The Bhagavad Gita. Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, chapter introductions by Diana Morrison.

The Bhagavad GitaA hundred years ago a wise old professor of mine recommended reading The Bhagavad Gita. I put it on my “to read” list but only read it yesterday. The reading was prompted by another, The Razor’s Edge, in which a pilgrim finds his way through books to enlightenment. Among them was the Upanishads, of which the Gita is considered a beautiful and accessible work. Of course I do not presume to “review” the Gita, but offer this brief reader’s response to it.

The Gita is the story of Arjuna, an Indian prince the night before battle. A powerful army has gathered to deny his rightful claim to the throne. He does not want to fight because the army contains members of his family. He receives counsel from Krishna, an apparent charioteer but in fact Lord Vishu, greatest of the Indian gods. The battle is a metaphor for the spirtual struggle, and Krishna provides personal guidance on the paths to enlightenment.

Enlightenment. Is it possible? I do not find it difficult to defend a world view that does not include a higher order or design, but I do so with diminishing conviction. There is sufficient complexity to evolution in a modern sense to explain a moral life, goodness for one’s people and future generations. Still, evolution is a downward-up drive. Up to where? If there is no higher order, is there only complexity expanding into entropy? I sometimes wonder if the brain of the atheist must finally collapse. The Gita speaks of shradda. Wrong shradda is sinking with the downward pull of our evolutionary past, not evil, only ignorant, leading to failure. Right shradda is consistent with the upward thrust of evolution, yielding better results. Easwaran says that shradda is more than faith, it is the belief system that defines a life, “One person with a serious illness believes he has a contribution to make to the world and so he recovers; another believes his life is worthless and he dies: that is the power of shradda.”

The Gita is not heavy with theology. Krishna explains that there are two main paths, one of knowledge and meditation for the few who prefer a life of solitude and contemplation. The more likely path is that of love and service, the path of action suited to most of us who prefer to live among others in the world. The paths ultimately reach the same end. A core message of Eastern philosophy is the impermanence of the ego, the illusion of a soul. “The ego’s job is to go on incessantly spinning the wheel of the mind and making new karma-pots: new ideas to act on, fresh desires to pursue.” Solitude gives a taste of egolessness since there are no other egos to bump against. The path of action exhausts the ego, yielding the same result. It is this path of action that Krisha recommends to Arjuna, faced with his difficult situation. Conditionality is our existence and Arjuna cannot escape the battle that is before him.

Arjuna must face his fears, but that is not the last word. A recurring theme in the Gita is to renounce attachment to the outcomes of our actions. We choose only our actions, and should make each act with care, an act of worship, an offering, but the results are beyond our control and should not engage us. It is the calculus of the serenity prayer, more familiar to modern readers.

Odes to Tools by Dave Bonta. The socket wrench handles torque and clicks against the gearwheel’s teeth.

Odes to ToolsOnce upon a time I lived back-to-the-land. Just a few years. When the kids were still young, my family and I made the classic move to the country. Old farmhouse, barn, septic bed, dug well, big skies. In the garden, I heard the call of the land. It said, John, you buffoon, the land doesn’t talk. It caught me by surprise how much I loved it out there. I learned the essential back-to-the-land skills: gardening, home-brewing, canning, small-engine repair. I grew fond of simple, old-fashioned tools: the hand shovel for ploughing the garden, the gold-tined pitchfork for turning my immense open compost pile, the smooth-handled hatchet for clearing roots, the wrecking hammer for tearing down an old shed, and the scythe for the never-ending battle with weeds. The kids grew up. The north wind blew right through the old farm house. There came a time to leave.

Still I carry a back-to-the-land fascination in my pocket. Now and again, something prompts it out, like Dave Bonta’s book of poetry, Odes to Tools. Dave denies his handiness, but knows his way with poetry. The socket wrench handles torque and clicks against the gearwheel’s teeth. The saw too has teeth, as many as a school of piranhas, thus it copes. The claw hammer has a pair of legs strong enough between them to birth nails. Emissaries from a country that no longer exists, he says of the scythe. I picked up the scythe when my gas-powered, industrial weed-eater with bush blade finally surpassed my small-engine repair skills. Silent tools have their own manner of speaking. Thanks Dave for finding the words.

These days I live neck-deep in technology. It serves its purposes. Most computers are multipurpose devices, designed to do everything, often at cross-purposes. I find myself fascinated by single-purpose gadgets: a dashboard mounted GPS, a counter-top internet radio, an ereader. My hand tools presented as single-purpose devices, like the saw, as Dave says, that walks the straight and narrow, restricted to harsh amens of service. Of course, hand tools were never single-purpose, the hatchet cleared not only roots but chicken heads too. Even so, single-purpose tools allow their handler to focus attention for arduous work, to step through complexities. A design lesson there.

You can purchase his book online, or send him a cheque for a signed copy. In the manner of the old country you can barter with Dave for copy. Also be sure to read Dave’s blog, Via Negativa, a remarkable compilation of poetry, video-poetry, podcasts, and philosophy. I’ve been an avid reader for three years.