The East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600 in England. It became the Blackwater of the British colonial world, a private mercenary force dedicated to protecting the financial interests of wealthy people for more than 200 years. They had a private army that was bigger than the British army, and they became the de facto rulers of India using money and might.
Not coincidentally, the East India Company also played a role in the formation of the United States. Remember the Boston Tea Party? It was partly a response to the monopoly of the EIC.
I start here because before I talk about the spiritual truths of the Bhagavad Gita and how they relate to the Bible, I have to acknowledge the devastating effects of imperial rule and colonialism on India and on the rest of the world. And I believe one of our most difficult spiritual struggles today, in our church and in our society, is the legacy of colonialism. What we experience as dissatisfaction with “the institutional church” and “organized religion” is the way colonialism warps our relationships, our imagination, and our very souls.
There are some people who claim that even though its spiritual roots are thousands of years old, Hinduism is a relatively recent invention. While I think that’s an overstatement, it reminds me of a story I recently heard told by a Lakota activist. He said his grandfather was involved in establishing “The Native American Church” in 1918. “We need this institution,” his grandfather told him, “to protect our way of life from the white man’s institutions.” When the West encounters other forms of spirituality or faith, it forces them to organize in certain ways.
So when I say that the Bhagavad Gita is not like the Bible, I’m not just speaking theologically, but also socially and politically. It does not have the central place in Hinduism that Christians give to their scriptures. But it should force us to take a step back and consider how we understand what “religion” is, and how it relates to this other idea of “spirituality.”
I would argue that not only is the Bhagavad Gita not like the Bible, but also that The Bible is not like The Bible, because this Greek and Hebrew text has been distorted by our Western colonial view of religion. Colonialism shapes how we understand our sacred scriptures and it shapes how we see the world.
“Orientalism” is a Western way of viewing Asian cultures as exotic and strange. (I encourage you to listen to this NPR piece on the cultural appropriation of “namaste”). The Bhagavad Gita was appropriated by British transcendentalists and mystics, not just because it was true but because it was strangely true. I think this makes it difficult to appreciate how truly strangely true it is!
If we are stuck on how exotic it is, we can’t fully appreciate how other-worldly it is, or what putting it into practice might mean for our world.
I am not a scholar of Hinduism, nor a historian. I approach the Bhagavad Gita as an interested layperson, finding points of connection between the wisdom there and the wisdom of the Bible and my own faith tradition. I welcome your comments, criticism, and discussion as I follow this devotional path.
Holy Mystery, we are a strange mix of the timeless and the now, the universal and the particular. We are shaped by history even as we imagine the future. Help us encounter you in the present, in this moment, and help us to be truly free.