The Bhagavad Gita has always been an important religious text both for Western readers and Indian intellectuals over many centuries and has been a catalyst to producing an efflorescence of scholarship around it. Dorothy Figueira, Distinguished Research Professor for Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies at the University of Georgia, has been instrumental in marking a shift in the study of the Gita through a cross-cultural framework, wherein the literary reception of the text in varying contexts has been given primacy.
Abinash Dash Choudhury spoke to her at the release of her new book The Afterlives of the Bhagavad Gita: Readings in Translation, which reflects her scholarship of over 30 years, and brings together an exciting mix of places and contexts where the Hindu religious text was read, made sense, and accepted. At a time when the meanings and intentions of religious texts are being fixed into definite locations, Figueira provides us with an ability to look beyond that orthodoxy through her engagement with the Gita and its translations. In this interview, Figueira discusses her book as well as the interests that drove her to complete it. Excerpts:
How did you arrive at the Gita—was it an “academic” pursuit or a more “personal” one?
I was a religion major as an undergraduate and studied various religions from a purely historical point of view. When I began at university, my parents encouraged me to study whatever I wished. My father was a Guyanese immigrant to the US, and I was the first generation in my family to attend college. What I remember most was my mother and father saying, “Why don’t you study something you know nothing about?” and I realised I knew nothing about religions other than my own. I also took language and literature classes. But I had a particularly good teacher in Hinduism, and I became fascinated with the study of its mythology. In such liberal arts institutions in the US, the history of religion was not taught from a vantage point of faith. I first read the Gita as a literary text. I was not seeking enlightenment. I had been raised a Roman Catholic, albeit rather lapsed. So, I felt rather sorry for all those other students in my Hinduism classes throughout the years who were studying religion because they were seeking some vision of the Divinethat they felt they lacked in their upbringing—something that had not come to them as middle-class white Americans of various religious persuasions. My fellow students had either rejected their parents’ faiths or they had been given no religion as children. I felt no such lack. I was not in search of the Divine. However, while not personally a “quester”, the motivation for such exotic soul-searching fascinated me.
As the daughter of an immigrant, I suspected that one had to feel fully entrenched in one’s culture, and feel fully accepted there before one could seek compensation outside that culture. Questers, as V.S. Naipaul had taught us, always had a round-trip ticket. Quite simply, there were no minority Hari Krishnas. An examination of this element of “luxury” and privilege that was involved in those seeking the exotic has informed all my subsequent scholarship. But, this study of East-West reception has always been a purely textual encounter, as a comparatist should have, rather than a faith-based one. To be frank, I was not overtly fascinated by the Gita. I quite simply prefer other Sanskrit texts. I like the enigmatic beauty of the Rig Vedaand I really appreciate the poetry of the Upanishads. I also love reading Hindu mystics in the context of mystical texts from other traditions. But, of course, in Sanskrit class, we read the Gita.
The Afterlives of the Bhagavad Gita: Readings in Translation
Oxford University Press
How has teaching India in the US been, then? I am privy to your classes, and would want to know a little more about how the classroom perceives India, in your experience?
As I noted, I am primarily interested in the reception of India in the West. To be more precise, in the study of “exoticism”, the need for an “exotic”, and how India figures in that context. Since I have studied and taught in India, Europe and the United States, there have been different demographics involved in my experience. But I will speak of the US teaching experience. In the early 1970s, there was not the big upsurge of Indian immigration, as we see today. There were then fewer Indians studying here and those who were here belonged mostly to the professional elite class. I remember taking my mother to see classical Bollywood movies in a cinema filled with Indian engineers. My hometown was then the site of IBM’s world headquarters. I fondly recollect my mother enjoying the Indian films and the Indian families in the audience. She remarked how these Indian families interacted with their children the same way Italian families (she was Italian American) did; they were overly indulgent. She joked with me that if I studied Sanskrit, would she some day have beautiful Indian grandchildren? Years later, when I adopted my Indian daughters, I was able to joke with her that I was such a wonderful daughter that I gave her beautiful Indian granddaughters without her having to deal with a fussy Indian son-in-law.
Things are different now than they were in the 1970s. Indian immigrants are no longer exclusively Bengali or exclusively engineers, as they seemed to have been at that time. Moreover, Indian immigrants have emerged as a financially and politically influential group. They have been able to muster tremendous political clout as the taxpayers paying more taxes in the US than any other immigrant group in the history of the country. However, like all immigrant groups, they have also become deracinated from their birth culture. The children of these Indian immigrant families have heard of the Vedas, the Upanishads, Manu, and the Gita but do not know much about these texts. There are now more non-Indian American students who are familiar with Indian culture from growing up with Indian-origin friends in their schools and communities. So, India is not as mysterious and exotic a place as it was in the 1960s when Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles went there. It is no longer, realistically, a site where you go for the experience of the “exotic” East. But India, nevertheless, remains alive in memory, materiality as well as in textuality. This, in fact, is how I see the change in reception of India in the US.
- Frontline spoke to Dorothy Figueira at the release of her new book The Afterlives of the Bhagavad Gita: Readings in Translation, which reflects her scholarship of over 30 years, and brings together an exciting mix of places and contexts where the Hindu religious text was read, made sense, and accepted.
- “I was not overtly fascinated by the Gita. I quite simply prefer other Sanskrit texts. I like the enigmatic beauty of the Rig Vedaand I really appreciate the poetry of the Upanishads,” Figueira says.
- “In all my work, I have tried to focus on cross-fertilisation and dialogue between India and the West rather than colonisation,” says Figueira.
Does your new book—in some ways—emerge out of this context of teaching and experience to outline the change in “readings” that capture a fluctuating demography of readers?
Yes, in some ways. I believe that India still functions as an imaginative paradigm for the West. Of course, in a different way now. That is why I begin with the Gita’s introduction in the West—the 1785 English translation of the Gita and the role of German Romanticism in its subsequent reception. But my main purpose of my book is to subvert the sort of monolithic and hegemonic vision that Edward Said and much subsequent theory have espoused, which have focussed on the English world and generalised the interaction between these two hemispheres occurring only on the basis of British “colonialism.” It should be noted that Said in particular made a number of generalisations that had nothing to do with the rest of Europe. In all my work, I have tried to focus on cross-fertilisation and dialogue between India and the West rather than colonisation. Earlier, I have studied the ancient Greeks as well as the initial Portuguese and Italian voyagers to India. I have looked at this reception on the micro level of translation and on the macro level of cultural appropriation. I have extended my research up to the present.
I have always been interested in the changes in methods of reading and readership. For example, the Germans were not colonising India. They sought inspiration there, models for their own poetry and theatre. This cross-fertilisation between India and Germany has taken bizarre turns over time. But the French also had their exoticism with regard to India. I do not ignore what Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson had to say about the Gita. I focus primarily on unusual readings of the Gita, where it is not a mystical poem discussing Bhakti, Sankhyaor Yoga. I look at those readings that arenot talking about any of the things that one usually talks about with the Gita. For example, 19th and early 20th century German commentators focussed exclusively on the warrior ethos they found in this text. I study how this focus became consolidated in the translations, reception, and scholarship. In the Indian arena, I examine Tilak’s and Aurobindo’s readings as well as those of Gandhi and Ambedkar. I was particularly fascinated with Gandhi’s discourse on the Gita and the manner in which he approached translation may well have inspired this volume as a whole.
What exactly about Gandhi’s work? Could you elaborate on this?
Gandhi interests me because of his translation theory and method. He did not initially read the Gita in Sanskrit or even Gujarati translation. The first time he read it was in Edwin Arnold’s translation. Arnold’s translation was influenced by the Theosophists and the occult. So, in that sense, Gandhi is far away from any textual authority, and he himself admits it, but nevertheless he undertook to translate this text and claim his reading as authoritative. His reading is also notable in how he uses the idea of practice as a translational tool. Gandhi puts the experience of the text first and claims that because he understands the text in his body and mind, he can thus explain it in the authentic way.
It is interesting that you allude to the notion of “authoritative” here, more so because it points to a certain Brahminical authority over hermeneutics. Let us turn to Ambedkar’s readings of the Gitaat the end of your book. How do you see this notion of an “authentic” work between these two variant and crucial interpretations of 20th century India?
I think Ambedkar was not primarily interested in the question of Gita-proper, his interest was in other crucial texts, like Manusmriti. What remains of his Gita engagement is a fragment from a work that he envisioned but could not complete. What I find interesting is that Ambedkar’s focus in his reading of the Gita lies in the issue of spokesmanship that the text gave to those who used it. In other words, he was worried about the ways in which spokespersons for traditional texts were designated or how they self-designated. Gandhi fit this bill. Here, we have the same issue regarding translation that found expression in thinkers such as Dayanand Saraswati and Ram Mohan Roy, who sought to free knowledge from the control of priestly castes. Ambedkar was working in this tradition of making the sacred more accessible and, in the process, questioning its vernacular qualities. He carried out a radical alternative reading of the Gita which challenged Gandhi and his authoritative reading. Remember also that while Gandhi had learnt his Gita far removed from the Indian soil via the Theosophists, Ambedkar was the one who had learnt it in his father’s lap. One might question which introduction to this text might be viewed as truly “authentic”.
Abinash Dash Choudhury is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies at the University of Georgia in the US.