The Bhagavadgita: A Biography.

Author:Patil, Urmila
Position:Book review

The Bhagavadgita: A Biography. By RICHARD H. DAVIS. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xii + 243. $24.95.

If books could talk, they would have astonishing stories to tell. Especially timeless classics would tell us of the moments of their creation, of their authors engrossed in making them, and of the readers--both known and unknown in history--that re-created them in thoughts and actions. Luckily for the Bhagavadgita, the widely read magnum opus of Hindu theology and philosophy, its life is succinctly and lucidly captured in Richard Davis's The Bhagavadgita: A Biography. Anyone familiar with the deep history of the text knows how daunting the task of writing its biography is. As someone who has taught the text for more than twenty-five years, Davis overcomes the challenge by choosing wisely. From the key themes intrinsic to the text regarding authorship, date, and the immediate narrative context of the Mahabharata to the relationships it developed with well-known ideologues in medieval, colonial, and post-colonial epochs, to the living sights and sounds of the Gita in contemporary times, the Biography conveys the rich life of the Gita through telling samples. The engaging and jargon-free narrative makes it eminently enjoyable as well.

At the heart of the Biography, Davis tells us at the outset, is attention to the double life of the Gita: its historicity as well as its continuing vitality. The paradox of this double life is made possible by the various ideological and discursive layers that surround the Gita not only historically but also through the lenses of the readers of today. The rest of the book peels these layers one by one. The first chapter situates the Gita in the contextual narrative matrix of the Mahabharata and lays out the complex situation facing two equally complex protagonists, Arjuna and Krishna. Davis explains the core teachings of Krishna involving knowledge, selfless action, and devotion with an eye to what they mean to Arjuna and to their place in the larger landscape of contemporary philosophy and theology. Those unfamiliar with the semantic complexity of Sanskrit terms such as yoga and yajna will find their explanation accessible and useful. An experienced reader will agree with the astute observation that Krishna is not so much after conceptual accuracy of the various systems of knowledge but rather after their "heuristic validity" in leading one towards a calm wisdom.


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