The Bhagavad Gita Didn’t Happen: Newspaper
By Nirshan Perera
It’s not a question at the heart of human existence. But if Krishna and Arjuna could resume their Bhagavad Gita dialogue, perhaps they’d take up a query that rumbled through the Hindu community this week: Can a sacred text be called a work of fiction? And, if so, is its worth any less?
The discussion was first sparked last Sunday, when the San Francisco Chronicle published its weekly bestseller list. Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Gita took a coveted spot-number 15 in the “fiction” category. Although over 200 versions exist in English, with about half a dozen made within the past few years, Mitchell’s work-published by Harmony Books, a heavyweight press, and buoyed by his solid reputation as an accomplished poet and translator-has drawn
the maximum attention.
Most Indians were delighted that the core text of Hinduism made the prestigious list at all. Still, they were surprised it was classed as fiction. Although there could have been ample room in the nonfiction column next door, their beloved Gita was forced to snuggle up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and rub elbows with Margaret Atwood’s new Booker prize page-turner.
“I think it’s a big mistake,” fumed Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a respected Bay Area author who has been on the Chronicle’s top-selling fiction list a few times herself.
“First of all, let’s hope it’s an honest mistake because that’s just not its category. In the past, I know, they’ve put scholarly books dealing with Eastern religions in the nonfiction category. Texts
about mythologies have been put in nonfiction as well. So I don’t see why an original text should be treated any differently.”
David Kipen, the editor of the paper’s book review section, confirmed that the holy text didn’t slip into the wrong category by accident. But he admitted more time could have put into the decision.
“I wish I could say that we had devoted hours of thoughtful colloquy to the subject of whether to place the Bhagavad Gita under fiction or nonfiction, but it was kind of a snap decision,” he said. “Still, I’d like to think that we would place the Bible or the Koran, or any other holy book under fiction, judging them to be closer to mythology than history, but at the same time wishing we had other categories than fiction and nonfiction to place them in.”
Even so, his explanation fell a little flat with the marketing department at Harmony, a division of Random House.
Jennifer Gaudry, the Gita’s West Coast publicist, hadn’t heard of the odd placement. “Fiction?” she gasped. “No. Interesting, it’s a translation … I wouldn’t think they’d do this.” After a pause, she
collected her thoughts and deferred to Katherine Beitner, the book’s publicist on the East Coast, for official comment.
“I don’t see that placing it in the fiction list takes away from the importance of the work,” Beitner said, choosing her words carefully. “Certainly, as a house, we classified it as nonfiction-on
the backs of all of our books we mark our classification and in this case, we called it Religion/Hinduism. But we generally defer to the newspapers as to how they classify it and I could see how it could be a gray area.”
Veteran Translator Stephen Mitchell took on the Gita after tackling the Tao Te Ching and the Judeo-Christian Bible.
“I’m a little surprised, but we’re thrilled to just be on the list, and my immediate reaction is one of great happiness,” she continued. “At the end of the day, the Bhagavad Gita is a great work
that deserves to be out there. Would it probably be better placed on the nonfiction list? Yes. But if it’s their policy to put all religious texts in fiction then it’s not something I would battle them over.”
But if a battle does loom on the horizon, Banerjee, for one, is willing to answer the call.
“It’s a great disservice to the Bhagavad Gita,” she complained. “When you put a religious text into the fiction category, there is a sense that it’s not real, that it’s imaginary, that it doesn’t have any
truth to it. You’re not looking at it as the essence of a religion: You see it as a story with characters that can be believed or disbelieved and discounted. The Bhagavad Gita, in fact, is a
philosophical text; it’s not fiction.”
Vivek Sharma, a former professor of history at the University of Hawaii who recently moved to the Bay Area, is also eager to join Arjuna’s army.
“I am a firm believer of taking classic texts out of their traditional holy shackles and translating them to reflect the contemporary flavor, but this, to me, indicates that they discount mythology as history,” he said. “Socio-historical works based on written myths, folklores, tales are not history? I am sure most social scientists would take exception to this. I would like to know, then, what is history?”
But the Chronicle’s debatable decision didn’t ruffle everyone’s feathers.
Beth Kulkarni, a member of the advisory council of the Shree Meenakshi Temple in Houston and local president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, was a bit startled but certainly not offended.
“I’m rather surprised,” she began. “I don’t think that the Bible as a whole would be called fiction, yet parts of it-certain stories and parables-could be fictionalized. In the same way, some Hindu texts may or may not be literal history. It just depends on how people interpret them.
“The most important thing is that there are truths in them: eternal truths,” she continued. “The underlying spiritual truths are important, not the historical truths.”
“We Hindus often overreact when people don’t think our scriptures are literal truth,” she added. “Personally, it doesn’t bother me terribly, but at the same time I don’t believe that religious texts
of any kind deserve to be on fiction lists.”
And the translator of the work in question? What’s his reaction? Responding to an e-mail query, Mitchell confessed to some surprise but didn’t see a major snafu.
“Thanks for your note,” he wrote. “I wasn’t aware that my translation of the Gita was on the Chronicle bestseller list. It does seem odd that they put it in the fiction category; when my [translation of the] Tao Te Ching was on the list, it was of course classed as nonfiction. But I can understand their reasoning.
“As Gandhi says in his wonderful essay `The Message of the Gita’ (which I have included in my book as an appendix), `Even in 1888-1889, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt that it was not a historical work, but that under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind.’ And after all, the categorization of the Gita as fiction has nothing to do with its wisdom or its validity. The opposite of truth is untruth, not fiction.”
Venkatachalapathi Samudrala, the priest who offered the first Hindu prayer in Congress last September, was also unperturbed. A phone call to his temple in Ohio disturbed him in the middle of a puja.
“To me, it’s not a fiction or nonfiction issue,” the pandit explained, just a little impatiently. “The text is about divinity-the practical knowledge of life and doing one’s duty and not expecting rewards. Who am I to say if it is fiction or nonfiction? I am just a priest and I know what the Gita is about.