One of the scriptures from another religion that had a profound impact on me as a university student was The Bhagavad Gita (Sanskrit: “Song of God”). I read it twice from cover to cover taking extensive notes. I still enjoy dipping into it from time to time and cherish its most memorable passages. It’s a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an avatar of god Vishnu in the Hindu tradition. Eknath Easwaran’s translation (depicted here) is enthralling.
Set in the middle of a battlefield, it deals with the meaning of life, duty, self-purification, and the greater jihad. Today, I would easily draw parallels between the battles fought for the nascent Islamic community against the Quraysh of Mecca and those waged in The Bhagavad Gita. Ultimately, it’s a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. More profoundly, it’s the fight for your life or the battle for your soul against itself and this illusory, temporal world.
Being predisposed to a Sufic understanding, I have often looked for the similarities between religions and religious traditions, rather than latching onto their differences. That doesn’t mean that I am unaware of the differences of opinion that have arisen and do exist between world religions. Nor does it prevent me from personally adopting one in preference to another. Hence, my departure from Christianity and acceptance of Islam. But it does mean I value the beauty and wisdom the earlier revelations brought to humanity. It is wonderful to be living in a Global Village with easy access to the Wisdom of the Prophets.
Our late Pir (may Allah perfume his resting place) would often say, “The Hindus call them avatars, but we know them as prophets.” His translation of The Ramayana (Sanskrit: “Rama’s Journey”) into Urdu was well-received in India. Similarly, Hazrat Inayat Khan (may Allah sanctify his secret) highlights the unity of religious ideals in The Song of the Prophets. A title that hints at the same idea. This spirit of inquiry has spread well beyond the borders of South Asia.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, has decided to include The Ramayana and The Mahabharata into the kingdom’s new school curriculum as part of its Vision 2030. (The Bhagavad Gita comprises several chapters of The Mahabharata.) This may disquiet those who feel that reading outside of the Islamic tradition can be problematic at times or even dangerous to one’s faith. Imam Wisam addresses concerns like these in his podcast “If I had a book club…” and looks at how to rectify reading non-Islamic books for guidance and wisdom while maintaining one’s faith in Islam. He goes on to explain what it means to give a book “shahadah.”
Some of the concepts from The Bhagavad Gita that impacted me include:
The idea that different paths are the same in reality because the end-goal is the same. Here the idea of different paths isn’t religious, Indian scriptures predate our modern conception of religion, but rather it refers to the Path of Action, the Path of Devotion, and the Path of Knowledge, i.e. different ways of approaching and experiencing Truth. Or as the Sufis say, “There are as many paths to God as there are human breaths (al-turuq ila’Llah bi’adadi anfas al-khala’iq).” This concept is analogous to the ahadith about the eight gates of Paradise.
Krishna teaches Prince Arjuna to always think, “I am not the doer,” just as Muslims often remind each other that the good we do is from Allah, and the Quran says: “You did not slay them, but God slew them; and when thou threwest, it was not thyself that threw, but God threw” (8:17).
“Those who possess this wisdom [the knowledge of the Self],” Krishna instructs, “have equal regard for all. They see the same Self in a spiritual aspirant and an outcaste, in an elephant, a cow, and a dog.” Tradition tells us that animals, trees, even clouds moved for Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and were moved by him. He treated spiritual aspirants and outcastes with equal regard and won people over through his beautiful character. “It is He who created you out of a single soul and made from it its mate” (7:189). Quranic commentators note how this verse refers to our shared parentage, spiritual kinship, and humanity, as we are all the children of Adam and Eve (upon them peace).
We read how awakened sages are free from anxiety, just as “the friends of God shall have no fear, neither shall they grieve” (10:62). They live in freedom because they have gone beyond the dualities of life. “Competing with no one,” says Krishna, “they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved.” Why does the hadith al-nawafil come to mind, “My slave draws nearer to Me… until I love him. And when I love him I become…”
In The Bhagavad Gita, knowledge and action go hand in hand like iman and ‘amal. It is the knowledge of God and the realization that the impermanent has no reality; “reality lies in the eternal” that enables Prince Arjuna to resolve deep within himself to seek Him alone and “attain singleness of purpose.”
لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّٰهُ
In summary, if reading The Bhagavad Gita doesn’t benefit, it certainly doesn’t cause harm. However, I agree with Hazrat Inayat Khan, who said: “The more one reads The Bhagavad Gita, the more one finds the truth of that English phrase, ‘to put it in a nutshell,'” as it concisely sums up the whole philosophy of life in celestial symbolism.
With love and light,
PS. In addition to translating classics of Indian spirituality, Eknath Easwaran wrote one of the best productivity books ever written, namely Take Your Time: Finding Balance in a Hurried World.
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