At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.
—Doctor Atomic (act 2, scene 2, chorus)
Had you attended any one of the performances of Doctor Atomic, a John Adams opera about the detonation of the first nuclear bomb near Los Alamos, New Mexico, you would have heard those words and perhaps been terrified by the image they painted of the Hindu god Vishnu. But the verse is not original to Adams’s work; it was respectfully pilfered from the Bhagavad Gita (in this case the 1944 translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood). Adams is hardly alone among Americans to have found inspiration in this work. Rather, he’s operating in a long tradition of borrowing and appropriation. If you know where to look, you can find the Gita in some of the most famous and revered works of American literature and philosophy, from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Brahma” to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, not to mention British pop songs that topped the American charts. As it turns out, the Bhagavad Gita has appealed to Westerners in general and Americans in particular almost since the moment they got their hands on an English translation in the middle decades of the 19th century.
The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of India’s most famous epic poems. It’s unclear exactly when the Gita was composed—estimates vary widely, but a number of scholars suggest it was completed around 200 CE and then inserted into the larger work; many see it as the first fully realized yogic scripture. Curious though it may seem that such an ancient text from a foreign culture has been so enthusiastically received by Westerners, the Gita, like all truly great works of literature, can be read on many levels: metaphysical, moral, spiritual, and practical; hence its appeal.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it, the Gita recounts a dialogue between Arjuna, one of five Pandava princes, and the Hindu deity Krishna, who in this epic serves as Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna and his brothers have been exiled from the kingdom of Kurukshetra for 13 years and cut off from their rightful heritage by another faction of the family; the Gita takes up their struggle to reclaim the throne, which requires that Arjuna wage war against his own kinsmen, bringing his considerable military skills to bear.
The story begins on the dusty plains of Kurukshetra, where Arjuna, a famed archer, is poised to fight. But he hesitates. He sees arrayed against him friends, teachers, and kin, and believes that to fight—and likely kill—these men would be to commit a grievous sin and could bring nothing good even if he were to win the kingdom back. Krishna chides him for his cowardice—Arjuna is from the warrior caste after all, and warriors are meant to fight—but then goes on to present a spiritual rationale for battling his enemies, one that encompasses a discussion of the karma, jnana and bhakti yogas, as well as the nature of divinity, humankind’s ultimate destiny, and the purpose of mortal life.
A work of luminous and startling intensity, the Gita offers what Henry David Thoreau described as a “stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy…in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” While no single thread has been picked up and woven into Western culture by the various thinkers, poets, songwriters, yoga teachers, and philosophers who have been drawn to the Gita, three main themes seem to have intrigued its readers: the nature of divinity; yoga, or the various ways of making contact with this divinity; and finally, the resolution of the perennial conflict between a renunciation of the world—often considered the quickest path to spiritual enlightenment—and action.
Take Ralph Waldo Emerson. In November of 1857, Emerson made one of the most dramatic declarations of affection for the Gita imaginable: He contributed a poem titled “Brahma” to the inaugural issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The first stanza reads:
“If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.”
The poem owes a great debt to the Gita as well as the Katha Upanishad. The first verse in particular seems to have been lifted almost verbatim from chapter 2 of the Gita, when Krishna is trying to persuade Arjuna to fight: “The man who believeth that it is the soul which killeth, and he who thinketh that the soul may be destroyed, are both alike deceived; for it neither killeth, nor is it killed.” Taken with a few lines that appear later—”I am the sacrifice; I am the worship” and “He also is my beloved servant…to whom praise and blame are one”—you have many elements of Emerson’s poem.
Emerson’s journals confirm the Gita’s impact on him. In the 1840s, not long after he got hold of Charles Wilkins’s 1785 translation (the first English rendering of it), Emerson wrote what became the opening lines of “Brahma.” A decade later the rest came to him. “Brahma” appears as an exhalation of verse between long paragraphs he had copied out of the Upanishads.
What’s striking about this poem, which may be somewhat lost on modern readers, is how radically different this conception of divinity was from the mainstream view of God and even from the more forgiving Unitarian God of the religious liberals who held sway in Concord and Cambridge, Massachusetts, during Emerson’s life.
“Brahma” the poem was a meditation on what we refer to today as Brahman, or the “Absolute, behind and above all the various deities…beings, and worlds.” In Emerson’s day, the names for this vast inclusive idea of divinity and the name of the creator deity of the Hindu trinity were barely distinguishable; but his description and sources give him away. Emerson was not merely trading one trinity for another. He was celebrating an idea of a God that animated everything (both slayer and slain) and dissolved all opposites (“Shadow and sunlight are the same”).
Emerson’s audience was less offended than bewildered by his insertion of this bit of the Gita into the Atlantic. They found his poem impenetrable and comically nonsensical. Parodies were published widely in newspapers across the country.
And yet, if taken seriously, this version of divinity might be either a tremendous relief (if Brahman is behind everything, humans have far less agency than we tend to believe) or incredibly disturbing (what happens to morality when “shadow and sunlight” or good and evil are the same?).
A Glorious and Ghastly God
In the Gita, the most powerful articulation of this idea comes not in the second chapter, echoed in Emerson’s poem, but in the 11th, when Krishna shows his true nature to Arjuna. To do this, he must temporarily give Arjuna the gift of mystic insight, for it is impossible to see Krishna in his glory with the naked eye.
What Arjuna sees is a multiform image that can barely be described. It’s boundless, containing all the worlds and gods, and stupefyingly beautiful, with garlands and jewels and “celestial ornaments,” and it burns with the radiance of a thousand suns. At the same time, this being is terrifying, for it has “countless arms, bellies, mouths, and eyes” and brandishes divine weapons. Even more horrifying was this: As Arjuna watched, thousands rushed through the being’s fangs and were crushed between his teeth, Arjuna’s foes on the battlefield among them. Arjuna sees the being “lick at the worlds…devouring them with flaming mouths” (these quotations are from the Barbara Stoler Miller translation). That is, he sees endless holocausts and violence, untempered by any force known to humankind. Arjuna nearly faints.
It was this very visage, at once glorious and ghastly, that J. Robert Oppenheimer invoked on one of history’s most fateful days, July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer headed the team of scientists that detonated the first nuclear bomb. Upon witnessing the fireball blazing over the New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer quoted Krishna in the moment that he displays his true nature as Vishnu: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” Words failed Arjuna in the face of Vishnu’s destructive nature, but the Gita gave Oppenheimer a language to match the power and fearsomeness of the atomic bomb.
The quote has been memorialized in many articles, books, and films. And so it was that Oppenheimer seared a piece of this yogic scripture into the minds of another generation of Americans. In fact, he had long been a student of the Gita, reading it in translation as an undergraduate at Harvard and later in Sanskrit with Arthur W. Ryder when Oppenheimer taught physics at the University of California at Berkeley. The experience was exhilarating, he said, and he found reading the Sanskrit “very easy and quite marvelous.” (Albert Einstein, in contrast, was moved by the Gita’s depiction of creation, and once remarked, “When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”)
But what of seeing this divinity for oneself? Krishna gave Arjuna the gift of a divine eye. There’s hope for the rest of us, of course, and that’s in yoga. The Gita can be read as a user’s guide to various types of yoga, all of which will lead to illumination and liberation. Thoreau found this possibility so compelling that he tried to practice yoga based solely on his reading of the Gita and other Indic texts in translation.
By the time he wrote Walden (during the late 1840s and early 1850s), Thoreau had fairly precise ideas about yoga, which he inserted into the essay’s conclusion as if recounting a hoary Hindu parable. There the American essayist tells the story of the artist of Kouroo who possessed a rare and complete single-pointed concentration and set out to carve a perfect wooden staff. Eons had passed by the time he finished, but the artist had, by his devotion to this simple task, made “the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff.”
The Game of Awakening
More recently, people like Ram Dass as well as contemporary yoga teachers have conveyed, in supremely accessible vernacular, this more practical element of the Gita. In the summer of 1974, Ram Dass, who had been a professor of psychology at Harvard until 1963, taught a course called the Yogas of the Bhagavad Gita. The setting was historic—a summer session of the newly created Naropa Institute (today a university) in Boulder, Colorado, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist.
Ram Dass treated reading (and teaching!) the Gita as a spiritual exercise and encouraged his students to read this work at least three times, with a slightly different perspective in mind each time. He also assigned exercises based on the Gita that could “evolve into a complete sadhana,” or program for spiritual practices. These included keeping a journal, meditating, kirtan (chanting), and even “going to Church or Temple.”
Over the course, Ram Dass peeled back the layers of the Gita, one by one, but he summed it up thusly: “It’s about the game of awakening, about the coming into Spirit.” In this context, he presented the karma, jnana, and bhakti yogas as different, if completely interrelated, ways of playing that game. Karma yoga was, in Ram Dass’s formulation, an injunction: “Do your work…but without attachment.” Besides giving up your attachment to the fruits of your labors, he said, you must also act “without thinking of yourself as being the actor.”
Personally, Ram Dass relied most on bhakti, or devotional, yoga, specifically Guru Kripa, in which the practitioner focuses on the guru and relies on the guru’s grace. That summer he offered his students some ideas about how to cultivate a devotional attitude; he told them how to set up a puja table (similar to an altar) and how to know when they’d found their guru. But the point for Ram Dass was that all methods, or types of yoga, had their pitfalls and “traps”; it was the practitioner’s job to use even the “traps” themselves as tools of awakening.
Many contemporary yoga teachers, including Mas Vidal, the spiritual director of Dancing Shiva Yoga and Ayurveda in Los Angeles, turn to the Bhagavad Gita to balance the overemphasis on the asana practice in the West. Like Ram Dass, Vidal sees the Gita as a practical guide for “raising consciousness.”
He is also quick to emphasize the coherence of its approach. He presents the “four main branches of yoga” to his students as a single system: “It was never intended to be practiced as a fragmented system,” Vidal insists. The branches are bhakti (love), jnana (study), karma (service), and raja (meditation). Above all, Vidal teaches the Gita as a metaphor for spiritual struggle in which the practitioner learns to use the mind and body as tools for awakening—tools that don’t have much value in themselves.
There is still another element of the Gita: Krishna’s insistence on the value of acting in this world rather than shirking its demands, a value that has long appealed to Westerners. This concept underlies karma yoga and Krishna’s insistence that Arjuna fight his kinsmen, dreadful as that seems. True, Arjuna must renounce the fruits of his actions, but he also must give up the idea that it is ever possible not to act. As Krishna explains in chapter 3 (from Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation):
A man cannot escape the force
of action by abstaining from actions…
No one exists for even an instant
without performing action
Historian James A. Hijiya argues that this teaching of the Gita solves the riddle of Robert Oppenheimer’s career: that he created the bomb and advocated its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only to become a leading critic of nuclear weapons and war. Just as Krishna insisted that renouncing action was far worse than taking disciplined action (and was ultimately not possible in any case), so Oppenheimer rejected the ivory tower, and its illusion of remove, for the Manhattan Project.
According to Hijiya, Oppenheimer believed scientists should “act selflessly but effectively in the world” and once said, “If you are a scientist you believe…that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world.” Oppenheimer never shrank from what he considered his professional duty and was quite able to detach himself, at least in the short term, from its untoward consequences. It was, he believed, for humankind, not him, to deal with the awesome power he helped unleash, “according to its lights and values.”
That American thinkers, poets, and yoga teachers have drawn so much inspiration from the Gita over more than a century is a testament to this scripture’s power. That they have pulled out different strands and woven them into their lives and our culture is even more remarkable considering how apologetically that first English translator presented this work. “The reader will to have the liberality to excuse the obscurity of many passages,” Charles Wilkins pleaded in his translator’s note to the Bhagvatgeeta, “and the confusion of sentiments which runs through the whole in its present form.”
Wilkins, for all his efforts, felt he hadn’t fully lifted the veil of the Gita’s mystery. Undeterred by such difficulties, Americans have long sung this celestial song, harmonizing it with the peculiar temperament of each era.
Stefanie Syman is the author of Practice: A History of Yoga in America, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is the editorial director of Lime.com.