative act. Perhaps the unconscious is fundamentally unimaginative and unoriginating.

The legendary author of The Mahabharata is called Vyasa — “the arranger” — simply the personification of an obvious fact. About one eighth of the more than one hundred thousand couplets — in other words, about as many lines as The Iliad and The Odyssey together — are devoted to the core narrative, a superficially complicated but fundamentally simple story of a feud between two barbaric families of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, both descended from the king of a town between the rivers Ganges and Jumna, in the vicinity of modern Delhi.

The original epic may well have begun to take shape about 500 BC — the time of Buddha, when this entire region, from the plateau that divides the Indus and Ganges basins on around the foothills of the Himalaya, was in a state of intense political and intellectual ferment.

Like The Iliad, and most other epic poetry, The Mahabharata describes a far earlier period, and unlike Homer, the original compilers seriously altered and updated the original primitive material. Thus, the conflict of the two families of cousins was probably the story of the war over the newly burnt‑off land of two small, tribal groups: one, the Kauravas, early barbaric villagers; the other, the Pandavas, a pastoral and forest people like the present Bhils, Todas, Santal, and Oraon. They were not cousins — they were probably not even of the same race. Much has been made of the polyandrous relationship of the heroine, Draupadi, the wife of all the Pandava brothers, as a memory of Stone Age matriarchy. Overlying this original stratum are many others.

Next earliest was a Bronze Age civilization of battling warrior herdsmen and town dwellers who drove chariots like the heroes of the first Irish epic. In the Iron Age the ferment in North India in the sixth century BC was due to a revolt of the warrior class against the religion of the priests — the Brahmins — who had come to dominate the society and whose excessive ritualism was uneconomic.

Buddhism, Jainism, and other movements of the time were comparable to the West’s Reformation and were led by members of the warrior class, the Kshatriyas, of which Buddha was a member. Buddhist ideas — not only of religion, but of social relations — survive everywhere, interwoven throughout the text of The Mahabharata. Centuries later, with the decline of Buddhism, the Brahmins were able to accomplish a Counter Reformation and establish modern Hinduism, a religious syncretism with little continuity with the ancient Vedic past.

This Hindu‑izing movement is responsible for the present overall character of The Mahabharata, and for the exaggeration and proliferation that make it so difficult for Westerners to accept.

Still later rescensions of The Mahabharata turned the entire epic into a celebration of the incarnate god Vishnu: Krishna (the combination of warrior, trickster, and medicine man of a forest tribe), today the most popular of all Indian deities.

Inserted in the epic is the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna’s religious teaching of the Pandava hero Arjuna on the brink of the monstrous battle that gives the rule of North India to the Pandavas. The Gita, however, is a separate “classic,” existing in its own right. Millions of troops of highly civilized nations including Greeks and Chinese take part in what originally was a fight between a few hundred barbaric tribesmen and a band of savages. Everything that could be poured into the narrative down the ages has been; no other book has so many subsidiary stories, anecdotes, and subplots. In addition, there are long passages on everything from medicine to domestic economy. Somewhere along the line someone got the idea that the epic could be expanded with technical advice on warfare and politics — so The Mahabharata was also reworked as an extensive treatise of advice to princes, with examples.

The reworking of the poem with every cultural change, and the Indian conservatism which cannot bear to throw anything out, result at last in the erosion of personality and human interest in the characters and their relations. The vast mass of contradictory moral ideas cancel each other out and leave only a lowest common denominator of motivation, an undramatic expediency and impassivity in the face of determinism. If all actions are separate but equal, there can be no drama. Homer has the sharp dialectic conflict of Greek logic or Euclid. India has a kind of logic, but it is founded on the denial of the principle of identity. It is neither deductive or inductive but all‑enveloping — like The Mahabharata.

India had no written history until Muslim times, but The Mahabharata is a kind of written archeology, and the reader can dig down, like Schliemann through the ten towns of Troy, encapsulate like a golden onion — down from the latest, nineteenth‑century additions to Stone Age India — and find at last, in the entire stratified epic, something very like the Indian present.

* * *

For a person with Western standards there is only one way to read The Mahabharata: a complete suspension of not just disbelief — but all critical faculties. There are modern prose versions, tremendously abridged, which are easy reading. Chakravarthi V. Narashiman’s is the most recent, but it reduces the jungle of the original to a small cultivated field. Perhaps the best idea is to read such an abridgment for “the story” and then sample a complete version at leisure, for The Mahabharata is as inexhaustible and as exhausting as India itself.


The Bhagavad-Gita

“Action shall be the sister of dream and thought and deed shall have the same splendor.” So said Baudelaire. Sometime around the third century before the Christian era an unknown author inserted into the epic story of The Mahabharata a comparatively short religious document, not only small in comparison to the immense size of the epic itself — which was already becoming the gather-all for Hinduism — but shorter by far than any of the scriptures of the other world religions. This is The Bhagavad-Gita, “The Lord’s Song,” one of the three or four most influential writings in the history of man. It is not only influential, it is more profound and more systematic than most religious texts. This statement may sound strange to those who are familiar with nineteenth-century rationalist Western European critics who attempted to abstract a logically consistent philosophy from The Bhagavad-Gita, and who ended up emphasizing its contradictions and ambiguities.

The Bhagavad-Gita is not a philosophical work, but a religious one, and besides that, a song, a poem. It is not to be compared with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or the creed or catechism of the Council of Trent, but with the opening of the Gospel According to St. John or to the Magnificat in St. Luke. Its seeming contradictions are resolved in worship. In the words of the great Catholic modernist Father George Tyrrell, Lex credendi, lex orandi, “the law of faith is the law of prayer.” What the unknown author of The Bhagavad-Gita intended was precisely the resolution and sublimation of the contradictions of the religious life in the great unity of prayer.

The Bhagavad-Gita is above all else a manual of personal devotion to a personal deity. But to establish this devotion and to give it the widest possible meaning the author subsumes all the major theological and philosophical tendencies of the Hinduism of his time. It is as though the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas had been dissolved in his prayers and hymns for the feast of Corpus Christi. It so happens that as he lay dying St. Thomas said that that was what he had done. Unless the reader begins by understanding the devotional nature of the Gita, its many meanings will always elude him and its overall meaning will be totally unapproachable.

There are two main strands of thought in the Gita which divide and sometimes interweave but which are nonetheless easy to distinguish and follow. First is an exposition of the nature of reality and of the Godhead and its self-unfolding, and second is a description, practically a manual, of the means of communion with the deity.

The poem starts out simply enough and scarcely seems to violate the context of the epic; in fact the first two chapters may largely be part of the original tale. At the major crisis of The Mahabharata the warring clans, and their allies numbering uncountable thousands, are marshaled for the crucial battle that will exterminate almost all of them. The Prince Arjuna is sickened by the vision of the coming slaughter and is about to turn away in disgust and give up the battle. His charioteer, Krishna, advises him to fight. He tells him that no one really dies, that the myriad dead of the day on the morrow will move on in the wheel of life, and that anyway, killer and killed are illusory, and that the warrior’s duty is to fight without questioning, but with indifference to gain or glory, dedicating his military virtues to God as a work of prayer.

This advice horrifies modern commentators with their sophisticated ethical sensibility, although it is certainly common enough advice of army chaplains. We forget that The Bhagavad-Gita begins in the epic context, as though the Sermon on the Mount were to appear in The Iliad evolving out of the last fatal conversation between Hector and Andromache. Even Radhakrishnan, India’s leading philosopher of the last generation and spokesman on the highest level for Gandhi’s satyagraha, spiritual nonviolence, speaks of Arjuna’s doubts before the battle as pusillanimous.

Krishna describes briefly the roads to salvation — work, ritual, learning, or rather, wisdom by learning, contemplation, and devotion. He then describes the metaphysical structure of being which culminates in what nowadays we would call the inscrutable ground of being, Brahman, the source of the creative principle of reality. He then goes on to a most extraordinary concept. Behind Brahman, the ultimate reality in all Western theories of emanationist monism, lies Ishvara, the ultimate god behind all ultimates, who is a person. In answer to Arjuna’s plea, Krishna reveals himself as the incarnation of the universal form, the embodiment of all the creative activity of all the universes. That itself is only a kind of mask, an incarnation, for he, Krishna, is the actual, direct embodiment of Ishvara, the Person who transcends the unknowable and who can be approached directly by the person Arjuna, as friend to Friend. The central meaning of “The Lord’s Song” is that being is a conversation of lovers.

Nirvana, as Krishna defines it in the Gita, is the joy in the habitude of illumination, after the dying out of appetite. It is the medium in which the enlightened live, as in air. As we of air, they are conscious of it only by an effort of attention. Faith is shraddha — bliss, the disposition to orient one’s life around the abiding consciousness of spiritual reality. Bad karma, consequence, drains away in successive lives but good karma is saved up always, throughout all the thousands of necessary incarnations, to reach enlightenment. All men travel toward the eternal Brahman. When we reach the end of the road no space will have been traveled and no time spent. You are sat, cit, ananda — reality, truth, and bliss — and always have been. Always becomes a meaningless word when becomes is transformed to be. The direct experience of God is not an act of service or devotion or even of cognition. It is an unqualifiable and unconditioned experience. Who illusions? You are the ultimate Self, but you dream. Work is contemplation. Rite is contemplation. Yoga is contemplation. Learning is contemplation. All are prayer. They are forms of dialogue between two subjects that can never be objects. Insofar as the noblest deed or the most glorified trance is not devotion, it is unreal.

The poem culminates in a hymn of praise to devotion itself — Krishna, speaking for his worshipers, himself to himself. The later sections are a long drawn-out cadence and diminuendo, of recapitulation, instruction, and ethical advice. Then we are back, “marshaled for battle on the Field of Law,” and Arjuna says, “My delusion is destroyed. Recognition has been obtained by me through Thy grace! I stand firm with my doubts dispelled. I shall act by Thy word.”

Reading the Gita in a decent translation for the first time is a tremendously thrilling experience. No one who has ever heard it chanted, hour after hour in an Indian temple, before a statue of dark-skinned Krishna, dancing his strange shuffling dance, and playing on his flute, while a cluster of worshipers sit on the floor, silent and entranced, in their white robes, once in a great while someone uttering a short cry, like a Christian amen, is ever likely, no matter how long he lives, to forget it. More commonly of course one hears the chanting of the Gita Govinda, the song of Krishna’s love adventures with Radha and the milkmaids — but, as any devout Hindu will tell you, the two songs are the same song.

The literature of the Gita is enormous. Incomparably the best translation is the one by Ann Stanford. Two very free translations are The Lord’s Song by Sir Edwin Arnold in Victorian verse, and The Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. There are good versions in Penguin, Mentor, and the Modern Library, and modern scholarly editions by Franklin Edgerton, and S. Radhakrishnan. For readers unfamiliar with Hindu thought there are books by Eliot Deutsch, Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan, B.G. Tilak, and S.N. Dasgupta. Good introductions to Hindu thought generally are the histories of Indian philosophy by Dasgupta and Radhakrishnan and Sources of the Indian Tradition, an omnibus volume edited by William Theodore de Bary for Columbia University Press. In a field so beset with unreliable guides it is essential that the novice get started off with the best authorities. Even so, the most reliable people, for instance, Dasgupta, Radhakrishnan, Aurobindo, and Tilak, often contradict one another and are best read together.

Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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