New book says focus on action in the face of uncertainty makes it important for our time

What is the meaning of action in the face of uncertainty? It is neither healthy nor viable to worry about every possible event or every possible outcome of an action. To borrow metaphors from mythology and religion, such an approach risks turning us to stone or salt, immobilized and frozen in inaction or ready to collapse under the slightest pressure.

And yet, it is a perfectly legitimate desire to want a certain stability on which to base one’s existence. At a time when difference is seen as dangerous and when those who are seen as visibly different face the threat of exclusion and violence, the question of how we behave towards our fellow human beings is also of particular urgency.

Who are our parents? Who are the others? What is the nature of our obligations towards our fellow men? It is an issue that takes on increased importance in light of the kinds of identities and differences – national, cultural, religious, gender, ethnic, caste, racial, gender, bodily and otherwise – that we, as individuals and communities, affirm, negotiate and meet today, perhaps on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Equally important is the question of war, both literal and metaphorical. What meaning do we give to the incessant wars unfolding today between state and non-state actors? What standards or codes should govern the wars of the 21st century? Are the costs they support us worth? Are these wars inevitable?

And what approach do we take to fighting battles with adversaries like the Covid-19 coronavirus? Or those committed to the cause of social justice? The continuing importance of these kinds of questions is perhaps why the Geetha has spoken convincingly to readers for two millennia, since it was written in the first or second century CE.

Like any other text, religious or secular, the Geetha may not provide easy or immediate answers to such questions. But it can give us a way to struggle with them and show us a way to find the answers on our own. If war is a quasi-constant of human existence, whether understood as the struggle of the soul, the struggle for justice, political and ideological confrontations or military conflicts between nations, then the Gita has something to say about it.

“Kurukshetra,” Davis points out, “is both a peculiar battlefield and a perpetual field of dharma, or righteousness.” While the setting of the Gita is a real battlefield, the battlefield in the text refers to any struggle we might face in life. If living in a state of crisis, with the threat of global warming, widespread pollution and economic upheaval is part of our reality, the Gita has something valuable to contribute to how we negotiate and understand this state of affairs. . He has probably done the same for readers down the centuries, in times of crisis or otherwise.

Shakespeare, the scholar Jan Kott convinces us in his influential book, is our contemporary. Ran, Kurosawa’s masterful interpretation of King Lear, and Omkaara, The striking interpretation of Vishal Bhardwaj Othello in the context of a link of caste, politics and crime in Uttar Pradesh, strongly support Kott’s thesis.

Greek tragedy moves us and leaves us frozen to the bone, its strangely familiar landscapes of desolation, the savagery and horrors of its painfully common violence. The writings of Marx or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius affect us with an immediacy and an intimacy that we perhaps cannot feel in more recent and mundane texts which take place in contexts much more known to us.

At Italo Calvino Invisible cities, the traveler Marco Polo describes all the cities he visited to Emperor Kublai Khan. I find Calvino’s masterpiece ringing truer in Mumbai than any novel that takes the great Indian metropolis as a literal setting.

Works like those named here are representative of particular traditions, but also have a life beyond them. The Gita shares this quality of transcendent historical and geographical context with other great texts, whether of religious or secular origin. Davis described this quality as “the dual character of the Bhagavad Gita – its historical uniqueness and its continuous, even eternal life.”

Truly, during its long and continuing life, the Geetha has meant an amazing number of things to an astonishing number of people. Interlocutors for the text include “medieval Brahmin scholars and Krishna devotees, British colonial scholars, German romantics, globe-trotting Hindu gurus, Indian anti-colonial freedom fighters, Western students and spiritual seekers,” who have all “entered into new dialogues with the Geetha”.

Architects of war and apostles of peace, ordinary and extraordinary people, atheists and believers have found the Geetha a source of wisdom, guidance and consolation, a powerful instrument of justification for troubling actions. or a rampart to resist storms of doubt.

In a number of cases, the meaning of a word, Wittgenstein tells us, “is its use in the tongue.” We can extend this principle to the meaning of the texts. The Gita, Davis suggests, “is sufficiently complex and ambiguous internally to have told different truths to different audiences, depending on their different situations and expectations.”

Flood and Martin, likewise, point out that “the Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue, rather than a systematic philosophical work, and therefore the meaning of the text is not obvious. As a result, the Gita has been interpreted in many ways and used to support a number of different philosophical and political ideas, from pacifism to aggressive nationalism, from philosophical monism to theism.

In a legitimately famous essay, AK Ramanujan suggests that the existence of many versions of the Ramayana means that no single version of the text should be considered authoritative. Each of the 300 or 3000 versions of the Hindu epic is the Ramayana.

There may not be so many versions of the Gita, a text that is not close to the size of an epic since it is only a part of it, but there is not of shortage of readings of the relatively thin poem of 700 verses. Inseparable from the countless interpretations that flourish with its aesthetic, political and philosophical richness, the Gita is an infinite text, its meanings refracting to infinity by addressing readers across time and space.

Extracted with permission from Context.

About Harold Hartman

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