The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. By Richard H. Davis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 243. Hardcover $24.95, ISBN 978-0-691-133996-8.
Richard H. Davis’s The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography is a recent offering within Princeton University Press’s series “Lives of Great Religious Books.” Such biographies track the reception-histories of the texts, their “lives”. It would be hard to imagine a more suitable text for this series than the Gītā, which has inflamed the religious imagination of countless individuals, while providing a conceptual toolkit for the religious self-expression of countless thinkers.
A volume of this sort, which aspires for accessibility, cannot but be select. Davis thus chooses to provide historical snapshots which capture major moments of the Gītā’s life. Chapter 1 focuses on the Gītā at the time of its composition in the ancient Indian world. Davis deftly leads the reader through some of the major scholarly approaches to the origins and authorship of the Gītā. Chapter 2 discusses medieval India, during the rise of the bhakti traditions and as interpreted by the great classical commentators like Śaṃkara. Here, Davis goes beyond the major Vedāntic commentators to devote welcome attention to Jñānadeva’s Marathi translation-retelling of the text. We next consider the Gītā’s sojourn to the West in the modern age (Chapter 3), tracking the receptions of the Gītā by European Indologists like Wilkins, Herder, and Freidrich Schlegel and influential critics of Indian culture like James Mill. Davis embeds the discussion within the colonial politics of the time and the cultural histories that give context to both Hegel’s reading of the Gītā as well as the remarkable reception to Swami Vivekānānda at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion in Chicago. Chapter 4 tracks the way in which modern Indian philosophers and statesmen interpret the Gītā in relation to the Indian independence movement, along with the general pressure they felt to articulate what is distinctive about India’s spiritual tradition in the light of modernity. Here, the lives and teachings of Gandhi and Aurobindo come to the fore. Chapters 5 and 6 provide snapshots of the Gītā in our time, respectively in the form of noteworthy translations and within liturgical performances in both India and the United States. The book’s epilogue briefly considers the future of the Gītā and provides as a final snapshot the 2013 swearing-in of a Hindu US Congressperson who chose to use the Gītā for this purpose.
The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography is a pleasure to read. Davis’s prose is clean and smooth, and his framing of issues, persons, and historical events is informative without becoming cumbersome. Indeed, his chapter on Western receptions could be easily used for the purpose of illustrating to undergraduates some of the complex political and cultural factors which have driven European responses to Indian thought, as discussed on this blog. Moreover, while Davis’s selections are of necessity quite select, they seem fair, chosen with an eye for cultural importance. As one example, among the four examples he selects for contemporary translations, we find a scholar (van Buitenen), a poet (Stephen Mitchell), a devotee (Swami Prabhupāda), and a philosopher (Radhakrishnan), collectively illustrating the range of persons who are drawn to the Gītā in the modern world.
There also some features of the Davis book that illustrate the challenges and tensions within a certain approach to a text’s “life”. If life is merely reception-history, then it seems that there is little room for the biographer’s sifting between more or less apt readings of the text, helping the reader see the difference. Analogously, I would hate for my hypothetical biographer to take at equal value the claims of my wife and my business competitor regarding the meaning of my own existence. Most jarring for readers of this blog is likely the inclusion of Stephen Mitchell, a non-Sanskritist who claimed to “translate” the Bhagavad Gītā as one of the four examples (out of hundreds) of modern translations. Including his translation makes perfect sense in terms of reception-history, and is yet problematic for many reasons. These reasons could have perhaps been mentioned. It may have also made sense to reflect on the ways that the New Age movement has contributed to the success of texts like Mitchell’s.
At times, Davis moves in the direction of evaluation, allowing himself to insinuate that certain approaches to the Gītā make more sense than others. He gently suggests that Jñānadeva’s affirmation of a pluralistic approach toward the Gītā’s meaning harmonizes better with the ethos of the text than Śaṃkara’s concern with a single correct reading (71). He also helps the reader understand clearly how profoundly uncharitable and biased was Mill’s own response to the Gītā (94-99). But it is unclear how such gestures toward the evaluative cohere with the general tenor of the Biography.
Finally, we should note that this is the second book its kind, the first being Eric Sharpe’s The Universal Gītā (Open Court, 1985), which is focused entirely on the Western reception of the text. Davis’s Biography neither obviates The Universal Gītā, nor does it fail to move beyond it in a number of ways. Davis provides a wider, panoramic vision of the Gītā’s history, while Sharpe’s The Universal Gītā provides more depth than Davis can in a few chapters on the modern and contemporary West (including discussions of topics like Rudolph Otto’s reading of the Gītā, Theosophism, and the 60’s counterculture). They could be profitably read together, though Davis’s Biography would better serve one who wishes to understand the entire cultural footprint of the Gītā in a single accessible volume.
Reviewed by Matthew R. Dasti, Bridgewater State University (firstname.lastname@example.org)