- Exploring the Bhagavad Gītā: Philosophy, Structure and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
The Bhagavadgītā and its central dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his friend, charioteer, teacher, and lord, Kṛṣṇa on the eve of the great battle in the Mahābhārata epic hardly need an introduction. Most discussions of the theology and philosophy of this highly successful text revolve around the framework of the three paths or disciplines (yogas) traditionally seen at the core of the text, namely the paths of action (karma), knowledge (jñāna), and devotion (bhakti). Various interpreters of the Bhagavadgītā (BhG) have emphasized the centrality of one of these three paths, or else argued for the BhG’s unique combination of these into one path. In modern times, as inclusivity has grown as a religious value, many have turned to the multiple yogas presented in the BhG to make a claim for Hinduism’s universality. In this interpretation, many paths lead to the final goal and one can choose a path based on one’s disposition, but it is difficult to find this meaning articulated in the BhG itself.1 [End Page 807]
In Exploring the Bhagavad Gītā: Philosophy, Structure and Meaning, Ithamar Theodor boldly moves beyond this traditional framework. He seeks to provide a lens for reading the BhG that clarifies its internal order and highlights its value as a theological treatise. The nature of Theodor’s book, which is based on his earlier work published in Hebrew, is not fully apparent from its title. It begins with a short but substantial introduction, which is followed by a full translation of the BhG with Theodor’s running commentary. The latter is the primary focus of the work—the commentary’s font size, for instance, is larger than the translation’s. The book also includes a short glossary of key terms, a one-page bibliography, and an index. The author states clearly in his preface that his aim is to explore the BhG as a work of philosophy and theology, not as a literary or historical text. Accordingly, his introduction and commentary demonstrate very little engagement with the vast body of secondary scholarship on the BhG and its literary and historical contexts. Nor is there much discussion of earlier explorations of the BhG as a theological or philosophical text, aside from the commentaries by Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja. Instead, the author invites his readers “to relax, to enter into a somewhat contemplative mood as befitting the reading of a great classical treatise” (p. ix).
In some ways, Theodor offers two books at once: a theological argument about the structure, strategies, and meaning of the BhG and a pedagogical guide to the text for a general audience. These can be considered in turn. The author’s primary theological objective is “to offer a unifying structure” that ties the BhG together (p. ix). He does this by applying the metaphor of a three-story house, which he uses to organize and interpret the dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. In this metaphor, each story represents a point of view from a different level of reality. The first floor encompasses morality and prosperity in the world, exemplified best by the concept of dharma, “a universal principle representing religion, law, order, duty, justice and morality” (p. 145). The second floor represents the soul seeking to move beyond the world. From this point of view, one focuses on detachment and equanimity toward one’s own body and all things, both good and bad, rather than engaging with the world as one does at the first level. At this second story, one attempts to become free from the limits of the embodied state and to connect with or yoke oneself to the supreme reality; hence, the author characterizes this as “the yogic view” (p. 8). Finally, the third floor stands for the state of full liberation, the state beyond all striving. As the author explains in his own description of this house, “the lower floor...