Publisher: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, Pondicherry ISBN: 978-81-7058-978-5
About Introduction to the Gita
The essays in this volume were originally written by Sri Aurobindo in Bengali and published serially in the journal Dharma in 1909–10. They discuss the elements pivotal to understanding the Gita: the breadth and significance of its setting, the nature of its chief protagonists, and the circumstances and political objectives that brought the Kauravas and the Pandavas to the battlefield. The essays point to the central teaching of the Gita, which answers man's most searching questions about God and the world, the purpose of life, and the way to right living.
Introduction to the Gita, the English rendering of the Bengali work Gitar Bhumika, is the earliest exposition of the Gita by Sri Aurobindo, written in 1909. After his acquittal in the Alipore bomb case, he was released from jail on 6 May 1909. It is amazing that as early as 19 June, he had mustered the resources as well as the necessary logistics to launch the first issue of the English weekly Karmayogin. What is even more amazing, he was on tour till the 26th of the month, visiting Faridpur, Khulna and Barisal, and attending a conference at Jhalakati in East Bengal. He had already begun contributing instalments of his Karakahini (Tales of Prison Life) to the Bengali monthly Suprabhat in May itself. Also on 19 June the first issue of the Bengali weekly Dharma was issued. He must have had at his disposal assistants able enough to execute his schemes. Even so, the fact that he wrote practically the entire contents of both periodicals, including The Ideal of the Karmayogin for the English publication and Gitar Bhumika for the Bengali one, was a phenomenal exercise, to say the least.
This reviewer must confess that once having read Essays on the Gita, he had assumed, not very consciously though, that nothing more could be expected from an incomplete earlier series on the subject that was Sri Aurobindo’s Gitar Bhumika. But on reading the latter he realised how gravely wrong he was. This short treatise on the great scripture seemed charged by a certain extraordinary power of conviction that Sri Aurobindo had freshly received from its very source, Sri Krishna, while in solitary confinement at Alipore Jail.
Gitar Bhumika can be looked upon as a preamble to Essays on the Gita so far as Sri Aurobindo’s exposition of the supreme secret of the Gita was concerned. We need not delve into that profundity here. But explaining briefly the import of “The Speaker” (Lord Krishna), “The Listener” (the hero Arjuna) and “The Circumstance” in which the dialogue took place, the wide perspective Sri Aurobindo creates, in a simple style, immensely helps the reader to appreciate the significance of the Gita’s message. For example, he explains the reason for Krishna’s choice of Arjuna from among his illustrious contemporaries as the worthy recipient of his revelations. Arjuna was not the greatest among the great of his time; so far as spiritual knowledge was concerned Vyasa excelled all. Bhishma no doubt was the wisest person, speaking pragmatically; Dhritarashtra and Vidura were superior to all the others in their thirst for wisdom. None could surpass Yudhisthira in honesty and moral qualities; nobody was greater than Uddhava or Akrura when it came to devotion to Krishna; it was Karna who surpassed all in valour and other heroic qualities. But Arjuna was the one who was totally open to Krishna’s guidance; he alone had the capacity for acting as an instrument of the Divine, totally and unconditionally.
The treatise focuses several sidelights on issues historical. That was a time when the subtle unity of India was preserved through all the rulers accepting the suzerainty of one emperor. The tradition was considered sacred. It would not allow an emperor’s descendant to succeed him to the position. Instead, the position was transferred to another, one who commanded the trust and respect of all the princes, and their allegiance would be confirmed by their attending the Rajasuya Yajna performed by the aspirant to that position. That explains why the Chedi prince Shishupala, terribly inimical towards the Pandavas, felt obliged to attend the ceremony convened to anoint Yudhisthira with that crowning imperial glory.
Sri Aurobindo further observes that the great Kurukshetra war took place 5000 years ago*, but the first attack by foreigners on India was possible only 2500 years later and that too extended only up to the river Sindhu. What could have kept the invaders at bay till then? It was the heroic Kshatriya power, supported by the Brahma power that surged forth with the victory of the Pandavas— an achievement that was Arjuna’s.
Gitar Bhumika was serialised in the Dharma till February 1910 and was discontinued, as was the publication of the journal, when Sri Aurobindo left Kolkata abruptly. Its English translation, the work under notice, was published in Sri Aurobindo Mandir Annual brought out by the Sri Aurobindo Pathmandir, Kolkata, in 1967. It did not carry the translator’s name. Though reasonably well done, the translation requires some revision. For example, on page 4, the Sanskrit gahana is closer in the context to “deep” or “mysterious” than to “thick”. On page 16 “Though you are infinite, we shall not allow you to be finite” should read “Since you are infinite, we shall not allow you to be finite.”
Manoj Das is a well-known writer. Awarded the Padma Shri for his distinguished contribution to literature, he is also the recipient of the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Akademi awards. December 2015
*In a 1902 essay on the Mahabharata, Sri Aurobindo wrote that “it is now known beyond reasonable doubt that the Mahabharata war was fought out in or about 1190 B.C.” [CWSA, Vol. I, p. 344]. Evidently, in both cases he wrote based on the information available to him at the time.—Ed.