Random Thoughts

Killer and Killed

Gita is in ever widening circulation. From Annie Beasant to an anonymous contemporary commentator, Gita is a passion--which is what it asks you to shed.  Who knows if Dara Shiko, Aurangzeb’s sibling, who was killed in a terminal throne battle, had an overarching adulation for India’s Song Celestial.  Scholars and savants have looked at it from umpteen angles, beginning with a sanguinary war report and emerging as a theory of psychoanalysis. 

Damodar Kosambi was an unsparing critic of Gita. True to the faith system of an inveterate communist, Kosambi covered fresh ground, basing his views on principles of dialectical materialism. Other Gita enthusiasts have played around with it in various ways, rendering it into several languages, summarizing it for children as well as adults, organizing Gita Jnana Sibirams and, of course, setting it to music. 

Gita came to me first as music, P Leela’s soulful slokas wafting an air of ennobling piety from the amplifiers around the shrine of Guruvayur. Translators have done a great job. Some have presented word-by-word accounts in verse or prose. Some others have brought out handbook length paraphrases. Gita business has never faltered, only flourishing through centuries. Depending on your genius or word power, you can give an annotated vernacular version or a comprehensive original text with commentary. From Gorakhpur Gita Press to Guruvayur  Santha Book Stall, the gospel of karma has long hit the metaphysical market with tomes priced at Rs5.00 upwards. 

I got my latest synoptic Gita from a friend and Yoga teacher, Radha Krishnan. His helpful forward was a woman Sanskrit scholar’s eighteen sentences adumbrating Krishna’s counsel in eighteen chapters. For the past few weeks, my inbox has been saturated with daily notes on Gita from exultant students and scholars, attached to one monastic order or another.  How synoptic a synopsis must be each commentator’s approach to the sacred text. 

By far the shortest Gita summary may be what is contained in Narayana Bhattathiri’s Narayaniyam. Narayaniyam is a book of one thousand plus slokas in Sanskrit covering the entire gamut of the life and teachings of Narayana. As the story of Narayana retold by Narayana Bhattathiri who lived in the fifteenth century, Narayaniyam is seen in two ways. Bhattathiri had an acute stroke when he was still in his late twenties which was, as the fable goes, cured in a matter of three months through intense recitation of the story. That infuses into his poetic work a certain esoteric, therapeutic, quality. 

For a year or two, I have used Narayaniyam for a verbal exercise. I recite every day one sloka or two, addressed more to myself than to any notional deity. My effort has been to keep my tongue and memory intact as long as possible. And nothing may test my speech and memory store more effectively than Bhattathiri’s tongue twisters. He is a master, a master of precision, a master of metaphor, whose song reflects the mood and the splendor of pious poetry as it meanders through its eighteen chapters. 

What has this dictator of words done with Gita which has spread far beyond his own work? How precise, how concise, is his treatment of the testament of action, the gospel of Karma? As a test case, I set out reading again and again Gita, Vyasa’s work incorporated in his Mahabharata. Vyasa is an austere poet, never given to verbal pyrotechnics. His text is easy to remember, mostly set in a meter with eight words in a line. Bhattathiri is an unforgiving scholar, not within easy grasp of casual raconteurs.  His syntax and word play can be a challenge to anyone who tries to commit it to memory. 

Gita, which took 700 slokas for Vyasa to compose, is told by this feisty young poet in a line and a half. “Hey friend, what is this? This soul is eternal, singular. Who kills, who is killed? Rid yourself of this fear of fight. Trust me. And do your calling--which is fighting.

26-Aug-2023

More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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