The Wisdom of the Gita

I am reading the Bhagavad Gita, engaging in dialogue on every page, scribbling in the margin as I read and analyze the text. And as my doctor friend says, expanding my mind in the process. A couple of weeks ago, on October 8th, I was invited to speak at a downtown venue – the Gathering Place of the Chrysalis Institute – to talk about my writing and my current book project. There was a good turnout and the evening was great fun. Four of my friends were gathered on the back row to cheer me on, but the whole audience was both attentive and receptive, and there was a good discussion following my remarks.

The Chrysalis Institute itself was founded with the purpose of “encouraging spiritual growth beyond conventional boundaries of any one faith” . . . and thus explores “insights and practices from the world’s spiritual traditions, philosophies, and contemporary science.” Since my writing tends to blend my two disciplines of training – science and theology – I think I fitted right in. The Institute has a website and if you live in the greater Richmond area, you might want to take a look. Again, It was a great evening.  

One of the ideas I’ve written about and thus talked about in my evening’s presentation was what has become known as the U-shaped curve of midlife satisfaction or happiness. There’s  lots of evidence – both in animal studies and large population human studies – that there is something like a mid-life crisis in the 40s or 50s, where you look around and wonder, “Is this it?” But then, about 10 years or so later, you again look around and say to yourself, “Actually, this is pretty good!” That is, generally speaking (there are always exceptions, yes?), as we pass the mid-point of life, we tend to lighten up a bit, grow more realistic about our goals, become a bit less driven, less selfish, and more other-directed. In short, as we age, we tend to get a bit wiser about our priorities in life.

One of the investigators in this area of research, a geriatric psychiatrist by the name of Dilip Jeste, grew up in India where there is a deep reverence for wisdom. He was quoted in a recent Atlantic article as saying, “It’s cultural, growing up in India. We read the Gita, the Hindu Bible. . . . But the Gita really is a document about what a wise person should do.” And he then elaborates a bit on the notion of wisdom. Jeste notes that universally we all have an understanding about what a wise person is – someone filled with compassion, tolerance of different opinions, good social reasoning, a certain comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, and so on. He suggests that perhaps this U-shaped curve gives us an evolutionary advantage because the elderly – despite physical decline – can pass on wisdom to their community.

Now it just so happens that for my birthday I was given a copy of The Bhagavad Gita by my physician who is also my friend. He is a devout Hindu, born in India but raised here in this country. I’m about halfway through reading it, and it is a fascinating document. Although (and here’s the Christian theologian in me) there are stark differences between Hinduism and Christianity that divide our world views or our basic views of reality, nevertheless – humanly speaking – there is great wisdom within its covers.

For example, in the chapter on “Self-Realization,” Krishna (a holy Guide) says to Arjuna (a military leader and great man who is struggling with going to war against members of his own family): “Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill. Therefore, devote yourself to the disciplines of yoga [i.e., being whole at the deepest, spiritual level], for yoga is skill in action.”

So I am reading the Gita, engaging in dialogue on every page, scribbling in the margin as I read and analyze the text. And as my doctor friend says, expanding my mind in the process.