The book, with less than 100 pages, has traveled more than 10,000 miles from her native India. She has one version of the book in her native language, Telugu. She also has two English translations. "The Bhagavad Gita is not only a source of spiritual inspiration," she says, "it is also a book about day-to-day life." When her two sons were growing up in Utah, surrounded by Mormon religion and culture, Chivukula had often wondered how she could get them to retain their Hindu culture and religion. "The Bhagavad Gita offered me clear guidance," she says, referring to the tract that many religious leaders and thinkers consider to be the highest expression of philosophical Hinduism. "It showed me that one does not have to change one's karmic destiny or religion to be virtuous." Chivukula, who migrated to America about 10 years ago, says she inculcated the idea in her sons that they could lead a perfectly moral life and find fulfillment in Hinduism. For Chivukula and many others, the religious tract familiarly known as the Gita is also a treasure house of practical knowledge. "Hinduism is certainly not a simple religion," she notes. "But the Gita has the clearest answers to many of the most complex problems of any century." And it is the complex problems of life and death which were the basis of the Gita, a long sermon Krishna gave to Arjuna on the eve of the Mahabharata war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, in a corner of northwestern India. The Gita, which was committed to writing more than 2,200 years ago, is part of the Mahabharata, an epic that chronicles the war between two families--the greedy, jealous Kauravas and virtuous, heroic Pandavas. Arjuna, the hero of the Pandavas, is about to confront the army of the Kauravas. Among the opposing army are his friends and relatives. He is clearly disturbed and desperate. How can he fight and kill his own kinsmen? He lays down his bow and declares he will not fight. Krishna, the incarnation of God Vishnu, is posing as an ordinary human being and is Arjuna's charioteer. On the battleground, Krishna reveals his real self, and begins advising Krishna. He explains to Arjuna the necessity of doing one's duty, without attachment to success or failure. If people perform their duties appropriate to their station, he says, they cannot be stained by action. Historically, the prolonged battle is between two families. But, admirers of the Gita know that philosophically, it is the great battle in which the human spirit has to fight against lower passions. The philosophical treasures and literary beauty of the Bhagavad Gita (literally, "Song of God") have spawned translations of the tract, originally in Sanskrit, into more than 24 Indian languages. English translations by such eminent Indian thinkers as C. Rajagopalachari also abound in India. In 1944, the distinguished poet and playwright Christopher Isherwood (his play "I Am a Camera" became the basis for "Cabaret") and his guru Swami Prabhavanda published a translation in English with an introduction by Aldous Huxley, the novelist and essayist best known for his work "Brave New World." Several translations have followed. "No work in all Indian literature is more quoted, because none is better loved in the West than the Bhagavad Gita," wrote philosophy professor Geddes MacGregor, commenting on a new translation of the Gita by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1983. There are reportedly over 5 million hardbound copies of the Gita in print in more than 45 world languages. Within the first decade of its publication, there were nearly 1 million copies of Prabhupada's translations available in nearly 40 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, and Portuguese.
The work has been hailed for the influence it had on such people like Mahatma Gandhi, who celebrated its call for righteous action without a thought of the outcome.To many of its admirers, the Gita's eternal truths are useful for building religious ecumenism. But Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, wanted to keep the Gita from reduced to a literary ethical tract. Prabhupada, who started his revivalist Hindu movement in the mid 1960s across America, called his own translation "Bhagavad-Gita As It Is." His idea was to use the Gita to understand the divinity of Krishna. "The general pattern translators have followed in rendering Bhagavad Gita into English has been to brush aside the person Krsna [Krishna] to make room for their own concepts and philosophies," the Prabhupada version of the Gita declared. "The history of the Mahabharata is taken as quaint mythology, and Krsna becomes a poetic device for presenting the ideas of some anonymous genius." In Prabhupada's translation, Krishna is "both the goal and the substance of the Bhagavad Gita." To others, the Gita argues for a Unitarian religious belief. "In a world torn by bigotry and small mindedness, the Gita, like books belonging to other religions, shows that there is a common moral stance in all religions," says Mabel Fernandes, an Indian educator. "Take, for instance, what Krishna tells Arjuna: 'Hell has three doors: lust, rage and greed. ... He who passes by these three dark doors has achieved his own salvation.' Now, do not other religion say similar things?" Huxley himself regarded the Gita as part of what he called the Perennial Philosophy--the ethical strands common in all religions. By studying it, he notes in his introduction, one not only gets life lessons but also comes to understand that "it is perfectly possible for people to remain Good Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Moslems and yet to be united in full agreement on the basic doctrines of the Perennial Philosophy." Self-abnegation, according to the Gita, can be achieved by two all-inclusive virtues--love and nonattachment, Huxley notes. The latter is close to that "holy indifference" that St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) never tires of insisting on, Huxley continues. He then quotes the existentialist Albert Camus summary of de Sales's teaching: "He who refers every action to God and has no aims save His Glory, will find rest everywhere, even amidst the most violent commotions."
To Shyamala Chivukula, the Gita's value is that is accessible not only to the intellectual but also to a layperson: "Anyone can read it and be benefited by its clear vision and answers to life's problems."