Review: The Bhagavad Gita–A Walkthrough for Westerners

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5.0 out of 5 stars Speak the Truth, Lose the Anger, Be Part of the Whole
February 10, 2010
Jack Hawley

It took me fifty years to recognize the deficiencies of the command and control or top down elite-dominated model of governance, and to discover the spiritual and practical integrity of collective intelligence, openness, appreciative inquirty, deliberative public dilaog, and so on. It's taken another seven years to discover detachment from outcome, and that in turn set the stage for what I find to be the absolute essence of this book: speaking truth to power is half the battle, losing the anger is the other half. Harder to do than it sounds, this Westernized version of the Bhagavad Gita does help.

Here are the two paragraphs I pulled from page 129 and then 147 for intelligence (decision-support) professionals:

“Those who transcend the gunas are in essence watchers, beyond the worldly. Although constantly aware of the inevitable cycle of birth, disease, senility, grief, and so forth, they dwell above it all, and merely witness it.

My personal take on the above is that sacred dispassion is a prerequisite for both spirtual vision and professional integrity.

“Always tell the truth, Arjuna, and present it in as pleasant a way as possible. If you cannot do that, remain silent. If something absolutely needs to be said, you must uphold the truth, but find a way to do it that is gentle and obliging.”

Talk about one's life flashing past–A for truth, F for gentle. Something to work on in my last 20 years.

The book was recommended to me by Harrison Owen, most recently author of Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World, and it is–as he said it would be–easy to understand and appreciate. Below are my notes.

+ Author draws on 30 other works and a decade or more of spending six months out of every year in India. The work was specifically asked for by an Indian seer in order to reach Western audiences. The author is respectful of the other works, but I agree with Harrison, this is the one book to buy as a starting point or a sufficiency of understanding.

+ At the very end of the book the point is made that it is not the Gita itself that is spiritual, but the daily immersion in the Gita–this is closure for one of the first observations made in the book, that Gandhi read the Gita every day, and that millions in India today still do.

QUOTE (xvii). The Gita is an epic mystical poen about life, death, love, and duty from the peoples who settled in the river valleys in southern Asia and developed a sophisticated culture thousands–probably scores of thousands–of years ago. It is a half-inch thick poem embedded in the middle of a six-inch-thick poem, the Mahabharatha, a literay masterpiece about the heights and depths of the human soul.

+ Author points out that Sanscrit is much more nuanced than English in the spiritual arena, and I am both reminded of Howard Bloom's Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century making the same point about fifty Eskimo words for snow, and the reality that we have over 5,000 languages in danger of extinction at the same time that we also have over 5,000 separatist movements at the same time that we desperately need to appreciate and integrate our diversity in order to be resilient in the face of enormous complexity we ourselves have created without understanding the consequences.

+ All religions and philosophies have a concept of God [as well as the Golden Rule]–Gita is one of the earliest

+ Reading the Gita with an open mind is a way of being in Gita

+ Integrity of family is first up, which is consistent with the Chinese tradition as well as the emphasis on Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore

+ A truth-based life is the objective, with the core question being “what is my duty?”

+ Ultimate responsibility is to never violate the true self; have a duty to rightwousness, but a detached duty

QUOTE (20). The tendency to get trapped in apparent opposites is a common and debilitating malady. [Argh. See my own Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography).

+ Concept of ownership is toxic, must restore commons to all

+ Two paths to righteousness, one indirect (knowledge) and the other direct (action), this is interestingly consistent with James McGregor Burns distinction between indirect leaders of ideas and direct leaders of people, as discussed in Leadership.

+ Sacrifice is noblest from of action, wor for all not self [I am reminded of the 12 principles from the Santayana Institute.

+ Strive to integrate knowledge, action, and renunciation.

QUOTE (39). Handed down in this way through the ages, eminates sages learned these great secrets. But through time, the right type of people became scarce, and the practice of this knowledge dwindled. I use the word secrets not because these truths are hidden, but because so few people are prepared to hear them today.

+ Bodies are like the sun, they come and go. Material goods are earth-bound, spiritual goods are not, they carry forward.

+ Balance in eating, drinking, and sleeping really does matter greatly. [It's more or less a given that the Gita embraces Diet for a Small Planet while looking with concern to Fast Food Nation.

+ Wisdom demands freedom from delusion; knowledge is learned, wisdom is invited. I have to mention Jim Rough's book, Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People]

+ Essence of divinity is to achieve a DNA spiral between the spirtual and the natural

+ Live life for death, each moment could be your last, make each moment one of grace.

QUOTE (79) As the river enters the ocean, so individual consciousness should flow into collective consciousness.

QUOTE (81). As the individual wave does not have any existence independent of the sea, the separate soul does not have any real existence apart from Me, the Universal Soul.

These two quotes really capture the essence of We are One, and so at this point I will list four books from the West that that complement this rendition of the Gita:
Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, poems and prayers from an emerging field of sacred social change
Conscious Evolution: Awakening Our Social Potential
Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

In the middle of the book I am absorbed by the emphasis on the vitality of the open path versus the closed path, this certainly reinforces my personal commitment to the “three opens,” (open source software, open source intelligence, open spectrum).

+ While serving the Whole, “give up desire for the fruit of your actions.” DETACHMENT.

+ Knowing demands both heart and head. This lends added emphasis to the emergent literature on the importance of feelings and intuition, as well as the urgency of re-integrating the female caring ethic with the over-powering male justice ethic. Rational can be crazy.

+ Although Alvin Toffler is the one who taught me that information is a substitute for time, space, labor, capital, and material, the Gita really comes across as an operating manual for spaceship earth in the sense of mind of matter.

+ Divinity enters the womb before birth, after conception.

+ Reincarnation is a form of evolving consciousness (fewer pigs in each cycle)

+ Pages 137-138 have a great side by side dialog on the attributes of the divine versus the demonic.

+ Page 145, three food types, this is a MUST READ.

The book's own bottom line: righteous renunciation both gives up selfish actions and achieves detachment from outcomes, which I take to mean that by allowing everyone to put their own truth on the table (diversity) but being detached from outcomes, no one (Dick Cheney and Rahm Emmanuel, thinking of you) feels compelled to demand that “their” truth be the sole truth.

I put this book down very pleased that Harrison recommended it and that I followed his advice. I have not yet found a similar offering for the Koran, with a lot of white space, if anyone knows of one, would be glad to see it recommended in the comments section here or at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog, where I offer many more links to my reviews across 98 non-fiction areas.

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