your favourite bhagavad gita quote probably isn’t from the bhagavad gita

Lately, I’ve been seeing this quote all over the place:

Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself. – The Bhagavad Gita

I’m no Gita scholar, but I’ve read a few translations and the language doesn’t sound like anything I’ve read in any of them. I can’t imagine Krishna giving Arjuna this advice as he steps on the battlefield and prepares to slaughter his extended family.

I posted this quote and my question on the IAYB Facebook page, where a hot little discussion ensued. A Montreal yoga teacher, Robin Golt, commented, “I questioned that one too, a while back – and suspect it might be someone’s take on 3:35, which is more commonly translated as ‘Better one’s own duty though deficient than the duty of another well performed. Better is death in one’s own duty; the duty of another invites danger’ (Winthrop Sargeant). Or ‘It is better to do your own dharma even imperfectly, than someone else’s dharma perfectly. Even better to die in your dharma than in another’s, which brings great fear’ (Satchidananda).”

If that’s the case, you can see why it’s been updated into something more relevant to 21st century life. Nobody talks about duty and dharma anymore! We’re all about tolerating consequences and being yourself these days.

An internet search lead me to this Sadie Nardini post on Elephant Journal, in which she describes seeing the quote on a wall at the Kripalu Center in Lennox, Massachusetts. A comment from yoga teacher Bo Forbes provided a little more insight into the possible origins: “The quote is actually by Dinabandhu Sarley, Kripalu’s innovative and fearless former CEO. It’s his interpretation (and an incredibly inspiring one!) of what the Gita means to him. It represents his down-to-earth, accessible distillation of one of yoga’s most rich and complex classical texts.”

If this is the case, then this meme-worthy Gita quote is some spiritual CEO’s wise distillation of the text. Which leads me to question the integrity of the Kripalu Center, if they feel they can just attribute a former CEO’s paraphrasing as an actual quote from a text. Perhaps The Bhagavad Gita sounds more “authentic” than Dinabandhu Sarley.

It’s not unusual to paraphrase sayings from historical figures, especially now that they can be tweeted and photoshopped on a background of landscape scenes. Yet, there’s no evidence that Gandhi ever said “Be the change you wish to see in the world” or that Nelson Mandala’s 1994 inaugural address was about our deepest fear of being powerful beyond measure (that was Marianne Williamson, actually).

Nevertheless, the timeless wisdom of this quote persists. A Google search for this phrase revealed 52,000 results: tweets and Facebook status updates, inspirational quote pages, tumblr blogs, yoga studio class schedules. It was cited in countless blog posts, usually introduced as “The Gita says…” or “As it says in the Gita…” And not a single search result searching for or questioning the origin of the quote.

And so I leave you with my favourite, wise quote from the Gita. Tweet this:

Those who strive resolutely on the path of yoga see the Self within. The thoughtless, who strive imperfectly, do not. – The Bhagavad Gita, 15:11 (Eknath Easwaran translation)

7 Comments

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  1. You mean “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” isn’t in the Gita, either?

  2. Good observation but hardly matters because the quote is certainly in sync with the message of the Bhagavad Gita. But good observation still.

  3. Totally get your point; when I’m at Kripalu and I see this sign, I do a little cringe. The cringe is because I know it’s not anywhere near a direct quote from the Gita, not because of it’s message, with which I concur. For me it’s a paraphrase of the buddhist understanding of not being able to escape the consequences of one’s actions (karma).

    If it IS meant to be a re-working of the quote:

    ‘It is better to do your own dharma even imperfectly, than someone else’s dharma perfectly. Even better to die in your dharma than in another’s, which brings great fear’

    than I’m all for the contemporary re-working as THAT quote really makes me cringe as I am all too aware of it’s varna/caste based context!

  4. I have to say, I find this quote to be a very odd definition of yoga. For me, the Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as “equanimity,” “a peace that is ever the same,” or even “balance,” depending on the translation you read. And that equanimity isn’t just in the face of the consequences of being yourself, but is in the face of heat and cold, dirt and gold, friends and enemies, in other words, in all of the turmoil of life. Not to mention the word “tolerating” sounds so much weaker than being at peace. Personally the message of the Gita that’s expressed in it’s actual language is much more compelling!

    The Yoga Sutras, of course, define yoga as “restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness” (with variations on the wording due, again, to translation), which is another way to describe equanimity or “a peace that is ever the same.”

  5. Thank you! I’ve heard and tried to better understand this quote. The word “tolerating” did not fit for me either as the true yoga of realization. However, today as I’m doing some self-study, tolerating the consequences of being myself seems to be where I’m at. It feels like a step in the direction of acceptance and equanimity but not there!

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