- The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography by Richard H. Davis
The “Lives of Great Religious Books” from Princeton University Press is a series with the worthy goal of introducing general readers to major works from many different traditions. The phrase “lives of” indicates that the point is not just to elucidate the work’s meaning but also to trace how it has been interpreted (its “life”) between the time of its composition and the present day. In Richard H. Davis, the author of one previous book on visual culture in India and another dealing with Śaiva ritual, Princeton has found a happy conjunction of scholar and subject matter. To The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography Davis brings years of reflection on the diversity of religious expression in medieval and modern India, and approaches this topic with a lively and inviting writing style.
The book consists of an introduction, six chapters in roughly chronological order, and an epilogue. Also included are endnotes, a glossary, an index, and a list of books for further reading. After the introduction’s brief remarks about the Bhagavad Gītā and its reception history, chapter 1 presents the meaning of the Gītā as it was likely understood at the time of its composition. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book, as it succinctly presents the most recent scholarship concerning the text’s authorship and origins, including two theories from James Fitzgerald and Alf Hiltebeitel on the Mahābhārata’s authorship during the Śuṅga and Kaṇva dynasties (185–28 b.c.e.). Among other important points, Davis makes the observation that the Bhagavad Gītā never says Kṛṣṇa is an avatar of Viṣṇu. That interpretation probably came later in the first millennium, though it is often presented in modern textbooks as being an unambiguous part of the Gītā’s message.
The second chapter describes medieval responses to the Bhagavad Gītā, including other “competitive Gītās” oriented toward other deities such as Śiva (in the Īśvara Gītā) and the Goddess (in the Devī Gītā). It is also in this chapter that Davis covers the philosophical commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā. Because his short book has so much ground to cover, he focuses on only three among the many medieval commentators: Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, and Jñānadeva. Davis juxtaposes Śaṅkara’s and Rāmānuja’s understanding of Kṛṣṇa, noting that unlike Rāmānuja Śaṅkara considers Kṛṣṇa “a kind of spectral projection” of brahman, and that Kṛṣṇa’s “as-if-ness consigns him to a secondary status in Shankara’s ontological order.” Also, Rāmānuja’s path to liberation, which combines knowledge (jñāna) and action (karman), is contrasted with Śaṅkara’s position that knowledge alone liberates. Kṛṣṇa’s insistence [End Page 354] in the second chapter of the Gītā that Arjuna must fight is presented as “an interpretive quandary” for Śaṅkara, given Śaṅkara’s view that renunciation of prescribed action is necessary for liberation. Śaṅkara resolves this quandary by emphasizing that Kṛṣṇa’s advice is specific to Arjuna’s situation as a kṣatriya householder, and is not for brahmin renouncers. Davis seems to find special personal resonance in Jñānadeva’s poetic Marathi-language adaptation of the Gītā, suggesting that Jñānadeva “remained closer perhaps to the ethos of the Gītā itself” than did Śaṅkara, who saw text’s multiplicity of meanings as “a problem that he hoped to overcome.”
Chapters 3 and 4 discuss Gītā interpretations in the modern West and in modern India, respectively. Given the vastness of these topics, Davis is conscious of the need to be selective with what he includes. He begins with the story of Charles Wilkins, who published the first English translation of the Gītā in 1785. Governor-General Warren Hastings had stated that Indians should be governed by their own laws, and this...