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The Bhagavad Gita:
A Biography
Richard H. Davis

Selected for WGBH News "Here are the books we read this year that we think you’ll love" 2014

Hardcover | 2014 | $24.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691139968
256 pp. | 4 1/2 x 7 1/2
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The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous of all Indian scriptures, is universally regarded as one of the world's spiritual and literary masterpieces. Richard Davis tells the story of this venerable and enduring book, from its origins in ancient India to its reception today as a spiritual classic that has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. The Gita opens on the eve of a mighty battle, when the warrior Arjuna is overwhelmed by despair and refuses to fight. He turns to his charioteer, Krishna, who counsels him on why he must. In the dialogue that follows, Arjuna comes to realize that the true battle is for his own soul.

Davis highlights the place of this legendary dialogue in classical Indian culture, and then examines how it has lived on in diverse settings and contexts. He looks at the medieval devotional traditions surrounding the divine character of Krishna and traces how the Gita traveled from India to the West, where it found admirers in such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Aldous Huxley. Davis explores how Indian nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda used the Gita in their fight against colonial rule, and how contemporary interpreters reanimate and perform this classical work for audiences today.

An essential biography of a timeless masterpiece, this book is an ideal introduction to the Gita and its insights into the struggle for self-mastery that we all must wage.

Richard H. Davis is professor of religion at Bard College. He is the author of Lives of Indian Images and Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshipping Siva in Medieval India (both Princeton).


"In his masterful new biography of the Gita--part of an excellent Princeton series dedicated to the lives of great religious books--Richard Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, shows us, in subtle and stunning detail, how the text of the Gita has been embedded in one political setting after another, changing its meaning again and again over the centuries."--Wendy Doniger, New York Review of Books

"In the 21st century, The Gita continues to thrive. India's present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, gives it out as a gift on his trips abroad. Discourses on The Gita by spiritual leaders are a part of the cultural life of every major Indian city. Some Indians disagree with its vision of ethics or consider it a relic of the past; but even they, too, must engage with it closely in order to refute it. Mr. Davis's book is an ideal introduction to the text, showing how the meanings of a book reside not just in its words but its life in history."--Chandrahas Choudhury, Wall Street Journal

"Like all the great religious books featured in this superb series from Princeton University Press, the Gita has transcended the circumstances of its birth. Rival schools of Hindu theology have risen from various turns of Krishna's phrases, while Westerners have seen echoes of their own traditions. In modern India, Gandhi thought the Gita reflected the eternal battle between light and dark in every human heart, and in the drive for Indian independence, even secular nationalists championed it as a patriotic text. The Gita and the moral issues it raises are still alive."--Brian Bethune, Macleans

"In The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, the latest in the series Lives of Great Religious Books, Davis crisply summarizes this oft-quoted Hindu scripture, in which Krishna reveals his true identity as the 'imperishable Lord of All Beings.'"--Donna Seaman, Booklist

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Table of Contents:

List of illustrations vii
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 The Bhagavad Gita in the Time of Its Composition 10
Chapter 2 Krishna and His Gita in Medieval India 43
Chapter 3 Passages from India 72
Chapter 4 Krishna, the Gita, and the Indian Nation 115
Chapter 5 Modern Gitas: Translations 154
Chapter 6 The Gita in Our Time: Performances 178
Epilogue The Bhagavad Gita in Great Time 204
Notes 211
Glossary of Sanskrit terms 227
Select English translations of the Bhagavad Gita 229
Further readings 233
Index 237

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