When Krishna Becomes Song

Much more than a tenet to live by, the Bhagavad Gita belongs to the playful and paradoxical domain of the poetic.

01 October, 2011

THE BHAGAVAD GITA begins at a moment of crisis—not just a crisis of the community and the nation, as it certainly is, but one of a personal and (to use a relatively contemporary term) existential nature. When the influential Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy published his first novel, Samskara, about a Brahmin who deliberately chooses to estrange and isolate himself from other Brahmin priests, it invited the thought, even from its translator AK Ramanujan, that Ananthamurthy might have made his protagonist more of an existentialist than his Brahminical identity could credibly allow for. But Arjuna in the Gita (of course, he’s a Kshatriya, a warrior, not a Brahmin) reveals that anguished choice-making in relation to the world—the characteristic preoccupation and mood of existentialism—is hardly new to India; that, at least in cultural antecedents, Ananthamurthy’s Praneshacharya is not alone.

What kind of crisis, exactly? The Gita is an episode—a slightly anomalous, somewhat unassimilable episode, but an episode nevertheless—in the epic the Mahabharata. The epic (composed roughly between 400 BCE and 400 CE) is the story of two warring clans of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas, the family to which the great warrior Arjuna and his four brothers belong, are the ‘good guys’. In other words, Vyasa, the author of the epic, means us to see the action through the Pandavas’ eyes, from (to use an ugly piece of creative writing school jargon) their ‘point of view’. The Kauravas are treacherous; they inveigle the Pandavas into a game of dice and rob them of their kingdom, even attempting to disrobe Draupadi, the Pandava brothers’ wife. (How Draupadi came simultaneously to marry five men is another story.)

The Pandavas go into exile for the mandatory mythic period of 13 years, or thereabouts (the Ramayana has Rama banished for 14). The deal at the close of the game of dice was that they would resume their reign once that period was over. Returning, they discover the Kauravas have no intention of letting that happen. The two clans are now formally at war. There’s a crucial scene before the actual conflict begins on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (which, in the course of the rest of the epic, will become a site that, in scale and destruction, out-Guernicas any imaginable Guernica). Both clans have gathered before Krishna, like bidders at a Premier League auction, to petition him for his support and also for his powerful army. Krishna says that each clan can have one or the other; that he will provide advice to the clan that chooses him over his army, but will abstain from fighting himself. The Kauravas decide they want Krishna’s army; Arjuna elects to have Krishna as his charioteer.

Krishna is God incarnate; charming, beautiful, he is in other respects inexplicably volatile, unpredictable and transmogrifying. In other words, being divine, in Krishna’s case, is to be surprising to the point of being alienating: not burdened by a human code of conduct, Krishna can resort, occasionally, to all kinds of duplicity to further his team’s interests. His amorality is quite different from the Kauravas’ tragic treacherousness or the sleights of hand that the Pandavas indulge in; it leads us towards the abyss of meaning, or meaninglessness, from which the Mahabharata’s great power emerges. As a consequence, what’s destroyed in the Mahabharata is not just a great deal of human life, but a stable ‘point of view’ that might give rise to a clear sense of good and bad characters, of virtuous and evil action. The great and perennial casualty of the Mahabharata is the stability of value; its excitement and animation lies in its constant shifting of the centre.

THE BHAGAVAD GITA is a conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna which takes place just before the Battle of Kurukshetra is to begin. Both armies are on the battlefield: in the opposing camp, Arjuna can see kinsmen he’s known since childhood, “teachers, fathers and sons; grandsons, grandfathers, wives’ brothers; mothers’ brothers and fathers of wives”. On the eve of battle, then, he’s agonised, full of doubt: “These I do not wish to slay, even if I myself am slain.” It’s now up to Krishna to exhort and rouse him to action. This exhortation, briefly, is the gist of the Gita.

By the time we arrive at this point in the Mahabharata, we already know Arjuna as flamboyant and heroic, possessed of unsurpassed skills in the art of war, and, most importantly, as one of the privileged (despite his travails, and in contrast to his gifted but unfortunate half-brother Karna)—that is, as someone whom both the narrator and the gods smile upon. To see him now changed into an overwrought, Hamlet-like ditherer is intriguing. But Hamlet is no existentialist; he’s disturbed, and part of the source of his disturbance is derived from his new-found disgust at his mother’s sexual availability. Although, vacillating between ‘being’ and ‘not being’, Hamlet asks some of the same questions as Arjuna, Shakespeare allows us to view him from the outside, enmeshed in his own moment of theatre. A small but stubborn question mark hangs over him, both in our minds and inside the play, as to whether he’s making too much of nothing (as TS Eliot accused Shakespeare of doing with the play itself). This distance opens up the character and his agonies to a latent comedy, which spoof-makers have tapped into in various parodies of the tortured prince. No such distance qualifies Arjuna and, as a result, it’s more difficult to parody his anguish. We don’t, here, view Arjuna as a dramatic character with motives and a psychology, although we don’t necessarily think he lacks these things. Nor is he a cipher, a mouthpiece, for a set of questions. In the Gita, Arjuna is inseparable from human language, a language alive with disquiet, prescience and yearning.

Krishna, too, is a different Krishna in the Gita. In the rest of the epic, and even outside it—in songs and in folklore—Krishna is Ovidian. I use the word to hint at Krishna’s self-transforming and metamorphic nature—an errant and greedy child in the Bhagavata Purana and in folklore; a lover of numberless women; in the epic, too, a politician, an inscrutable trickster and strategist; and, all the while, in various manifestations, divine. He is Ovidian because his transformations, or personalities, are, in a sense, material: a dazzling array of registers in the world we experience. Like the metamorphoses that Ovid ebulliently records, Krishna is a reminder that play and creation are synonymous and inexhaustible. Of all the gods, it’s Krishna who’s identified with leela, or the infinitely tantalising play, chicanery, and light and shade of the created universe. This uncontainable Ovidian mood is particularly true of the folksy cowherd Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana, beloved of the devotional Bhakti poets; but we also encounter it in the Mahabharata, where Krishna, at once Machiavellian, merciful and estranging, engages in war as a very serious kind of game, or play.

In the Gita, we encounter a Krishna we can find absolutely nowhere else. This Krishna tells Arjuna that it’s he who is the source of everything; and yet he’s ‘invisible’. This paradox demands a different response, a different order of recognition, a different sort of suspended disbelief, from the Krishna who performs astounding feats and multiplies through stories. What could run through the visible universe, but not be seen itself? We’re not being asked to believe in the sort of astonishing event that epic, myth or fiction often offer us, but in a paradox that’s peculiar to the poetic: “I am not bound by this vast work of creation,” says Krishna. “I am and I watch the drama of works.” What is he, then? Clearly something even more difficult to understand by a concatenation of logical thinking than the Krishna of the Mahabharata or the Bhagavata tradition is. Not only does Krishna at once situate himself in creation and distance himself from it (“I am not bound by this vast work of creation”); he appears to be distancing himself from the epic mode that the Gita and he are presently embedded in: “I watch the drama of works.” On one revolutionary level, then, the Gita is a critique of the epic narrative that it finds itself in, of its outwardly endless range and its momentary way of making meaning: “When one sees Eternity in things that pass away and Infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge./ But if one merely sees the diversity of things, with their divisions and limitations, then one has impure knowledge.” Instead, the Gita signals its own radical shift in register by suggesting the power of something that’s contradictory, something that inheres at once in the visible universe and in darkness, in abstraction and in language:

a sense sublime

. . . Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought . . .

Of course, this is not from the Gita, but from William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. But the lines (Wordsworth would have known the Gita from Charles Wilkins’s translation, and probably through August Wilhelm Schlegel) gesture towards the oddness of poetic meaning as a special meaning: something simultaneously animate and still, impelling and concealed. This note of eloquent, visionary special pleading for a meaning that contradicts itself constantly in order to generate itself, and which has no discernible justification, rationale, manifestation or cause, comes from the Gita’s Krishna: “That splendour of light that comes from the sun and which illumines the whole universe, the soft light of the moon, the brightness of fire—know that they all come from me.” Again and again, in Krishna’s most famous maxims concerning ‘action’ to Arjuna, it’s the strange, contradictory nature of true meaning that’s being explored and fortified. “Arise and fight!” he exhorts the warrior, but asks him to do so without thought of the ‘fruit of one’s actions’. Meaning comes into being, then, only when there’s no thought of, or desire for, the outcome. This difficult concept is what Arjuna gets, instead of a clear and practical manual of dos and don’ts, or an exhortation to selfless love and compassion, as in the Gospels. Where does that idiosyncratic idea of meaning, and the power of meaning, operate but in poetry itself? In the Gita, Krishna becomes poetic language.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that there is a complete discontinuity between the Mahabharata’s analysis of the world as a place of politics, of actions governed by power, and the moment the Gita inhabits.

There are instances when Krishna’s role in the Gita is at once historical, admonitory and cathartic: “When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth.” At such points in the Gita, the world already seems very old, its conventions and pieties tested and turned inside out, as it does often in the rest of the Mahabharata, whose author manages the astonishing feat of being simultaneously disabused and wonderstruck. Certainly, neither the epic nor the song (for that’s what gita means) has the auspicious, inaugural air of the early Upanishads, or the pastoral freshness of the Bhagavata tradition. Instead they possess (in the case of the epic, almost completely) a quality of lateness and intransigence (“I am time, destroyer of men”) that’s combined, in the epic narrative, with an amazing sense of fecundity. It’s the Gita’s belated, backward look, glancing at the residues of texts and ages it’s emerged from, that prompted J Robert Oppenheimer to quote it when witnessing the first atomic explosion in New Mexico: “I am become Death.”

And although the Gita isn’t, in a strict sense, mythopoeic, its central image—of Arjuna, unable to act in a battlefield full of kinsmen, turning to Krishna—is mythic. It is where, in India, history and myth, reality and the ideal, rulers and the notion of Man, converge repeatedly, in the series of tragic episodes and subsequent attempts at self-renewal of which this civilisation is composed. The emperor Ashoka’s massacre of innocents at Kalinga, and his later passionate turn towards nonviolence and Buddhism; Gandhi and Nehru’s terrible dilemma upon Partition—these, after the fact, set up a surreptitious confluence, in the Indian experience, between history and theatre, civilisation and allegory.

THE EARLIEST MENTION of the Gita in an extant text occurs in the work of the philosopher Shankaracharya (c 788–820 CE), the first and most important theorist of advaita vedanta, or non-dualism. (For some of the facts in this section, I’m indebted to Professor Sibaji Bandyopadhyay.) Shankaracharya chooses three canonical texts to advance his argument: the Brahma Sutra (a work whose centrality has receded entirely), the Upanishads and the Gita. In relation to the first two, the Gita occupies, in Shankaracharya’s argument and scheme, a relatively minor, supplementary position. It isn’t known if prior commentaries on the Gita existed and are now lost. Shankaracharya’s text is structured as a dialogue, where an interlocutor states a position regarding the Gita, and the author answers or refutes him. This could point to earlier positions, earlier commentaries; on the other hand, it might not, for, as Professor Bandyopadhyay tells me, this form of dialogue, at the time, was an accepted convention for presenting an argument.

The Gita’s next significant appearance in the chain of Indian thinking is when the anti-Shankaracharya philosopher, the dualist Ramanuja (traditionally c 1017–1137 CE), uses the same three works to advance his cause. That texts may yield a multiplicity of meaning to readers and commentators of different ages is clear when we glance at the Gita’s history; but the idea of multiple interpretations is a New Critical, literary one, and it’s rarely an advertisement for the Gita, though it embodies it well.

What’s striking about the Gita, and what’s been noted about it more than once, is the constant cautionary note it sounds about the principal precursor scriptures, the Vedas. It’s not enough to follow the word of the scriptures, and to undertake the various sacrifices and rituals they enjoin you to do: the Vedas provide no guarantee against darkness and unknowing, the Gita reminds us. Moreover, that kind of religious literalism is anathema to the man seeking knowledge and a detached, ‘impersonal’ (I use Eliot’s now dated buzzword) state of illumination. Bankimchandra Chatterjee, the first major Bengali novelist, writing the earliest modern commentary on the Gita (published posthumously as a book in 1902), remarks on this rebuttal of the Vedas as evidence of the Gita’s subversiveness. But Professor Bandyopadhyay believes that, if the Gita was composed after the advent of Buddhism (as he thinks it was), it simply represents Brahminical thought’s robust ability to appropriate critiques directed at it: for an antagonism towards the Vedas, emanating from Buddhist sources, was then very much in the air.

Whatever the truth, it’s clear that the rejection of mere Vedic or scriptural observance is not just a strategic interpolation or an add-on that belongs to the time, but is contributory to the Gita’s peculiar tenor, and its oddly ‘timeless’ polemic. The study of the Vedas, we’re made to understand, is instrumental; because it involves ritual and instruction, it belongs to the domain of the visible. The Gita distrusts the visible, and conflates it with instrumentality. Most interestingly, in criticising the Vedas, the Gita is also criticising the primacy of the textual, the verbal; in other words, the Gita is not only in a state of tension with the epic, narrative material it’s inserted into (the Mahabharata), it’s also, being a text, at odds with itself. It views the word suspiciously, as if the word were always in danger of becoming institutional. It’s a pronouncement that’s implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, against pronouncement. In this, it represents a Protestant moment (albeit several centuries before the European Reformation) that exceeds and complicates Protestantism. For the latter refuted the Church in the interests of the possibility of grace—but not the Bible. The Gita, in rebutting mere textuality, is rejecting the form in which it’s available to us. In this capacity to be, in a sense, at war with itself, it constitutes a certain definition of poetry.

CHARLES WILKINS, a servant of the East India Company, was introduced to the Mahabharata by Brahmins, and undertook a translation into English. The Gita especially caught his and other Englishmen’s attention, among them, Warren Hastings (then governor-general of British India). It was published on the latter’s encouragement and with the letter of support he’d written for it serving as a kind of foreword. In it, Hastings predicted that the Gita would outlast the British Empire. His enthusiasm, like that of other English readers, derived from the echoes he caught in this Hindu text of certain strands of Christian theology, particularly Unitarianism. Wilkins’s translation was published in 1785, and was probably read by most of the Romantic poets. They would also have possibly been acquainted, later, with August Wilhelm Schlegel’s edition of the Latin translation of the Gita in 1823, and the excitement with which this was received in Europe. Indian antiquity was, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, directly informing the European idea of humanism. By the late 19th century, the Gita had become not only a property of Indian nationalists, but a resource for secular modernity in India. That is, it was being approached by Indian moderns not just as a sacred text, but as a literary one—in other words, the type of chosen work that modernity deems, for a number of reasons, quasi-sacred. Gandhi, for instance, reads the Gita as ‘allegory’—by which he means, I suppose, a work whose meaning must be created by the reader, a work that belongs neither to the old, exclusive world of Hindu conventions, nor to the realm of literal veracity in which history, the sciences and even the Semitic religions exist (Christ was crucified; He was resurrected—these are not figurative events). By gradually turning the Gita into allegory and poetry, secular modernity in India responds in its own way to its call that veracity and truth are never visible or obvious. The Gita’s contribution to secular modernity in Europe, too, is, I think,  immense, particularly the role it plays in the formation of the ‘literary’ in England. The reason this remains largely unacknowledged may have partly to do with the negative reception the Gita’s philosophy received in 1827 from Hegel, after which it slowly slipped from the canonical shelf of high ‘Western’ culture.

HOW DOES THE GITA signal to us that it’s a poetic text, which asks to be read differently from the way either the epic is, or a sacred text of practical and moral dos and don’ts, or a sruti text like the Vedas, whose message comes from high above, or indeed a purely philosophical work?

Firstly, the epic or fictional narrative may begin in medias res; but the poem or poetic text is an interruption. It’s a hiatus, a diversion, in some sort of meaning-producing business or activity—a larger narrative or story, say, or even life itself. Within the space of that interruption, it either offers a different order or scheme of imagined events, as is the case when Dante momentarily finds himself lost in ‘life’s dark wood’, or a different order of meaning, as with a Romantic or modernist poem. With the Gita, we’re moving into the second kind of terrain, partly because some of us have been trained by the Romantic poem to read in a particular way, and partly because the Romantic poem, early in its career, might itself have received the Gita’s training. At any rate, the Gita constitutes not just an interpolation in the Mahabharata, an insertion by a later writer, but, on a more complex and generic level, a discontinuity in the narrative, a hiatus that’s paradoxical, because it’s surprisingly full.

The second difference concerns what happens to us, as readers, in the course of a poem. A narrative might unfold in a linear fashion, or in a manifold and multi-pronged way, as the Mahabharata does. It involves and engages us. The poetic text transforms us; that is, we know something has been changed by the time we finish it—the effect is very different from finishing a narrative, or coming to the end of a story. Once we’ve read a poem, we can reread it immediately, and, as it were, relive that transformation. Our repeated experience of this transformation takes place regardless of whether we’ve ‘understood’ the text completely; in this, too, the poem’s impact differs from that of the narrative. We don’t necessarily seem to have moved greatly from one point to another by the time we come to the end of a poem; but the poem has moved, achieving its transformative intention by a mixture of inner shifts and repetitions. This is how the Gita works: there are no plot developments, but there are movements—from Arjuna’s despair to Krishna’s advice on the nature of action, to the sections in which Krishna begins to divulge his own divinity, to where he ‘appears’ in his true form to Arjuna, to the mysterious verses on the Asvattha tree, to the closing section about the ‘surrender of the reward of all work’. This final section is, in a sense, a rehearsal of the beginning; there is, in the Gita, constant repetition and cross-referencing. By the time we finish reading it, we are changed without necessarily having progressed a great deal. Arjuna is now convinced and ready to take up arms; not only will the battle begin, but we’re about to witness the resumption of the epic mode. When Sanjaya, the reporter of this conversation, says, “Thus I heard these words of glory between Arjuna and the God of all, and they fill my soul with awe and wonder,” we know we’re bidding farewell to the domain of the poem.

ACURIOUS STATIS, then, lies at the heart of poetry, and this contradictory stillness also defines the Gita. Krishna articulates it in various ways. In the second chapter, he tells Arjuna, “Even as all waters flow into the ocean, but the ocean never overflows, even so the sage feels desires, but he is ever one in his infinite peace.” In the third chapter: “I have no work to do in all the worlds, Arjuna—for these are mine. I have nothing to obtain, because I have all. And yet I work.” In the fourth: “Although I am unborn, everlasting... through my wondrous power I am born.” Here, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re awestruck by the Gita’s self-reflexivity. In giving such insistent value to the surplus, the superfluous (“I have no work to do . . . and yet I work”), the Gita defines an expression that’s sui generis and ahistorical. It’s related to the Mahabharata, too, as a text that’s in surplus, that has no clear function. And it’s precisely because it represents a break in the action that its effect and role are epiphanic rather than didactic; like the true knowledge and action described in it, it has no quantifiable outcome. The Gita is embedded in the itihasa (the historical narrative) of the Mahabharata more or less as the universal is putatively embedded, in literature, in the particular: as a superfluous emanation that, for some reason, we cherish. The Gita proposes an aesthetic rather than just a tenet: to live your life by it would be exceedingly difficult—“Let thy actions then be pure, free from the bonds of desire”—except in the special, fictitious realm of the literary.

WHAT THE CONTRIBUTION of the Gita is to the category of the ‘literary’ that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries—a category attacked and almost rendered defunct in the second half of the 20th century—is a matter of speculation. A non-authoritative glance tells me that the Gita’s notion of the surplus—the idea that meaning lies not in consequence or outcome but elsewhere, in a simultaneous investment in and detachment from action—circulated in Europe in the 19th century, and informed certain people’s views of the creative and critical act; indeed, of culture itself. The domain of culture is a superfluous domain; the creative act is a surplus without outcome. This is a familiar position; so is the interpretative move through which things once outside that domain are annexed to it—thus, Matthew Arnold’s proclamation that the Bible is ‘literature’. No doubt Arnold was making that judgement from the vantage point of what he called ‘disinterestedness’, a critical mood that’s akin not so much to tolerance or even objectivity, but to what Arnold’s successor and rival TS Eliot called ‘impersonality’, or an ‘escape from personality’—the upsurge of the surplus that has no worldly consequence. Eliot is proposing a paradigm for the creative act, Arnold for the critical one; the notion of the surplus runs like a thread through both, and fashions a definitive reciprocity between creative and critical actions. Arnold, who read Wilkins’s translation of the Gita in 1845, makes a case for criticism 19 years later, in 1864: “It will be said that it is a very subtle and indirect action which I am thus prescribing for criticism, and that, by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detachment and abandoning the sphere of practical life, it condemns itself to a slow and obscure work. Slow and obscure it may be, but it is the only proper work of criticism.” ‘Slowness’ is stasis: Arnold is, via the Gita, blurring the boundary between criticism and poetry, and setting up, again, a reciprocity between the two that’s crucial to secular modernity. For the poem, by having no clear outcome, by being ‘a very subtle and indirect action’, is also a critical act; and criticism, in being neither story nor history, is a narrative without an outcome. This takes us back to why the Gita itself is a critical work; why its ‘slow and obscure’ quality, its stasis, its lack of ‘determinateness’, its ‘stupefaction’, its Insichsein or quality of ‘nothingness’ (all Hegel’s words), would so annoy the German historicist. And the Gita’s blurring of boundaries, such as Arnold implicitly encourages while defining the function of criticism, also unsettles Hegel: “There is no distinction [in it] between religion and philosophy.”

“Slow and obscure”, says Arnold of the work of criticism: ‘slow’ invoking stasis, and ‘obscure’ the near-invisible. “Beyond my visible nature is my invisible Spirit,” says Krishna. “This is the fountain of life whereby this universe has its being.” Further, “I am the taste of living waters and the light of the sun and the moon.” Wordsworth picks up on this when writing his ‘Tintern Abbey’; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge converts the notion of invisibility, of a hidden surplus, into an immanent trope for both reading and writing: “Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling: it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement.” This echo of the Gita is itself echoed by Gustave Flaubert, who was deeply immersed in Indian texts, and who was trying to push prose towards a region where it would be read not for narrative consequence, but with the same sort of attention devoted to poetry: “The author, like God in the universe, is everywhere present but nowhere visible in his work.” Here’s the irritating, contradictory ‘remoteness’ of temperament that provokes Hegel’s disdain for the Gita; James Joyce, Flaubert’s disciple, presents and parodies it in Stephen Dedalus’s words at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” This is the Gita again, resurfacing. But Stephen is double-edged (‘refined out of existence’) and may also be alluding to Hegel, who, in his ‘On the Episode of the Mahabharata Known as the Bhagavad Gita by Wilhelm von Humboldt’, describes sardonically the “Yogi sitting there mentally and physically unmoved, staring at the tip of his nose”.

By the middle of the 20th century, the legacy of Coleridge, Arnold, Flaubert, Eliot and Joyce had complicated the ‘literary’ to the point that it defied easy generic categorisation. It became an act whose outcome might be argued over, but never entirely known. Flaubert, and the modernists who were indebted to him, pushed prose into an area that lay beyond the rewards of narrative, into a domain that Roland Barthes calls, retrospectively, in Writing Degree Zero in 1953, ‘poetry’. In the classical period, says Barthes, poetry was simply prose dressed up with outward signs of difference: metre, ornament, rhyme. In modernity, he says, those visible signs vanish, and poetry becomes an ethos: “It is a quality sui generis and without antecedents. It is no longer an attribute but a substance, and therefore it can very well renounce signs, since it carries its own nature within itself, and does not need to signal its identity outwardly...”

How did this change take place? The query is similar to the question we ask ourselves upon being transformed after reading a poem. It’s a singular way of viewing writing that lasted roughly 200 years, and began to end about 15 years after Barthes wrote those words. How is the Gita woven into that relatively brief history? My intention is not to prove its influence, but to review our experience of reading in the receding, but not yet vanished, secular world. Clearly, it’s not just tolerance and multiplicity that define the secular, but some acknowledgement of the importance of the surplus: that which is valuable beyond the approbation of authority, whether of the Vedas, of an ideology, or even of ‘literature’. It’s the realm of the aesthetic that responds strongly to the Gita’s strange exhortation to ignore the visible. Secularism is a religion like any other, and literary works are its sacred texts. At some crucial point in history, in the late 18th century (around the time of the Gita’s worldwide dissemination), some sacred texts also began to become its literary works; the Gita was one of them.

This essay formed the introduction to the recently published Folio Society edition of the Bhagavad Gita. It first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement.