Paramahansa Yogananda. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita—Royal Science of God-Realization. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1995. Hardcover, 1215 pages, 2 vols.
The Bhagavad-Gîtâ is the oldest full-fledged Yoga scripture that has come down to us through the ages. While this Sanskrit work is traditionally not considered a part of the revealed literature ( shruti) of Hinduism, it has for untold generations been revered as such. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of it as “Mother Gita,” saying that “when doubt haunts me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, and find a verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.” Many Hindu sages, past and present, have similarly praised the Gîtâ’s teachings.
Once this scripture was carefully concealed from the prying eyes of non-Hindus, but today English renderings are freely and cheaply available in numerous paperback editions. Yet, surprisingly few Western Yoga students really study this literary treasure, or even give it the respect it deserves. Our mass market culture is incapable of responding to sacred texts appropriately, and I have seen paperback translations of the Gîtâ tucked away on bookshelves next to novels and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Therefore any edition that provides a more decorous receptacle for this sacred work is always a wonderful surprise. The publishers have not spared any effort and expense in doing full justice to the Gîtâ and the comprehensive yogic commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda. This lavish two-volume boxed edition, which comes with numerous full-color plates of paintings specially created for the Self-Realization Fellowship, is a delight for the eye and the heart.
Paramahansa Yogananda requires no introduction. Hundreds of thousands have read his Autobiography of a Yogi, and for over thirty years, until his death in 1952, he untiringly communicated the wisdom of Yoga in this country. In her preface, Daya Mata, who is the current president of the spiritual fellowship created by Yogananda, notes that this great teacher “was a living scripture in wisdom, action, and love for God.” The present work is a testimony to his extraordinary understanding, springing from direct experience of the higher realities, and also his compassion for seekers thirsting for spiritual truth.
Written over many years, this commentary on the Bhagavad-Gîtâ is not only Yogananda’s most voluminous work but also his most detailed account of the inner life and the straight path back to the Divine. He justifiably claims in his introduction, “Many truths buried in the Gita for generations are being expressed in English for the first time through me.” The originality of his interpretation, which excels in psychological insights, is obvious already from his extensive comments to the opening chapter. Many Western translators have simply glossed over this chapter, and even Shankara Âcârya, the illustrious preceptor of Advaita Vedânta, failed to comment on it.
Yogananda understands the epic battle that prompted the God-man Krishna to give Prince Arjuna the teachings recorded in the Gîtâ as an allegory for the cosmic and personal struggle between good and evil, life and death, Spirit and matter, knowledge and ignorance. This idea is not new but Yogananda’s in-depth elaboration of it is most enlightening.
Yogananda sees renunciation ( samnyâsa) as the ‘s central message. He reminds us that “daily in sleep, every man becomes a renunciant, sloughing off all his sham titles; and once in a while he even becomes a saint” (p. 109). But renunciation is not merely giving up things but primarily abandoning the ego-personality. Only then can wisdom and happiness dawn. We do not need to run away from life to fulfill our highest spiritual destiny. This is exactly the spirit of Karma-Yoga, as expounded by the God-man Krishna. “The little mind of the little man attached to little things,” writes Yogananda, “cannot possibly identify itself with the universal consciousness of God” (p. 288). And identification with God, or the ultimate Reality, is the goal of Yoga and the greatest endeavor any individual can hope to undertake.
Understandably, we find in these pages many references to the esoteric science of Kriyâ-Yoga, as Yogananda had learned it from his guru, Sri Yukteswar, and as he passed it on to his own disciples. While the Gîtâ does not teach Kriyâ-Yoga explicitly, its fundamental ideas—revolving around the control of the mind and the body’s energy ( prâna)—are clearly expressed. Yogananda himself has no doubt that what Lord Krishna revealed to his beloved disciple Arjuna was precisely the “safe path” of Kriyâ-Yoga. He points specifically to verses 4.29 (about breath control) and 5.27-28 (about breath control and meditative concentration) as containing the quintessence of this path, which was revived in modern times by the long-lived adept ” Babaji,” who taught its secrets to Lahiri Mahasaya (the teacher of Sri Yukteswar).
Yogananda’s commentary brims with good counsel, based on his own early struggles and on his many years of experience with numerous disciples undergoing all the various difficulties that spiritual practitioners must confront. As he confesses, in his youth while trying to meditate he would instead envision himself playing football, “a game I very much enjoyed, and at which I was adept.” He cured this mental habit simply by applying himself harder to the task of stilling his mind. “In this way I became accustomed to remaining continuously in soul joy. The formation of this habit led to the experience of ecstatic bliss in omnipresent Spirit” (p. 846).
Yogananda has commented on most, though not all, of the 700 stanzas of the Gîtâ. His commentaries to some verses are surprisingly long while being equally surprisingly short to others. Thus the first volume only contains his commentaries on the first five of the Gîtâ’s eighteen chapters. But his observations are uniformly inspiring and empowering.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this work to all Yoga students who want to experience the true pulse of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ and be pulled into its sphere of influence through the luminous words of one of this century’s great Yoga masters. For sure, this beautiful edition will have a prominent place on my bookshelf of sacred Hindu scriptures.
Originally reviewed © Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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