The Bhagavad Gita in the Boondocks

Bhagavad Gita book with bookmark protruding

The Bhagavad Gita in the Boondocks

My stepson graduated from Kenyon College in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The town is far too small to accommodate all the relatives and friends flooding in for graduation. People cram into every spare room in each tiny hamlet scattered through the cornfields for miles around.

Our motel was 20 miles from the university, under a freeway off-ramp next to a gas station, a McDonalds and Yoder’s Diner. We missed the early graduation dinner due to flight delays from Chicago. When we checked in at 7.45pm, the grey haired woman behind the desk in her oversized work shirt and beanie said Yoder’s closed at 8pm. If we wanted “home cookin’ and home-made pie,” we better high-tail-it.

Yoder’s was a low-slung timber building, with an open kitchen along one wall. On each of the mis-matched tables was a plastic gingham tablecloth and a tray with mustard, hot sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper and a plastic flower arrangement. The menu was ham dinner, beef dinner, chicken dinner, fish dinner or liver-and-onions. The sides were mash with gravy, coleslaw, dressing, vegetables (unspecified) or fries. Each dinner came with bread rolls and salad. You could drink water, coffee, Pepsi or canned soda. All that, however, was just window-dressing for the pie. That night, the black board menu offered pumpkin pie, strawberry shortcake, peach pie or pineapple cheesecake.

Two Amish men, faces framed by their dark hats on top and their dark beards radiating below, sat next to us (one had strawberry shortcake, the other pumpkin pie).  There was a handful of couples who looked like farming types, their over-sized, mud-spattered pick-ups were lined up outside the window. They were familiar with the staff. Perhaps they came into ‘town’ every Friday night for supper. Including pie. Then there were two other sets of diners who looked so out of place I guessed they, like us, were unable to find rooms any closer to the university. An elderly man in a sports jacket, sitting opposite his silent, middle aged wife, asked the waitress for sparkling water. Her brow furrowed. “Water with gas?” he asked in a French, perhaps Belgian accent. She looked horrified. He settled for a can of Sprite.

This was the American mid-west I knew from movies, from Fargo, from A Prairie Home Companion on public radio, from novels. It was so much like it oughtto be – friendly enough, no frills, work boots and plaid, sturdy men and stocky women, and lots of pie. All of which made my discovery at the motel later that night more of a shock.

After dinner I unpacked the glad rags for the graduation the following day. We had an early start and I wanted to be ready. I went looking for a hair-dryer. In the drawer on the right side of the bed there was a phone book and a Gideon’s Bible but no hair dryer. On the left I found another phone book, still no hair dryer, and this: a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A snake would have surprised me less.

This translation of the Gita was by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The back cover quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books: it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”

His Divine Grace Swami Prabhupada wrote the Preface to this scholarly work – a complex translation that includes the original verse, literal English translation plus extensive commentary – in Sydney, Australia, in 1971. Surprises everywhere.

While I digested my pie (pineapple cheesecake – never pumpkin – I agree with Garrison Keilor that “the best pumpkin pie you ever tasted was no better than the worst”) I looked through the book. At close to 700 pages it is seven times as long as my favourite version of the Gita, by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. The commentary is extensive so it was little more than a cursory look that night. I brought the book home with me, leaving a donation for the Hari Krishnas who, I learned, had put it in my room.

Whenever I see the book on my shelf – with four other translations of the Gita – I think of the shock, and the thrill, of finding it in a motel drawer in Ohio.

That “old intelligence” that excited Emerson reminds me never to assume how things will be, but to stay present for how they are.

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