Bibek Debroy at DakLF 2020: Even the word 'God' comes from Sanskrit

There is not one but many Gitas, said Debroy and added that there are more than 20 of them in Mahabharata itself
Debroy said that that he wrote this book to get millennials to read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit (Pic: Express)
Debroy said that that he wrote this book to get millennials to read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit (Pic: Express)

God might be an English word but its roots can be traced back to Sanskrit, said Bibek Debroy, author of the recently released The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials. He is more popularly know as an economist and the Chairman of the PM's Economic Advisory Council but he is considered an authority when it comes to Sanskrit texts. Debroy was speaking at TNIE's DakLF 2020 about his new book The Bhagavad Gita for Millennials. He was in conversation with senior journalist and author Kaveree Bamzai.

"I am averse to using words that are imported and implanted from the West, including a word like God," said Debroy. "The word God has different meanings. When someone uses the word God, they intend a certain meaning. The word God etymologically is cognate with a Sanskrit root — Hutam, someone you offer oblations to. It's is a tragedy and travesty that millennials do not know this. If at the time of the Rajasuya Yagna, the first arghya was offered to Krishna in the Mahabharata, then, in some sense, Krishna was the Hutam. But I would not like to use the word, God," he added.

There is not one but many Gitas, said Debroy and added that there are more than 20 of them in Mahabharata itself. "Gita is anything that is sung or chanted. Here there is an adjective, Bhagavad, which automatically suggests that there must be other Gitas as well. There are around 60 different Gitas depending on how you define a Gita. Some of them, people are familiar with, like the Ashtavakra Gita," said Debroy. "There are texts like the Uddhava Gita which is from the Puranas. The two from the Mahabharata that people are probably most familiar with are the Dharma Vyadha Gita and the Anu Gita. There are things that are not directly referred to as Gitas but are very much on the same lines, for example, the Yaksha Prashna," he added.

Talking about whether the COVID-19 has made people realise the importance of the Gita, Debroy said that the Bhagavad Gita has always been there but due to COVID-19 people have much more free time — they are not going to the multiplex and thus they have time to dip into the texts. "The Bhagavad Gita has always been there. If you are interested in it you will find the time, COVID or no COVID," he added.

Debroy said that that he wrote this book to get millennials to read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. "Which is why there is a chapter on Sanskrit, and one on poetry because all of these texts are poetry. I wanted people to get sufficiently familiar to read the text of the Bhagavad Gita in Sankrit and then read translations and commentaries. To appreciate the Bhagavad Gita, one has to understand the Mahabharata and the role of Krishna. So I have put in all of that explanatory stuff in chapters so that people get interested," he added. "My intention, in this particular book, was not to do a translation. I have done that in the past. it was to get the so-called millennials interested in the Bhagavad Gita. For the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, my plea to the younger generation would be not to decide what kind of individual Krishna was on the basis of what one has picked up from a 144 character Twitter narration or television serials or from abridged tellings," Debroy added.

Answering Bamzai's question on whether one can learn Sanskrit with the help of his book, Debroy added that he has given tips on the Sanskrit alphabet. "Can one learn Sanskrit on one's own at home? Of course one can. I have no formal training in Sanskrit. My entire learning of Sanskrit has been self-taught at home. And one of the points that are made in the book is that the Sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita is relatively simple. It is not the Sanskrit of Kalidasa. For the average person who is familiar with the Devnagari script, understanding the Bhagavad Gita is no big deal once you have done the two obvious things that happen in Sanskrit — the sandhi — the padachhed and the anway. It seems complicated because Sanskrit is a language that flows freely," said Debroy.

No discussion about Gita feels complete without Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. "These are regarded as the four objectives of human existence. It is impossible to translate the word Dharma into English and it should not be translated to English without the context. There is a shloka which tries to define Dharma — it says, whatever holds (things) up is Dharma. Different things hold up the fabric of society, so Dharma is a task, it is a duty and it is what we imperfectly translate into English as religion. Moksha is emancipation and liberation from Samsara, the cycle of worldly existence — the cycle of birth death and rebirth. But the Bhagavad Gita itself says that Moksha is not for everyone and that only a few get Moksha while for the rest it is just Dharma, Artha and Kama. The Kama is the pursuit of sensual pleasures. It is invariably interpreted as sexual pleasures but the Kama is not just sex. Artha is the pursuit of material well-being and prosperity," he added.

But will the Bhagavad Gita help us find happiness? "If you expect the Bhagavad Gita to tell you to wake up in the morning and tell you to do three Suryanamaskars and you will be happy, then you will be disappointed. In the Bhagavad Gita, you will find what you wish to find. So it will have different lessons for different people. The word happiness is one that should not be bandied around without a care. What makes a person happy? What I am happy with right now, I won't be happy with a half-hour later. Most times when we interpret the word happiness we define it in terms of things that are completely temporary and transient. The message of the Bhagavad Gita is to focus on what is permanent," said the author.

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