Interview With Vandana R. Singh, author of “The Bhagavad Gita

Vandana R. Singh
Image: Frontlist

A Ph.D. in Indian writing in English, VANDANA R SINGH is an author, translator, and editor. She has been an Associate Professor of English at GCG, Panjab University, and has worked as a bilingual teacher for the Manchester Education Committee, UK. Her literary translations from Hindi to English include works of Premchand, Krishna Sobti, and Geetanjali Shree. Winner of the Award of Recognition for outstanding contribution to literature by the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi, she has authored several books on Communication Skills and ELT for Oxford University Press. She has been a consultant editor for several UN organisations and a textbook developer for NCERT & NIOS.

A keen gardener and bonsai enthusiast, she views translation as a social responsibility contributing to building cross-cultural bridges. She is fascinated by words—their origin and evolution.
Team:What inspired you to write a book about Bhagavad Gita?

Vandana:When I look back and think of how the book happened the trajectory of events feels surreal to me even today. Back in early 2020, in addition to the pandemic crippling us all down, I had suffered a huge personal loss and had lived through the most difficult five years of my life. To be with me at this trying time a close family member, Dr Savitri Singh, came to spend few days with me. Unexpectedly, the lockdown was announced and what was to be a brief 4-day visit extended to a 4-month long stay.

I’d known my house guest all my life and I knew she was a Sanskrit scholar but it had never till then crossed my mind that her area of study could be relevant to me in any way. I did not realise that her scholarship could change my life.

Being an emotionally charged time for me, I was grappling with several issues – big and small. My head was buzzing with questions – and most of them I couldn’t find answers to. And so, somehow, I found myself asking her to explain the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita to me. A request she graciously accepted.

I had a copy of the Gita and so soon we found a quiet place to sit and Didi (that’s what I call her) unravelled the Gita for me – verse by verse. Thus started an exchange – rather an extended conversation – that changed my life.

Eventually, the lockdown was lifted and soon my house guest left. It was at that moment I wondered if there was any way that I could ensure that the storehouse of knowledge that she had shared with me could be captured. Writing it down seemed to be the obvious answer. And so, I started with documenting my understanding of some of the verses. I started writing and soon it became something I had to do every day.

In short, that is how the book happened. Over and above all that I’ve learned from the text, the way the book came to be has now also convinced me that spiritual serendipity happens!
Team:Why do you think makes the Bhagavad Gita relevant and valuable to people living in the 21st century? How did you decipher its teachings for a modern audience?

Vandana:Given the current day crises of increasing mental health issues this ancient text gains a special significance. To me, personally, the Gita came across as a handbook of how to live life in an imperfect world. Since the world we live in continues to be as imperfect as it was centuries ago the message of the Gita remains just as relevant today. The Gita is an experiential guide that connects the outer world with the inner, it is an unparalleled mix of the physical and the metaphysical, the natural and the supernatural, the human and the superhuman, the ancient and the modern.

While on one plane, the Gita is multi-layered and granular, on another it is simple, direct and pragmatic. The entire set of teachings is based on the realistic premise that each individual is born with a particular temperament, and so laying down of a single spiritual path for all to walk on, is simply not possible. In fact the Gita very clearly says that one size does not fit all.

This sets the tone for the underlying message of acceptance of individuality as well as plurality. Multiplicity of ideas, thought processes, and subsequent individual actions, are concepts that lie at the heart of this understanding and acceptance. And these are very modern ideas – a close study of the text reveals the underlying message which documents these contemporary concepts.

The Gita also says to me that you are your own watchdog, your own timekeeper, your own conscience keeper. Each one of us has within us an unacknowledged greatness – a potential that needs to be unleashed. For me, the Gita is a journey from a partial understanding of life to a more complete one.
Team:You mention in the book that the Bhagavad Gita is often misinterpreted. What are some common misconceptions about the text, and how does your book aim to clarify or dispel them?

Vandana:My first and foremost hope is that this book will help demystify the Gita. I feel that controversies around religion often times are borne of lack of authentic knowledge of sacred texts. Many of us who talk of our faith may or may not have a nuanced understanding of the expanse that ancient texts have, and so the underlying subtleties are often lost in the desire to be vocal. As we know most narratives operate on several planes, tend to have more than one meaning, and are open to multiple interpretations. But for any of these to happen the text has to first be read.

Through this book I hope to arouse curiosity to know more about the Gita…to tickle the imagination into exploring the book that is thought of as a hallowed text – and therefore beyond the grasp of those who are not scholars of Vedic texts, or are Sanskrit scholars. The Gita is for everyone and it’s important to know that it is a standalone text that can be read, understood and internalised – all it asks of the reader is to have an open mind.

The Gita stresses upon co-existence, equality, free will and attaches a high tag to the pursuit of knowledge. This pursuit should lead to not just knowing our texts better but also to a correct understanding of its messaging. Correct both in letter and spirit. One also hopes that a holistic understanding of the deeper meaning will discourage random citing of the text as and when it might suit a particular line of argument or a situation.

Team:How does your book go beyond the typical interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and offer readers a fresh perspective on its teachings?

Vandana:In a constantly changing physical world fresh interpretations of existing concepts are needed from time to time to enable us to view them through a contemporary lens. While terminology and technology have evolved over the years, the human mind is still just as insecure, paranoid, envious, and sometimes even unstable. In other words, the human mind with all its follies continues to need an anchor today just as it did thousands of years ago.

Humankind’s search for peace, the search for answers to life’s many questions remains just as intense, and we continue to see innumerable Arjuns around us struggling with modern versions of distress, despair and inner conflict. These conflicts may erupt from twenty-first century issues but the resolution of these still lies in the age-old narrative – the Bhagavad Gita.

This multi-layered text is also a curious mix of the dynamic and the static – very much in the spirit of the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The meanings might keep changing with each reading, but the text remains the same. It’s the same 18 chapters, same 700 verses, the same speakers and the same battlefield. But like a kaleidoscope where the hues change each time it is rotated – the meaning/s of the verses keep evolving – not necessarily replacing the earlier one, but certainly enhancing it.

I might add here – especially since it is so relevant to our times – one of the most important inferences one draws from the narrative is to not hesitate to ask for help when you’re in a dark place. A distressed Arjun turned to his charioteer for solace and look at the storehouse of wisdom that he was exposed to in return. So, seek help when you feel the conflict between outwardly expectations is not in sync with your inner self.
Team:The Bhagavad Gita is often associated with Hinduism, but its teachings are not limited to one religion. Can you discuss how Gita’s teachings can be relevant to people of different religious backgrounds?

Vandana:To consider the Gita to be a text that belongs to a particular religion or culture would be to de-universalize it as this ancient source of knowledge holds takeaways for everyone – irrespective of cultures, religion or geographies.

The two best known themes from the Gita are – perform your duty without any expectation or desire for a reward. And the other that whenever evil starts to overtake the good in this world a superior force takes birth and wipes out the evil and restores order. Some of these beliefs have parallels in other cultures and faiths too.

But there is much more to the Gita than this. Since most of us are well aware of these two aspects we feel no need to explore further. As the Gita seeped into me, and as its many messages opened up to me layer after layer, I realised what a limited view one had had of the Gita and how erroneous it is to view it as a period piece, or as text whose teachings are relevant only to a particular set of people.

Interestingly, talking about the Gita, Albert Einstein said – When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.

The Gita is a guide to be befriended, a text to be comprehended, and a way of life to be adopted. Very simply put, it is a text which amongst other more exalted descriptions, must be seen as a handbook on life skills containing detailed lessons on self-improvement.

As we proceed from verse to verse, and then chapter to chapter, we are told of the different patterns of life we can opt for while on this earth. We can choose between goodness, passion or ignorance to be the driving engines of our actions.

Gradually the ultimate destination of the path we choose to walk on in life, starts to become clear to the reader and the outcome of each and every one of our actions is explained to us in no uncertain terms. These ideas of self-improvement are universal in nature and apply to humankind across the board.

Team:How did you balance staying true to the original teachings of the Bhagavad Gita while also interpreting them through a modern lens?

Vandana:As I read the Gita I discovered close links with modern-day concepts of life skills. Life skills are essentially those abilities that help promote mental well-being and competence in people as they face the realities and challenges of life. It refers to the skills one needs to optimise on opportunities and handle critical situations that arise from time to time.

The term has gained currency in the last few decades and is now frequently recognised as the key to positive mental health, professional success and personal well-being as also for preparing professionals for striking the right work life balance.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) categorizes life skills into the following broad components:

a) Critical thinking skills and Decision-making skills

b) Interpersonal and Communication skills

c) Coping and self-management skills

We see these skills frequently at play in the Gita. For example, right at the outset, we see a breakdown of Arjun’s decision making skills which is an outcome of his inner conflict.

As Krishna offers life changing solutions, Arjun’s self-esteem is eventually restored and he is finally ready to perform his duty, with newly acquired coping skills.

Seeing Arjun unable to lead with his current work-life balance issues, Krishna makes ample use of verbal communication. We see Arjun listening actively with the help of information gathering skills as the moment of his self-awareness arrives. Arjun eventually learns to self-manage his battered emotions as conflict resolution gradually appears in sight.

Armed with tips on positive thinking and stress management techniques, Arjun’s assertive skills come into play. Providing Krishna with a positive feedback Arjun is back in action ready to face life and its many challenges.

Team:What role do you think texts like the Bhagavad Gita can play in today’s world, where there is so much division and conflict, and how can we use these teachings to promote greater understanding and compassion?

Vandana:The key messages of the Gita hold true till today – perhaps more than ever before.

– Equanimity should be the ultimate goal of life. Equanimity includes overcoming prejudices based on culture, religion, age, caste, nationality, race, gender, colour and ability.

– Balance is the key – a balanced lifestyle is the key to a good life.

– The Gita is an avid supporter of free will and actively encourages human beings to make their own choices in life. In other words, it is also asking us to be responsible for our own actions.

– To remain in pursuit of knowledge and excellence is the most desirable way of living one’s life.

These ideas are timeless and offer solutions to issues of human existence irrespective of the day and time one lives in. But while the teachings are there it is up to us how we choose to interpret them and apply them to ourselves.

What the Gita suggests is – while it is good to be competitive, let the competition eventually be with your own self. Make sure that today you are an improved version of what you were yesterday.

In a nutshell, the Gita tells us to live life in a manner where self-introspection is a habit, followed by self-improvement. It encourages us to recognise self-control as the solution, and set self-actualisation as the eventual goal for ourselves.

If each one of us genuinely works on self-improvement and competes first and foremost with one’s own self, the world is bound to become a better place.

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