Bhagavad Gita Metaphors 1 – Introduction

by July 27, 2015

The Bhagavad-gita is, as indicated by its name The Song of God, a song. So, it is a literary work and it uses many literary devices, as befit a work of its genre. Yet its literary side often remains under-appreciated because we usually focus on its content – its philosophical message – not its style; and also because we may not be familiar enough with its language, Sanskrit, to appreciate its literary merits.

Some of its more striking literary devices are: its use of full-word alliterations as in 02.14: the word purusha in purusham purusharshabha; or its use of chiasmus (inversion of word order) in 07.12: na tv aham teshu te mayi “They (the modes) are in me, but I am not in them”; or in 09.29: mayi te teshu capy aham “I am in them (my devotees) and they are in me.”

As the above examples of chiasmus may illustrate, many devices require some literary background – something that most readers may not have and may not even want to have, being interested more in the Gita’s philosophical message. So while exploring the Gita from a literary perspective, I will focus on metaphor, the device that directly assists in conveying the Gita’s message and doesn’t require any literary background. Appreciating the importance of metaphors, the Greek philosopher Aristotle stated in his book on literary theory, Poetics: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.” Incidentally, Poetics is considered one of the oldest extant books on literary theory; so, its quote about metaphors conveys the enduring appeal of this literary device.

The Bhagavad-gita uses metaphors frequently and aptly, thereby adding color and force to its message. For each metaphor, I provide a brief explanation – something that can be read in a few minutes. Many of the Gita’s erudite commentators have illumined its metaphors in their commentaries and I have drawn from their insights. But to keep each reflection short and to prevent the presentation from becoming too technical, I won’t explicitly quote the commentators too much.

While this presentation will serve as a refresher for Gita connoisseurs, I hope that even those without any background in the Gita will find it accessible. Though these metaphors occur within the Gita’s flow, they can usually be studied independent of their specific context because they talk about universal truths of life that we all can find illuminating and empowering. In fact, I hope that these brief reflections will give readers a glimpse of the profundity and the relevance of the Gita’s wisdom, and inspires them to dive deeper into it.

As is often done while referring to literary devices as a broad genre, I use the word metaphor inclusively to refer to all the three literary devices used for explanation through comparison: analogies, metaphors and similes.

  1. Analogies take the form: As A is to B, so C is to D. Consider, as an example, this quote by Joseph Addison: “Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body.” Or from the Gita (11.29): “I see all people rushing full speed into Your mouths, as moths dash to destruction in a blazing fire.” While using analogies, the Gita frequently frames them with the words yatha (as this is) and tatha (so is that). Sometimes analogies can be extended so that they take the form: “As A is to B, so C is to D, and E is to F, and G is to H …” In fact, many of the reflections in this series will involve extending the comparison. Obviously, a comparison cannot be extended unlimitedly, otherwise, it breaks down, as does a rubber band when stretched excessively. Astute readers will have recognized that here rubber band is an analogy for analogy.
  1. Metaphors involve direct assertions of equality instead of explicit comparisons. So, they take the form: A is B. Shakespeare’s well-known quote “All the world’s a stage” features a metaphor. The comparison of the world with a stage is implicit, as is the comparison of the body with a city in the Gita (05.13) in its reference to the soul residing in the city of nine gates.
  2. Similes involve explicit comparisons of the form: A is like B. Sydney Smith’s statement, “No furniture is as charming as books” features a simile, as does the Gita’s (06.35) statement controlling the mind is as difficult as controlling a stormy wind. While using similes, the Gita frequently employs words such as iva.

I will start with the metaphors drawn from nature in the Gita. Sometimes the Gita uses the same element from nature to convey different points in different contexts. Let’s begin with the metaphor of the wind. The Gita uses it four times: 02.67, 06.19, 06.34 and 09.06. I will begin with 02.58 in the next article in this series.

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  • Girish M
    August 10, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Prabhu, it is interesting to read further. I especially liked – ..”Astute readers will have recognized that here rubber band is an analogy for analogy.”. That just brought a laughter….

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