'Sacred Songs: The Mahabharata’s Many Gitas' book review: The wisdom of 25 Gitas
The font and spacing of the mammoth hardbound are designed for readability.
The overwhelming centrality of the Bhagavat Gita has long eclipsed other Gitas. This beautifully produced volume foregrounds distillates of some of those others, hitting the right note between the seed text and what it must offer the modern-day sensibility
The term gita is generic and typically indicates songs embedded in larger ancient Sanskrit texts to indicate the verses, which must be not recited but sung. To most of us in India, it instantaneously means the Bhagavat Gita: verses of advice by Lord Krishna, friend and charioteer to the warrior hero Arjuna in the Mahabharata. While the core message is that of doing one’s duty or dharma, no matter how daunting the circumstances, the Bhagavat Gita is revered as a text that encapsulates the essence of Hinduism in the Vedanta tradition. Its overwhelming centrality has a shadow side, as its renown eclipses all others.
It is only one among the many gitas in the Mahabharata, which along with the Ramayana and Mahapuranas, contain a total of about 60 gitas. There are also standalone gitas, which occur independent of a larger text such as Ashtavakra Gita, Gayatri Gita and Pingala Gita among others. True to the argumentative Indian tradition, where knowledge has always been parsed through debate, sometimes over centuries, there are disputes about the actual numbers, the identification of each, and which exact verses make the cut.
Sacred Songs by Bibek Debroy is a compilation that foregrounds 25 other Gitas from the Mahabharata, each holding within it a distillate of ancient wisdom. The author’s craft hits the right note between the two diverse cultures of the seed text and what it must offer the modern-day sensibility. The writing is engaging, erudite, and yet flows sparkling like clear water. A word must be said about the production aspect of the beautiful volume. The publisher has excelled in making this a connoisseur’s delight. The juxtaposition of the Sanskrit verses with the translation has been flawlessly organised. The font and spacing of the mammoth hardbound are designed for readability.
Shounaka Gita is from the Pandavas’ stay in the forest, and are the learned words of Shounaka (the sage); the summary of which is that attachment is the root of all misery. In a startling echo of the Bhagavat Gita, he offers this advice to Yudhishthira, when the latter mourns the loss of his kingdom: “Perform karma, but also renounce it”. Similarly, the acolyte himself offers solace to Draupadi in Kashyapa Gita, and advises her to forsake her anger and the desire for revenge: “Know that the birth of all beings is conditional on conciliation”.
Given India’s current discourse around non-vegetarianism, Dharma Vyadha Gita assumes greater significance. The large gita, spanning 10 chapters, has the hunter (vyadha) taking the great sage Koushika through his paces on svadharma or following one’s own righteous path. In the vyadha’s words: “When they are overwhelmed by avarice and battered by attachment and hatred, dharma is not generated in their intelligence. Instead, there is a pretense about following dharma.” Ably, the hunter demonstrates that intelligence, wisdom and siddha are available to all who live a mindful life.
The setting of Yaksha Prashna is especially interesting. In exile, the Pandavas’ path is blocked by a forest-dwelling sprite or yaksha, and they must answer him correctly or die. When his four brothers lose their lives, it is Yudhishthira’s deep knowledge of dharma that compels the yaksha to revive them.
Vichakhnu Gita abjures violence. Vritra, the daitya king, engages in a final conversation with Guru Shukracharya. Vritra Gita deals with death, the transmigration of the soul, and what must be done to purify it. The most popular among these gitas, Anu Gita, also is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and extends concepts laid bare in the Bhagavat Gita through three interactions.
It is no accident that a good number of these Gitas are named after great sages and pertain to conversations and teachings by them. All ancient oral texts are accretions; developed at multiple locations, sometimes layer by layer. In these gitas, the civilizational truths, wisdom, and knowledge, as represented by its most learned, are presented in compact form, closest to a philosophy “digest” format, which is why they could be disseminated among lay people as well. Therefore, a summation of the deepest spiritual knowledge and guidance of the times was made available via literature using the mnemonic device of rhythm and song such that they could be then represented and spread via music, dance, recitation, drama, and visual art.
The simplicity and impactful language of each of these Gitas provide another crucial form of solace. Couched within this dialogue or narrative form in the barest of expressions, large looming philosophical dilemmas are laid bare such that the seeker may find erudite yet accessible arguments for all quandaries. This becomes then an indispensable bedside volume to explore the rich detail of ancient reasoning in our own quest for the unknowable.
‘COUCHED WITHIN THE NARRATIVE FORM, LARGE LOOMING PHILOSOPHICAL DILEMMAS ARE LAID BARE SUCH THAT THE SEEKER MAY FIND ERUDITE YET ACCESSIBLE ARGUMENTS FOR ALL QUANDARIES.’