The Bhagavad Gita

The Gita and Metatheatre

Sometimes–perhaps very often–theatre is about theatre.  A play might have, as part of its plot, the production of a play (as in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  Or a play might be about people who produce theatre.  Or a play’s story might investigate the pretense of theatre.

We call these phenomena “metatheatre“.  In Western drama, metatheatre is typically a theatrical device that draws an audience’s attention to the special ways in which theatre imitates real life or creates illusions that reflexively reinforce a sense of where real life ends and theatrical art begins.

But metatheatrical constructions may look different to a concept of identity and reality inspired by the worldview of the Bhagavad Gita.

Consider the obligatory prologues of the classical Sanskrit dramas.  Typically, these playlettes consist of a dialogue between the director of the play to follow and a member of the performing company, such as an actor or actress.  The director and the actor will address the audience directly and discuss the play they have prepared, as a play.  But at the conclusion of these dramatic prologues, the players onstage will allude to the action about to begin as though some event were really occurring.

On the one hand, a conventional, Western reading of the Sanskrit prologues would interpret the prologues as transitional mechanisms that draw audiences into the fictional world of the play and help audiences to “suspend disbelief” enough to accept the dramatic world as real.

A reading less conditioned by Western dualism, however, can see that the metatheatricality of these prologues takes advantage of the worldview driven by the Bhagavad Gita.   The audiences of the classical Sanskrit dramas don’t suspend their disbelief any more than any other audiences ever do (which is, not at all).  Rather, the audiences of these plays understand that while the drama is an illusion, so is the theatre.  The director and other characters of the Sanskrit prologues inhabit the intersection between the fake world of the drama and the equally fake world of the audience.

A late addition to the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita was likely composed around the second century, BCE.  This grand, religious discourse is embedded within the Mahabharata‘s sprawling story, and, though relatively short, theGita presents itself as the thematic objective of the entire epic.  The strife over Bhishma’s abandoned throne, the conflict between cousins, the game, the exile, the negotiations and their failures, the massing of armies at Kurukshetra—all of it leads to the moment when Krishna tells Arjuna to kill his family.

Arjuna and Krishna

19th Century depiction of Arjuna’s and Krishna’s chariot

Over the past two thousand years, the Gita has become one of the most important pieces of literature in South Asia.  While European culture is permeated by crucifixion imagery, the culture of India turns around Arjuna’s chariot.  Understanding India—all facets of India—requires familiarity with this little book.  Certainly, the metatheatrical worldview that finds an eloquent voice in the Gita is an essential part of understanding the way that theatre in India works.

Although much of the Gita reads like a sermon, it is a pivotal part of the Mahabharata story.  Pushed to armed conflict by arrogance, deceit, the law, and tradition, the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins, finally face off on the Kurukshetra plain.  Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, is tasked with sounding the trumpet (which, in this case, is a conch shell) that will throw the armies into hand-to-hand carnage.  On a chariot driven by his enigmatic friend Krishna, Arjuna rides onto the battlefield, and there, in the no-man’s land between the two eager and anxious forces, he takes up his horn.

Only, he finds he can’t blow.  Brothers to the right, cousins to the left, beloved teachers and respected elders on both sides, Arjuna considers the responsibility he’s been given to start the fight that will kill them all and decides he would rather die than kill.  He drops the horn, tosses his bow and sword away, and collapses on the ground in what is a protest and a confession of impotence at the same time.  “I can’t kill them all,” he tells Krishna, still standing in the chariot above him, “let’s make love, not war.”

Here commences the Bhagavad Gita, a short, religious discourse in which Krishna, looking down from the chariot, tells Arjuna not to be such a baby.

In essence, Krishna tells Arjuna not to worry so much.  Whether sacred religious ritual or putting an arrow through your uncle’s eye, your actions have no substance, says Krishna, and the consequences of your actions don’t amount to any more.  Human activity and whatever results from it disappear, ultimately, in short order or in eons, and nothing that passes away is real.  Your uncle isn’t really your uncle—that relationship is only a temporary circumstance that death will soon show for the illusion it is.  He’s not your enemy, either.  Death will expose that delusion, as well.  The armies on either side, the ground beneath your feet, the war you have come to fight, are all just passing moments that mean nothing beside what is permanent.

The outlook of the Bhagavad Gitais essentially theatrical, and characterizes mortal existence as a play in which we all play roles.  Just as we shouldn’t be too concerned about Medea’s plight, Othello’s suffering, or Willy Loman’s death, since they’re all just fictional characters, anyway, Krishna tells Arjuna not to worry too much about his uncle and his cousins and his brothers and his children.  They don’t really exist, anyway.

Gita Statue at Tirumala
Gita statue at Sri Venkateswara Temple

It turns out that not even Krishna is real.  Or, rather, the Krishna role that drives Arjuna’s chariot, lops off enemies heads with a sharpened frisbee, and urges Arjuna and his brothers to break all the rules of war, is, also, only a character in the play.  Just past midway through the Gita, Krishna gives Arjuna a vision of the permanent stage on which the passing characters of mortality play.  Arjuna sees Krishna as a tremendous, multi-armed, multi-eyed, multi-mouthed colossus devouring everything in a frenzy of cosmic gluttony.  Unable to bear the sight, Arjuna begs to have his charioteer back.  Krishna himself is a role that eternity adopts in order to play on the temporal stage.

While Krishna urges Arjuna not to worry so much, he urges Arjuna to play the role he’s been given.  Every actor knows that a performance depends on each actor’s assumption of the responsibility for his or her role, and the temporal play is no different.  The actor who decides, arbitrarily, not to play his or her role throws the entire production into disaster.  Krishna tells Arjuna to play his role: pick up your bow, blow your horn, and get this war started, already.

More literally than Shakespeare imagined, the world that Krishna describes is a stage on which everyone plays a part for awhile, though no one plays any part for very long before winking out into the infinite void of the wings.  The principal player in this drama is Krishna, who is, himself, a role that divinity has assumed within the play.  Imagine a play about a real person named George.  George is the writer and director of the play, and George also stars as himself in the play.  You play a role in that production, only you live on the stage.  You don’t have any experience of anything offstage, and you only know George as a fellow role within the play.  When you get tired of your role and try to quit, George the writer-director comes onstage and tells you that you’re ruining everything.  This is, essentially, what happens when Arjuna refuses to fight and Krishna says ‘fight on’.

This fundamentally theatrical worldview informs the religions of India.  Ultimately, this metatheatrical conception of existence provides the foundation for the performance theory of the Natyashastra, and contextualizes traditional religious theatre in India as exercises through which the real, permanent nature of existence might be manifest.

Following the Gita, theatre in India is not simply a diversion, or entertainment, or even an art, but a model of the fundamental nature and operation of the cosmos.  Theatrical performances in India reiterate the worldview that the performance is not real, and neither is the audience.  Both audience and performers share a stage in an ongoing, ephemeral play.


Further Reading

Mascaro, Juan, trans.  The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Penguin, 2003.