Dinner with Vyasa: A Playful Dialogue with the Gita's Author

Art by Eugenia Loli

This piece first appeared on Bob Weisenberg's website

Bob

Good evening, Mr. Vyasa.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  It’s hard to know where to begin after all these years.  You wouldn’t care to tell us where you are living and how it is that you’re still alive would you?

Vyasa 

Are you kidding?  Can you imagine the media circus?  No, this is a one-time shot just to clear everything up.  Then it’s back into hiding.

Bob

Why did you decide to talk now, after so many years of silence?

Vyasa

Well, for a long time I thought all the mystery about the Gita added to its appeal.  But now there are so many serious misconceptions out there.  I decided on balance it was better to just blast out the truth with a neutral journalist and get things back on track a little.  Not that I’m against mystery and intrigue.  But I’m guessing there will still be plenty of that even after this interview.

Bob

Ok, let’s get down to brass tacks.  What’s the biggest misconception about the Bhagavad Gita you’d like to clear up for our readers?

Vyasa

That’s easy. The thing that upsets me the most today is when people try to pigeonhole the Gita as just one thing or another.  My whole purpose from the beginning was to create a work that would appeal to the broadest possible variety of people.  I thought I made that obvious in the text itself.  But today it seems a lot of people just don’t get it.

Bob

Tell me more about what you mean.

Vyasa

Well, we were not one-dimensional in ancient times, contrary to what some would have you believe.  The spectrum of personal and spiritual beliefs was as wide back then as it is now.  We had atheist intellectuals and fundamentalist believers and everything in between, just like you do today.

Of course there can only be one what I call Brahman, or “ultimate reality”.  But, somewhat paradoxically, the ultimate reality of things has to include all sincere belief systems, because the belief systems themselves are certainly real, even if the actual facts believed in are an illusion.  Does that make sense?

Bob

I think so.  But please go on.

Vyasa

Well, simply put, the only spiritual system that can be consistent with ultimate reality is one that is universalist, in that it includes other belief systems within its broad intellectual and spiritual scope.  And so it has to be welcoming for all types of people.

I’m not unrealistic.  I know some people will deny the very existence of such a universalist spirituality, insisting on the dominance and exclusiveness of the their particular brand of god or even “no-god”.  Not everyone will recognize the Gita’s concept of ultimate reality.  But I think many do when they come to fully understand it.  That’s one of the reasons I’m here.

Logically it’s obvious to me that there is an ultimate reality out there.  It’s kind of a self-confirming phrase, really.  As I try to make it clear in the Gita, it’s way beyond our capacity to fully understand.  But even if we can’t understand it, we can still be in a state of utter amazement at it.  Just look at the world around us and at our own amazing human intelligence to see the infinite wonder of whatever ultimate reality is.

The recent explosion of scientific discovery just adds to the amazement and wonder.  So why not build a spirituality around amazement and wonder itself, embracing the wonder and awe, but also embracing its vast unknowable nature?

Bob

Whew.  Ok, I think I’m still with you.  How does that lead us back into the issue of variety in the Gita?

Vyasa

Well, the variety in the Gita occurs at several levels. The most obvious is that there are the four main types of yoga in the Gita, each tailored to a different type of person, what you today call “personality types”.

I don’t know how much more obvious I could have made it, but it still seems today that people want to declare the Gita to be only about the Yoga of Understanding, or only about the Yoga of Meditation, or the Yoga of Selfless Action, or the Yoga of Love and Devotion.

But it’s not.  It’s about all of them and all variations and mixes of the four.

Bob

You have to admit it’s confusing when you, in various place in the Gita, declare one to be superior to the other.

Vyasa

I know, I know.  But it’s an imaginative poem, not a powerpoint presentation.  Krishna gets excited about whatever he’s talking about at the time.  On the whole I think it should be obvious.

But it goes way beyond that.  At one point I say quite explicitly that all sincere paths, and all gods and even all no-gods lead to the same spiritual place eventually.  I mean this to be taken literally.

Bob

Ok, I want to get back to this concept of ultimate reality again later, because what you call “ultimate reality” is often just taken as another competing brand of supernatural god by many analysts.

Vyasa

That really upsets me.  It’s ultimate reality, not ultimate unreality.

Bob

Ok, we’ll definitely get back to that.  But first, let’s knock off some of the other biggies.

Was the Bhagavad Gita an integral part of the Mahabharata from the start, or was it bolted on later from another source?  Scholars differ on this, as you know.

Vyasa

Honestly, it’s somewhere in between.  Let me try to explain.

As you probably know, we had a team working on this massive Mahabharata project.  After all, it is the biggest epic poem in history, with over 100,000 stanzas.  Not only that, we were compiling stories, myths, legends, spirituality, philosophy, magic, ethics, and rituals from many different oral sources.

I was the lead writer and editor.  We were trying to both create a new imaginative work, and at the same time collect and preserve for posterity all this incredibly rich material from the past.

When I started work on the Mahabharata, I had separately already begun work on the Bhagavad Gita, which was my effort to pull together a synthesis of the very best Yoga thinking of the day in a highly inspirational poetic form.

One day it occurred to me, why not insert this new work into the Mahabharata just like all the other great variety of material we were collecting there.

Bob

Ah, so you began it separately, but decided to work it into the Mahabharata fairly early on.

Vyasa

Yes.  After that, it was just a matter of figuring out where to put it.  This wasn’t an easy choice.  It could have been presented as a sacred scroll discovered in the forest, totally separate from the battle.  You probably know that the actual war story in the Mahabharata is only about 20% of all the stanzas anyway.

In the end, I decided it would be more powerful to make it an integral part of the the main story.  This creates some problems, of course, and not a little confusion for later readers.  I mean, it’s certainly relevant to Arjuna’s immediate dilemma.  But most of the Gita has nothing to do with war.

Bob

Yes, on the whole it seems to be a lot more about love than war.

Vyasa

Very true.  But you’ve got to admit, it certainly gets your attention there, right?  That won me over in the end.  And I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that it would be obvious to everyone that the Gita has deep meaning for anyone facing any challenge in life, not just for a warrior going into battle.

Bob

Well then, as long as we’re on the subject of sources, how do you explain the startling difference in tone, and some would say philosophy, between the soaring poetry of the first two-thirds of the Gita and the last third?  I can tell you that even on first reading it seemed to me like someone had flipped a switch and I was reading a completely different text, with a completely different, and, how should I say it, less inspiring style.

Vyasa

I was afraid you were going to ask me about that.  I’ll tell it to you straight up.  That choice was not my finest hour.  Here’s what happened.

I was pretty far along with Chapters 1-12 when some of my collaborators told me they didn’t think I had enough stuff about the nuts and bolts of how the gunas work–you know, the three primary “qualities” I guess you would say in English (although that’s a totally inadequate translation).  Plus they thought I needed a little more what you people today call “fire and brimstone”, fear of the Lord and all that.

So I said to them, give me an idea of what you have in mind.  Much to my surprise they turned up several months later with this long point-by-point list of how the gunas work, and other aspects of the related philosophy.  They even did a pretty good job of matching their basic structure and meter to mine.

Bob

So it really did come from a different source?

Vyasa

Yes.  But these guys were not poets, and I was never that wild about the gunas to begin with.  I mean they’re fine and all that.  But compared to the stuff I was rhapsodizing about in chapters 1-12?  Boooring, at least to me, and made even more so by their blocky approach to the subject.  I was trying to stir the emotions of my readers.  They were trying to make sure they didn’t miss anything on their lists.  And I didn’t care for most of the “fire and brimstone” either, although it was very popular at the time, as it still is today in more fundamentalist religions.

I always intended to go back and put the scalpel to what they gave me, and then probably rewrite it entirely to make it fit better with my stuff.

Bob

So what happened?

Vyasa

I simply ran out of time.  We had a lot going on, as you can imagine.  I did trim it somewhat to its current version.  And you can see I did my best to bring it all together in places with some inserted stanzas here and there, especially at the very end, when I tried to recapture the poetic intensity of the first twelve chapters, even referring directly back to Chapter 11 at the very end of the Gita.  Will you allow me a quick quote?  And as often as I remember the Lord’s vast, wondrous form, each time I am astonished: each time I shudder with joy.

Bob

That’s the second to last line of the Gita, isn’t it?  The thing you wanted us to most remember at the end.  Astonishment and joy.

Vyasa

Yes, it is.  Anyway, in the end, for lack of time, I allowed much of what my esteemed assistants gave me to remain in the Gita. There is some good stuff in there.  And to be fair, some people really like it, and are happy for the detail.  That particular school of Yoga philosophy really appeals to them.  But I know the last third of the Gita is not nearly on par with the first two-thirds, and, in fact, I notice many modern commentators focus almost entirely on the first twelve chapters, which is as it should be.

Bob

I think a lot of our readers are going to be surprised and maybe even incredulous at how logical and modern you come across here.  How do you explain all the more supernatural and religious sounding aspects of the Gita?

Vyasa

Why surprised?  Oh, you mean because the apparently modern ideas in the Gita could not possibly be related to today because, after all, this was “ancient man”?  And if we see something modern sounding in the Gita, it must just be us projecting our modern ideas backwards into the Gita?

How can I put this politely?  That’s a load of, er…that’s just wrong.  Sure, there were a lot of things that were different back then.  But intellectual horsepower and psychological richness were not among them.  There is very little of today’s human emotional and spiritual landscape that I don’t recognize.

Bob

Ok.  But just to be clear, let’s take some specific examples.  How about reincarnation?

Vyasa

All right.  It’s true that most people back then did believe in reincarnation.  And so it was built into the spiritual systems of the time.  By the way, that is probably still true in India today.  And you Westerners have your afterlife, and your heaven and hell.  So this particular example you chose is certainly not just a phenomenon of ancient times.

However, those of the more intellectual among us had our doubts about the literal truth of reincarnation.  I wasn’t sure and didn’t feel strongly enough to go after it in the Gita.  But what I did do is minimize its appearance.  Except for those added on chapters in the last third of the Gita, which we’ve already discussed, reincarnation is really only mentioned in a few places, and almost in passing.  It really receives little emphasis compared to the main themes.

Today I would just replace it with the whole ocean/wave analogy, and the impact our actions have on future generations.  And if someone comes up with some solid evidence for literal reincarnation someday, then we’ll all change our minds.

What else?

Bob

Well, the whole text is Krishna as the god talking to Arjuna the warrior.  Isn’t this what really makes the text seem entirely religious and supernatural to many readers?  Not that there’s anything wrong with that if it’s what you intended.

Vyasa

Gee, Bob, can’t anyone take a metaphor?  (Ok, I’m not the best comedian.)

Listen, the Gita, in addition to being a spiritual guide, is a richly metaphorical work of imaginative literature.  Even so, I go to great lengths to define Krishna in multiple places as none other than the entire universe itself.

Krishna is you and me and the cosmos and the earth and that rock over there, and absolutely everything else, both known and unknown.  And then, Krishna is also the unknown origins of the universe.  Krishna is, in short, ultimate reality.  I don’t think I could be clearer about this in the text.

Now obviously, the universe can’t actually talk.  But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have something to teach us if it could.  Krishna is my idea of what the universe would say to us if it could talk.

If you strip away all the avatars and metaphors, there is nothing left but ultimate reality, which is the entire universe, known and unknown, with all its qualities, and its unknown origin.  And all of it, from a piece of dirt to the largest galaxy, to say nothing of all living creatures in the universe, is cause for utter amazement and wonder, and, for humans, motivation and love as well, if we can just wake up to reality and get our egos out of the way.

Bob

Well, that’s pretty clear.  Glad I brought it up.  But so many of your fans are deep believers in a personal Krishna, as a god who can talk to them and respond to them directly, like he responds to Arjuna.  What do you say to them?

Vyasa

To them I say “bravo”.  If you achieve “oneness with the universe” (what a shame that has become New Age cliche) and personal motivation and love by focusing on a personal god, Krishna, or any other god, by all means, do it!  If this helps you fall in love with the universe and expand beyond your ego, do it.  There are many paths to get there.

Remember all the different types of Yoga we talked about earlier?  You might get there by thinking about it.  Another might get there by devotion, or meditation, or selfless service.  This takes us back full circle to universality.  The Gita is for everyone.

Bob

How do you feel about the popularity of the Yoga Sutra in Western Yoga circles today?

Vyasa

Well, I love the Yoga Sutra, but it’s only one slice of what I consider to be Yoga.  So I don’t understand why it is elevated by the West to be the primary yoga philosophy text.  Not only is it relatively narrow in its scope, but it also embraces lots of irrational anachronistic stuff, like all those magical powers, for example.

There are a few magical and fantastical things going on in the Gita, too, of course.  But I tried to make it clear that it’s all literary metaphor.  That’s one of the things that makes it appealing to Westerners, I think.  Beneath the richly metaphorical surface, The Gita is a deeply rational text, as I explained earlier.

Bob

Don’t you think that’s because on the surface the Gita reads more like a religious text, the “Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song” as Graham Schweig puts it?  The Yoga Sutra only mentions god once, almost in passing, and the rest is pretty secular sounding.

Vyasa

Well yes, I guess so.  Butthe “Beloved Lord” is nothing more than the universe itself and its origin.  As I explained earlier, strip out all the avatars and metaphors, using my pretty clear language in the Gita itself, and you’re left with ultimate reality, and without all those magical powers that the Yoga Sutra devotes one of its four chapters to.  On the whole, I would think the Gita would be more appealing to the modern Western logical/scientific mind.

Not that I’m attached to any particular result, mind you.  (That was a joke too.  Did you get that one?)

Bob

Yes.  That one I did!  Perhaps you’re not aware that most people either ignore or “metaphorize” the magical powers in the Yoga Sutra.  And the Yamas and Niyamas, which are only a few lines of the text, are given most of the attention in popular yoga circles.

Vyasa

So it’s used by most as a kind of ethical guide based on the Yamas and Niyamas, not as an advanced meditation method, is that it?  That helps explain its popularity.  That meditation stuff in the Sutra is pretty intense, isn’t it?

I tried to keep meditation a lot simpler in the Gita.  And it’s directed outward not inward, focusing more and more on awakening to the infinite wonder of the universe, as opposed to sort of emptying out one’s mind to see what’s left.  That can be a good path for some people, I guess, as long as it leads to action and love and amazement eventually, and doesn’t get stuck in the emptying one’s mind part.

But on its own, it’s too narrow a concept of Yoga.  And, as you might guess, I prefer the more outward, action-oriented interpretations of the Yoga Sutra, like your Michael Stone’s, or T.K.V. Desikachar’s, just to name just a couple of examples.

Bob

Well, the Gita’s making a comeback. It’s getting more and more popular all the time.  Did you know it’s replaced Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” as the most popular ancient text for executive leadership training?

Vyasa

Yes, I was aware of that.  In fact, I just had chance to read Debashis Chatterjee’s “Timeless Leadership: 18 Leadership Sutras from the Bhagavad Gita”.  Ironically, even though it’s getting a lot of flack from yoga circles, this is probably the closest approximation of the original setting of the Gita, which was advice for the warrior/leader Arjuna.  This is what the elite did back then.  They were warriors.  Today they are executives and politicians, with lots of ethical dilemmas to deal with, just like Arjuna.

Bob

Sounds like you’re really up on all the latest books.

Vyasa

I’ve had a lot of time on my hands.  I’ve read everything.

Bob

Ok.  Well given that, why don’t we conclude by playing a little name association game.  I throw out a name and you give me your quick summary reaction.  Are you willing?

Vyasa

Sure, why not.  Fire away.

Bob

Ok.  Georg Feuerstein.

Vyasa

A modern giant.  His recent version of the Gita is the most historically accurate and has wonderful, uncompromising essays and footnotes.  A meticulous historian, but one who also understands how richly relevant the Gita is to modern times.

Bob

Graham Schweig.

Vyasa

A brilliant passionate Sanskrit scholar and the most learned and articulate spokesperson, along with his equally brilliant partner Catherine Ghosh, for the Yoga of Love.  I love his translation for its power and beauty, for its faithfulness to the Sanskrit structure, and also his inspiring commentary.

Bob

Stephen Mitchell

Vyasa

Mitchell set himself a different kind of challenge than the other translators–to create a version in completely colloquial English, that can be read without any footnotes or unnatural language at all, yet still retains the direct poetic feel of the original.  I’d say it works well overall, even with the inevitable language compromises, and it certainly makes the Gita accessible to a much broader range of readers.

Bob

Matthew Remski.

Vyasa

Always surprising and engaging.  A wonderfully imaginative writer and thinker.  His highly intelligent and innovative “remix” of the Yoga Sutra brings it more in line with my theme of interconnectedness in the Gita.

Bob

Philip Goldberg

Vyasa

I truly love this man. Just as I was beginning to get discouraged about how little the Gita is read in Western Yoga circles, I read “American Veda”, in which Goldberg explains that the philosophy of the Gita has been second only to Christianity in its vast impact on American spirituality.  It’s so ingrained that people don’t even recognize its source anymore.  This is the reason “one with the universe” has become the cliche that it is!  I love this man.

Bob

That was fun.  I wish we had time for 20 more.  Before we wrap this up, let me ask you one more question.  How would you change the Bhagavad Gita if you were writing it today?

Vyasa

Well, most obviously, all the historical anachronisms would be gone–all those things that sometimes make the Gita seem odd or unethical to the modern reader–all the things that give some analysts an excuse to kind of write the Gita off as a dusty “ancient” text.

(That said though, they would probably be replaced with things that might seem equally odd and unethical 2300 years from now.  This is not the most rational of ages either, all told.  Look at the absurdity of atomic proliferation, for example, or the destruction of the environment, and all the continuing social injustices throughout the world.  Don’t get me started.)

Then, of course, I would embrace modern science, which would replace all our attempts back then to come to terms with how the world works, most particularly the gunas and the elements.  This was the best we could do at the time.

Bob

What else?

Vyasa

I would severely reduce and edit the last third of the Gita to fit in better with the rest of the text, as we discussed earlier.

I would still make the Gita richly metaphorical, but I might use different more modern metaphors for some things.  And in some cases, like chapter 11, when I’m trying to convey the wonders of the universe, I might use fewer wildly imaginative metaphors and simply replace some of them with the astounding wonders of modern science–millions of galaxies, black holes, animal and plant life, evolution, advanced biology, brain research, and particle physics, for example.

Perhaps I would quote Einstein.  His expansive spirituality of wonder and awe is completely consistent with what I had in mind in the Gita.  Maybe I would refer to one of those amazing video simulations that takes you through the entire universe from farthest known galaxy to the smallest quark in the human body in three minutes.  That might do the trick.

Bob

What about the major themes?

Vayasa

The main themes would remain exactly the same.

There would still be the four main types of yoga–the Yoga of Understanding, the Yoga of Selfless Action, the Yoga of Meditation (adding a mention of asana), and the Yoga of Love and Devotion.

The Gita would still be all about living your life with love and purpose.

It would still be about detaching your ego from results.

It would still be about experiencing awesome infinite wonder in all things, particularly in yourself.

And it would still be about focusing the mind to achieve all these ends.

Bob

What a joy this has been.  Thank you for spending this time with me.  Could I persuade you to get together again in the future to respond to all our readers’ follow-up questions?

Vyasa

Well, no guarantees, but I’ll certainly consider it.  This has been a pleasure for me as well.  You know, sometimes I thinkI should have made the Gita easier to read, or written an alternative version, a kind of “Gita in a Nutshell” or something.

Bob

You’re not going to believe this, but I actually did something like that with the very same title…

Vyasa

I know you did, Bob.  I was just pulling your leg.  See, no one ever gets my jokes.

Bob

Ok, you got me on that one.  Thank you again, Mr. Vyasa, and a very good night to you.  Oh, and let me compliment you on your fine English.

Vyasa

Well, like I said, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands.


Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg

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